Wouldn't that be terrific?
Well, keep dreaming. Because It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues, the Missouri Repertory Theatre's latest import, which purports to accomplish just that kind of sweeping scale, ain't nothin' like it.
It's not that there's a lack of talent onstage -- as the grandstanding actors would be the first to tell you -- but that talent is wasted in a show that's as lazily structured as it is randomly assembled.
The show starts well enough, when the actors take the stage to the sound of an ancient African lament, "Odun De." Donald McKayle's choreography is meant to evoke a line of slaves marching morosely to a slave ship. But then you notice something out of place: the two white performers, Drew Perkins and Tamra Hayden.
Their presence seems preposterous given the slides projected above the players that show blacks in slave ships and stockades. The explanation only makes things worse: Perkins delivers a line about his English ancestors being indentured, and then he breaks into a country song, "T for Texas."
That's the kind of rusty chain holding this rickety vehicle together, terse and obvious narrative linking a host of arbitrary numbers. This isn't a play; it's a concert history of black or black-by-association music that might be spoon-fed to a captive cruise-ship audience. The segues are lame or laughable -- the performers offer something as vague as "And then there's the Delta blues," which prompts a song or two. Or they make a random reference to how country music "is sort of like the blues," cueing perhaps the worst version of "Walking After Midnight" I've ever heard.
The insertion of the Patsy Cline classic, befitting the screwy order of things, arrives in the second act -- which, we've been told, takes place on Chicago's South Side for some reason. Hayden slows the midnight stroll to a crawl, which is bad enough, but her subsequent version of "Fever" is even more tragic. What's supposed to be a hard, wet kiss of a song is rendered colorless and unsexy, and it climaxes with distracting sizzling sounds made by the other actors.
The pretense that this is a theater piece rather than a dumbed-down revue can be forgiven only a couple of times, mainly when Chic Streetman performs. His versions of Robert Johnson's "Come On in My Kitchen" and his own sexually explicit "Sidewinder," which none too subtly refers to cunnilingus, are diverting enough to forget that the overall package is so shot full of holes.
Before the show closes with a syrupy, we're-all-brothers-and-sisters-beneath-the-skin number called "Members Only," there's some damage done to the most haunting song ever written about the horrors inflicted upon American blacks, "Strange Fruit." Lyrics describing lynching -- Pastoral scene of the gallant South/The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth/Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh/And the sudden smell of burning flesh -- are obviously strong enough that they don't need singer Kim Massie's superfluous melodramatics.
Massie's voice is lovely, and her personality is buoyant; it's the extras that make her delivery so troubling. She feigns a longing gaze to the unseen trees, but it's as if she's trying to gauge how hard it's raining. And she brings her hand to her lips as she sings the phrase twisted mouth. Yes, we understand the song. No, we don't require gestures to understand that we're reading blues (or, for that matter, civil rights) for dummies. Offenses like this occur more often than not, making the show's title more apt without its last three words.