Florida Stage has completed its move to the Rinker Playhouse, an inelegant, forgotten-looking corner of the Kravis Center. And it's the perfect venue for Low Down Dirty Blues, a jukebox musical I intend to forget the moment this screed is off to print.
Low Down is allegedly a celebration of the blues, but it's a celebration that's missing the haunted and diabolic nature of rural blues, the font from which all later blues flowed. Where one would wish to hear "Stones in My Passway" or "When the Levee Breaks," one hears libidinous novelty songs and dubiously bluesy odes to social change. In the world of Low Down, Memphis Minnie and Robert Johnson have been eclipsed by Dr. Demento and Sam Cooke.
Low Down seeks to re-create the atmosphere of a smoky Chicago blues club, and it mostly succeeds. The revels are all canned: There was no booze in the theater, nor any barfights, and I found distressingly little drunken sex in the bathrooms. But the performers play bluesmen with verve if not much grit. Sandra Reaves-Porter plays "Big Mama," a fictional blues belter whose put-on singing voice is a rumbly, swamp-cream purr — a weird and wild sound. The other singers' instruments are more attractive, if less interesting: Skinny old Mississippi Charles Bevel sings like a wilier Smokey Robinson, Gregory Porter wraps a standard-issue R&B tenor around the lyrics with extraordinary sweetness, and Felicia P. Fields makes what are probably the sexiest noises ever to be heard at the Kravis Center.
Which is a good thing, in its way. But Low Down is rather too obsessed with sex in a way the blues isn't, or wasn't. The first 40 minutes of Low Down contain almost nothing but double-entendres set to music, strung together by random excisions from actual interviews with bluesmen, most of which are unrelated to the songs they bookend. In the songs themselves, the men let their jellies roll and their moneymakers shake, and Big Mama demands that we ride her pony because its mane is soft as silk. For her part, Fields wants us to know that the range in her kitchen is nice, big, and brown. Also: Her pot is boiling low, and it ought to go without saying that if you can't keep it percolating, then baby, you've got to go. Useful as this information may be, I'm not sure Florida Stage has much business discussing Fields' kitchen appliances.
Consider: On opening night in West Palm, an affluent, almost completely white audience gathered to watch a display of what they believed to be authentic black culture, which was itself assembled, bankrolled, directed, and presented by a bunch of white people of almost equal affluence. The four singers made up about half of the total African-American presence in the auditorium. (The backing musicians all were white, and not one of them ever stepped to the footlights for a solo.) And what did the people pay to hear them sing about? Their wild sex lives and uncontrollable libidos. Gregory and Bevel were dragged helplessly across the stage by their peckers; Sandra and Felicia moaned to have their beavers stuffed, their puddings pounded, and their kittens scratched. Sound familiar? It ought to — we are discussing a stereotype of very, very old vintage. Compared to the first half of Low Down, anything you might have seen on blues nights at the Cotton Club would have seemed positively radical: Low Down is a throwback to minstrelsy.
Low Down certainly means well, but that's not the same as doing well. When Bevel sings a song called "Grapes of Wrath," about the dangers of class divisions ("Some children get pampered," he sings, "and some are hampered"), the audience applauds rather too loudly. Shortly thereafter, Porter sings an elegiac version of "A Change Is Gonna Come," and the audience applauds that too. The implication in all the applauding, and in our entertainers' smiling acceptance of that applause, is that the white folk in the audience are part of the solution rather than the problem, that the existential and political demands of the blues have been satisfied to the extent that they may now be repackaged as kitsch. Which they haven't. Which is why I'd like to suggest: To remain true to the blues' spirit, if not to its sonics, I suggest Florida Stage next present a retrospective of the music of NWA. When half the audience runs screaming from the theater, you'll know you are hearing the sound of success.