“It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues'' arrives like a cool, scented breeze off the Mis sissippi after the pumped-up turgidities of 'The Civil War'' and the dumbed-down stupidities of 'The Gershwins' Fascinating Rhythm.''
In 'Blues,'' seven radiant performers take us on the musical journey with emotional energy and communal electricity.
The first songs heard are African songs, the music of a free people. In bondage was born the blues, and there were two main blues streams - secular and religious, sex and God. Ron Taylor, a large and genial African-American singer (the show is his idea), mentions he was raised on Jimmy Reed, whose 'Blues Man'' he sings - 'Don't need no mojo; I got this wang dang thing'll conquer you.''
Skinny white banjoist Dan Wheetman assures us that 'there's blues'' in bluegrass and hillbilly, too. Fellow Caucasian Carter Calvert joins Wheetman to prove it in 'Blue Ridge Mountains'' and ' 'T' for Texas.''
Gregory Porter and Charles Bevel ask 'Who broke the lock to the henhouse door?'' as the gals imitate happy chickens. This looks a mite demeaning, but right away the three women seize the stage and inform us that 'the blues is when a woman loves a no-good man,'' and the audience explodes in affirmation.
The sensational Eloise Laws sings 'My Man Rocks Me (With One Steady Roll).'' Sitting off to the side, Taylor chimes in with 'Now we're cookin' in a big pot.''
'Blues'' artfully imitates the informality and spontaneity of a concert or a jam session, but in fact it is a carefully structured and disciplined work - a collaboration between director Randal Myler and writers Bevel, Taylor, Wheetman and Lita Gaithers.
The men wear suspenders and baggy pants and the women flowered cotton dresses in the first act. But when they return after the interval, the women have sexy, chanteuse-y gowns and the men flashy suits and hats. Why? Because we're moved up, along with the blues, to the 'sweet home'' and 'good times'' of Chicago. The performance styles reflect a new confidence, a bolder, sassier, audience-teasing presentation. Now the incarnation of a Northern woman, Laws stops the show with 'Someone Else is Steppin' In.'' Taylor reflects the new urban dazzle in 'Hoochie Coochie Man.'' Porter has wicked fun with 'Crawlin' King Snake.'' And Calvert finds the bluesy soul of the Patsy Cline hit 'Walking after Midnight.''
When Bevel teases Wheetman into 'funking up'' the song 'Good Night, Irene,'' we glimpse an almost utopian racial friendliness; the blues are black, definitely, but whites are welcome family members. But just before the end, we're sharply reminded of some very unfriendly old realities, as Boston sings Billie Holliday's 'Strange Fruit,'' about a Mississippi with 'blood on the leaves'' of its trees.
After some musically uninteresting hymns of liberation, 'Blues'' returns to its hope that 'the good times roll.'' A show like this can actually make you hopeful about life.
Looking for a sure cure for the blues? Just latch on to a ticket for ''It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues.''
Now that title bears some parsing because this rich, evocative, rousing show, with some 50 musical numbers ranging from African chants and spirituals to Delta and Chicago blues, with plenty of stops along the dusty roads, river banks, broken country hearts and juke joints in between, is more than a musical feast.
Besides its cornucopia of splendidly interpreted song, ''It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues'' is a potent blend of visual eloquence and historical sweep that engages the eye and touches the heart while its songs soothe the ear, occasionally work mischief on the funny bone and always raise the spirits.
As the splendid cast assembled by the much-praised Crossroads Theater Company of New Brunswick, N.J., applies its individual and collective vocal, musical and acting talents to songs like ''I've Been Living With the Blues,'' ''Blues Man'' and ''St. Louis Blues,'' photographs projected onto screens behind the performers brim with history.
Here are sketches of slave auctions and pictures of thirsty women working the fields with their little children nearby, a black man dangling from a lyncher's noose, rural poverty, country churches, the great blues man Robert Johnson and changing fashions in clothes and entertainment, as well as the economic, social and cultural upheaval surrounding the great black migration from the South to Chicago.
''It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues'' is based on an idea by Ron Taylor, who wrote it with Randal Myler, its director, and Lita Gaithers, Charles Bevel and Dan Wheetman.
Mr. Taylor, Mr. Bevel and Mr. Wheetman, with Gretha Boston, Carter Calvert, Eloise Laws and Gregory Porter, constitute the powerhouse lineup of singers who step up, step out and put over one number after another. Depending on the song, they can be heartbreakers, heartbroken, sexpots or absolute rapscallions. And after intermission, when they trade their simple attire, rustic airs and simple instruments for shapely gowns and stylish suits, each seems good-naturedly determined to outdo another as they make their way with the backing of an enhanced band through pieces like ''I'm Your Hoochie-Coochie Man,'' the sly, slinky, humorous ''Crawlin' King Snake,'' ''Walkin' After Midnight,'' the bitter ''Strange Fruit'' and ''Let the Good Times Roll.''
