Theater Review: Northlight Goes For Zest in Sultry ‘Low Down Dirty Blues’

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CHICAGO – “I been in the blues all my life. I’m still delivering ‘cause I got a long memory,” Muddy Waters once recounted to a reporter. Although the narrative catharsis once offered by the likes of Charlie Patton and Bo Carter may have given way to the stylized pulse of R&B, its placement in America’s ever-ripening counterculture is worth the recollection. And luckily for Chicago, it is a stronghold that is now making a timely wake-up call on the Northlight stage, with enough sweat and sizzle to heat a bass line. Comedy/Tragedy Rating: 4.0/5.0
Play Rating: 4.0/5.0

Created and helmed by Randal Myler and Dan Wheetman, the duo of “It Ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues” fame, “Low Down Dirty Blues” is the Skokie theatre’s most recent offering in lively songbook revues. Culled from a legion of stalwarts including Waters, Ma Rainey, Pearl Bailey and Sophie Tucker, the buoyant production achieves a dynamic often sorely omitted in its sibling ilk. Infused and agile in its eclectic tablature, “Low Down Dirty Blues” manages to anchor its Delta melodies in an intermittent historical context, a framework that showcases its ditties as equal parts escapist entertainment and torch-song protest.

Felicia P. Fields and Sandra Reaves-Phillips star in “Low Down Dirty Blues” at Northlight Theatre” target=
Felicia P. Fields and Sandra Reaves-Phillips star in “Low Down Dirty Blues” at Northlight Theatre.
Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

Loosely set in a South Side Chicago jazz joint, the 80-minute revue follows four crooners who let loose their musical chops after a contemporary audience has vacated the lounge. Bemoaning the lack of historical consciousness that often plagues those wet behind the ears (including a request for the Jimmy Buffet beach blur, “Margaritaville”), the artists take their eidolons to the mic, pumping out such hits as “If I Can’t Sell It, I’ll Keep Sittin’ On It” and “Change is Gonna Come” in their low-lit haven.

The after-hours songsters are played by the remarkably stalwart Chicago actors Felicia P. Fields, Mississippi Charles Bevel, Gregory Porter and Sandra Reaves-Phillips. The cast deftly navigates the twists and turns of the blues repertoire, tongue-and-cheeking their way through the double entendres of “Don’t Jump My Pony” (delivered by a rousing and chesty Reaves-Phillips) to the somber pleas in “Grapes of Wrath”, strummed on acoustic guitar by the versatile Bevel.

The cast of “Low Down Dirty Blues” at Northlight Theatre” target=
The cast of “Low Down Dirty Blues” at Northlight Theatre.
Photo credit: Michael Brosilow

Broadway and Chicago chanteuse Fields (recently seen in her Tony-nominated turn in “The Color Purple”), lends her billowy pipes to the warm pair of “I’d Rather Go Blind” and “Good Morning Heartache.” Fields tenders a master stroke in “Low Down Dirty Blues”, waggish yet wholly seasoned in her ability to excavate the sorrowful rebellion that earthed these tunes.

It is this quiet cultural insurgence, after all, upon which the blues has always hanged its hinges. Historically disregarded and at times demonized for its use of stigmatized style (‘work songs’) and subject matter, the genre was a community pillar in its ability to parlay messages of sexual liberation, workplace strife, and racial injustice.

It is when Myler and Wheetman’s production indulge this conceit that the production truly gets down and dirty (although those giddy jelly roll metaphors certainly have their place). The ensemble recites anecdotes once told by their long-gone muses, a round of soundbites that vet both the perils and product of the form. But these narrations are thinly connected and too infrequent in appearance, resulting in an avoidably timid structure that captures the spirit, but not quite the grit, of its zeitgeist.

StarMore theater reviews from critic Alissa Norby.
StarMore theater reviews from our other critics.

Yet what “Low Down Dirty Blues” lapses in emotional pull it punches in finesse. Fields, Bevel, Porter and Reaves-Phillips provide a vital musical tour, and this one’s a scorcher.

“Low Down Dirty Blues” runs through July 3, 2010 at the Northlight Theatre at 9501 Skokie Boulevard in Skokie. To purchase tickets or for more information please visit here. For half-price Chicago theater tickets, visit our partner Goldstar. staff writer Alissa Norby

Staff Writer

© 2010 Alissa Norby,

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