“Blackbirds” Soaring on Barter Stage

Hurry on down to the Barter Theatre before they burn the house down with the sensational new revue, “Blackbirds of Broadway!” And these Blackbirds are really headed for Broadway after a planned European tour. My guess is they will take the “Great White Way” by storm. The curtain rises on scenic designer Andre Barbe’s attractive bandstand set, to reveal the talented orchestra in elegant formal attire. Musical Director Ron Barnett and his musicians wonderfully recreate the musical magic of the “Cotton Club” era. I always wished I could have seen that club. Now I feel as though I’ve been there.

Hosting the evening, as Conjure Man, is gifted performer H. Clent Bowers. His outstanding recitations of short, poignant Langston Hughes poetry selections are the secret ingredient that weaves what could have been just a musical review into a tapestry of rich theater. The focus of the show is a Memory Lane tour of the Blackbird Revues of the 20’s and 30’s in which black artists delighted audiences from New York to Paris. Stars of the era included composers Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, W.C.Handy, Eubie Blake,and Thomas “Fats” Waller. Featured singers included Josephine Baker, Lena Horne, and Ethel Waters, while the tap dancing of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Earl “Snake Hips” Tucker, and the famed Nicholas Brothers was legendary. All are well represented in this gala night of song and dance.

During a cute “Doin’ the New Low Down” we get a first peek at the award winning costumes of  Jeff Fender, the creative lighting of Lynn Hartman (dig those crazy dancing shadows on the theater walls), and the pleasing choreography of Director Marion J. Caffey. His attractive cast includes James Doberman, Rachael L Hollingsworth, Roumel Reaux, Lavon D. Fisher, Stacey Sargeant, and “Katura” Walker. As the printed program most often uses their first names, I will take that same liberty here.

Now when it comes to “red hot mamas” don’t expect any hotter than Katura’s rendition of “Let the Good Times Roll” with able assistance from Clint. James, Stacey and Rachel follow with the delightful liveliness of a jazzy “Papa De Da Da” and are then joined by Levon for a spicy “Your Mother’s Son-in law.” Both numbers sound terrific (thanks to Sound Designer John Anderson) and feature eye-popping costumes and dancing. In “He May Be Your Man,” Katura shows her comic flair and sports a deliciously garish outfit of wine-red velvet, shimmering silver-on-black and matching feather boa. James Stacey and Roumel supply smooth, elegant harmonies in a top hat version of “Dinah,” and Levon gives a smoky richness to the sultry torch song, “Porgy.”

A breezy medley of “Exactly Like You,” “Some of These Days,” “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street” had a charming old-fashioned flavor. It featured great tap dancing and more of the costume designs that make one wish the show were available on video for a closer look. And speaking of dancing, the fabulous “Saint James Infirmary” number was another reminder that this show is recreating an era most of us only know from film. The “St. Louis Blues” duet that followed had electrifying sparks flying between Katura and Levon while Clent adds joy to the stage as he looks on, beaming, from an upper window. The audience was beaming, too.

After the dazzling red and black glamour of the ensemble dancing in “Black Bottom” and the “Shim Sham Shimmy,” Clent shows off his extraordinary voice and talent as Cab Calloway. In a “Minnie the Moocher” that had all the infectious enthusiasm of the Calloway I remember on Broadway some 30 years ago (when he starred with Pearl Bailey in “Hello Dolly”) Clent had the audience cheerfully singing along.

Act II’s “The Man From Harlem” was a great dance opener and the “Darktown Strutter’s Ball” that followed made me hope they keep this stellar cast intact when the show comes to Broadway. Rachael delivers a thoughtful and wrenching “I’ve Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good.” Talented James Doberman was saddled with the one song I would cut from the show: “Woman.” With his fine voice and dance skill he deserves a showstopper and a more familiar tune.

The racy double entendres of “My Handy Man” were hilarious. “”Elijah Rock” was a consummate Gospel offering. Clent’s “Stormy Weather” was resoundingly powerful, and he delivered the lyric “…Can’t go on, everything I had is gone…” with such feeling that the audience interrupted the performance with spontaneous applause. The dance excitement of “Lenox Ave. Tap” was tempered by the words of Langston Hughes’ Minstrel Man: “Because my mouth is wide with laughter, you do not see my pain.

Because my feet are gay with dancing, you do not know I die!”

While enjoying “Until the Real Thing Comes Along,” I realized that this show really is “The Real Thing!” As I left the auditorium, I thought how long it has been since I’ve seen this many happy faces exiting a theater lobby. I remembered the show’s tender conclusion, “Memories of You,” and took with me many pleasant memories of a great night of theater.

(Washington County News    9.1.99)

About The People's Critic

David Dow Bentley III, writes columns about the performing arts which are featured in newspapers from the East Coast to the Gulf Coast. A member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), The International Theatre Critics Association, and America's oldest theatrical club, The Lambs, he also had long service as the editor of The Lambs' Script magazine. Mr. Bentley may be contacted via e-mail at ThePeoplesCritic3@gmail.com.
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