'Cookin' Serves a
Helping of Warmth and Comfort
Special to The Washington
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
Early in Cookin' at the Cookery: The Music and Times of
Alberta Hunter at MetroStage, the Memphis-born
singer and songwriter appears in a bathrobe and fluffy slippers, ready to
settle into an armchair.
The cozy image epitomizes the
bio-musical's unthreatening aesthetic: With a methodical A-to-Z narrative, a
gently wisecracking script, and catchy blues and jazz numbers delivered by charismatic
performers, Cookin' is
designed for audience comfort. It isn't edgy, complex or unduly
thought-provoking, and the worthiness of its subject matter is likely to light
a warm glow in many theatergoers' hearts.
Written and directed by Marion J. Caffey (3 Mo' Divas, Three Mo' Tenors), Cookin' pays decorous tribute to Hunter, whose
career flourished -- in nightclubs, vaudeville, musical theater and the
recording studio -- from the '20s through World War II. Among her other
accomplishments, Hunter shared a stage with Paul Robeson in a London production of Show Boat and co-wrote "Downhearted Blues," which became
a hit for Bessie Smith. When her popularity waned, Hunter reinvented herself as
a nurse, working until she was 82 -- at which point she made a sensational
return to showbiz, performing at a Greenwich Village
club named the Cookery.
encountering the tale in 1996, Caffey resolved to
rescue the late singer's achievements from what seemed undeserved obscurity.
Thriftily written for two actors, this show premiered in Florida
in 1997 and has played across the United States
Ernestine Jackson and Janice Lorraine, the two actresses treading the boards at
MetroStage, appeared in a number of those productions
-- so it's no surprise that they cinch their roles here.
Jackson primarily depicts Hunter at the time of the Cookery
engagement, which began in the late 1970s. Once she doffs that homey bathrobe
to reveal a fire-engine-red dress, she brims with calm, confident pizazz, her hands and hips shimmying subtly as she croons
near a shawl-draped piano. (Music director William Knowles mans the keys; three
other instrumentalists are at the rear of the set.) Delivering risque numbers such as "Rough and Ready Man," Jackson emphasizes
double-entendres with knowing eye movements and the trace of a smile. She also
has an enjoyably dry way with a quip. (Jackson, who originated the role in Florida, is at MetroStage for
two weeks; starting February 7, Jackie Richardson, who won honors for the part
It's Lorraine, however, who steals the limelight
with her impish characterizations of Hunter's eccentric acquaintances. Her
growling Louis Armstrong impression is dead-on, and she's even better as the
doddering, pucker-faced Cookery owner, Barney Josephson. Her portrait of Hunter
as a bubbly, pigtailed, hopscotching girl, on the other
hand, can't keep those early scenes from feeling tedious.
Lighting and set designer Dale F. Jordan
evokes the milieus of Chicago and New York with shining, skyscraper-like patterns projected
on the walls, and Marilyn A. Wall supplies a few costumes that flesh out the
epoch -- the khaki uniform that Hunter sports to entertain U.S. troops, for instance. But
partly because of its two-actor structure, Cookin' provides only tantalizing hints of social and historical context.
(By comparison, another MetroStage bio-musical, last
conveyed a richer picture of an era while relating the tale of entertainer Ada Smith.)
A certain sketchiness is inevitable, given that Cookin' attempts to cover Hunter's 89 years in
a mere two hours. And though finicky audiences might long for fare that's more
probing, challenging and unpredictable, many more will doubtless happily settle
for the show Caffey has provided: an allotment of
music, a smattering of information and a format as indulgent as a down
Cookin' at the Cookery: The Music
and Times of Alberta Hunter, written
and directed by Marion J. Caffey. Musical
arrangements and supervision, Danny Holgate.
About two hours. Through March 9 at MetroStage,
1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria. Call 800-494-8497 or