Tuesday, May 25, 2011
Review: Thrilling performances make
Center REP's 'Blues in the Night' a
show to remember

By Pat Craig

Elvis Presley sang about a "Heartbreak Hotel," but the notion of such a place seemed vague until "Blues in the Night" came along and gave us four people trying to lose the blues by singing and drinking.

In less tender times, the scene would be softened in an ever-shifting blue cloud of cigarette smoke. Yes, the singers do light up now and then, but of course there is no real smoke from the magical stage cigarettes.

But there are songs -- classic American tunes about broken-but-still-beating hearts sung with towering emotion and intensity by a cast members who represent several stages of the blues.

First, there is the Woman of the World (Debbie de Coudreaux), whose memories are lined in mink and Marabou chocolate. There's the Girl With a Date (Amanda Folena), who's sad but giddy because her good times are ahead. Lurking around the joint is the Man in the Saloon (C.R. Lewis), who is looking for love in all the right places, but isn't having much luck.

Finally, we have the Lady From the Road (Armelia McQueen), a veteran of the chitlin' circuit and the other low-pay black vaudeville scenes. She peruses her scrapbooks and dreams of the phone ringing with promises of more tours and more stage-door Johnnies who will bathe her in furs and flowers and bring her the sort of love that provides the same warmth as a spotlight.

These back stories are pretty much unspoken in this delightful production, which features what could be the best collection of voices that has enchanted the stage in Walnut Creek's Lesher Center. It is as close to perfect as any theater production can be, and makes you wonder why the show didn't have long and legendary runs in New York, London and San Francisco.

Director Robert Barry Fleming has given the piece the romantic wonder of a beautiful dream. It's played on an open set that represents the cheap hotel where the heartbroken are living, and is decorated with telling props delivered by prop master Joshua Lipps.

And the songs, of course, ranging from "Stompin' at the Savoy" and "Lush Life" to "Wild Women Don't Have the Blues" and "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out," plus wonderfully sly novelty tunes like "Kitchen Man" and "Rough and Ready Man," songs that add regality to raunch. The tunes are given a musical rocket ride by a stellar five-piece combo led by Brandon Adams.

But mainly, there's the cast, which includes a Broadway and film star who was in the original "Ain't Misbehavin' " (McQueen, a compact bundle of red-hot talent); a woman who starred for eight years at the Moulin Rouge in Paris (de Coudreaux, a tall, stunning woman with a sultry delivery who makes the room her own whenever she steps to center stage); a young star on the rise who is carving out a promising career (Folena, who has a stage presence that won't quit); and a young man whose talent is making a lot of people take notice (Lewis, whose delightfully expressive voice is reminiscent of legends like Nat "King" Cole, and has a way of slithering about the stage that makes him seem to appear and disappear at will).

Blues in the Night is a fun-filled and sentimental delight!
By Charles Jarrett
Posted 5/27/2011

The Center Repertory Company in Walnut Creek has just opened “Blues in the Night”, a delightful evening of heart, soul and blues music strikingly reminiscent of the classic female blues era (1920’s -1940’s) that brought us such great recording artists as Ma Rainey, Ida Mae Cox, Bessie Smith, Helen Humes and Billy Holiday. Blues in the Night first opened in the Rialto Theater on Broadway in 1982 and included in their cast of three very talented female performers, a young lady by the name of Leslie Uggams. The show was even nominated for the Tony best musical of the year award. After show ran very successfully on Broadway, it was moved first across “the pond” to a West End production house known as the Donmar Warehouse for a couple of months in 1987, until it moved to the more prestigious Piccadilly Theater in Westminster, England, later that year. It continued there until mid 1988 and was nominated for two Laurence Olivier Awards.

Sheldon Epps, the man who conceived this musical journey, has also created and orchestrated other musicals, bringing back the wonderful heart-felt and soulful sounds of this time period with productions such as the Count Basie musical, “Play On” which is remarkably similar to this production, in that it centers on the lives of three women and their laments of love gone wrong stories. In this production, we meet three women, each residing in their own apartments (the stage is divided into three minor sets, each one representing a room in their apertment), in which they each sing their songs reminding us of their romantic encounters gone wrong, of wasted and reckless lives, of love lost and dreams evaporated. First we meet a “Woman of the World” (played by Debbie de Coudreaux), who for all her wealth and opportunities, only found love intermittently. Her neighbor, a “Lady from the Road” (Armelia McQueen), is a traveler a bit further down the road of life than her counterparts. A third, a younger lady, “The Girl with a Date” (Amanda Folena), waits in vain for the phone to ring, expressing her heartache in touching musical memoirs, such as “Reckless Blues”, a song previously made famous by Bessie Smith. Joining the ladies on the stage is one male singer representative of all the ego-centered, underemployed and masculine disappointments they have had to deal with in their lives, “The Man in the Saloon”, played well C.R. Lewis. All actors in this production are members of Actors’ Equity Association, professionals with long resumes of highly successful performing endeavors.

