Theater Review: Bessie’s Blues

They did it again.

After our rave review of MetroStage’s 30th season kick-off show Three Sistahs back in October, we doubted that they could leave us breathless a second time around. However, we should never have questioned the talent and commitment that MetroStage has in delivering the very best theater has to offer. Their current show, Bessie’s Blues, returns to MetroStage after 20 years and take it from me – it is not to be missed.

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Credit: Chris Banks

Though the narrative is not as obvious in this show by writer and director Thomas W. Jones II, the music was given center stage (pun intended) and flourished as a collection of the very best of the blues in the early 1900s.  The tale is a loose biography of singer Bessie Smith, a pioneer of the blues and a highly successful recording artist nearly 100 years ago. Having read about her life prior to seeing the show, I was able to follow her journey through many of the original songs written by Tom Jones and Keith Rawls. Though the music is sure to entertain you, I would suggest doing the same in order to capture the true essence of the show.

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Credit: Chris Banks

I was thrilled to see two of Three Sistahs actresses back treading the boards for this show. Bernardine Mitchell, reprising her original role of Bessie, was born for this work. If I could take one ounce of her confidence as she moves effortlessly about the stage commanding the eyes and attention of all in the audience, I’d move mountains. It is evident that her soul is at home under the lights, and her voice will live on for years as one of the greatest in the business. She has poise, control, and most of all – fun. It’s hard not to fall in love with her characters, as the choices she makes artistically are grounded in reality but flirt with the dreamer in us all. She is nothing short of magic.

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Credit: Chris Banks
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Credit: Chris Banks

Though Mitchell clearly is the heartbeat of the production, the ensemble surrounding her act as a strong and vibrant pulse. Roz White (Rhythm) also returns to the show after 20 years and provides another deep and moving performance as she did in the season opener, Three Sistahs. Her passion and moxy are evident in her characters, and it’s easy to forget others are present when White has the floor. Understated for much of the show, White emerges at the right moments and justifiably steals the spotlight. Though I was excited to see Mitchell and White again, I was easily impressed by the addition of Lori Williams (Passion).  Her voice is equally grand, and the 3 women combined are second to none.  Stephawn Stephens (Blood), Djon Lyons (Midnight), and LC Harden Jr. (Bluesman) do more than balance out the female cast – they enhance it. I have always preferred male voices, and the standout for me was TC Carson (Lover) and his booming bass voice. Light on his feet, perfect comedic timing, and a musicality that echoes in my mind even now – he was easily this fan’s favorite.

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Credit: Chris Banks
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Credit: Chris Banks
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Credit: Chris Banks

I must take one moment and highlight Nia Harris as the dancer and symbolic embodiment of Bessie. Voices showered down around her and she was able to articulate the depth of the blues without saying a word – a feat in and of itself. And though the actors often receive most of the accolades, the musicians deserve equal credit -if not more-so. William Knowles led as Music Director and contributed on piano as well as conductor, maximizing his talent to the fullest. Perhaps my favorite musical number in the entire production was that of “Who Prays for Me” – sung by Mitchell and featuring a soft silhouette solo by saxophonist Ron Oshima.  I’d like a recording of that, please.

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Credit: Chris Banks

The real genius of this production undoubtedly belongs to Thomas Jones II, but could not have resonated with audiences without those responsible for helping bring it to life. Again, no stone is left unturned at this playhouse and all elements of stage and design are executed to perfection. The staging was accomplished by a strikingly grandiose yet simple set, but artistically enhanced with a complex light display which never distracted from the actors on stage. Robbie Hayes (Scenic and Projection Design), Alexander Keen (Lighting Designer/Master Electrician) and Aaron Fernsterheim (Sound Engineer/Technical Director) all receive my utmost respect, and the show undoubtedly illuminates their hard work and exceeding talent. Costume Designer Frank Labovitz also extends his help by providing a realistic and diverse costume collection that leaves me incredibly jealous of all the women. I certainly love a period piece…

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Credit: Chris Banks

The Producing Artistic Director, Carolyn Griffin, is last to note. Not for any reason other than because it is obvious that her effect on all of those affiliated at MetroStage is beautiful and warms the theatrical soul. We all know that a pulse and heartbeat must carry the show from curtain to curtain for every performance, but that same pulse must carry the weight of the show throughout its entire run. It is evident that Carolyn is that pulse, and all who attended opening night hold her in a very special place in their hearts. She is MetroStage’s theater gem, in my opinion.

Bessie’s Blues runs until March 15th – get your tickets here.

MetroStage
1201 Royal Street
Alexandria VA 22314

-Al

 

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