Casually sauntering into view, a quartet of fearless, sharp-eyed vocalists soon command attention in the intimate space of the Creative Cauldron in Falls Church. These daring, talented women take listeners on a marvelous, well-curated excursion as they pay homage to "Women of the Blues."
They are daring as they take on iconic songs sung by renowned singers. Yet they each bring out the essence of lyrics through their own spunky delivery without pandering, avoiding simply becoming like an echo of a legend. Their vocals range from fiery to growling, from silky smooth to soulful hurt, from gospel-infused to upbeat and contemporary and from quiet to belting.
"Women of the Blues" is a delightful 90 minutes. The four move smoothly through the decades ,starting with the 1920's to contemporary times, singing 25 songs. Each singer has her own personality and appearance that adds liveliness to the evening.
There is Carolyn Cole, the 2012 Helen Hayes Award recipient as Outstanding Actress in a Musical for her work in Signature Theatre's "Hairspray." She punches out her words almost with spit as she beseeches the audience with soulful desires and excited wants. Her attitude can cut sharply, however, without the blink of an eye.
There is Ashleigh King, also a 2012 Helen Hayes recipient for her ensemble work in Signature's "Hairspray." She has a growling delivery with eyes that catapult additional force to her vocalizations. She delivers explosive bitterness as well as sass. Her voice is a weapon to confront life as she sings with authority and sometimes acrimony.
Shayla Simmons delivers tunes with a clear, cool sensuality. She can slide her voice around in a "come hither" manner without breaking a sweat.
Tarina Szemzo has an outwardly tender appearance, but out comes a high-powered, bluesy, wailing voice belting- out song with potent juice; all with a keep-your-hands-off look and stance even when she is just sitting at a bar stool.
Under the direction of Matt Conner, the revue is a lively, fluid journey. He found a way to link songs into couplings and playettes to tell stories. Song titles and lyrics take the audience through particular memoirs of women's lives; the effort to find and love a man that leads to heartbreak as she considers the notion of going blind rather than see him with another woman; perhaps the delight of having some sugar in life with a special kind of hoochie-coochie man; or entreating a woman to be wise before thinking she may be the only one.
Margie Jervis turned the Creative Cauldron into a relaxed, comfortable little supper club, a charmer of a setting that greets the audience. The 60 or so seats are arranged into an after-hours atmosphere, including small round tables, a working bar and a stylized poster of Billie Holiday as backdrop.
The 4-piece band does a quiet smolder. That is a good thing. The band doesn't compete with the singers but keeps driving them forward like a coxswain in a small crew boat. Under Music Director Jonathan Tuzman at keyboard, the band includes Vince Calcaterra (bass), Jim Hoffman (drums), and Bruce Turner (guitar). Their beat, tempo and self-assured poise were pitch-perfect.
The Creative Cauldron worked with the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation to develop this original blues event to honor the contribution that women made to blues music. There are some small off-notes in the evening; the women's banter can seem a bit forced and the narrative at times an after-thought. The roughness of lives that led to the blues does seem distant at times.
Among the 25 songs from the evening are; Aretha Franklin's "I Never Loved a Man," Bessie Smith's "A Good Man is Hard to Find," Janis Joplin's "Cry Baby, "Koko Taylor's "I'd Rather Go Blind," Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit," Alberta Hunter's "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out," Etta James's "At Last," Melissa Etheridge's "I'm the Only One," Tracy Chapman's "Give Me One Reason" and Etta James's "Something's Got a Hold of Me."
This is a well-done evening, full of life. There are substantial voices, strong personalities, a mastery of material and lusty singing. The audience is just a few feet away and the acoustics good. Take it in before it goes away.