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Jane Enkin

Jane Enkin's Theatre Review: The Devil's Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith-on Until Dec 20

by Jane Enkin, December 6, 2014

The Devil's Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith
Tom Hendry Warehouse Theatre
December 2 – December 20, 2014

The Devil's Music is fine entertainment. The delight starts with the intricately detailed set, and continues as the top notch, onstage jazz trio begins to play. By the time Miche Braden enters through the audience we are primed to love Bessie Smith, and she has no need to charm us to have us in thrall. She sings a hard-edged, deeply painful blues number without a smile or nod to her listeners, totally caught up in the song until she raises her arms at the end, ready to accept our applause.

We have also been primed, both by the thoughtful notes in the program and an introductory voice-over, to be aware that the play is set on the last night of her life. Our response to her reminiscences, hopes and emotions are coloured by this knowledge. For us, this is a look back at history – the Empress of the Blues died in a car accident in 1937. Playwright Angelo Parra has Smith experience frightening premonitions. No words are spoken; instead, Braden's mood changes, her energy drops, she goes silent as shudders wrack her body. Her good friend Pickles, the band's bass player, shows his concern, and each time, she finds a way to shrug off the eery feeling.

When Bessie Smith is reacting in real time -- teasing the band and the audience, feeling abrupt mood swings, or briefly recreating a memory rather than describing it -- the script is vivid. That's when Miche Braden's acting shines as well. She sips away, getting at first tipsy, then enthusiastically sloshed, relaxed and loose, and then by the end of the show really drunk, both mournful and perhaps unrealistically hopeful.

Unfortunately, too much of The Devil's Music's script is a didactic biography disguised as a storytelling monologue. The result is clunky and awkward. I was left wondering if there could have been a better way to communicate Smith's life story, if indeed a biography was essential to the impact of the play. My companion at the theatre was left also with many questions about Smith's story itself. We hear about her quick rise to success in music, but we don't learn why it happened. Surely it took more than exceptional musical talent for one particular “big black girl” to have the recognition and financial success that Smith achieved. How did she take on the racism, sexism and pure competition that she faced? How did she learn blues music and how did she shape the art form?

We do learn about Bessie Smith's oversized appetite for attention, personal drama, alcohol and marijuana, and sex with men and women. These all play into her story, her stage persona, and her repertoire.

And it's with the stage persona and repertoire this show really satisfies. After that first dark song, Braden as Bessie Smith does choose to charm the audience, with her smile, her supple voice and her stage presence. The songs, all from Bessie Smith's recordings of the twenties and thirties, alternate between sadness, anger and lust. These songs have remained classics, and they are musically and lyrically wonderful. I love the classic twelve-bar blues, and the many blues-inspired Tin Pan Alley songs. Braden is indeed an oversized woman, with great dance moves and an unashamed, overstated sexual presence. The song lyrics are merely suggestive – “I need a little sugar in my bowl” -- but Braden's moves are raunchy to the point of being explicit, exaggerated by her clinging, silky dress and her interaction with the band. I'm curious to know whether there is anything historically accurate here, but it's a lot of fun to watch.

Braden does not imitate Smith's recordings. Her voice is smooth and nuanced, with a significant gospel influence that I don't hear in Smith's originals. In Bessie Smith's singing, there is an incredible emotional wallop that I believe comes from the folk origins of the blues in her shouting, straightforward, intense style. However, Braden does share Smith's sheer power and volume. The opening night audience showered her with appreciation. There are some challenging aspects to how the songs are interpreted, but perhaps staying away from the most expected takes is a good idea. “Saint Louis Blues,” which Smith sang as a tragic song in a riveting 1929 short film, is a fun number in this play. “I Ain't Got Nobody,” which is sometimes an uptempo, light song, is a deeply pain-filled, beautifully acted number in this show.

The band also does not imitate the original recordings, with a rich, interesting sound and lots of free reign for solos from Anthony E. Nelson, Jr. on saxophone and clarinet, Aaron Graves on piano and Jim Hankins on bass. Nelson and Hankins have some fine acting moments in the play as well. Miche Braden is the play's musical director and arranger. The terrific lighting design by Todd Wren sometimes highlights the wonderful textures of James J. Fenton's realistic set and sometimes makes it disappear, with a spotlight isolating a character to transport us to a significant moment in the tumultuous life and blues of Bessie Smith.


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