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Theater review: A neglected musical form takes center stage in ‘Blues in the Night’ at Laguna Playhouse

“Blues is to jazz what yeast is to bread.”

Almost 40 years ago, a young theater director named Sheldon Epps came across that quote — usually attributed to jazz singer Carmen McRae — and decided to do some baking of his own.

What emerged from his creative oven was “Blues in the Night,” a vital four-singer revue with a five-piece backing band that surveys a 26-song catalog of the mournful-to-bawdy African-Americana that is the blues.

The Laguna Playhouse, where the show opened Sunday, proves a terrific, intimate showcase for music that, almost a century after it originated, is in rare supply these days beyond stray club dates or annual festival settings.

In fact, blues music on Broadway is an anomaly. While jazz sprang from the blues, it was jazz that became the underpinning of musicals during the early part of the 20th century. Successful revues were later mounted from the songbooks of jazz composers Eubie Blake, Fats Waller and Duke Ellington. Meantime, the blues output of such performers as Bessie Smith and writers like Johnny Mercer was largely shunted to the side.

A Tony-nominated show in 1982, Epps’ creation focuses on three archetypal women: The Lady From the Road (Yvette Cason), The Girl With the Date (Jenna Gillespie) and The Woman of the World (Paulette Ivory).  Each is on stage in her own intimate, boudoir space. Separately or together, the threesome emerge through song at various ages, but in something of a single life, sharing, along with a drink or two, the losses, laments and yearnings that fuel the blues.

Over the decades, the piece added a fourth character: The Man in the Saloon (Chester Gregory). He acts as a source of emotional distress and as a mischievous counterpoint, ranging all over the stage and along an upper balcony, seducing, intruding and constantly bedeviling the women.

While the ensemble and band provide an excellent and entertaining delivery system, the star of the two-act show here is the blues itself. Taken from compositions largely from the early 1920s and ’30s, various themes dominate.

A recurrent trope from this early era is that the slyest lyricists could transform any activity or occupation into sexual metaphor. “Take Me for a Buggy Ride,” “Kitchen Man,” and “Rough and Ready Man” ostensibly are about, respectively, pre-automotive conveyance, the virtues of having a chef and a man who is an honest laborer. But the first two titles, performed with a lascivious grin and pronounced bumps and grinds by Lady (Cason is a formidable purveyor of winks and nudges), and the third song, sung by the trio with visible satisfaction, convey the sauciest of messages.

While sex is a constant as one of the blues’ pre-occupations, mourning and despair (they ain’t, after all, called “the blues” for nothing) are another. Perhaps the strongest individual number, certainly the one that had the opening day audience cheering, was Cason’s stirring and powerful rendition of “Wasted Life Blues.” Singing Bessie Smith’s 1929-penned epic anthem of introspective despair — “Wonder what will become of poor me?” — Cason wisely doesn’t vocally overpower the number, but instead lets the emotional content of the song play out its fundamental, eternal human concern.

Epps’ astute editing of the blues canon showcases some unexpected subject matter found in the form. Late in the second act, the company sings — with an Andrews Sisters’ harmony from the female trio — a subdued lament called “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.” This pre-Depression era song from 1923, offers sadder-but-wiser reflections on the social isolation that can descend from the loss of status: “When I begin to fall so low / I didn’t have a friend and no place to go.”

Contrary to what ragged, over-amped rock bands in bar settings might lead you to conclude, this music remains most vital and alive when conveyed via the accomplished orchestrations and vocal arrangements heard here.

Under the savvy musical direction of pianist Abdul Hamid Royal, the band plays with dexterity and satisfying range. For instance, a re-structuring of the lovely standard “Willow Weep for Me” finds the Girl backed by cool, Miles Davis-ish trumpet fills and flute pipings that would seem far from standard blues instrumentation, but which satisfyingly underscore the quiet intensity Gillespie brings to the song.

The staging, directed anew by Epps, snugly fills the Playhouse space. John Iacovelli’s scenic design frames the foreground spaces for the women with a two-story set that arcs behind them. Above are neon signs — “Hotel” to the left, “Jazz” to the center, and “Bar” to the right — and Jared A. Sayeg’s backing lights range from red, orange and yellow on the swinging numbers to a cool bath of blues and purples for ballads. Most importantly, Cricket S. Myers’ sound design is crisp and true to the music and singing driving the show.

The show’s penultimate song is Harold Arlen’s “I Gotta Right to Sing The Blues.” In singing it, the quartet changed the “I” to “We.”

In Laguna, another “we” – audiences — have not just the right, but the rare opportunity of hearing and seeing the blues done very well across two hours. That alone makes this a show worthy of attention.