As great performers of the past go, Bessie Smith would have to be among the most challenging to re-create. Her immensely powerful voice remains one of the most memorable instruments in early jazz, comparable in impact to the sound of Louis Armstrong’s trumpet. And her personality? Again, like Pops, Bessie projected so many things, such a kaleidoscope of attitudes and emotions, from stone-cold cynicism of the lewdest sort to intense, ecstatic vulnerability, that she would seem impossible to capture through a contemporary performance. Although it is a great challenge, having seen Miche Braden in The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith at the Rubicon on Saturday, February 25, I know it can be done and done well. Bessie Smith lives again in this performance, in all her ragged, tipsy glory, and Braden sings the music with a perfect balance between purity and grit.
Accompanied (and then some) by a three-piece jazz combo, Braden portrays Smith relaxing in a “buffet flat,” which was a private apartment where food, liquor, and other things were available after hours. Over frequent swigs from her collection of silver flasks, Smith reminisces about the hardships of life on the road, the excitement of making it big, her struggles with men, and her affairs with women. In lesser hands, the narrative might have become either condescending or obscure, but playwright Angelo Parra and director Joe Brancato know what they are doing, and the result is a clear and compelling story rife with enough specific detail to satisfy the most knowledgeable of historians. With its bawdy jokes and innuendo-laden horseplay, The Devil’s Music might not be for everyone, but like its subject, the great Bessie Smith, for many it will be just the thing to chase your troubles away.
At the Rubicon Theatre, Sat., Feb. 25. Shows through Mar. 12.