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One Woman Does Famous Blues Singers

June 19, 1987

NEW YORK (AP) _ Six famous black women singers of the past hold the stage with six kinds of pizazz as Sandra Reaves-Phillips performs her one-woman show, ″The Late Great Ladies of Blues and Jazz.″

The dynamic show, which she wrote, opened Thursday night at the off- Broadway John Houseman Theater. The audience is treated to songs, costumes and biographical chat as Miss Reaves-Phillips ″becomes″ in turn, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington and Mahalia Jackson.

Previously, in shows on Broadway devoted to Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey and off-Broadway to Billie Holiday, the singers haven’t attempted to sound like the stars they portrayed. Miss Reaves-Phillips does attempt to sound like them, changing her accent, phrasing and vocal timbre for each. She not only changes costumes, wigs and headdresses but also the way she holds her mouth to sing and smile.

She succeeds remarkably well in evoking each great lady. This is much more than a ″made famous by″ concert of songs.

Except for gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, these women toured in black vaudeville or played nightclubs, so they talked to audiences. Miss Reaves- Phillips is comfortable and adept at doing that.

As Dinah Washington she announces that she has divorced her sixth husband and gets from the audience a young man ″with possibilities″ to stand on stage with her briefly.

Surprisingly, for such an exuberant singer and actress, she doesn’t project enough vulgarity to get all the funny raunchiness possible out of Bessie Smith’s double-entendre ″Kitchen Man.″ She’s more effective with a heart- felt ″Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.″

She’s biting as the perfectionist Ethel Waters laying the law down to her musicians. And she sounds like Billie Holiday’s liquid voice at two different times in her life.

Miss Reaves-Phillips sings her first two songs, ″Solitude″ and ″Good Morning Heartache,″ in Billie’s intonation during her last, broken days, then switches easily to her earlier Carnegie Hall concert for ″Them Their Eyes″ and her own ″God Bless the Child.″

Each singer has her own personality and story but one strong thread, loneliness, is in every narration.

Miss Reaves-Phillips was born in Mullins, S.C., had the starring role of Big Bertha in ″One Mo’ Time″ on television, was in the film ‴Round Midnight″ and tours extensively.

Michael Hannah designed costumes, many-feathered and on-target. Eric Krebs and Arthur Shafman International Ltd. produced.

Pianist George Butcher was leader of the All Star Jazz Band, which was exceptionally good, moving from the staccato style of Ma Rainey’s day to ″What a Difference a Day Makes,″ Dinah Washington’s biggest pop hit, in 1959.

Instrumental solos showed the skill of each musician, trumpeter Bill Dillard, saxophonist Ed Pazant, drummer Wally Gater and bassist Paul Ramsey. Together they sounded like more than five.

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