Blues in the Night is a fun-filled and sentimental delight! San Jose Rep is your best bet this week, with their World Premier of Philip Kan Gotanda's "Love in American Times"!

Armelia McQueen, Amanda Folena and Debbie Decoudreaux (L to R) sing their hearts out in Blues in the Night!

Photos by Kevin Berne

The Center Repertory Company in Walnut Creek has just opened “Blues in the Night”, a delightful evening of heart, soul and blues music strikingly reminiscent of the classic female blues era (1920’s -1940’s) that brought us such great recording artists as Ma Rainey, Ida Mae Cox, Bessie Smith, Helen Humes and Billy Holiday. Blues in the Night first opened in the Rialto Theater on Broadway in 1982 and included in their cast of three very talented female performers, a young lady by the name of Leslie Uggams. The show was even nominated for the Tony best musical of the year award. After show ran very successfully on Broadway, it was moved first across “the pond” to a West End production house known as the Donmar Warehouse for a couple of months in 1987, until it moved to the more prestigious Piccadilly Theater in Westminster, England, later that year. It continued there until mid 1988 and was nominated for two Laurence Olivier Awards.

Sheldon Epps, the man who conceived this musical journey, has also created and orchestrated other musicals, bringing back the wonderful heart-felt and soulful sounds of this time period with productions such as the Count Basie musical, “Play On” which is remarkably similar to this production, in that it centers on the lives of three women and their laments of love gone wrong stories. In this production, we meet three women, each residing in their own apartments (the stage is divided into three minor sets, each one representing a room in their apertment), in which they each sing their songs reminding us of their romantic encounters gone wrong, of wasted and reckless lives, of love lost and dreams evaporated. First we meet a “Woman of the World” (played by Debbie de Coudreaux), who for all her wealth and opportunities, only found love intermittently. Her neighbor, a “Lady from the Road” (Armelia McQueen), is a traveler a bit further down the road of life than her counterparts. A third, a younger lady, “The Girl with a Date” (Amanda Folena), waits in vain for the phone to ring, expressing her heartache in touching musical memoirs, such as “Reckless Blues”, a song previously made famous by Bessie Smith. Joining the ladies on the stage is one male singer representative of all the ego-centered, underemployed and masculine disappointments they have had to deal with in their lives, “The Man in the Saloon”, played well C.R. Lewis. All actors in this production are members of Actors’ Equity Association, professionals with long resumes of highly successful performing endeavors.

All performers deliver outstanding performances for an evening that is over far too soon, that leaves you wanting more! Spinning song after song, each character shares little vignettes of their lives in various stages of joy and lament. We are treated to great songs such as Benny Goodman and Chick Webb’s famous “Stompin at the Savoy”, Duke Ellington’s “I’m Just a Lucky-So-and-So”, a Billie Holiday’s like rendition of Jimmy Davis’s poignant “Lover Man” and even an excellent Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s “Blues in the Night”, from which this musical takes its name. Sometimes they sing duets and sometimes they all join together in song!

The great bands of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton, James P. Johnson, Joe Smith, Charlie Green, Jack Teagarden and Bennie Goodman helped us shake away the blues of the great depression and ushered in the swing era and gave us something to sang and dance to. This musical is brought to life with a terrific band consisting of Brandon Adams on piano, Alan Close playing tenor sax and clarinet, alongside Mark Wright on trumpet, Joe McKinley on acoustic base and Mark Lee on drums. Even though it is predominantly a show about the power and poignancy of the “Blues” in our musical culture, it is upbeat with fun music such as Armelia McQueen’s delightfully funny “Take Me For a Buggy Ride”, Debbie De Coudreaux’s terrific fan dance interpretation of “Rough and Ready Man” and Amanda Folena’s heartfelt “Reckless Blues”. These entertainers are just that, terrific entertainers that will make you want to cry, laugh, clap your hands and dance before the evening’s over. This finely honed show is directed and choreographed by Robert Barry Fleming with the music directed by Brandon Adams.

