March 5, 2004





'Devil' can't bring bluesman to life


Who's got a right to sing the blues? You won't find out from Bill Harris' inept play "Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil," ostensibly about the last hours of the blues legend's short, storied life.


Harris delivers some lyrical monologues, and he's got a salty tale or two up his sleeve, but he's crafted nary a moment of credible interaction or dramatic tension between five characters, including Johnson (Bob McCollum Jr.), who cross paths in a Texas "jook joint" in 1938.


Director William Arrigon's listless new production doesn't help: Most of the actors deliver their dialogue like stump speeches--even when they're not addressing the audience--and the show's scant live music is only passably performed.


When Kimbrough (Chris Winfield), a Shakespeare-spouting white scholar who seeks out Johnson for his own ludicrously metaphorical reasons, asks the sharp-dressed singer to prove he's the real thing, McCollum grabs a guitar, plunks out two basic blues chords--and we're supposed to believe this guy is, as Kimbrough puts it, "the best there ever was"?


We might forgive this oversight if the nonmusical part of McCollum's performance wasn't also off-key and strangely timed. Winfield's work is similarly muddled.


As a garrulous blind sage, Ted Jones has his moments, as do Tracy Taylor as the jook joint's sexy, independent proprietress and Marcus Hester as her beaten-down lunk of a husband.


But you know a show's in trouble when the pre-show and intermission soundtrack--authentic blues recordings, including some of Johnson's--upstages the show itself.

--Rob Kendt


"Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil," the Lonny Chapman Group Repertory Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., N. Hollywood. Saturdays, 2 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m., thru Mar. 7. Then Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. $16. (818) 771-8260. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.