It seems that the Cleveland Play House is becoming the go-to theater for memorable one-person musical performances. Last year, their stage was lit afire by the presence of Mary Bridget Davies as Janis Joplin.
And this year, the mic has been passed to Miche Braden, who pulls out all the stops as soulful blues singer Bessie Smith in The Devil's Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith.
Braden has been performing this show — conceived and directed by Joe Brancato, directed by Angelo Parra — for a few years now, with a notable off-Broadway run in 2011. And her ease with the material shows as she fully occupies the stout form of this singer who defined blues singing in the 1920s and '30s and became an inspiration for many singers that followed.
It's no surprise that the 13 songs in this 85-minute show are the star. Swinging from familiar tunes such as "St. Louis Blues" and ""I Ain't Got Nobody" to a couple of original numbers written and co-written by Braden, the songs are backed by a smooth on-stage trio.
Parra's script tries hard to convey some details of Smith's life in a conversational and unobtrusive way. But Smith's story is ultimately relegated to factoids that feel more like a Wikipedia bullet list than a thoroughly involving tale of a richly variegated life.
It all starts, appropriately enough, with Smith entering from the back of the audience. The conceit is that this is one of Bessie's last days on Earth, in 1937, and she has just been denied front-door entrance to a gig in a whites-only club in Memphis. So this bold and beautiful black woman decided to not use any of their entrances at all.
Instead, she decamps to a "buffet flat," a private club where black folk can drink, eat, listen to music and pursue other sports of their choosing. As imagined by scenic designer Michael Schweikardt,this is a sumptuous retreat featuring a curved staircase, fringed lampshades and an air of cosseted indulgence.
In an instant, Braden commands the stage with her composition, "Bad Mood Blues," and signals that she will be in total control of this theatrical flight. As Bessie picks at the food and jests with the musicians, we learn a few salient points about her life.
Born into poverty, Bessie was at first a dancer until the Mother of the Blues, Ma Rainey, took the young girl under her wing. In this compressed telling, Bessie is soon pouring out the hit songs ("Downhearted Blues," "'T Ain't Nobody's Bizness If I Do") and traveling in her own lushly appointed railroad car.
Swigging from flasks and downing additional drinks, Smith's alcoholism is fully on display, as are a couple awkward moments of depression and intimations of mortality.
But the songs keep coming, and thank goodness for that. Braden opens up these blues favorites like a series of opulent sonic gifts, using her powerful voice and inventive phrasing to highlight the meaning of the mournful and raucous lyrics.
When she sings lustily about wanting "A hot dog between my roll and a little sugar in my bowl," you know we're not talking dietary suggestions. And Braden plumbs the depths of songs such as "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" with a lingering, determined intensity that is compelling
The trio, comprised of Jim Hankins on upright bass, pianist George Caldwell and baritone sax man Keith Loftis is exceptional. And those fellows each contribute a bit on the acting side, with Loftis garnering both gasps and titters as he romances Bessie with the flared bell of his, um, prodigious instrument.
Given CPH's one-woman musical tour de force performances of this year and last, it's fitting to note that Bessie Smith's actual unmarked grave was finally given a headstone. Donated by: Janis Joplin.
The Devil's Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith Through March 10 at the Cleveland Play House, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000
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