Thunder Knocking on the Door

Northlight Theatre

at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie

By Adam Langer

The mainstreaming of the blues, which brought it in the 70s from the smoky haunts of 47th Street to the frat-boy territory of Lincoln Park, may have rescued a great many artists from poverty and obscurity. But whether it boosted the art is another matter. Widespread acceptance can breed complacency and a certain lack of innovation, and though “Sweet Home Chicago” must be doing wonderful things for the Willie Dixon estate, and B.B. King may be making a bunch more off residuals from TV commercials than he ever got from “The Thrill Is Gone,” that doesn’t make going to Kingston Mines any more interesting. Artists like Junior Wells and Buddy Guy may be selling tons more copies and have a more polished studio feel than they did in the 60s, but a raw vitality has been lost.

The greatest accomplishment of Keith Glover’s blues musical Thunder Knocking on the Door is that it suggests a way for the blues to dig out of its current rut, so it won’t be just the stop on the tourist bus between El Jardin and Crobar. Glover demonstrates how well the emotional power and evocative storytelling of the blues can be translated to the stage. And unlike rock ‘n’ roll, which routinely gets nauseatingly sanitized when incorporated into Broadway musicals, the power of the blues is magnified in stage shows. Personally, I’d rather see a musical entitled Muddy than one entitled Buddy any day.

Glover is certainly not the first to realize this. Blues songwriting has influenced Broadway legends from George Gershwin to Leonard Bernstein. And August Wilson has created Pulitzer Prize-winning dramas that echo the structure of a three-hour death-letter blues. But writer-director Glover succeeds at weaving together original if somewhat derivative blues songs with a narrative structure that itself mimics a digressive blues number.

One may argue with a leap of artistic integrity made by moving from slick north-side joints overrun by European tourists to a Skokie performing-arts center inhabited by a surfeit of dentists. But at least Glover is able to maintain the integrity of the music. In the show’s best moments, songs spring naturally out of the plot, heightening mood, revealing character, and expressing emotions that would seem trite spoken. At their worst, the songs are mere interludes, opportunities for gifted performers to showcase their skills as in a plotless blues revue–which is one of the flaws of this rousing, highly entertaining show. Blessed with a splendid cast and a very talented composer-lyricist in Keb’ Mo’, Glover too often skates by on a bare framework of plot. As some other Chicago companies have learned, good songs, strong performers, and a mere sketch of a story can send the audience home happy and humming. But when the talented Glover actually gets down to writing scenes and working the songs into his plot, this musical sparkles.

The story is pretty nifty if rather familiar, reminiscent of many a folktale, the movie Crossroads, and the Charlie Daniels Band’s country fable “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” A sly, blue-eyed Mephistophelian trickster named Marvel Thunder journeys to the Dupree home in Bessemer, Alabama, intent on challenging the blind Glory Dupree to a guitar-playing contest. If he wins, he gets the guitar made for her by her late father, the greatest guitar player who never recorded. If she wins, he’ll restore her sight forever and he himself will turn to stone (a metaphor for the slowly petrifying art form of the blues). Complications ensue when the two square off for the “cutting contest” at the “place where the two roads meet” and fall in love. The cast is rounded out by Glory’s no-nonsense mother, Good Sister Dupree (whose ex-husbands have a nasty habit of dying young), Good Sister’s lumbering, good-hearted suitor Dregster, and Glory’s twin brother Jaguar, a hot young guitarist eager to make it big in rock ‘n’ roll.

What makes Glover’s story interesting is its ambivalence. Though Thunder shares traits with the devil, he’s not an evil character; his goal is self-preservation, not malice. And the fairy-tale dilemma he faces at play’s end–whether to render his love blind forever or lose his own life–is resonant and compelling. Glover has also layered his trickster tale with beautifully imagined elements from magical realism–fantastic descriptions, voodoo rituals, and peculiar metamorphoses. These elements and Keb’ Mo’s songs, which are lyrically suspect but have the vibrance of early Chuck Berry, the soulfulness of Curtis Mayfield, and the swagger of a young Muddy Waters, are so strong that they can almost create a diverting evening of theater in themselves.

But occasionally Glover sacrifices plot in favor of superfluous songs that bring the audience to their feet and the play to a screeching halt. When Glory prepares for her fateful guitar match by repeatedly singing “I’m back and I’m rarin’ to go,” a facile rewrite of Waters’s “I’m Ready,” the song undercuts rather than augments the tension. And a loopy cover of Waters’s “Got My Mojo Workin'” (strangely uncredited in the program) converts mystery and enchantment into goofiness. At moments like these, one wonders whether Glover chopped a good deal from an original version, tossing out key dramatic scenes but leaving in all the songs.

Other elements of the story are flawed. Narrative strands introduced in the first act are never pursued. Jaguar arrives on the scene early on in flashy duds and waving a thick wad of cash, boasting of his promising musical career–which is hardly ever heard of again. With the exceptions of the lovelorn Glory and cunning Thunder, who’s intoxicatingly attractive, the characters are not fully convincing. Glover has remarked that he modeled each of them on a particular blues figure–and there is something of a slick, dapper Howlin’ Wolf to Thunder, a flashy T-Bone Walker to Jaguar, and a weary B.B. King to Dregster. But perhaps this is the reason that the characters so often seem two-dimensional embodiments of familiar qualities rather than full-blown characters–something that could never be said of the great blues performers who inspired them. Howlin’ Wolf’s songs may have seemed simple. Admittedly, “I’m gonna go down to the liquor store and buy me a jug of wine” doesn’t look like much on paper. But he was never simplistic, and there was never any doubt of the three-dimensional figure behind the songs. Glover is too obviously an admirer of the blues to fail to understand that the best blues songs are never sketchy or vague, but he does seem to forget this from time to time in the narrative and in his characterizations. The play always maintains its wit and vivacity but only sporadically achieves the magical, spiritual transcendence of a great wailing guitar solo or a brilliant soliloquy.

Perhaps Glover was spoiled during rehearsals. The talent and exuberance of the actors Northlight has assembled are so infectious that they may have cloaked gaps in plot and character. As Thunder, the always reliable Philip Edward VanLear gives a revelatory performance, by turns hilarious, chilling, and heartbreaking. Tab Baker’s portrayal of Jaguar is a remarkable feat of vocal, athletic, and emotional virtuosity, and the other three actors are never less than excellent. Together they create an evening that may not boast the raw emotional power of a Howlin’ Wolf show at Theresa’s but most certainly beats the hell out of a jam-packed Sugar Blue show on Halsted.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still by James Fraher.