Review: ‘Cookin’ it up at MetroStage

By Barbara Mackay
February 1, 2008

WASHINGTON — "Cookin’ at the Cookery: The Music and Times of Alberta Hunter" is an excellent example of how musical biographies can succeed at evoking a life, letting the subject — in this case the great blues singer Alberta Hunter — come alive through narrative and song.

The danger in this kind of biography is that it may become a static recollection of the entertainer’s friends and the places he or she performed. Writer/director Marion Caffey avoids this pitfall, creating a script with plenty of action, exploring Hunter’s personal strengths, particularly her close relationship with her mother.

"Cookin’ at the Cookery" begins in Memphis, Tenn., in the early 20th century, where the young Alberta dreams of singing for the president of the United States, then shifts to 1978, when the owner of the New York jazz joint The Cookery asks an 83-year old Alberta to sing at his club. The rest of the play is an imaginative tour through the years between.

» The elements

Caffey cleverly uses only two actresses in the roles of the younger and older Alberta, but has them both appear in several other roles. The result is a script that demands attention, but is not difficult to understand.

Dale Jordan’s effective set places conductor/pianist William Knowles directly onstage and his three bandmembers (Tony Addison, Yusef Chisholm, David Cole) on a platform behind the stage. Marilyn Wall’s costumes capture the metamorphoses of Hunter’s life, moving from a simple cotton dress and work shoes to Jazz Age glitz to the elegance of Hunter’s later life.

» The ensemble

Most of the characters in the play — Alberta’s employers, friends, lovers — are played by Janice Lorraine, an actress/dancer with incredible range. In addition to portraying the young Alberta, she plays Alberta in her prime years in Paris and London. Her dead-on impression of Louis Armstrong is alone worth the price of admission.

Ernestine Jackson has the stature and voice to carry off the elder Alberta Hunter, who wrote some of the most famous — and suggestive — blues songs ever written. Jackson’s renditions of "Rough and Ready Man" and "I’ve Got a Mind to Ramble" (both written by Hunter) are delightful.

» The finale

If you were fortunate enough to have seen Alberta Hunter perform, you’ll appreciate this tribute to her. If you don’t know her work well, "Cookin’ at the Cookery" would be a perfect introduction to one of the great artists of the 20th century.

Cookin’ at the Cookery’

Written and directed by Marion J. Caffey; musical arrangements by Danny Holgate

 

» Venue: MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria

» Performances: 8 p.m. Thursdays to Saturdays; 7 p.m. Sundays; 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; through March 9

» Tickets: $35 to $30

» More info: 800-494-8497, www.metrostage.org