The vibrant, haunting voice of songstress Etta James could stop you in your tracks. Local performer Jade Chavis Watt has a voice that can easily do the same, and Watt's vocal fireworks are relentless in "Spotlight on Etta James" at Camelot Theatre.
It's clear that Watt has her vocal roots in gospel. She positively glows when she belts out a rhythm and blues song with strong gospel origins. But she can growl with the best of them, as she does in "W.O.M.A.N.," and spin a ballad that twists your heart, as in "I'd Rather Go Blind."
Camelot's "Spotlight" series format delves into the story behind the musician, and with Etta James, writer Charles Cherry had a lot to work with.
James was born to a 14-year-old prostitute, lived her childhood in foster homes, was a gospel-singing sensation at 4 years old and a touring star with her own singing group at age 14. She wrote songs with such legends as Otis Redding and performed songs by writers from Ira Gershwin to Randy Newman.
After repeated battles with heroin addiction and run-ins with the law in the 1970s, she was "rediscovered" in the 1980s and became a jazz icon. She won six Grammy Awards and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, the Blues Hall of Fame in 2001 and received the Grammy Hall of Fame Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003.
Cherry's script gets a strong narrator in Brian "Buzz" Fraser, who does double duty as Watt's backup singer. Director Presila Quinby provides some subtle stage business to seamlessly propel the action from song to song, era to era.
"Spotlight on Etta James" covers well-known songs such as "The Man I Love" and "Cry Me a River," along with James' signature song, "At Last." But it is also a joy to discover lesser-known songs such as "Baby What You Want Me to Do" and "The Blues is My Business."
Watt moves effortlessly among the selections from James' wide-ranging repertoire, and veteran blues and rock 'n' roll musician Michael Vannice provides satisfying arrangements.
Watt is backed by an onstage band of seasoned musicians, with Vannice on the organ, Brent Norton on guitar, Jay Jorgenson on bass, Steve Sutfin on percussion, and Randy Magallanes and Daryl Fjeldheim on saxophone. Each artist gets a star turn and is integral to the show, from wailing saxophones to purring blues guitar to rocking bass and organ.
But it is Watt's sparkle and sass that carries the show.
Technical credits are notable, with lighting, sound and video design by Camelot stalwart Brian O'Connor. Tyler Ward provided the set design. Tina Skaletsky consulted on Watt's elegant costumes.
"Spotlight on Etta James" is at Camelot Theatre in Talent through Jan. 20. Performances are on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets cost $22, with reserved seating available for an additional $2 per ticket. To purchase tickets and for more information, see www.camelottheatre.org or call the box office at 541-535-5250.
Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at email@example.com.