100 Years of Women in Blues at Teatro Wego! through August 25
It only seems like a 100 years since Dorian Rush has graced our local stages. So it’s a treat to have her back in her new solo show 100 Years of Women in Blues which delivers just what it promises, a marvelous overview of the women who were the founders and torchbearers of this uniquely American art form.
From its well-researched script by Rush, we learn, to begin with, that the Blues uses 3 chords in 4/4 time with 4 beats to the measure. Each song starts with a 4-measure Statement followed by a 4-measure Variation and a 4-measure Response.
Claiming that the Blues originated right here in New Orleans, Rush continues more expansively, “the Blues is not about perfection or the pursuit of perfection”. It certainly “doesn’t tell you to behave yourself” but will “laugh with you and cry with you,” influencing many other genres of music that came in its wake; Rush avows that heavy metal is just “Blues on steroids.”
From there, Rush informs us how women dominated the Blues, a collision of “African rhythms and European melodies,” when it started back in the 1920s. These “strong, emotional, spiritual” females were “hip shakers, rule breakers and history makers.”
With her rich alto voice, Rush proceeds to give us an abundant sampling of songs associated with these blueswomen, from Mamie Smith, whose Crazy Blues from 1920 was the first Blues song, on to Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey (the “Mother of the Blues”), Billie Holiday, Etta James (a “fan of drag queens”), Ruth Brown and others.
Some of the highlights are Nobody Knows You, a 1929 hit for Bessie Smith who was one of the highest paid performers of her time and had such a big sex drive, for both men and women, that, Rush opines, “her ovaries musta been the size of brass church bells.”
—Hound Dog, written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, which was a huge hit for Big Mama Thornton, and with slightly different lyrics, an even bigger one for Elvis Presley.
—Ball and Chain which Thornton originally recorded but was popularized in 1968 by Janis Joplin, one of a wave of white musicians then singing the Blues which put the spotlight back on older black musicians.
—If I Can’t Sell It, a great song that helped win Brown a 1989 Tony Award and which has some of the slyest lyrics ever written.
–and Koko Taylor’s playful Wang Dang Doodle, a “toasting” song from 1965.
Rush does not attempt to do impersonations of these singers, at all, but rather gently changes her style to evoke each of them. Her clear diction allows us to enjoy all the memorable lyrics these songs offer. And she is a consistently down-to-earth, self-effacing guide whose knowledge about the Blues could probably fill a large coffee table book.
I loved the Act One finale in which Rush forsakes her microphone to give a splendid, unamplified rendition of Ma Rainey’s See See Rider; how grand to hear the unadulterated human voice. I was just a little concerned that this seemed to exhaust Rush (unless that was part of the act) in a way that I doubt such mic-less singing would have ever tired out any of these Blues legends.
I do have a few quibbly observations. While Rush’s script is interesting throughout, it could use some tightening; 100 Years can sometimes feel a bit like a very cool lecture with music rather than a cabaret act which is what I believe it aspires to be.
To that end, I could’ve done without the brief detour to soul. We all adore Aretha Franklin and Irma Thomas, but their songs diffuse the focus of the show.
And while there’s nothing wrong with JPAS’ Teatro Wego!, a show like this seems better suited to a more intimate venue such as can be found (I hope!) in, say, the Marigny or Bywater.
Other than that, Ainsley Matich provides superb accompaniment on both piano and guitar throughout the show. Nicholas Frederick’s lighting also adds to the atmosphere from its cool blues to hot reds.
Rush concludes with the stomp down Christian stylings of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, bringing in Pete Townsend’s windmilling moves in the process. How good it was to listen to Tharpe’s joyful That’s All as we tend to hear more about Tharpe than her actual music. Perhaps Rush might consider her, or any of the other tremendous singers she spotlights in 100 Years of Women in Blues, to be the focus of her next show.
The Glass Menagerie at Marigny Opera House through August 17
After The Tennessee Williams Theatre Company of New Orleans’ (TWTC) superlative production of Suddenly Last Summer this spring, I had high hopes that their future shows would all reach that same level.
