Andy Polaris reviews the revue Blues in the Night
at London’s Kiln Theatre
Blues in the Night is a musical revival that first debuted off Broadway in 1980 and arrived in the West End in 1988 conceived by Sheldon Epps. Drawing from the Great American Songbook, that noble repository of jazz and blues standards, the show celebrates great names among composers and writers, especially Bessie Smith and Harold Arlen. The opening in a cheap Chicago hotel introduces us to the house band and the main characters, the singers who perform hits from the Thirties depression. Each has an individual style of presentation identified only as The Lady, The Woman, The Girl and The Man. The Hustler and The Barman appear mostly as talented hoofers.
As The Lady, Sharon D Clarke is the resplendent heart of the show, giving a stand-out performance that evokes the essence of Bessie Smith as a spiritual anchor for her fellow performers. The women in particular exemplify the familiar types portrayed in vintage Hollywood musicals of the jazz age – world-weary, wisecracking, hard-working and stymied by unreliable and cheating men. All these elements are tackled in the woeful or witty lyrics, songs where they sing solo, as a trio, and sometimes a quartet voices blending exquisitely like one of my favourite live vocal groups, Manhattan Transfer.
The Woman (Debbie Kurup), who has the pizzazz of Bette Midler and the style of Lena Horne, is dramatic in Billy Strayhorn’s Lush Life and seductive in Stompin’ At the Savoy. With shimmering gown and slick choreography, she embodies golden-age glamour.
Gemma Sutton as The Girl is sweet and forlorn on I’m Taking A Chance on Love and Willow Weep For Me, and seemingly the ingenue of the group.
As The Man, Clive Rowe (previously an Olivier-nominated pantomime Dame at Hackney Empire) adds his considerable chops as counterbalance with a wicked smile that beams brightly while singing I’m Such A Lucky So and So and When A Woman Loves A Man.
It would be wrong to assume the mood is downbeat. The blues come in different shades and hues, and the bawdy Kitchen Man sung by Sharon D Clarke is a cracking example of how innuendo was used to get around censorship. His frankfurters are oh so sweet/ How I like his sausage meat/ I can’t do without my Kitchen Man/ does not leave much to the imagination when served with a dollop of sass and a knowing wink.
Similarly Rough and Ready Man: I want a man who won’t let his children play with neither a dog nor cat/ But will drag in a skunk or a lion and say/ Here, you play with that/.
The stage design sets the mood of an intimate hotel bar and cramped individual rooms where the artists are surrounded by stylish period costumes, all amplifying the louche atmosphere. Despite these less than salubrious surroundings, we witness some top-class entertainment.
With dialogue effectively limited to setting up the next song, Blues in the Night is more of a revue than a jukebox musical and you are able to sit back and enjoy the performances stripped back and raw. Here in a theatre we enjoyed an occasion with good sound where we were able to appreciate the musicians’ and singers’ craft with a clear view not cluttered (as at traditional concerts) by outstretched arms, glowing mobile phones and the incessant background chatter of an audience preferring to watch back on a screen later.
You could hear a pin drop during many numbers, no more so than in the standout performance of Sharon D Clarke: the slow-burning emotional torch song Wasted Life Blues had the audience clapping and cheering for several minutes afterwards in awe at her delivery. I felt transformed by her voice echoing the real history of the Bessie Smith song and the women it portrayed (no surprise she won the Olivier Award 2019 as Best Actress for her role in Caroline, or Change and is also appearing in an all-black production of Death of A Salesman later this year).
She is joined by an attractive and talented ensemble, that includes the band Oscar and The Strollers led by MD Mark Dickman, who eventually elevate the evening’s 20-plus song-sheet into an almost ragtime crescendo of joy. Older audiences brought up watching musicals on stage and screen will find much to enjoy. Younger audiences can learn a lot of black cultural history and its defining influence on music and style, much of which can be traced back to its early roots celebrated here with icons of blues and jazz. One such milestone, although written by the white Harold Arlen and Ted Koelher, was I Gotta A Right To Sing The Blues – recorded by Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway and Benny Goodman. Tonight, the entire cast proved how this jazz standard truly captured the ethos of that musical era.