“Chasin’ Dem Blues”
Through Aug. 9. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. $20-$50. 11 a.m. (July 15 and 23 only). $12-$40. Southwest Arts Center, 915 New Hope Road, Atlanta. 1-877-725-8849, www.truecolorstheatre.org.
Bottom line: Soars musically, falters narratively.
As a musical revue celebrating some of the greatest hits of early American blues, True Colors Theatre’s “Chasin’ Dem Blues” is an undeniably energized treat.
Among more than 30 songs in the show, highlights include rousing renditions of 1920s standards like “St. Louis Blues,” “Tain’t Nobody’s Business,” “Let the Good Times Roll,” “Handy Man” and “Motherless Child.” Both as performed by a tireless ensemble, and as stylized by a stellar design team, a lot of the production numbers are as impressive to see as they are to hear.
But as “The Untold Story of Paramount Records,” to quote its own subtitle, the show isn’t quite as smooth or successful.
Los Angeles-based writer/director Kevin Ramsey conjures a symbolic train station, a mystical trunk of memorabilia, and a four-person cast of ancestral “blues executors” to chronicle the relatively little-known history of Paramount. Founded (in 1922) as an offshoot of a small Wisconsin chair factory, amazingly enough, it was one of the first (white) companies to specialize in the making and marketing of “race records” by and for black artists and audiences (until disbanding in 1933).
While the script rattles off all the requisite facts and figures, dropping a few famous names here and there, it’s only anecdotally interesting rather than genuinely involving. Ramsey essentially reduces the story to so much nightclub-y banter between songs — offering fleeting, almost incidental references to Jim Crow, World War I or the Great Depression at one moment, with corny anachronistic mentions of Twitter, health insurance or even Spaghetti Junction at another.
Visually, however, the show’s fantastical conceit is beautifully captured in the elaborate video projections of designer Mike Post. The rough-hewn set is by Kat Conley, the intricate lighting by Joseph Futral, the fabulous period costumes by Shilla Benning.
Some of the cast members are better than others at distinguishing between their various characters. Although many of Maiesha McQueen’s tend to run together, it’s particularly wonderful to watch the versatile character actor Brad Raymond (True Colors’ “Spunk,” Horizon’s “Every Tongue Confess”) strut his stuff front and center, for a change.
Jeremy Cohen brings dramatic dimension to his scenes, as well, and he plays a mean piano, too, serving double duty as Ramsey’s music director. (The live band also features — off-stage — Spencer Bean on guitar and Che Marshall on drums.)
To be sure, whatever its loftier intentions, “Chasin’ Dem Blues” functions best as a flashy, old-fashioned jukebox musical. There’s no doubt that all three of the co-stars are truly dynamic singing and dancing talents. (The choreography is uncredited in the program.)
Rounding out the cast as their glorified backup vocalist of sorts, Anthony David gives the show much-needed breathers in the form of several lovely and more subdued interludes. Unlike the bulk of Ramsey’s writing, David’s solos speak volumes.