Yet when I started seeing publicity photos for their current production of The Glass Menagerie which hinted at a traditional approach, I became concerned. Entering the Marigny Opera House, I thought the upper half of Joey Sauthoff’s set, with dozens of white gauzy sheets hanging down, was pretty and aptly evocative for a “memory play”, but the 1930s period props and set pieces on the ground worried me that we were in for a conventional take on Williams’ first great play. Unfortunately, I was right.
Before continuing, let me acknowledge that there’s something to be said for doing productions of classics, from Williams to Shakespeare, exactly as written and in their original time period. No matter how renowned a script, there may be people who are encountering it for the first time and deserve to see it just as the author intended.
BUT to take this approach time and again threatens to ossify our theater. We look to directors, at least the more ambitious and capable ones, to reinterpret, say, Lorca and Strindberg for our own time, to use these works to comment on how we are now. This can take the form of a new examination of the text or wholly inventive staging.
For example, an updated Menagerie that ran at a major theater in Hamburg had the Wingfield family living in a trailer and the “old records” that Laura plays were ‘70s/’80s pop hits; though I’ve only seen a brief preview of it, this production seemed to be a revivifying, and ultimately moving, version for our times.
Would that Director Augustin J Correro had given us something along those lines. Instead, we get a clean but uninspired staging, one that just as easily could have been done 30 years ago. If Correro well conveys the Wingfields’ existential despair, long stretches of the show are curiously flat (unlike Summer which crackled with electricity from beginning to end); at times, he has Amanda, the family’s matriarch, just stand and speak directly out to the audience for no discernible reason.
Correro’s use of “drony” emo-style music throughout the production doesn’t help. Meant to signal “memories”, I guess, it winds up coming off as rather maudlin and a cliche.
At least the photo of Mr. Wingfield, the telephone man who abandoned his family and “fell in love with long distance”, is here rendered as a large and semi-abstract drawing of a man’s face which lights up occasionally. It’s a nice touch. Correro adds a few more directorial flourishes towards the end of the second act, but by then it’s too little, too late.
I don’t know if Correro is aware that this is the fifth Menagerie done here in the past 15 years, all more or less standard issue, but the overall effect is of somebody who’s regaled you with a story dozens of times telling the same tale to you again. Never mind that, in this case, it has been different people who’ve delivered the story, the effect was the same.
All this might have been moot if Correro had offered us a production, even if conventional, that gave us a pitch perfect cast. This one does not.
Judy Lea Steele, a Chicago-based actress making her New Orleans debut, gives an intelligent performance as Amanda Wingfield. There are hints at youthful beauty, and Steele nicely portrays both the self-deluding and self-dramatizing aspects of this woman’s nature.
Her accent wavers, however, and when Steele makes telephone calls to try to sell magazine subscriptions, we don’t get the complete, bone-deep admixture of charm, steeliness, desperation, and an innate patrician-ness that came forth when such local actresses as Gwendolyne Foxworth (who also starred in Summer) or Lyla Hay Owen triumphed in the role.
Julia DeLois’ Laura, the Wingfield daughter with a limp, is spunkier than usual and more self-aware, the family peacemaker. DeLois is a forceful actress and at first I didn’t buy that this Laura is “terribly shy.” Yet when her high school crush, Jim (aka “The Gentleman Caller”), comes to visit, Laura’s fears well up and DeLois displays a primal dread of any sort of social interaction.
Often Laura is played by a mousy looking actress. DeLois is a very attractive women; she positively glows. So later, when Jim asks her “Has anyone ever told you you’re pretty?” this was the first time I didn’t feel like he was simply being nice to her and trying to make her feel good, but actually telling the truth.
DeLois may not be the definitive Laura but she gives a vibrant performance that was intriguing and which I liked even if it felt like she’s visiting from another, less orthodox production.
Matthew Raetz endows Jim with matinee idol looks and evinces this Gentleman Caller’s dogged determination to improve himself. He’s good in this almost foolproof role, certainly much better than his bland Dr. Cukrowicz in TWTC’s Suddenly Last Summer.
