Blind Lemon Blues
The York Theatre Company, NYC
Reviewed by John Kenrick
The blues come in all sorts of hues, and as seen in the York Theatre's latest production, the new musical Blind Lemon Blues offers a joyous, soulful rainbow of them. It is based on the life story of Lemon Jefferson, a blind African American street musician who became a recording star in the mid to late 1920s. Alan Govenar and Akin Babatunde have built an inventive libretto that lovingly weaves together more than sixty classic blues numbers to tell Blind Lemon's story. From the mournful to the raunchy, its all here and flows as smoothly as vintage scotch. While I think the authors might consider trimming the first act by a very few minutes (the latter part drags a bit), there is no denying that overall Blind Lemon Blues is one hell of a good time.
Rather than a ho-hum "and then he sang" story, the authors set the action in the mind of another musical legend, Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter, who interrupts a grueling recording session to recall his long-ago friendship with Blind Lemon. A small ensemble fills a number of supporting roles and provides an ongoing, sometimes echoing commentary, but the bulk of the dialogue belongs to Ledbetter and Blind Lemon. This no frills approach allows audiences to feast on the music and the talents of those offering it.
Happily, the talents on hand are rich and delicious. Aside from co-authoring, choreographing and directing, Akin Babatunde gives a riveting and sensitive performance in the title role, bringing this multi-faceted character to irresistible life. Cavin Yarbrough is equally effective as Lead Belly, and there is a knockout performance by Broadway's own Lilias White -- who just became involved with this long-developing project and stops everything cold with the raunchy "Butcher Shop Blues." The wonderful Benita Arterberry, Timothy Parham and Alisa Peoples Yarbrough all have memorable moments. Few shows require such a uniformly top-notch ensemble, which makes it all the more of a pleasure to see these folks in action.
There is a simple, sleek set by Russell Parkman, excellent lighting by Steve Woods and handsome period costumes by Tommy Bourgeois. It is impossible to say how much of a hand choreographic consultant Norma Miller and directorial consultant Obba Babatunde (Akim's brother) had in these proceedings, but praise is clearly due to all concerned.
At present, Blind Lemon Blues is set to run for just a week before a mini-tour. Such a fine entertainment deserves a much longer hearing in New York, and I think regional theatres all across the United States would do well to consider this heartfelt gem. Such simple, eloquent pleasure is not to be taken for granted. If this winner passes anywhere near you, be sure to catch it.