Northlight Theatre


Opera San Benedetto

It’s the sketchiest of stories, established with the barest minimum of dialogue: in 1930s Chicago, four lonely people in a seedy hotel pass a steamy night by singing the blues. As conceived by Sheldon Epps, Blues in the Night doesn’t really explain how these people got there or where they’re going. It doesn’t have to–it doesn’t even matter what their names are. The point is, these people are blue. Gloriously blue. Why ruin the singing with talk?

And the singing is glorious, strong and nuanced, in this Northlight production directed by Jim Corti. Blues classics by the likes of Bessie Smith, Jimmy Cox, and Alberta Hunter, among others, flesh out the characters, and the versatile ensemble know how to breathe life into any stereotypes, whether they’re singing or silent. Michelle Elise Duffy’s fading sophisticate holds herself with an unsteady dignity while she remembers the good times in Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life.” Later, after a few drinks, her hair comes down and dignity be damned as she growls her way through Hunter’s lament for a “Rough and Ready Man.” Yrsula Yevette’s ingenue has all the bright-eyed spunk the role requires, and a surprisingly spicy appeal, especially in Smith’s “Reckless Blues.”

As the semiretired “chorus girl from the chitlin’ circuit,” Seraiah Carol gets what little talk there is, directing most of it to the audience in a warm, conspiratorial manner. All rolling eyes and suggestive shimmying during her bawdier songs, Carol can turn on a dime and break your heart with her ballads. Rounding out the cast is Lonn Cortez Lawrence as the bartender in the hotel saloon. He definitely gets the short end of this deal–he has few solos, and the ones he does have (through no fault of his own) lack the power of the women’s songs. Unlike the women, he doesn’t seem to have much to be blue about–“I’m Just a Lucky So and So,” he confesses, courtesy of Duke Ellington and Mack David. His voice gives the ladies a nice rich boost in the full-company numbers, however.

As a rule, the ensemble mixes polish and guts; the delivery is rarely less than passionate, but the vocal quality never suffers as a result. Yevette is particularly astounding in her ability to throw herself gracefully down some stairs, perform a series of high kicks, then collapse in a heap without sacrificing a single note.

Corti’s staging is a pleasure: this somnolent, sexy dreamscape can explode without warning into raucous, joyful dance. Costume designer Gayland Spaulding evokes the 30s at their lushest with plenty of satin and bare shoulders peeking out of gossamer dressing gowns. One tight orange dress paired with bright blue gloves and hat knocks your eyes out. James Dardenne’s set is a fluid, many-leveled affair with plenty of door frames to pose in, and Robert Christen supplies appropriately moody back lighting.

Who would’ve thought that two hours of the blues could be such a pleasure?

1940s Radio Hour fails precisely where Blues in the Night succeeds–its bare plot remains bare. The date is December 21, 1942, and the occasion is a broadcast of the fictional “Mutual Variety Cavalcade” radio show. But playwright Walton Jones offers only broad sketches of radio show-biz types, and it seems to take ages for the 14 members of the cast to establish who they are–and yet they never become more than simply the hotheaded producer, the sanguine stage manager, the star-struck delivery boy, the squeaky-voiced bimbo, etc. When they finally get around to airing the radio program, we get a nice (but limited) taste of that era’s music, but there’s no resonance–it seems to mean very little to the people singing it. More attention is paid to goofy commercials, including a stunningly stupid ad for laxatives.

This production, staged by Les Stahl, boasts a couple of solid performances–Christopher Caldwell as a nerdy comic and James Baiocchi as a cut-rate Sinatra–but they get lost in the shuffle of cardboard personalities that roam the stage. As for the musical numbers, Robert N. DeWitt manages some nice choreography (presumably for the show’s studio audience) despite the fact that the singers are obliged to stick close to big microphones. Unfortunately, they rarely stick close enough: the ensemble seem solid singers, but even the most competent singer will lose when battling a dreadful sound system and a 17-piece big band. I gave up listening for lyrics, except during Kevin Farrell’s sweet rendering of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

The bright spot is Deja Vu, the Chicago big band that provides the music. They may be too loud for singers on bad mikes, but their instrumentals are very hot, inviting dancing in the aisles. Mike Finnerty’s saxophone has more personality than the script allows any of the characters. It’s a shame the band doesn’t have more playing time–this production would benefit from a lot more music and a lot less talk.