(Los Angeles, CA) May 20, 2010 - South Pasadena is abuzz with a blues revival celebrating the life and music of Ethel Waters. The Fremont Centre Theatre hosts Sweet Mama StringBean, a one-woman show lead by ValLimar Jansen that features a great live band accompanying her classy, stringy voice. The show is told from an autobiographical musical that takes the audience on a ride with the blues through Ethel’s eyes. It’s like taking a taxi through the timeline of her life, with Ethel driving and her music playing from the radio throughout.
Jansen shares milestones in Waters’ life weaved through the music that marked her career. Her birth was the result of a rape her mother endured at the tender age of 12. Her life, as told through the show, is full of the victimization, loneliness, and heartache that accompany rape victims. Waters has been quoted as saying she was “never a child.” Jansen uses the songs that made Ethel famous to take us from her downtrodden beginnings into her days of success. She focuses Ethel’s feelings, experiences, and perspective in delivering the songs and the result is awe-inspiring.
Before the show starts, patrons are treated to live jazz to enjoy as they take their seats. Lonesome Swallow opens the show, a song that could mirror the life of Waters. Waters is said to have never stayed in the same place more than 15-months throughout her life of 80 years. With her demanding touring schedule, the Jim Crow laws of the South, and the difficulties of broken marriages and no children, Sweet Mama Stringbean may have never found home, as the song suggests.
A star whose rise preceded the success of Lena Horne, Josephine Baker, and Hattie McDaniels, Ethel Waters’ class and poise in the midst of racial tensions, financial and contractual exploitation and discrimination is a testament to her talent and staying power. ValLimar exudes that strong yet quite spirit that sustained Ethel throughout the show covering songs such as Black and Blue, Heebie Jeebies and St. Louis Blues with ease. Some of Jansen’s renditions echo old recordings of Ethel Waters’ that have been added to the Grammy Hall of Fame including Dinah, Am I Blue, and Stormy Weather. The highlight of the night is Jansen’s rendition of My Handy Man. A song that references sex 16 times you’d think would be too hot for TV, but the innuendo and metaphors that Blake and Razaf used in writing the song is perfect for Jansen to dance and sing to without offending the audience.
A telling tribute to Waters’, Jansen doesn’t try to emulate Waters’ voice. Rather, ValLimar’s classically-trained voice and experience aptly embodies the emotion in the music the same way Ethel would. The howlin’ that blues was usually known for was absent from Ethel and Jansen maintains this truth as well. Another highlight of the show is the musicians. Just as Ethel sang with the likes of musical greats in Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, the band that plays behind Jansen during the show is stellar. Her husband, Frank Jansen, the musical director, has played with the likes of The Coasters, The Platters, The Drifters and Jan & Dean. The band is rounded off with an upright bass, drummer, and saxophone player.
The fitting symbolization continues in the storyline. Jansen appears as Ethel at the height of her career, which is inviting at first, but by the end of the show, you wish you could’ve got to know the woman after her Academy-Award nod for her role in Pinky. Ethel apparently wrote an autobiography in 1950 titled His Eye is on the Sparrow, titled after the gospel song she was known for making famous. But it is probably best that Jansen stuck to the strong Waters’ rather than relegating the audience to the rough ending of her life. Her career all but faltered after 1951. For the last 20-plus years of her life Waters’ toured sporadically and was known to have performed Christian songs with Reverend Billy Graham. Ethel is known to have died of heart failure while being cared for by a young couple in Chatsworth, California. Sweet Mama died without a loving family by her side. How Ethel was able to remain a class act and sing the blues with such dignity and grace is anyone’s guess. The show does not try to answer this question, but rather chooses to celebrate Sweet Mama Stringbean through her life and music. Whether you’re a fan or a newbie to Waters’s story, you will get a glimpse of the complexities of the life of a blues superstar that is rarely told. The standing ovation ValLimar Jansen received at the end of her charming performance was well-deserved.
Sweet Mama String Bean runs today and Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont Ave. (at El Centro), South Pasadena, CA 91030.