“It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues” is, quite simply, an infectious, inclusive history of blues music in these United States. Thanks to an able group of singers (and players), a strong organizing principle and some damn fine tunes, this show emerges as the kind of entertainment that gets even the most leaden feet tapping.
In 41 songs, seven singers detail the evolution of the blues from native African rhythms to the funk of the modern urban environment. Some commentary makes the narrative a bit easier to follow, but the story is essentially told through song. Impressively, Ron Taylor (the show’s guiding spirit) and company tell their tale with an eye toward the big tent, and so the cast, though mostly black, also includes some white performers. Moreover, the operating definition of “blues” here is not restricted to the Mississippi delta, but rather embraces the hills and valleys of Kentucky and Tennessee, to say nothing of large cities (Chicago, for example) far to the north of such areas.
But though the history lesson goes down easy, easier still are the dark, often raunchy, songs themselves. Generally, tunes are delivered solo, but a number of ensemble pieces help vary the mood. There isn’t a misfire among the many (loosely defined) blues numbers presented, but there are several surprises, including some gospel numbers, “The Thrill Is Gone,” “Fever” and “Goodnight Irene.”
The singers are a fine balance: hefty voices and lighter ones, sassy tempers and sweet dispositions. But it’s the sly, sexy deliveries that linger most in the memory, and most of those come after the intermission. The heavy-set, rumbling Taylor brings hard-driving salaciousness to “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man,” during which he whips members of the aud into a near frenzy.
And the high-pitched Mark Leroy Jackson’s “Crawlin’ King Snake” is, if anything, even more lewd. Dan Wheetman coyly tries to make “Candy Man” less nakedly dirty, but it’s a losing battle.
Yet exciting as those numbers are, they lack the touching quality that Janiva Magness brings to “Fever.” And no one attending this production is likely to forget Jewel Tompkins’ magnetic, searing account of the Billie Holiday classic “Strange Fruit,” a devastating indictment of Southern racism.
Robin Sanford Roberts’ sets are basically plain-wrap functional, but Alex Jaeger has more room to maneuver with the costumes, which move from functional to opulent in the second act. Don Darnutzer’s lighting sets a fine, dusky mood, and Jon Gottlieb and Phillip Allen do excellent work with the sound. Randal Myler’s direction is unobtrusive, as is Donald McKayle’s subtle choreography. Wheetman leads the musicians brilliantly, creating a tapestry of sounds only the most savvy blues lovers will have sampled.