Blues is the Roots and Everything Else is the Fruits – a review of “Blues is in the Roots”

By Lonnie the Theater Lady

This world-premiere biographical musical about Willie Dixon, opens in a courtroom in Chicago in 1977. Willie Dixon (Sam Lothard), his wife Marie (Michele Bankole) and Muddy Waters (Nickolas Page) are suing Chess Records because of a financial dispute.

From the courtroom, the audience is transported back to Willie’s childhood to trace the sequence of events leading up to the courtroom scene. From an early age, Willie spoke poetically and often in rhyme, foreshadowing his songwriting career. His mother Daisy (Angelique A. Strothers) gave birth to fourteen children, of which Willie was number seven. (The inspiration for the song “I’m The One They Call the Seventh Son”). His mother stressed the importance of education to her children as well as the role that their ancestors played in laying the foundation (roots) of who they would become.  Willie started singing in the church choir when he was only four years old. He later spent time in a prison farm when he was just thirteen years old–after being convicted of a fabricated misdemeanor.

He was a heavyweight boxer, a jailed conscientious objector, a producer, musician, vocalist, and musical arranger. He was a prolific songwriter, with over 500 songs written. All of his accomplishments, however, take a backseat to the textured music in this show. This is not simply a play about Willie’s life. It’s a concert/musical revue that entertains and captivates. In addition, it’s a sometimes excruciatingly painful look into Jim Crow laws and the historically brutal treatment of African Americans in this country.

Left to right: Kevin Brown, Angelique Strothers, and Mils MJ James sing.
From left to right: Sam Lothard, Nickolas Page, Cole McGlumphy take the stage.

Sam Lothard is perfectly cast as Willie. He is marvelous in this role. Not only is he comfortable and totally natural in his embodiment of Willie, but he is having the time of his life. It’s a joy to watch him as he confidently enjoys himself on stage. And, oh, yeah, he can sing the blues–with real emotion, — in fact, he owns the blues. I love his rendition of “I’m Ready” as he playfully flirts with Marie, his future wife. He kills it with every one of his musical numbers.

Nicholas Page  (Muddy Waters) exudes charm. His pompadour wig and period costume (Deryck Tines Mitchell, designer) contribute to his striking resemblance to Muddy Waters.

Kevin Brown plays his multiple roles smoothly with sophistication and aplomb. His portrayal of Otis Rush singing “I Can’t Quit You Baby” is a show-stopper.

Michele Bankole as Etta James is comically entertaining as she sings Hoochie Coochie Man– her beautiful, rich voice shines in this and in all of her numbers.

Mils “M.J.” James as Sonny Boy Williamson performs a rendition of “Back Door Man” that is steaming hot—–ever so sexy—phew!  He later transforms into Chuck Berry—singing “Maybelline” as he accurately impersonates many of Chuck’s distinct dance moves. His spirited performance is a real crowd-pleaser!

Angelique A. Strothers beautifully sings Koko Taylor’s hit “All Night Long.” It’s a number that one could listen to all night long. (on repeat and be perfectly happy). Her voice is stunning in every one of her numbers.

Jenny Malarky plays multiple roles–both male and female–she does them all with panache that showcases her great versatility.

The entire cast and ensemble, (too numerous to mention) is strong, energetic and engaging. Every musical number, without exception, is sung with passion and without inhibition. The director, Herb Newsome, brings out the best in all of the actors, in their acting, movement, and vocals. He makes sure that every magical moment is used to its full advantage.

The playwright, Charles Dumas, is not only the first tenured Black professor (now emeritus) in the Penn State Black School of Theater but is Willie Dixon’s great nephew, as well. His loving tribute to Willie is bound to be a hit that withstands the test of time. I think it’s reasonable to expect to see this playing on Broadway in the not-too-distant future.

This production by New Horizon Theater is an exceptionally well-acted musical masterpiece that is not to be missed. It’s a show that begs to be seen, and savored, more than once!

-LTL

“Blues is in the Roots” runs until February 18 at the Pittsburgh Public Theater’s Helen Wayne Rauh Rehearsal Hall – 621 Penn Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15222. For more information, click here.

-LTL

“Blues is in the Roots” runs until February 18 at the Pittsburgh Public Theater’s Helen Wayne Rauh Rehearsal Hall – 621 Penn Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15222. For more information, click here.

One Reply to “Blues is the Roots and Everything Else is the Fruits – a review of “Blues is in the Roots””

  1. Thank you for the glowing review. I think the Herb Newsome, cast and crew deserve the kudos for their wonderful production

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