Stage: Wednesday, April 13, 2005
The music of W.C. Handy comes to life in Jubilee’s latest. (Photo by Buddy Myers)
Harlem Blues
Thru April 17 at Jubilee Theatre, 506 Main St, FW. 817-338-4411.
St. Louis Via Sundance

Jubilee raises its already high bar with a bluesy production that’s been years in the making.


The song “St. Louis Blues” may have earned the nickname “the national anthem of the blues,” but its composer has somehow slipped off the list of 20th-century musical greats. W.C. Handy, who died in 1958, was an early transcriber, definer, and refiner of regional styles of the blues, but he didn’t have instant-name recognition like Duke Ellington, nor did he emanate durable star magnetism like Louis Armstrong. He did, however, introduce rhythm to the blues via syncopated back beat well before the label “R&B” came into popular usage. His music (“St. Louis Blues” notwithstanding) is therefore fresh to most of us and eminently suited for a Black and Blue-style stage revue.
This is precisely what writer-director Rudy Eastman and bandleader Joe Rogers deliver with Harlem Blues, a production full of handy Handy numbers (15, to be exact) that often eschews the rowdy excesses of Jubilee Theatre’s trademark musicals while enhancing the company’s inimitable brand of whip-smart celebration. The subtitle, Fantasy in a Minor Key, says it all: During many of the show’s highlights, the performers and musicians are encouraged to cool their heels and linger over a softer, purer, and more contemplative brand of American roots music. Then the cast turns around and cuts loose with precision timing, lending Harlem Blues a sense of maturity and control that’s a new watermark for the estimable organization.
In fact, Jubilee has been itching to reintroduce W.C. Handy’s artistry to Fort Worth audiences for about 15 years now. Eastman and Rogers had their first go-around with Harlem Blues in 1990, although its earlier incarnation didn’t prove to be one of the troupe’s bigger hits. Since then, Jubilee’s popularity has expanded considerably beyond a faithful cult, and regular ticketbuyers now recognize and anticipate their favorite players among the large ensemble. This works especially well for Harlem Blues, whose distinctive characters aren’t so much plotted along as propelled by the songs toward a tragic finale. Set in a Harlem gin joint and brothel called Pearl’s Lounge during the ’20s, the show introduces us to cantankerous owner Pearl (Sheran Goodspeed-Keyton) and her business manager Belle (Melanie C. Bivens), an ex-con who poisoned her husband because the voodoo curse didn’t work on its own; naive visiting professor Percy Merryweather (Robert Rouse), in town to deliver a paper on “The Versatility of the Sweet Potato”; dapper patron Dr. Walter Hughes III (Angelo Reid), who can’t forget a mysterious lost love from his past; a trio of flapper-dudded chippies (Crystal Phillips, Angela Watson, and Celeste Collins) who play the flirts until it’s time to pay up; and the luscious long-time resident Lily (Eleanor T. Threatt), whose man troubles are especially rough because she consorts with gangsters. Pearl’s Lounge porter Spats Waldorf (Major Attaway) hovers nearby as master of ceremonies for the illicit shenanigans.
Barbara O’Donoghue’s costumes — a hash dream of feathers, spangles, fedoras, sequins, starched cuffs, and padded shoulders — locate a great median between uptown spiffy and downtown seedy. Hometown dance hero Bruce Wood makes his debut as guest choreographer for Harlem Blues, and his taut, minimalist moves should not be underestimated while contemplating this show’s sly vigor. Jubilee may have recently expanded its floor show space, but there’s still not room for a Vegas-style kick line. Wood has instead devised clever bits of business that enhance the characterizations while underscoring Handy’s tunes: the tapping and stumbling during “Blind Man’s Blues,” the comical male struts in the mating rituals of “Golden Brown Blues,” and the whole company swinging and twisting through the opener “Pearl Street Blues” and the finale “Down on Seventh Avenue.”
What may best distinguish Harlem Blues from a memorable pack of Jubilee revues is the sheer variety of vocal approaches. The company’s star singers are known for their belting and note-bending prowess, but here W.C. Handy and musical director Joe Rogers draw out subtle and serene shades. Major Attaway as commentator Spats Waldorf makes the most of his baritone as a mournful counterpoint in different numbers. Angelo Reid approximates Bobby Blue Bland’s exquisite croon on a shimmering “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home,” while Crystal Phillips as good-time girl Iris sounds like a wind chime stirred by a breeze in “Memphis Blues” and “Aunt Hagar’s Children.” However, “Friendless Blues” turns out to be the heart-in-the-throat stunner, and it completely redefines what has heretofore been considered the Jubilee showstopper. Arranged tableau-like across the stage, the primary voices in the show — Eleanor T. Threatt, Robert Rouse, Sheran Goodspeed-Keyton, Melanie Bivens, Angelo Reid, and Major Attaway — settle in for a sustained sextet-harmony whisper. They capture with frightened eloquence the sound of loneliness resting its full weight on the hapless soul. In the process, they also raise audience expectations for what this troupe can do in future musical productions. We already knew Jubilee wasn’t afraid to shout to get our attention. After Harlem Blues, they’ll have to purr a little more to keep it.

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