A fresh tribute to some legendary blues, jazz artists

The Late Great Ladies of Blues & Jazz Musical conceived and written by Sandra Reaves-Phillips. Starring Miss Phillips. ``The Late Great Ladies of Blues & Jazz,'' at the John Houseman Theatre, adds one more to the accumulating tributes to 20th-century black singers and vaudevillians. In a one-woman show of her own devising, Sandra Reaves-Phillips salutes a sextet of legendary artists - from Ma Rainey to Mahalia Jackson. Along the way, the ebullient Miss Reaves-Smith also pays her respects to Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Billie Holiday, and Dinah Washington.

To an audience unfamiliar with the distinguishing styles of these ``great ladies,'' their resemblances in the Reaves-Smith performance may sometimes seem more apparent than their differences. The amply proportioned Reaves-Smith stamps the impressions with her own robust singing style and cabaret showmanship. A quick-change artist as well as a vocalist and thumbnail biographer, she appears in a succession of gaudy costumes, with wigs, bangles, feathers, and furbelows to match.

While predominantly upbeat, ``The Late Great Ladies'' also deals with the darker side of success. In the brief personal histories, Reaves-Smith instances the deprivations and worse that lay behind subsequent fame and that sometimes left permanent scars.

Reaves-Smith revels in the raunchy innuendos and racy lyrics of numbers like Bessie Smith's ``Kitchen Man.'' Her Ethel Waters selections feature ``Shake That Thing,'' a medley of ``Stormy Weather/St. Louis Blues,'' and the inspirational ``His Eye Is on the Sparrow.'' The pathos of Billie Holiday is personified in ``Good Morning Heartache.'' Three Dinah Washington songs conclude with ``What a Difference a Day Makes.''

As the second-act finale, a ``Mahalia Jackson Suite'' climaxes the commemoration. The boundless energy and enthusiasm of her gospel shouting and foot stomping had an opening-night audience clapping and chorusing with an almost tent-show fervor. The snappy All Star Jazz Band, led by professorial pianist George Butcher, reinforced the drive and verve of the musical performance. The glitzy production was designed by Daniel Proett (setting), Shirley Prendergast (lighting), Michael Hannah (costumes), and Gwen Nelson (wigs and hair styles).

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