Miche Braden is the biggest force of nature this side of Hurricane Harvey. She personifies the “Empress of the Blues” Bessie Smith with a powerful voice, enormous talent, a powerful stage presence, and a big heart. As a result, The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith provides a fabulous kickoff to Mosaic Theater Company’s new season.
You need an actress capable of giving a larger than life performance to play Bessie Smith, a hugely successful blues singer of the 1920’s and 1930’s whose legacy survives to this day. Bessie Smith was a boisterous personality who lived large when she became one of the nation’s most successful and well paid performers, even renting her own railroad care for touring. She was also known for heavy drinking, a strong temper, and the courage to live as an openly bisexual woman.
Miche Braden has been playing Bessie Smith in this show off and on for the last half dozen years since it’s successful off Broadway premier. Her performance has reached that point of transcendence where she personifies Bessie Smith in an effortless manner that is beyond acting.
The device for Angelo Parra’s script is that Bessie Smith and her musicians have been turned away from a “Whites Only” venue in 1937 Memphis. They retire to a private gin joint to perform and laugh with an intimate audience on what we are informed is the last night of Bessie Smith’s life.
The show is essentially a cabaret performance full of music, stories, and bawdy humor. We learn that Bessie Smith has more than enough grounds to sing the blues. She grew up in poverty, faced virulent racism, married a no-good security guard, and had her beloved adopted child taken away from her. She personifies the blues being a good person feeling bad as she shares a mix of interesting stories with the occasional heavy-handed premonition of her coming death.
The music in Bessie Smith is outstanding both in source material and performance. Miche Braden almost blows the roof off with her renditions of Bessie Smith classics accompanied by her sharp-dressed band. Bass player Jim Hankins gets most of the attention due to the scripted conversation with Braden (his real life niece) and recorded bits of his narration, but Anthony E. Nelson Jr. on sax and clarinet and pianist Gerard Gibbs also shine as members of the talented and tight trio.
The enjoyable and emotional songs (such as “T’ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do”) fit Bessie Smith’s life and story, an unsurprising fact considering she selected most of them and even wrote a few herself. The success of the show is demonstrated by its many high points. The diverse standout numbers range from the rocking “St. Louis Blues” in which Braden dances seductively during Nelson’s hot sax solo to the powerfully mournful rendition of “I Ain’t Got Nobody.”
The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith
closes October 1, 2017
Details and tickets
Braden is a natural at interacting with the band and the audience. Even her scripted remarks, such as her loving comic insults to the band, sound spontaneous. Bessie Smith’s blues are match by some successful blue humor (don’t bring the kids) generally that help illustrate her strength of spirit in meeting adversity. The more standard moments of talking about her past can seem a little forced.
The artistic team provides strong support for the production. Director Joe Brancato drives this powerhouse musical but also allows the show to cover serious subjects with a deft hand. Brian Prather’s faded but stylish parlor complete with a beautiful mural echoes Bessie Smith’s declining stature at the time. Patricia E. Doherty’s costumes are period appropriate and stylish, ranging from Bessie’s purple evening gown and jewelry to the band’s semi-formal suits. Todd O. Wren warm lighting design provides energy to the louder numbers and changes that support the quieter monologues and slower songs.
Bessie Smith was a huge influence on a number of artists who followed her, ranging from Billie Holliday to Janis Joplin. This show celebrates her outsized talent and impact with a truly memorable performance by Miche Braden. If you love Bessie Smith’s music, you should definitely go. If you have only a glancing understanding of the noted blues performer, the Mosaic Theater Company of DC’s presentation of The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith will provide a highly entertaining introduction to the woman and the legend.
The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith by Angelo Parra. Conceived and directed by Joe Brancato. Starring Miche Braden, who also serves as musical director. Featuring Gerard Gibbs (piano), Jim Hanks (bass), and Anthony E. Nelson, Jr (sax & clarinet). Set Designer: Brian Prather. Costume Designer: Patricia E. Doherty. Lighting Designer: Todd O. Wren. Stage Manager: C. Reneé Alexander. Presented by Mosaic Theater Company of DC. Reviewed by Steven McKnight.