Review: The Belfry Theatre presents Big Mama! The Willie-Mae Thornton Story

Jackie Richardson gives the gift of the blues in Big Mama!

Jackie Richardson (left) and Bill Johnson in Big Mama! The Willie-Mae Thornton Story, playing at the Belfry Theatre until Aug.19.

Jackie Richardson (left) and Bill Johnson in Big Mama! The Willie-Mae Thornton Story, playing at the Belfry Theatre until Aug.19.



It’s Christmas in August at the Belfry Theatre as “Canada’s first lady of jazz” Jackie Richardson gives the gift of the blues as she embodies R ‘n’ B legend Big Mama Thornton, in Big Mama! The Willie-Mae Thornton Story, playing until Aug. 19.

Full of big blues sound and both heartbreaking and heartwarming moments, Big Mama! Is an emotional and delectable musical story about a black women working in a man’s world.

Before Elvis Presley, Big Mama Thornton recorded the hit song “Hound Dog,” and before Janis Joplin, she wrote and sang “Ball ‘n’ Chain.” She was a R’n’B queen on the “chitlin’ circuit” and no one dared messing with Big Mama.

Set on Christmas Eve in an early ’70s-style roadhouse, Big Mama! Is as much a live concert as it is theatre.

Backed by a three-piece band, including music director Ron Casat on keys, Andy Graffiti on drums and local Juno-nominated blues guitarist Bill Johnson, Richardson finds a way to not only deliver a stunning musical performance — bringing the audience to their feet before any one left the stage — but she also delivers on the dramatic side, with tears welling up in her eyes when she recounts the hard times Big Mama faced growing up during times of racial segregation in southern U.S.A.

Taking breaks between numbers (some Thornton originals, some covers), Big Mama unfolds the story of blues from the beginning — from times of slavery and racial discrimination to singing with her mother at church and time travelling the world on tour, and reminds the audience that  while the blues are often about the trials and tribulations we face, the “Blues are about getting past all the shit.”

The musical by Audrei-Kairen was originally written for and performed by Richardson, who hasn’t performed the role in almost 10 years until this co-production with the National Arts Centre (Ottawa) and it’s evident that those 10 years have provided Richardson with the life experience to really get into the nitty-gritty of Big Mama’s experience. Her performance is passionate enough to hold the audience’s full attention for the entire 75 minute show (no intermission), and the musicians are talented enough that it feels like the full concert experience, and then some.

Let Big Mama “lay the hurtin’ on ya,” and then build you back up. M

 

Big Mama! The Willie Mae Thornton Story

Belfry Theatre until August 19.

Tickets at belfry.bc.ca or by phone at 250-385-6815

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