When director Sheldon Epps was a young man trying to make it on Broadway in the 1970s, he came across a quote from Billie Holiday that read, “Blues is to jazz what yeast is to bread.” He took that phrase to heart and, along with dancer-choreographer Gregory Hines, assembled his directorial debut, Blues in the Night, a musical revue exploring the romantic tribulations of three women and one wayward man through classic American songs.
In 1980, the show enjoyed its world premiere off-Broadway at Playhouse 46 before moving to the Rialto Theater two years later starring Leslie Uggams. It ran only 53 performances but still managed to garner a Tony nomination for best musical. A West End revival in 1987 earned two Olivier nominations, including best musical, and subsequent tours attracted names like Della Reese and Eartha Kitt to the marquee. Another revival is scheduled for London next year, but until then Blues in the Night is back in the ever-loving hands of creator Epps through May at the intimate Lovelace Theater at the Wallis in Beverly Hills.
The conceit is simple: Three women occupy separate rooms in a 1938 Chicago hotel, conjured by scenic designer John Iacovelli. A moody parlor stage right is occupied by "The Woman of the World” (Paulette Ivory), a bedroom center stage belongs to “The Lady From the Road” (Yvette Cason), and a practical table and chair stage left are the home of “The Girl With a Date” (Bryce Charles). Each has a similar story to tell through song about “The Man in the Saloon,” a no-good played by Chester Gregory, who employs his biggest Broadway voice on songs like Duke Ellington’s “I’m Just a Lucky So-and-So” and “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues” by Ida Cox.
As expected, the set list is loaded with unforgettable standards like “Willow Weep for Me,” in which newbie Bryce Charles seamlessly blends her delicate soprano voice with an evocative arrangement featuring flute, muted horn and piano. Charles was in the touring company of The Book of Mormon and holds only a few TV credits, which makes her remarkable debut at the Wallis all the more auspicious.
In “Take Me for a Buggy Ride,” a ribald Yvette Cason implores her driver to “giddy-up, Daddy, curve it and swerve it,” stretching the innuendo with “Kitchen Man,” a song rife with allusions to meat, heat, sausages and clams. Her rendition of Bessie Smith’s “Wasted Life Blues” in the second act nearly brings down the house. A veteran of the Los Angeles stage, Cason demonstrated substantial musical range playing Mahalia Jackson in the Pasadena Playhouse production of Shout Sister Shout last year, and brings a similar force and talent to her work here.
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Paulette Ivory renders Benny Goodman’s “Stompin' at the Savoy” in a silky mezzo, slowing down the pace and imbuing it with emotion. She joins the others in ensemble numbers like the titular “Blues in the Night” by Harold Arlen, as well as Bessie Smith’s raunchy “It Makes My Love Come Down,” living the songs rather than singing them. It’s what makes Blues in the Night more than a concert. Epps is savvy enough to recognize these songs are stories and must be inhabited to be properly interpreted, transforming them to living narratives with hearts and souls laid bare.
No doubt it's the result of instincts honed over 40 years in the theater. For half that time Epps served as artistic director of the budget-challenged Pasadena Playhouse, from 1997 to 2017, spawning the original productions of eventual Tony nominees like Sister Act: The Musical, Baby It’s You and Looped. Returning to Blues in the Night, adding dialogue and more fully articulating his characters based on the comments of critics, Epps just might have found some truth in Holiday’s quote, “Blues is to jazz what yeast is to bread,” because he’s been rising ever since the day he first read it.
GO! Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills; through May 27; (310) 716-4000, thewallis.org/blues.