The South is the birthplace of the blues, and Public Broadcasting Station’s “Blues Road Trip” describes the Mississippi Delta as the genre’s emotional heart. So, inherently, a certain amount of pressure goes along with producing a musical revue about the blues in the Magnolia State. Nevertheless, New Stage Theatre tackles that tough number with “It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues.”
“It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues” is essentially a melding of sounds that culminate in what we now identify as the blues. Written by singer/songwriter and actor Ron Taylor, director Randal Myler, artist and composer “Mississippi” Charles Bevel (born and raised in the Delta), singer Lita Gaithers, and actor Dan Wheetman, the revue is based on an original idea by Taylor. After rave reviews of its initial run at Denver, Colo., high schools, the 45 minute four-person show was expanded. The revamped musical came to include seven performers covering around 50 songs with a two hour runtime, all to the accompaniment of a live six-piece band.
Peppy Biddy, enlisted by New Stage to direct the show, describes the revue as “part concert (part) chronological telling of the history of the blues.” He explains how it begins with African chants, the most basic roots of blues music, then moves through the Mississippi Delta and ends up in Chicago. The blues evolution, which show performer Sharon Miles describes as a journey, also influenced country music and that link plays out on stage as well.
A version of this article first appeared in Jackson Free Press on May 27, 2015.
Biddy says “the fact that (“It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues”)has a lot of ties to Mississippi gives us an obligation to work even harder on it… you can’t get away with anything inauthentic.” That coupled with the fact that the revue made it all the way to Broadway in 1999, gaining four Tony Award nominations – including Best Musical, pushes the stakes even higher. “Yeah, well there’s always that,” Biddy says with a laugh.
Of the original show’s writers, Taylor, Bevel and Wheetman were part of the original awards nominated Broadway show along with actors Gretha Boston and Carter Calvert, singer Eloise Laws, and jazz singer, songwriter and actor Gregory Porter. “It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues” is not really plot driven and most of what little dialog there is, is in place to inform the audience where the music has been and where it’s going. What that means for New Stage is that the production of the jukebox musical will rely heavily on the vocal chops of its seven performers to successfully execute roughly 40 songs over two acts.
Though the New Stage cast takes on songs of the original Broadway cast, there are no real roles in the traditional sense. “They go by their own name and so it’s very much connecting with these real people in the moment that they’re on stage,” says Biddy. With that said, New Stage casts three Jackson residents – James Martin as “Mississippi,” Kimberly Morgan Myles as Gretha and Mandy Kate Myers as Carter. Sharon Miles of Hattiesburg takes on the songs of Eloise. A New York casting call brings three more to the stage; Chris Blissett as Dan, Randall Holloway as Gregory and Tony Perry as Ron.
Musical director Sheilah Walker returns to New Stage this year. Biddy fondly recalls that she “was the musical director for Ain’t Misbehaven (10 or 11) years ago when we did it at New Stage.” Walker’s impressive resume includes stints on Broadway and in London.
On preparation, Miles (Eloise) who delivers “Someone Else Is Steppin’ In” and “I Put a Spell On You” amongst other tunes, says “the more you practice it as oppose to shying away from it, the more you can stretch the vocal cords, and it really does help. So by the time the show opens you will have worked that muscle enough so that you’re mentally not getting in the way (and) that you can actually hit that note comfortably.”
Among other songs the audience will hear are Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight,” Peggy Lee’s “Fever,” and a Roy Hawkins tune that B.B. King made famous: “The Thrill is Gone.” The revue also includes the Don Gibson song “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” which was a hit for Ray Charles, Billie Holiday’s ” Strange Fruit,” Muddy Waters’ “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man” and Robert Johnson’s “Come On In My Kitchen.”
“It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues” was initially to run May 26 through June 7 but has been held over thru June 14.
New Stage Theatre (1100 Carlisle St., 601-948-3533). The play begins at 7:30 p.m., May 27-30 and June 2-6. Sunday matinees begin at 2 p.m. on May 30 and June 7. Contact New Stage for times June 8-14. Tickets are $28 general admission and $22 for students and seniors. For more information, visit newstagetheatre.com.