One purely American form of music is the blues. At the Cleveland Play House, “The Devil’s Music” explores this genre through the life and music of Bessie Smith. While this show could be called a valentine, it also looks at the complex and dark side of the woman who was known as the “Empress of the Blues.” The structure of “The Devil’s Music” is that of Bessie talking to the audience about her life and singing a dozen songs in the show’s 90 minutes.
Miche Braden is the star of the show, portraying Bessie Smith. She is also the musical director, arranger and composer of two of the pieces. Backed by a trio of musicians on piano, bass and saxophone, Braden builds the show from her entrance, singing her own “Bad Mood Blues.” This is Bessie arriving in Memphis, Tenn.
The setting of “The Devil’s Music” is intriguing. A “buffet flat” was a private club for blacks, often owned by women, where music, liquor, gambling and nothing-barred sex provided a refuge from white segregation. Among the clients of buffet flats were train workers, Pullman porters, who served whites but had a sophistication themselves.
Bessie Smith herself fancied both women and men sexually, and the buffet flats were the perfect place to live her desires, away from her husband Jack, himself a philanderer.
Through the show, Bessie tells us about her troubled childhood, the ironic statement of record producers that she was “too black” and then becoming a star for Capitol Records, and the sad ordeal of her adopted son being taken from her in a court action.
“The Devil’s Music” has only two songs written by Bessie Smith. The show comes alive when Braden belts out “Blame It on the Blues,” one of the better-known songs in the show, which comes about 30 minutes into the 90-minute performance. The audience loved “I Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl,” and Braden is delightfully bawdy in it. A second climax is W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” which is so melodic. The instrumental trio gets to wail as much as Bessie does in this one.
The unique talent of Miche Braden makes this show a success, but Jim Hankins on bass, George Caldwell on piano and Keith Loftis on saxophone help as well. The private club setting, designed by Michael Schweikardt, is lush. Todd Wren’s lighting alternates as realistic and theatrical. Braden “connects” with each of the audience members, making strong eye contact with all parts of the audience. This helps later in the show, when the audience, presumably guests at the buffet flat, are invited to participate in Braden’s created “Devil Dance Blues.”
I was not completely satisfied with the theatricality of the show. Some transitions from song to narration seemed clunky and awkward. Still, the power of the show is partly due to the blues and partly to the creative staff, which has preserved the important heritage of Bessie Smith. “The Devil’s Music” runs through March 10 at the Allen Theatre at PlayhouseSquare.