The blues may have arisen from the black experience shaped by slavery in America, but the emotions are universal because they are human, says Ray Wills, who is directing “Blues in the Night,” the new show at the Forum Theatre.
“It’s all about sadness and longing and lost dreams and struggles in life. But there is also hope for a better tomorrow. If jazz is the party, then blues is the morning after. It is a cathartic experience,” Wills says. “All people can relate to it. Country-western music is the white version of the blues.”
Adds Karla Burns, who is music director for the show: “The key to singing the blues is truth. It comes from your own experiences of heartache, pain, hope and joy. You can’t really teach someone to sing the blues. It’s as weird as trying to teach someone how to do comedy. Some people just innately get it. But you can show them how to use their own experiences to shape their performances.”
Wills and Burns, both Broadway veterans as well as native Wichitans, are guiding “Blues in the Night” from backstage instead of in the spotlight. The musical revue of 26 vintage blues standards, from Bessie Smith to Duke Ellington to Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen and Alberta Hunter, was created by Sheldon Epps and Gregory Hines off-Broadway in 1980. When it hit Broadway in 1982, it was nominated for a Tony Award as best musical.
Among musical moments are the rousing “Stompin’ at the Savoy” and “Taking a Chance on Love,” the good-naturedly bawdy “Kitchen Man” and “Buggy Ride,” and the emotional “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” along with, of course, the title tune.
Although there is little dialogue, the show reveals through song lyrics the stories of four performers, who’ve each known better days, now crossing paths in a seedy Chicago hotel in the 1930s. All their individual past experiences have brought them to this moment at the hotel bar where they share the highlights and lowlights of their lives and careers for a brief, exhilarating, haunting moment before continuing on their individual journeys.
Starring are Kevin Harrison as The Man, Trisha Garnes as The Lady, Sheila Kinnard as The Woman and Chelsey Moore as The Girl. Ron DeRay at the keyboard will lead a small combo on stage with Harrison occasionally joining them on saxophone.
Garnes says The Lady is someone “who has been there, done that.”
“She used to be big in vaudeville and off-Broadway and certainly on the Orpheum Circuit. I think of her as a lot like Ma Rainey with a little Bessie Smith mixed in,” says Garnes, a veteran of musical stages all over town, including Music Theatre Wichita and Wichita Grand Opera. Garnes also teaches music in Wichita schools.
For Kinnard, The Woman is a performer of “a certain age,” although younger than The Lady, who has “lived a very high life.”
“She’s very glamorous. She’s had fame and wealth. She’s been a star and a millionaire but has fallen on hard times. She’s been disappointed in love and drinks too much. She will remind you of Billie Holiday,” says Kinnard, another veteran of local stages from Music Theatre to Stage One. Kinnard also teaches theater in Wichita schools.
Moore plays the youngest of the three female singers, but one who is not too young to have experienced heartache.
“I think of her as being 23, like I am. Everyone else has already kind of lived their lives and she’s just starting out. But she’s already had her heart broken. I can identify with that,” says Moore, a recent Sterling College grad who was memorable as the rebellious daughter in the Forum’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” as well as the recent “Route 66.”
“You can see her progression from when I sing ‘Taking a Chance on Love’ as I get ready for a date to ‘Willow, Weep for Me’ when the date goes wrong, to ‘Reckless Blues’ when she is angry,” Moore says. “When she is down, singing makes her happy. The blues does that, even coming from a dark place. It’s a way of coping with her problems.”
Rounding out the cast is Harrison, a banker by day and musician/composer/singer with his own group on weekends. One of his songs, “Like This and Like That Tonight,” was used on the soundtrack of Robert Forster’s 1997 HBO movie “Night Vision.”
“The Man isn’t a bad guy, but he is a little arrogant and a bit of a womanizer. He’s been discredited by not reaching his dreams. When things don’t go his way he hides behind his arrogance to protect himself. It’s his defense mechanism,” says Harrison, who was also seen in Cabaret Oldtown’s “Five Guys Named Moe.”
“He has commonalities with all men, regardless of color. Everyone is different, but dreams and disappointments are universal. Everyone knows what they’re like – even a 12-year-old can have a bad day,” Harrison says.
If You Go
‘Blues in the Night’
What: 1982 Tony-nominated musical revue about three women and a man fallen on hard times in the 1930s sharing their feelings and baring their souls through 26 classic blues songs
Where: Forum Theatre in Scottish Rite Center, 332 E. First
When: Preview 8 p.m. May 7, opens at 8 p.m. May 8 with additional shows at 2 and 8 p.m. May 9, 8 p.m. May 14 and 2 and 8 p.m. May 16.
Tickets: $11.50 for preview, $23 for other Thursday and Saturday matinees, $25 for Friday-Saturday evenings. Catered dinner for $15 extra available at certain performances. Call 316-618-0444 or go online at www.forumwichita.com