Review: “The Big Blind” with Kurt Elling and Dee Dee Bridgewater at the Queen Elizabeth Hall

The musical The Big Blind is a big show: its music and dialogue run for a full three hours, plus there is a 20-minute interval. The audience response at the end of the show on Friday night was ecstatic, overwhelmingly so: a packed Queen Elizabeth Hall gave the large forces assembled on stage a loud and long standing ovation.

The instigator of this show, receiving its London premiere, is Kurt Elling, who also plays the central character in it, a “young, up-and-coming jazz vocalist” in Chicago in the late 1950s called Jack Lewis. Elling co-wrote it with songwriter Phil Galdston, and Guy Barker is responsible for the impressive “expanded arrangement” for symphony orchestra and big band which we heard on Friday. He also conducted this concert performance, with the five principal characters, all of them singing actors, placed in front of the orchestra and reading their spoken parts.

The curious title alludes to a poker term describing a situation (in some forms of the game) when players are forced to make a bet with virtually no information. The plot revolves around such situations, where Jack to is being forced into a corner make decisions that could make or destroy his career. Surrounding him are four people who can influence those choices. Two are creative spirits like Jack himself: Eddie is a saxophonist played by Clarke Peters and Jilly is a photographer played (and wonderfully sung too) by Cherise Adams-Burnett. The three are naive, idealistic, and always appear to be out of their depth in real life. They are the “blind” of the title. The counterweight is provided by two irredeemably villainous characters, both of them manipulative managers who fight over Jack’s career and declare an interest in advancing it (played by Dee Dee Bridgewater and Ian Shaw).

There is also a sixth cast member who is in a non-singing role, a radio host, who delivers the words of minor characters as well, and presides over a whole range of sound effects. And for anyone who, like me, was unfamiliar with exactly what a “foley artist” does, will learn from the fine example of Jeff Ward: he does it very well.

Musically this show is a joy. The audience responded enthusiastically throughout the evening to the more commanding exhibitions of vocal craft from all five singing principals, and from Elling and Bridgewater in particular. There were delights in the scoring and arranging as well: Guy Barker’s way of creating music to underpin spoken dialogue seems to become more vivid all the time. The plot makes all of the five characters go through successes and failures (no plot spoilers) and the music brought us as an audience closer to their emotions and dilemmas.

There are in total 19 musical numbers. Elling and Galdston have written some very dramatic songs, and there are some re-workings of songs from the songbook repertoire. And there are some remarkable moments when songs don’t just reflect or soliloquize, aria-like, but contain key moments in which the plot actually moves forward within them.

There were stellar performances from instrumentalists. The piano-bass-drums unit of Jim Watson, Chris Hill and Ulysses Owens Jr. was impeccable as well as mightily impressive, and the sax soloist part of Eddie’s role was played forcefully and characterfully by Graeme Blevins.

I had one question: I wondered if the semi-staging really worked in live performance. The radio version may be much more effective, but seen live, I found that the competing demands of a concert and of a play were a distraction. To see the villains and the heroes congratulating each other at the end of a musical number did not help the suspension of disbelief. Nor did seeing the principals reading their scripts. Perhaps it is the memory of a very different performance, just under a year ago, and less than half a mile away, in the American Clock at the Old Vic, that brought back the memories of what a powerful, pivotal actor Clarke Peters can be. He has the same benign presence here, but, inevitably, in this read-through performance the drama always came second to the music.