By Patrick Christiano
Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor along with Martin Richards and The Gilead Company presented the World Premier of Paul Levine’s BIG MAYBELLE: SOUL OF THE BLUES starring the incomparable force of nature Lillias White, who delivers an unforgettable evening of music. The Broadway diva blew the roof off the theatre on opening night and had the packed house, which included Marty himself, rocking with approval on her opening number; a spirited and sassy rendition of “Whole Lotta ShakingGoin’On, a song recorded by Big Maybelle in 1955 two years before Jerry Lee Lewis. The Tony Award winning sensation practically never leaves the stage in two acts while delivering 28 soulful songs in the process of chronicling the brief life of the blues singer Big Maybelle.
Mr. Levine’s tale about a big black woman with a massive raw vocal talent is a clever vehicle for the dynamic Lillias White who commands the stage with every song – many originally made famous by Big Maybelle. The musical plays like a concert by Big Maybelle reflecting on her life from a hospital bed in a mental clinic. The show is sprinkled with pertinent details from the singer’s career and life which she recounts while slipping into a diabetic coma. She flashes back on some of her emotional highlights beautifully punctuated by song.
Big Maybelle was an R&B chanteuse from Memphis known for her unique voice. She managed to carve out a place in our musical history recording heavily during the 1950s for two different labels and experiencing firsthand the challenges of touring racist America. Discovered by Fred Mendelsohn, who changed her birth name to Big Maybelle saying “we have to work with what we’ve got,” he signed her to a major label in 1952 and switched her to Savoy in 1956 where she scored her biggest hit “Candy.” Unfortunately in Harlem of 1951 she fell hard for a player named Sully (Eric Brown), a gangster who turned her on to Heroin, which became her downfall.
The evening also directed by Mr. Levine comes to explosive life whenever the great Lillias White breaks into song as Big Maybelle. She hits every number out of the park, some with more resonance than others and some with an affecting forceful poignancy. Michael Mitchell’s musical direction is wonderful as are the orchestrations by the musical supervisor Kenny Seymour giving the star plenty of room to soar in the demanding role. Some of the marvelous classic songs that are part of the evening’s songfest include “One Monkey Don’t Stop the Show,” “Until the Real Thing Comes Along,” Mean to Me,” “What a Difference A Day Makes,” “You’ll Be Sorry,” It’s a Man’s Man World,” “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying,” “My Mother’s Eyes,” “Candy,” Irving Berlin’s “Say It Isn’t So,” and Peggy Lee’s “What More Can a Woman Do?” What more could you ask for the amazing Lillias White singing all these songs and more in her uniquely distinctive style. Catch her while you can. She’s a rare delight!
The band includes Eric Brown (Drums), Kiku Collins (Trumpet), George Farmer (Bass), Jason Marshall (Saxaphone) and John Putnam (Guitar). Eric Brown and Kiku Collins are also featured in the roles of Sully and Loretta.
The show runs Tuesday, August 7 through Sunday, September 2. Show times are Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8pm with Wednesday matinees on August 15, 22, and 29 at 2pm and a 4pm matinee on Saturdays August 18 and 25. Sunday showtime is at 7pm. Tickets are available online at www.baystreet.org or by calling the Box Office at 631-725-9500.
Production Photos By Jerry Lamonica