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The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith — People’s Light & Theatre Company

DevilsMusicInside300Standing on a staircase that takes her three rows up on the stage right aisle, Miche Braden, portraying blues diva Bessie Smith, begins, a cappella, the plaintive wail, “I hate to see that evening sun go down” as she launches into a constantly building “St. Louis Blues” that leads Braden, accompanied first by a saxophone and now by a talented trio, to center stage where she adds more power to the classic tune’s refrain, and finally to a place in front of the band where W.C. Handy’s sturdy song is being belted, and the People’s Light & Theatre Company audience watching “The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith” are in heaven thanks to the musical gifts of Braden and her excellent sidemen, Jim Hankins on bass, Aaron Graves on piano, and Anthony Nelson, Jr. on sax.

      Bessie Smith recorded “St. Louis Blues” with jazz’s Saint Louis, Louis Armstrong, on cornet, in 1929. Braden and troupe do great justice to that occasion.

       Music is the attraction in Angelo Parra’s bioplay about Smith. The author’s script is serviceable and has a handful of surprise one liners that Braden doesn’t waste, but it never soars the way the music Bessie made popular does. It doesn’t have a rhythm or a zest. It’s a decent history lesson, typical in style to most bio shows of “The Devil’s Music’s” kind, but it is pedestrian in a way that makes you wish for the next tune, the next chance forBraden and her three-piece band to show you the way the blues should be sung and played.

      Braden is a fine actress, and she makes Bessie as interesting a varied as the singer and songwriter was, especially in her heyday of the 1930s when Bessie topped record charts, appealing to a crossover audience to become a top money maker of her time.

     As Parra notes, and Braden reveals with a jaundiced eye and sour expression, Bessie’s fame took her to theaters all over the country, including the South, where her popularity and notoriety may have gotten her some apologies but no reprieve from the racial practices that permitted Bessie to entertain but not to enter the concert hall via the front door or use a proper toilet.

      This and more of Bessie’s story are interesting, but while Braden is expressive and director Joe Brancato is shrewd about moving her and placing her around the stage, it engages us without affecting or exciting us.

       The music fills that job. Braden is a skilled songstress who can go the distance from a grinding down-and-dirty sound to a mournful moan and a full belt. She has wit, and she has lungs. Each tune gets its appropriate treatment, and a true jazz concert ensues in numbers where Braden takes a break from singing and gives her band room to show their stuff. Hankins, Graves, and Nelson are veteran musicians who know a bit about entertaining and improvising. Each of their riffs is both creative and to the purpose. You can’t wait to hear Nelson do some licks on his saxophone, then Graves steps in with his expressive piano, and Hankins follows with an elegant bass.

      Perhaps “The Devil’s Music” would have gotten more mileage if it was an extended musical performance rather than a play with songs. It’s not that Brancato’s production flags badly when the music ends but that it gets so lively when Braden and company are so skillfully and gleefully demonstrating what Bessie is remembered for most. You want her to go from one song to the next. When she curtails “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,” your mind carries on with the next verse, “When you hear them bells go ting-a-ling” and hopes Braden follows your cue.

      Parra is complete is his narration about Bessie. He mentions she was about to visit her family in Philadelphia  but was killed in a Mississippi car accident before she could turn north. Bessie is buried in Sharon Hill, Pa., about 20 miles from the intimate Steinbright stage where her music and Braden’s way with an audience light up the house.

      Miche Braden has a history at People’s Light. About a quarter century ago, she played there and at city venues as Billie Holiday, who also recorded a great rendition of “St. Louis Blues.” It is good to see her back in the role of a different diva. Braden brings both class and sass to Bessie. She can hit her notes, do her dances, and show pleasure at getting a toot of white lightning from the flask she keeps near her breast. Braden can also convey Bessie’s pain, particularly in the scene in which she speaks about the courts taking Bessie’s adopted daughter from her.

     Jim Hankins scores on the few lines, mostly rejoinders or expressions of agreement, he’s given. He excels on the bass and, like his bandmates, make you happy to listen to him whether he’s playing solo or as part of the trio.

      The set design by Michael Schweikardt captures the tasteful surroundings Bessie preferred. It looks like a lovely and sumptuous late 1920s parlor. People’s Light’s reliable veteran and master of all sets, James F. Pyne, Jr. cleverly adapts Schweikardt’s plans in a way that works uniquely in the Steinbright space. He angles the set so that stage left, where the trio sits flush against a flat, becomes a bandstand of sorts. When Braden sings there, even though she is actually in profile, Pyne’s handiwork makes it look as if she’s facing the audience and fronting the band as she would in concert.

      “The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith” runs through Sunday, November 24 at the Steinbright stage of People’s Light & Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Road (Route 401 just south of Route 30), in Malvern, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, and 7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 24. Tickets range from $46 to $26 and can be ordered by calling 610-644-3500 or going online to www.peopleslight.org.

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