The divine Miche Braden as Bessie Smith in The Devil’s Music is 90 minutes of pure joy.
Now, let’s get one thing out of the way right off the bat: this is not just a singer doing a bunch of Bessie Smith songs, but a full-on show, drawing on stories of the colorful life of the Empress of the Blues and her times. It’s a vivid character study developed through Angelo Parra’s witty script and Ms. Braden’s rich performance.
Of course, it’s got plenty of Bessie Smith’s unmistakable blues classics. Ms. Braden doesn’t slavishly imitate Smith, but brings the singer and her music to life through a committed performance all her own. The result is a memorable theatrical experience almost guaranteed to lift the spirits.
I don’t mean to suggest that the narrative skimps on the sadder aspects of the singer’s story, especially the loss of her beloved adopted son to a callous state apparatus that disapproved of her hard-partying and bisexual lifestyle. But the show treats with a wink the drinking, the bouts of violence, and the racism that might have crushed a weaker soul. One could certainly envision a more complete recounting of the Bessie Smith story, but it’s hard to imagine a more delightful one.
Backed by a fine band—Jim Hankins on bass (and in the role of Pickle, the singer’s foil); Aaron Graves on piano; and, at the performance I attended, Keith Loftis on slinky saxophone—Ms. Braden carries the show on her strong shoulders, seemingly without effort. The production was just getting used to its new home at the small Off Broadway St. Luke’s Theatre, but after successful runs in a number of other cities over the past decade, the creative team under the smart direction of Joe Brancato had little trouble finding its comfort zone.
My only complaint is one I have about just about every musical I see in a small house: the psychological distancing effect and the flattening and loss of nuance caused by the amplification of the singing voice, especially during more subtle moments. I don’t think this came from poor use of the technology, but from inherent problems with amplification in a theater; I notice it in practically every show I see.
And those nuances are important. Ms. Braden is much more than a blues shouter; she’s a fine actor and a complete performer, with exquisite control. The staging has an intimate feel, set in a comfy “buffet flat” in 1937, Smith’s last year on this planet, with the singer looking back on her life and career and taking us into her confidence while at the same time treating us to a show. Fortunately one gets used to the effects of the artificial amplification pretty fast, and they’re long forgotten by the time we see Smith facing down the KKK, chasing her troublesome husband with a shotgun, and making her hopeless case to a judge for custody of her son.
Bessie Smith comes across as larger than life and all too human at the same time. Hers is a fascinating story, and The Devil’s Music tells it with equal parts love and panache. It’s playing at the St. Luke’s Theater in New York. Catch it!
Photos by John Quilty.