At CenterREP, Ladies Sing the Blues

Blues in the Night illuminates the lives of female singers.

A washed-up diva, a young ingénue, and a beautiful, stylish creature “of indeterminate age” walk into a hotel lobby. The setting is late-Thirties-era Chicago, and the building is slightly decrepit but awash in romance. A male saloon singer awaits them. He’s a bit of a know-it-all and slightly sinister. The old diva is foundering at the end of a prolific career, trying to be ready “when they call again.” The young girl is bright-eyed and enthusiastic, preparing for a date who may never show up. The stylish woman is adrift and alluring in a Josephine Baker kind of way. The night is young.

Together, these four wanderers comprise the cast of Blues in the Night, a musical revue written by Sheldon Epps and premiered at the off-Broadway Playhouse 46 in 1980. It’s now playing at Center REPertory Company in a production directed and choreographed by Robert Barry Fleming. With 26 blues and jazz songs by such standard-bearers as Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Johnny Mercer, and Bessie Smith, Blues evokes the world of old Chicago, the racial disparities of the 1930s, and the struggles of female singers in an impressionistic way. The set is a minimalistic design of a hotel, with the suggestion of a lobby, a bar, and a ballroom. Even the architecture seems symbolic, as though to represent three different stages in the women’s lives.

Fleming chose a promising cast to interpret the material, with Armelia McQueen playing the older woman — described in the script as a “lady from the road” — and Debbie de Coudreaux playing “the woman of the world.” McQueen, who was an original member of the musical Ain’t Misbehavin’ when it toured on Broadway, brings considerable charisma and expertise to her role. DeCoudreaux, meanwhile, seemed like an apt choice because her own biography resembles that of the character she plays. Also a seasoned entertainer, she’s the only African-American woman, other than Baker, to have headlined the Moulin Rouge. C.R. Lewis will showcase his deep, soulful baritone as “the man in the saloon.” Amanda Folena, who plays the “girl with a date,” was last seen in the guise of Britney Spears’ mother, in a previous CenterREP production. Here, she’ll offer a different side of her personality, Fleming assures. “It’ll surprise people,” he said.

For his part, Fleming is no stranger to this form of musical revue. Previously, he’s directed three for CenterREP : Ain’t Misbehavin’, All Shook Up, and She Loves Me. A self-described Baby Boomer, he said he feels a strong emotional connection to jazz and blues music, even having grown up on Motown. “It’s called rhythm and blues for a reason,” he said, adding that the historical lineage of the music is just as important as its way of eliciting feelings. “A lot of the great artists that we love — like Aretha Franklin — came from this same foundation,” Fleming said. “There would be no Beyoncé without Bessie Smith.” Blues in the Night runs through June 25 at Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts (1601 Civic Dr., Walnut Creek). $38.

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