With one-person shows (or what feel like one-person shows, even if there are other cast members) based on the lives of real people, the dilemma is always: Will a compelling story somehow conquer the familiarity of the format? You know the drill: a chronological timeline of a historical figure’s achievements and struggles that can become all too rote.
With Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe’s world premiere of playwright Larry Parr’s Hi De, Hi De Ho! Cab Calloway, a strong effort is made. And if the tale isn’t wholly successful in the telling, at least it boasts an energetic performance in the lead role of bandleader Calloway in the person of WBTT artistic director Nate Jacobs, who performs many of Calloway’s signature tunes with verve and style.
In fact, from the moment Jacobs appears onstage moving and vocalizing to The Calloway Boogie, he’s got the audience ready to sing along. Sometimes the scenes between the musical numbers may be less than stirring; other than an early loss of his father and the usual musician’s lot of too much drinking and too many women, Calloway doesn’t seem to have had much to overcome, and it can start to feel repetitious. But when the band, under the direction of of James Dodge II, rips into Reefer Man, Minnie the Moocher or Everybody Eats When They Come to My House, the evening puts you squarely back into the heyday of the Cotton Club and Calloway’s prime.
Jacobs doesn’t resemble Calloway much, although the familiar long Calloway coat and vest and a straight wig give him something of the look. He doesn’t try to sound just like him, either. But he does have a powerful stage presence—a good thing, since he has to carry so much of the show. Chris Eisenberg appears as the younger Cab in scenes reflecting on his upbringing, and Jasmine McAllister plays a host of women in Cab’s life, from a rigidly religious grandmother to the mother who wants him to be a lawyer to his first, class-conscious wife and so on. The way these appearances are scheduled, for the most part, means that one defining characteristic represents each woman, and none of them really comes across as three-dimensional.
But the chance to hear Calloway’s hits, performed in lively fashion, is probably worth the ticket for WBTT fans. The show continues through May 15; for tickets call 366-1505 or go to wbttroupe.org.