There have been so many revues based on black music over the years that I regarded the arrival of "Black and Blue" with skepticism. Even the title, after all, recalled the most powerful moment in "Ain't Misbehavin'."
But "Black and Blue," which opened last night, is in a class by itself. Most of the revues - "Sophisticated Ladies," "Eubie" and "Bubbling Brown Sugar," to name a few - have relied on a kind of hyperkinetic razzle-dazzle to project material that has its own radiant energy.
This sort of overkill may reflect the frantic nature of our own time. "Black and Blue" is closer in spirit to other eras. If you listen, for example, to singers like Adelaide Hall, Florence Mills or Elisabeth Welch, the last of whom we were lucky enough to hear in New York a few years ago, you hear a dignity, an elegance, a worldliness that stands in great contrast to the aggressiveness and desperation that underlie so much of our pop music.
"Black and Blue" recaptures all these qualities splendidly. It is the creation of two Argentinians, Claude Segovia and Hector Orezzoli, who have lived a long time in France. Like their previous shows, "Tango Argentino" and "Flamenco Puro," this one reflects a deep love and respect for the material.
You feel this as soon as the curtain rises on Ruth Brown, Linda Hopkins and Carrie Smith singing "I'm a Woman." They are in silhouette, their shadows filling the height of the dimly lit stage.
We feel we're witnessing not just a show but a mythic rite. The visual image makes a link between the "mamas," those unforgettable blues singers, and "divas," a word meaning goddesses used to describe opera stars who also sang about human misery.
The link is a very European perception, but "Black and Blue" is very much a European appreciation of things Americans often take for granted. The blues, after all, were about great pain, but the music and lyrics were not as raw and crude as they would be today. There was tremendous pathos but also an inimitable humor that pushed emotional confession beyond complaint, beyond self-gratification into art.
Next we see a group of male hoofers dancing jauntily in natty turn-of-the-century street clothes. If the women contributed mythic grandness to black entertainment, the men brought a bewitching, irrepressible energy.
Finally, we see the third key element, an extraordinary band, composed of towering musicians of all ages, playing the blues - in all their mournfulness and joy - with a power you wouldn't expect north of New Orleans.
In these three numbers, Segovia and Orezzoli show the colors on their palette. Then they proceed to create a series of sumptuous canvases full of subtlety and refinement in which great performers can demonstrate their abundant talents.
Hopkins puts her rainbow of a voice to wonderful effect, as does the robust and clarion Smith, but there is nothing quite as powerful as Brown doing a searing version of "St. Louis Blues" or the savagely funny "If I Can't Sell It, I'll Keep Sittin' On It." (Because her vocal cords seem coated with irony, "Body and Soul" seems muted.)
The dancing is stupendous, both when it dazzles, as in the work of such masters as Jimmy Slyde, the young Savion Glover or the seductive Kyme, and when it is quiet, as it is in the intimate, beguiling work of Bunny Briggs. Some of the numbers might have been edited, but clearly everything grows out of love and understanding.
The lighting, which makes haunting use of shadows, makes us feel we're in the presence of ghosts, the spirits of all those legends to which "Black and Blue" pays homage. I think the ghosts must be very happy.
The curtain rises on three large ladies singing: "Everything is going to be all right," and, believe me, it is. More than all right - it's downright terrific.
Those ladies, Ruth Brown, Linda Hopkins and Carrie Smith, are the special stars of Claudio Segovia and Hector Orezzoli's latest spectacular revue "Black and Blue," which opened last night at the Minskoff Theater and deserves to win Broadway's battered old heart.
It has passion, finesse, fun and, above all, style. Segovia and Orezzoli, the Argentinian wizards who specialize in encapsulating theatrical legends - who earlier gave us the dazzling "Tango Argentino," then brought their superbly somber flamenco show, "Flamenco Puro," to Broadway - have done it again.
But this time these Argentinians have brought us, via Paris if you please, our own black music and dance, which is here transmitted, most effectively, through intriguingly alien sensibilities.
Fundamentally, although this is a great celebration of the blues and the Afro-American genius for dance and song, it is not like any black show you have ever seen before. "Bubbling Brown Sugar" it ain't.
It is the Apollo, OK, but the Apollo transformed by a massive input of French chic: as a result it is, if you get my drift, a great deal more Josephine Baker than Bessie Smith.
Of course, this is a revue, not a jazz concert, and this infusion of Parisian showbiz and le jazz hot works a treat for Broadway.
