Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Theater reviews: 'Low Down Dirty Blues,' 'Macbeth' provide eclectic summer fare

Sandra Reaves-Phillips,‭ ‬Mississippi Charles Bevel,‭
‬Felicia P.‭ ‬Fields and Gregory Porter in Low Down Dirty Blues.

By Hap Erstein‭

Over the weekend,‭ ‬Florida Stage unveiled its new roomy,‭ ‬yet still cozy home at the Kravis Center’s Rinker Playhouse,‭ ‬inaugurated with a shapeless musical revue imported from Chicago,‭ ‬Low Down Dirty Blues.

The show is enormously entertaining,‭ ‬thanks largely to its powerhouse four-member cast,‭ ‬but as with last summer’s erroneously named‭ ‬Some Kind of Wonderful,‭ ‬the nation’s largest company devoted exclusively to new and developing work demonstrates that it is far less rigorous when it comes to showcasing musical material.

Low Down Dirty Blues plunks us down in a South Side Chicago blues club,‭ ’‬round midnight,‭ ‬after the tourist trade that keeps requesting the same old,‭ ‬predictable songs has gone back to its hotels.‭ ‬That is when the local blues singers and musicians arrive to sing and play for each other,‭ ‬reaching for some of the bluer‭ ‬--‭ ‬as in off-color‭ ‬--‭ ‬blues numbers,‭ ‬revealing their affection for songs based in double -entendres and innuendo.

Typical is‭ ‬My Handyman,‭ ‬growled and winked to perfection by Sandra Reaves-Phillips as Big Momma,‭ ‬proprietress of the club.‭ ‬As she sings the praises of a guy who can‭ “‬churn my butter‭ … ‬cream my wheat,‭” ‬we quickly understand that his real talents are not culinary.‭ ‬Reaves-Phillips gets the party started,‭ ‬lifting her voice in songs that are blue,‭ ‬but definitely not downbeat,‭ ‬as she keeps time with slaps on her beefy thighs.

She is soon joined by Mississippi Charles Bevel,‭ ‬a slight,‭ ‬dapper,‭ ‬low-key performer,‭ ‬adept at his acoustic guitar and a punch line,‭ ‬as he demonstrates on a number called‭ ‬Jelly Roll Baker.‭ ‬Next up is hulking Gregory Porter,‭ ‬who booms out the ominous‭ ‬Born Under a Bad Sign.‭ ‬All three are terrific,‭ ‬and yet they seem mere preface to the arrival of Felicia P.‭ ‬Fields,‭ ‬a mountainous woman with the sound to match.‭ ‬Fields,‭ ‬prominently in the original cast of‭ ‬The Color Purple,‭ ‬arrives announcing in song‭ ‬I Got My Mojo Workin‭’‬,‭ ‬and the spell she casts over the proceedings is palpable.

Low Down Dirty Blues was created by‭ ‬Randal Myler and Dan Wheetman,‭ ‬who also co-conceived the Tony Award-nominated‭ ‬It Ain’t Nothin‭’ ‬But the Blues in‭ ‬1999.‭ ‬The only dialogue between the‭ ‬22‭ ‬songs is a few biographical lines,‭ ‬taken from interviews with actual blues singers and dealt out here to the cast in an unpersuasive attempt at character development.‭ ‬There is plenty to enjoy in the musical numbers,‭ ‬but they never manage any dramatic synergy.

The first-rate sound bodes well for Florida Stage’s future in the space,‭ ‬though much of it is probably due to the acoustic design of Victoria DeIorio.

The attractive club set by Jack Magaw,‭ ‬decorated in regional beer paraphernalia,‭ ‬is located far from the three-sided audience,‭ ‬with a few club tables and chairs on the floor where subsequent plays will presumably be staged.

The Rinker in this new configuration has great potential for Florida Stage’s future,‭ ‬and‭ ‬Low Down Dirty Blues is likely to make the company plenty of new fans.‭

LOW DOWN DIRTY BLUES,‭Florida Stage at the Kravis Center’s Rinker Playhouse,‭ ‬701‭ ‬Okeechobee Blvd.,‭ ‬West Palm Beach.‭ ‬Through Sunday,‭ ‬Sept.‭ ‬5.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$47-$50.‭ ‬Call:‭ (‬561‭) ‬585-3433‭ ‬or‭ (‬800‭) ‬514-3837.

