Theater Review: BLUES IN THE NIGHT (The Wallis in Beverly Hills)

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by Tony Frankel on May 4, 2018

in Theater-Los Angeles


A female-centric revue from 1980, Sheldon Epp’s Blues in the Night celebrates the melancholic but often very humorous songs of black American folk origin. The blues as we know them today developed in the rural southern US toward the end of the 19th century, finding a wider audience in the 1940s as blacks migrated to the cities. This urban blues not only enriched our culture with a truckload of standards but also gave rise to rhythm and blues and rock and roll. The show’s 26 personality-drenched songs are both classic blues (Bessie Smith’s “Dirty No-Gooder’s Blues”) and tunes inspired by the blues format of a 12-bar chorus consisting of a 3-line stanza with the second line repeating the first (Duke Ellington and Mack David’s “I’m Just a Lucky So-and-So”).

The Wallis’s black box space — the Lovelace Studio Theater — contains John Iacovelli’s two-story cutaway set of a “cheap hotel” in the late 1930s, with Jared A. Sayeg’s colorful lights mimicking flashing neon from outside the windows. But nothing here is meant to be real, per se, as the show is basically glorified cabaret, with three powerhouse female singers dressed in cheap but alluring boudoir attire (Dana Rebecca Woods, costumes) belting out some amazing tunes with a smokin’ hot band. Music Director Abdul Hamid Royal (who did an equally amazing job with Ebony Rep’s Five Guys Named Moe) has guided his cast perfectly, and assembled a knockout sextet: Fernando Pullum’s whinnying and blasting on the trumpet; Randall Willis & Louis Van Taylor’s sexy licks on sax and other reeds; Lanny Hartley’s perfect pumping and pounding on the piano; Kevin O’Neal’s bamming bass; and Lance Lee’s dexterous drums.

Acknowledging each other more than truly interplaying, the three ladies are a naïf (endearing Bryce Charles, sweetly looking for romance in “Takin’ a Chance on Love”); an embittered middle-aged belle (Paulette Ivory, with a quasi-operatic, expressive, soulful “Lush Life”); and an older, worldly wise gal living on memories (Yvette Cason, whose “Stompin’ at the Savoy” starts sultry and slow building to a solid swing). Or, I suppose, that this trio — which slams out tight Andrews Sisters-like harmony in “It Makes My Love Come Down” — could be the same woman at different stages of her life.

The lighter songs are right on target with some of the funniest, most jaw-dropping innuendos in song history: “Take Me for a Buggy Ride” (“You can shift your gear with so much pride”) has Cason in a slip with parasol and hat. Later, she growls her way through the double-meaning risqué lyrics of “Kitchen Man” (“Oh, his jelly roll is so nice and hot / Never fails to touch the spot”).

So it’s curious that with all of these savory seasonings we are left with a bland taste. Epps’ unfocused, lazy direction almost left his performers to their own devices, which explains why they sometimes resort to pushing for meaning, making for some overwrought moments. When Ms. Ivory sings Bessie Smith’s “Reckless Blues,” there’s an undertow of anger and memory that fuels “Daddy, mama wants some lovin’,” a lovely touch that sadly fades out soon. And since the patter is superficial (“I’m gonna talk to all the ladies” Cason says directly to the audience, who ate up the show on opening night), a broader sense of character, place and time would add the missing element — a la Ain’t Misbehavin’, the Fats Waller revue which was running on Broadway when Blues in the Night was born.

Further, Epps missed a golden opportunity to have his female players dramatically interact with each other and the sole male performer (a fun but fair Chester Gregory as The Man in the Saloon) which may have brought old-time relevance to the #MeToo movement, especially in the first act finale’s awesomely swell tune, which was nonetheless delightful: Bessie Smith’s “Take It Right Back” (“I ain’t worried, I’m doing fine / You keep yours and I’ll hold onto mine / Take it right back to the place … ah, just pick up that shit and get outta here”).

Still, if you look at this as a cabaret, the delivery is assured, the moves well-executed (no choreographer is credited), and the look is appealing. The real blues may come when we realize that America doesn’t produce incredible songs like these anymore.

photos by Lawrence K. Ho

Blues in the Night
Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
Lovelace Studio Theater
9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd in Beverly Hills
ends on May 20, 2018 EXTENDED to May 27, 2018
for tickets, call 310.746.4000 or visit The Wallis

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