"Blues in the Night" continues Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m., Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30 pm through Saturday, June 25th, in the Margaret Lesher Theater in the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts at 1601 Civic Drive in Walnut Creek. Tickets may be purchased at the LCA (Lesher Center for the Arts) box office or at the Barnes and Noble ticket desk in their store in downtown Walnut Creek and even in the Downtown Walnut Creek Library! If you wish to purchase over the internet, you can visit their online ticket link at or call 943-SHOW (7469) for more information and reservations.

This music brings back a lot of memories for me as both of my parents were professional entertainers in Las Vegas, Nevada, back when it was not much more than a watering hole and stop over for the Union Railroad, with a few little casinos on Main Street, catering to and entertaining the travelers passing through.
My mother’s singing career began and ended with bands in nightclubs in Las Vegas before I was born, so I don’t remember actually seeing her perform with Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey (so I was told) on the Vegas strip. I have been told by friends of hers that she had a great local following before she retired (at age 24) to help my father in his struggling new insurance and real estate business in Las Vegas. I do vaguely remember my father performing and singing in the old Cinnabar Club and the old Eldorado Hotel dining room lounge on Main Street in Las Vegas in the late 40’s. My father, Rex Jarrett Sr., used his performing career as a springboard to launch his insurance business by selling auto and fire insurance to the barmaids, bartenders and patrons of the various clubs in which he worked. He played guitar and trombone with local bands and when he was in-between performance shifts (while waiting in the bar for other bands to finish up their gigs), he would often ask his friends, acquaintances and fellow performers if he could interest them in his insurance products.

When I went to work for my father’s insurance office in the early 60’s, while I was working my way through college, he showed me an original “auto insurance application”, one of his first, that he kept just as a reminder as to how simple his insurance business start was. It consisted of nothing more than a customer’s name, address, age, phone number and the description of her car, scribbled down on a casino cocktail napkin. If you did that today, submitted a cocktail napkin to an insurance company with the applicant’s information on it, the company not only would not accept it, they would probably cancel your agency agreement out of concern as to what kind of business you were trying to drum up! Prospecting bar patrons for insurance clientele??? My father’s insurance agency went on to become, at one time (in the 50’s and 60’s), the 2nd largest insurance brokerage firm in the City of Las Vegas, as his office wrote most of the hotel business insurance in existence at that time in Las Vegas. Yes, those were very interesting days - - for all of us!

J. Michael Flynn confronts Gabriel Marin with deadly response!

Photo by Kevin Berne

This past week, I had the pleasure of catching the world premier of another Phillip Kan Gotanda play, “Love in American Times”, in the San Jose Repertory Theater in San Jose. Once again Gotanda explores another side of the Asian experience in America. Mr. Gotanda’s “Love in American Times” incorporates the concept of matchmaking into his play, a story about two high profile individuals who are introduced through that process.

Let me introduce Jack Heller (played by Michael J. Flynn), a wealthy, self-made, 70 year old Caucasian business owner and corporate executive, who, as the show opens, is in a cocktail lounge anticipating a prearranged meeting with a smart, highly accomplished and very attractive 35 year old woman of Asian heritage, Scarlett Mori-Yang (Linda Park). This meeting has been negotiated through the services of a professional matchmaker, Mrs. Green (Rosina Reynolds).

Instead of a first date evolving as one might expect it to, these two self-centered individuals immediately go on the attack and spar caustically with each other, delivering verbal barbs demonstrating their intellectual prowess and independence. The power positioning of these two articulate adults immediately generates sparks and electricity in the air. Heller and Mori-Yang spare no time maneuvering each other in the process of setting the ground rules of this “first date” encounter. Very quickly, the “I win, you lose” mantra turns into a near stalemate. It doesn’t take long before it is clear that neither party is more powerful than the other and they carefully reevaluate their quarry. They momentarily back off and think about whether their objectives are worth the chess-like game and maneuvering they are employing. In a moment of frustration, they almost abort the date, but change their minds and re-engage each other on a more civil basis.

