Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Florida Stage: Low Down Dirty Blues (8 Reviews)

Florida Stage opened its production of Low Down Dirty Blues on July 17th, 2010.  This "blues-ical" is the first show presented by the company at their new home in the Rinker Playhouse at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts.
The Southeastern premiere of a sizzling and sassy new musical from the creators of the Tony-nominated show It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues. For decades, Blues artists have captivated audiences with the Dirty Blues, music packed with passion and soul, along with innuendo, insinuation and, above all, humor! Featuring songs made (in)famous by the likes of Mae West, Muddy Waters, Ma Rainey, Sophie Tucker, Howlin’ Wolf, Pearl Bailey and many others, Low Down Dirty Blues is a rousing, raucous, musical good time!
Randal Myler directed a cast that included Mississippi Charels Bevel, Felicia P. Fields, Gregory Porter, and Sandra Reaves-Phillips.  Musical direction by Dan Wheetman.

The Sun-Sentinel has declined to review this production.*

Bill Hirschman reviewed for the South Florida Theater Review:
There can be no argument that Low Down Dirty Blues, Florida Stage’s first offering in its new space at the Kravis Center, is a polished revue featuring charming singers who bring skill and sass to a sex-drenched songbook.

But the impact is blunted and muted by the physical set-up inside the Kravis’ Rinker Playhouse. As a result, there wasn’t much feeling that anyone’s roof was being raised at Sunday evening’s performance – although the lethargic crowd didn’t help.
Florida Stage’s new configuration of the Rinker is a three-quarters thrust stage, meaning the playing area projects deep into the auditorium and is surrounded on three sides by stadium seats. With the performers mostly tethered to the bandstand, that means that most seats were, ironically, further away from the action.
That problem aside, Low Down Dirty Blues is a glorious celebration of the music of Muddy Waters, Ma Rainey, Sophie Tucker, Howlin’ Wolf and Pearl Bailey thanks to the supple, assured voices of Mississippi Charles Bevel, Felicia P. Fields, Gregory Porter and Sandra Reaves-Phillips. They are ably backed by a tight ad hoc trio of locals: Will Barrow on honky-tonk piano, Mark Hamilton on guitar and Rupert Ziawinski slapping both the upright and electric bass.
Irv Rikon reviewed for the Century Village Data Sink; he starts off confessing that he's never really heard "real" blues, but apparently he's a convert:
 I'll quote the publicist, who describes what's here: "Featuring songs made (in)famous by the likes of Muddy Waters, Ma Rainey, Sophie Tucker, Howlin' Wolf, Pearl Bailey and many others, Low Down Dirty Blues is a rousing, raucous, musical good time." I quote him because he's right.
The thing I hadn't fully realized previously is that the blues have enormous range and variety. The first group of songs has sexual innuendos, but they give way to songs of pain and laughter and, finally, some with religious overtones. But always there's a spirit that's utterly infectious, and one gets caught up in it.
FLORIDA STAGE'S debut at the Kravis Center hits all the right notes.
Brandon K. Thorp reviewed for the Broward/Palm Beach New Times; the kind of review he's famous for:
Florida Stage has completed its move to the Rinker Playhouse, an inelegant, forgotten-looking corner of the Kravis Center. And it's the perfect venue for Low Down Dirty Blues, a jukebox musical I intend to forget the moment this screed is off to print.
Low Down seeks to re-create the atmosphere of a smoky Chicago blues club, and it mostly succeeds. The revels are all canned: There was no booze in the theater, nor any barfights, and I found distressingly little drunken sex in the bathrooms.
As we all know, in Chicago, you have drunken sex in the alley, not the restrooms.  Restrooms are for shooting up...
...the performers play bluesmen with verve if not much grit. Sandra Reaves-Porter  plays "Big Mama," a fictional blues belter whose put-on singing voice is a rumbly, swamp-cream purr — a weird and wild sound. The other singers' instruments are more attractive, if less interesting: Skinny old Mississippi Charles Bevel sings like a wilier Smokey Robinson, Gregory Porter  wraps a standard-issue R&B tenor around the lyrics with extraordinary sweetness, and Felicia P. Fields makes what are probably the sexiest noises ever to be heard at the Kravis Center.
Low Down certainly means well, but that's not the same as doing well. When Bevel sings a song called "Grapes of Wrath," about the dangers of class divisions... the audience applauds rather too loudly. Shortly thereafter, Porter sings an elegiac version of "A Change Is Gonna Come," and the audience applauds that too. The implication in all the applauding, and in our entertainers' smiling acceptance of that applause, is that the white folk in the audience are part of the solution rather than the problem, that the existential and political demands of the blues have been satisfied to the extent that they may now be repackaged as kitsch. Which they haven't.
Roger Martin reviewed for MiamiArtzine.com:
Florida Stage's inaugural show in the company's new home in West Palm Beach is Low Down Dirty Blues and it's a strangely stultifying experience.
Perhaps it's the physical set up of the show. Nicely raked seating in three quarter thrust doesn't really work when the central playing area becomes Big Momma's Blues Club... with premium priced seating for audience members... puts the audience watching from the center quite a way back from the stage and forces those people sitting on the sides to crane their necks sideways for ninety minutes.
...perhaps it's because the excellent piano man, guitarist and bass player are almost lost in the dim lights and clutter at the rear of the stage.
...maybe it's because the four singers are a mixed bag, performing without much spontaneity and relying on well used tricks to sell the twenty-five great songs.
Things pick up, though, with the arrival of Gregory Porter with “Born Under A Bad Sign” and “Mojo Hand” and Felicia P. Fields with “I Got My Mojo Workin” and “My Stove's In Good Condition.” Porter and Fields are strong singers who don't need Bevel's choreographed moves or Reaves-Phillipps' mugging and Satchmo growls.
Jan Sjostrom reviewed for the Palm Beach Daily News:
As the title indicates, most of the tunes are sexy — made even more so by the performers’ playful and undeniably explicit delivery. Singers Mississippi Charles Bevel, Felicia Fields, Gregory Porter and Sandra Reaves-Phillips originated the show recently at Northlight Theatre in Skokie, Ill. Their familiarity with the material reveals itself not in rote performances but in camaraderie and on-
target rhythm and pacing.
The singers are backed by a red-hot band composed of Will Barrow, whose piano riffs seize the soul, guitarist Calvin Newborn, bass player Rupert 
John LaRiviere reviewed for Talkin' Broadway.com:
...the selection of sensuous and soulful blues songs are gloriously sung by all four cast members. Sandra Reaves-Phillips (Big Momma) has fierce stage presence and a singing voice that is rich and dark and rough. It is a voice that personifies the sound of the blues. Felicia P. Fields' voice is smoother around the edges, and her stage presence is both playful and commanding. She is completely comfortable unscriptedly flirting at length with audience members. Mississippi Charles Bevel handles himself with a certain slickness that belies his age. His light and lyric voice is without weight or strain. Gregory Porter has a mellow, round baritone voice that approaches a romantic sound (if they wrote romantic blues songs). The four performers sing the blues as though they've lived it—and that really is what the blues and good theatre are about.

