Tag Archives: Jennifer O’Kelly

Art and Business Clash in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”

Review: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

By Perry Tannenbaum

Few playwrights, black or white, would write a line so richly laden with poignancy as “Somewhere the moon has fallen through a window and broken into thirty pieces of silver” only to bury it in the silent text of his prologue. Just to ensure that such a line would be spoken out loud, Tennessee Williams would have temporarily deputized one of his characters as his mouthpiece so that this line would have a life in our ears.

Yet somehow, the “Somewhere” line dropped into the intro of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom perfectly describes the setting of August Wilson’s 1984 drama. Ma Rainey, her entourage, and her jazz quartet gather at a one o’clock rendezvous with Ma’s nervous manager, Irwin, and record studio boss Sturdyvant. While Irwin is careful not to rouse Ma’s mighty temperament and ego, Sturdyvant’s regard for Ma extends no further than to the pieces of silver her recordings can stream into his coffers.

So I can think of a personal as well as an artistic reason why Wilson elected to inter his telling line. A man who conceives of a ten-play series of plays that will chronicle the history of his people through every decade of the 20th century probably wouldn’t preserve, shepherd, and showcase a 30-pieces line like that with the same urgent care that we might. Or frankly, surveying the crew he assembles for this 1927 studio session, Wilson could have soberly concluded that none of these folk, black or white, had the discernment or eloquence to deliver such a lyrical line.

What comes out of Ma’s mouth is almost always salty, bitter, and infused with rage, while her nephew Sylvester, a stutterer, struggles to say anything at all – even as Ma, laying on more pressure, insists that he deliver the spoken intro to her “Black Bottom” recording. These are the two people who present the most daunting challenges for the whites in the recording studio.

But as the split layout of the Pease Auditorium stage faithfully discloses in Jennifer O‘Kelly’s shambling set design, this CPCC Theatre production of Ma Rainey is very much an upstairs-downstairs story. We spend as much time downstairs in the musicians’ rehearsal room – Cutler on trombone, Toledo on piano, Slow Drag on bass, and Levee on trumpet – and the latter half of the tragic denouement unfolds there.

Needless to say, there is as much tension downstairs between the musicians as there is between Ma, the truculent Sturdyvant, and the ever-appeasing Irvin. Cutler seems to run the show downstairs from a business standpoint, accountable for getting the band to show up on time, distributing the pay, and counting out the downbeats. Levee is the young buck with the big ideas, confident that his arrangements of Ma’s tunes will be preferred to her own, and planning to sign on independently with Sturdyvant so he can record his own songs with his own band.

Although the inevitability of a clash between Ma and Levee isn’t exactly trumpeted when we first meet them, it is deep-set into the structure of the script. Both Ma and Levee arrive significantly later to the gig than Sturdyvant or Cutler expect – though Ma’s arrival is later, louder, and more tumultuous. So the outcome of these prima donnas’ collision is also fairly predictable.

Since at least 1998, Corlis Hayes has been involved in several August Wilson plays around town, including The Piano Lesson, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, and Fences as both a player and a director. Although line problems cropped up occasionally in the rehearsal room, lengthening the production to a running time of nearly 2:20 plus intermission, Hayes directs with a sure feel for Ma Rainey’s moody, spasmodic pacing, and Tony Wright’s fight choreography aptly points up the climaxes.

Jonavan Adams first teamed up with Hayes in 2008, when I felt that The Piano Lesson should have been more forte. As Levee, there are welcome times when Adams goes fortissimo on us, particularly in his mighty monologues and crises. Yet there are still a few moments when we’re getting to know Levee that Hayes should whisking Adams downstage so that we can hear him better and other moments that Adams zips through unclearly. More forgivable toward the end are the moments when Levee is desperately talking to himself.

Clearly, this is a man who is haunted by his childhood and partially imprisoned by it – very emblematic of his people.

Pitted against Adams as Ma is Shar Marlin, who made her first splash on the local scene six years ago as the matriarch in George C. Wolfe’s “Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play” and hasn’t looked back. With both Bessie Smith and Zora Neale Hurston’s Blues Speak Woman in her rearview mirror, Marlin takes on another outsized personality with perfect aplomb. Called upon to sing Rainey’s signature blues, Marlin delivers ornery volume laced with gutsy growls. And believe me, the force of her first entrance is worth waiting for.

