Review: The Big Blind @ The Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, London – Jan. 31
The BBC Concert Orchestra performs alongside an all-star cast in ‘The Big Blind’ – a noir-inspired jazz audio drama by Kurt Elling and Phil Galdston.
Clarke Peters – Eddie Freeman, an older, African-American jazz saxophonist
Kurt Elling – Jack Lewis, a young, up-and-coming jazz vocalist
Ian Shaw – Tony ‘The Mongoose’ Bonilla, a mob-connected British talent manager
Dee Dee Bridgewater – Veronica Legrand, a middle-aged, African-American talent manager
Cherise Adams-Burnett – Jilly Radford, a young, African-American photographer
Jeff Ward – Foley artist/announcer
Guy Barker – conductor/arranger
A “big blind” is a poker term that describes a bet you have to make when you don’t know what the cards will show. The Big Blind, performed for its UK debut at Queen Elizabeth Hall in the Southbank Centre, is based loosely on the true story of Chicago jazz singer Joe E. Lewis who found out the hard way what kind of trouble the music business could get him into.
The musical follows the career of up-and-coming jazz singer Jack Lewis who ends up getting caught in a tug-of-war between two crooked managers. Things get ugly and Jack gets hurt, his voice suffering in the cruel attack. After hitting rock bottom, he seeks the help of his young ingénue and finds a way to recover and express himself.
Kurt Elling, the mastermind behind this whole endeavour, grew up and worked as a jazz singer in Chicago and felt inspired by the scene and the stories he knew so well. His love of radio dramas as a child motivated his idea, paying homage to a time when those radio plays were as popular as the music he sings.
After meeting Guy Barker while working on another song project, Elling realised he would finally be able to turn his concept into a reality with the help of Barker and his songwriting partner Phil Galdston. The inaugural production was performed at Lincoln Center in New York last year with a smaller orchestra but this production would feature the entire (65 musicians listed in the program) BBC Concert Orchestra.
Set up like a live radio drama, the cast was comprised of Clarke Peters, who narrated most of the show, playing Jack Lewis’ friend, confident and tenor sax player. Dee Dee Bridgewater played the endearing yet feisty manager and wife, Veronica Legrand. The villainous money-hungry Tony ‘The Mongoose’ Bonilla was played by Ian Shaw and the ingénue bright-eyed photographer by Cherise Adams-Burnett. There was also the special Foley Artist, Jeff Ward, who was very interesting to watch, especially during the fight scenes. Elling, of course, played the lead character, naïve Jack Lewis, falling for the bright lights and too-good-to-be-true deals of Vegas.
The production was inspiring. It brought the whole audience into a world that’s long been forgotten. The massive orchestral arrangements filled the hall with Barker’s beautiful arrangements. Each performer had internalised the songs, channelling Elling’s distinct writing style in their own way. Adams-Burnett carried the music so charmingly bringing softness to her songs while still having such power in her voice. Peters endearingly connected the audience with a sincere clarity in his role, and Shaw and Bridgewater’s character development played on the love/hate relationship necessary for a successful villain. They are both experts at delivering the comedy and the drama of a lyric.
This project was a sold-out success. It captured the nostalgia of the music, the era and the place perfectly and it was wonderful to hear Elling’s voice, while in a different context, still just as powerful, playful and flawless as usual.