Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Low Down Dirty Blues
Arizona Theatre Company
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of Vanessa Williams with Seth Rudetsky, Little Women and In the Heights


Shake Anderson, Felicia P. Fields,
and Chic Street Man

Photo by Tim Fuller
Welcome to Big Mama's, a down and dirty blues club in Chicago where a trio of singers will take you on a two-hour musical journey as they perform over two dozen blues songs. Low Down Dirty Blues, the jukebox musical set at Big Mama's and having its Phoenix premiere at Arizona Theatre Company, may be slight with only a wisp of a story, but the performers in this production are excellent as they infuse the songs with heat, humor, and a big dose of emotion.

Co-created by Randal Myler and Dan Wheetman, Low Down Dirty Blues first premiered in 2010 in Chicago. The duo are also behind several other jukebox musicals, including the Tony nominated It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues, and are heading up the production at ATC with Myler serving as director and Wheetman providing musical direction, roles they've played in past productions of this musical.

The show uses three singers who portray characters in the bar, with a brief bit of backstory of each character interwoven throughout the show, and two musicians, as they perform blues songs either made famous by or written by such individuals as Big Mama Thornton, B.B. King, Etta James, Muddy Waters, Ma Rainey, Sophie Tucker and Howlin' Wolf. While all of the songs may not be well known to everyone, they are all perfect story songs that evoke the humor or emotion that blues tunes are famous for having. Most of the first half of the show features humorous tunes full of suggestive lyrics that are infused with sexual innuendo, including such famous numbers as "If I Can't Sell It, I'll Keep Sittin' on It" and "My Stove's in Good Condition." The humorous tunes in act one transition to a more serious set of six songs toward the end of the second act that focus on the dramatic side of life, including heartbreak and loss. Those serious tunes are a welcome addition after over a dozen humorous songs and bring a sense of beauty to the piece, elevating it to more than just a set list of comical blues numbers.

Unlike It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues, which focused on how blues music developed, there is no major theme or story in Low Down Dirty Blues. Also, based on the vintage style of costumes and the stories the singers tell, the period of the show appears to be from over fifty years ago, but some of the tunes were written after that time and there are even modern references to current times, such as Amazon Prime. These oddities and the lack of story are shortcomings that stop the piece from being an even better representation of blues music through the ages.

Fortunately, the cast is stellar. Felicia P. Fields has the perfect combination of sass, stellar comic timing, and expert facial expressions along with a booming, throaty singing voice that gets the grit and sexual heat of every lyric she sings. Shake Anderson infuses his performance with strength and determination. His solo of "Death Letter" is stunning. Chic Street Man provides both vocals and skilled guitar and harmonica playing throughout. Calvin Jones and Steve Schmidt add skilled accompaniment on bass and piano, respectively.

The attention to detail in Vicki Smith's sumptuous though somewhat run-down nightclub set and Kish Finnegan's period costumes easily transports us back to the earlier time of the show. Myler's solid direction and Don Darnutzer's expert lighting design help to focus the various emotions of the songs. The direction also incorporates playful interaction of the cast with both the other castmates and the audience that adds moments of fun and laughter to the show.

While Low Down Dirty Blues may not be an entirely perfect jukebox musical, it does have a group of skilled vocalists and musicians who deliver exuberant and heartfelt renditions of these somewhat famous blues tunes. The skilled vocal prowess of the singers instills the songs with emotion, humor, longing, and most importantly, passion.

Low Down Dirty Blues, through April 22nd, 2018, for Arizona Theatre Company, at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe Street in Phoenix AZ. Tickets can be purchased at www.arizonatheatre.org or by calling (602) 256 – 6995.

Director: Randal Myler
Musical Director: Dan Wheetman
Scenic Designer: Vicki Smith
Costume Designer: Kish Finnegan
Lighting Designer: Don Darnutzer
Sound Designer: Brian Jerome Peterson
Stage Manager: Bruno Ingram*
Assistant Stage Manager: Glenn Bruner*
Assistant Stage Manager: Timothy Toothman*

Cast:
Shake: Shake Anderson
Big Mama: Felicia P. Fields*
Bass: Calvin Jones
Keyboard: Steve Schmidt
Jelly: Chic Street Man*

*Members of Actors' Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.


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