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By Randal Myler and Dan Wheetman

 

Sponsored in part by:

Nuveen Investments
Additional support provided by The Pauls Foundation

MAY 27, 2010 - JULY 3, 2010

When the crowd goes home for the night, the real show begins! At least that's the case at one local Blues bar, where musicians gather after hours to swap stories and songs filled with passion, soul and an authentic love of the Blues that can't be described, but demands to be played. Inspired by Blues legends such as Muddy Waters, Ma Rainey, Sophie Tucker, Howlin' Wolf and Pearl Bailey, this low down dirty jam session pays tribute to a musical form that's steeped in Chicago history-and alive and thriving today!

 

Get your tickets today for this Chicago Blues music extravaganza!


Low Down Dirty Blues runs 85 minutes, with no intermission.


SHOW SPONSORS
Bravo

CAST

Mississippi Charles Bevel
  Mississippi Charles Bevel appeared at Northlight in Fire on the Mountain and It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues, and won the Joseph Jefferson Award for Best Actor in a Revue for each of those productions. He also appeared in the original Broadway cast of It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues (Tony Award nominee), as well as at Arizona Theatre Company, Denver Center Theatre Company, Missouri Rep, and Seattle Rep. Other credits include Let Me Live (Goodman); The Piano Lesson (Karamu Performing Arts Theatre); I Am A Man, Thunder Knocking at the Door (Meadow Brook Theatre); Famous Orpheus (Geva); Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (Plowshares Theatre Company); Stories About the Old Days (St. Louis Black Repertory); and Fire on the Mountain (San Diego Repertory, Denver Center Theatre Company, Seattle Rep).
     
 Felicia P Fields   Felicia P. Fields is happy to be back at Northlight Theatre where she was last seen in It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues. Ms. Fields earned a Tony Award nomination for her portrayal of Sofia in The Color Purple on Broadway. Her performance also earned her a 2006 Theatre World award, A Clarence Derwent Award, two Broadway.com Awards, an NAACP nomination, a Denver Post Ovation Award and she was a 2006 Drama League honoree. Felicia has received many Joseph Jefferson award nominations and has worked throughout the Chicagoland area including Jammin' with Pops (Ella Fitzgerald), Hot Mikado (Katisha), Show Boat (Queenie), Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (Ma Rainey), Ain't Misbehavin' (Nell/Amelia), Dreamgirls (Effie Melody White), The Amen Corner and The Rose Tattoo. Felicia's stellar performance in Chicago's Drury Lane production of Sophisticated Ladies earned her the Joseph Jefferson Award for Best Actress in a Musical. TV/Film: Early Edition, Save the Last Dance, Knights of Prosperity.
     
 Gregory Porter   Gregory Porter last appeared at Northlight in It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues, for which he was also a member of the original Broadway cast. Credits include: Nat King Cole and Me: A Musical Healing at the Denver Center Theater Company, a musical that he co-created with Low Down Dirty Blues director and co-creator Randal Myler. Gregory performed on the national tour of the Broadway musical Civil War and appeared in Avenue X at San Diego Repertory Theatre. In addition to acting, he is an accomplished jazz vocalist and professional chef. His television appearances include Late Night with David Letterman, The Rosie O'Donnell Show and The Today Show. He has recorded with renowned jazz flutist Hubert Laws, and has a new CD out this May on Motema Music. Gregory performs frequently with Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.
     
 Sandra Reaves-Phillips   Sandra Reaves-Phillips was born in South Carolina, where she labored in the migrant fields with her grandmother and sang in the church choir before entering the world of show business. Theatre credits include It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues, One Mo' Time, Further Mo' and Raisin (National Tours); Little Bit (off-Broadway); Sweet Mama Stringbean (National Black Theatre Festival); and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (Citadel Theatre, Canada and Pittsburgh Public), among others. She has had countless club, festival and special appearances around the world, including New York's famed Cotton Club, the Montreal Jazz Festival, and Cavalcade of Stars at Carnegie Hall. She continues to tour in shows she created: Late Great Ladies of Blues & Jazz, Bold & Brassy Blues, Me, Myself & You and Glory Hallelujah Gospel! Television: Law and Order, Comedy Central, Homicide, Another World, and NBC Movie of the Week Following Her Heart. Film: ‘Round Midnight and Lean on Me, for which she sang the title song.

