Theater

'Bricktop' at MetroStage:  Reigniting a Bright Flame of 1920s Paris

 

By Celia Wren

Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, January 25, 2007; Page C05

If People magazine had been around in the 1920s, it surely would have fawned over the life and lifestyle of Ada "Bricktop" Smith.

This savvy American entertainer and society hostess ran a Paris nightclub that attracted the international glitterati: Writers (F. Scott Fitzgerald) and royalty (the Duke of Windsor) were drawn to her social flame, and her friends and acquaintances included Josephine Baker, Duke Ellington and Mabel Mercer. And after watching her do the Charleston, Cole Porter remarked of Smith (nicknamed "Bricktop" for her red hair and freckles): "What legs! What legs!"

 Four decades after the club was shuttered, Smith's fame has dimmed. But MetroStage restores her life to the spotlight with the premiere of "Bricktop," an infectious, if somewhat scattered, cabaret.

Conceived by Baltimore native Calvin A. Ramsey and co-written with Thomas W. Jones II, the high-energy piece weaves Smith's rich biography around classic songs by Porter, Irving Berlin and other greats, supplemented with a few original numbers by S. Renee Clark.

Jones has collaborated with MetroStage before: He co-wrote and directed last year's "Two Queens, One Castle," for instance. And in directing "Bricktop," he showcases a cast of top-drawer singer-dancers and a five-piece jazz band whose sounds have the crisp effervescence of good champagne.

Not that "Bricktop" couldn't do with a little tweaking. There's a wealth of history and gossip to cover: Smith toured in vaudeville, she knew Fats Waller, she fled the Nazis in 1939, etc. The book writers understandably have tried to cram it all in, producing a narrative that is more rushed, and less lucid, than it might be.

The show takes the form of a nightclub act presided over by Smith (a regal Peggy Ann Blow), who recounts her life story between musical numbers, periodically ceding ground to other celebrities such as Mercer (the velvety-voiced C. Kelly Wright) and Alberta Hunter (Roz White Gonsalves, also impressive). In their exchanges, Smith, Mercer and Hunter needle each other good-humoredly, and their slightly contentious friendship lends the production a modicum of focus.

But other figures from Smith's life make more fleeting appearances. One minute a bowler-hatted Waller (an irrepressible William Hubbard) is installing himself at the band's piano for a rendition of "This Joint Is Jumping." The next minute, one of the ensemble members (Gary E. Vincent) is hoofing through an impression of tap-dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. Then the next, someone is talking about Langston Hughes, whose face pops up among the black-and-white photos -- principally Parisian vistas -- that are projected on the walls. (The cursory historical allusions tumble out pell-mell, so audience members would be well advised to scrutinize the timelines included in the programs.)

Meanwhile, the production's exuberant music -- including classic numbers such as "Let's Face the Music and Dance" -- emphasizes the universal over the particular. Although Clark's original contributions are not melodically memorable, they mesh smoothly with the jazz/blues continuum.

Providing "Bricktop" with additional glamour are glittery costumes by Misha Kachman, who also designed the simple cabaret set. Choreographer Dawn Axam furnishes the ensemble (Anthony Manough and Robin Massengale are the other performers) with flamboyant, vogueing dance moves. Some sequences do seem a little overheated -- at one point, the male performers parade around in bikinis, with gauzy feathered capes -- but then Smith ran a nightclub, not a Sunday school.

All in all, there's ample opportunity to use the drumlike noisemakers that are laid out on the seats, for use in lieu of clapping. In a remark that typifies the production's sophisticated tone, Smith explains, "At Chez Bricktop we do not applaud. No, no, no, no! That is so passe!"

Bricktop, book and lyrics by Thomas W. Jones II and Calvin A. Ramsey; original music by S. Renee Clark; based on a concept by Ramsey; directed by Jones. Lighting design, John Burkland; sound, Steve Baena. About 90 minutes. Through Feb. 25 at MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria. Call 800-494-8497 or visit http://www.boxofficetickets.com.