Cookin’ cast sizzles at MetroStage
Legendary blues singer Alberta Young is gloriously brought to life

Theatre Review/Jeanne Theismann 

February 5, 2008

 

“Let me sing how I feel,” is the ongoing mantra of legendary blues singer Alberta Hunter, who is gloriously brought to life in the award-winning musical Cookin’ at the Cookery, now playing at MetroStage Theater in Alexandria.

Written, directed and choreographed by Marion J. Caffey, the creative genius behind such hits as Three Mo’ Tenors and Three Mo’ Divas, Cookin is based on Hunter’s 1977 comeback concert at the age of 82.

Set in the Greenwich Village nightclub The Cookery, Coffey’s clever scripting uses two multitalented actresses to trace Hunter’s extraordinary life from her childhood roots in Memphis to acclaimed international recording star.

Born in 1895, Hunter left home at the age of twelve to pursue her dreams of singing in the blues clubs of Chicago.

Through determination and persistence, as well as by lying about her age, Hunter eventually became a headliner in the elite nightspots of the city.

She would move on to New York in the Roaring Twenties, and then to Europe, where she starred with Paul Robeson in the original London production of Showboat.

At the age of 59, Hunter would once again lie about her age, shaving off 12 years in order to qualify for a nursing program at a New York City hospital, where she stayed for the next 20 years.

It is only after she is forced to retire from nursing that Hunter is coaxed back into singing and where the Cookin journey begins.

Playing Hunter as an adult is two-time Tony Award nominee Ernestine Jackson, who perfectly imparts the sophistication and witty style that was Hunter’s trademark.

The regal Jackson impressively delivers Hunter’s sultry and seductive nuances on more than 20 songs, including “St. Louis Blues”, “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans”?

Jackson’s counterpart is native Washingtonian and Broadway veteran Janice Lorraine, who energetically portrays the young Hunter along with several other characters throughout Hunter’s life.

With a rare gift for caricature, Lorraine takes on roles ranging from the 8-year-old Hunter to the 80-year-old Barney Josephson, the club owner who coaxes Hunter out of retirement and into a second recording career.

Whether male, female, young, old, black or white, Lorraine is extraordinary as she morphs with astonishing ease between characters.

But it’s when she channels the great Louis Armstrong for a rousing duet with Jackson on “When the Saints Go Marching In” that Lorraine stops the show and leaves the audience in awe.

Backing up the multitalented actresses is an electrifying four-piece ensemble led by Helen Hayes Award winner William Knowles on piano, Tony Addison on drums, Yusef Chisholm on bass and David Cole on guitar.

Danny Holgate, longtime conductor and arranger for Cab Calloway, scores the musical arrangements that provide the authentic blues club atmosphere.

Putting the finishing touches on the crowd pleasing production are two-time Emmy winner Marilyn A. Wall with her costumes, and Dale. F. Jordan, whose set and lighting design effortlessly transforms the intimate theater into a multitude of cities and eras.

Due to a previous commitment, there will be a casting change on February 7, when Jackson will be replaced by Toronto’s Jackie Richardson.

Richardson broke box office records and received the Dora Mavor Award (Canada’s Tony) for her portrayal of Hunter and recently received Canadian Equity’s prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award.

With this production of Cookin, Artistic Director Carolyn Griffin has reached a new level of success in bringing such a gifted and talented cast and crew to the Alexandria stage.

Cookin’ at the Cookery is a musical tribute to an extraordinary woman who not only survived but triumphed over the Jim Crow era. It is a story that transcends races and generations, and without a doubt should be on everyone’s “must see” list.