Monday, September 21, 2009

Blind Lemon Blues


Written by Alan Govenar and Akin Babatunde. Direction, musical staging, and choreography by Akin Babatunde. At the York Theatre. (CLOSED)

The major outlier in this show's crop of reviews is The New Yorker's unsigned (and apparently, unproofed) blurb deriding the show as a soporific. Otherwise, notices range from appreciative to borderline-ecstatic. Debate arises over whether or not it was wise to focus on legendary Blues pioneer Blind Lemon Jefferson's music as oppose to his life, and with roughly seventy songs in two acts (including some composed just for the show), some critics admit to feeling a bit overwhelmed. Blues enthusiast Matt Roberson at, on the hand is quite happy with the show, in particular its second act. A-
(Matt Roberson) In this two act musical, Act I is structured primarily like a revue, with the story of Lemon never moving far from his carefree days as a small-time blues man. Through the songs, we hear tall tales of Lemon and Lead's many close brushes with the law, angry husbands, and fast moving trains. And while it's an important story, pulled together by some incredible performances... the act as a whole is lacking... The same cannot be said of Act II... Incredibly moving in both its music and its staging, it is a beautiful second act, finally providing the dramatic canvas so well-deserved by this deeply talented cast. Led by Akin Babatunde (Lemon), whose theatre credits show a man deeply committed to preserving the traditions and history of Black America, it will be hard to find more enjoyable singing in New York this season. Moving effortlessly between raucous, Southern-fried blues numbers and old, angelic spirituals, this cast of six more than makes up for the few moments when the script and staging fall short. Special mention is required of Cavin Yarbrough, who, as Lead Belly and Blind Willy Johnson, serves as a proud reminder that America's greatest talents are never found on televised contests... Blind Lemon Blues is a good play, held up by a terrific cast, whose devotion and appreciation for the subject more than makes up for the production's missteps early on.

Assoicated Press A-
The blues can take many forms. It's latest form has taken shape nicely in Akin Babatunde's sweetly enthralling performance as the title character in "Blind Lemon Blues," an inspired, highly original tribute to blues singer and guitarist "Blind" Lemon Jefferson. More than just a revue of Jefferson's countless country blues classics, this abstract narrative tells the story of his rise from a legendary street musician in Dallas to a top-selling recording artist who became a seminal influence on American popular music... thoroughly entertaining.

Theatermania B
(Barbara and Scott Siegel) The show, which is being given a fuller production than the one that the York did two years ago, gives us a long overdue sense of the man's music and his milieu, but offers perhaps a bit less about his life than one might like. The book is a cross between a tone poem and a straight-on narrative, told through the memory of jazz great Lead Belly (Cavin Yarbrough). His tale includes other seminal jazz and blues artists who were working at that time, including Blind Willie Johnson (also played by Yarbrough), who tried to take over Blind Lemon's street corner while the master was in Chicago recording. Their musical duel for the corner is one of the most thrilling moments in the show. The reason it stands out, however, is because it's also one of the few moments of drama in this musical that is otherwise more interested in the man's music rather than the man, himself.

Backstage B-
(David Sheward) Halfway between a revue and a full-fledged biography, Blind Lemon Blues satisfies musical cravings but leaves one hungry for narrative or at least a few more details. In a return engagement by the York Theatre Company after a brief run in 2007, this pastiche offers a sketchy picture of Blind Lemon Jefferson, the legendary blues singer and guitarist who went from performing with a tin cup on the streets of Dallas to being the first commercially successful African-American male musical artist. Creators Alan Govenar and Akin Babatunde, who also directs, choreographs, and plays Jefferson, skim over their subject's fascinating life story to concentrate on his music. The show is stuffed with numbers—there are more than 60 listed in the program—boldly performed and staged with brio and vibrancy on the tiny stage. The mood easily shifts from rollicking and rowdy to reverent and reflective and back again. But the star of the show remains a mysterious and unknowable figure.

Time Out New York C+
(Andy Propst) once you get past the cheesy choreography and the irritating conceit of having the ensemble repeat certain lines and musical phrases almost as if this were a call-and-response revival, you find that the creators have brought back some extraordinary music that’s lapsed into obscurity. What’s more, the tunes are delivered with power and passion. Babatunde uses his tremulous falsetto and mellifluous bass to excellent effect, and Inga Ballard, Carmen Ruby Floyd and Alisa Peoples Yarbrough are fierce when they metamorphose into female singers of the 1920s. These performances give us no reason to sing the blues, but the production surrounding them is a low-down crying shame.

Talkin' Broadway C+
(Matthew Murray) Let’s not quibble too much over the colors - there are only so many any songwriter-showcase biomusical can evoke, even under the best of circumstances.... Alan Govenar and Akin Babatunde’s whirlwind trip through the real and imagined songstack of blues guitarist Blind Lemon Jefferson is limited to sunset violet and sepia, depression and Depression in vision as well as fact. That doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed a bad time at this show, which the York Theatre Company has just reopened (it played an extremely limited run in early 2007), just an unexceptional one. Govenar and Babatunde, the latter of whom directed, choreographed, and stars as Jefferson, have even taken the unusual step of composing well-matched new songs (and quite a few), but it’s not enough. When the primary accompaniment is guitar (played by the admittedly virtuosic Skip Krevens) and a few snatches of piano, and the nearly 70 songs performed are limited in genre to one of either “Southern heartbreak” or “Southern sex coyness,” its originality and your patience don’t take long to evaporate.

New Yorker D-
This cramped production, in which Lead Belly (Cavin Yarbrough), near the end of his life, looks back on the days when he and Blind Lemon travelled [sic] the country playing music, practically puts the audience to sleep with a seemingly endless string of blues numbers performed Broadway-style, without a bit of authentic soul. The co-writer, director, and choreographer, Akin Babatunde, would have been wise to hire a bona-fide blues musician to play the role of Blind Lemon, rather than casting himself in the role.

NYTR A- 12; AP A- 12; TM B+ 11; BS B- 9; TONY C+ 8; TB C+ 8; TNY D- 3; TOTAL = 63/7=9 (B-)

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