It won’t make any difference whether or not you know of Bessie Smith “The Empress of the Blues” or her songs or her life story. What you need to know is that Miche Braden staring in The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith (her almost one woman musical) is a shining sassy new star who lights up the stage of St. Luke’s Theatre with an exhilarating, passionate, sultry sexy red hot mama performance that will leave you breathless.
Not only is Miche Braden a great singer and entertainer she is a consummate actress. When after all the troubles she has had with Jack, her philandering husband (Bessie wasn’t any better having flings with both sexes) who has taken her to court to take their adopted son away from her and she is left with nary a friend and sings the mournful “I Ain’t Got Nobody” Miche Braden (who you have already fully accepted as the reincarnation of Bessie Smith – she is so totally involved with her characterization) simply stands there and sings her heartfelt lament like you have never heard this song sung before, the pain seeping through every pore of her aching body.
This brilliant concept comes forth from Joe Brancato of the Penguin Rep Theatre who has also staged the musical numbers and directed the piece precisely written by Angelo Parra.
Many of the lyrics are fun – double entendre meanings and sexual innuendos abound and are deliciously delivered by Miche with some tantalizing tongue action to boot as she shows off her flair for being light on her feet.
The seamless intermingling of songs and story make her life extremely compelling, taking place in a “buffet flat” where Blacks could gather after hours to unwind providing a refuge from the rampant white segregation in Memphis Tennessee circa 1937. It is beautifully designed by Michael Schweikardt – looking very much like a private room of the Algonquin Hotel nicely lit by Jeff Croiter.
Miche is accompanied by her friend Pickle on Bass (Jim Hankins) Aaron Graves on piano and Keith Loftis (alternating with Anthony E. Nelson Jr.) on Saxophone. And there is one of the hottest duets between singer and sax – “St. Louis Blues” that all but melts the wallpaper off of the walls.
Talking directly to the audience and “her boys” Miche does so with such a believable naturalness that not for a second do you not believe you are in the presence of Bessie Smith herself – making this musical a cozy affair between artists and audience as she drinks from one flask after another drowning her sorrows and fear of dying with bathtub made booze.
Miche Braden takes total command of the stage and never leaves until her final show stopping rendition of “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”. It’s a bravura performance that brings Bessie Smith’s humor, temper, heartache and hard drinking, hard working and hard partying skills to vivid life. Miche Braden is now rightfully the new Empress of the Blues. As musical director and arranger she sure knows what she’s doing. It’s a shame that The Devils’ Music is only performing three times a week.
www.thedevilsmusic.biz Mondays & Tuesdays @ 7. Wednesdays @ 8. At St. Luke’s Theatre 308 West 46th Street. Photo: John Quilty
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