The trains run slowly in David H. Bell’s “Gut Bucket Blues.” But the subject of this superb new musical biography is as big and unstoppable as a speeding locomotive.
That would be Bessie Smith, the Chattanooga-born blues dynamo who learned her stuff from Ma Rainey, sold hundreds of thousands of records in the 1920s, and lived a fast, dangerous, complicated life that was ruled by a bottomless hunger. Smith could never get enough love, money, fame, booze (or fur coats and fast cars, for that matter), and she poured that insatiable emptiness and lust into her haunting blues.
In this True Colors Theatre world premiere, writer/director Bell and music director Jmichael get nearly everything right. The cast is uniformly top notch. Rochelle Barker’s set evokes a sleepy train depot and is among the most imaginative uses of Theatrical Outfit’s intimate space to date. And while it may not be the flashiest, most frenetically choreographed musical around, “Gut Bucket Blues” packs joy and heartbreak by creating a fully realized, delicately nuanced musical portrait.
Bell and the marvelous Adrienne Reynolds (as Smith) find the theatricality and drama of the story without taking the easy route of reducing it into caricature. So by the time the brassy star is killed in a car crash, we get an affecting, double-edged portrait of her intense exterior shell and her sad, vulnerable and anguished underside.
Reynolds is a delightful comedian with a luxuriously honeyed voice. When the 15-year-old Smith hears Rainey for the first time, she says the singer “makes sounds like they come up out of the ground almost.” That’s a tribute to the knockout belting of Latrice Pace (who plays Smith’s mentor and numerous other parts). As Smith’s husband and manager, Jack Gee, Jahi Kearse is excellent, charting a fully believable trajectory as a man who starts out humble and ministering but ends up mercenary and unfaithful. Amber Iman (in a variety of roles) is a sturdy and often hilarious sidekick to Pace and Reynolds. As Smith’s brother Clarence, Christopher Morgan captures the frustrations of a man who has his hands full, and JC Long is quite good as the only white man in the bunch; Long portrays a boyish Southern depot attendant and a bashful Yankee record producer with equal aplomb.
Bell and Jmichael assemble a delicious score of raucous blues and soulful introspection: W.C. Handy’s “Careless Love Blues” and “St. Louis Blues,” Eddie Green’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn’s “My Buddy,” among many others. Together, they contribute a spirited Act Two opener, “Get Up Off It,” and Jmichael’s “Hoochie-Coochie Woman,” with its meaningful dance steps, is a crowd-pleaser. Jeremy W. Floyd’s costumes evoke Jazz Age glitter, and Joseph Futral’s lighting washes it all in a splendid glow.
“Gut Bucket Blues” opens True Colors’ season on a dazzling note, and given the connections of artistic director Kenny Leon and Bell (who was Leon’s associate artistic director at the Alliance Theater), there’s no telling what kind of future it might have. Young and fresh as Smith at the start of the evening, it’s just taking off.
“Gut Bucket Blues”
8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. Through Nov. 7. $20-$45. True Colors Theatre, Theatrical Outfit’s Balzer Theater at Herren’s, 84 Luckie St., Atlanta. 877-725-8849, ticketalternative.com , truecolorstheatre.org
Bottom line: A delightful bucketful of Bessie Smith.
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