In The Devil's Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith, now at the Theatre at St. Luke's, Miche Braden as Bessie commands the stage like an empress -- which is only fitting because Bessie Smith was known as The Empress of the Blues. She gives a towering performance that fully and forcefully brings Bessie and her music to life.
Conceived and directed by Joe Brancato and written by Angelo Parra, the play uses a simple and effective conceit to tell its story. Taking place shortly before Smith's untimely death in a car crash, the bitter yet defiant blues singer is found in an after-hours club in the Deep South. Earlier that evening she was refused entrance through the front door of the whites-only club in which she was headlining. Rather than enter through the back door, she refused to perform and stormed away.
The incident fuels her fury as she tells the folks in the audience the story of her life, while singing the songs that made her the best selling recording artist of the 1920s after Enrico Caruso and Al Jolson. Fortunately, the play makes sure to keep Bessie's story on a human scale, letting her tell us about her life not in the grand manner of a star citing her personal and career triumphs, but rather like a flawed yet ferociously lusty woman, telling it in intoxicated bursts of passion that capture an elemental mixture of grandeur and tragedy.
Braden does interact with her on-stage band, particularly with her bass player, Pickle (Jim Hankins). He is less a character, though, than an instrument (you'll excuse the expression) that allows Bessie some transitional moments. Meanwhile, Braden puts over some of Smith's most famous songs, including "I Ain't Got Nobody," "St. Louis Blues," and "Taint Nobody's Business if I Do," among many others.
If you only know the name Bessie Smith, but nothing much about her life and music, this 90-minute show will be both an education and a revelation.