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Theater Reviews: Cookin' at the Cookery and The Pirates of Penzance

Bio-musicals have been a hot trend in American theater recently. Big-budget Broadway shows such as Mamma Mia and Jersey Boys emphasize flashy production numbers, using biographical material primarily to connect the pop music hits. But Cookin' at the Cookery is a much more compelling gem. Even more than the delightful singing and swinging, the moving and memorable story of forgotten blueswoman Alberta Hunter drives the show.

Hunter is a blues singer you've probably never heard of, but won't soon forget after seeing her resurrected by Marion J. Caffey, who wrote, directed and choreographed Cookin' at the Cookery. The Weston Playhouse is presenting the two-woman show much as it appeared in its successful off-Broadway run, including original performers and technical design. Caffey himself oversaw it all, from casting to curtain calls. The result was an exceptionally polished production, even on opening night, that put the focus squarely on the engaging music and storytelling.

And what a story it is. Like most blues performers, Alberta Hunter (1895-1984) got a rough start in life, running away from her Memphis home at age 15. She worked menial jobs in Chicago while trying to get singing gigs at nightclubs. She had to lie about her age and claw her way up from dangerous dives to the big time: the Dreamland Cafe, where she sang with King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band.

Her career took off from there. She began recording and writing songs, and collaborated with other up-and-comers such as Bessie Smith and a kid from New Orleans named Louis Armstrong. Stints in vaudeville and on Broadway followed. Racism flourished during the Depression and, like many black American entertainers, Hunter went to Europe, where she performed opposite Paul Robeson in a London production of Show Boat.

Hunter returned home when war broke out in Europe. Although she toured frequently with the USO during WWII and the Korean War, her singing career slowly dried up in the 1950s. Rather than take a humiliating role as a servant in a Broadway show, she retired from performing and embarked on a second career. At 59, she subtracted 12 years from her age and applied to nursing school. Twenty-three years later, a New York hospital reluctantly asked the beloved nurse to retire at age 70 -- five years past their mandatory retirement age of 65. She was angry because she didn't want to stop working. And she was actually 82!

A phone call shortly thereafter precipitated her singing career comeback. It started with a two-week engagement at a Greenwich Village club called The Cookery that became a sensation. Her success there led to world tours, new recordings, television appearances and a performance at the White House for President Jimmy Carter. Hunter continued to sing even as her health deteriorated -- fortified by an ever-present mug of Coke and the warming glow of the stage lights -- until she died at age 89.

This pivotal phone call kicks off the action of Cookin' at the Cookery. Two actresses, playing Alberta and Young Alberta, flash back through her life story. They also play all the other characters, such as club owners, record producers, Alberta's mother and Louis Armstrong. A four-piece jazz combo, onstage throughout the show, accompanies the songs and also underscores spoken dialogue with instrumental music.

Ernestine Jackson played the adult Alberta and her mother with glorious grace and charm. Wearing an elegant, red-silk dress, with her hair pulled up in a sleek, gray topknot, Jackson became Alberta: feisty, effervescent, saucy, loving, wistful and smart. She made it feel as if it was Alberta herself -- not an actress -- telling her story. She distinguished well between her two principal characters. The mother's demeanor was more refined, her emotions more controlled; Alberta was dignified, but also had an earthy and irreverent edge.

As Young Alberta and a bevy of other characters, Janice Lorraine shone with versatility and comic energy. Her role required radical transformations, from Alberta as a simple child singing "Jesus Loves Me" to a middle-aged daughter grieving her mother's death. Her other portrayals inspired the show's biggest belly laughs, especially her hysterically funny characterization of Louis Armstrong. Singing a duet of "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?" with Jackson, Lorraine captured Satchmo's trademark gravelly voice and unmistakable mannerisms: the toothy smile, strangely thrusting chest and peculiar way of holding his trumpet.

Both Jackson and Lorraine sang beautifully. Jackson's voice was rich and soulful; like great singers in any genre, she brought the music up from the ground through her feet. Lorraine had a throaty, expressive vocal quality, and plenty of fun-loving dance moves to accentuate her performance. The band seamlessly supported the singers, as did all of the show's technical elements. Scenic, costume, lighting and sound design all featured creative flourishes that enhanced the production without overwhelming the storytelling.

Caffey's well-told narrative remains the foundation for these terrific performances. The script is full of delicious lines, such as Alberta's description of the Dreamland: "That place was so swanky, if you asked for a beer, they thought you wanted to wash your hair." The wit and verve of the show convey the humor and vitality of Alberta Hunter. After seeing Cookin' at the Cookery, you'll probably add this dynamic blueswoman to the list of people you wish you'd met.

Thanks to Jackson, Lorraine and Caffey, you can cheat a bit, and pretend you actually did.

*******

Blood pressure? Pulse? Respiration? Failure to enjoy the zany zest of The Pirates of Penzance is cause to check those vital signs -- you may be in a coma. The comic operetta about not-so-cutthroat swashbucklers scored an immediate hit for librettist William Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan when it premiered in 1879. Witty lyrics and hummable tunes have kept Pirates in play ever since, from families singing around the living room to full-scale professional productions.