With trombonist Tyrone Jefferson tackling the roles of Cutler and this production’s musical director, the jazz behind Rainey – and behind the scenes downstairs – has a unique authenticity. When Cutler gives his oft-repeated “One… Two…You know what to do” cue, three musicians respond from somewhere offstage while he himself delivers the trombone fills. Jefferson, the arranger and musical director behind numerous recent productions, proves to be quite capable as an actor.

Gagan Hunter turns pianist Toledo into a slightly starchy back-porch philosopher, which seems about right, and soft-spoken Willie Stratford – who really needs to be brought downstage – brings an abundance of cool to Slow Drag. In real life, Ma Rainey was indeed the Mother of the Blues, and there was also a notable New Orleans bassist named Slow Drag Pavageau who got his nickname from his dancing prowess.

The white folk are both exploiters, but it’s Tom Scott as Sturdyvant who is far and away the more cruel and noxious. His presence is so toxic that we can easily forget the looming clash between Ma and Levee. Scott always seems to be close to boiling over when he considers Ma’s sense of majesty and entitlement. Hank West as Irvin is the conciliator, but just when he verges on becoming sympathetic, a thin steely mean streak appears in a very nuanced portrayal.

No such subtlety beclouds Carol J. McKIenith’s wantonness as Dussie Mae, Ma’s companion. But there’s an interesting combination of meekness and determination, pride and shame, in Danius Jones’s portrayal of the stuttering Sylvester that makes him unexpectedly rewarding.

In another burst of unheard poetry, Wilson quotes blues great Blind Lemon Jefferson in his epigraph. Because “they tore the railroad down,” sings Jefferson, “the Sunshine Special can’t run.” Confronting this catastrophe, Jefferson plans to “build me a railroad of my own.” Ma and Levee have the same yearnings deep in their bones, to break away and blaze their own musical trails. But it’s still 1927, the traditional tracks are still sturdy, and their people don’t own them.

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Can’t Get Enough of Your Nun, Babe

Reviews of Sister Act and Killing Women

By Perry Tannenbaum

Maybe Ophelia should have followed Hamlet’s advice. Julie Andrews — or was that Carrie Underwood? — checked into a nunnery in The Sound of Music and, in spite of some serious compatibility issues, wound up with a husband and a singing group. The same thing happened to Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act when she hid from a Las Vegas gangster at a San Francisco convent and wound up leading a choir of nuns in a command performance for the Pope.

Sister Act runs through July 23 at CPCC’s Halton Theater. (Photo by Chris Record)

(Photo by Chris Record)

The musical version, transplanted to Philly and currently completing a very successful summer season at CPCC, makes it a little clearer that lounge singer Deloris Van Cartier gets her man. Some might say that Sweaty Eddie, the shy and timid police desk sergeant who whisks Deloris into hiding, mans up at just the right moment and gets his woman. No matter, there’s plenty of righteous jubilation at the end.

Relationships with Deloris tend to be turbulent. She disdains the timid Eddie even though she knows he has a crush on her. Yet she submits to the indignity of being gangster Curtis Jackson’s piece-on-the-side, because he might soften up and get her a record deal. That relationship sours when Curtis gives Deloris one of his wife’s hand-me-down coats for Christmas — a rather noxious blue number — but before we can see whether she’ll follow through on her resolve to walk out on him, she witnesses Curtis killing off one of his henchmen.

So that relationship is also on the rocks.

It’s only when Eddie puts her in the witness protection program at Queen of Angels Cathedral that we arrive at the relationship that gives Sister Act its true spark. Eddie and Curtis merely represent the diverging paths Deloris might take in life. Mother Superior is her polar opposite, disciplined, dignified, god-fearing, ascetic, and tradition-bound. Comical shockwaves fly in both directions when they meet — as soon as Mother Superior espies Deloris’s glittery scanty attire, and as soon as Deloris whips out a cig.

What elevates this script, adapted by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner from Joseph Howard’s screenplay, is the attention it gives to the Mother Superior’s spiritual crisis as Deloris’s leadership of the choir brings crass commercial success to the struggling Cathedral. The stinging line she nails Deloris with, “God sent you here for a purpose — take the hint,” gets flung right back in Mother Superior’s face.

CP and director Corey Mitchell are so fortunate to have Paula Baldwin for their top nun. While Baldwin gets great comedy mileage out of Mother Superior’s discomfiture, she also delves deeply enough into the Mother’s spiritual anguish for us to empathize, even if we can’t climb aboard. It would be an overstatement to say that Baldwin can’t sing a note, but there are some notes Mitchell and music director Drina Keen should have advised her not to sing. Speaking some of “I Haven’t Got a Prayer” would have helped, but it remains one of the evening’s highlights.

