"Blues in the Night," a self-consciously staged concert by three female singers that came to the Rialto last night, proves one thing, anyway: three reasonably talented songstresses do not a Lena Horne make. You might suppose that an evening of blues and torchy pop standards limned out singly and together by the likes of Leslie Uggams, Debbie Shapiro and Jean Du Shon couldn't be less than engaging. But you'd be wrong.
Sheldon Epps' staging is so labored and the songs are so overarranged that it is only at an odd moment here and there - Uggams' simple and direct account of "Lover Man," De Shon's down-and-dirty delivery of "Kitchen Man" - that the songs, and the singers, are allowed to speak for themselves.
The concert is at fault to begin with. The three women, in various states of dishabille, occupy three separate lonely rooms - long-ago tenement or rundown hotel rooms with standing radiators, transoms over the doors, and cheap furnishings (John Falabella's set design is nicely evocative and is moodily lighted by Ken Billington). It isn't entirely clear whether Woman 1, Woman 2 and Woman 3, as they're bluntly identified, are meant to represent prostitutes or just women unlucky in love.
They slither, glide or sashay forward - one by one, or all together - to sing such items as, besides those already mentioned, "These Foolish Things" (Uggams, in probably the worst arrangement of the lot), "Willow Weep for Me" (Shapiro), "Am I Blue" (all three, in an arrangement blunted by the onstage pianist-conductor's ineffectual singing of "When a Woman Loves a Man"), and finally a group of Bessie Smith numbers that somehow just lie there.
The three ride out the show with "Nobody Loves You When You're Down and Out," "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues" and a reprise of the title song.
Shapiro, the only white member of the trio, is at a sad disadvantage. She can't move like her sisters, and the material doesn't really suit her. Uggams slinks about with snakelike ease, and throws a mean hip and some strong high notes in an unfamiliar song entitled "Low," the combined effort of Vernon Duke, Milton Drake and Ben Oakland. But De Shon, the oldest of the three and an obviously experienced saloon singer, comes off best in what is essentially a fancified cabaret or even lounge show.
Given a break now and then, the combo, aloft in the rear of the set, sounds good. But it, too, is held in check most of the time by this terribly mannered and surprisingly pallid tribute to a vital art form.
Say a none too fond farewell to the old Broadway season, and give the 1982-83 season a warm hello.
It got off to a rousing, flying start at the Rialto Theater last night with a small but terrific bundle of talent called Blues in the Night. Nominate this as sleeper of the year or the first hit of the season, but sashay down to the box office as fast as sashaying permits.
Shakespeare, in a Venetian mood, once asked: "What's new on the Rialto?" Before last night the answer was: "Not much." Since the Rialto Theater was recovered from porn-house sleaze a few seasons ago its career has been less than distinguished. Indeed in that part of the Playbill where the contents announce, interestingly: "At This Theater," the story is omitted.
The poor young theater had zilch achievements worth recording - although at the Blues preview I attended I did spot one nostalgia freak wearing a Marlowe T-shirt, a memento mori of one of the Rialto's grislier entries. But those days should now be past, because Blues in the Night is a dark-toned honey of a show. And in the cabaret style first perfected in the Fats Waller musical Ain't Misbehavin', it is simplicity on well-oiled wheels.
Three women lost in three dusty hotel rooms crying the blues, singing of abandoned sex and sexual abandonment. That's it. The songs have been selected from various pens and sundry pianos, but they are all redolent - sometimes cheerfully so - of those moments when women either need men, lose men, or throw men out.
These war dispatches from the unequal and uneven Battle of the Sexes are all derived from the 1930s or slightly earlier, and the women sit in their various bedrooms singing and drinking their griefs away - sometimes with defiance, sometimes with nostalgia, but always with a tinge of regret.
The funny thing is that - although I had actually forgotten its name - I had seen Blues in the Night some four years ago when it was first staged in an earlier, seedier Off-Off-Broadway manifestation. I loved it then, and wondered why this soulchild of Sheldon Epps, who had conceived and directed it, had not gone farther. Well now it has, and in almost every respect it is even better.
Compared with the first version this new Broadway entry is a great deal slicker and more opulent. The ladies who once looked so authentically downbeat are now installed in smarter, upscale rooms far removed from the earlier doss-house, and boast underwear that is almost gaudily chic.
Yet the selection of music - a mixture of genuine jazz deriving from the likes of Bessie Smith and Alberta Hunter and some pop imitations, such as the title-song by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen - is expert at varying the pace of the show and providing its three women with differently emerging characterizations.
Despite the gussied-up sleekness of John Falabella's adroitly evocative setting and David Murin's ornately historical costumes, the yeoman musical service provided by Chapman Roberts and Sy Johnson, and the beat-by-beat staging by Mr. Epps himself, the show's real success still lies in its three remarkable women and the saloon singer, the jovial Charles Coleman, who occasionally interrupts them.
