051113 Big Mama, Ottawa, ON

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Though musicals and opera aren’t really my thing sometimes theatre and music can meet up in a way that tickles my entertainment bone, and this show was one of those times.

And so on May 11th, 2013 I hit up a showing of a musical called Big Mama at the National Arts Centre Theatre in Ottawa.  The theatre at the NAC is like a miniaturized version of their main hall and it’s a pretty great place to see a band or a play, or in this case: both.  The stage was free of any sort of set dressing aside from a standard band setup and the show began exactly like a normal gig; a trio of musicians sauntered onstage, picked up their instruments and started playing. 

Fronting the band was blues singer Willie Mae Thornton (1926-1984), played by Canadian actress Jackie Richardson.  Set in an anonymous bar sometime in the 1970’s, Thornton belted out tune after tune, using her between-song banter as stagecraft to spin her tragic drama and turn what could have been simply a club gig into a riveting and tragic dramatization.  

Thornton was the first singer to record the blues/rock & roll standard Hound Dog and she told us how she received a grand total of $500 in royalties from Elvis Presley’s version, which sold ten million copies worldwide and is ranked by Rolling Stone as the 19th greatest song of all time.  She related the tale of her husband’s death from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.  They had been gigging together when he decided to play a little Russian Roulette during a setbreak.  In the first set she had been happily married, by the time the second set started she was a widow.

After each story came yet another blues gem and after every song came another anecdote that outlined the life and struggles of a very strong-willed, talented soul.  In the end the show felt much more like a concert than a theatrical performance though it was dramatic, compelling and enlightening in a way that a regular concert couldn’t be.

I certainly welcome this style of musical theatre and was very glad for the opportunity to learn and hear so much about a relatively obscure musical figure, but at the same time I couldn’t help thinking how much cooler it would have been if it hadn’t been theatre at all.  Imagine seeing the real Big Mama?  

But then, I suppose Mrs. Thornton would never have stood on the stage and spoken so candidly about her own life story.

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