'Cool Papa's Party' is a must-attend event

By Nancy Dunham
February 25, 2009

Roz White, Jahi Kearse and Gia Mora star in "Cool Papa's Party" at Metro Stage in Alexandria. — Courtesy Photo

ALEXANDRIA — 'Cool Papa's Party' has got to be the sleeper production of the year thus far with a compelling story, killer dance moves, and nary a weak member of the company in sight.

Loosely based on the life of legendary performer Sammy Davis Jr., who died of throat cancer in 1990, playwright and director Thomas W. Jones II isn't afraid to call the shots as he sees them for the sake of political correctness. White show business moguls, the deeply entrenched political machines and even the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People are portrayed as using and abusing Cool Papa Rose (Jahi Kearse).

Don't think that Jones clobbers the audience over the head with his messages a la other scribes who aren't content unless they grind audiences' metaphoric noses into the missive. The prejudice Davis endured is noted as part of the fuller story as of how this pre-Depression baby moved from a vaudeville troupe to a bona fide singer, dancer, actor and member of the legendary Rat Pack with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford.

The dialogue — whether spoken or sung — makes the story come alive without resorting to over-the-top, cheesy scenes that clutter many musicals. The only sour note from my perspective was the depiction of Frank Sinatra (1915 to 1998) who came across as a not-too-bright, semisleazy user in his own right. Called Johnnie Domingo (Benjamin Horen) in this production, the character seemed flat and wildly out of sync with Sinatra's real life. Sinatra is widely known to have held a burning hate for racism, refusing to perform at clubs that barred Davis, Quincy Jones and others of color, according to biographies of both Davis and Jones.

But other than that misstep, the story moves gamely between Davis' passion for show business and his personal life which included the hatred he endured when he was romantically involved with several white women (in real life, Davis was in a relationship with actress Kim Novak and was married to actress May Britt from 1960 to 1968. At the time of his death, he was married to Altovise Davis, a woman of color, whom he had wed in 1970).

Although Kearse refers to the song "Candyland," a take on Davis' 1972 No. 1 hit "The Candy Man," most of the show's music is original. The songs by William Knowles are a blend of jazz, rhythm and blues, and other genres, which take the characters through the decades of Davis' life thanks to rousing renditions by a five-person band. As you'd expect, the choreography by the legendary artist Maurice Hinds, is brilliant and engaging.

If you're looking for an engaging story that hits all the high notes, don't miss this "Party."

If you go
'Cool Papa's Party'
Where: Metro Stage, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria
When: Various times through March 15
Info: $40 and up; 703-548-9044; www.metrostage.com



 

 

Reviewed: Cool Papa’s Party at MetroStage

 

By Hilary Crowe

February 23, 2009

 

In Cool Papa’s Party, director and author Thomas W. Jones II exhumes the life and times of showbiz legend and original hipster Sammy Davis, Jr. This séance of a Vegas variety show is both a charming love letter from one entertainer to another and a fast-paced history play that sometimes leaves contemporary audiences—strangers to hepcats scatting at the Sands and sharkskin suits sipping martinis at The Flamingo—in the dark.

 

In “Top Cat,” which smacks of Judy Blume wisdom, the titular character (played by Jahi Kearse) parks it at the edge of the stage and sings a heartfelt appeal to God, theoretically the “heppest” cat this side of eternity. in the first sign that this is not an all-ages production, Cool Papa’s earnest plea for divine guidance elicits snickers from the irreverent, under-35 crowd. But things get a little murkier from there.

 

The litany of historical references and period lingo preference an audience who has either lived through the era or studied it, meaning that strangers to Vegas history will find Cool Papa’s hard-knock-life narrative as hard to follow as his mercurial love life. In an effort to make his production more accessible, Jones peppers Cool Papa’s Party with summarial monologues, during which Kearse’s Cool Papa reflects on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But decoding what is essentially Civil Rights-themed slam poetry requires a lot of critical listening and inference-making on the part of the audience: The flow is tremendous and the allusions playful and amusing—but tune out for a second and next thing you know, Cool Papa is inexplicably cupping his left eye with one hand and whipping out an eye patch with the other, later proclaiming “It’s my party, and I’ll cry out my one eye if I want to!”

 

Cool Papa’s Party is more than just a running history lesson set to immaculate jazz (courtesy of composer, keyboardist and onstage conductor William Knowles)–it’s also a fantastic coupling of choreography and narrative. In “The List,” Cool Papa shrugs off blacklisters lined up in front of a giant American flag, and delivers the zinger, “I can’t get any blacker than this!”–ramping up the musical’s rumblings of double consciousness. In “I’m Gonna Be The One,” Cool Papa’s two-timing, womanizing ways are on display as he’s confronted by his newest wife and “the other woman,” who–along with dancers in mini dresses and knee-high gogo boots–compete for Cool Papa in a psychedelic dance number.

 

The seven capable cast members deliver knockout performances that almost make the audience forget that they’re in a converted lumber warehouse in Alexandria instead of at The Sands in Vegas (assuming they know what the Sands is). And though his method of conveyance needs tweaking, Jones’ sprawling musical touches on sophisticated national and personal identity issues, like second-class citizenship and an American brand of patriotism wrapped in idolatry and bigotry.