Bessie Smith's "Devil Blues" Sensational Finale
Cape Playhouse Finishes on a High Note
By Libby Hughes, drama critic for Cape Cod Today
Where did the summer go? Didn't we just abandon wool clothes for T-shirts, shorts, and flip flops? Suddenly it's over--gone. Even the Cape Playhouse in Dennis is "singing the blues" for the last two weeks of its 82nd season and what a great season it's been. For 90 minutes without an intermission, everyone was spellbound by Bessie Smith's mournful and wailing blues songs.
Wild response from audience
In all my years of reviewing, I have never seen an opening night audience respond to a singer as they did for "The Devil's Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith." After her third song, "Bad Mood Blues," Miche Braden as Bessie Smith chided the audience for their tepid applause and coaxed them into putting her in a good mood. From that moment, the audience showered her with applause throughout. Her contralto voice shook the floorboards and rafters. The woman to my right turned into a holy roller, shouting, clapping, and laughing. Heads were swaying to the beat of the blues. Foot-tapping traveled down the rows. It was like a revival meeting, full of interaction between Bessie Smith and the audience.
Origin of the blues
The word "blues" means "blue devils" or the down spirits. It reaches back to the 1890s when African Americans were plantation workers. To break the boredom, they created these work songs, which were a "call and response" of 12 bars, repeating a line three or four times about their personal woes. Even today, you can hear chain gangs singing them or go to West Point and you'll hear something similar when the cadets run every morning. First, men sang folk blues and then, classic blues were made popular by women singers. In the 1930s, George Gershwin patterned his "Rhapsody in Blue" after the 1920 blues.
The story of Bessie Smith
Much of the credit goes to playwright Angelo Parra for his skillful writing of the story of Bessie Smith in a funny, sad, and tragic way. Bessie talks directly to the audience and tells her own story as the narrator. Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1892 or 1894. Her father died shortly after her birth and her mother died when she was nine. She and her siblings used to sing and dance outside an African American Theatre in their hometown, begging for money to help feed the family. Finally, she auditioned for a troupe and she was hired as a dancer. Soon, her singing talents surfaced. Although Ma Raines was called the "Mother of the Blues," Bessie Smith became known as the "Empress of the Blues." She became a recording artist, selling 780,000 copies of her records. She made $2,000 a week, which in those days was high. Her married life wasn't the greatest. They didn't have children, so they adopted a boy, whom she adored. But when Bessie interfered in her husband's affair, he took her to court and said she was an unfit mother because she drank too much and played both sides of the sexual street. She had everything, but nothing. In the end, she had no one. Her melancholy songs tell it all. Smith died tragically in a car accident in her early 40s.
Miche Braden as Bessie
Magnificent. There is no other word for Miche Braden's portrayal of the inimitable Bessie Smith. Throughout the show, she controlled the heavy drinking of Smith, so that it was not overdone. When she rocked back on her heels to deliver a high note or raucous laughter, she was like an airplane flying upside down. Her movements were suggestive without being lewd. Yes, there was some raw language, but not overly offensive. Her contralto voice seemed to come from the soles of her feet and from the soul in her heart; especially her final mournful song, "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out."
Three piece band
The splendid band interacts with Smith as well as playing the 15 songs she sings. Scott Trent plays the piano; Jim Hankins, bass; and Anthony Nelson, tenor sax and clarinet. Nelson and Braden do a well-choreographed duet together that brings the house down with "St. Louis Blues."
Costumes and set
Gail Cooper-Hecht clothed Bessie Smith in a long, sparkly dripping mink cape with gold and black kimono sleeves and mink cuffs. When she took off the glamorous mink cape, there was a form-fitting charcoal dress with butterfly sleeves underneath. Set Designer Yoshi Tanokura gives us an elegant set in burgundy and rose for a hotel lounge. A large gold frame at the back introduces Bessie behind a scrim at the beginning and at the ending. A three-cornered ceiling molding set the tone and Christopher Chambers lit the set with pinks and blues. He was only late once on a lighting cue for a spot on Bessie Smith's final vocal lines after all the band solos.
Director Joe Brancato moves Smith cleverly around the set for 90 minutes without letting the audience become disinterested for one second. Every part of the set is used for variety.
Don't miss it
Even though this is September, get down to Dennis to see this show. The audience went crazy and so will you from Sept. 1-13. Monday through Sat. at 8:00pm. Matinees: Wed at 2:00pm, Sat. 9/6 at 4:00pm, Thurs. 9/11 at 2:00pm at the Cape Playhouse on Route 6A. Cape Cod Center for the Arts. 508-385-3911.