Even wild girls get the blues

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Lili Thomas, Zonya Love and Halle Morse in the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s “Blues in the Night,” playing in the Stackner Cabaret. -PHOTO: Michael Brosilow.

Wild women don’t have the blues, or so composer Ida Cox wrote in 1924. But the Milwaukee Rep’s staging of Sheldon Epps’ “Blues in the Night,” now playing at the Stackner Cabaret, suggests otherwise.

Epps’ work is essentially a showcase for 25 torch and blues songs from the 1920s and ’30s – in addition to Cox’s anthem. The music is anchored in the thinnest of plots, set in a rundown Chicago hotel in 1938. Three female characters, dubbed The Lady (Zonya Love), The Woman (Lili Thomas) and The Girl (Halle Morse) sing, dance and, in Thomas’ case, play a bandstand full of instruments. 

The characters wail about lost love, broken hearts and better days amid interactions with The Man (Carl Clemons-Hopkins), who provides the characters with ample blues to sing about in the night. The titular Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer number opens the play’s second act.

If this all sounds a bit thin – well, it is. Creating a story out of song lyrics that’s strong enough to drive an absorbing narrative isn’t easy and, in this case, isn’t always done well. The Tony-nominated play, which opened off Broadway in 1982, received reviews that were lukewarm.

With virtually no dialogue that isn’t sung, the challenge of the show is to build a compelling relationship among the women, who have almost no interaction when not singing together. The show’s saving grace, beside the considerable talents of the four performers, is Megan Nicole O’Brien’s deft direction. Her solution to the work’s central problem is as effective as the source material allows, and then some.

The interaction is subtle at first, with one woman mirroring the motions of another as she solos through numbers like Benny Goodman’s “Stompin’ at the Savoy” and Bessie Smith’s “It Makes My Love Come Down.” There is a physical as well as musical give-and-take that builds a relationship but also, more importantly, creates a depth among the characters that allows them to become different facets of the same dramatic self.

Thomas’s The Woman   is haughty, almost cold – a woman who takes no nonsense from her man, yet has moments as vulnerable as those of the other characters. Morse is young and easily fooled, mixing youthful naiveté and enthusiasm with tears and bitterness.

The Lady is the most careworn and road-weary of the three, hopeful but not overly optimistic. As the lead character, Love carries the show’s emotional burden, experiencing its highest and lowest moments.

Each of the three performers has standout solo  moments that help make the performances memorable. Thomas provides an emotional, yet austere treatment to out composer Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” while Morse lends credibility and depth to Anne Ronell’s “Willow Weep for Me,” a familiar song that’s too often poorly performed.

Love has the play’s showcase numbers, and the best veer away from the almost incessant tear-fest. With Clemons-Hopkins she does a riotous turn on Leola and Wesley Wilson’s “Take Me for a Buggy Ride,” which shows clearly who’s in the driver’s seat of the relationship. Her sexually charged take on Andy Razaf and Wesley Wilson’s “Kitchen Man” illustrates just why the blues were originally banned from polite society, and does so with both humorous and lascivious effect.

Clemons-Hopkins does a fine job playing the fall guy for the three females, and he plays a mean standup bass. Musical director Dan Kazemi doubles on piano, clarinet and harmonica. Patrick Morrow mans his drum kit and other instruments with quiet authority throughout the nearly two-hour show.

Wild women may not have the blues in Ida Cox’s mind, but it’s very much a part of the lives of these three women. How they choose to tell us about it is what makes “Blues in the Night” an appealing and continuing hit for the Milwaukee Rep, which knows when it’s stumbled on to a very good thing.