St. Michael's Playhouse opened its summer season with a new, Broadway-influenced version of the buccaneers' tale. Directed and choreographed by Keith Andrews, it featured mostly seaworthy performances and a frigate-full of fun, but ran slightly aground on some curious "modernizing" of the original score.

Questions of honor and obligation lead characters to wrestle with ethical dilemmas in Penzance -- the play's subtitle is The Slave of Duty -- and it's a hilarious conceit given piracy's reputation for ruthlessness and amorality. Young Frederic -- mistakenly apprenticed to pi-rates instead of pi-lots by his hard-of-hearing nurse -- is about to be released from his indentures on his 21st birthday. Once free, he feels morally bound to take up arms against his former comrades, even though they have failed to make privateering pay because they won't plunder ships manned by orphans. Every ship they encounter seems to be steered by parentless sailors.

Frederic's leap-year birthday later leads to confusion over when his piratical obligations actually end. Complicating matters are the seven lovely daughters of Major-General Stanley, who stumble onto the pirates' rocky cove. Frederic falls immediately for Mabel, and assorted pirates make instant plans to marry the other six. The Major-General pulls the "orphan" excuse out of his plumed hat, but then spends the rest of the play wracked with guilt about lying to the salty sea-dogs to prevent them from pillaging his precious progeny.

Madcap musical mayhem ensues. Will Frederic fight with the force of English police -- lily-livered Bobbies who prance about like Keystone Cossacks -- assembled to combat the corsairs? Or will the leap-year hitch keep him allied to his old colleagues? Gilbert and Sullivan provide enough implausible plot pirouettes, delightfully delineated in song, to guarantee the requisite happy ending.

Phoning in a performance is not an option with Gilbert and Sullivan. The large cast of pirates, cops and daughters maintained a high level of ebullient energy while highstepping, harmonizing and hamming it up for the two-plus hours of the show. Bill Carmichael, as the deliciously daft Major-General, provided the evening's highlight with a spot-on rendition of his character's signature song. "The Very Model of a Modern Major-General" is chockablock with Gilbert's tongue-twisting rhymes, such as "Babylonic cuneiform/ . . . Caractacus's uniform," which Carmichael carried off to sidesplitting effect.

Also entertaining was John Patrick Hayden as the Pirate King, a swashbuckler with a sensitive side. He struck just the right balance between playing it straight and reveling in the self-conscious silliness, and sang with a smooth, strong baritone voice. Tenor Eric Sciotto brought polished and powerful singing chops to the role of Frederic, and his stage presence was undeniably suave and sexy. But his constant hair flipping and ever-moving feet made for a fidgety performance, which occasionally veered into matinee-idol camp.

A trio of women stood out: soaring soprano Jennifer Babiak as Mabel; animated alto Charlotte Munson as her sister Edith; and comic goddess Kathryn Markey as the lusty Nurse. The women were well served by costume designer Linda E. Kelley, who clad the two dozen cast members brilliantly. The daughters sported summery pastel confections, with the appropriate array of period corsets, bustles, petticoats and pantalets. Major-General Stanley was a vision of late-Victorian pomposity, his deep red jacket bedecked in gold braid, trim and sashing.

Ann Bartek's simple, elegant sets -- a stone-strewn cove and the craggy Gothic ruins of Stanley's recently-purchased ancestral home -- gave the actors ample room for their antics, especially for Andrews' big fun-loving dance numbers. The only technical hiccups were persistent minor problems with the sound system, which should have been fully ironed out by Thursday night's performance -- the third night of the run.

The wireless microphones jarred the audience with occasional episodes of feedback and popping. Even more problematic were the uneven amplification levels, obviously being adjusted from a soundboard during individual songs. (Sciotto was usually undermiked, which hurt his performance.) This acoustic inconsistency was particularly distracting because the show's arch humor and whipsaw plot twists unfold, often at a breathtaking pace, in Gilbert's intricate lyrics.

The artistic hitch to the production -- and it's a big one -- is how Pirates "has been re-scored for a fresh, exciting contemporary Broadway sound by Paul J. Ascenzo," as a breathless St. Mike's press release puts it. Ascenzo's "additional arrangements and orchestrations" awkwardly graft a modern pop sensibility onto some numbers by going for cheap laughs (adding a few bars of striptease music, for example) or souping up the emotional ending of a love song.

Gilbert and Sullivan's tunes need to be Andrew Lloyd Webber-ized like a Mozart opera needs to be Muzak-ed: It's entirely unnecessary and aesthetically offensive. Contemporary painters aren't allowed to bring their oils and brushes into the Louvre to "freshen up" dull patches on the Old Masters. When Dada artist Marcel Duchamp painted a mustache on the Mona Lisa (a reproduction, not the original!), he called the ensuing work a Duchamp, not a da Vinci.

If Ascenzo wants to write a Broadway musical, then he should do so -- clearly he has mastered some of the pop show-tune cliches. Phantom of Les Cats in Saigon, perhaps? But he should stop ransacking Gilbert and Sullivan's treasure chest, and let audiences revel in the pure delights of an unpillaged Pirates.

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