Sarasota company sings the history of the blues

Acclaimed revue 'It Ain't' Nothin' but the Blues' is next up at WBTT

mclear@bradenton.comApril 11, 2013 

Reviews of the original staging of "It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues," back in the mid-1990s, called it a revue. One even said it was closer to a concert.

The new production by the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, Nate Jacobs said, is more of a traditional musical.

"We're staging it a little differently," said Jacobs, founder and artistic director of WBTT. "It's more theatrical."

"It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues" opens at WBTT on this week. It's essentially a journey through the history of the blues, and the music gave birth to the blues, and the music that the blues spawned.

"It starts with the Negro spirituals," Jacobs said, "and it takes you through Chicago blues and New York blues. It has seven singers, and there's some storytelling, but mostly it's all done with music."

The show features some 30 songs, mostly classics that are part of not only blues history but the fabric of American culture.

There are traditional hymns such as "His Eye Is on the Sparrow," pure blues standards including Muddy Waters' "I'm Your Hoochie-Coochie Man," Robert Johnson's "Crossroads Blues," B.B. King's "The Thrill Is Gone," folk-influenced tunes such as and Ledbelly's "Good-Night Irene," country classics such as "Walkin' After Midnight," and modern pop hits such as "I Can't Stop Loving You" by Ray Charles.

The show has five writers, Mississippi Charles Bevel, Lita Gaithers, Randal Myler, Ron Taylor and Dan Wheetman. Some of the writers have appeared in or directed the show at productions around the country, including the original 1994 production in Denver and the heavily lauded New York production that opened in 1999 and soon made it to Broadway, where it ran for five months.

Taylor received a Tony nomination for his performance, and the show was nominated for best musical.

The history of the blues as it's portrayed in the show largely parallels African-American history, as the influence of black culture and music spread from the from the southern cotton fields to the big cities of the north.

But the show is not meant to celebrate one ethnicity. Bevel, one of the co-writers, has written in program notes that "The 'Blues' does not mean black music. It means having the courage or audacity to speak to what is in your heart without consulting your head. That human attribute is colorless."

The cast for the WBTT production features several company regulars, including Ariel Blue and Donald Frison. Harry Bryce directs.

It will be the first show since WBTT has bought the building it has worked out of for the past three years.

"I'm ecstatic," Jacobs said about the purchase. "Now we can put down roots."

Details: April 10-May 12, Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, 646 10th Way, Sarasota. Show times: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $29.50. Information: (941) 366-1505 or wbttroupe.com.

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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