Arts & Events

Eye from the Aisle: The Night is Bitter at Center Rep’s BLUES

By John A. McMullen II
Tuesday June 07, 2011 - 03:03:00 PM
Armelia Mc Queen, Amanda Folena, Debbie de Coudreaux
Armelia Mc Queen, Amanda Folena, Debbie de Coudreaux

Blues in the Night at Walnut Creek’s Center Rep just sort of sits there for the first act and maybe a third of the second act. There is only one short monologue, and the rest is singing, singing, singing about being lonely, abandoned, old, horny, or heartbroken. There is no dancing, though a choreographer is listed. When it’s all about singing, the singers better be pretty damn good; yet, despite all the extraordinary singing talent in the Bay Area, the singing for the first act of BLUES seems at the level of a good community theatre or an Oakland piano bar. The choice of songs for the first 60% of the show have a sameness to them, there are no fireworks or high notes, and everything is subdued and as uneventful as a dull night in the cheap hotel which is where this is set.  

About one-third of the way through the second act, it takes off with some excellent acting of the songs, with some belting and wailing, and a jazzy jitterbug duet that sets things rocking. In part two, the selection of songs offers the panoply of blues themes from funny to desperate, from sexy to so-in-love.  

The songs of Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, are integrated with lesser known and perhaps deeper, more honest creations from Ida Cox, Alberta Hunter, and Bessie Smith. 

Did the performers use the first act to warm up? Is it a problem of not putting “hot” blues up front with a little dancing to get the performers’ blood stirring? Do we lay this weak first act at the doorstep of the conceiver, the director, the music director, or the singers? 

I almost departed at intermission; it was sort of like waiting for a boring church service to be over. I’m glad I stayed, because it revived with some righteous shoutin’ and singin’. But at near to $100 for two tickets, we should expect two full acts of knock-out musical.  

This potpourri of blues without a story to hang it on was conceived by Sheldon Epps, artistic director of the Pasadena Playhouse. Robert Barry Fleming, Theatre Arts Department Chair at the University of San Diego, was both choreographer and director. Fleming won the SF Bay Critics Circle award for Center Rep’s “All Shook Up” as did the entire production the season before last; none of that directorial panache was evident in this one. 

Eric Sinkonnen, one of my favorite designers, sort of plops three vanity tables on platforms to differentiate their little hotel rooms. The appointments are delicious in fabric and style with dressing screens and sconces, and the platforms descend in the wide and deep steps that musicals employ for dancing—vastly underused here. The excellent band is positioned upstage, and there is a high scaffold from which the MC-“Man in the Saloon” looks down and narrates. Kurt Landisman’s lighting design changes mood without calling attention to itself, and is artistic and professional. The boudoir costumes by Maggie Morgan are as lovely in fabric and form as the set appointments, though the single male costume is a little underdone for a man-about-town.  

Let’s review some highlights of the satisfying second act: 

The second act selection of songs was more familiar, and that may have aided their singing and presentation; but more importantly, the songs are varied in tempo and theme. The sexuality is direct and often hilarious as in “Rough and Ready Man,” and the desperation is palpable as in “Wasted Life Blues”—it’s really a whole different show.  

Armelia Mcqueen was in the original Broadway cast of “Ain't Misbehavin'“ and won an Emmy for it when it played as a special on NBC. Though consigned to too many “Lord ‘a mercy’s” in her character of an old woman from the road in wine-soaked reverie over her scrapbooks, in the second act she breaks our hearts with a bravura performance of acting while singing. 

Debbie Decoudreaux (The Woman of the World) has the languid movement and song-styling that invokes Lena Horne’s dulcet tones and extraordinary use of consonants. She was the star of the Moulin Rouge in Paris for eight years, and lately in SF’s Teatro Zinzanni.  

Amanda Folena (The Girl with a Date) is an award-winning actress whose award-winning choreographic talents might have been employed here. The only dance—a jitterbug number with her with C. R. Lewis—lights things up. She is constantly in touch with what is happening on the stage and never lets down the emotional spectrum of acting. Her singing in the first act was shaky, but later her low-down blues belt was compelling. 

C. R. Lewis (The Man in the Saloon) plays a pimpish, Sportin’ Life rounder as a sweet-faced charmer but with no edge or threat that might have made it more tense and thereby more interesting. His dancing and singing in the second act improve markedly, but his character could have been more effective if the director had aimed his way of going to be something other than a continuous strut. From LA, he was last seen here in CCMT's production of ”Rent.” 

Looking backwards, Center Rep offered a sophisticated and professional review last June with “A Marvelous Party,” but this season has integrated Contra Costa Musical Theatre into the lineup and let them pick up and run with the musical baton. A couple of months ago, just next door at the Hoffman Theatre, I witnessed CCMT’s Broadway-worthy cast do “Hairspray,” and the African-American singers topped and stopped the show. Perhaps this was a casting director’s error, but this is an all-Equity, extraordinarily experienced and lauded cast. Nonetheless, the singing here by no means measured up to the amateur talent in that recent CCMT production.  

However, BLUES IN THE NIGHT was sold out last Thursday when I attended, and the forgiving, very Caucasian, somewhat elderly audience responded with polite applause throughout, but gave the curtain calls joyous appreciation.  

Blues in the Night 

Playing through June 25 at the Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek 

John A. McMullen II is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and the American Theatre Critics Association, holds an MFA from Carnegie Mellon University in directing, and has been reviewing for the Berkeley Daily Planet since April of 2010.