The great blues singer Bessie Smith is getting a revival at St. Luke’s Theatre, an intimate Off-Broadway venue on West 46th Street, thanks to a powerhouse performance by Miche Braden in The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith. With no more than a pointed look and a swish of the hips, the Drama Desk Award-nominated Braden commands the room the minute she enters. And it doesn’t hurt that the lady’s got pipes.
If, like me, you’re not so well-versed in 1920s and ’30s blues, The Devil’s Music is an entertaining education in delectable music that’s full of sass and soul (and even I knew a few of the tunes, like “I Ain’t Got Nobody” and “St. Louis Blues”). The show is staged as though it’s Bessie Smith’s final performance, delivered in what was known as a “buffet flat,” a private establishment where African-Americans were allowed to gather and socialize in the segregated South.
The songs are the main event, but Smith also shares anecdotes from her tumultuous life, which included an impoverished youth, a troubled marriage, and a serious drinking problem. Playwright Angelo Parra does a nice job of working in enough of the famed blues singer’s personal drama to give The Devil’s Music some emotional heft, but it’s not so much a play as a concert (a fabulous jazz combo provides onstage accompaniment). I’m not really in a position to judge how accurately Miche Braden is evoking Bessie Smith, but the lady should be a star in her own right. She’s a captivating singer and actress, and in her seemingly effortless performance she does a marvelous job of showing the playful side of the blues.
The Devil’s Music plays on Mondays at 7pm. You can get tickets here.