All performers deliver outstanding performances for an evening that is over far too soon, that leaves you wanting more! Spinning song after song, each character shares little vignettes of their lives in various stages of joy and lament. We are treated to great songs such as Benny Goodman and Chick Webb’s famous “Stompin at the Savoy”, Duke Ellington’s “I’m Just a Lucky-So-and-So”, a Billie Holiday’s like rendition of Jimmy Davis’s poignant “Lover Man” and even an excellent Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s “Blues in the Night”, from which this musical takes its name. Sometimes they sing duets and sometimes they all join together in song!

The great bands of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, James P. Johnson, Joe Smith, Charlie Green, Jack Teagarden and Bennie Goodman helped us shake away the blues of the great depression and ushered in the swing era and gave us something to sang and dance to. This musical is brought to life with a terrific band consisting of Brandon Adams on piano, Alan Close playing tenor sax and clarinet, alongside Mark Wright on trumpet, Joe McKinley on acoustic base and Mark Lee on drums. Even though it is predominantly a show about the power and poignancy of the “Blues” in our musical culture, it is upbeat with fun music such as Armelia McQueen’s delightfully funny “Take Me For a Buggy Ride”, Debbie De Coudreaux’s terrific fan dance interpretation of “Rough and Ready Man” and Amanda Folena’s heartfelt “Reckless Blues”. These entertainers are just that, terrific entertainers that will make you want to cry, laugh, clap your hands and dance before the evening’s over. This finely honed show is directed and choreographed by Robert Barry Fleming with the music directed by Brandon Adams.

"Blues in the Night" continues Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m., Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30 pm through Saturday, June 25th, in the Margaret Lesher Theater in the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts at 1601 Civic Drive in Walnut Creek. Tickets may be purchased at the LCA (Lesher Center for the Arts) box office or at the Barnes and Noble ticket desk in their store in downtown Walnut Creek and even in the Downtown Walnut Creek Library! If you wish to purchase over the internet, you can visit their online ticket link at CenterRep.org or call 943-SHOW (7469) for more information and reservations.

This music brings back a lot of memories for me as both of my parents were professional entertainers in Las Vegas, Nevada, back when it was not much more than a watering hole and stop over for the Union Railroad, with a few little casinos on Main Street, catering to and entertaining the travelers passing through. My mother’s singing career began and ended with bands in nightclubs in Las Vegas before I was born, so I don’t remember actually seeing her perform with Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey (so I was told) on the Vegas strip. I have been told by friends of hers that she had a great local following before she retired (at age 24) to help my father in his struggling new insurance and real estate business in Las Vegas. I do vaguely remember my father performing and singing in the old Cinnabar Club and the old Eldorado Hotel dining room lounge on Main Street in Las Vegas in the late 40’s. My father, Rex Jarrett Sr., used his performing career as a springboard to launch his insurance business by selling auto and fire insurance to the barmaids, bartenders and patrons of the various clubs in which he worked. He played guitar and trombone with local bands and when he was in-between performance shifts (while waiting in the bar for other bands to finish up their gigs), he would often ask his friends, acquaintances and fellow performers if he could interest them in his insurance products.

When I went to work for my father’s insurance office in the early 60’s, while I was working my way through college, he showed me an original “auto insurance application”, one of his first, that he kept just as a reminder as to how simple his insurance business start was. It consisted of nothing more than a customer’s name, address, age, phone number and the description of her car, scribbled down on a casino cocktail napkin. If you did that today, submitted a cocktail napkin to an insurance company with the applicant’s information on it, the company not only would not accept it, they would probably cancel your agency agreement out of concern as to what kind of business you were trying to drum up! Prospecting bar patrons for insurance clientele??? My father’s insurance agency went on to become, at one time (in the 50’s and 60’s), the 2nd largest insurance brokerage firm in the City of Las Vegas, as his office wrote most of the hotel business insurance in existence at that time in Las Vegas. Yes, those were very interesting days - - for all of us!