 

PRODUCTION

Randal Myler (Co-creator, Director) was a Tony Award nominee for Best Book of a Musical for It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues.  He also wrote and directed the Off-Broadway hits Love, Janis and Hank Williams: Lost Highway, for which he received an Outer Critic’s Circle Award nomination.  He has directed at theatres throughout the country, including Northlight, Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center, Denver Center, Arena Stage, Mark Taper Forum, Geffen Playhouse, Actors Theatre of Louisville, Cleveland Playhouse, Alabama Shakespeare Festival, The Old Globe, Coconut Grove Playhouse, Cincinnati Playhouse, Bay Street Theater, Arizona Theater Company, Alley Theatre, Dallas Theatre Center, Ryman Auditorium, Brooklyn Academy of Music, B.B.King's, Bay Street Theater and many others.  His writing and directing projects include co-creating and directing Fire on the Mountain and Mama Hated Diesels, co-adapting and directing Touch the Names: Letters to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and directing Union City (with Rosie Perez) and the musical version of The Immigrant.

 

Dan Wheetman (Co-creator, Music Director) shared a Tony Award nomination for Best Book for It Ain’t Nothin But the Blues.  His play Appalachian Strings, written with Randal Myler, has been performed at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, Denver Center Theatre Company, Meadow Brook Theatre, and Virginia Stage Company.  He composed and served as musical director for the stage version of John Irving’s The Cider House Rules, and received a DramaLogue Award for Musical Direction for Hank Williams: Lost Highway and an L.A. Critics Award for Blues.  His play Mama Hated Diesels is currently running in Denver.  He toured and recorded with John Denver for seven years, has written a Christmas song for Kermit the Frog, played a fiddle with Itzhak Perlman, worked as an opening act for Steve Martin, and currently plays in the band Marley’s Ghost.  His solo album House of a Different Color was released on Sage Arts records.

 

Jack Magaw (Scenic Design) is based in Chicago and teaches design at both DePaul University and Northwestern University.  He has designed numerous productions for Northlight Theatre including A Life, Better Late, Lady and Grace.  Other recent Chicago and regional theatre credits include The Old Settler and Picnic (Writers'),  Funny Girl (Drury Lane Oakbrook), The Mystery of Irma Vep (Court), All My Sons (TimeLine), Evie’s Waltz (Geva Theatre), This Wonderful Life (Indiana Repertory), Radio Golf (Pittsburgh Public), Winesburg, Ohio and A Flea in Her Ear (Kansas City Repertory),  Souvenir (Skylight Opera Theatre), Four Places (Victory Gardens) and Love’s Labour’s Lost (Clarence Brown Theatre).  He received Joseph Jefferson Award nominations for Picnic and Bus Stop (Writers’), Fences (Court) and Seven Guitars (Congo Square).  Upcoming projects in include Heroes (Peninsula Players) and She Loves Me (Writers' Theatre).

 

Rachel Laritz (Costume Design) is happy to be joining Northlight for the fourth time after designing A Life, Po Boy Tango and Better Late.  Other regional theatres include:  Milwaukee Repertory, Pearl Theatre, Remy Bumppo, Peninsula Players, Court Theatre, Timeline, Chamber Theatre, Renaissance Theaterworks, Skylight Opera and the University of Michigan.  Other professional credits include: NBC’s Law & Order, American Players Theatre, Chicago Opera Theatre, Garsington Opera (London, England) and the Spoleto Festival USA.  Rachel is a recent recipient of a 2009 Joseph Jefferson Award for Voysey Inheritance.  Upcoming projects include Merry Wives of Windsor at Illinois Shakespeare Festival and Comic Potential at Peninsula Players.

