This was opening night at The Great Caruso’s Dinner Theater, and the image of famed blues singer, “Ma” Rainey, beamed down at the audience from her place in the center of the transparent scrim that would soon reveal the backstage scenes in the fun-filled musical, “One Mo Time.” The setting is New Orleans’ Lyric Theater in 1926, and “Big” Bertha’s troupe is performing. The theater owner (Kelvin Douglas) steps forward to address the audience, and the humorous atmosphere is established as soon as he cautions there should be “no spitting on the floor!”
Miss Cochran, an alumnus of the McCullough School in The Woodlands, has wide experience in gospel choir work. She has even recently released her first CD, “Forever Changed.” But that is another story, and I hope to tell you more in a future column. In the role of “Ma” Reed, Cochran, an imposing stage presence with a fine voice, was dressed in rich black satin that draped like an elegant stage curtain. While her dress was black, Miss Cochran herself is not. But while the rest of the talented cast is Afro-American, Cochran proved before the night was over, that she could go one on one with the best of gospel singers.
The show’s original production, conceived by Vernel Bagneris, opened at New York City’s Village Gate Theater in 1979 and ran for four years. Now it begins a run at Caruso’s that is scheduled to continue through Sunday, November 25th. Readers may recall my singing the praises of Great Caruso’s fine food and ambiance last year when I reviewed the “A’int Misbehavin'” production. Incidentally, that show featured many of the same performers in this current cast.
Cute and sassy with its flapper-style choreography, the high energy opening number, “Down in Honky Tonky Town,” is just a hint of the fun to come. With its cast of five, the gents are beaming, and the ladies are gleaming in their sparkling ’20’s costumes by designer, Stacy Robinson-Newton. The lightweight plot fluctuates between action backstage and performances on stage. This is cleverly accomplished by the fine set design of Vassili Magazis and the lighting work of Kyle Pearson and Cathy Westmoreland. In combination, they allow us to see (through the scrim) the backstage scenes. Westmoreland was less successful with her work as sound engineer. There were frequent occasions when the fine Dixieland Band (Musical Director, Lydia Alston) and the vocalists were not well balanced. This sometimes made it difficult to clearly hear the singers over the volume of the band. I was encouraged when Caruso’s owner, Spero Criezis, spoke to me later and mentioned an ongoing effort to clear up this problem.
Cochran’s talent as a vocalist was matched by her flair for comedy in gag lines like, “Nobody don’t wanna marry me when I’m drunk; and I sure as hell don’t wanna marry anybody when I’m sober!” The sometimes-tedious backstage banter embodies the petty jealousies and arguments of the cast between songs. In the part of Bertha, Donna Wilkerson-Stewart storms on stage and sends up a red-hot mama style “Don’t You Turn Your Back On Me!” that sizzles. And speaking of sizzling, how about her layered black fringe over gold lame? And, oh, them golden slippers!
Cochran is hilarious when mocking Big Bertha, and then really struts her stuff in “Miss Jenny’s Ball.” There are even some high kicks and cute choreography as the guys join Thelma for “Cake Walkin’ Babies From Home,” with the audience enthusiastically clapping along. In her flashy, fringed red dress, Aisha Ussery (as Thelma) and Anthony Boggess-Glover (as PaPa Du), offer the jazzy “Kiss Me Sweet.” Comedic Glover, who doubles as the show’s director, can roll ’em in the aisles just by rolling his eyes.
Cochran returns, in mid-audience, with a saucy “See See Rider,” and proceeds to embarrass numerous male members of the audience with some cozy, close-up singing. Her on-the-spot sense of impromptu comic timing breaks up the house at the expense of her “victims.” Then Glover, spoofing the blackface tradition, is in really fine voice as he joins the cast for “The Graveyard.” His dancing skills are evident in “New Orleans Hop Scot Blues.” Ussery’s pleasing “He’s Funny That Way,” is diminished by the sound problems. Stewart suffers a similar fate as she descends the restaurant’s beautiful marble spiral staircase, cigarette holder in hand, looking much like Auntie Mame. Her “Kitchen Man” is cute, sassy, and full of double entendres; but here again, the band overwhelms the vocalist. Perhaps her best number was the sultry “Everybody Loves My Baby.”
There is more nice dancing (Choreographer Aaron Callies) in the ensemble number, “Wait Till You See My Baby Do the Charleston.” Then Cochran sparkles in a snappy “Black Bottom,” that features fine solos on trumpet (Samuel E. Jackson) and clarinet (Dick Wilkie). Stewart sounds like a young Eartha Kitt with the brazen “You’ve Got the Right Key But the Wrong Keyhole.” Cochran’s powerful “After You’ve Gone” is evidence of her gospel background. As she joins Ussery for “Muddy Water,” the band finally softens and makes this a real winner! As their voices blended beautifully, Woodlands resident Beth Morgan was enjoying the show. Said Morgan, “That was pure talent, not just singing. That was the best number of the night!”
The Great Caruso is located at 10001 Westheimer, just inside Beltway 8. For information and reservations call 713-780-4900.
(The Courier 8.26.01)