Photo: Aaron Rumley.

Blues in the Night

North Coast Rep. San Diego.

Written by:
Lynne Friedmann
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The Blues tells it like it is – love, loneliness, sex, betrayal but also humor and resilience.

In “Blues in the Night,” three women and a man repeatedly cross paths in a rundown Chicago hotel in 1938 with their interwoven stories told entirely through the songs of Bessie Smith, Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and Alberta Hunter, among others. This musical revue of early jazz and blues standards tugs at the heart and comforts the soul.

Taking us on this musical journal of solos and soaring harmonies are:

A Woman of the World (Karole Foreman) who conveys the high life she once enjoyed through a buoyant “Stompin’ at the Savoy.” Alas, madame’s attempts to keep up appearances are betrayed by gowns no longer in style and sparkling jewelry that is paste (“Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”).

The Lady from the Road (Anise Ritchie) was once a headliner on the Chitlin’ Circuit. Now all that remains are memories evoked from the brittle pages of photo albums and a jumble of feather boas and costumes in a battered travel trunk. Ritchie delights with “New Orleans Hop Scop Blues” and teases with the naughty “Take Me for a Buggy Ride” and “Kitchen Man.”

The Girl With a Date (Clarra Stroud) is a starry eyed young thing who we painfully watch surrender to bitterness as men disappoint her. On a cold night, standing alone under a glaring neon hotel sign, Stroud’s crystalline voice delivers fully on the haunting melancholy “Willow Weep for Me.” It’s a defining moment in the show.

And, finally, there’s The Man in the Saloon (Elijah Rock) who is a sharp dresser, a good dancer and knows how to sweet talk the ladies. Yes, he’s a rascal, but after hearing him sing “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues,” there are many who would let this man buy them a drink.

Directed by Yvette Freeman Harley, the singers are accompanied on the North Coast Rep stage by a red-hot five-piece band under the musical direction of accomplished musician-conductor-composer Lanny Hartley. Choreography by Roxane Carrasco.

There are a lot of elements in the set design by Marty Burnett: A stage on top of the main stage to accommodate an upright piano, drum kit and myriad wind instruments; bar set up; hotel entrance; three suggested apartments with furnishings for the ladies and center stage a diamond-patterned floor for robust tap and swing dancing. The additional energy of the streets sounds of traffic, horns and pedestrian bustle are courtesy of sound designer Matt Fitzgerald.

All these elements assembled in place are truly a marvel to behold – when the stage is devoid of occupants. On opening night, however, the set threatened to overtake the cast when an amplifier issued a feedback echo during the first number, a singer stubbed a toe on one of the stair risers (thankfully they maintained their balance) and a couple of costume challenges occurred in the tight quarters. Through it all, the singers and musicians never missed a beat.

by Lynne Friedmann

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