Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Two Broadway Divas Playing Blues Divas

I don't know what it is about the early blues singers, but their hard and tortured lives make for good theater. This humid August, two of my favorite Broadway divas - Lillias White and Tonya Pinkins - are bringing two of these stories to the stage. Lucky for New Yorkers, these are playing nearby. 

Lillias White as Maybelle Smith in Big Maybelle: Soul of the Blues

Lillias White, who last graced the Broadway stage as Funmilayo in the musical Fela!, returns to the area as blues singer Maybelle Smith in the world premiere of Paul Levine's Big Maybelle: Soul of the Blues at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor on the island. 

Big Maybelle: Soul of the Blues tells the story of Maybelle Smith (1924 - January 1972), who struggled against weight, race, heroin addiction, and a series of bad relationships to become a blues legend in the 1950s. Unfortunately, not unlike other early blues singers, Big Maybelle died young; she passed away at age 47 in a diabetic coma in a rehab facility in Cleveland alone. The musical features 31 songs including "Candy" and "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On. According to a Broadway.com interview, Ms. White notes that vocally the the role has been “very challenging because we are very different: I have a more high-pitched voice, and hers is a gravelly squall, so I’ve been working with my vocal coach, Susan Eichhorn to develop a technique to sing these songs without hurting myself."

Ms. White is becoming the expert on playing talented tortured blues singers. Some time back, I caught her performance as Dinah Washington, who herself died at 39 from a toxic cocktail of prescription drugs.  

Big Maybelle: Soul of the Blues runs through September 7th. 

Tonya Pinkins as Ethel Waters in Ethel Waters: His Eye Is on the Sparrow

It has been a while since Tonya Pinkins last graced the Broadway stage; however, she has been busy Off Broadway recently appearing in Milk Like Sugar, Hurt Village and Storefront Church. She gave us a little taste of her beautiful gospel voice in Storefront Church, but now rejoice because theatergoers will once again be able to experience this wonderful singer as Ethel Waters (1896 - 1977) in Larry Parr's solo play Ethel Waters: His Eye is on the Sparrow at the Luna Stage in West Orange NJ. 

Recently, Michael Feinstein hosted a wonderful program at JALC called Ethel Waters: Blues, Broadway, and Jazz. Not only could I not get the uplifting His Eye is on the Sparrow out of my head for days after Adriane Lenox tore down the Allen Room, just recently I began reading Ethel Waters' biography because of Michael Feinstein interesting and balanced synopsis of this legend's life. 

Born out of rape and poverty, the difficult 5'9" "stringbean" Ethel Waters crushed every wall around her to become one of the first black superstars in America. She succeeded as a blues/jazz/gospel singer, dancer and TV/film/stage actress. For her role in Pinky, she became the second Black woman to be nominated for an Academy Award. In her later years and after a declining career, she embraced her Christian faith and sang with Billy Graham's crusade. Unlike Maybelle Smith and Dinah Washington who died young, Waters lived to age 80.  

Ethel Waters: His Eye is on the Sparrow opens August 16th and runs through September 2nd.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Fifty Last Lines

A Free Man of Color by John Guare
Dr. T: Jacques Cornet. A Free Man or Color or How One Man Became an American.

A Raisin in The Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
Mama: All right, honey-go on down. I be down directly.

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
Steve: This game is seven-card stud.

Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches by Tony Kushner
Angel: The Messenger has arrived.

Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika by Tony Kushner
Prior: The Great Work Begins.

August: Osage County by Tracy Letts
Violet: -and then you're gone, and then you're gone, and then you're gone, and then you're gone-

Beyond The Horizon by Eugene O'Neill
Andrew: We must try to help each other-and-in time-we'll come to know what's right-. And perhaps we-

Blood Knot by Athol Fugard
Morris: It's what they call the blood knot...the bond between brothers.

Boston Marriage by David Mamet
Anna: That remains to be seen.