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Monday, 06 June 2011 22:05


Penguin Rep Theatre and Edmund Gaynes, in Association with Don & Lizanne Mitchell,


The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith

Written by Angelo Parra 

Conceived and Directed by Joe Brancato

Starring Miche Braden as Bessie Smith


Performances Begin Tomorrow, Tuesday June 7th at St. Luke’s Theater

"Aching, boozy, tempestuous, raw and moving … undeniably powerful … divine!" - The Miami Herald 

"Enthralled the crowd for 80 uninterrupted minutes!" - Hartford Courant

"As crowd pleasing today as the real Bessie was three-quarters of a century ago!"  - Newsday

Get The Devil's Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith Tickets

Penguin Rep Theatre (Joe Brancato, Artistic Director, and Andrew M. Horn, Executive Director) and Edmund Gaynes, in association with Don and Lizanne Mitchell, will present The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith, a musical by Angelo Parra, conceived and directed by Joe Brancato.  Miche Braden stars as Bessie Smith, along with Aaron GravesJim Hankins, Keith Loftis, and Anthony E. Nelson, Jr.  Performances begin Tuesday June 7th Off-Broadway at the St. Luke’s Theater (308 West 46th Street). Opening Night is set for Wednesday June 22nd.

The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith will feature set design by Michael Schweikardt, lighting design by Jeff Croiter, costume design by Patricia E. Doherty and sound design by Jack Kennedy. Musical direction and arrangements are by Miche Braden.

Sexy and racy, blues singer Bessie Smith was the definition of a Red Hot Mamma and the most successful entertainer of her time. On the eve of her tragic death in 1937, Bessie takes center stage in The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith and tells the story of her amazing life and career, her loves and losses. Put your troubles aside and soak up the blues as Bessie Smith comes to life and sings the songs that made her so unforgettable, including “St. Louis Blues,” “Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl,” and “Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out.”

Miche Braden is a singer, actor, musician, songwriter, arranger, and musical director.  She is a product of the rich musical heritage of her hometown, Detroit, where she was an Artist in Residence with the Detroit Council of the Arts, the founder and former lead singer of Straight Ahead (women‘s jazz band), and was a protégé of Motown musicians Thomas “Beans” Bowles, Earl Van Dyke (leader of The Funk Brothers), and jazz master composer Harold McKinney. As an actor, Miche has appeared in and served as musical director/arranger in The People’s Temple, Gee’s Bend, The Bluest Eye, Mahalia: A Gospel Musical, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, Hot Snow: The Story of Valaida Snow, and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. She has been nominated for the coveted Carbonell Award in Florida and the Connecticut Critics Award.  She originated the character of Duchess DeLovely in the original cast of Hats: The Red Hat Society Musical.  As a singer, Miche has performed with Regina Carter, Alexis P. Suter, Milt Hinton, Lionel Hampton, and Frenchie Davis.  She is featured on the James Carter release Gardenia’s for Lady Day (Sony/Columbia), and appeared with him at Carnegie Hall.  Miche performed “New York State of Mind” in Movin’ Out on Broadway, and was dubbed “Billy Joel’s Piano Woman” by Fox 5 News.  Miche’s talented and versatile work can be heard on Diva Out of Bounds, Ms. Miche (available on iTunes and CD Baby).   Miche was the featured singer in Damien Foundation’s 2007 Gospel’s for Life tour in Belgium and France, and is a recurring featured artist in the Absolute Gospel Festival in Lyon, France.  She toured Japan for several years in a series of jazz concerts and teaching choral jazz and gospel workshops.  She is currently Minister of Music and head of the Creative Arts Ministry at Unity Fellowship Church of New Brunswick, N.J. 

