Left to right: Karole Foreman, Ciarra Stroud and Anise Ritchie in "Blues in the Night." Photo by Aaron Rumley
In North Coast Repertory Theatre’s “Blues in the Night,” the illusion of a premise – three women occupying separate rooms in a Chicago hotel in 1938 – dissolves into the background pretty quickly. At the forefront are the songs, 25 of them, and three dynamic performers (Karole Foreman, Anise Ritchie and Ciarra Stroud) who sing their hearts out.
Sheldon Epps conceived this show 40 years ago as a revue, completely sung through and composed of blues songs, torch songs and no-good-man novelties. While its runs off Broadway and on were brief (less than two months in each case), “Blues in the Night,” named for the standard by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, enjoys production life today because the music is just so damned good.
At North Coast Rep, the vocalists, which also include Elijah Rock, are accompanied by a crack band under the musical direction of Larry Hartley: conductor Kevin Toney on piano, Roy Jenkins on bass, Danny King on drums, Thomas Alforque on trumpet and Malcolm Jones on reeds. Directed at NCR by Yvette Freeman Hartley, “Blues in the Night” is a smoky nightclub experience without the smoke, variously likable and heart-rending as each particular song dictates.
Many of the evening’s numbers are Bessie Smith compositions: “Baby Doll,” “Wasted Life Blues,” “Blue Blues,” “It Makes My Love Come Down,” “Dirty No-Gooder’s Blues,” “Reckless Blues.” Known as the “Empress of the Blues,” Smith brought a visceral baring of soul to the idiom, the sort of anger, heartache and world weariness that shadows foredoomed romance. Every ounce of that attitude is expressed in this revue, with the three women taking turns and intermittently singing together about good loving gone bad.
The characters are unnamed, but their descriptions are revealing. Foreman is the Woman of the World, one who’s seen and felt it all and carries the sadness to prove it. Ritchie is the Lady from the Road whose trunk of cabaret costumes is full of broken dreams. Stroud is the Girl with a Date who’s just finding out how fickle love can be. Rock is the Man in the Saloon, charming but likely to break any and all of their hearts “just like a man.”
Just as the sorrow emanates from performances like Foreman’s turn on Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” Ritchie’s rendering of “Lover Man,” the lament immortalized by Billie Holiday, and Stroud’s interpretation of Ann Ronell’s “Willow Weep for Me,” the humor crackles when Foreman exhorts, double-entendres flying every which way, about her “Kitchen Man” or Ritchie struts to “Take Me For a Buggy Ride.”
The choreography by Roxane Carrasco, like the mood shifts from song to song, ensure that “Blues in the Night” keeps moving, and its two hours never waver. Marty Burnett’s set provides a sultry backdrop for these immersive performances.
“Blues in the Night” won’t give you a case of the blues. Quite the opposite. It may, however, remind you that love can be an uneasy and capricious proposition.
“Blues in the Night” runs through Feb. 12 at the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.