 

Don Darnutzer (Lighting Design) previously designed lighting at Northlight for Fire on the Mountain, It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues and The Immigrant The Musical.  Broadway credits: It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues. Off-Broadway credits: Hank Williams: Lost Highway, Almost Heaven and The Immigrant.  He has also worked for The Guthrie Theater, Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Mark Taper Forum, Denver Center Theatre Company, B.B. King’s Blues Club (New York City), The Shakespeare Theatre, American Conservatory Theater, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Arena Stage, Milwaukee Rep, Alley Theatre, Geffen Playhouse, Portland Opera, New Orleans Opera, Cleveland Playhouse, Atlanta Opera, Coconut Grove Playhouse, Palm Beach Opera, Minnesota Orchestra, Minnesota Opera Company, Anchorage Opera, Arizona Theatre Company, ACT Theatre, Fundación Teresa Carreño (Caracas, Venezuela) and San Antonio Festival.

 

Victoria DeIorio (Sound Design) is happy to be back at Northlight after designing Souvenir, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde and Blue/Orange.  Off-Broadway: The Bluest Eye (Steppenwolf at The Duke Theatre) and Ophelia (NYC Fringe Festival).  As associate designer, off-Broadway: Boy and Dedication or the Stuff of Dreams (Primary Stages), God of Hell (Actor’s Studio Theatre), Luminescence Dating (Ensemble Studio Theatre) and Live Girls (Urban Stages).  National Tour: Private Lives (LA Theatre Works).  Productions with: The Goodman Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre, Victory Gardens Theatre, Chautauqua Theatre Company, Indiana Repertory, Milwaukee Shakespeare, Milwaukee Rep, Geva Theatre, Writers’ Theatre, and many other theatres in and around Chicago, NY, and LA.  Victoria is an Artistic Associate of The Next Theatre, a founding member of Rivendell Theatre Ensemble, and a member of Lifeline Theatre.   She has been nominated for 9 and has received 5 Joseph Jefferson Awards, as well as 2 After Dark Awards.  She is the head of Sound Design for The Theatre School at DePaul University.

 

Rita Vreeland (Production Stage Manager) is delighted to be collaborating once again with the talented people at Northlight.  Previous Northlight stage management credits include Awake and Sing!, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Mauritius, Grey Gardens, The Miser and Gee's Bend.  Elsewhere, her recent credits include Footloose, The Christmas Schooner, Knute Rockne – All-American and many other productions at Theatre at the Center in Munster, IN; the world premieres of Free Man of Color and Court-Martial at Fort Devens, among others, for Victory Gardens Theatre; Once Upon a Time in New Jersey and Into the Woods at Marriott Lincolnshire; and 18 productions for Apple Tree Theatre in Highland Park.  Rita has been the set designer at Harold Washington College since 2001 and is a member of the  Route 66 Theatre Company in Chicago.  She is a graduate of the University of Northern Colorado and a proud member of Actors Equity.  Special thanks to the amazing Northlight crew! 



 




Photo Gallery

Click on any image to start the slideshow  Click on images to start slideshow


(clockwise from L) Sandra Reaves-Phillips, Felicia P. Fields, Mississippi Charles Bevel, Gregory PorterFrank MenziesMichael Manson and Matt HendricksSandra Reaves-Phillips with Michael MansonFelicia P. FieldsMississippi Charles BevelGregory Porter with Sandra Reaves-Phillips and Michael MansonSandra Reaves-Phillips and Felicia P. FieldsSandra Reaves-Phillips, Michael Manson and Matt Hendricks in backgroundFelicia P. Fields
Mississippi Charles BevelGregory PorterFelicia P. Fields and Gregory Porter, Sandra Reaves-Phillips and Mississippi Charles Bevel in backgroundSandra Reaves-PhillipsFelicia P. FieldsMississippi Charles BevelGregory Porter, Sandra Reaves-Phillips and Mississippi Charles Bevel in background(L to R) Gregory Porter, Sandra Reaves-Phillips, Felicia P. Fields, Mississippi Charles BevelMississippi Charles Bevel (foreground) and Gregory Porter (background)(clockwise from L) Sandra Reaves-Phillips, Gregory Porter, Felicia P. Fields, Mississippi Charles Bevel


A sizzling and sassy world premiere musical from the creators of the hit shows Fire on the Mountain and It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues, featuring songs made (in)famous by the likes of Mae West, Muddy Waters, Ma Rainey, Howlin' Wolf, Pearl Bailey and more!

