North Coast Rep brings back Sheldon Epps’ ‘Blues in the Night’

Karole Foreman, left, Ciarra Stroud, Elijah Rock and Anise Ritchie co-star in "Blues in the Night."
Karole Foreman, left, Ciarra Stroud, Elijah Rock and Anise Ritchie co-star in North Coast Repertory Theatre’s “Blues in the Night.”
(Courtesy of Aaron Rumley)

Yvette Freeman Hartley directs this 1980s blues music revue, which takes place at a rundown hotel in Chicago in the late 1930s and early 1940s


Veteran actor Yvette Freeman Hartley makes her third directorial visit to North Coast Repertory Theatre this month to helm the musical revue “Blues in the Night.” But these days, Freeman Hartley is hardly ever blue.

Over the past nearly three years of pandemic, the longtime Los Angeles resident said she has come out of her self-imposed retirement because so many exciting opportunities — like directing this show — have come her way in recent years.

“I’ve never had as many auditions in my life as I’ve had this past year. They’re constantly coming, and it’s just fantastic,” she said. “Also, as a writer, they need more stories, and they’re ready to see more things. The doors have opened wide for everybody, where before they were just cracked a little bit.”

Returning to North Coast Rep — where she directed “Gee’s Band” in 2010 and “Ain’t Misbehavin’: The Fats Waller Musical” in 2016 — has been a particular pleasure for Freeman Hartley. She has a deep background in the musical theater world, and she’s excited to work with her husband of 26 years, jazz pianist Lanny Hartley, who is the music director for “Blues in the Night.” The local production stars Karole Foreman, Anise Ritchie, Elijah Rock and Ciarra Stroud, with a five-piece blues band and choroegraphy by Roxane Carrasco.

Yvette Freeman, left, with her longtime husband, jazz pianist Lanny Hartley.
Yvette Freeman, left, with her longtime husband, jazz pianist Lanny Hartley, at the Screen Actors Guild Awards in Los Angeles in 2015.
(Associated Press)

“Blues in the Night” was conceived and directed by Sheldon Epps, who served as associate artistic director at San Diego’s The Old Globe before joining the staff of Pasadena Playhouse, where he served as artistic director from 1997 to 2017.

“Blues” made its off Broadway premiere in 1980s and transferred to Broadway two years later. The four-character show takes place in a rundown motel in 1930s-’40s Chicago, where three women sing about their heartbreak over falling in love with the same man. The score includes well-known blues songs written by Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Harold Arlen, Vernon Duke, Ida Cox, Charlie Davis, Willard Robison and many more.

The show is structured as a revue, meaning it’s a series of songs performed without any dialogue or defined plot. But Freeman Hartley said that she has given more bones to the story to make it more interesting.

“Our version is not a revue. We have a total story line. It’s about booze and falling out of love and bad romance. All the lyrics tell a story. I lined it all up, and it’s looking so good. I’m so proud,” she said. “I haven’t changed anything, but I’ve added connections through the songs, through dancing and looks. It’s the same old, same old that Sheldon created, but it digs deeper.”

Freeman Hartley may be best known for her 15-year run as nurse Haleh Adams on the TV series “ER.” More recently, she played Irma, an older inmate, in the women’s prison series “Orange is the New Black.” But for much of her career, Freeman Hartley was a stage performer. She co-starred in the original Broadway production of “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” and she won numerous awards playing jazz singer Dinah Washington in the stage play “Dinah Was” at theaters around the country.

Freeman Hartley said she no longer performs in either of those two demanding stage musicals, but she remains a deep devotee of live theater.

“We need theater. We need art. We need it to make our society great. That’s what’s missing in our society right now,” she said.

‘Blues in the Night’

When: Opens Wednesday, Jan. 11 and runs through Feb. 5. 7 p.m. Wednesdays. 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays. 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays. 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays

Where: North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach

Tickets: $57-$68

Phone: (858) 481-1055