The Melting Pot Theatre—which has in recent years brought out dramatic treatments of the lives of folk singer Woodie Guthrie (Woody Guthrie's American Song) and baseball great Ty Cobb (Cobb, still playing Off-Broadway)—will look at another American icon in its latest show, The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith. The new production will begin previews Jan. 26 at Theatre 3 in Manhattan, open Feb. 1 and run through March 1. The play is presented in association with Penguin Repertory Company, which first premiered the show.
Joe Brancato, who directed Cobb, will guide Miche Braden in the title role. Angelo Parra penned the book. Brancato also conceived of the show, while Braden executes the musical arrangements of the 14 featured songs. The cast also includes Terry Walker on piano and Jimmy Hankins on bass.
Much of Bessie Smith takes place in flashback, at a 1937 concert just before the blues singer was involved in a car accident and infamously bled to death after being refused entry at a series of "whites-only" hospitals. During the concert, Smith ruminates on the sexual adventures, racism and alcoholism that marked her career, while singing such classics as “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight,” “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” “Kitchen Man,” “St. Louis Blues,” and “After You’ve Gone.”
Tickets are $35; $25 for previews. Theatre 3 is located at 311 W. 43rd St. For more information, call (212) 279-4200.
* When The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith begins previews on Jan. 26, it will be—for a few days, anyway—one of two Bessie Smith plays gracing Off-Broadway. Jennifer Holliday, who famously belted her way through Dreamgirls, will play the strong-lunged singer in Downhearted Blues - The Life and Music of Bessie Smith. The show, penned by Holliday herself and feature eight Smith songs, will play Jan. 12-28 at The Chelsea Playhouse.
Donna Drake will direct the Illyria Theatre production, which also features Anslem Richardson as Smith's companion, Richard Morgan and David Ojalvo as record producer, Frank Morgan.
Downhearted Blues had a curious genesis, being born, in a matter of speaking, of a third Bessie Smith play. In mid-December, the Illyria Theatre announced it would stage a rare revival of Edward Albee's early play The Death of Bessie Smith at La MaMa, Jan. 4-21. A couple weeks later that venture was abruptly canceled. In Albee's 1959 work, Smith—who, reportedly, bled to death after a Memphis car accident because the city's white-only hospitals refused to admit her—never appears. Instead, the central figure is an embittered nurse. It was Illyria's vision to incorporate the character of Smith, played by Holliday, into the play, with the actress singing several songs made famous by the blues singer.
Albee, who in the past has been sensitive about the least alteration to his plays, was initially supportive of the project, an Illyria spokesman told Playbill On-Line. However, as the show progressed, artistic differences arose between the company and the playwright, resulting in the indefinite postponement of the production. All was not lost, though. Holliday revealed that she had in her drawer a Bessie Smith script of her own. Illyria switched gears, and soon the company was preparing a production of Downhearted Blues.
— By Robert Simonson