And then there’s the Tom of Nathaniel Twarog. This would-be poet is the stand-in for Williams (whose real name was Thomas); to ignore this makes no sense. Yet Twarog gives a wooden performance, never finding the beautiful rhythms of this character’s lines. His Tom seems to be about the same whether sober or drunk. There’s no hint of Tom’s nascent (and Williams’ full-blown) homosexuality. When Tom/Twarog repeatedly says that he’s “going to the movies” as an excuse to get out of the house, even his Mom suspects something’s up as she says “People don’t go to the movies at nearly midnight”. Couldn’t he display a little sexual tension or desire?
In this too languid interpretation, when Tom says “I know I seem dreamy, but inside—well, I’m boiling!” it’s simply hard to believe. The nadir comes when Twarog pronounces “Guernica” in only two syllables (whether intentionally or due to mumbling, I can’t say but he has a tendency to rush his speeches), and thus ruining one of the play’s great lines.
Why this city has been unable to field a decent Tom in the last 15 years puzzles me. You’d think we would have a 20something guy who, in conjunction with a director who fully understands the role, could bring out all of this character’s colors. Maybe some day…
New Orleans is very hospitable to contemporary plays, both world and regional premieres, with local productions at times rivaling those I’ve seen of the same scripts in NYC.
Until we can mount the classics, not only Williams, but Shakespeare and Ibsen and Shaw and Chekhov, however, with imagination and vital new interpretations, New Orleans will, sadly, never be a first class theater town. Let’s hope someday, soon, we will be able to lay a claim to that title as much as we do to being a champion of music and food and art.
Besides the above two shows, there’s only one extended run coming up before Labor Day and that’s Five Women Wearing the Same Dress at Playmakers of Covington (19106 Playmakers Rd.).
Written by Alan (American Beauty) Ball before his Six Feet Under days, it concerns five reluctant, identically clad bridesmaids who, during an ostentatious wedding reception in Knoxville, hide out in an upstairs bedroom, each with her own reason to avoid the proceedings below. It opens on August 23 and runs through September 8.
A variety of other things is going on, though, as well.
On August 17 at Art Klub NOLA (1941 Arts St.), Hannah Krafcik & Emily Jones will perform switch in which intimate and evocative scenarios will unfold as the dancers move in and out of contact with one another, leaving everything up for interpretation. Antics are steeped in curiosity about power dynamics which will be shaped by their close proximity to the audience.
In a very different vein, Hello Muddahs!–The Wacky World of Allan Sherman plays at Monkey Hill Bar (6100 Magazine) on August 25, September 1 and 8. This tribute to the writer and producer of I’ve Got A Secret will feature his songs on topics from the mundane (Green Stamps, coffee machines, bones and skin) to the absurd (Martian women, herrings and hippopotami) as well as his classic one from Camp Granada, Hello Muddah, Hello Fadda.
Becky Allen, Alden Hagardorn, Larry Beron and Phil Melancon are da muddahs who will bring forth the merriment.
There should be lots of merriment at the Saenger Theatre on August 25 when the B-52s come to town to celebrate their 40th Anniversary and take us on a trip back to the ’70s and ’80s with Special Guests OMD (Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark) and Berlin. Front man Fred Schneider advises, “Woo-hoo! Dust off those go-go boots and shine your dancing shoes because the B-52s are coming!”
Also coming is the return of Daniel Nardicio’s Bette, Bathhouse and Beyond on September 1 when singer and comedienne Amber Martin will recreate one of Bette Midler’s iconic 1971 shows at NYC’s infamous gay bathhouse, The Continental Baths, with her “Barry Manilow” pianist Drew Brody.
The audience at the AllWays Lounge will be required to don only towels (provided by the DWORLD NOLA staff) to conjure up the vibe of yesteryear as Johnny Dynell, part-time NOLA resident and longtime DJ, will be playing “Bathhouse Disco” from the era. Expect the unexpected, too, at B, B and B as surprise musical guests will also drop by for an evening of decadent fun.