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'Blues' Ain't Nothin' but Good

By Lloyd Rose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 22, 1996

"It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues," which opened last night at Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater, is a friendly, inclusive show. The cast of seven includes two white performers -- smoky-voiced Carter Calvert and sweet-singing Dan Wheetman (one of the show's five creators). Gracious tribute is paid not only to the slight but definite influence of Appalachian folk song -- with its haunted Celtic melancholy -- on the early evolution of the blues, but also to white divas like Sophie Tucker and Mae West, who took the great black female singers as their models. Even country music is given a nod of recognition. Still, the show emphasizes that the blues began with the miseries of slavery. Illustrations of slave market handbills and white masters mistreating blacks are projected onto the backdrop.

Many extraordinary photographs accompany the songs, and some of them have archetypal power: an aged farm woman with a basket; skinny young barefoot women sowing seed in a Mississippi Delta field; a convict tap-dancing in his striped suit; a man in church with his face buried in one hand, the other hand, long-fingered and beautiful, resting in his lap as if exhausted. For the first third or so of the evening, the live singing illustrates the huge, mesmerizing images more than the other way around.

With notable exceptions. The first hint that something as raw and strong as the photographs might come out in the performances is Ron Taylor's rendition of "Bluesman." Taylor, also one of the show's authors, is a hefty guy, but his girth doesn't get in his way. He demonstrates that you don't have to be able to walk the walk of physical beauty if you can talk the talk of lusty, ravenous, uncensored blues. This guy is so good that he dares to take on B.B. King's "The Thrill Is Gone" and comes out not only alive but strutting. Male sexual power that isn't merely raunchy is rarely celebrated on the stage. Taylor incarnates it.

His more smoothly seductive counterpart is Chic Street Man, who is as thin and supple as a snake and has a voice like slow-drip molasses. He sidles his way through "Come On in My Kitchen," "Black Woman" and, most appropriately, "Crawlin' King Snake." "Mississippi" Charles Bevel, another of the show's creators, brings a plaintive Delta singing style to "Walkin' Blues," "Crossroad Blues" and the more recent "I Can't Stop Loving You." Eloise Laws is the ultimate bad girl singing songs such as "Dangerous Blues," and Lita Gaithers (yet another author) proves with "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" that she can strip the skin right off a song.

A six-piece band comes onto the stage for the second act, and at this point the songs and performance really take over. Partly this is because so many of the numbers -- "I Can't Stop Loving You," "Fever" -- are familiar, and partly it's because the orchestration is more modern, complex and driven. "Funky," as Bevel explains, patiently trying to teach Street Man the "Chicago" way to sing "Goodnight, Irene" (both men affably participate in the absurd fiction that Street Man doesn't already know this down to the tips of his fingers).

"It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues" began life as an educational show that toured schools in Colorado and Wyoming, and it remains a little pedantic. A chronological journey that begins with African chant and slave spirituals, the evening has packaged its unruly subject in a way that constricts and fights against the spirit of the music. Still, it's a labor of love, and when the performers' raucous force breaks through the tidiness, it's much more than educational.

It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues, by Charles Bevel, Lita Gaithers, Randal Myler, Ron Taylor and Dan Wheetman.
Directed by Randal Myler. Music direction, Dan Wheetman; musical staging, Donald McKayle; set, Andrew V. Yelusich; costumes, Patricia A. Whitelock; lighting, Dan Darnutzer; sound, Timothy Thompson; vocal direction, Lita Gaithers; images produced by Cimarron International.
At Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater, produced in conjunction with the Denver Center Theatre Company, through Jan. 19. Call 202-488-3300.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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