Felicia P. Fields alone is worth a ticket to Porchlight Music Theatre’s production of Blues in the Night at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts. And that is not meant as a slight to the rest of the highly talented cast. Fields, a much-decorated Chicago stage veteran, steals the show without even trying to do so.
Fields may not be a mega-celebrity but she is surely a household name in this city’s tight-knit entertainment community. In 2007, then-Gov. Pat Quinn declared a Felicia P. Fields Day. The next year she earned a Tony Award nomination for her Broadway performance in The Color Purple. And in 2021, she received Porchlight’s Guy Adkins Award for Excellence in the Advancement of Music Theatre.
You can see why from beginning to end of Blues in the Night, directed and choreographed by Kenny Ingram. The show—a Tony nominee for Best Musical when it opened on Broadway in 1982—is set in a residential hotel on Chicago’s South Side in the late 1930s. And Fields, playing The Lady from the Road (none of the characters have actual names), takes over the stage in an early scene, leafing through a scrapbook of memories of her past as a star vocalist on the “chitlin circuit” and showing off the outfits that no longer fit her.
This wistfulness turns into a cry of pain toward the end of the show as Fields sings the gospel-inflected “Wasted Life Blues.” In between, she shows her range with “Take Me for a Buggy Ride,” an innuendo-laced comic romp that she performs wearing a riding helmet and wielding a crop.
She also shares the spotlight with Donica Lynn (The Woman of the World) and Clare Kennedy (The Girl with a Date) on the electric ensemble number “It Makes My Love Come Down,” and she goes deep as leadoff on the title song, a 1941 landmark as a popular hit by white songwriters (Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer) that uses Black dialect in the lyrics (“My mama done told me…”).
Lynn had a star turn in Sophisticated Ladies, Porchlight’s rendition of the revue built around Duke Ellington’s music, which was staged in early 2020, just before COVID forced theaters to go dark. The power vocalist reached down deep for blues gravel on solos that included a poignant rendition of Benny Goodman’s “Stompin’ at the Savoy” (her lament of faded glory) and the randy “Rough and Ready Man.”
The youthful Kennedy, who graduated from Northwestern University in 2020, has a powerful voice that fits comfortably in the blues range. Fields, in an aside during a Kennedy solo, said, “See, white people can sing the blues.”
Her character is a bit of an odd fit in the story line, though. She enters as an ingenue with starry eyes on romance — her opening solo is the chipper 1940 tune “Taking a Chance on Love”—and a suitcase containing her on-the-town dresses and a big stuffed bear. Her overnight conversion to a whiskey-swilling cynic feels a bit forced when playing off characters whose blues come from a lifetime of disappointment.
Evan Tyrone Martin is the male lead in the role of The Man in the Saloon, a bar crooner (accompanied by a five-piece, all-male combo) who has issues of his own. The tall, lanky Martin has a silky voice that he has utilized previously in a pair of one-man Nat King Cole tribute shows, and he gets center stage with solos of Sir Duke’s “I’m Just a Lucky So-and-So,” and “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues.”
The only other male role, performed by Terrell Armstrong, is The Dancing Man, a mysterious character who woos and jilts the three women characters as he slides in and out of the action. He has no dialogue but still makes an impression with his lithe swing dancing and balletic leaps.
The show’s closing number is “I Got a Right to Sing the Blues.” You’ll likely agree that the characters do, and the performers do it well.
Blues in the Night has been extended with performances through March 20. Tickets are $62-74 except for the Feb. 17 matinee, when they are $45-57, and can be purchased by clicking here. The Ruth Page Center is located at 1060 N. Dearborn, between Maple and Oak.
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