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‘Blues’ show covers women of genre with cool heat

Pamela Rose (right) and Tammy Hall are integral parts of “Blues Is a Woman.” Photo by Jane Higgins.

For an aging white boy, I’m a bit of an anomaly: I’ve long had the blues in my bones.

Not that I sing ‘em, mind you.

I just love hearing them.

So it’s not surprising I thoroughly enjoyed “Blues Is a Woman,” a musical two years in development.

It’s cool.

With plenty of heat.

The show, now at Custom Made Theater, is subtitled “From Ma Rainey to Bonnie Raitt” but deftly covers virtually every female blues singer in between, from the motif’s heyday in the Roarin’ Twenties to its rebirth in the ‘60s.

Six distaff musicians made my toes involuntary tap — and made the rest of the audience rhythmically clap and shout “Woo-woo,” “Hallelujah” and “Bravo” with some frequency.

The cast is led by dynamic lead vocalist Pamela Rose, the two-hour performance’s writer whose flaming red hair immediately reminded me of Raitt; Daria “Shani” Johnson, whose drum work was somehow as energetic and soulful as her voice; Tammy Hall, pianist and musical director who plays with an ease that matches the first-rateness of her vocals; and Kristen Strom, whose sax riffs excel but fade when compared to her bouncy, upbeat demeanor.

Those four are skillfully supported by Ruth Davies, Grammy-winning electric bassist, and Shaunna Hall, whose expertise on electric guitar is as obvious as her arm and body tattoos and who smoothly stepped in at the last minute for Pat Wilder, who’s recovering from heart surgery.

The combo concert-history lesson blends storytelling, film footage and music to trace the paths of women who wrote and popularized the blues.

While utilizing a set that’s basically a bandstand — and a narration that’s often in unison.

Twenty-three musical numbers — plus still projections and film clips — pay homage to Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Etta James, Janis Joplin, Sophie Tucker, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Memphis Minnie and dozens more.

The production’s sprinkled with humor (including a quickie rendition of a ‘50s novelty, “How Much Is That Doggie?”). But, ultimately, it’s really a mega-serious tribute to women, especially black ones, and their struggle for freedom and the right to be more than housewives and sisters with incredibly limited vocational opportunities.

Underscored by a running theme that sums up a lot: “Nobody knows the way I feel…”

With a couple of references to Jim Crow, Donald Trump and Katrina tossed in for good measure.

The Custom Made world premiere, which follows workshops and previews at Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma, the O’Hanlon Center for the Arts in Mill Valley and several other venues, and which features creative direction by Jayne Wenger, is scheduled to tour the country after its Aug. 27 closing night.

“Blues Is a Woman” instantly brought to mind my suburban New York City childhood listening to the so-called “race record” melodies of Rainey, Bessie Smith and Alberta Hunter.

And later to Alan Freed, radio’s “Moondog,” playing all sorts of R&B, the rhythm ‘n’ blues forerunner to rock ‘n’ roll.

Those memories washed over me as I left, and I grinned, knowing that anyone who might have walked into Custom Made with the blues would most likely have walked out without them.

“Blues Is a Woman” will run at the Custom Made Theatre, 533 Sutter St. (at Powell), San Francisco, through Aug. 27. Night performances, 8 p.m Thursdays through Saturdays; matinees, 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets: $38 to $50. Information: or 415-798-2682.

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