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JAZZ REVIEW : Madigan Musically Miscast, Kelly Saves the Show

February 19, 1990|LEONARD FEATHER

"Stevie Wants to Play the Blues" requires a suspension of disbelief on several levels.

The title is the first problem. At no point does Amy Madigan play the piano with much jazz conviction, let alone any blues feeling. Coupled with Madigan's unmistakably feminine voice, it defies credibility that the other members of the group in a 1945 night club will accept him/her as what he/she purports to be in terms of either music or gender.

Paula Kelly, in a role patterned along Billie Holiday lines (inevitably, she turns out to be a junkie), is the play's saving grace. Always a compelling actress and a warmly convincing singer, she does the best she can with the material and context provided her.

The original songs, with music by Fredric Myrow, lyrics by playwright Eduardo Machado and Myrow, bear a reasonable resemblance to what might have been written in those days, but the titles tend to be derivative (notably "The Song Is Me" and "Don't Blame It On Me," neither of which is in the same league as "The Song Is You" or "Don't Blame Me"). Myrow's melodies are well crafted, notably "Love Is Crazy," "Confusion" and the deliberately campy "Wherever I Go," sung by Christie Houser.

On one number, "The Sun and the Moon," late in the show, Kelly is provided with the pre-taped backing (arranged by Myrow, with a string quartet) that would have served her better on the other songs, for which the four on-stage musicians accompany her. Two of the latter, Louie Spears on bass and Randy Kovitz on drums, succeed handily and even have convincing solo interludes, but Michael Milhoan, despite his background (he once played with Stan Kenton), is clearly out of shape as a trumpeter, while Madigan at the piano is musically miscast. Ironically, the most mature sounds are provided not by the live cast, but by the taped group during brief scene-linking interludes.

The trouble with "Stevie Wants to Play the Blues" is that whereas Billy Tipton apparently fooled a whole generation, Madigan's attempt to convince us that she is a highly talented male blues pianist just doesn't ring true even for a single two-bar break.

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