Sometimes theater offers a means of time travel, inviting us to pretend we’re spending an evening with vibrant figures long gone.
That’s the central conceit of Angelo Parra’s “The Devil’s Music: The Life and Times of Bessie Smith,” now on stage at Theatre Nova. Set in 1937 Memphis, in a “buffet flat” – an unlicensed, private club in which visitors eat, drink, and gamble – “Devil’s Music” begins when Smith’s accompanist Pickle (Brian Buckner) arrives on stage and explains that he’s just attended Smith’s funeral, where an impressive crowd of seven thousand people turned out to pay their respects.
Not for the Queen of the Blues, but for the heralded Empress of the Blues, who died from injuries sustained in a car accident.
Pickles’ brief beginning-with-the-end prologue soon rewinds enough, however, so that Smith (K Edmonds) herself, just hours before her fatal accident, takes the stage. She’s just walked away from a job, after being asked to use the back entrance of a whites-only club, so she’s ready to blow off some steam and kick back among friends. So between performing several of her trademark songs with Pickles, Bessie unapologetically noshes, tosses back hooch from a flask, and shares stories from her life.
This “talk and sing” structure has become standard for this brand of cabaret-style show, which aims to celebrate the life and music of an iconic performer; but there’s an inherent self-consciousness in the format that’s hard to transcend. This holds true for “Devil’s Music,” too, in that the stories Bessie tells, while often interesting and informative, make the 70 minute show more of an appealing character study than a cohesive story with a sense of build and momentum. Indeed, the one element that’s clearly intended to “haunt” Bessie’s interplay with the crowd on this particular night – her looming death – is actually the hands-down weakest part of the show; for whenever death generally comes up in Bessie’s stories, everything temporarily stops, darkness falls all around Bessie, and she trembles upon hearing bones rattling.
But this is one stroke of heavy-handedness in what is otherwise a pleasant evening of learning more about Smith, and hearing Edmonds skillfully perform some of the Empress’ best-known songs. Edmonds – dressed by costume designer Haley Cook in a sparkling, floor-length, short-sleeved gown and a long, knotted strand of pearls (with era-appropriate finger waves to boot) – embodies Smith’s charming fearlessness, wit, and confidence while also imbuing the more painful parts of Smith’s history with gravitas.
Not for nothing did Bessie sing the blues.
Director Lynch Travis presents “Devil’s Music” in a way that maximizes Theatre Nova’s intimate space, so that Edmonds’ connection with the audience feels personal. And Buckner, who pulls double duty as the show’s music director and Edmonds’ co-star, is a perfect addition, ably providing the musical backdrop for the evening’s set list while also, as Pickle, responding to Bessie’s pronouncements with teasing, affectionate support, or occasional pushback. The two, as longtime musical collaborators, feel like they are each other’s family, with Pickle accepting his role in Bessie’s shadow.
Forrest Hejkal’s set has the look of a domestic space’s speakeasy, with a comfy, worn armchair, an ottoman, small tables with the remains of food trays (stage manager Michelle Resnick designed the show’s props), and Pickle’s upright piano, backed with floral fabric. Daniel C. Walker’s lighting design enhances the mood of each number, whether Bessie’s getting sassy with “T’ain’t Nobody’s Biz-Ness if I Do”; nursing a broken heart via “Gulf Coast Blues” or “Downhearted Blues”; winking seductively via “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl”; fighting loneliness through “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”; or painfully grieving the custody loss of her adopted son, Snooks, by way of “I Ain’t Got Nobody.”
More than any number in “Devil’s Music,” actually, this last tune – which may ring familiar to some because of David Lee Roth’s 1988, campy, pop-ified redux, “Just a Gigolo” – comes closest to theatrically closing the gap between Bessie Smith’s life and her music. For as Edmonds’ delivers Smith’s mournful tale of maternal love lost (her spiteful ex told the judge of her drinking and dalliances with women), you see the light in this charismatic, strong woman go out for a moment, so that when she then mournfully sings the lyric “I ain’t got nobody, and nobody cares for me,” the sadness isn’t general. It’s highly specific, and in this single moment, we have a better, clearer window into this iconic performer’s soul than in any other moment in “The Devil’s Music.”
But even if the rest of the show isn’t quite as impactful or revealing, Bessie still makes for darn good company, personally and in song, on any given evening.
“The Devil’s Music” continues its run at Theatre Nova, located at 410 W. Huron in Ann Arbor, through April 22. Tickets cost $20, or pay-what-you-can.