Monday, June 07, 2010

'Low Down Dirty Blues' Strikes A Nice Chord, But Is Far From High Drama

Theater Review

Low Down Dirty Blues
Northlight Theatre, Skokie, IL
Thru July 3, 2010

Low Down Dirty Blues features four excellent performances and none of its 80 minutes are less than enjoyably entertaining.

Certainly there are many stage shows that deliver a whole lot less, but despite keeping with the continual morphing of musical theater into meagerly-scripted concert performances, it feels like the piece--featuring a fine selection of bawdy old blues numbers--owes patrons paying for a night of theater a good bit more.

For while I understand the economics that cause many if not most new musicals to rely on existing songs (rather than being freshly composed) and applaud the broadening of "Broadway music" to include--as visaged by the current crop of Tony nominees for Best Musical--early rock, punk rock, Afrobeat and beyond, I believe that "theater" should still contain a certain amount of storytelling to distinguish it from the dominions of night clubs, cabarets and concert halls.

Most of the predominantly elderly and Caucasian audience at Northlight--perhaps pointedly not apt to frequently attend Chicago blues clubs--seemed to relish the effusiveness with which Felicia P. Fields, Mississippi Charles Bevel, Sandra Reaves-Phillips and Gregory Porter presented a collection of songs simmering with sexual double entendres. But much like the first show of the 2009-10 Northlight season, The Marvelous Wonderettes, the similarly slight-yet-smile-inducing Low Down Dirty Blues is a songbook musical (although no songwriters are credited) with a storyline so scant as to make Mamma Mia seem positively Dickenseque.

This isn't to suggest that LDDB needs some kind of cockamamie scenario; the concept of four singers plus three backing musicians hanging out after-hours at a blues club and entertaining each other with tunes too risque for the tourists is enough of a skeleton to support a show rightly driven by stellar individual performances (though if the songs aren't too salacious for the octogenarians at Northlight, would they really be taboo to sing in front of blues club patrons, especially as the show is seemingly set in the present?).

But given the wealth of Chicago's blues history and its legendary performers from Muddy Waters to Howlin' Wolf to Koko Taylor to Buddy Guy, I would have liked to see the show enlighten a bit more by providing some background information on the city's clubs and players, sharing some after-hours stories to accompany the songs or telling much more about the motivations, passions, disappointments, etc. of each of those showcasing these great songs of lust and longing.

Only a morsel of personal information was provided by each character, and nothing of much substance (nor even a character name in some cases). So rather than knowing who these four people are and why they're singing the blues as thousands have before them, all we're left with are the songs.

Again, they were universally nice to hear, with quite a laugh in several of the lyrics, but with almost nothing in the way of dialogue, exposition, narrative, biography or character information, what makes this theater besides the fact that it was in one?

To wit, each summer I try to see American English, my favorite Beatles tribute band, as they play great renditions of Fab Four songs while dressing as the Early Beatles, Sgt. Pepper Beatles, Abbey Road Beatles, etc. Though never heavy on dialogue, a few jokes get cracked in introducing a few of the tunes, and you're given a small sense of the unique aspects of John, Paul, George and Ringo.

Almost always, I see American English for free or $5 at a local village festival, usually near the 4th of July. I invariably love the performance, but consider it a free tribute concert, not a piece of theater.

So while charging theater ticket prices of up to $54, what should the onus be on Low Down Dirty Blues (and similar shows) to deliver something a bit more theatrical?

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