Thursday, June 21, 2018

33 (2018-2019): Review: LONESOME BLUES (seen June 20, 2018)

"One Sweet Lemon"

With the York Theatre’s elevator still out of order, you have to descend four flights of steps to reach its latest production, Lonesome Blues, down in the depths of St. Peter’s Church. There are some uplifting moments in the show itself but not enough to return you to street level, for which, if you wish, another elevator is available to do the job.

Akin Babatundé. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Lonesome Blues is the young season’s second bio-dramatic revelation of the life and music of a now largely forgotten singing artist. A few blocks away, at 59E59 Theaters, French chanteuse Suzy Solidor is being resuscitated by Jessica Walker in All I Want Is One Night. At the York, in Lonesome Blues, actor, director, and writer Akin Babatundé is reincarnating the life of sightless blues warbler, Lemon Henry “Blind Lemon” Jefferson.
Akin Babatundé. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Babatundé previously portrayed him in his more substantially developed bio-musical, Blind Lemon Blues, seen briefly at the York, and elsewhere, in 2007, followed by a full staging at the York in 2009. Blind Lemon Blues itself was the outgrowth of an even larger-scale show called Blind Lemon: Prince of Country Blues, produced in 2001.
Akin Babatundé. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Texas bluesman Jefferson (1893-1929) died at 36, considerably younger than whatever Babatundé’s age checks in at. Discovered by a talent scout on a Dallas street corner in 1925, Jefferson enjoyed a sensational four years of success, recording over 80 “race” songs, as they were called, and having an indelible influence on many great soul singers who followed in his wake, like Lead Belly (mentioned often) and B.B. King. August Wilson once considered dramatizing Blind Lemon’s life but shifted instead to Ma Rainey when he failed to uncover enough background on the singer.
Akin Babatundé. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
For the production, directed by Katherine Owens, designer James Morgan (the York’s artistic director) has removed the theatre's stage and proscenium, placing the action on the actual floor. The acting area thus opened up is far more expansive than anything I’ve seen here before although it’s perhaps unnecessary for such an intimate show, whose only performers are Babatundé and, at stage left, the brilliant guitarist David Weiss.
Akin Babatundé.,Dave Weiss. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The rear wall is covered with what seems a photo mural of a brick wall with a filled-in archway. Although it looks like a back alley, it’s intended to be outside a Chicago train station on a cold Chicago day in 1929, with a few pieces of luggage, and some dried leaves scattered on the ground.

Babatundé narrates a script he co-wrote with Alan Govenar depicting the mood-shifting Blind Lemon waiting for a ride as, nearing death, he reminisces about his life and career. A stout man with a shaved head, Babatundé wears a period ensemble designed by Gelacio Eric Gibson: round-rimmed, dark glasses, a black coat, tieless white shirt, and long white scarf, donning and doffing a black fedora as he moves about. A cane serves as a useful prop; when it’s held as a guitar we can’t help but wish Babatundé, like Jefferson, could accompany himself.
Akin Babatundé. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
His narrative, delivered in a thick Southern drawl, is sketchy and poetic, with a number of sequences in which Babatundé changes his voice to play various characters. For all its contemporary and personal references, though, the script plays second fiddle to over 30 songs. Some are heard only in snatches, some are sung acapella, and most will be unfamiliar to any but musical historians.

The average theatregoer will appreciate hearing a small number of standards, like “Rock Island Line” and “Motherless Child” (given an especially poignant interpretation). Most of the blues songs, like “Deep Elum Blues,” “Elm Street Blues,” “Got the Blues,” and “Christmas Eve Blues” are in the classic vein, but this creates a sense of repetitiveness over the course of the show’s intermissionless hour and 25 minutes.
Akin Babatundé. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Babatundé is impressive, with a broad and expressive range going from bass to falsetto, a flexibility he employs both in song and speech. The production around him is simple, with only Steve Woods’s supple lighting changes to enhance the physical aspects. Projections of period images might help make this a less visually boring work.
Akin Babatundé. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
In essence, however well-performed and historically interesting it is, Lonesome Blues's disconnected and barely dramatic tale, which references the singer’s romantic life as well as his professional one, is coupled with too many similar songs. The result is a biographically inflected blues concert for aficionados, not the wider public.. 


York Theatre
619 Lexington Ave., NYC
Through July 1