Conversely, singing rather than acting is Jessica Rebecca’s strong suit as Deloris. She’s a fair substitute for the infallible Whoopi in the comical moments, but she’s an absolute force of nature when she breaks into song. I’m not sure that Rebecca even needs a mic when she’s belting at Halton Theater, but she was certainly overmiked for most of opening night.

I only began to feel raw emotion from Rebecca at Eddie’s apartment when she sang “Fabulous, Baby!” her second pass at proclaiming her aspirations. So it was especially devastating when she suddenly grew soft segueing into the title song, where she realizes the love, sisterhood, responsibility, and growth she has experienced at Queen of Angels. A goose-bump moment, for sure.

Rebecca towers over Christian Deon Williams, making it all the easier for him to simulate Eddie’s timidity, but the richness in his lower range as he sings his aspirational “I Could Be That Guy” tips us off to his manliness too soon. Big as he is, Stephen Stamps could stand to be raunchier — and older — as Curtis to get the full comical menace out of “When I Find My Baby,” a doo-wop love song with murderous intent, but his Barry White shtick later on is workin’, Babe.

Curtis’s backup thugs have a nice ethnic diversity, Justin Miller as Joey, Alex Aguilar as Pablo, and Justin Rivers as TJ, all of them getting prime spots in “Lady in a Long Black Dress.” More individuality is lavished upon Monsignor O’Hara and three of the nuns. It’s Beau Stroupe as O’Hara who prevails upon Mother Superior to offer refuge to Deloris and is then surprised — and surprisingly enthused — about the rock and gospel Deloris infuses into Sunday services.

Megan Postle is preternaturally welcoming and upbeat as Sister Mary Patrick, exactly the quality needed to maximize the comedy of “It’s Good to Be a Nun.” Caroline Chisholm is the conflicted postulant, Mary Robert, instantly drawn to Deloris’s worldliness. She has some prodigious high notes lurking within her, but Chisholm maintains her innocence even after Deloris helps set them free. As the usurped choir director, Sister Mary Lazarus, Kathryn Stamas is the most surprising of the nuns. Not only can she kick aside a piano stool with a flair that would make Jerry Lee Lewis proud, she can kick her left foot as high as her ear, kicking sideways.

Unless you truly expected the Halton’s stage to be transformed into a cathedral worthy of a Pope’s visit, you’ll be impressed by Jennifer O’Kelly’s set designs — and by how slickly one scene melts into another. Except for the glittery getups worn by Deloris and her backup duo, costume designer Theresa Bush reins it in, but the papal finale is pretty fab.

Alan Menken’s “Here Within These Walls” echoes his own “Beauty and the Beast,” a letdown where there should be uplift. But his “Sunday Morning Fever” — and a couple of his other songs here — will waken disco memories of Travolta, the Bee Gees, and their Saturday Night Fever, a trashy touch that somehow adds to the fun.

A shot from Killing Women. (Photo courtesy of Stephen Seay)

(Photo courtesy of Stephen Seay)

A similar vein of humor runs through Killing Women, a black comedy presented by Stephen Seay Productions at UpStage. Gwen is involuntarily recruited into a ring of hired killers, a profession totally inimical to motherhood. Forget about spiritual uplift as two other pistol packers, vulgar Abby and elegant Lucy, pitch in with the childcare.

Gwen earns one of the most hilarious character descriptions I’ve ever heard, rightly labeled a “do-it-yourself widow” by Abby. The action really revolves around Abby, for after Lucy splatters her hitman husband’s brains on their living room wall, Abby’s callous boss, Ramone, decrees that she must knock the mother off. What passes for Abby’s heart shines through here, for she sells Ramone on the notion of grooming Lucy to replace her dead husband at the firm — but only gets one week to deliver.

Turns out that Gwen has considerable aptitude: she’s a crack shot and more than one hitman is smitten by her, though her body disposal skills need work. Luci Wilson carries the show as Gwen, no less rough-around-the-edges now than when I first saw her in 2008 with the Robot Johnson sketch comedy group. That’s a good thing, and when we finally see all her tattoos, we’re not even slightly surprised.

A less confident, more wired performer, Elizabeth Simpson seems to know Gwen from the inside, and Seay casts two blue-chippers, Lesley Ann Giles and Christopher Jones, to fill out his front-liners as Lucy and Ramone. Cameos are quirky as everything else in Marisa Wegrzyn’s script, Matthew Schantz and Field Cantey handling them quite well.