Regional Reviews: Florida - Southern
The Devil's Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith
The Devil's Blues: The Life and Times of Bessie Smith takes place in Memphis on a Monday in 1937. Shown in flashback, it's a performance by the legendary Ms. Smith in which 15 songs are sung and we, the audience, can get an inkling of where jazz first started.
Essentially a one-woman show, Bessie is backed by a terrific quartet: on piano, musical director Elijah Taj Gee, who also occasionally converses with Bessie; Cornelious Johnson on sax, Senegal Apostolo on bass, and the wonderfully named Tovah Lovely on drums.
But, the star's the thing and Avery Sommers is a Star with a capital "S." Heretofore cast in Ain't Misbehavin', Chicago, Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and South Pacific, she has been equally adored as a cabaret artist. The melding of the musical and the dramatic are what makes this play work as well as it does. For once the book is terrific (most solo shows I've seen, well, you know) and one feels for Bessie/Avery from the get go. She details her childhood through her marriage and her occasional sexual adventures for the next 85 intermissionless minutes. We all know Ms. Sommers sings/belts wonderfully, but it is a pleasure to see her "be" Bessie. The first rule of acting is "don't act. Be!" From her slow, arthritic walk, to every nuance of her hands and her gorgeous eyes, Sommers disappears and we are with the glorious Bessie Smith.
Artfully directed by Genie Croft, the songs all add to her story. From the opening "Bad Mood Blues" until her final "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out," Sommers and her quartet tug at our heartstrings through her joys and lows. The capacity audience was on their feet at the curtain and, for once, I believe it was heartfelt and earned.
Technically, the set design by Bombshell Productions impresses due to the limitations of the space, as does the excellent lighting of Tom Shorrock. David Hart is the masterful sound designer and Linda Shorrock the costume designer of the period outfits.
Re-reading this review, I realized there really was nothing to criticize. A terrific, painful, literate (that booksensational!) thrill helmed by a performance by Avery Sommers that must be seen to be fully appreciated.
The Devil's Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith continues until Sunday April 3rd, 2016, with a return engagement scheduled for May (dates to be determined). The Theatre at Arts Garage is located at 94 NE 2nd Avenue, Delray Beach, FL. 561-450-6357 www.artsgarage.org.