Bailiwick Repertory

“If you ever been blue, you know how a woman feels,” Bessie Smith sang in “Blue Blues.” But all I know from watching Blues in the Night is how Sheldon Epps thinks black American women feel. Epps is the fellow who conceived and originally directed this concept revue of classic blues songs, which enjoyed some success in New York and London a few seasons back. Its midwest premiere is offered by Bailiwick Repertory as (to quote the program) “a wonderful tribute to Black History Month”; but this show is a lot more about black fantasy than about black history.

The setting is “a cheap hotel in Chicago in the late 1930s”–an image nicely evoked in Daniel Ostling’s expressionistic assemblage of stairways and platforms framed against a plain backdrop washed with moody blue, purple, and red light by Tom Fleming. Under these lights parade three actresses representing three Hollywood-style stereotypes of black females: the Girl, the Woman, and the Lady. The Lady is a suffering diva of the Billie Holiday type, right down to the white gardenia in her hair and the plentiful amount of booze she swills during the show; all that’s missing is a hypodermic needle hanging out of her arm. The Girl is a lost, waiflike creature brought by unspecified tragic events to these seedy surroundings; with her nervous, eager smile and high voice, she’s a stand-in for the young Alberta Hunter. The Woman is, as they used to say, fat and sassy, with a take-charge attitude and a thundering foghorn voice to match.

Through the 25 songs assembled by Epps for this concept revue, we are given to understand that what brought these three to this existential urban dump was–what else?–man trouble. Since this man trouble is purely generic, Epps requires only a single actor to interact with all three actresses; all four performers take turns demonstrating that, indeed, they have a right to sing the blues.

There’s no faulting Epps’s taste in his selection of songs, an overview of the best work of black and white songwriters and performers of the 1920s and ’30s. Familiar standards such as the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer title tune (“My mama done tol’ me . . .”), Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” Benny Goodman’s “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” and Jimmy Cox’s “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” weave in and out between songs not well known except by aficionados–among them Alberta Hunter’s lightly lewd “Rough and Ready Man,” Ida Cox’s assertively earthy “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues,” and Leola and Wesley Wilson’s taut and teasing “Take Me for a Buggy Ride” (which is not about an outing with a horse, believe me).

Marvelous songs, all of them. But there’s something so false, so demeaning to the experience that these tunes represent, in the recycled racial images populating Epps’s scenario that Blues in the Night actually undermines its own effort to celebrate African American culture. Because the people onstage are more caricatures than characters, their expressions of pain and pleasure, despair and defiance, are reduced to mere camp.

A cast possessed of more dynamic energy and talent than this one might have been able to salvage the situation. Irma Riley (the Lady), Cynthia Jackson (the Woman), Sophia Thomas (the Girl), and Antoine Brunson (the Man) all sing well and look good in Nora-Lee Luttrell’s colorful array of authentic-looking glad rags, but they just don’t dig any genuine feeling out of the musical gold mine they’re working; director-choreographer Joe Huber seems to have been too busy fashioning moves for the cast that he didn’t help them find the emotions under their motions. (Musical director Robert Galbreath’s rote piano playing doesn’t help matters, though the presence of a trumpet in the small offstage band does add an appealing period texture to the score.) The show’s best moments are the women’s close-harmony group trios, which make up with shimmering (and pleasingly unamplified) chordal texture what’s lacking in individual force. It’s not until the beginning of the second act, in Riley’s tough-edged reading of Bessie Smith’s “Dirty No-Gooder’s Blues,” that the evening too briefly approaches high gear–not to mention the real feelings of a real person.