Friday, December 09, 2011

The Devil's Music

Nov. 29-"The Devil's Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith"
Best musical review EVER!

It was at the St Luke's Theatre (basement of St Luke Lutheran Church on 46th Street (between 8th & 9th Aves, closer to 8th). Even though it is off-broadway, it's just three blocks or so from Broadway theatres also on 46th. So, being all up in the theatre district but still having an off beat, slightly bohemian feel makes it a really good venue.
Not as glam as the Lortel...after all, it is subterranean (while LL is a stand alone building with the playwrights walk of fame in front)...St Luke's theatre only has about 100 seats (and while there isn't a bad seat in the house, i had the BEST seat in the house...front row center - i know, right, two nights in a row!).

Devil's Music is sort of one a woman show, but really there are 4 characters. Three are men who make up her band, and they are actually musicians (piano/bass/sax...sax player also plays clarinet for one number). One of the three guys has a few lines (and a character name, "Pickle"), but really, it's all about Bessie.

The title character is played by Miche Braden. I hadn't seen her before, but i hope to see her again. She sang her face off! The bluesy quality of her voice and the way she embodied the message of every song was in itself performance art.The show starts with a voice describing Bessie's funeral, then suddenly we fly backward in time 9 days to her last concert, and at that concert, she weaves her life-story around great old blues classics.

The audience learns so much about Bessie Smith...her being orphaned as a child, being married to someone who died shortly thereafter, and then being married again to an abusive ne'er do well, her active bisexuality, her adopting a son (and having that son taken away from her by the courts when her second husband reported her for being "unfit" - and what primarily made her "unfit" was her "carnal relations with women"), her sadness as Blues starts to be replaced by Swing in popularity, her success in spite of racism and the Great Depression.

We see (as she drinks almost every minute on stage) that she probably is a problem drinker if not an alcoholic, and while the play is intentionally very accurate about the details of Bessie's life, the playwright does add one bit of foreshadowing by having Bessie get a cold chill every time she mentions death.Finally, the show ends the way Bessie's life did...with a car accident (at only 43). Then, as an encore, the resurrected Bessie comes out and reprises the song she opened the show with.

In addition to her amazing singing voice, and the way Bessie's life is told by way of Bessie herself giving her last concert, there are two other things that really struck me about this play.1. Miche Braden, at least as Bessie Smith, is super sexy! Not beautiful. Not even pretty really. But so embodied, so alive, so confident and strong and still willing to risk vulnerability, so light on her feet (though in reality, about 200# are supported by those feet), so comfortable talking and singing about sex/uality...she was just very sexy.
2. Unlike charles busch, Miche B. does not resort to imitation/impersonation to create her character. She uses her voice (which is risky since BS was a recording artist and her voice is so well known); but much as Charles B. so thoroughly imagines himself to be the lady he is portraying that his/her femininity is the one thing the audience never questions, Miche B. so thoroughly WAS Bessie Smith, so completely believed that she was the incarnation of Bessie Smith, that she didn't need to imitate...she believed she was Bessie, and so we did too. He could have sounded like Kermit the Frog and looked like Lady Gaga, and i think we would have left saying, "that was the Bessie down to the last detail!"
side note - (isn't that what make believe is...when we make ourselves believe that the pretense is true?, and when we believe it, we make others believe it too...).

Where was I? Oh, yes...Devil's Music is FABULOUS!

What a treat it was to find this off-broadway treasure. Money and time very well spent!
Tomorrow (Wednesday matinee) - "Relatively Speaking."I'll tell you about it tomorrow (after I've worshiped once again in the Temple of Dionysus).


PS - to see all this NY theatre only one month after seeing Follies on Broadway is an embarrassment of riches. meanwhile, i'm happy as a pig in shit!

No comments: