Marking the revue’s 25th anniversary, Sheldon Epps’ new “Blues in the Night” staging retains the show’s crowd-pleasing appeal as a vehicle for more than two dozen blues, jazz and Tin Pan Alley classics and for some knock-’em-dead vocalizing. Handsome presentation and performance dynamism elevate this evening a conceptual notch above most cabaret-style song revues, despite a certain repetitiousness of material. These “Blues” aren’t flashy, trendy or starry enough to hazard a Big Apple return, but they could carve a life in mid-sized road theaters following the San Francisco launch.
Major new wrinkle is that the lone male performer — formerly a piano player in the “saloon” below “cheap hotel rooms” where three black, and very blue, women live — is now Maurice Hines. At age 63, he doesn’t exactly dance up a storm but does stir a little lightning.
There are also some new arrangements and orchestrations, a couple added songs, and a unit set (by Douglas D. Smith) more elaborate than in prior incarnations. It’s an attractive jumble of windows, nocturnal city views, a fire escape and furniture evoking the downscale 1930s Chicago building where the women sing their man-trouble blues — and one man chides them (in song and occasional speech) for being such spoilsports.
The “characters” are vaguely defined archetypes. “The Woman of the World” (erstwhile ’70s disco queen Freda Payne) is a still-glamorous beauty reluctant to admit her days as the belle of the ball are likely over.
“The Lady From the Road” (Carol Woods) is a bawdy, bulky veteran entertainer now reduced to poring over scrapbooks, hoping in vain for the call that will put her “back on top.” Paulette Ivory’s “The Girl With a Date” — though he stands her up — is a naive girl poised for heartbreak.
Mostly occupying the spotlight one at a time, with infrequent but attractive harmonizing, these women run the gamut of laments about love they’ve had, lost, yearn for, and probably won’t get again. Broadway vet Woods’ cast-iron pipes and comic chops make her the go-to cast member for raunchy novelty tunes like “Kitchen Man” and “Take Me for a Buggy Ride.”
Payne’s high, elegant, jazzy voice, reminiscent of Lena and Ella (she’s toured a tribute show about the latter), soars on the likes of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” though she also gets to let her hair down on Alberta Hunter’s “Rough and Ready Man.”
Ivory, who toured as Disney’s “Aida,” has a more contemporary Broadway-pop sound that works well for upbeat “Taking a Chance on Love” and plaint “Willow Weep for Me” — though she’s out of depth attempting bad-girl histrionics on Bessie Smith’s “Reckless Blues.”
As “The Man in the Saloon” — this hotel’s nightclub band crooner/hoofer — Hines is the tomcatting embodiment of these women’s complaints. He snakes around mocking their “moaning” and offering such dubious advice as “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues.”
More sympathetically angled songs in the second act dilute this figure’s purpose, but Hines’ dry, talk-singy delivery and sloe-eyed confidence still please. He gets just two dance spotlights: Soft-shoe “I’m Just a Lucky So-and-So,” then a delightful tap showcase on “Baby Doll.”
Kenneth Lee Roberson’s choreography for the women (mostly hand gestures) is effective but undemanding.
Epps’ direction, Rahn Coleman’s sharp four-piece combo (visible behind one hotel “window”) and the arrangements by Chapman Roberts and Sy Johnson stop this vintage songfest from overindulging diva pyrotechnics. An exception is Woods’ vocal scenery-chewing on “I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” — oops, I mean Smith’s “Wasted Life Blues.” Though it need be said this exercise in aural excess got the biggest opening-night audience response.
Smith’s lighting and Dana Rebecca Woods’ costumes echo the inviting warm tones of former’s set design, with teal, burgundy and blue-green dominant.