"There's some that calls the blues the devil's music. Well, honey, I done danced to the devil's music. So, I gotta give the devil his due."
So says blues icon Bessie Smith, to whom the devil is a frequent companion in "The Devil's Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith." This spirited, biographical music revue opened Wednesday night off-Broadway at St. Luke's Theatre.
Miche Braden delivers a powerhouse performance, doing a brassy, melodic turn as a lusty, hard-drinking, irrepressible Bessie Smith, who was known as the "Empress of the Blues."
Smith, a still-popular pioneer for black performers in segregated America, achieved hard-won success from the 1920s though the Great Depression, until her death at age 43 in a car crash.
This production of the show, which has been evolving for a decade, was conceived, directed and musically staged by Joe Brancato, with a book by Angelo Parra. Braden, who has performed in all iterations of the show, is also credited with musical direction and arrangement.
Parra's script includes some important highs and lows of Smith's life, shared as she reminisces with her band at a "buffet flat," a private, blacks-only club, in Memphis, Tenn., in October 1937. The intimate set by Michael Schweikardt and Braden's frequent, casual interactions with the audience enhance the concept that Smith is performing for fellow guests at an after-hours club.
Braden fully commands the stage, sassing the audience and sashaying around like the hard-living prima donna Smith was. Fully inhabiting her character, Braden alternates reminiscence with emotional renditions of potent blues classics such as "Baby Doll," "St. Louis Blues" and "T'aint Nobody's Bizness If I Do."
The dialogue, which segues naturally into the songs, ranges frankly over Smith's complex life, including her orphaned childhood, her persistence and triumph within the music industry, money troubles, racism, bisexuality and Prohibition. Tales of Smith's loyalty to a no-good husband, which resulted in domestic abuse and a shocking betrayal, lead to a heart-wrenching performance of "I Ain't Got Nobody."
The talented trio of musicians performing onstage as Smith's band include Jim Hankins (with the show for 10 years) as bass-player Pickle, Keith Loftis on saxophone, and Aaron Graves on piano. Warm interactions between the diva and Pickle add a human touch to Smith's outsize, dramatic outpourings.
At times collapsing in weariness or heartache, always searching for more booze, Braden's Smith rallies like a true performer, giving her all to each number, including Braden's red-hot original, "Devil Dance Blues (Sho Nuff Daddy)." She joyously and suggestively interacts with Loftis on the double-entendre song, "I Need A Little Sugar In My Bowl."
Melodramatic "premonitions" pause the pace, but Brancato's artful direction and Braden's charisma and honesty of emotion keep the energy flowing. The 80-minute show ends with a poignant "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" and leaves the audience wanting more — more of the energetic music, and more information about Smith's indomitable spirit.