By this time the band is making the floor vibrate, and the cast and audience are raising the roof.
At the tail end of a Broadway musical season to leave you singing the blues, along comes a surprise contender, "It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues," that, joy of joys, gives rise to far happier feelings. It's not a traditional book musical, and it won't snare the tourists looking for shiny, expensive-looking diversions, but this pleasingly unpretentious revue has soul and spirit to spare. In the hands of a fiercely gifted set of singers with deep affection for the songs they're performing, it adds up to two hours of pure musical pleasure.
The show's long road to Broadway began with stints at the three regional theaters that originally co-produced it: the Crossroads Theater Co. in New Jersey, the San Diego Repertory Theater and the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. These three theaters and New 42nd Street Inc. backed its initial Gotham run at the New Victory Theater, where it was picked up for an open-ended run at the Vivian Beaumont by a host of commercial producers. With canny marketing and strong reviews, it could (and should) become the sleeper hit of the musical season. A cast album ought to be recorded tomorrow and put on sale in the lobby; this is the rare show whose music you want to hear again as soon as you leave it.
The show is a sort of Blues 101, a sung history of the musical genre that traces it from its roots in African chants through its refinement in the American South and on to the various ancillary genres it influenced. As the show itself relates in some fairly light-handed historical narration, the blues has had a pronounced influence in shaping the country's musical culture: from Branson, Mo., to Motown to the Apollo Theater to Broadway, there are few popular musical genres that haven't been touched by the stirring soul of a sound that was born of pain but finds expression in joyful release.
Three of the show's seven principal performers -- "Mississippi" Charles Bevel, Ron Taylor and Dan Wheetman -- are also its authors (along with Lita Gaithers and Randal Myler, who also directs). This lends a personal touch that helps to humanize an occasionally (and after four years of development, probably unavoidably) slick, prefab feeling that is of course at odds with the down-home nature of the music.
But if the revue's smoothness sometimes threatens to slide into monotony, it may be because it often seems to be all highlights. A pair of communal chants provide a haunting opening that tellingly indicates the blues' roots in Africa. They blend into a medley that introduces the singers, who all share the stage, sitting in simple wooden chairs and giving attentive support and the occasional bit of back talk to their fellow performers when they're not at the mike.
Although it's electronically amplified, the show boasts a subtle, sharp sound mix; kudos to musical director Wheetman, vocal director Gaithers and sound designer Edward Cosla.
The energy ebbs and flows between the deeply mournful, plaintive sounds that are the soul of the music and the raucous, irreverent rhythms that express its rebellious spirit. The singers blast their way through both varieties with similar energy but pleasingly distinct styles.
Bevel has an easygoing wit and a rough-edged, bourbon-flavored voice that suits well Robert Johnson's "Cross Road Blues." Gregory Porter is the show's smooth-talking, sweet-singing purveyor of the blues at their bawdiest, on Johnson's "Come On in My Kitchen" and the almost embarrassingly lewd "Crawlin' Snake King" in act two.
But Taylor, large of voice, charisma and not incidentally girth, has his own ribald charm, and isn't afraid to flaunt it on "I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man." He's equally commanding plumbing the depths of Roy Hawkins and Rick Darnell's "The Thrill Is Gone."
The women are hardly overshadowed. Eloise Laws is a diva to her fingertips -- literally: She splays them with menacing glee as she growls out Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You," and gets the females in the house rollicking on a classic no-good-man number "Someone Else Is Steppin' In."
Although Carter Calvert and Wheetman, the show's musical director and co-author, have the seeming handicap of being white, they make the best of it. Wheetman's mean guitar-picking supports the singers throughout and Calvert comes into her own in the uptown second act, as the scope widens to include various genres influenced by the blues. Her "Fever" is smooth and torrid, and she does a striking job on the Patsy Cline standard "Crazy," perfectly sung in Cline's memorable style.
But the contributions of Tony winner Gretha Boston ("Show Boat") are perhaps most memorable of all. Her lustrous, classically trained voice is an absolute marvel, whether it's kicking off the gospel finale of the first act with a rousing "I Know I've Been Changed" or rolling out what may be the quintessential song of the genre, "St. Louis Blues." The high-toned piano arrangement of the Billie Holiday standard "Strange Fruit" may not be to everyone's taste, but Boston's spellbinding singing of it is perfection, a commodity that has been rare indeed in this largely misbegotten musical season.