It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues, a 1994 revue that made it to Broadway five years later, promises to tell the rich story of the blues through song. The show explores the form’s African roots, its permutations in the Mississippi Delta and Chicago, the way the blues and gospel music intertwine in church.
But in M Ensemble’s new production of Blues at the Lightbox at Goldman Warehouse, the history of the form comes in a distant second -- way distant -- to simply hearing that music delivered by six strong singers and a driving, soulful five-piece band.
Directed by Jerry Maple Jr., the show begins on a bare stage, with Warren Howard and Nathan Smith portraying African drummers who propel chants, songs and spirited dancing, as the suffering of slavery is evoked. Blues moves on to a club, then to church, then back to the club as a changing portrait gallery of blues greats -- Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Etta James, Muddy Waters, B.B. King and more -- is projected in the background.
Each of the six actor-singers gets a showcase number (or two or three), and all are strong soloists whose voices also blend into a mighty ensemble. Christina Alexander brings a sweet and sultry flavor to My Man Rocks Me and Now I’m Gonna Be Bad. Paulette Dozier, who has done an entire show playing Billie Holiday ( Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill), delivers a haunting rendition of the singer’s Strange Fruit and wrings every ounce of double entendre out of Someone Else Is Steppin’ In. I Put a Spell on You and St. Louis Blues become Valerie Woods’ moments in the spotlight.
Don Seward raises temperatures in a duet with Alexander on Fever, and he’s a good-time guy as he leads the cast in Let the Good Times Roll. John Williams proclaims himself a Blues Man, then later turns fiery on The Thrill Is Gone. Reginald Everson, decked out n a zoot suit, promises his version of sexy good times as he sings I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man.
Though the performers do plenty of their own dancing, dancer-choreographer Keith Wilson and dancer Susan Josue thread modern dance movement throughout the show. The two are talented but at times seem stylistically at odds with a piece built around the blues.
In terms of structure and design, M Ensemble’s production has its flaws. Four songs from the second act are shoved into the first ( Strange Fruit seems particularly oddly placed). Set designer Gregory Contreras and scenic designer Dung Truong make the club set work in the black-box space, but the simplistic church backdrop looks cheap. Costumer Samuel Linn Davis coordinates looks for the different environments, but some of the clothes are stylistically dated (not in a way that serves the show) or strange (Alexander’s yellow “shawl,” which is actually a piece of unraveling fabric, comes to mind).
Still, if you take the show’s title as advice and focus on the songs, It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues supplies the come-ons, the heartbreak and the cathartic uplift of a special kind of music.