This is a sumptuous cast - three faces and three voices of an indescribable, apple-loose Eve. First and foremost there is Leslie Uggams with her Aztec heat, her poised, coiled-sprung body, heavy-lidded eyes, vibrant voice, and her sense of the dramatic moment, that second when a song stands still and pings on the memory like a dart.
Then there is Debbie Shapiro, the one white member of the cast, who handles a sensational technique - she can even syncopate syncopation - and has a huskily appealing voice, as smoky as a torch, as plaintive as a cry.
Finally there is Jean Du Shon - the one holdover from the show's downtown days - who is naughtily lubricious, indelicately randy and totally delightful.
Three unusual graces - but fanciful and glowing enough to win the heart of that mythological Paris, let alone our contemporary New York. This is entertainment to warm body and soul together.
It all looks so easy. First, you get your hands on a catalogue of classic songs. Then you hire big-voiced performers who are willing to knock themselves out for two hours of nonstop singing. Throw in an on-stage jazz band, a few dance steps, a set - and presto! You have a hit revue like ''Ain't Misbehavin' '' or ''One Mo' Time.''
Or so it might seem. The sad truth is that not even the plainest theatrical formulas are as easy as they look - and ''Blues in the Night,'' the new revue at the Rialto, is the not-so-living proof. The 25 blues numbers in this show - by the likes of Bessie Smith and Harold Arlen, among many others - are often first-rate. The stars - Leslie Uggams, Jean Du Shon and Debbie Shapiro - are talented. The format - no dialogue, a minimum of dancing - is a model of economy. Yet ''Blues in the Night'' proves a bland evening that mainly serves to remind us just how much imagination went into its seemingly similar, far more fiery predecessors.
Sheldon Epps, who ''conceived'' the revue and directed it, may well be responsible for what's gone wrong, but his basic notion isn't bad: ''Blues'' is set in a cheap hotel in 1938 Chicago (modestly designed by John Falabella) where the three stars occupy separate, shabby rooms. Yet the women remain anonymous throughout - they are called simply Woman No. 1 and so on in the Playbill - and, even when they sing together, they don't interact. Nor do they have distinctive dramatic personalities that might give the revue some much needed sparks: with the sporadic exception of Miss Du Shon, who gets most of the low-down, jazzier numbers, the cast is locked into a generalized, abjectly gloomy ''bluesiness.'' By the end, for reasons that aren't clear, the tone changes from dirgelike depression to shrill, fist-waving anger.
The blues run deeper and wider than the two or three notes that are hit here, and, if this show's monotony is reinforced by the cast's monochromatic attitude and the pedantic alternation of fast and slow songs, it reaches its apotheosis in the wan stage business that ties the numbers together. Much of the time the women lean languorously in their doorways -or sit at tables - fondling their tumblers of booze. In Act I, much is made of the heroines' very slow efforts to get dressed, presumably for men who stand them up. In Act II, we get to watch the women disrobe down to their negligees and slippers once more - and just as slowly. Here, as in last season's ''Scenes and Revelations'' at the Circle in the Square, Mr. Epps reveals an overfondness for tableaux vivants that he really must shake.
The stars do have their moments. The slinky Miss Uggams - in fine, if not warmest, voice - gives a moving account of ''Lover Man.'' Miss Shapiro shakes things up when she syncopates her body to the drumbeats of ''Copenhagen.'' Miss Du Shon, affecting the role of an aging ex-chorus girl from the chitlin circuit, provides some sassy yet elegant prancing in ''New Orleans Hop Scop Blues.'' The evening's fourth performer, Charles Coleman as a piano-playing saloon singer, may have less whisky - and brio - in his voice than any bar singer I've ever heard.
At other times the women are at odds with their songs. Miss Shapiro seems miscast in many of her numbers, not because she is white, but because her showbiz belting style fights against the music's grassroots feeling. She refuses to look for the subtle nuances that might transport her from Broadway to the blues - as the early Barbra Streisand did so brilliantly - and ''Willow Weep for Me,'' in particular, is sold much too hard. It's also impossible to fathom why that Alberta Hunter standard, ''Rough and Ready Man,'' has been given to Miss Uggams (who gives it an all-too-coy, Eartha Kitt-ish reading) when Miss Du Shon seems ideal for the assignment. And why, when the women form a trio, do the vocal arrangements sometimes suggest the Andrews Sisters?
What all these lapses suggest is that no one connected with this revue has thought overly much about the meaning of the material - let alone about how it might be made into theater. It's a shame, because the elements for a potentially solid entertainment have been gathered together in ''Blues in the Night'' - only to be left as high and dry as the nameless women who occupy its fleabag Chicago hotel.