The world-premiere musical revue at Glencoe’s Writers Theatre carries the subtitle, “A Night with Felicia P. Fields.” So let’s be clear about this: A night with Felicia P. Fields is a night worth having.
The Chicago-bred performer has been a favorite presence on the city’s stages for decades, putting her big voice and considerable comic chops to scene-stealing use at theaters ranging from the Goodman, Court, and Chicago Shakespeare to suburban musical factories like Marriott and Drury Lane. And, famously, Fields earned a Tony Award nomination in her first (and to date, only) trip to Broadway, in the original 2005 production of “The Color Purple.”
At Writers, where she previously played the titular blues singer in a 2019 staging of August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” Fields is now performing as herself. (If you’re wondering who this “Pearl” character is, well, now you know what the “P.” stands for in “Felicia P. Fields.”)
‘Pearl’s Rollin’ with the Blues: A Night with Felicia P. Fields’
Sauntering onstage in a high-collared chiffon cape, which she shrugs off to reveal an appropriately pearlescent beaded gown, Fields reminds us from the start that the blues don’t always have to be sad. Promising a good time is in store, she playfully encourages the audience to “let your hair down,” then with a shrug suggests “take your hair off,” before launching into the Willie Dixon party-starter “Wang Dang Doodle.”
The show’s set list, shaped by Fields and director Ron OJ Parson (they’re credited as co-creators), leans heavily in its first half toward the blues’ bawdier, entendre-laced side. Fields follows up “Wang Dang” with Dixon’s “Built for Comfort” (“I’m built for comfort, I ain’t built for speed / but I got everything a good man needs”) and Lil Johnson’s “My Stove’s in Good Condition.”
The latter song (whose lyrics honestly feel too innuendo-heavy to quote here) is one that Fields has mastered over a dozen years of singing it in the revue “Low Down Dirty Blues.” Fields appeared in that show’s world premiere at Skokie’s Northlight Theatre in 2010, and has since reprised her role at regional theaters around the country. Here, you can sense how she’s perfected the timing and emphasis for maximum comic impact.
Fields proves great with crowd work, too. Parson and set designer Jack Magaw have supplemented Writers’ built-in seating with cabaret tables in front of the oyster-shaped stage Fields shares with her five-piece band, and riffing during a rendition of Muddy Waters’ “Got My Mojo Working,” she leaves the stage to interrogate couples at those tables about how their mojo’s working.
Though Fields is the headliner, she gives nearly equal stage time to her music director and frequent collaborator, Chic Street Man. The lanky guitarist, who Fields described at one point on opening night as “my personal Elvis,” takes lead on around a third of the songs, including a couple of original compositions.
Apart from identifying those originals, and attributing one other song to Big Bill Broonzy as part of a jokey exchange with Fields, you won’t find any credits to these songs’ writers in the program, or hear any mention of the artists who popularized them. To be fair, the show isn’t pitched as some kind of blues primer, and many revues can go too far in the opposite direction, feeling like a staged Wikipedia entry. Perhaps the omission is surprising only because this is Writers Theatre, where the word and the text are exalted — it’s right there in the name.
On the promise of a good time, though, Fields and her terrific band — including Frank Menzies on keys, Julie Ponc? on bass, Harold Morrison on drums, and Ricardo Jimenez on trumpet — absolutely deliver. They’re highlighting the joyful mood of the blues (with a touch of gospel for inspirational good measure); why not roll with it?