By Kay Kipling
Now that Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe has been ensconced for a while in their own building on 10th Way, their shows seem to be getting bigger all the time. Bigger isn’t always better, of course, but with the current production, Nate Jacobs’ ’50s Jukebox Revue, having a varied 12-member cast and a strong five-piece band to deliver all the tunes of that era is a welcome blast from the past.
The whole ensemble bursts onto the stage with a high level of energy from the get-go and never lets up, although fortunately there are some quieter, gentler songs amid all the upbeat rock ‘n’ roll. That at least a few of these songs are currently also being heard in Florida Studio Theatre’s production of Smokey Joe’s Cafe (read my review of that show here), a few blocks away, shouldn’t keep audiences from enjoying their evening here.
Jacobs, who directed the show, doesn’t waste any time lining up the hits or introducing, through the emcee character of TJ Brown (Emmanuel Avraham) the archetypal characters of the revue. The conceit is that these performers are all part of the Chitlin’ Circuit, traveling from town to town in an era when black singers and dancers seldom made it to the white-dominated big time. There’s a little bit of their story woven amid the many songs–along with professional and romantic rivalries between some of the characters–but the production doesn’t stop moving long enough to develop them much.
That’s really OK, because it’s all about the music here,with familiar numbers originally presented by stars including Little Richard, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Lavern Baker and many more. The cast even gets a chance to sing some songs associated with white performers of the time, too, such as Elvis Presley and Bobby Darin.
It can be hard to single out the most successful numbers in such a packed revue, but while WBTT stalwarts including Ariel Blue, Michael Mendez, Charles Manning, Tsadok Porter and the young Alyssa White come across with oomph on tunes ranging from Hound Dog to Johnny B. Goode to Mama Said, it’s also a pleasure to hear from some newer ensemble members, like Kristal Walker as Blue’s archenemy, Lula; Davronette Henson, a tiny package who sings big on tunes like Mashed Potato Time; Gordon R. Gregory as Big Hal Hopper, enjoying a battle of the sexes with Blue’s Mama Sass; and Henry Washington as Teddy “Slick” Turner, a ladies’ man who rips into some Little Richard songs with zest. Will Little and Dhakeria Cunningham dance with agility and enthusiasm, with Cunningham doing yeoman’s work as the show’s choreographer as well. Since virtually every song here requires lively movement that is both of the period and often helps to tell a story, that’s crucial, as is the support from the rocking band led by James E. Dodge II. And let’s not forget the costumes by Cristy Owen–suits and ties for the men, sure, but also both girlish and glam attire for the women, who get to change their look often.
Just about every WBTT revue offers audience interaction–usually with female audience members swooning in reaction to being serenaded–but it’s a formula that works, especially on the closing number, Bo Diddley’s Rock & Roll Music, which sweeps some of the patrons onto the stage to dance with the cast. They looked to me as if they didn’t want to go home.
Nate Jacobs’ ’50s Jukebox Revue continues through Dec. 16; for tickets call 366-1505 or go to wbttsrq.org.