Monday, May 31, 2011
Curtain Calls: Center REP stages up-tempo
'Blues in the Night'

By Sally Hogarty

Center REP's "Blues in the Night" has it all -- great blues tunes from the likes of Bessie Smith and Johnny Mercer, four knockout singers, a sensational five-piece combo and even a fan dance!

Set in a rundown Chicago hotel in 1938, the dialogue-free musical follows three women at different stages of life as they pine for their man and drink to forget.

There is the Woman of the World (the sultry Debbie DeCoudreaux), the Girl with the Date (an exuberant Amanda Folena), and the Lady from the Road (the effervescent Armelia McQueen). The Man in the Saloon (an oh-so-smooth C.R. Lewis) represents various men as he saunters in and out of the women's lives.

Director/choreographer Robert Barry Fleming's sensual production of Sheldon Epps' journey through the blues leaves you anything but down and out. This show is full of torch songs and up-tempo pieces that make it impossible to sit still.

Add Kurt Landisman's dramatic lighting, Eric Sinkkonen's suggestive set, Brandon Adams' tight musical ensemble, and the stellar harmonies of the cast, and you have a night to remember.

"Blues in the Night" continues through June 25, at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek. Call 925-943-SHOW (925-943-7469) or go to www.lesherartscenter.org.

My Cultural Landscape
By George Heymont
Thursday, May 26, 2011
Wallowing in Nostalgia

Currently onstage at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek, Blues in the Night is a musical revue conceived by Sheldon Epps that offers a wealth of songs written by such legends as Harold Arlen, Vernon Duke, Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Billy Strayhorn, Ida Cox, and Ann Ronell.

The final presentation in Center Rep's 2010-2011 season, Blues in the Night is also one of the most musically satisfying performances I've attended in a long time. With a cast headed by Armelia McQueen, Debbie de Coudreaux, Amanda Folena, and C.R. Lewis, the action takes place in the late 1930s in three rooms of a seedy Chicago hotel whose occupants can't stop thinking about the men who done 'em (as well as the men who done 'em wrong).

Lesser known numbers like "Take It Right Back," "Dirty No-Gooder's Blues,""Four Walls (and One Dirty Window) Blues," and Alberta Hunter's "Rough And Ready Man" easily hold their own against old standards like "Nobody Wants You When You're Down And Out," "I Gotta Right To Sing The Blues," "Am I Blue?" and "Wild Women Don't Have The Blues." With the same kind of ghostly nostalgia that inhabits Midnight in Paris, Armelia McQueen seems to be channeling the great Sophie Tucker as she belts out Andy Razaf and Wesley Wilson's bawdy "Kitchen Man" and Leola and Wesley Wilson's "Take Me For A Buggy Ride."

The words to many blues songs are rife with double meaning, best exemplified in the lyrics for the lusty "Kitchen Man" (which was recorded by Bessie Smith in 1929):

"Madam Bucks
Was quite de-luxe;
Servants by the score,
Footmen at each door,
Butlers and maids galore!

But one day Dan,
Her kitchen man,
Gave in his notice, he's through!
She cried, "Oh Dan, don't go,
It'll grieve me if you do."

I love his cabbage, crave his hash,
Daffy about his succertash,
I can't do without my kitchen man!

Wild about his turnip tops,
Like the way he warms my chops,
I can't do without my kitchen man!

Anybody else could leave
And I would only laugh,
But he means that much to me,
And you ain't heard the half!

Oh, his jelly roll is so nice and hot,
Never fails to test the spot,
I can't do without my kitchen man!

His frankfurters are oh, so sweet,
How I like his sausage meat,
I can't do without my kitchen man!

Oh, how that boy can open clams,
No one else can catch my hams,
I can't do without my kitchen man!

When I eat his doughnut,
All I leave is the hole!
Any time he wants to,
Why, he can use my sugar bowl!

Oh, his baloney's worth a try,
Never fails to satisfy,
I can't do without my kitchen man!"

They may not write songs like that anymore, but you can catch an evening chock full of them up in Walnut Creek. Winningly directed and choreographed by Robert Barry Fleming, performances of Blues in the Night continue through June 25th at the Lesher Center for the Arts (you can order tickets here). Thanks in no small part to Nathan Lively's sound design, the orchestrations and vocal arrangements used in this production enhance the songs without ever overwhelming them. With music direction by Brandon Adams, Center REP's production of Blues in the Night is a rare treat!