Rock Me

Rock Me
I Got My Mojo Workin
ABC News
 
 

The blues get 'Low Down' | Revue traces a full arc

 

CHICAGO SUN-TIMES
June 7, 2010
By Hedy Weiss


HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

 

August Wilson, that great African-American playwright, often said it was the blues, not jazz, that invariably informed his work; the blues grew out of storytelling, he believed, while jazz tended to have a more abstract musical universe of its own.

 

That observation came to mind Saturday as I listened to "Low Down Dirty Blues," the world premiere revue at Northlight Theatre that is the co-creation of Randal Myler and Dan Wheetman, the same team responsible for a previous Northlight hit about the blues, and for the rousing "Fire on the Mountain," which celebrated the music of Appalachia.

 

What also came to mind (in part because I recently overheard two blues musicians at a Moscow airport talking about their gig there) was that this is a show that could enjoy tremendous success worldwide. For more than simply homing in on the act of a single artist or blues style, the magic of this production is that it seamlessly traces the full emotional arc of the blues. It also effortlessly suggests the individual shadings that each artist brings to the basic style.

 

Set in a South Side Chicago blues bar, the 85-minute show unspools in nearly two dozen songs that move subtly from the raucous, sexually driven double entendre-style born in the roadside juke joints of the Delta to an aching, torchsong style blues to the deeply spiritual sound of a Sunday morning church congregation. Intriguingly, what starts out as "the devil's music" ends up on the mountaintop.

 

The four superb interpreters here possess a unique combination of complete authenticity and theatrical polish.

 

Sandra Reaves-Phillips is the veteran "Big Mama," belting out a rousing "Don't Jump My Pony," while the lean and mischievous Mississippi Charles Bevel ultimately takes guitar in hand for "Grapes of Wrath," a searingly beautiful plea for a better society.

 

Beloved Chicago veteran Felicia P. Fields, in her first appearance since her Tony-nominated role in Broadway's "The Color Purple," lights up the stage with a wholly new sort of sparkle -- sophisticated, understated, deftly teasing in her brief bit of audience banter and a sheer knockout in "I'd Rather Go Blind" and "Good Morning Heartache."

 

And with his Otis Redding-like heat, Gregory Porter is at once the macho man ("Shake Your Money Maker") and the sage ("Change Is Gonna Come").

 

Add a top-notch band (Frank Menzies on piano, James A. Perkins Jr. on guitar, Michael Manson on bass), and Jack Magaw's set, with its echoes of places like Buddy Guy's, and you've got a low-down, gritty show that captures the light.

 

Read the review on ChicagoSunTimes.com>

 


 

'Low Down Dirty Blues' a sweet, sizzling romp

 

PIONEER PRESS
June 10, 2010
By Catey Sullivan

 

Welcome home Felicia P. Fields. Except for the brief stop "The Color Purple" made at the Arie Crown in 2009, it's been years since the vocal powerhouse graced a local stage with her show-stopping pipes. With Northlight Theatre's "Low Down Dirty Blues," Fields is in sassy fine form with a revue that showcases a quartet of blues greats backed by a tight, four-piece band.

 

The conceit is that the audience is listening in on an after-hours jam session somewhere on the South Side, an idea delivered with gritty authenticity by Jack Magaw's Checkerboard Lounge-inspired set design. Over the course of 80 minutes, the ensemble motors through 22 songs, punctuating the music with brief snippets of storytelling.

 

There's no real plot to the blues revue; director Randal Myler and music director Dan Wheetman (the duo also wrote the show) wisely let the music weave its spell without the artifice of an outside storyline imposed on it. The music does provide a gentle dramatic arc, moving from bump-n-grind celebrations of the carnal, to songs of heartache, to woeful tales of injustice and finally, to rousing anthems of survival.

