Sunday, April 28, 2013

Big Mama! The Willie Mae Thornton Story

Big Mama! The Willie Mae Thornton Story
Conceived and written by Audrei-Kairen
Director: John Cooper
Music Director: Tim Williams
Produced by Bellfry Theatre (Victoria, B.C.)

Starring Jackie Richardson as Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton
Featuring Kevin Belzner (drums), Ron Casat (keyboards), Tim Williams (guitar)

Big Mama: The Willie Mae Thornton Story continues at the National Arts Centre Theatre in Ottawa through May 11. This review is based on the performance of April 26.

Big Mama Thornton, was a larger than life blues singer from Alabama. Born in 1926, she was active from the 1940s until her early death, at age 57, in 1984. She was one of the essential links on the chain between the classic blues singers like Bessie Smith who preceded her and the rock ‘n’ roll and blues-rock performers like Janis Joplin, whom she directly inspired. Jackie Richardson, a profoundly talented singer and actor is magnificent as she brings Thornton to back to life, telling her story and singing some of the songs she performed during her career in Big Mama! The Willie Mae Thornton Story, Audrei-Kairen’s masterful summation of Thornton’s life story.

Set on Christmas Eve in a nameless blues bar, somewhere in Canada in the early-1970s, the play begins like a typical blues club set. The band enters – keyboardist Ron Casat in a red Santa hat – and launches into the opening number, a terrific version of Charles Brown’s “Merry Christmas Baby,” perhaps the greatest of all Christmas blues tunes, sung by guitarist and musical director Tim Williams.

Then, Casat introduces the star of the show, Big Mama Thornton, and as soon as Richardson as Thornton enters, it’s obvious she owns the stage. Dressed androgynously, as Thornton often did, in loose fitting men’s clothes, Richardson is riveting whether singing – in a voice that’s somewhat fuller and much less abrasive than Thornton’s was – or offering a series of monologues in which Thornton tells the story of her life – and, also a compelling history of the blues, from how it developed from the songs slaves sang in the fields, to the work of such important figures as Bessie Smith, Memphis Minnie, Muddy Waters, Johnny Otis and many others.

As Thornton’s life story unfolds, we hear of her early life and her discovery of music – like so many early blues artists, she began to sing in the church – as well such definitive events as witnessing Johnny Ace’s 1954 accidental death from a self-inflicted gunshot wound while playing with his gun, and a love life that encompassed both men and women.

And, of course, we hear Thornton’s describe recording her biggest hit, “Hound Dog,” in 1952. Her version was a number 1 hit on the Billboard R&B charts for seven weeks years before a tamer version became an early rock ‘n’ roll hit for Elvis Presley. Richardson brilliantly conveys Thornton’s bitterness at not receiving a share of the songwriting credits and royalties she felt she justly deserved. True or not, it’s a great case study of the kind of rip-offs of early artists that were all too common in the music business of the 1950s.

She also fondly recalls the emergence of Janis Joplin and how Joplin asked Thornton’s permission to record her song, “Ball and Chain.”

As an actor, Richardson’s timing is impeccable. She variously moves the audience to tears and to laughter at just the right moments. As the great interpretive singer that she is, Richardson captures the spirit of Thornton without being at all imitative. That her voice is quite different is irrelevant. This is a role Jackie Richardson owns. After seeing this production, I cannot imagine someone else playing the part.

Her interpretations of such numbers as “Hound Dog,” “Ball and Chain,” “Sassy Mama,” “Summertime,” “They Call Me Big Mama,” and so many others are superb. And part of the reason for that, of course, is the great band. Kevin Belzner, Ron Casat and Tim Williams are a terrific, versatile blues combo whether playing on the quietest numbers or the most raucous.

Lending to the authenticity of the performance is Richardson’s knack to get the theatre audience to respond as the audience might have at a great Thornton performance back in the day. During “Sassy Mama,” she randomly pulled three women out of the audience and each responded perfectly as they danced and sang along on stage.

I went to see Big Mama Thornton in Montreal at the Rising Sun club sometime in the late-‘70s. Although she was backed by the Stephen Barry Band – then, as now, Montreal’s best blues ensemble – she was clearly in decline and obviously not in the best of spirits. I recall feeling sad leaving the club after the show. In contrast, this performance by Jackie Richardson was invigorating, moving and inspired. Oh, how I wish I’d seen Thornton herself when she could perform like that.

This production of Big Mama! The Willie Mae Thornton Story is a great night of theatre and a great night of blues. I offer my highest recommendation.

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--Mike Regenstreif

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