- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 22, 2001

"Blues in the Night," a solid two hours of music at Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater, combines a little bit of plot with a whole lot of singing and gets a fantastic mix.

This is not a staid, studied revival show, but an eruption of riotous music and exuberance as it draws on blues songs from the interwar period of the last century.

The production centers on a run-down hotel in 1930s Chicago, where three women commiserate about their difficulties in life men, work, men, money, and men. Although they find themselves either down on their luck or starting out with nothing, they are optimistic that their fortunes will turn around at any minute.

The costumes, designed by Susan E. Mickey, are a gaudy array of pinks and oranges, gloriously flamboyant and trashy. Vicki R. Davis' set design is a similar hodgepodge of clutter, with the women's rooms decorated according to their characters. The room of the youngest has prim, cute decorations and that of the oldest contains a large wardrobe filled with costumes from her waning career. Two large green ribbons hanging over the set probably meant to resemble the flow of music look more like two strands of DNA.

But people will come to listen, not to see, and the sounds they will hear are deft and compelling in this Sheldon Epps creation directed by Kenny Leon.

As "The Lady of the Road," Bernardine Mitchell gets the show started with two strong performances in "Four Walls" and "New Orleans Hop Scop Blues." Miss Mitchell, who has a huge instrument for a voice and a small mountain of flesh for a body, uses her singing and her girth to great effect. She turns a novelty song such as "Take Me for a Buggy Ride" into a comedic gem. When Miss Mitchell sings about eating a doughnut in "Kitchen Man," you really believe she is eating a doughnut. (A warning to those thinking about bringing younger spectators: The play contains quite a bit of bawdy humor nothing obscene, but a good dose of innuendo, invariably played for laughs.)

Cynthia Hardy, "The Girl With a Date," who checks into the hotel at the beginning, plays her part with a winsome, youthful vulnerability. "The Woman of the World," Chandra Currelley, stands out among the women, and her supple rendition of "Stompin' at the Savoy" is nothing short of marvelous.

As a group, the trio are vibrant and navigate intervals and volume shifts with great precision. The three songs that they sing together are some of the highlights of the show, especially the first act's in-your-face closer "Take It Right Back."

The only weak note is Charles E. Bullock's "The Man in the Saloon." Mr. Bullock, though adequate in his singing and occasionally amusing, lacks a voice in the same league as the others. His character periodically saunters on and off the stage, sings a few observations and leaves. The women would be better off speaking for themselves, and have no need for a commentator.

Any review of "Blues" would be incomplete without a nod toward the band, though members do their best to stay in the background. Led by William Knowles, they support the singers with inspired tunesmanship and grace.

In different places, the production notes refer to "Blues in the Night" as a musical, which it isn't. If you expect zany plot twists and loads of dancing, you won't find them. Other times the notes call it a revue, which it is a straightforward presentation of a vital and important strain of American culture.

Whatever you want to call it, if you have even the slightest bit of affection for this genre, you'll enjoy getting these "Blues."

***

WHAT: "Blues in the Night"

WHERE: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. tomorrow and Dec. 30; and noon Jan. 8, 9 and 16.

TICKETS: $37 to $54

PHONE: 202/488-3300

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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