Weston Playhouse Theatre Company jump-started its 70th anniversary season on its main stage with Cookin’ at the Cookery, a paean of the life and times of blues and jazz great Alberta Hunter. Whether or not one is familiar with this legendary songstress, who died in 1984, this lively production made it simply impossible not to feel the joy she brought to audiences, off and on, for over sixty years.
In 1977, an old acquaintance and jazz/ blues maven, Barney Josephson, telephoned Alberta Hunter at her apartment in New York City about rekindling her singing career at a new hotspot he had opened recently in Greenwich Village: The Cookery. Having recently been retired from her job as a nurse for some twenty years at New York Hospital because she was told that at 70 years of age, she had already passed the mandatory retirement age (actually, she was 82!), Hunter was bored and leaped at the opportunity to perform her mixture of classic blues and ribald dittys for a new audience. She was, of course, a smash hit.
Playwright and Director Marion J. Caffey sets his play on one of the many nights the elderly Alberta Hunter subsequently performed at the Cookery. Backed by a four-piece combo, Hunter knocks out the blues as she recounts her extraordinary life. Playwright Caffey employs two actresses, one to play the young Alberta Hunter as well as a myriad of other characters, including the aforementioned Barney Josephson as well as Louis Armstrong, and the other to portray the unbowed and unabashed Alberta Hunter at the Cookery.
The play’s structure permits its characters to trace Hunter’s career from wannabe singer in the Memphis of W.C. Handy, to headliner in the Roaring Twenties with King Oliver in Chicago and in the jazz clubs of Harlem, to actress on the Broadway stage and with Paul Robeson in the original London staging of Showboat. Eventually, this proud daughter of a loving mother who once cleaned bordellos warbled for President Carter at the White House.
As the very young Alberta, Janice Lorraine is fine as she sings Jesus Loves Me and later tries to get in the door at a Memphis nightclub. However, it is as Barney Josephson, and most especially, as Satchmo himself in a duet with Hunter of When the Saints Go Marchin’ In, that Lorraine absolutely thrilled last Wednesday’s preview audience.
Ernestine Jackson does not portray the older Alberta Hunter so much as inhabit her. Her Alberta, at ease at the microphone, alternatively charmed and rocked the audience with familiar tunes such as Sweet Georgia Brown, and with less familiar ones, such as Downhearted Blues. Memorably, Jackson oozed a playful sensuality in the rendering of Handy Man to a red-faced audience member named Larry.
Hunter’s life was not without regret, and both Lorraine and Jackson cajoled the other’s character to “tell the truth if you’re going to tell it”. The whispers about Hunter’s female lovers are acknowledged, along with her failure to say a final goodbye to an adoring mother who never once saw her perform. We are urged to call our loved ones, and tell them what they mean to us.
The Cookery nightclub scenes featured William McDaniel on piano, Rodney Harper on drums, Clifton Kellem on bass, and an amazing Joe Battaglia on guitar. Unobtrusive, tight: those cats can play.
Kudos to Scenic and Lighting Designer Dale Jordan, whose set captured the late night feel of a Seventies hot spot for the Bohemian “in” crowd. One could easily imagine the haze of cigarette smoke wafting to the ceiling. Jordan also made good use of lighting effects to depict the skylines of New York City and other locales.
The evening just zips by before it’s “last call”. To paraphrase one of the several toe-tapping, now politically incorrect numbers in the show: “Now, honey, don’t be late – you want to be there when the band starts playin’!”
Performances of “Cookin’ at the Cookery” continue at the Weston Playhouse through July 8, 2006.
For tickets, call 802-824-5288 or visit their website at: http://www.westonplayhouse.org