Through this highly combative getting acquainted process, they discover that there probably is something of great value in their respective prospective date, something that they each ultimately want and need. We can immediately see that this is no ordinary game of dating gamesmanship or exploitation. The stakes are very high, financially and psychologically and far more important than just the immediate desire for the gratification of sex and or a desire for love and reproduction. The need by each party for some level of control and for earned respect is a very important ingredient in any merger formula they may put together.

The two individuals have the appearance of being fairly forthright individuals who reveal a great deal about themselves at the very onset, and for the most part, they express what they want and what they expect. At the same time, they are not completely honest (as we discover in the second act), nor would one really expect them to be, especially on the first date.

Heller readily admits to Scarlett that he wants her as a sex partner and a trophy wife but he wants more than what is typically expected of this type of arrangement (an older man and a younger wife). He also wants a woman who is more or less on the same intellectual level as himself, a power partner he can value and respect. Scarlett is a very accomplished head of a large not-for profit foundation, is an very accomplished negotiator, and is quite capable of dealing with very greedy, wealthy people. She wants to marry a man of substantial wealth for the leverage opportunities it will provide her in building her own personal wealth and personal esteem. The only drawback is that she wants children and a family now. Heller is a man in the process of divorcing his wife of many years, from whom he has been estranged for at least the past 10 years. He also has grown children including a son who serves on the board of his own company. He emphatically does not want any more children at this time and he will agree to marry Scarlett on his terms. More specifically, he wants her entirely to himself, when he wants her, for at least the first 5 years of their marriage. After that, if she wants children, he reluctantly agrees she may have them. He also says upfront that he has one major caveat, one absolute, that all Christmas holidays are exclusively reserved for his children, his soon to be ex-wife and for himself,. He tells Scarlett that she can spend Christmas anywhere she wants. She can have carte blanche to go and do whatever she wants at this time each year, as long as she does not interfere with Jack’s exclusive Christmas time with his family.

The tempo of the first act moves along at a steady pace until an angry patron of the cocktail lounge where the couple are meeting, Mr. Stein (Gabriel Marin), confronts Jack, threatening to fight with him, raising the specter of a catastrophic game-changer. A gun is pulled, two men face off and suddenly an element of dire adversity changes the entire momentum of the play. Knowing Gotanda as well is we do, Karen and I were now excited and alert as the mood had shifted and we were now looking forward to an even greater surprise in the second act.

The second act brings even more brilliantly orchestrated surprises as Jack Heller, his ex-wife, Abby (Rosnia Reyolds), Jack’s son, Edward (Craig Marker), his daughter Sophie (Arwin Anderson), his son’s wife (Zarah Mahler), find their private family Christmas party on their yacht thrown into an uproar.

Director Rick Lombardo has selected an outstanding cast and pulls together an excellent production. In addition, his team of collaborators, including Robin Roberts (Scenic Design), Cathleen Edwards (Costume Design), and David Lee Cuthbert (Lighting and Media Design), have created a very exciting visual experience.

“Love in American Times” is another building block in the exciting foundation of work that will someday prove Philip Kan Gotanda to be one of our most exciting contemporary American writers. This very powerful play continues Tuesday evenings at 7:30 p.m., Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., and with Sunday Matinees at 2 p.m., now through June 5th. Tickets may be purchased on line at or by calling (408) 367.7255. Tickets range in price between $29 and $74 each, with a $6 discount for all senior tickets. The San Jose Repertory Theatre is a beautiful facility, easy to reach and always rewarding. The San Jose Repertory Company Theatre is located at 101 Paseo de San Antonio, between 2nd and 3rd Streets, one block north of East San Carlos Street in San Jose. There is multi-storied public parking structure at the corner of East San Carlos Street, between 2nd and 3rd streets.