Angelo Parra is an award-winning playwright, who has had productions of his plays in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. at venues such as Hartford Stage, Florida Stage, the Cape (Cod) Playhouse, George Street Playhouse, Theatre Memphis, Passage Theatre, Florida Rep, Penguin Rep Company, and elsewhere.   Among his plays is Journey of the Heart (which dramatizes the seesaw struggle of a hospital committee to decide who gets a heart for transplant), which won the Jewel Box Theatre Award, Mixed Blood Versus America Award, and David James Ellis Memorial Award.  His screenplay adaptation of Journey of the Heart was a finalist in the Sundance Institute Feature Film Program.   Angelo is the recipient of a Fund for U.S. Artists at International Festivals and Exhibitions grant (a partnership of the National Endowment for the Arts, the U.S. Information Agency, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Pew Charitable Trusts), awarded to sponsor two of his plays at the 1993 Edinburgh International Theatre Festival.  Angelo’s honors include two New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowships in Scriptwriting (one of them for The Devil’s Music), the 1998 Chicano/Latino Literary Award (University of California) for his play, Song of the Coquí.  In 2000, he was named a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the prestigious Sewanee Writers Conference.  He is a member of the Dramatists Guild and a member emeritus of the BMI/Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop. He was awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities Landmarks of American History and Culture Grant and a NY State Council on the Arts/Arts Council of Rockland Grant to sponsor a new play. Angelo Parra is the founder and director of the Hudson Valley Professional Playwrights Lab, teaches playwriting and performing arts at SUNY Rockland Community College, and is president of the Board of Trustees of Penguin Rep Theatre. 

Joe Brancato was cited by The New York Times as “one of America’s most insightful directors.” His Off-Broadway credits include Freed at 59 East 59, Tryst (Outer Critics nomination for Best Play) starring Maxwell Caulfield, Cobb (Drama Desk winner) produced by Kevin Spacey in NYC and LA; From Door To Door at the Westside Theatre; One Shot, One Kill at Primary Stages; Two and a Half Jews; My Italy Story; Ricky Ian Gordon’s The Matter of Minutes; Escape from Happiness(starring Marsha Mason), The Big Swing (starring Madeline Kahn, Sarah Jessica Parker, Matthew Broderick, Marisa Tomei) and Dr. Valentine’s Waltz (starring John Turturro, Laura Linney, Gina Gershon, Jane Alexander) at Naked Angels; Hold the Wedding, produced by Joseph Papp. Regional credits: Seven Angels Theatre (Miracle on South Division Street), George Street Playhouse, Seattle Rep, Williamstown Theatre Festival, Houston’s Alley Theatre (Sylvia, Stones in His Pockets, Mere Mortals, Tryst) The Hartford Stage Company, Westport Playhouse, Capital Rep, Boston’s New Rep, Hartford Theatreworks, The Cape Playhouse and Florida Stage. As founding artistic director of Penguin Rep he has directed well over 100 productions there including Joel Drake Johnson's The Fall To Earth starring Michele Pawk. He commissioned and originally directed the play The Man Who Was Peter Pan, which is the basis for the Oscar-nominated film Finding Neverland starring Johnny Depp. As playwright, he has written the comedy Drop Dead Perfect and the book for the musical Mae West at the Club El Fey. Joe recently received a second Rockland County Executive Award for artistic excellence.

In 1977, an empty century-old barn in Stony Point, New York, became a repository of dreams as the home of Rockland County’s first year-round non-profit professional theatre – Penguin Rep Theatre. In the more than three decades that have followed, Penguin Rep founder and Artistic Director Joe Brancato and Executive Director Andrew M. Horn have produced nearly 150 acclaimed productions and brought outstanding professional actors and playwrights together, including such acclaimed artists as Celeste Holm, Andrew McCarthy, Joy Behar, Robert Klein, Beth Fowler, Gregg Edelman, Karen Ziemba, Richard Kline, Tovah Feldshuh, and David Canary, and such accomplished writers as Warren Leight, Arthur Laurents, Elizabeth Swados, Lanie Robertson, William Mastrosimone, Tom Dudzick and Angelo Parra. Over the years, Penguin Rep, dubbed “the gutsiest little theatre” by The New York Times, has not only introduced new work but has seen them move to New York City, across the country, and around the world. The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Allan Knee, a play commissioned and originally produced by Penguin Rep, was the basis for Finding Neverland, the film starring Johnny Depp. James Sherman’sFrom Door to Door ran Off-Broadway at the Westside Theatre. Lee Blessing’s Cobb was produced by actor Kevin Spacey Off-Broadway and by Mr. Spacey and producer/director Garry Marshall in LA. Richard Vetere’s One Shot, One Kill played at Primary Stages. And Tony Award winner Warren Leight’s Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine was seen at the Manhattan Theatre Club and at the Mark Taper Forum (LA).

