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November 17, 2001
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Play Review: Big Mama

Big Mama strikes the right chord
The Roxy rocks with story of blues legend
By COLIN MACLEAN


EDMONON -- "Tonight, I'm going to tear the roof off this joint,'' says Jackie Richardson as the blues legend in Big Mama: The Willie Mae Thornton Story, a Theatre Network production now playing at the Roxy.

And then she proceeds to do just that.

Big Mama Thornton was the last of the pure blues shouters - a direct descendant in the line of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. During her lifetime "the blues'' went through a major transformation - first to R&B and then on to rock 'n' roll.

Through it all, Thornton maintained her own rugged, unique style. She had the attitude of an alley cat and a voice as big as Alabama - where she was born.

Like many before her (and after), Willie Mae got her start singing in church but by the time she was 14 she was on the road with the Sammy Green Hot Harlem Review. She had a moderately successful career, with long periods of poverty when she worked as a bouncer or picking cotton. There were a number of big hit recordings on the "race'' charts; she recorded Hound Dog before Elvis and Ball and Chain before Janis.

If the times were hard for Willie Mae, Andrei-Kairen's script gives us little of it. She was a young black girl on the road in the southern states of the '50s. She often had to sleep in the fields with the men when they couldn't find (or afford) a hotel.

This is dramatic stuff but the obvious pain of that experience is not transmitted. It is only hinted at in a script that would rather talk about pickin' cotton and recycling old chestnuts about the sway of the blues - "the blues is stayin' in touch'' or "the blues is powerful stuff.''

Andrei-Kairen, however, knows how to tell a story and her tales of Thornton's life are interesting if not gripping. John Cooper's production is sympathetic to script and performer and works in some pointed social comment as well. One slide projected on the wall of Witek Wisniewski's rickety juke joint set proclaims, "Help save white children. Don't buy Negro records.''

But what a platform this production gives to a powerhouse performer. Like Thornton, Jackie Richardson is larger than life. Whether spinning tales about laying some poor old lecher out stone cold when he tried to grope her at the age of 14 to her tender description of the (supposed) love of her life Johnny Ace, (who killed himself in front of her playing Russian roulette), she is an awesomely commanding performer.

She works the audience as if, like Thornton herself, she had years of experience in the rowdy juke joints of the South. Funny, brusque and with attitude to spare, she has us singing along and, at one point, dancing with her on stage. And sing. Can this lady sing. She has a huge range. The voice is as warm and enveloping as a breeze from the bayou. She finds infinite expression in the simple chord structures of the blues.

Whether wringing every sexual nuance out of Thornton's hit Wang Dang Doodle or delivering up the kind of down-home, gut-bucket bluesy version of a show-stopping Summertime that Gershwin could only dream of, her strong powerful voice and emotional reading has to be experienced to be believed. Her down and dirty version of Hound Dog is about as far from Elvis as Bessie Smith is from Britney Spears.

There is remarkable chemistry between the three performers on stage - musical and otherwise. Ron Casat lays down a supportive wall of sound on the keyboards and musical director Tim Williams, playing a series of guitars ranging from slidin' to pickin', supplies not only an accommodating accompaniment but often steps forward to play a raunchy solo.

Says Big Mama Thornton, "I'm here to testify to the power of the blues.''

Everybody say Amen!

Big Mama: The Willie Mae Thornton Story runs at the Roxy Theatre until Dec. 2. (More: Theatre Reviews).

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