"I gotta right to sing the blues, I gotta right to moan inside, I gotta right to sit and cry"

North Coast Rep Opens Theatre Year with Blues in the Night. An "Oldie but a Goodie" that will Guarantee not only a Wonderful but also a Soul-Searching Night Out 

A Blog View by Alejandra Enciso-Dardashti

(L-R) Karole Foreman, Ciarra Stroud & Anise Ritchie

To welcome 2023, NCR Theatre in Solana Beach brought back the classic Blues in the Night conceived and originally directed by Sheldon Epps. A musical that debuted Off-Broadway in 1980 and two years later on Broadway. The original vocal arrangements and musical direction is by Chapman Roberts and Sy Johnson is responsible for orchestrations and additional vocal arrangements. 

The packed 26-song production spread out in two acts takes place during the late 30s in a rundown Chicago hotel where three women (played by Karole Forman, Anise Ritchie, and Ciarra Stroud) let the audience in on their failed love relationship -amongst other things- with the same man (Elijah Rock).

Ciarra Stroud photo by Aaron Rumley
Even though the piece moves smoothly without dialogue and the songs tell the story, it is a complex production with several moving parts with a five-piece jazz band as backdrop composed by Kevin Tomey in piano and leading the group, Roy Jenkins in bass, Danny King in drums, Malcolm Jones in reeds, and Thomas Alforque with the trumpet. The band immediately introduces the mood while audiences walk in the theatre and see them onstage lighting up the place along with Marty Burnett's set design with three different stations or rooms where each woman will share her triumphs and sorrows. The cool aspect I enjoyed was that the rooms are decorated with the personality of each woman which is confirmed as they sing their songs so, you start following both listening to the lyrics, and peacing the description with the design as well as with the props, designed by Chris Williams. Lighting is always key in production but here, more so because each song ends with a bang! and Matthew Novotny's lighting design guides the song to the end when it pops, making audiences want more and know what is coming next. The women's trio is a display of impressive, strong vocals with a tessitura mix that is just right. Karole Forman and Anise Ritchie each bring the seasoned flare with poise and style. Ciarra Stroud in her NCR debut is striking and delivers fierce interpretation, all three rocking Roxane Carrasco's choreography that involves all types of "eights" from paced and marked to fast and extreme. Elijah Rock as the Man in the Saloon but also -that guy-, right? is sort of the wild card amongst all the estrogen and in addition to a great voice he does a mean tap solo that I wish was screened for everybody to see, just like they do in concerts so you do not miss the details. Regan A. McKay's costume design is detailed, nostalgic and full of sass. I particularly loved a white tool dress with black and red stripes that Anise Ritchie changed to onstage and, in a different scene, a big white hat made from the same material, absolutely stunning. 
Elijah Rock - photo by Aaron Rumley

In all productions, you have the creative thread with each element and the creatives in charge. Here in Blues in the Night, you see it clearly not only dance-wise but for example how the three actresses line up and pose before and after each song accentuated by the lighting, musicalized by the beats, and guided by Yvette Freeman Hartley's direction from the simplest thing like changing clothes onstage with finesse it all is definitely in the detail and like I mentioned in the beginning, the thread between all the elements, moving pieces is clear. Sy Johnson as the arranger, Lanny Hartley as the musical director, and Matt FitzGerald in sound design which puts everything together has it make sense, and keeps it crisp each performance throughout the run is a huge task that I recognize and praise.

Anise Ritchie - Photo by Aaron Rumley
Freeman Hartley in the director's letter shares that this production celebrates the blues genre, created in the 20th Century in the Deep South by African American slaves, a combination of spirituals, hollers, chants, and work songs, and all of this is absolutely communicated and it is part of the joys of this production that starts a tad slow but grasps momentum as it runs and both the rhythm of the show and the tone of the songs goes up, prompting oh's, ah's, and giggles to straight up cackles with how the raunch takes place in various songs like Kitchen Man or Take it Right Back which is the perfect segway to intermission. 

There are so many songs in this revue that were made famous by Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith amongst other greats, that it is even like a history class told with music. I am glad that there are music streaming platforms amongst us to learn more and understand better.

Karole Foreman - photo by Aaron Rumley

Blues in the Night is a fantastic production that reflects hard work and creativity. Bravo to North Coast Rep for spicing it up with some diversity in their season opener. The performance I saw btw was midweek and packed! A good testament that it's been a long time coming and it should be here to stay.

Currently performing and extended to Sunday, February 12. For dates and times please click here. 

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