'Big Maybelle' at Bay Street review

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Lillias White rehearses at New 42nd Street Studios

Lillias White rehearses at New 42nd Street Studios in New York City in her role as Maybelle Smith in "Big Maybelle: Soul of the Blues," which opens at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor on Aug. 7, 2012. (July 18, 2012) Photo Credit: Ari Mintz

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Spoiler alerts for "Big Maybelle: Soul of the Blues," making its world premiere at Bay Street Theatre, are superfluous. We know by the set's bookends -- upright piano and hospital bed -- that the mammoth, midcentury R&B chanteuse wouldn't tolerate happy endings.

Maybelle Smith's tragic/ triumphant life unfolds in song and storytelling colorfully rendered by Tony-winner Lillias White ("The Life") in a voice ranging from rumbling thunder to vibrant trumpet.

Before Smith died at 47, after falling into a diabetic coma in 1972, she endured -- but also wallowed in -- dual prejudices. She was fat. She was black. Record labels were segregated when she debuted on wax in 1944. She took the name Big Maybelle when she signed with Columbia's R&B subsidiary, OKeh. Her biggest hit, "Candy" (code for heroin) was previously recorded by Dinah Shore, who Maybelle derides as "the whitest white girl ever." We hear what she means when White reclaims "Candy" with bawdy riffs punctuated by climactic whoops.

White's Maybelle is both voluptuous and pathetic. She throws herself into her music and at her men. Most notorious among the latter is Sully, played in wanderings from the band by drummer Eric Brown. When she catches him with a skinny woman, trumpeter Kiku Collins, Maybelle is dismissed with a "fat girl" insult. Time and again, she crawls back to Sully, if not for sex, then for heroin.

We don't need a half-dozen dramatizations of her lack of pride or willpower.

Writer-director Paul Levine's repetitions would be tedious but for the songs they segue into -- from the hopeful "What a Difference a Day Makes" to Peggy Lee's desolate "What's a Woman to Do?" and James Brown's "It's a Man's Man's Man's World."

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Maybelle's only true happiness is onstage -- her rollicking "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," for instance, recorded two years before Jerry Lee Lewis.

White's brassy pop-soul and smoke-tinged blues, accompanied by Michael Mitchell's playful band, are arranged with an ear for authenticity by Kenny Seymour. John Arnone's revolving set, lit to fit the mood by Paul Miller, frames archival film edited by Joe Lauro.

We can't take our eyes off White. And not just because she's big (fat-suited gowns by Esosa). It's also her big voice and big, broken heart. Maybelle's is a mournful life. But, hey, that's the blues.


'Big Maybelle: Soul of the Blues'


WHEN|WHERE 2 and 8p.m. Wednesdays, 8p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, 4 and 8p.m. Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 2, Bay Street Theatre, Long Wharf, Sag Harbor

TICKETS $66-$76; baystreet.org, 631-725-9500

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