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Monday, April 6, 2009

The Blues Had a Baby

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The Rolling Stones were named after a song by bluesman Muddy Waters, who also inspired the Yardbirds. It's well known that blues music formed one of the main roots of rock 'n' roll, but the connection has rarely been covered in contemporary drama. British author Stephen Jeffreys' 2000 stage play I Just Stopped By to See the Man explores the effect of the blues on rock with fictitious characters based on a very real history. The Milwaukee Rep closes its Stiemke Theater season with a production of Jeffreys' drama.

The play is set in 1975 in an old shack in the Mississippi Delta. Cedric Young plays Jesse, "The Man" Davidson, a 75-year-old bluesman loosely modeled after the legendary Robert Johnson. Jesse, whose obituary was printed long ago, is considered by many to be dead-a situation he's content with. He lives in the shack with his daughter Della, played by Lanise Antoine Shelley. Not long into the play, Jesse and Della play unexpected hosts to a British rock star named Karl (Eric Hellman), whose band has been heavily inspired by Jesse's music. What transpires is a conversation between classic blues and classic rock that probably never had a chance to happen in real life. When Jesse is offered a chance to play onstage with Karl's band, he must consider what he really wants in a drama that parallels the old legend of a bluesman's pact with the devil at the crossroads.

As Della, Rep Resident Acting Company member Lanise Antoine Shelley is given crisp, sophisticated dialogue. She's had some central roles in the past, but it'll be fun to see her in a play that shows off her talent for dialogue. The rest of the cast is new to The Rep. Cedric Young has more than 20 years of stage experience, though he may still seem too young to play a 75-year-old bluesman. The real challenge for Young lies in living up to the legend of men who helped to create modern pop music. Hellman, on the other hand, is relatively young-his challenge will be to carry the swagger and experience of someone who has become a rock legend in his early 30s.

Milwaukee Rep's production of I Just Stopped By to See the Man runs through May 3 at the Stiemke Theater.