"Blues in the Night" is a plotless revue with no dialogue that nevertheless manages to communicate a living, breathing, singing, wailing thesis on the blues. Attend the show at the Pasadena Playhouse and understand just how it is the blues can be a tonic.
Conceived and directed by Sheldon Epps, "Blues in the Night" has traveled the world since its Broadway debut in 1982. Its success depends very much on the talent of the singers and musicians present. It is up to them to prove what Epps implies, particularly in Act II: Even at their most self-pitying, blues songs are a way to feel better, to express power and pride. Up-tempo or ballad, a well-sung blues song provides a catharsis for singer and listener alike.
The setting is a seedy Chicago hotel, represented by set designer Douglas D. Smith as a jumble of windows against the half-seen lighted sign outside. Three women live in separate rooms there. It is the late 1930s. The Lady From the Road (Roz Ryan) is a full-bodied woman with an apparently limitless supply of rich-as-chocolate voice. The Lady once traveled as a chorus girl on the "chitlin circuit" and now has a trunk full of feather boas and scrapbooks. She has seen it all and done it all and can size up the problems of her neighbors in a flash. She tends to sing the earthier songs, including that classic of the raunchily transparent double-entendre "Kitchen Man" ("and how that boy can open clams . . . "), which she delivers with a perfect deadpan.
The Woman of the World (Freda Payne) is a bit more affected. Her picture-perfect glamour is redolent of the evil queen in "Snow White," complete with hair rolls and flashing eyes. She delivers the elegant "Lush Life" with a placid smile, as if pride prevented her from showing any sign of the heartbreak described in the song.
Vanita Harbour plays the young thing, or, according to the program, the Girl With a Date (who, of course, doesn't show up). Doe-eyed and lovely in her green teddy and garters (this revue could be subtitled "Women Sing in Their Underwear"), Harbour's character hasn't yet developed any armor. Her "Willow Weep for Me" offers a pure and restrained sorrow.
As the lone man, Perry Chanel Moore plays a sort of Sportin' Life character, who slithers through life Tom-catting around, without getting burned but unable to avoid a certain patina of sleaze. His presence is merely a reminder of the male contribution to the blues, but it's hard to focus on him--this is clearly lady's night. Roz Ryan lays it out at the top of Act II. "Sometimes you got to talk to somebody, and I'm gonna talk to the ladies," she tells us, before belting out Bessie Smith's "Dirty No-Gooder's Blues," with triumphant defiance. A few songs later, she digs in really deep, to deliver the show's most purely self-pitying number, "Wasted Life Blues" also by Bessie Smith, a late-night howl of pain from someone who has no one in the world, wondering over and over "won't somebody give me one word of sympathy." In this number, Ryan will raise the hair on the back of your neck.
But alone and despairing in the night is not the end of the story. The women join together to sing "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" and by the time they get to "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues," which no one in the audience could possibly deny, they are almost joyful. Singing the blues is a powerful expression, and powerful expressions have a way of dispelling the blues.
And that is why "Blues in the Night" is a tonic.
* "Blues in the Night," Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Tue.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 5 and 9 p.m.; Sun., 2 and 7 p.m. Ends Oct. 22. $11.50-$33.50. (800) 233-3123. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.
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Roz Ryan: The Lady From the Road
Freda Payne: The Woman of the World
Vanita Harbour: The Girl With a Date
Perry Chanel Moore: The Man in the Saloon
Rahn Coleman: Piano
Gerald Painia: Drums
Stuart Thorne: Bass
Fernando Pullum: Trumpet
Charles Owens: Winds
A Pasadena Playhouse production. Conceived and directed by Sheldon Epps. Choreography Patricia Wilcox. Sets and lights Douglas D. Smith. Costumes Marianna Elliott. Sound Frederick W. Boot. Musical director Rahn Coleman. Production stage manager Elizabeth Stephens.