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A Journey Worthy of the Blues

IT AIN'T NOTHIN' BUT THE BLUES. By Charles Bevel, Lita Gaithers, Ron

Taylor, director Randal Myler and musical director Dan Wheetman. Set by

Robin Sanford Roberts, lights by Don Darnutzer, movement by Donald

McKayle. Lincoln Center Theater at the Beaumont. Seen at Saturday

evening's preview.

AT LAST.

Just when we had stopped hoping that Broadway would get behind a

new musical project we could endure, much less love, the hype clouds

part. "It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues," which opened at Lincoln Center's

Beaumont Theater last night after a brief, acclaimed run at the New

Victory Theater, may well be the most stylish, most honest, most

musically sophisticated revue since "Ain't Misbehavin' " walked away

with hearts and prizes in 1978.

Like that legendary Fats Waller collection, this one does not have

original music or much of a traditional story. What it does have is

integrity to burn, not to mention seven irresistible singers, a

six-expert band and 40 of the blues and blues-infused songs that changed

the way the world has heard the human heartbeat. Coming in the last week

of the official Broadway season, days after the hideously glitzed-up

"The Gershwins' Fascinating Rhythm" and Frank Wildhorn's politically and

aesthetically whitebread saga of "The Civil War," this one has the deep

cleansing feel of a purification ritual.

If that sounds pious, forget we said it. Except for a few

disconcertingly preachy moments toward the end of the show, "Blues" is

root pop in all its understated agony, sly wit and fabulous unsanitized

raunch. It traces this ravishing earth music from Africa to slavery,

from Mississippi to Memphis to Chicago, with enormous taste and great

dirty stuff. This is a show for people who were crushed by the slick

distortions of "Smokey Joe's Cafe" and thrilled by the rough genius of

"Bring in 'da Noise / Bring in 'da Funk."

In some ways, in fact, this is almost a sibling of that

breakthrough journey of the African beat - a sort of "Bring in 'da

Blues" with the authentic sense of one of those primary-source records

from the Smithsonian. Like the historically over-reaching "Noise /

Funk," this one probably goes overboard a bit to extend in the "ain't

nothin' but . . . " impact of the blues in almost any pop music worth

its pain. We'll let historians duke it out over the finer points in the

12-bar blues genealogy. Although we dearly wish someone had thought to

list the composer credits somewhere on the program above the travel

agents and the company that supplied the microphones, we are buying the

package as it is.

And - what a switch from recent Broadway - it is scenically

modest and musically spectacular. The program lists five authors

(Charles Bevel, Lita Gaithers, Randal Myler, Ron Taylor and Dan

Wheetman), but we get no sense that anything has been blanded out by

creative committee. We learn that the show has been knocking around for

at least four years in at least four regional theaters (the Denver

Center Theatre, the Crossroads Theatre, the San Diego Rep and the

Alabama Shakespeare Festival) before renting the Beaumont (dark since

the criminally underrated "Parade" closed).

But, somehow, the long road has not soured the freshness of the

no-attitude attitude. There are seven producers listed above the title,

but, to their grand credit, none of them apparently felt the urge to

stick some sell-it glitter on the stubbly edges of Myler's simple

staging.

This is the sort of show in which "production values" mean that the

singers change from work clothes to dressier dresses at intermission and

that "special effects" suggest someone has been turning a light switch

on and off. The songs are accompanied by an ever-changing slide show,

but - check this out, "Civil War" - the drawings and photos from the

period actually touch the soul of the story.

The singers are "Mississippi" Charles Bevel, Greta Boston, Carter

Calvert, Eloise Laws, Gregory Porter, Dan Wheetman and the show's

originator and narrator, Ron Taylor. All are terrific. They sit on desk

chairs and benches on the wooden floor (designed with deceptive

simplicity by Robin Sanford Roberts). The first half begins with a

cappella African songs, spirituals, other traditional blues and

country-blues, while the second half includes revelatory interpretations

of songs (including "Fever," "The Thrill Is Gone," "Candy Man" and

"Strange Fruit") we already thought had been interpreted definitively by

legends. How good to have to think again.

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