From the first warbling blue note of the saxophone solo that opened the show, it was clear that something special was in store. Right enough, the three female singers then launched unaccompanied into a three-part harmony that had my spine tingling. And the evening turned into a showcase for some of the best music emanating from America in the Prohibition Era.
The scene is notionally set in downtown Chicago in 1939, with a simple arrangement on the stage suggesting the rooms occupied by the three female protagonists in a cheap hotel. A bartender polishing glasses with a towel suggests a louche bar, where the small band provides the accompaniment to the wonderful repertoire of songs which make up the show. Of the three women, the eldest is a trouper now over the hill, but still hoping that work will come along, and cheerfully determined not to let the vicissitudes of life and love get her down. The middle one is a would-be glamorous showgirl whose circumstances do not match her expectations, and the youngest one is an ingénue hoping to make it in showbusiness. The bugbear of all of them is a larger than life (and just plain large) soi-disant lover man, who thinks he can win the favours of all three.
Such, at any rate, is the barely-sketched context in which the music is set. There is not really a story at all, or much opportunity for character development. More of a concert than a musical, the show treats its audience to a wonderful range of songs from an era when some of the greatest song-writers were practising their craft. The band is superb. The five musicians – trumpet, saxophone, bass, drums and their leader on piano – make the transition seamlessly from the loud and raucous to the soft and wistful, as the songs run the gamut of human emotion. And the stage is not devoid of action, as the singers are joined by two dancers (the bartender and a customer).
The four singers display a marvellous virtuosity and a great stage presence. The theme running through the show is, of course, the blues, and once or twice a tear came to my eye as a sad song was beautifully expressed. The women have had much heartache. After all, “a man is a two-faced, a worrisome thing, who’ll leave you to sing the blues in the night.” But there is also much humour, and some of the songs are pretty raunchy. One number, Kitchen Man, with its frankfurter and baloney, and its clams and hams, is so suggestive, and is put across so provocatively, that a trooper would blush. The women want a man who will give them good loving in every sense of the word. The orientation is unabashedly heterosexual.
The audience were on their feet at the end of the performance. What a performance it had been! They wanted more, and they got it. Whether singing solo or in harmony, the singers had given their all, and the band had carried them along perfectly. This was a night to remember, and truly an antidote to the blues.
- Conceived by Sheldon Epps
- Director: Susie McKenna
- Singers: Sharon D. Clarke, Paulette Ivory, Clive Rowe and Gemma Sutton
- Hackney Empire, London
- Until 4th May 2014
- Time: 19.30
- Review by Richard McKee
- 27 April 2014