 

Sex permeates the set, especially when Big Mama (Sandra Reaves-Phillips) lets loose, opening with a salty ode to the man who "creams my wheat, greases my griddle, churns my butter and chops my meat." Phillips gets her sultry growl on but good in several additional numbers -- the show isn't called down and dirty for nothing. Reaves was in rough voice opening night, hoarse almost to the point of speaking some of her songs, but that didn't stop her from vamping up a storm and capturing the spirit of the blues.

 

As something of a devil's advocate, Fields brings on the attitude by advising Big Mama to stop putting all her business out in public with "Woman Be Wise," and then turns witchy woman for the smoldering "I Got My Mojo Workin'." Fields shines the fiercest on songs of irreparable loss: With the haunting "Good Morning Heartache," she conjures a thousand shades of longing.

 

The ladies are well matched by Mississippi Charles Bevel and Gregory Porter, both musical storytellers who can evoke entire worlds with just a bit of deft phrasing. Bevel has a fine range, playing the bawdy sinner undulating his way through "Jelly Roll Baker" and a contemplative saint issuing a mournful warning in "Grapes of Wrath." The latter, all hushed, raw acoustics, is one of the best numbers in the production. There's no dancing, no harmonies, no patter -- just Bevel sitting in a chair, plucking his guitar and paying witness to generations of sorrow.

 

Porter plays the young(ish) pup to Bevel's wise elder, but that doesn't mean he's any less resonant. He brings a sensual rhythmic undertow to "Born Under a Bad Sign," and a stirring intensity to "Change is Gonna Come." He also, oddly, has the thankless job of telling a compelling story about how, as a child, he escaped a jail sentence thanks to his prowess on a silver harmonica. It's odd and thankless because Myler and Wheetman don't include any kind of harmonica performance in the production. The story is a perplexing tease and the one real quibble we have with the show's structure.

 

Missing harmonica aside, "Low Down Dirty Blues" is a sweet, sizzling romp, from Big Mama's opening exhortation that the band "gimme somethin' I can work with" to her closing shimmy as she struts off to "get me some breakfast."

 

It also makes several pointed comments about how the blues have been co-opted over the years and watered down to the point where some folks don't know the difference between Howlin' Wolf and Jimmy Buffett. The commentary is barbed, but the music is down, dirty, hot and luscious.

 

Read the review on PioneerLocal.com>

 


 

'The Low Down Dirty Blues' at Northlight: singing about sex without actually doing it

 

Chicago Tribune
June 7, 2010
By Chris Jones


Some like a candy man. The blues great Ethel Waters preferred a handy man. "He shakes my ashes, greases my griddle," Waters sang, circa 1928, "Churns my butter, strokes my fiddle."

 

Water's all-purpose, odd-job fela went on to thread the singer's needle, cream the singer's wheat and provide a variety of other personal household services proving that, when it came to rich and varied depictions of the acts of loving, no literary genre could ever match the metaphoric mastery of the men and women of the blues.

 

No wonder there was a twinkle in your grandmother's eye.

 

"Low Down Dirty Blues," the lively new revue at the Northlight Theatre, contains no profanity, none of George Carlin's seven dirty words. But that doesn't inhibit its dirtiness. For this is a revue of songs penned in an age that still required some lyrical imagination. All the best dirty blues lyrics are strikingly domestic: ranges heat up kitchens, stoves are kept in good condition, pots boil low, and sweet jelly rolls hit the proverbial spot.

 

Put a lot of dirty old blues songs together-and that's basically what Randal Myler, the skilled creator of "Love, Janis" and "Hank Williams; Lost Highway" has done here, along with Dan Wheetman-and you end up with a show that's not only a great deal of subversive fun but also a striking picture of back-room sexual rebellion, stoked long before any white bras hit the red flames. When Ruth Brown sang "If I can't sell it, I'm gonna sit down on it," nobody could doubt her determination not to give it away.

 

The other great thing about the low down dirty blues-as performed at Northlight by the stellar combo of Felicia P. Fields, Mississippi Charles Bevel, Gregory Porter and Sandra Reaves-Phillips--is that the blues did not discriminate based on age. In the blues lexicon, a man who could bake with his damper down did not have to be under fifty. An excellent case is made here that all jelly roll gets better with age.

