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LETTERS TO EDITOR
One 'Mo Time
---Our Original Review
If you didn't see Vernel Bagneris' exuberant New Orleans jazz revue, One Mo' Time, during its triumphant four year run at New York's Village Gate, you've been given one mo' chance. What's mo' the show's nimble-footed creator is once again at the helm and playing his role as Papa Du, manager and only male in Bertha Williams' traveling show on the T.O.B.A. -- the Theatre Owners' Booking Agency of the black vaudeville circuit, renamed by its performers as Tough On Black Asses.
Bagneris' show brings back that era by recreating one night at the Lyric Theatre in New Orleans where jazz legends like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson often appeared. With the Adams Memorial Theatre's stage transformed into the stage and at to the side dressing room of the Lyric, and "A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight" best describes what you're going to experience.
The revue is a hybrid of musical theater. Gems like One Mo' Time show off the skill it takes to lift this from nightclub act to rousing theatrical entertainment. And what worked in a downtown Manhattan and in seven worldwide spinoff companies works very nicely in Williamstown. The songs that include such standards as "Dark Town Strutters Ball, Tiger Rag ", and the bluesy "He's Funny That Way " and "After You've Gone" as well as some less well known but bouncy vintage treasures are, of course, the heart of the show. But it's the way the parts of the pulsating whole have been put together that adds up to an artful and eye-catching two hours.
Besides astutely mixing known and lesser known songs from this by-gone but still musically influential era, Bagneris has assembled three ladies loaded with personality and powerful pipes: As the two seasoned troopers (fictional amalgams of 1920s legends like Ma Rainey) Roz Ryan as Bertha the figurative head of the show within the show and B. J. Crosby as Ma Reed epitomize all the big beautiful babes of song. To pepper the mix and lend a touch of conflict to the backstage scenes there's the troupe's ingenue, Thelma, played with sass and sizzle by Rosalind Brown.
The plot, typical of revues, hangs on a mere thread -- but that thread gives the characters individuality and dimension. The backstage interludes enrich and move things along in other important ways.
They allow for the frequent changes into Toni-Leslie James' drop-dead, period perfect costumes. Besides the mouth-watering dresses for the women and the natty spats for Papa Du and the musicians, these also include satirically apt outfits for Du's show-stopping black-face In "The Jailhouse Now" number and Ma Reed''s exotic dancer get-up.
The backstage business also accommodates some terrific band solos from the five-piece combo that's ensconced on stage. It includes Orange Kellin and Kenneth Sara from the original production
Finally, Bagneris has added the vaudeville element typical of the T.O.B.A. shows to the backstage camaraderie and competition and the interchanges with the theater owner (Wally Dunn ably characterizing both the often exploitative T.O.B.A. management and an amusing show-within-the-show MC). Thus the dressing room dialogue is as much a recreation of vaudeville's comic routine as an interlude. For example, there's the hard-drinking Bertha's scoffing at marriage ("Nobody wants to marry me when I'm drunk -- and I sure won't marry anyone when I'm sober"), and Papa Du's comeback to Bertha when she makes fun of his black face makeup ("What are you smiling at -- you look like that all the time!" ), and Ma Reed's "Let me make myself plain" being cut short by the sharp-tongued Thelma ("You don't have to, God already did").
One Mo' Time is also very much a tribute to the dances and dancers of the time. Thanks to Eddie D. Robinson's snazzy choreography there are enough Charlestons and Cakewalks to keep your feet tapping and your fingers snapping. While the women move it and shake it with plenty of rhythm and energy, it's the loose-jointed Bagneris who takes the honors in the dance department.
If the foot-stomping enthusiasm of the opening night audience is any indication and given the interest in New Orleans as the birth place of jazz and jazz performers sparked by Ken Burns television series, One Mo' Time might just have one mo' New York life, not on Broadway but Off. If Love Janis, the current tenant of the Village Theater, should vacate it would make for an apt homecoming. -- Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on June 21, 2001 performance at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.
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