‭ * * *

Kevin Crawford and Heidi Harris in Macbeth. ‭

Celebrating its‭ ‬20th anniversary,‭ ‬Palm Beach Shakespeare Festival dips into the Bard’s bag and pulls out a bloody good crowd-pleaser,‭ ‬the tragedy of that ambitious,‭ ‬murderous Scot,‭ ‬Macbeth,‭ ‬a play‭ ‬the company debuted with and revisited‭ ‬14‭ ‬years ago.

Directing the production and playing the title role is Kevin Crawford,‭ ‬long the company’s best asset.‭ ‬His performance dominates the evening with his signature skill with the Elizabethan language,‭ ‬rendering the text with clarity and attention to the poetry.

In a reprise of the Festival’s production from‭ ‬1996,‭ ‬Crawford is again partnered by Heidi Harris as his goading wife,‭ ‬who pushes him to take control of the political situation and realize the royal prophecy of the witches.‭ ‬In the intervening years,‭ ‬Crawford has grown burlier and Harris more buxom,‭ ‬but they still make a combustible couple,‭ ‬striking sparks of passion onstage while rendering these two towering roles with greater maturity and nuance.

Fourteen years ago,‭ ‬the festival was more inclined towards gimmick production concepts,‭ ‬and that previous‭ ‬Macbeth borrowed heavily‭ ‬--‭ ‬and pointlessly‭ ‬--‭ ‬from‭ ‬Braveheart,‭ ‬the hot movie of the day.‭ ‬Crawford places the new production in contemporary times,‭ ‬but is relatively restrained with references to the times.

True,‭ ‬Lady Macbeth first hears from her spouse by text message and the final showdown between Macbeth and Macduff is a duel by pistol rather than swordplay‭ ‬--‭ ‬an update that drains the scene of its theatricality‭ ‬--‭ ‬but otherwise the production is straightforward and conventional.‭

Concentrate on Crawford and Harris,‭ ‬because the performance quality drops off substantially when it comes to the supporting players.‭ ‬As Macbeth’s buddy Banquo,‭ ‬Andre Lancaster fights a losing battle with his lines of dialogue.‭ ‬You are unlikely to mind that his death renders him a mute ghost.‭ ‬Better are the three‭ “‬weird sisters‭” ‬--‭ ‬Krys Parker,‭ ‬Trinna Pye and Greta von Unrue‭ ‬--‭ ‬a trio of Goth babes who crawl about Daniel Gordon’s steeply raked stage.‭ ‬Either Crawford had a thematic notion or he was trying to save on salaries,‭ ‬but these witches keep popping up as members of Macbeth’s court and as his homicidal henchmen.

The festival is already crowing that its opening week set a new attendance record for Seabreeze Amphitheatre in Jupiter’s Carlin Park.‭ ‬For the past two decades,‭ ‬the company has become a fixture in the community and probably the main opportunity for many Palm Beach County residents to brush up their Shakespeare.‭ ‬That is commendable,‭ ‬but the troupe could still use a few more classically trained actors.

MACBETH,‭ ‬Palm Beach Shakespeare Festival at Seabreeze Amphitheatre,‭ ‬Carlin Park,‭ ‬A1A and Indiantown Road,‭ ‬Jupiter.‭ ‬Through Sunday,‭ ‬July‭ ‬25.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬Free,‭ ‬donations accepted.‭ ‬Call:‭ (‬561‭) ‬575-7336.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hey Hap: For the record your own review of SKW called it "wonderful" at the time, even if you qualified it by back handed compliments on its lack of "plot." (Racking my brain for a well-plotted "concert", as the show was billed, but coming up empty.) I prefer my concerts to be entertaining in general and we apparently accomplished that. I also hear that LOW DOWN DIRTY BLUES is wonderfully entertaining, I am sorry I won't be able to catch it.


(Incidentally, it was Jason "Curry" playing the reeds, not Jason "Reed" playing the reeds.)


In any case, I hope summer is treating you well. Busy here: finishing up a hit run of CAGNEY in Canada (it then opens the 2010-11 season at Riverside Theatre) as well as remounting BACKWARDS IN HIGH HEELS. Scott Schwartz directed a smash run at the Asolo, from there it will have productions at Arizona Theatre Co, San Jose Rep, and the Cleveland Playhouse this fall & winter.

Stay Cool & Hurricane Free
Christopher McGovern