Howlin' Blues & Dirty Dogs

The spirit of the blues pulsates resoundingly throughout this stirring musical based on the life of Big Mama Thornton. Class-act vocalist Barbara Morrison, who sports her own international credentials, delivers an affecting performance as the feisty, soulful singer who died prematurely of heart and liver disease in 1984 at age 57. Written by the Theatre Perception Consortium (Larry James Robinson, Carla DuPree Clark and Tu’Nook), and aided by the gorgeous work of composer Kevin Alan O’Neal, the script, constructed as a memory piece, skips around with some randomness as it tells of Thornton’s journey from her beginnings as the daughter of a fire-and-brimstone Alabama preacher (Robinson) to acclaimed heights and, later, relative obscurity. The strengths in Morrison’s performance lie not in her effort to recreate the historical woman (which she never really attempts to do) but in her expressionistic portrayal of this talented but troubled figure’s essence, captured in Morrison’s earthy, heartrending vocals. Clark directs a top-notch supporting ensemble that includes, besides Robinson, Lou Beatty as vaudevillian Sammy Green, who first plucked Thornton from a local talent show; Larney ‘Dapper’ Johnson as singer Johnny Otis; and Phillip Bell as Johnny Ace, who shot himself as Thornton watched haplessly. The music, performed by a live four-piece band under O’Neal’s musical direction, is simply topflight. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Starts: July 11. Continues through Aug. 10, 2008