Trimmed Down "Blues" Still Rocks

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Trimmed Down “Blues” Still Rocks
by JAMES HERBERT
San Diego Union-Tribune¬†–¬†Sept. 25, 2000

THEATER REVIEW

‘It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues” takes a cue from one of its naughtier numbers: Like the good girl gone astray in the song “Now I’m Gonna Be Bad,” this show gets around.

Since evolving from a modest educational project into a sprawling revue that opened the San Diego Repertory Theatre’s 1998 season, the musical has barreled its way onto Broadway, then launched both a road show and a nightclub version.

Now, two years and four Tony Award nominations later, a streamlined “Blues” is back at the Rep — and like its namesake music, the show is richer for its travels.

The musical returns with three matchless performers from its original run — Ron Taylor, Gregory Porter and Eloise Laws — plus relative newcomers Moriah Angeline, Billy Valentine, Jewel Tompkins and Steve Gouveia.

It’s hard to even imagine this rollicking exploration of blues and its origins without Taylor (although some Rep-goers will have a chance to do more than that, since Taylor will hand over the role on some nights to the singer-choreographer Baruti. Likewise, Laws is sharing her role with Angelic Nicol Willis).

With his imposing physique, booming voice and good-naturedly terrifying glare, Taylor was the gravitational center of “Blues” on Friday, the show’s opening night.

His burn-down-the-house version of Willie Dixon’s “I’m Your Hoochie-Coochie Man” had him growling and prowling around the stage, as if he were channeling the old bluesman.

Porter, a San Diegan who went to Broadway with the show last year, is the suave counterpart to the raw Taylor; his soulful vocals infused “Children Your Line Is Draggin'” (his own composition) with a sad beauty, while his wry humor was just the right touch for John Lee Hooker’s ribald “Crawlin’ Kingsnake.”

Porter has made that last song his own, just as the fabulous Laws has come to own her interpretations of the standards “Someone Else Is Steppin’ In” and “I Put a Spell On You.”

In fact, the way these performers now inhabit the songs has helped hugely to improve this “Blues” over the fledgling version of two years ago.

What has also helped: Rep artistic director Sam Woodhouse, directing this production, has excised much of the spoken narrative.

ts sense of teach-iness is not missed; even with the bare minimum of exposition that remains, the messages about the blues’ meaning and influence are intact.

Of the new performers, Valentine — imported from the L.A. production of “Blues” — is a sublime fit. The veteran of “The Wiz” steps into the role last played here by “Blues” co-writer “Mississippi” Charles Bevel, and does so with seeming ease.

Tompkins, another powerful singer, illuminated songs like “St. Louis Blues” with both pathos and humor. Gouveia, a Rep vet whose role in this show is more that of musician than singer, showed versatility on everything from banjo to slide guitar in taking over from “Blues” co-creator Dan Wheetman.

Newcomer Angeline’s role — as the sweet-voiced country girl with a touch of wickedness in her heart — requires a lot of range and, like most of the “Blues” roles, a little raunch.

Carter Calvert, whose shoes Angeline steps into, was able to convey the latter with little more than a glance. Angeline seems determined to play it up a bit more, most notably on her showcase solo number, “Now I’m Gonna Be Bad.” It’s an effective enough approach, but the bawdiness is perhaps sold more brazenly than it needs to be.

“Blues” has its occasional slow moment, and there is a faint strangeness about enjoying all this musical exuberance from the confines of a theater seat. Still, the opening-night audience did its best to clap along (and, on one song, even snap along) to the crack backup band, without abandoning decorum altogether.

For the audience, the show winds up being more an observance of the music — a worshipping, as it were, of the blues from the pews.

But oh, that gospel.

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