 

The hook here is that we're in a Chicago blues bar, after hours, where four performers are singing their pleasure and lamenting the ignorance of the modern-day tourists in this "Disneyland for blues." The frame, at this premiering juncture, is overly lose and vague and the show could use some expanded connective tissue. It also feels a tad strange to hear words spoken by actual blues legends, and yet the whole show seems reluctant to name any specific artists.

 

And let's give Fields, a Tony nominee for "The Color Purple," a better entrance, for goodness sake. She's a big star in this town and deserves more than to wander on stage in the middle of someone else's moment.

 

If you want to know understand why Fields is such a star, wait for her rich, gorgeous rendition of "Good Morning Heartache," one of the few moments when this 80-minute show puts the ribaldry on hold, and an emotional and musical feast performed by a woman in her vocal prime.

 

She has some competition here. Bevel, a regular in shows like this, offers an authentic blues personality, while the young Porter brings to the bar a gorgeously pure R&B vocal sound, akin to, say, Aaron Neville but also very much his own. Reaves-Phillips is the full package: vocals, zest, personality and truth.

 

There's work to be done and matters to clarify-it's never clear if the audience is supposed to be in the bar or not, and, since we never quite know the where and when, the chronological context of the songs feels marginalized at times. I'd also argue for a percussionist to join the fine three-piece combo, given that much of this show is based on the electric blues. But that can all get fixed. The show thankfully avoids most of the clichés in the blues-show repertoire, and it is already a fine old time, replete with Fields in extraordinarily fine fettle.

 

This tourist-friendly show is begging for a birth downtown-Chicago has never sufficiently exploited its singular historic place in the history of the low-down dirty blues, and here's a chance to sex it up.

 

Read the review on Chicago Tribune.com>

 


 

Review: Low Down Dirty Blues

 


NEW CITY
June 8, 2010
By Fabrizio Almeida

 

RECOMMENDED

 

"Low Down Dirty Blues" is the new songbook-style musical revue from Northlight Theatre and it offers everything you've come to expect from musical entertainments at Northlight:  great songs, fabulous voices and strong production values. That makes the show worth praising. What makes the show worth experiencing, however, is what you don't expect to get:  a lot of raunchiness and just enough racial bite.

 

The actors/singers are Sandra Reaves-Phillips and Felicia P. Fields-the women-and Mississippi Charles Bevel and Gregory Porter-the men. They're backed by a three-piece blues band and the song list consists of nearly two dozen blues standards. Whether putting you through the emotional wringer with the torchy "Good Morning Heartache" or the plaintive "Grapes of Wrath," or making you blush with the delicious double-entendre of "My Stove's In Good Condition" and "If I Can't Sell It, I'll Keep Sittin' On It," the production breathlessly moves from number to number without bothering to stop and articulate some feeble storyline. Instead, the arrangement of the songs-sometimes to maintain a celebratory mood, sometimes to provide humorous ironic counterpoint, other times for reflection and introspection-provides the evening with its strong emotional arc. When the performers do engage the audience with dialogue, they share anecdotes and conversational bits-culled from the real-life words of the various blues legends that made the numbers famous-that provide a historical context to the evening and imbue the songs with an emotional texture they might otherwise not have had they been featured in some antiseptic revolving-song revue. Indeed. There is understandable bitterness from a character who recalls being asked to sing one person's favorite "blues" song, Jimmy Buffet's "Margaritaville"(!) Another character talks openly about the refuge that was the blues in light of "working for the white folks, scrubbing floors and washing clothes." Finally, another character asks, "How did I get over the hill without making it to the top?" The answer, of course, is that racism prevented many of these fine artists from achieving what was rightly theirs. And although director Randal Myler's production effectively makes this point without alienating his audience or forgetting the reason why everyone has gathered-to listen to the blues and have a great time-its greatest achievement is in staying true to the blues' roots and yoking that uncomfortable historical reality with the musical art form at hand.

