Maybe it’s due to the years I spent working behind the scenes, or maybe it’s because the immediacy of a live performance makes its flaws so much more glaring, but I don’t often walk away from a theatrical production feeling completely satisfied. So, believe me when I say that It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues, running through June 24 at Portland Center Stage, is not only satisfying—it’s one hell of a good time.
Blues, as is often said, is one of our country’s great musical gifts to the world: an art form that comes from uniquely American roots. It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues is a beautiful audio-visual lesson in the evolution of the blues, true, but it’s more than that. The description “musical revue” is inadequate. This is a musical odyssey. It may not have the conventional narrative of a traditional musical, but you’d better believe it tells a story—the story of the blues itself, and of the people who lived and created it.
I first saw It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues nearly 20 years ago, where it was originally produced at the Denver Center Theatre Company. It later made its way to Broadway and has been performed all around the country. The current PCS production features some of the original creative team and performers, including two of the co-creators, and it’s clear they have not lost any passion for the project.
The show travels, and I do mean travels, for there is an undeniable sense of motion through history—from the origins of the blues in Africa, through the Mississippi delta of the early twentieth century, to a final destination in post-war Chicago. Those African origins are established the moment the lights go down, through a pointed pre-recorded opening sequence of African chants and slave work songs, accompanied by stirring projected visuals of the forced migration of those Africans and their appalling early American experience. The projections continue throughout, an effective collage of images that ground the music in history’s highs and lows as we move through the years.
Many of the songs will be familiar to most, as performed by a cast of seven singers and musicians, both male and female. There is an astonishing rendition of Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues,” a visceral take on “I Put a Spell on You” (sung by intimidatingly powerful and slyly funny original cast member Eloise Laws), and a version of “Sweet Home Chicago” that made me wonder why everyone in the Gerding Theater didn’t get up and dance. All the performers are excellent and bring their unique gifts to the performance. Thanks to their playful chemistry, there’s more than enough light fun and occasionally sexy humor, even around these songs whose lyrics are often about heartbreak and despair.
Sprinkled in along the way, there a few other musical genres that are blues-related or inspired, such as a gospel number that will make you bounce in your seat and clap your hands. The inclusion of a well-known bluesy country song (Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight”) and an Appalachian folk song are a nice way to acknowledge the white contribution to our musical heritage. It can’t be denied, however, that blues music is inextricably linked with the African-American experience, and the show does not shy away from the uglier side of that history. The performance of “Strange Fruit,” a song made famous by Billie Holiday, about the bodies of Southern black men hanging from trees, is haunting and gave me chills.
The range of feelings I experienced throughout the show was surprisingly broad, and maybe that’s the best lesson to take away from the evening. The blues, despite its name, has as many moods as any other form of expression, with music that can run the gamut from soulfully dark to foot-stompingly uplifting, even when the lyrics are so often about life’s sorrows. Rarely have two-plus hours passed so quickly, but with such an impact. And did I mention it’s a hell of a good time? I did? Oh, well, it’s worth mentioning twice.