The daughter of a preacher, Bessie Smith overcame Southern poverty to become the greatest and most influential classic Blues singer of the 1920s, earning the title “Empress of the Blues.”   Bessie was born to a poor family in Chattanooga, Tennessee.  Her date of birth is uncertain, sometime between 1894 and 1900.  Bessie's career began when she joined the Moses Stokes Company’s traveling (vaudeville) show around 1912, initially as a dancer.  There she was exposed to the subtleties and intricacies of blues, then still an emerging art form, as performed by Ma Rainey, known as “the Mother of the Blues.”  Music historians debate the extent to which Ma Rainey influenced Bessie Smith’s rise as a featured vocalist.  Bessie’s first recording, “Down Hearted Blues,” was released in the spring of 1923.  Though released without special promotion, it was an immediate success.  As a result of her hit, she started touring on the best race (black) artist vaudeville circuits booked by TOBA – short for Theatre Owners Booking Association, but also derisively said to stand for “tough on black asses.”  

By the mid-twenties, Bessie was touring her own show through the entire South and most of the major northern cities, always as the star attraction.  During that period, she was the highest-paid black entertainer in the country.  Married twice, Bessie also became known as a fiercely independent, wild-living, short-tempered, and hard-drinking woman, who enjoyed the intimate company of women as well as men.  On the flip side, Bessie could be warmly loyal to, and motheringly protective of, her friends.   By 1930, her career faltered due to the public's changing musical tastes, mismanagement of her affairs, and her heavy drinking.  In many ways, one of her best known songs, “Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out,” could have been autobiographical.   What turned out to be Bessie's last recording session took place in 1933, marking what some were hoping would inaugurate a comeback.  Her last New York appearance was in 1936 at a jam session sponsored by United Hot Clubs of America at the original Famous Door on 52nd Street.  In the early morning hours of September 26, 1937, Bessie was a passenger in a car driven by her companion Richard Morgan, a former Chicago bootlegger.  Near Clarksdale, Mississippi, the car collided with a truck and rolled over.  The car was struck a second time by another vehicle that continued on without stopping.  The accident nearly severed one of Bessie's arms and crushed half her body.  A third car, this one containing a white physician, stopped to offer assistance.  Eventually, an ambulance arrived which took Bessie to a black hospital where she died.  It has been speculated that, had she survived, she would not have been able to sing again.  In a 1937 magazine article, Bessie’s friend, record producer John Hammond, alleged that Bessie Smith had died because she was denied admission to a whites-only hospital.  That shocking report formed the basis of the Edward Albee play, The Death of Bessie Smith. Hammond, however, later admitted his story was based on hearsay; those who had firsthand knowledge of the tragedy have denied the provocative legend.  Bessie Smith had a huge sweeping voice, capable of both strength and tenderness.  She could convey the entire meaning of a line by a subtle accent on a syllable, and could precisely render or "bend" a note to express her feelings.  Bessie recorded with many of the jazz greats of her day, including Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, Sidney Bechet, and Joe Smith.  Bessie left behind on 160 recordings, and performed in one short movie, The St. Louis Blues (1929), which affords us the only opportunity to see the great Bessie Smith sing.  In 1970, Janis Joplin and others laid a headstone on the unmarked Philadelphia grave of Bessie Smith; it reads:  “The greatest blues singer in the world will never stop singing – Bessie Smith 1895-1937.”  In 1980 Bessie Smith was inducted into the Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame and, in 1989, into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

The playing schedule for The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith is Monday and Tuesday evenings at 7pm, Wednesday evenings at 8pm.  St. Luke’s Theater is located at 308 West 46th Street, between 8th and 9th Avenues. Tickets from $36.50 are available at or by calling 212/239-6200.

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