You have an audience with the Empress of the Blues. Don’t be late. You don’t want to miss a word or a note. She wouldn’t take kindly to it, either. She is Bessie Smith, the inimitable blues legend, embodied by the wonderful Miche Braden in The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith, onstage at the Rubicon Theatre Company.
It is 1937 and Bessie Smith is in a parlor with her band. The liquor is flowing, the music is hot, and Miss Smith is telling it like it is: her heartaches, her conquests, her struggles, her triumphs. She has a premonition that death is coming to call soon, so her words and music carry the bittersweet and sometimes defiant tone of a woman looking back on her life. Looking back with her, we are amazed at all the things Bessie Smith accomplished. The barriers she knocked down. The people she loved. The career she carved out for herself. The hardships she overcame. Mostly we see a woman who knew more good times and more bad times than most people have the strength or nerve to even contemplate.
Braden, reprising the role she played in the off-Broadway production, captures the candor, humor, sensuality and fieriness of the great blues singer. She is backed by a jazz trio that features James Hankins on bass, Gerard William Gibbs on piano, and Anthony E. Nelson on saxophone and clarinet. Smith engages in easy banter with them, especially with Hankins, whom Smith calls Pickle; he serves as her conscience. Nelson’s character serves her in another way entirely. He and Smith engage in a bawdy pas de deux that steams up the joint. Sexy saxophone aside, this is Braden’s show.
Braden sings many of Bessie Smith’s most loved songs like “Downhearted Blues,” “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” and “I Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl.” (Braden is also the musical director and musical arranger, which must partly explain her loving command of the material.) In between songs, Smith reminisces about how she rose out of poverty to become the highest-paid black entertainer of the 1920s — and yet was not allowed to use the “white” entrance at the venues at which she performed. She is a woman full of passion and truths. Some are salacious, others are just painful. They all tell the story of a fascinating, flesh-and-blood woman who was also a great star.
Conceived and directed by Joe Brancato, and written by Angelo Parra, The Devils Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith is not so much a walk down memory lane as a strut. The gorgeously authentic set, designed by Brian Prather, is complete with an art deco mural. Lighting design by Todd Wren and sound design by Jonathan Burke are in perfect step with Smith’s changing moods and music that ranges from soulful to brash. Costume designer Patricia E. Doherty drapes Braden in diamonds and a dress that moves from being elegant to sexy as effortlessly as she does.
In an interview with Beyond Broadway, Miche Braden once said that the key to channeling Bessie Smith was allowing herself to be free and let go. Audiences should follow the same advice and give themselves over completely to the great Bessie Smith.
The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith plays through March 12 at the Rubicon Theatre Company, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura. For tickets and more information, call 667-2900 or visit www.rubicontheatre.org.