Better Than Blue at “Low Down Dirty Blues”

You will never hear the blues performed better than in Northlight Theatre’s world premiere of “Low Down Dirty Blues.”

We’re not talking about “Stormy Weather” or “The Man That Got Away.” Nope! “Low Down Dirty Blues” makes those mainstream songs sound like nursery rhymes.

Mississippi Charles Bevel, Felicia P. Fields, Gregory Porter and Sandra Reaves-Phillips star in this show by Randal Myler and Dan Wheetman.

The production—a showcase of a unique brand of American music history—is loaded with sexual innuendo and lustful longing with earthy humor at a club called Big Mama’s Home of the Blues on the South Side of Chicago.

It is after hours and one by one, three musicians and four singers amble onto the cluttered stage, with Christmas lights, beer signs and posters. Sandra Reaves-Phillips is Big Mama. She sings to Mississippi Charles Bevel, a character called Jelly Roll.

His musical reply is a not-very-subtle explanation of what jelly roll means in blues parlance. Bevel, 72 and spry as a grasshopper, is a multiple Jeff Award winner, who had a Tony nomination for his performance in the original Broadway production of “It Ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues.” “Low Down” is a reunion for Bevel, Fields and Porter. All three of them appeared in Northlight’s production of Myler’s “It Ain’t Nothin” but the Blues” several seasons back.

That was before Fields, with her eyes like saucers, received a Tony nomination for her performance in “The Color Purple” on Broadway. Porter, who performs with Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, does a knock–out job on “Born Under a Bad Star.” His song about his “Mojo Hand” is answered by Fields’ “I Got My Mojo Workin.” (Mojo is a magic charm.)

Double meanings provide plenty of laugher. When Fields sings “My Stove’s in Good Condition” and Reaves-Phillips croons about “My Handyman,” there’s no doubt what they are telling us. Toward the end of the evening the show changes direction. Bevel sits down with a guitar and sings “Grapes of Wrath,” which has nothing to do with Steinbeck and everything to do with children and the world they are born into.

It is touching as the performance transitions, leaving laughter behind and going straight for the heart. Fields sings the poignant “Good Morning Heartache,” and Porter gives us a soulful “Change is Gonna Come.” Reaves-Phillips raises the roof with the full-throated Gospel number “Lord, I Tried,” and the four singers get everyone clapping to “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.” Accompaniment is provided by Frank Menzies, piano, James A. Perkins, Jr., guitar, and Michael Manson, bass.

The show is 90 minutes long with no intermission. Whether you like the blues or get the blues, this show with its rough authenticity, will delight your ears and lift your spirits.

Performances continue through July 3 at Northlight Theatre at Skokie’s Center for the Performing Arts. For information, see our event page.