Center Stage: The Devil’s Music
It was sure was “a hot time in the old town that night.”
The night I went to see and hear Miche Braden perform, as the “empress of the blues”, in “The Devil’s Music: The Life and Times of Bessie Smith,” which is the current production playing at the Florida Rep.
The time is 1937; it’s a Saturday night in Memphis Tennessee, a few hours before Bessie’s tragic death in a car accident, the setting, is a “buffet flat,” “one of many private establishments around the country where Blacks could gather after hours for food, drink, gambling, lodging, entertainment and amusement of all kinds! It provided a refuge and respite from white segregation”.
This proved to be the plus perfect setting for telling the tall tales about Bessie’s gaudy, bawdy, happy/sad, passionate, hard drinking, hard living, bigger than life, life; interwoven in this telling, was the awesome performance by Braden, singing Bessie’s best loved, most popular songs, accompanied by the equally splendid three-piece musical/ acting, combo, (Pickle/bass-Jim Hankins, Piano-Aaron Graves, Saxophone-Keith Loftis).
Miche Braden is a fierce performer, a slinky, sexy cat, toying with us mice, capturing us from the minute she hits the stage till the moment she leaves, some 90 minutes later as the lights go out on Bessie’s life. This extraordinarily talented performer not only fully inhabited the character of Bessie Smith as she got inside her soul, belting out the blues so dramatically that she sent shivers and thrills up one side and down the other, with her deep, heartfelt emotions. Braden’s soulful sounds come from some bottomless pain, that we may have all experienced sometime or other and that connection is what makes live theater and this performance so damn thrilling.
Not only is Braden’s performance nothing short of amazing; she is also responsible for the Musical Direction/ Arrangements, and the collaboration with Artistic Director/ Playwright, Joe Brancato (Penguin Repertory Theatre) on the story line of this musical journey.
Kudos are also due to the great three piece band headed by another original cast member, Bassist James Hankins, who gets billing for the role of Pickle, a character whose terse, well timed, comic asides, move Bessie’s story along at top speed, garnering laughs along the way. Aaron Graves tickling the ivories also delivered the goods musically. While Keith Loftis really blew the blues on his sax, and he’s had all the right moves while performing a hot, hot, hot duet to Braden’s vocal on the “St. Louis Blues”.
To sum up “The Devil’s Music” is a sure fire hit for all who dig the blues and the woman who was not the queen but “The Empress of the Blues”, Bessie Smith. You’ll have to fast forward quickly to get to see this show (closing, May 22), by calling the Box Office at 332-4488.
When you call remind ’em Marsha sent you