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Let 'Em Sing

Great songs, great performances, and a messy premise in Northlight's Low Down Dirty Blues



Low Down Dirty Blues Northlight Theatre

The cocreators of Low Down Dirty Blues, Randal Myler and Dan Wheetman, know their music—but that's just about the only thing they get right in this world premiere Northlight Theatre production.

Like their previous collaboration—It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues, which scored four Tony nominations in 1999—Low Down Dirty Blues is an ensemble revue in which a small cast performs blues songs spanning several decades. But while the earlier show has a clear arc, following the development of the blues from southern work fields to Chicago's south side, Low Down Dirty Blues starts nowhere and goes nowhere. If it weren't for the 22 sterling songs given winning performances by four veteran blues singers, the show would have no reason to exist.

Those songs take up perhaps 80 of the show's 90 minutes, so it's tempting to adopt the standard critical line on jukebox musicals: audiences come for the music, so everything else can be forgiven if not outright ignored. But the nonmusical elements in Low Down Dirty Blues aren't benign—they're confusing.

Low Down Dirty Blues

The show is set, apparently, in a south-side club called Big Mama's. At the top, a woman who calls herself Big Mama welcomes the audience and launches into "They Call Me Big Mama," Big Mama Thornton's signature tune from the early 1950s. Given her vintage-looking dress and arthritic physicality, one might assume this character is supposed to be Thornton herself, maybe a few years before her death in 1984. Except there's a recent Chicago Bulls pennant on the wall, and a few minutes later she sings "Don't Jump My Pony," written by Denise LaSalle in 1992. Maybe there's a reason none of the songwriters is credited either from the stage or in the program—it's an easy strategy for dealing with anachronisms.

Three other people gradually wander into the club, taking seats at ratty little tables around Big Mama's stage. They appear to be patrons, except they jump up on the stage now and then to perform numbers that Big Mama's three-piece band has clearly rehearsed with them. Sometimes, inexplicably, they sing from their seats, which brings up another question: If the line of ratty tables defines the edge of Jack Magaw's blues-club set, then how are we to believe that the audience members sitting in clean, cushy theater seats are also in the club, as Big Mama insists?

More curious still, the patrons/performers start delivering short autobiographical monologues. One is a preacher's daughter from Saint Louis, who had to listen to "devil music" on the sly. Another learned the blues as a child when he bought a harmonica for $1.50 in a pawn shop. A third comes from a sharecropping family in Alabama. The brief, generic speeches do nothing to individuate the characters, but then it seems they're not supposed to: a program note explains that all the dialogue "is taken from the words of numerous blues artists—both famous and unknown." So the characters aren't really characters, but montages of unidentified people? And they're sort of in a south-side club, except when they're reciting other people's autobiographical anecdotes as though having psychotic breaks?

And so it goes. I wonder why the Northlight brass, seeing early previews, didn't ask Myler and Wheetman simply to throw out their show and stage a concert. Certainly the songs can stand on their own; many of them, including "My Stove's in Good Condition," "If I Can't Sell It," and "My Handyman," have done so for over half a century.

The band handles everything thrown at it, even if Victoria DeIorio's sound design often muffles and muddies the results and, under Wheetman's otherwise strong musical direction, guitarist James A. Perkins Jr. never does anything but strum. (Imagine a blues concert without a single guitar lick.) Above all, Mississippi Charles Bevel, Felicia Fields, Gregory Porter, and Sandra Reaves-Phillips perform with precision, nuance, poignancy, and exuberance. Despite their vocal prowess, none of them spends a moment showing off. Instead, they focus on putting across the humor, longing, and misery of the lyrics. There's so much life in these performers that Myler and Wheetman owe it to them to get out of their way.   v

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