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The Stackner Gets ‘Dirty’

A trip to Chicago with ‘Low Down Dirty Blues’

Mar. 23, 2015
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Photo by Michael Brosilow

For the final show of its 2014/2015 season, Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s Stackner Cabaret continues its season-long exploration of the American songbook. This time around the focus is on blues music, specifically the kind of blues music best enjoyed away from mixed company. Low Down Dirty Blues stars Tony Award nominee Felicia P. Fields as Big Mama, a character as outsized as her name promises. She’s the bawdy owner of a nightclub on Chicago’s South Side, and for her the blues is music of the flesh. She sings almost exclusively in come-ons and double entendres, peppering the roaring Stackner audience with suggestive quips between songs.

Joining her are three musicians who each come to the blues from different backgrounds, including Caron “Sugaray” Rayford as a singer drawn to the rougher edges of rhythm and blues and Chic Street Man as a soft-spoken guitarist schooled in the traditional sounds of Delta blues. And Big Mama, despite her ribald demeanor, reveals herself to be a preacher’s daughter raised in the pews but unable to resist the carnal allure of “the devil’s music.”

The script forgoes plot in favor of the simple pleasure of watching four charismatic musicians cavort after hours, yet Dirty Blues manages to flesh out characters that could’ve been one-note archetypes. In a couple of exchanges, the players lament the commercialization of blues music, berating Chicago tourists who seek out authentic blues clubs then request the same songs night after night. And while a few of those overly familiar tunes inevitably work their way into this program, including Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign” and Muddy Waters’ “I Got My Mojo Workin’,” the show dedicates most of its attention to relatively deep cuts from figures like Denise LaSalle, Lil Johnson and Alberta Hunter. Big Mama’s preferred music may be the salacious kind that gives Low Down Dirty Blues its title, but the show recognizes that there’s no one right way to approach the blues, a genre that can be at once lewd and romantic, irreverent and profound, joyfully sinful and deeply spiritual.

Low Down Dirty Blues runs through May 24 at the Stackner Cabaret, 108 E. Wells St. For tickets, call 414-224-9490 or visit milwaukeerep.com.

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