The Grandel Theatre may have never seen so many sequins. Sandra Reaves-Phillips in The Late Great Ladies of Blues and Jazz moves nimbly through eight costumes as she portrays six legendary blues singers. Through monologues, Reaves-Phillips provides background information (easily the most pleasant history lessons I've ever had), but the heart and soul of the show is in the music.
The empty nightclub stage, complete with maroon swag curtains, a teardrop chandelier and lush greenery, created a sense of anticipation. It was hard to be patient during the long welcome speech thanking corporate sponsors and giving a sales pitch for season tickets and CDs in the lobby. Another pause as the musicians enter (couldn't they come on during the welcome speech?), and then the obligatory "please turn off your cell phones" voice-over. But my impatience melted as the band hit the opening notes of "Take the A-Train" and Reaves-Phillips took the stage in a skintight gold lamé dress so bright I nearly needed sunglasses. Singing "Take Me as I Am," she set the tone for the night, showing us women who have been considered (in Bessie Smith's words) "too big, too colored, too loud, too proud."
Unfortunately, it was the musicians who were too loud on the first two numbers. But when Reaves-Phillips re-entered as Ma Rainey, "Mother of the Blues," and the band donned '20s-style bowler hats, they moderated their volume. In a black beaded gown with a tall feathery headdress, Reaves-Phillips unearthed a gutsy Rainey, who "sang the blues 'cause she lived 'em."
Bessie Smith, "Empress of the Blues," took the stage next (if you're keeping track, this time the sequins were red, and she carried a white feather boa). She relished a pleasantly raunchy version of "Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl" ("need a little hotdog in my roll") and moved on to a genuinely felt "Nobody Knows You (When You're Down and Out)." Transforming into Ethel Waters (pink, yellow and purple sequins), Reaves-Phillips moved from demanding diva to a stunning "Am I Blue," accompanied by bass player Kim LaCoste, through a religious conversion and seamlessly into "His Eye Is on the Sparrow."
The largest portion of the evening was devoted to Billie Holiday, "Lady Day." Reaves-Phillips reverently slipped a white gardenia in place over her left ear and launched into an authentic-sounding "Good Morning Heartache." As Holiday, she let small gestures tell the story -- a quick wipe of the nose revealing a growing cocaine addiction. She gave us two Billies -- the one high and overpowered by heartache and then (with another zap-quick costume change), Billie in her comeback performance, amazing us with "God Bless the Child."
In a blond wig and rhinestone glasses as Dinah Washington, she bonded with the audience, begging "Please Send Me Someone to Love." Her final costume change (pure flowing white) brought us gospel queen Mahalia Jackson. Just when it seemed the show might be getting too preachy, the words stopped and from the very soles of her soul she brought forth an achingly beautiful "Precious Lord" and "Amazing Grace." The faith and Gospel presented are genuine -- if that's not your thing, don't say I didn't warn you!
This opening production of the Black Rep's season is more pure concert than traditional theatre. Reaves-Phillips gives us character, costumes and charisma in an interactive format, leaving plot and dialogue aside. She doesn't play roles so much as reference the originals, creating dramatic tension by carrying multiple identities. If she was truly impersonating Ethel Waters, I could criticize her inconsistent accent; because she's sampling Waters (and the other women), an acting critique is irrelevant.
Whether this is concert or theater, cabaret or play -- there's no question that Sandra Reaves-Phillips is a phenomenal performer, as are each of the musicians: Neal Tate, LaCoste, Keyon Harrold, Stan Coleman and Emmanuel Harrold. In the end, it's about enjoying the legacy of these gutsy, glitzy women, and Reaves-Phillips can certainly add her name to that list.