‘Blues in the Night’: Porchlight’s cast captivates with the music of saints and sinners
Powered by Felicia P. Fields, Donica Lynn and three other killer singers, the revue celebrates the genre’s low-down sounds as well as the slinky and chill.
From red hot to icy cool, Porchlight Music Theatre’s thrilling “Blues in the Night” travels the complete spectrum of its titular genre. Long story short: If you are a human who experiences emotions, you will revel in director-choreographer Kenny Ingram’s production.
On the one hand, the revue of some two dozen blues numbers offers “low-down stanky, funky” scorchers like “Take Me for a Buggy Ride,” in which a growling, hip-swerving Felicia P. Fields makes it unabashedly clear that she’s not singing about a horse-drawn vehicle. On the other hand, “Blues in the Night” goes slinky and chill with “Lush Life/I’m Just a Lucky So and So,” delivered by Donica Lynn and Evan Tyrone Martin, smooth and glossy as water over glass.
When: Through March 13
Where: Porchlight Music Theatre at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn
Tickets: $25 - $74
Run time: Two hours, including one 15-minute intermission
Info: PorchlightMusicTheatre.org, (773) 777-9884.
Both ends of the blues’ spectrum are equally mesmerizing onstage, with Ingram’s five-person cast and a four-piece onstage band pulsing through numbers popularized by Bessie Smith, Billy Strayhorn and Alberta Hunter, among others. It’s music powerful enough to completely banish whatever blues are lurking in real life outside the theater, at least for the roughly two-hour duration of Ingram’s robust staging.
The storytelling in the Tony-nominated show conceived by Sheldon Epps begins before the first note is sung. It’s 1938, and we’re in a once-grand hotel on the South Side of Chicago, a place of beauty and memories. There are three guests: The Lady from the Road (Fields) is poring over an ancient scrapbook, remembering her days on vaudeville’s Chitlin Circuit. The Woman of the World (Lynn) has loved and lost, both greatly. And The Girl with a Date (Clare Kennedy) is fresh-off-the-bus, starry-eyed and looking for love.
The trio is joined by The Man in the Saloon (Martin) and The Dancing Man (Terrell Armstrong), the former with a voice as alluring as a Siren, the latter flitting among the women with a sinewy grace that’s irresistible. Throughout, Music Director David Fiorello and the ensemble tackle the inherent tension in the blues: It’s the music of saints and sinners, rooted in juke joints and gospel choirs, at once celestial and gritty.
The ensemble is backed by a four-piece band conducted by keyboardist Maulty Jewell IV. Each musician (Harold Morrison on drums, Rafe Bradford on bass, Ricardo Jiminez on trumpet and Darius Hampton on reeds) gets a solo jam, but they also operate as a single organism, each piece blending seamlessly with the others.
One of the numbers that highlights both ends of the blues is “Take It Back Chaser,” which has Fields, Lynn and Kennedy rip-roaring through a breakup anthem for the ages, their voices blazing with authority as they bring down the house and send trifling menfolk packing. The women also turn “It Makes My Love Come Down” into a bona fide scorcher.
Fields is more than a decade out from her 2006 Tony nomination for playing Miss Sophia in “The Color Purple,” but her voice is as powerful as ever. If anything, she’s only gotten better in the intervening years, as numbers including the sensual “New Orleans Hop Scop Blues” and the deeply melancholic “Wasted Life Blues” make undeniably clear. Lynn’s rich, warm alto is in glorious form. With “Rough and Ready Man,” she goes full-throttle sex-positive with a vigorous celebration of the old axiom that dancing is a vertical expression of a horizontal desire. The bone-deep sorrow she instills within “Four Walls Interlude” will have you reaching for a hanky.
Kennedy’s Girl with a Date starts out with perky optimism. But she hardens after heartbreak — much of it at the hands of Armstrong’s seductive Dancing Man — and finds strength in the wisdom of Woman and Lady. In “Reckless Blues,” Kennedy shows the audience The Girl with a Date’s rich, evocative emotional backstory. Martin’s velvety croon and smooth charisma make The Man in the Saloon fascinating, even when (especially when) he’s leaving sorrow in his wake. “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues” is slick and seductive; “Willow Weep for Me” (with Kennedy’s Girl) shows the shattered heart that follows.
Angela Weber Miller’s set design showcases the fading glory of a once-glittering hotel, while Rueben D. Echoles’ costumes evoke the late 1930s setting. One last thing: Lynn and Fields are storied figures in the land of musical theater, and for good reason. Having both in the same cast? To revert to a sports analogy, it’s kind of like having two Simone Bileses on the same gymnastics team. It’s historic, and not something that should be missed.