Band: Garner Thomas (tenor sax), Kenny Sara (drums), Leroy Ball (bass) and Lanny Hartley (pianist).
Ma Rainey, struttin’ and steamin’, belts out “Strut Miss Lizzie.” Moments later, she mercurially transforms into Bessie Smith, not-so-subtly undulating to a saucy vocal delicately titled “I Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl.” Before the evening’s over, four more “Late Great Ladies of Blues and Jazz” (Ethel Waters, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington and Mahalia Jackson) have turned the spiffy Richard Pryor Theatre into a foot-stomping musical phantasmagoria that’s hot-hot-hot.
And all of it courtesy of just one artist: blues/jazz singer and Broadway actress Sandra Reaves, who conceived, wrote and performs, vocally and dramatically, the revue.
Contributing classy, propulsive accompaniment is a jazz quartet in black tie that can blow, beat, pound and pluck with panache (tenor sax Garner Thomas, drummer Kenny Sara, bassist Leroy Ball and pianist and musical director Lanny Hartley).
Jazz and blues are well-traveled legit territory. Denise Nichols unfurled a similar one-woman show in 1990 at the Westwood Playhouse and S. Epatha Merkeson brought us “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” in ’87 at the very same Richard Pryor Theatre (then called the Hollywood Playhouse).
Reaves, though, is a physical force, and bigger than any of the women she inhabits. Her spirit sweeps the stage, and when she first rumbles on (as herself), swaying those wide hips, she’s sexy.
Little known on the West Coast, Reaves replaced Virginia Capers (who is producer of “Late Great”) as Mama Younger in the Broadway musical “Raisin.” Reaves has been reworking and refining “Late Great Ladies of Blues and Jazz” over a period of years, particularly in Europe.
Vocally, she might not have the range of the legends she portrays. What she does have and what gives this show its appeal is her dramatic luster. Reaves hates the term “imitation” and explains in a curtain call chat that what she does here is give “impressions,” not clonelike copies.
Tautly directed by Rick Khan and continually simmering under the band’s rhythmic impetus, Reaves slips in and out of different wigs and gorgeous, glittery, feather-laden dresses to set up her genuine transformation: her body language, the shift in her voice and her deceptive vocal inflections.
For instance, her segue to Billie Holiday, a characteristic white gardenia in her hair, mirrors the ashen singer in her bottomless despair and embraces the peculiar, impossible Holiday sound.
Holiday’s doing a gig in a lounge, etching the drugs, pain and men in her life between numbers. But her selections (“Them There Eyes,””God Bless the Child” among them) tremulously fight above the hurt in arguably Reaves’ finest interpretation.