‘Pearl’s Rollin’ with the Blues” with Felicia Fields


Felicia Pearl Fields, a Chicago treasure, sure can sing the blues.

This fact some of us have known for decades, having heard this native Chicagoan do so at theaters and concert halls all over the city and beyond. But you will have never heard her do so quite as she does in the new blues revue at Writers Theatre in Glencoe.

One note before I explain. I caught this show Wednesday night, the first show back at a theater just a brisk walk from Highland Park. The Writers’ interim artistic director Bobby Kennedy delivered a beautiful little curtain speech honoring the victims of the shooting, noting the power of theater to bring people together, and saying how moved he was by the relatively large number of people who had still come out to the theater, just two days after the shooting. I was similarly moved and Fields, who is playing herself, also picked up on the theme. She spoke of her own sadness and about doing what she could to give people a breather from all that had transpired just beyond the theater’s doors. You could feel the unspoken gratitude flowing back in her direction.

But this review is not just about Fields, who appears here with a five-piece band, one of whom is Chic Street Man, also a featured vocalist and a fabulous performer I’ve reviewed many times over the years in all kinds of theater projects around the country.

Street Man, a blues songsmith in his own right, is a fine collaborator for Fields, whose repertoire includes songs made famous by Howlin’ Wolf and Big Mama Thornton among others. But it’s the director and conceiver Ron OJ Parson who has given Fields a vehicle like she has never had before. Chicago doesn’t always treat its small galaxy of stars well. That wrong is righted here.

Parson is the middle of such a streak of truly superb shows — “Relentless” at Timeline Theatre, “Two Trains Running” at Court Theatre and now this one — that I am inclined to wonder what the currently struggling Chicago theater would ever do without him.

His signatures are all over “Pearl’s Rollin’ with the Blues”: a strikingly fast-paced staging, careful attention to the visuals, care for how the audience is thinking and feeling and, above all else, a focus on the direct telling of truths. Even in what is, on the surface, merely a blues cabaret.

Fields certainly provides exuberant renditions of these blues standards, but that she has done before. What I’ve never seen, though, is her speaking to her audience this honestly. With the help of Street Man, whose blues pedigree goes back generations, she invites the North Shore audience into the blues experience, her blue experience, with real generosity. That said, the show also discusses some tough topics but it is effective in its gentle pedagogy precisely because the two stars simultaneously offer such warmth and kindness. Well-timed warmth and kindness, I might add. Halfway through on Wednesday, I remember thinking, thank God this is such an openhearted and nonjudgmental show.

That’s truly the case. These are top-drawer professionals (Ricardo Jimenez plays horns and harp, Frank Menzies vocalizes from his keys, Harold Morrison, his bald pate an irresistible Fields target, hits the drums and Julie Poncé slaps the bass) and the show has a glamorous shimmer, thanks to set designer Jack Magaw, who has built Fields an elegant clamshell and runway, themes which costume designer Rueben Echoles continues into his gowns.

On one level, “Pearl’s Rollin’” offers a lite blues-club experience for those who are perhaps past dealing with 11 p.m. start times and boozy late-night crowds in the city. You can even buy a table and lower your mask to sip a drink.

But this is also a very well structured piece of theater in its own right. It’s a blues education for neophytes but also a reminder of the need to keep the mojo going, as Field sings, even in the face of pain and sadness, two emotions that were in the baby’s milk that birthed the blues in the first place.

It could run and run in downtown Chicago, too.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

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Review: “Pearl’s Rollin’ with the Blues: A Night with Felicia P. Fields” (4 stars)

When: Through July 24

Where: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Tickets: $35-$90 at 847-242-6000 or www.writerstheatre.org


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