The look of the night - and Segovia and Orezzoli have not only conceived and directed the entire production but also designed and (in concept) lit it - has a very particular '20s and '30s feel to it.
There is no text, no theme, no obvious concept. People perform just in the context of a time, a place and a culture, but even these pinpointers are left deliberately vague. Think of it as a floor show for some nightclub in the skies.
The costume designs are gorgeous. Everything is chiefly black and white: color is used very sparingly.
The three stars are given multi-colored gowns at one point, a chorus line uses a witty touch of yellow, there are joke tatterdemalion costumes for some of the hoofers, and here and there colored accents (red heels and light-blue panties, for instance) will serve to emphasize the spartan color scheme that evokes old black-and-white musicals.
But most of all the costumes glitter: they glitter like stars on a frosty night, and usually the women are wearing spangles that do everything but dangle. (Yet, note, these are "tasteful" spangles, like that "tasteful" Parisian neon light.)
The scenery is skillfully unobtrusive. Red computerized curtains enclose the production, rising and falling to diversify the stage space; and there is a wonderful theatricality in the use of screens, or a staircase, or at one point in having a singer held aloft on a swing, while behind her the world's largest skirt floats down like a frozen waterfall.
The lighting proves deliberately old-fashioned, making great and effective use of that classic show-biz chiaroscuro of spots and shadows that you thought had gone out with the '30s.
Mind you, there is a profound irony to all this. While its taste and chic is the icing on the cake, the glitter-dust on the fairy and the thing that makes "Black and Blue" an event as well as a success, if the basic performances were not there, all this super-abundant taste would matter no more than the spit in the mouth of a hoarse orator.
But the performances are gloriously there. Segovia and Orezzoli have not only dreamed up and conceived their fabulous black-and-blue, black-and-white fantasy, they have also cast it perfectly. And even the casting is subtle.
The queen-pins are the three great ladies - all past their first youth, and perhaps their first fame, but all wonderful performers.
Brown (seemingly miraculously returned from a sick bed) is all naughty wisdom in a racy, wickedly funny song about a woman with a furniture store insisting: "If I Can't Sell It, I'll Keep Sittin' on It," but is equally great in a beautifully sung rendering of "Body and Soul."
Hopkins, already a Broadway Tony-winner, does handsomely with Ellington's "Come Sunday" and "Cry Like a Baby," and joins Brown in a devilish version of "'T'ain't Nobody's Business if I Do."
Finally Smith has her big numbers with an eloquent "I've Got a Right to Sing the Blues," and later scores, sitting on that swing, asking with heartfelt inquiry, "Am I Blue?"
Underpinning the queen-pins are the other performers, a splendid group of classic hoofers, including an exceptionally deft Bunny Briggs, Ralph Brown and Lon Chaney, and three great youngsters, a genuine tap-dance kid Savion Glover, Cyd Glover and Dormeshia Sumbray.
The dancers, chorus and soloists are young and brilliant. The chorus line shows off the best legs on Broadway in years, and if that sounds sexist, to hell with it! And when some get an individual chance to shine, such as Kyme, Angela Hall and Eugene Fleming, shine they do.
Four choreographers have collaborated on the dancing, but most of it is by veterans Henry LeTang and Cholly Atkins, and it has class, indeed top of the class, as do the musicians.
This is an unexpected show: Afro-American Harlem showbiz, from Broadway and Hollywood, partly as seen through Europeanized eyes and foreign ears that have adopted jazz and the blues as a dialect of their own, yet now returned to Broadway in a vividly authentic packaging.
Make of this Argentino/Parisian coloring what you will. I make it one of the best nights on the town in this or any other town. I loved it.
''Black and Blue,'' the new revue at the Minskoff, is a festive tribute to great black American jazz and blues artists as only a madcap pair of Argentine set and costume designers could have imagined it.
The entrepreneurs in question - they conceived, directed and designed the entire affair - are Claudio Segovia and Hector Orezzoli, whose previous spectacles include ''Tango Argentino'' and ''Flamenco Puro.'' They mean well. Their revue is a weird, at times diverting, crosscultural mishmash. While bursting with talent worthy of the Cotton Club or the Apollo or Birdland, ''Black and Blue'' looks like the bloated nightclub floor shows that used to flourish in decadent Latin American capitals just before dictatorships collapsed.