 

 

That's not an easy thing to do. "Black and Blue", the five-million-dollar song and dance juggernaut entertainment of the blues and jazz, that featured living legends of those art forms including the late Ruth Brown (who brought down the house with her own version of "If I Can't Sell It..."), was a visually spectacular but emotionally empty experience when I saw it on Broadway in 1989, essentially removing any sense of subversion or melancholy from its otherwise entertaining hit parade of songs. On a fraction of that cost, with four and not four-dozen performers, Northlight's "Low Down Dirty Blues" has provided the entertainment without sacrificing the emotion. In other words, it's the authentic Chicago blues experience.

 

Read the review on NewCity.com>

 


 

PREVIEW

Northlight Theatre gets another case of the ‘Blues'

Chicago Sun-Times
May 28, 2010
BY MARY HOULIHAN

 

Randal Myler is having an ongoing love affair with American roots music, American history and the American stage.

 

To feed this passion, he has developed shows based on musicians and music - country, bluegrass, blues and protest songs - not often encountered in the theater. "Love, Janis" starred local rocker Cathy Richardson as Janis Joplin; "Hank Williams: Lost Highway" honored the country icon; "It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues" looked at the history of the blues, and "Fire on the Mountain" was a paean to coal miners and Appalachian sounds.

 

"I don't play an instrument," Myler said. "But I love American roots music and all its different forms, all the tributaries of this great river."

 

Northlight Theatre has been Myler's Chicago home in recent years. Both "It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues" and "Fire on the Mountain" had successful runs there. Now Myler's new show, "Low Down Dirty Blues," created with collaborator Dan Wheetman, is set to make its world premiere at the north suburban venue.

 

"Low Down Dirty Blues," takes place in an old-time blues club where performers gather after hours to swap stories and songs filled with passion and soul. It stars Felicia P. Fields in her first Chicago role since returning to town from a long run in "The Color Purple," and Mississippi Charles Bevel, who won Jeff Awards for his performances in the two previous Northlight shows. They are joined by actor-singers Gregory Porter and Sandra Reaves-Phillips, who round out "four monster talents," according to Myler.

 

Where "It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues" was a more factual piece about the genre, "Low Down Dirty Blues" has a more personal tone, letting the characters open up about about their lives. Yet the music remains front and center.

 

"In any of these shows, the trick is picking the songs so there's a balance of the known and unknown," Myler said. "With the blues, there are hundreds to pick from and it's a real challenge."

 

Myler and Wheetman, who is the show's musical director, chose from the work of blues greats such as Bessie Smith, Sippie Wallace, Lightnin' Hopkins, Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters. Some of these choices are the songs performed in juke joints, the bawdy songs that would never have been on the radio back in the day.

 

"Some songs can be very sad; some can be very funny and some have sexual overtones," Fields said. "But it's all the blues."

 

Bevel had settled into retirement when Myler lured him back to the stage. He said all three shows he's been in at Northlight have an authenticity, not only in performance but also in terms of cultural and historical context, and that's the reason it wasn't a hard decision to "unretire."

 

"It's not just a matter of entertaining," Bevel, 72, said. "But also a matter of exposing people to cultural history and music they might not otherwise experience."

 

Myler is happy to have Bevel back simply because the singer knows what he's doing.

 

"You don't tell Mississippi how to sing a song," Myler said, laughing. "You just make sure he's lit right."

 

For her part, Fields is thrilled to be back home and in a show that's not as "tense and structured" as a big Broadway production with all its bells and whistles. She says she's relishing the more relaxed moments of spontaneity offered in "Low Down Dirty Blues."

 

"Not being able to break the fourth wall for so long was a challenge," Fields said, laughing. "Here it's more relaxed. I can have some fun and mess with people in the audience."

 

Myler's past shows have proved durable, earning good reviews and solid audiences around the country. "Low Down Dirty Blues" seems a good addition to the roster, and it's not the last.

 

Earlier this year, Myler and Wheetman debuted "Mama Hated Diesels," a tribute to long-distance truckers, featuring monologues, photographs and classic trucker tunes. Currently, the duo is working on a new piece about the family farm.

 

Read the story on Chicago SunTimes.com>