Sunday, May 8, 2011

Bessie Smith at Florida Rep

Only a few of you may know this but I've harbored a secret desire to be a torch singer ever since my parents used to return from their annual theatre trip to New York City back in the '50's with the records of the shows they'd seen,. My siblings and I would play those vinyls again and again, memorizing every word to Camelot, My Fair Lady, even The Tenderloin. We mounted ambitious productions every summer, The Emperor's New Clothes sticks in my mind. Once we even attempted Shakespeare! We charged the neighbors five cents a seat and that included refreshements.

So it was with anticipatory pleasure that Don and I traipsed downtown on a hot, sunny Florida afternoon to take in the matinee at Florida Repertory Theatre. Fort Myers' very professional company has tackled every Pulitzer winner, Obie recipient and Tony award winning play ever produced and I've seldom seen a show that didn't stand up to New York standards in every way. This one was no exception.

I'm only sorry that we were part of a, by nature, older crowd that tends to go to the theatre in the afternoon, as I suspect an evening crowd would have been a bit more rambunctious. True confessions, I'm one of those annoying people who just can't sit still if the music is hot. The Devil's Music is an 80 minute joy of theatrical storytelling, mixed with incredible vocals and a sexy saxaphone, jaunty piano and subdued bass. One might think I'd have dropped five pounds from bouncing in my seat.

Neither Don nor I had previously been familiar with the life of Bessie Smith, though we recognized some of the songs right away. She was a groundbreaking, tough living, multi-talented woman who came of age in the twenties, saved Columbia Records from bankruptcy after the depression through her stellar sales, appearing on stages all over the country. Who knew?

Actress Michi Braden is a knockout! Only a few minutes into the show I felt as though I were sitting in the living room of an old speakeasy talking with Bessie Smith as she shared the ups and downs of her life as a black woman determined to make a place for herself in a too white world. The show runs for two more weeks. Love music? Get downtown to see it!

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