When Mr. Segovia and Mr. Orezzoli stay out of the way, some beloved performers strut their stuff to beguiling effect. Ruth Brown, the rhythm-and-blues chanteuse, applies sarcastic varnish and two-a-day burlesque timing to the ribald Andy Razaf lyrics of ''If I Can't Sell It, I'll Keep Sittin' on It.'' In the sole number choreographed by Fayard Nicholas, of the legendary Nicholas brothers, the young dancers Kevin Ramsey, Eugene Fleming and Ted Levy make time stop with their time steps accompanying Carrie Smith's smoky rendition of ''I Want a Big Butter and Egg Man.'' To watch these lithe men skip in place or buoyantly bob their arms while tucking back their feet is to see show-biz dancing stake its claim to grace.
An even younger trio of dancers - the teen-age Cyd Glover, Savion Glover and Dormeshia Sumbry, all clad in formal Astaire white - bring down the house as they tap up and down stairs to Henry LeTang's choreography for ''Rhythm Is Our Business.'' Much later, the elfin, silver-haired Bunny Briggs, who has been a professional hoofer since 1931, puts us ''In a Sentimental Mood'' by slyly illustrating the miniaturist techniques, particularly the ''paddle and roll,'' of the first generations of tap masters. In every number, the music - whether by Ellington or Arlen or Waller or Handy - is in the authentic hands of an onstage band overflowing with top soloists like the pianist Sir Roland Hanna, the alto saxophonist Jerome Richardson and the drummer Grady Tate.
Authenticity is not always the order of the long night, however. Mr. Segovia and Mr. Orezzoli don't seem to understand that the power of blues and jazz often rests in their unadorned simplicity. In ''Black and Blue,'' the lily isn't just painted and gilded; it's smothered in whipped cream and encased in marzipan. That fine singer Linda Hopkins wails a heartfelt ''After You've Gone'' only to give way to dancers who wrest the song's emotion away from her and provide a soupy, upbeat Vegas finish. Ellington's ''Black and Tan Fantasy,'' so lovingly played by the band, serves as a platform for some utterly unerotic interpretive dancing (choreographed by Frankie Manning) that might be the June Taylor Dancers' answer to ''Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.''
At times it's hard to tell where the directors' innocent vulgarity leaves off and intentional camp begins. An arch, competitive duet between Miss Brown and Miss Hopkins on ''T'Ain't Nobody's Bizness If I Do'' kids the song into oblivion. When Miss Smith sings ''I've Got a Right to Sing the Blues,'' she unaccountably leans back on a large tilted black disk as if she were awaiting root canal work. Miss Brown's rendition of ''Body and Soul,'' inexplicably set against a gray slab of Stonehenge proportions, is so oddly inflected and lispy that it could pass for a Carol Channing impersonation. When Miss Smith later sings ''Am I Blue,'' her vocal interpretation is beside the point; she's perched precariously on a swing, from which dangles a glittery white train high and wide enough to shroud at least half of the Big Apple Circus.
Perhaps ''Black and Blue'' intends to dazzle us with its lavishness, but the production is lavish by Crazy Horse revue standards, not Broadway's. Ever-falling crimson velour curtains and flashing proscenium lights suggest the busy environments of television game shows rather than the chic opulence of the Harlem Renaissance. The metallic, bejeweled outfits wrapped around the three voluminous leading ladies seem like imprisoning carapaces; the patchwork suits given the older male tap dancers are patronizingly clownish. And what is one to make of the rows of nondescript monochromatic compartments, one per chorus dancer, that are rolled out with much fanfare in the finale? For a few minutes, ''Black and Blue'' seems to have landed in a large international airport's restroom.
It's too bad that Mr. Segovia and Mr. Orezzoli didn't turn over more of their show to Mr. LeTang, who stages its wittiest numbers and also played a key role in the artistically overlapping and far superior ''Sophisticated Ladies.'' The failings of ''Black and Blue'' are a function not only of a cultural gap but also of its creators' apparent inability to edit and pace their material. The numbers occur in no particular order, rarely segue into each other and never build toward a cumulative point or feeling. The evening seems much longer than its two and a half hours because its energy is diffuse rather than concentrated. While a revue doesn't require a script, it must have its own internal theatrical logic if the whole is to equal, let alone transcend, the sum of the parts.
In this case, the parts are not to be sniffed at. One can enjoy the real American gems in ''Black and Blue'' as long as one has the patience to pick them out of their gaudy settings of tourist-trap kitsch.