Cookin’ at the Cookery

Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson

DC Theatre Scene

January 29, 2008

Just when you thought you couldn’t get through another musical bio-musical chit-chatting about a late, great jazz singer, something new comes up that smashes your preconceptions and must be seen.  Alberta Hunter deserves the best theatrical treatment around and Metro Stage’s Cookin’ at the Cookery is as good as it gets.   It’s an outstanding rendition of music, drama, top of the line musicians, and, to top it off, two of the finest singers/actors on stage today.  That’s right, Alberta Hunter is so good it takes two performers to portray her - each has enough razzle dazzle chops and moxie to merit a visit, together they’re dynamic, include an innovative, creative script by Marion J. Caffey, and you’ve got yourself a bonified hit.  Cookin‘ is a loving tribute to the life and times of Alberta Hunter invoking the spirits of Bessie Smith, Fats Waller, Brick Top, ragtime’s Scott Joplin and a show-stopping tribute to Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong that must be seen to be believed. 

“You’re stopping the Show!” is a refrain that alarmed Hunter at first until she realized that was a Good Thing.  Well, this entire show is a show-stopper with everyone hitting marks that keep climbing.  Just when you think they’ve reached a pinnacle, the script whips out another stellar scene to propel the story, wraps it all in the great music, and takes the experience to new heights.  That’s what’s usually missing in the bio-musicals, a bonified story.  To finally see a perfect blend of well-crafted theatrical scenes and joint-jumping music served up by these delectable singers with attitude, flash and flair, is lip-smacking good.

Special kudos to Marion J. Caffey for turning a finely tuned ear to the music and for providing such satisfyingly deliberate scenes.  The script allows us to See Alberta, not just hear her stories in “and then this happened” style.  Opening with a young girl in pigtails, sharing her dreams while jumping playfully across the well-designed levels of the stage sets the theatrical premise.  The script delivers to the very end, with a real storyline arc, when the little girl returns recounting the dreams that we’ve all just witnessed have come true.  It’s a touching tribute to a great singer who might be familiar by name only with a passing recollection of her returning to the stage in her 80’s.  Watching this incredible story unfold, delivered with such gusto, and so well directed, also by the writer, is a wonderful way to share Alberta Hunter’s own exuberance for life.

Caffey, who is merciless in pursuing what’s best for the story, stays glued to its twists and turns, effortlessly shifting roles between writer and director. He whips the script into a perfect soufflé.  The production moves.  Not only that, each performer portrays various roles, transforming before our eyes with kaleidoscopic clarity into Barney the crusty but loveable agent, a starchy nurse supervisor, Alberta’s mother, patrons discovering that “new music” jazz among others.  In one terrific scene, they even portray aspects of the same character - each as Hunter, talking to splintered emotional sides of the other.  Now That is Theatre! 

Both performers have a solid grip on their various characters and reach into their bags of tricks for one show stopping moment after another.  Ernestine Jackson as the older Alberta and Mama, has a commanding presence that adds gravitas and substance to her role.  She peers out into the crowd with a penetrating gaze that could stop a cockroach in its tracks.  Her rich contralto tones caress the songs and lyrics with silky smooth ease.  What she does with the alliteration of Hunter’s own creation, “Rough and Ready Man,” is pure unadulterated artistry.  Likewise, Janice Lorraine is a little powerhouse, a true triple threat-she can belt out the vocals, move with ease, and handle shape-shifting and vocal impersonations with amazing precision– her Satchmo is so good it’s almost scary.

Costume designer Marilyn Wall outdid herself enabling characters to go from drab to fab with a quick flick of the wrist (and well placed fasteners).   The band, under the steady and trusted direction of William Knowles, covers the range of musical styles in an easy-going, comfortable manner and ably supports the musical numbers with Smokey Joe’s Café appeal and showmanship.

Explaining why he wrote the play, Caffey admits to being smitten by Hunter’s determination, resourcefulness, and come back kid appeal. The title of the show refers to the Greenwich Village nightspot where Hunter returned to the stage, at age 84. To have reached such acclaimed international heights, to leave show business completely and work comfortably as a nurse for twenty years, only to be lured back into the limelight at 82 -  it’s a tantalizing, almost too good to be for real story.  Luckily, Caffey’s creative production helps assure that Alberta Hunter’s dreams come true by shining a spotlight on her artistry to be recognized and enjoyed for years to come.  Once again, in achieving a perfect balance of music, substance, style and fun, Metro Stage serves up another whopping, stomping winner.

·         Running Time:  Approximately 2 hours

·         Where: Metro Stage, 1201 North Royal, Alexandria, VA

·         When: Thru March 9th, . Thursday, Friday and Saturday 8pm, Saturday-Sunday matinees 3:00 pm, Sunday at 7pm
Tickets: $35-$40
Info: call   703-548-9044 or consult the website.