Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Bruce, of course, spent much of his career in jazz clubs. But Stew (Tony nominated for his autobiographical musical Passing Strange) was merely a toddler when Bruce was appearing at places like the hungry i, the Black Hawk, and Cafe au Go Go. But if he brought this amazing pastiche of rock and blues and jazz and poetry and performance to a smoky basement room in Greenwich Village or North Beach in 1963, the audience would be snapping their fingers in full approval. Stew takes the audience at the Curran on a wild, magical journey through Baldwin's life by imagining him as a blues singer. As bass player and co-composer Heidi Rodewald clearly states at one point in the proceeding, "And that's the conceit of this show." Fittingly, images of Baldwin's book titles appear as '60s-era album covers and 45rpm singles sleeves.
Though the show begins with a projection on a video screen upstage of the band that displays a photo of Baldwin and the words "Don't blame any of this on me. These are Stew's words," the night is nonetheless suffused with the words and ideas of Baldwin, though not always in direct quotes. Still, one can imagine Baldwin delivering lines like, "power is so powerful it can afford to pay people to speak truth to it" or "Blue Jimmy made a butler out of his rage." There's also a haunting reference to George Zimmerman when Stew begins chanting, in one song, "Are you following him? OK, we don't need you to do that."
Notes of a Native Song is almost a song cycle, given that Stew keeps his patter to a minimum. But there is still a delightful sense of theatricality to it, especially in the costuming of the band members. Except for drummer Marty Beller (who is perhaps the most amazing member of the band, with his distinct, driving rhythms), who wears a cool orange plaid shirt that complements his neon lime green drum kit, the musicians seem to be inhabiting a character: keyboardist Art Terry in a choir robe, Heidi Rodewald in an Episcopal priest's collar, and woodwinds player Mike McGinnis in a cheap tuxedo and yarmulke, looking every inch a bar mitzvah boy. And by the way, they rock the joint!
The songs traverse a range of styles, and Stew and the band (The Negro Problem, a name I'm guessing Baldwin would have adored) handle them all with aplomb. Judging by audience reaction at the performance I attended, I'd say the favorite of the night was the next to last number, "Florida, Florida, You're Killing Me," which included the line "When I turn into an old Jew, I won't move to you."
Stew is a rare thing, a true artist. He presents what he loves and what moves him without pretension or artifice. The words, the music, the personalityit all just flows as naturally and easily and powerfully as waves breaking upon an inviting shore.
Through December 6, 2015. Tickets: $50. For tickets and more information, visit www.sfcurran.com.