Sandra Reaves-Phillips

Reaves-Phillips brings talent and attitude of "Great Ladies" to life

Remember the way you felt watching Angela Bassett excellently embody Tina Turner in the rock-'em-sock-'em "What's Love Got to Do With It?"

That's not exactly the way you'll feel watching singer Sandra Reaves-Phillips portray Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson, and other great songstresses in "The Late Great Ladies of Blues and Jazz," which opened the St. Louis Black Repertory Company's 26th season Friday night.

Reaves-Phillips, a talent in her own right with her own identity, doesn't look like Holiday, Jackson, or the four other legends she takes on - Dinah Washington, Ethel Waters, Bessie Smith or Ma Rainey. And Reaves-Phillips' own full voice comes through loud and clear while singing the others' tunes.

What Reaves-Phillips does, most admirably, is momentarily invite the audience into these women's lives, experiencing not only their music, but also their fashion style, attitude (often lots of it), personality, background, and what they went through during difficult times for African-Americans.

A pair of tunes penned by Reaves-Phillips opened the concert. "Blues Lament" painted a quick portrait of each woman, while "Take Me As I Am" would seem to serve as each woman's motto.

There was lots of audience participation, though the opening night crowd must've had their shoes on too tight. Reaves-Phillips as Washington, for example, was unsuccessful in finding a single young man in the audience to have fun with her.

Reaves-Phillips' racy "Mother of the Blues" Rainey was up first and was allotted the shortest amount of time. Reaves-Phillips as "Empress of the Blues" Smith complained about her cheating man and boasted of the 38 inches around her chest.

Her Waters was seen as a lonely woman haunted by the blues who lamented going about life alone. Reaves-Phillips as Waters chastised her musicians on stage for perceived imperfections, and more politely chastised the crowd for limp participation. "Shake That Thing" was a show-stopper.

"Lady Day" Holiday, the performer she looked the least like, struck the strongest chord with the audience. Reaves-Phillips wonderfully evoked Holiday vocally on "Good Morning Heartache," "Them There Eyes," and "God Bless the Child." Her Washington was among the most visually arresting of the portrayals, with her blond wig and sequined glasses. She was just as successful with gospel diva Jackson, who ended the tributes on an uplifting note with gospel standards like "Precious Lord" and "When the Saints Go Marching In."

Finally, Reaves-Phillips, who co-starred in the movie "Lean on Me," unleashed a gutsy rendition of that Bill Withers title track to appreciative fans.

Reaves-Phillips was backed by an all-star St. Louis jazz band led by Neal Tate on piano, Emmanuel Harrold on drums, Keyon Harrold on trumpet, Kim LaCoste on bass and Stan Coleman on reeds.