The born-in-Chicago revue Low Down Dirty Blues explores both the sociopolitical oppression and the sexual hunger that inspired many a great blues song. Though the piece still needs work, it already possesses myriad musical and thematic riches. Visit the show’s imaginary late-night blues club and you’ll take a journey dotted with despair, hope, spirituality, defiance and more sexual metaphors than you can imagine.
Developed at Chicago’s Northlight Theatre by director Randal Myler and musical director Dan Wheetman, Low Down Dirty Blues is another theatrical chapter in the team’s exploration of American “roots” music, a collaboration that includes the Tony Award-nominated It Ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues and Hank Williams: Lost Highway.
The new show is, in fact, little more than a collection of almost two dozen blues songs, most of them not the overdone ones you might find on what one singer calls “. . . the set list from hell.” Snippets of biography from unnamed blues singers barely thread some numbers together, so a better developed story line could help make Low Down both more enlightening and entertaining.
Still, the stories within each song are gloriously told by the show’s four veteran actor-singers, all of whom could give master classes on how to turn lyrics into blazing theatrical moments.
Curvy Sandra Reaves-Phillips plays “Big Mama,” and the conceit is that we’re spending 90 minutes or so at her smoky South Side Chicago blues club. (We know we’re in the Windy City because signs for Chicago teams dot the back wall of Jack Magaw’s set. But since there’s so little of Chicago in the show itself, why bother being that specific?)
Mississippi Charles Bevel, a wiry man with a thinner voice, proves the master of double entendre on his song Jelly Roll Baker. Accompanying himself on the guitar, he turns his solo Grapes of Wrath into an unforgettable examination of the consequences of unequal opportunity.
Gregory Porter brings a sensuous, adroit R&B style to each of his numbers, including Born Under a Bad Sign, Mojo Hand and Shake Your Moneymaker. And, with judicious quiet intensity, he demonstrates hope and yearning in Sam Cooke’s Change Is Gonna Come.
Last to arrive onstage is the show’s most glorious asset. Felicia P. Fields earned a Tony nomination for her portrayal of Sofia in Broadway’s The Color Purple, and she is simply an enthralling singer-actor. Her delivery on Lil Johnson’s My Stove’s in Good Condition turns the kitchen into an erotic playground. Her interaction with a guy in the audience proves that a big gal who knows what she’s doing is a formidable sexual force. Singing I’d Rather Go Blind and Good Morning Heartache, Fields is both masterful and deeply moving.