For the inaugural production in its new home at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, The Florida Stage has chosen a show that shines with talent and sizzles with style. Low Down Dirty Blues is 90 minutes of blues at its best!
Hap Erstein reviewed for Palm Beach ArtsPaper:
The show is enormously entertaining,‭ ‬thanks largely to its powerhouse four-member cast,‭ ‬but as with last summer’s erroneously named‭ ‬Some Kind of Wonderful,‭ ‬the nation’s largest company devoted exclusively to new and developing work demonstrates that it is far less rigorous when it comes to showcasing musical material.
Typical is‭ ‬My Handyman,‭ ‬growled and winked to perfection by Sandra Reaves-Phillips as Big Momma,‭ ‬proprietress of the club.‭ ‬
She is soon joined by Mississippi Charles Bevel,‭ ‬a slight,‭ ‬dapper,‭ ‬low-key performer,‭ ‬adept at his acoustic guitar and a punch line,‭ ‬as he demonstrates on a number called‭ ‬Jelly Roll Baker.‭ ‬Next up is hulking Gregory Porter,‭ ‬who booms out the ominous‭ ‬Born Under a Bad Sign.‭ ‬All three are terrific,‭ ‬and yet they seem mere preface to the arrival of Felicia P.‭ ‬Fields,‭ ‬a mountainous woman with the sound to match.‭ ‬Fields,‭ ‬prominently in the original cast of‭ ‬The Color Purple,‭ ‬arrives announcing in song‭ ‬I Got My Mojo Workin‭’‬,‭ ‬and the spell she casts over the proceedings is palpable
The first-rate sound bodes well for Florida Stage’s future in the space,‭ ‬though much of it is probably due to the acoustic design of Victoria DeIorio.
The Rinker in this new configuration has great potential for Florida Stage’s future,‭ ‬and‭ ‬Low Down Dirty Blues is likely to make the company plenty of new fans.‭
Christine Dolen reviewed for The Miami Herald:
Florida Stage is christening its new digs at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts with a summer musical that delivers as much as its title promises, and then some.
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.
Mississippi Charles Bevel... 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...
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.
Florida Stage presents Low Down Dirty Blues through September 5, 2010.

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