Arizona Theatre Company usually stages one musical each season, which gives a lift to its programming, a stretch to its production crew, a weight to its budget and a rush on its box office. Over the past few years, the company has been offering fewer traditional musicals like My Fair Lady, with detailed storylines, original scores and careful integration of singing and acting. More and more, ATC indulges in revues and grab-bags of already-existing songs, with very little pretense of holding them together with a story.
With It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues, ATC has abandoned storytelling altogether (except insofar as each song is its own story). The show more or less traces the 200-year development of the blues, those sometimes mournful, sometimes wickedly funny 12-bar structures with simple three-chord progressions that arose from slave songs and became the driving force behind most American popular music in the last half of the 20th century.
It's a huge subject, and this show chooses to focus mainly on Louisiana and Chicago blues, with nods along the way to country blues, Texas blues, electric blues and more. But it's not a coherent, narrated presentation; you have to follow the evolution and branching of styles instinctively. How could this show's 1999 Broadway production have been nominated for a Tony for best book? There is no book, just music and lyrics with a tiny bit of banter.
In a way, it's refreshing not to have some contrived narration or half-hearted skits linking the songs. Yet what, exactly, makes this show appropriate for an actors' theater? On a simple set, four principal singers sit in a row in front of three principal instrumentalist-backup singers, with a bigger band even farther in the background for the Chicago blues material. When it's time for a solo, the singer steps up to the footlights and delivers a song, then goes back to his or her seat.
Sure, they've splashed some fancy lighting on the stage, and they've projected evocative historical photos overhead, but this is no more "theatrical" than what you get from a big-name rock or country band on tour. Basically, It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues ain't nothin' but a concert.
But it's a leg-shaking, soul-stirring concert, if you're at all receptive to this kind of music. Or perhaps that should be "these kinds" of music; there's tremendous variety here, from the opening African and slave songs (an entire show, and a traditionally dramatic one, could be drawn from this material alone), through the acoustic Delta-rooted style standard in the South until Muddy Waters took the blues electric in Chicago in the 1940s--plus everything that's happened in between and since. It's easy to forget how closely linked to the blues are songs like "Walking After Midnight" and "Fever" until you hear them in this context.
The ensemble puts four main vocalists up front, and they're all top-notch in their different ways. The irrepressible Gregory Porter is ready for anything, smooth or raw, sincere or salacious. Eloise Laws projects unflagging strength and dignity. Jewel Tompkins can belt out anything without breaking a sweat, but reins herself in for a chilling delivery of the anti-lynching song "Strange Fruit." Tamra Hayden is the most stylistically versatile and psychologically detailed singer, capable of delivering everything from the sorrowful Appalachian "My Home's Across the Blue Ridge Mountains" to a rendition of "Fever" that outsizzles Peggy Lee.
If you plug your ears and just look at Hayden and Tompkins in action, you'll see how director and co-writer Randal Myler has given up on getting much dramatic, theatrical detail from most of the singers. You can sense what he could achieve if he'd tried harder. Hayden throws her entire body into her performance, while Tompkins is inexpressive from the neck down. In the early slave numbers, for example, all the performers employ the same repeated gestures, but Hayden's hands encounter a friction and opposing force that echoes the music's anguish. Others seem merely to be smoothing their skirts and trousers. Later, Tompkins can't even be bothered to clap on downbeats with any enthusiasm or precision.
The three men in the back, besides playing guitar and whatever other acoustic instruments become necessary, get vocal solos of their own. The show-stopper in this trio is Chic Streetman, whose rendition of "Crawlin' King Snake" is enough to have him brought up on morals charges, which means he gets the song exactly right.
This is fine entertainment, but it's in the wrong venue and series. If ATC really wants to get into the concert-production biz, it ought to do a show like this, with a smaller group of performers, every night in the restaurant space in the Temple of Music and Art. We could use more first-rate cabaret entertainment in this town; the restaurant could benefit from a draw independent of ATC's mainstage schedule; and the Temple's Alice Holsclaw Theatre could be reserved for actual theater.