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Paulanne Simmons

The "Devils Music" Is 'Devine'

"The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith"
Directed by Joe Brancato
Presented by Penguin Rep Theatre
At St. Luke’s Theatre
308 West 46th Street
Opening June 22, 2011
Tues. at 7pm, Wed. at 8pm,
Tickets: $36.50-$69.50 (212) 239-6200
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons June 14, 2011

Miche Braden as Bessie Smith. Photo by John Quilty.

Born in to a poor family in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Bessie Smith grew up to become the most popular blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s. She made over 160 recordings and one film, and performed with some of the greatest musicians of the era, including Coleman Hawkins, Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson. But Smith’s private life sometimes overshadowed her professional life.

“The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith” by Angelo Parra places Bessie in a “buffet flat,” one of many private establishments around the country where blacks gathered after hours for food, drink, gambling, lodging and entertainment. The year is 1937, not long before Smith died in a car crash while traveling with her lover, Richard Morgan, from Memphis, Tennessee to Clarksdale, Mississippi.

Bessie, a hard-drinking, sometimes mean-tempered, but generous woman, can sense that the end is near. She is strong-willed but physically weak. She has known both triumph and tragedy.

Miche Braden plays the legendary “Empress of the Blues” with pitch perfect understanding of what made this lusty, loving and ultimately tragic woman tick. We learn of Smith’s loves (both male and female), her adopted son (who was taken from her after her divorce) and the vicissitudes of a career that straddles blues and swing.

Miche Braden as Bessie Smith with Keith Loftis on the saxophone and Jim Hankins playing bass (partially seen). Photo by John Quilty. From L-R: Jim Hankins (bass), Miche Braden (Bessie Smith), Aaron Graves (piano), and Keith Loftis (saxophone). Photo by John Quilty. Miche Braden as Bessie Smith and Keith Loftis on the saxophone. Photo by John Quilty.

Bessie banters with both the audience and the band, bassist Jim Hankins; pianist Aaron Graves; and on the saxophone, Keith Loftis and Anthony E. Nelson, Jr. She’s a big woman, both physically and emotionally, and she is determined to get what she wants, despite personal and professional setbacks.

And, of course, Bessie does what she knows best, belt out the blues. Braden sings many of the songs Smith made famous: ‘I Ain’t Got Nobody,” “St. Louis Blues,” Baby Doll,” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down & Out.” And she does it with great style and feeling.

Jim Hankins as the bass player and Miche Braden as Bessie Smith. Photo by John Quilty.

“The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith” is based on a concept by Joe Brancato, who also is responsible for the musical staging and direction. With the aid of Jeff Croiter’s lighting design and Michael Schweikardt’s set, Brancato brings the audience back to those days when African-American blues was first entering into the mainstream culture.

The smallish stage at St. Luke’s Theatre works perfectly to convey the intimacy of the venue where Bessie is singing, plus the way the legendary blues singer dominated the stage. It also becomes symbolic of the limited options Bessie had as a black woman in the segregated South.

Yet Bessie Smith was a woman who could not be contained by limiting factors such as race or birth. She straddled her world as she strode across the stage. It’s a pleasure to see Braden bring her to life.

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