Reviewed by on    Musical Theatre, Professional Theatre  


Photo.  Tim Matheson

The most powerful moment of a powerful show is also one of its quietest moments. In the persona of the late blues/jazz singer Willie Mae Thornton, Jackie Richardson delivers a heartrending version of Summertime from George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.

In an instant, she changes the mood from the poignancy of this black anthem to upbeat to raucous as she tells the story of Big Mama Thornton’s hard-knocks life in a beautifully nuanced performance that captures the style, appearance, attitude and, most of all, the music and punch of the American singer.

Outfitted in a check shirt and man’s hat and pants to emulate Big Mama’s style of dress and taking the occasional swallow of “milk,” Richardson’s presentation is mesmerizing as she recreates the entertainer who frequently admitted that she couldn’t read music but knew what she was singing. Did she ever! Just listen to Richardson and watch the grace with which she delivers the role that was written for her.

There is also a characteristic generosity in her performance as she gives each member of the fine backup trio, led by music director Tim Williams on guitar, with Ron Casat on keyboards and Kevin Belzner on drums, his time in the spotlight.

Enhanced by Martin Conboy’s lighting and Carole Klemm’s set, the show, conceived and written by Audrei-Kairen and directed by John Cooper, is difficult to categorize because it is part drama, part concert, part history of Big Mama and of the blues.

The one thing that is certain is that it is not to be missed, whether you are a die-hard jazz/blues fan, an admirer of Willie Mae’s music or simply ready to be blown away by Jackie Richardson’s powerhouse performance.

Big Mama! The Willie Mae Thornton Story continues in the NAC theatre to May 11.

Director: John Cooper

Musical director and guitarist: Tim Williams

Drums: Kevin Belzner

Keyboards: Ron Casat

Set: Carole Klemm

Lighting: Martin Conboy

Costumes: Karen Levis


Willie Mae Thornton…………………………………Jackie Richardson