When we first see blues singer Bessie Smith descend the stairs of an after-hours joint in the show “The Devil’s Music,” she looks worldly-wise but weary – we’ve just been told by a musician in her combo that she’d talked of a death premionition. By this time, she’s had one remarkable career and is headed for another, as an interpreter of swing. But she’s an addled woman.
Liquor is her gasoline, and Smith’s legendary feisty temperament is the engine it revs. The most prominent prop in the show, whose full name is “The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith,” is a flask, which feels about right.
“The Devil’s Music,” at People’s Light & Theatre in Malvern, is not exactly a one-woman show, although its sole woman – Miche Braden, who gives us a hot-and-cold running Bessie Smith — is its only subject. Angelo Parra wrote the script to meld Smith’s music with snippets of stories about her, told by her and sometimes woven throughout with dropped hints about their middles and endings. The narrative itself seems forced. There’s something unnatural about the way Smith’s one-way conversation unfolds, even more than the normal run of “get to know me” theatrical bios.
The epiphanies that pop from the character Parra builds as Smith are tense and tautly written and well-performed by Braden, for sure. But the show, ambling between what’s supposed to be a casual concert and what may be called “Bessie Smith’s Defiant Moments,” never earns the drama it displays. Plus, toward the end of the intermission-less 90 minutes, Parra abruptly shifts narrative modes – suddenly, we hear the off-stage voice of a divorce-court judge shooting questions that cast doubt on Smith’s abilities as a mother. What show did this guy come from?
The other characters on stage with Smith are her combo – in this case, the precise Jim Hankins on bass (he has several lines, too); the excellent pianist Aaron Graves and saxophonist Keith Loftis, whose playing sends brilliant colors into the sound portraits Miche Braden delivers. (Anthony Nelson Jr. will take over for Loftis beginning with the performance of Oct. 29.)
Braden, who’s performed the show in regional theaters and Off Broadway since it premiered in 2000, impressively provides the musical direction and arrangements of the songs, performed on James F. Pyne Jr.’s set of red-flock papered walls that mildly clash with Braden’s purple-hued dress by costume designer Patricia E. Doherty. Two ceiling fans twirl lethargically above all this, all of it sleepily underlit in Todd O. Wren’s design. It’s no wonder that Braden has to rev up the audience by asking for louder responses like “amen” at some points. “The Devil’s Music” is directed by Joe Brancato, the founder and artistic director of Penguin Rep in Stoney Point, N.Y., where it premiered. He collaborated on the show’s concept with the playwright and Braden.
Smith, a highly paid star of the ’20s and ’30s, died in a car crash at age 43 in 1937, in Mississippi. She had ties to Philadelphia and is buried in Mount Lawn Cemetery in Sharon Hill, Delaware County. (Janis Joplin, said to have revered her, helped pay for a tombstone in 1970 at Smith’s then-unmarked grave.) The talented Braden drops tidbits about Smith’s accomplishments; not only was Smith a rare black singer who crossed over to white audiences in her time, she was an early supporter of entourages as big as 40 people. She was a pioneer of what’s now become the private celebrity bus, although for a different reason: rock stars use them for privacy but Smith’s private rail car was a counter to the racism that made traveling from town to town harsh for blacks. Smith also was into peripheral marketing long before, say, Disney. You could buy a host of Bessie-related trinkets at her shows.
So the information we glean is on target, even though the Bessie Smith we get may be somewhat different from the real thing. For one, Braden is older than Bessie Smith got to be, and she has her own sharply defined and commanding vocal style, absent the girlish tinge to Smith’s singing voice and the gravelly belt that often came with it. Braden does a swell job of moving the show and its songs forward while having to appear ever-drunker on stage.
My satisfaction in the show, though, didn’t come from its Bessie Smith theme. I was taken with Braden and the combo as musicians in their own right, given the standout renditions of songs like “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” St. Louis Blues,” “I Ain’t Got Nobody” and many more. The arrangements don’t say “Bessie Smith,” whose blues recordings mix sultry tones with the unmistakable legacy of ragtime, an element not included here. But they do say “Miche Braden,” and that stands by itself.
“The Devil’s Music” runs through Nov. 24 at People’s Light & Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern. 610-644-3500 or www.peopleslight.org.