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Photograph by Mark Kitaoka
BLUES BELTING: C. Kelly Wright sings up a historical storm in 'It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues.'

Blues and Beyond

A musical revue about the blues at TheatreWorks strays a long way from the genre's roots

By Ben Marks

THEATREWORKS' new production, It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues, is a old-fashioned crowd-pleaser designed to leave audiences feeling good about themselves. Built around the talents of seven singing actors (some also play instruments) sitting on chairs in front of a three-screen slide show, the self-described "musical revue" is a didactic, if weirdly meandering, journey through the history of the blues—from its roots in Africa to its flowering on the streets of Chicago. For the most part, the singing is strong, and the musical accompaniment is polished (a tight backup band sits in for Act 2). It is, in short, a perfectly pleasant experience.

Indeed, it was so perfectly pleasant that I was often reminded of the Country Bear Jamboree attraction that entertained generations of toddlers at Disneyland. Credit for that odd rupture in the time-space continuum goes to the soothing, hypersincere voices of "Mississippi" Charles Bevel (one of the review's co-authors and original performers) and Tony Marcus (he plays the ever-smiling, white country fella), whose brief bridge narrations between some of the review's 40-plus songs evoked memories of those animatronic bears.

But I digress, although not as badly as the musical's disjointed pair of detours to the temple of country music, the Grand Ole Opry. Jimmy Rodgers and Hank Williams, it seems, liked the blues. Imagine that. To lay the foundation for this startling revelation, the revue treks up into the land of the high-lonesome, the Blue Ridge Mountains, for a sweetly sung ode to the cradle of bluegrass by Alison Ewing. Ewing's pipes are first-rate, but what are we doing here, really? And why do we spend any time at all on "Fever," a torch song made famous by Las Vegas crooner Peggy Lee instead of, oh, I don't know, "I Got a Woman" by Ray Charles? In their zeal to be racially inclusive, the writers have overlooked too many important artists whose contributions to the blues and the forms that evolved from it—rhythm and blues, soul, rock & roll—are far more germane.

Still, the highpoints of Ain't Nothin' will probably be enough for many theatergoers. Early in the first act, C. Kelly Wright does a lovely job on a traditional tune called "Niwah Wechi." Just before intermission, Michelle E. Jordan gives one of the best performances of the show with her gospel vocal on "I Know I've Been Changed." And in the second act, Chic Street Man's rendition of John Lee Hooker's "Crawlin' King Snake" is wickedly salacious. Marcus, too, has an excellent voice, as does James Monroe Inglehart, who is given the unenviable task of imitating B.B. King. Let's hope the enthusiastic applause at the end of the performance I saw translates into big crowds at the Santa Cruz Blues Festival this Memorial Day weekend to see the man himself.

IT AIN'T NOTHIN' BUT THE BLUES, a TheatreWorks production, plays Tuesday–Wednesday at 7:30pm, Thursday–Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2 and 8pm and Sunday at 2 and 7pm through April 11 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $27–$65. (650.903.6000)

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