Review: Review: Despite its title, humor and joy infuse North Coast Rep’s ‘Blues in the Night’

Karole Foreman, left, Ciarra Stroud and Anise Ritchie in North Coast Repertory Theatre's "Blues in the Night."
(Courtesy of Aaron Rumley)

With a name like “Blues in the Night,” Sheldon Epps’ 1980 revue conjures up images of gin-soaked songs of misery poured in out in 4/4 time to a muted trombone.

And there is a fair amount of that in North Coast Repertory Theatre’s new production of the 1980 show, which opened Saturday. But there’s also unexpected humor, joy, tap and swing dancing and charismatic performances from the four-member cast, who are accompanied by an onstage five-piece blues band. Directed by Yvette Freeman Harley with music direction by her husband, accomplished musician Lanny Hartley, the show is a lively and entertaining two-hour ride through the history of the blues.

The four performers alternate singing 25 songs written from the 1920s through the mid-1950s. There’s no dialogue, but the performers each play a different style of blues performer and they sing several numbers together in trios and quartets. All four perform the show’s title song, better known as “My Mama Done Told Me.”

Anise Ritchie is the Lady from the Road, modeled after the famous black women blues singers of the 1920s and ‘30s, including songwriters Bessie Smith and Ida Cox and singer Alberta Hunter, who toured the vaudeville and chitlin’ circuits and specialized in bawdy and done-her-wrong songs. Ritchie has a powerful voice, a great sense of humor and stage presence. She shines most in the numbers “Dirty No-Gooder’s Blues” and “Wasted Life Blues.”

Elijah Rock plays Man in the Saloon in North Coast Repertory Theatre's "Blues in the Night."
(Courtesy of Aaron Rumley)

Karole Foreman, who plays the Woman of the World, represents the Black blues women of the late 1930s-’50s, who found crossover success as big band and solo artists, like Kay Davis, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan. Foreman’s silky rendering of “Lush Life” is a knockout, and her playful performance of Hunter’s sexually suggestive “Rough and Ready Man” is a highlight of the second act.

Ciarra Stroud plays the most liberated of the three woman, Girl with a Date, who gets stood up by a man in Act One, then puts on a pair of slacks and an air of feminist confidence to perform with fire the heartbreaking ballad Vaughan made famous, “Willow Weep for Me,” and Smith’s “Reckless Blues.”

Completing the cast as the Man in the Saloon is Elijah Rock, who starts as a preening ladies man. But thanks to Freeman Hartley’s direction, Rock avoids becoming the cad who inspired so many blues songs. He’s charming and fleet on his feet and gives a fresh twist to songs written and sung by women, like Cox’s “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues” and Smith’s “Baby Doll.”

Scenic designer Marty Burnett ingeniously squeezes all four singers, three scenic locales and the bandstand on North Coast Rep’s small stage. It’s cramped, but it creates an intimacy between the singers, the band and the audience. Roxane Carrasco created the choreography, Matt Novotny designed lighting, Regan A. McCay designed costumes and Matt FitzGerald designed sound. Pianist Kevin Toney conducts the band of bassist Roy Jenkins, drummer Danny King, reeds player Malcolm Jones and trumpeter Thomas Alforque.

“Blues in the Night” runs a zippy two hours, with intermission, and I found myself wanting to research all of the songwriters and the famous blues singers of the past when I got home. Any show that makes me want to know more is always a plus for me.

‘Blues in the Night’

When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays. 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays. 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays. 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Feb. 5

Where: North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach

Tickets: $57-$68

Phone: (858) 481-1055