February 5 - March 15, 2009
Cool Papa’s Party
Reviewed February 7 by David Siegel

Running Time: 2:15 - one intermission
Hoofers bring light to an entertainer’s life consumed by racism
Price range $40 - $45

 

Finding one’s own voice in life can be a very long, difficult journey, and death comes too quickly. For some, the struggles bring fame and glory with more than a tinge of loneliness as racism is always there to confront. Anchored by the tireless singing and dancing work of Jahi Kearse as the central character "Cool Papa," this is a tasty “fantabulous” evening of exuberant tap dancing, high-spirited hep steps, smooth slides, cheerful 60’s swim moves and the silky movement of upper body and arms that an adult crane might mate to as the audience is taken through the trials of being a black entertainer in the 20th Century. This world premiere with book and lyrics by Thomas W. Jones II and music by William Knowles has a jumping beat leavened with pain and wispy ballads delivered by a well-polished cast and very skilled 5-piece band. This is a dancer’s show, with the choreography of Maurice Hines front and center through-out. There is no mistaking his deft, precise “look” for those who have followed his career over the decades. The cast of proven professionals is always working at breathless, top speed, delivering the arc of the life of a Black entertainer who had to confront White America’s prejudices as well as his own internal demons. The ghost and traditions of Sammy Davis Jr. come through to those of a certain age. To others it will matter not who the depiction is of, but that the historical journey was so difficult. Beyond Kearse, the cast includes noteworthy work by Roz White and Lori Williams in multiple roles as central women figures with clearly differentiated singing and dancing styles. On the night this reviewer saw the show, Gary E. Vincent, in the role of Pappa, Sr., was a deeply affecting Black male presence in his son’s life.

Storyline: A musical odyssey through the 20th century through the eyes of “the last great American hipster.” A life defined by artistry and style against the backdrop of politics and race, chronicling the mythic life of an urban entertainer based on the lives of black performers such as Sammy Davis Jr.

Writer and director Thomas W. Jones II has directed, written and performed in more that 200 plays worldwide, and has worked with Alexandria’s MetroStage for the past 8 years (Pearl Bailey…By Request, Three Sistahs, Two Queens One Castle). The overall theatrical work and life experiences of the multi-talented Tony Award nominee, choreographer Maurice Hines, are on display as well. While the music and lyrics meld together into a mélange, the song titles easily give a sense of the production’s trajectory: "Ain’t No Life," "Sho’ Can Dance'" "World Will Change," "Ain’t No Hustle Like The Shuffle," "Test the Water," "Goodnight Camelot" and  "Lay Your Negro Down" as well as "Long Way Home." There are a number of key lines in the book and the lyrics such as, “when you sing, there is not color” or “wanting a more casual America” and “take your rage to the stage” as central points in the journey of Cool Papa. Even the scene work a-la the 1960’s television show Laugh-in and the repeated line in Act II, "Here Come Da Judge" is given a tremendous high electric jolt of a meaning when Cool Papa is confronted with how he tries to define himself with a Cuban mother and a Black father, having one-eye, being of the Jewish faith and loving white women - - among other attributes in his self-definition.

The cast brims with kinetic energy with some at a more smoothly honed level. It is not easy to find theatrical skill sets that include first-rate acting, dancing and singing in one package, and here the production shows some unevenness. The hoofing, though, is a high point of the production, arduous rehearsal work shows results. The singing skills of the cast are varied but the lyrics come through, including the rougher words and themes which could not be missed. In their work harmonizing, the sound was appealing and sometimes charming, as the tough belter (White), the honeyed vulnerable (Williams), and the rich baritones (Horen and Vincent) melded with the smoothness of Kearse. With all the high energy of the acting, the audience should not overlook the band ready to strike up, cueing everyone, ever forward as members of the production ensemble. But this is also a straight drama in between the music and dance, and the cast strives to give nuance to their performances. And it is here that Gia Mora excels in giving a generous, exposed tinge in one of her characters, a Caucasian woman trying to save her marriage to Kearse, with many external forces against them.

The set is a mostly bare thrust stage with the band fully seen behind the actors except for the use of scrims and translucent drapes to separate the band from the action at times. There is a suggestive lighting design for indoor action and scenes taking place outside of a cabaret, including incandescent lights surrounding faux stage doors at the wings and a high voltage bulb lit sign spelling out "Cool Papa" above the set. Costumes run the gamut from neon blue corset tops and flowing skirts to fitted grey tops and skirts for the women and loosely fitting pants, white shirts and vest for the men, depending on the decade at hand. And one character (Benjamin Horen) is all Frank Sinatra-like, attired in thin lapelled dark suit and skinny tie topped with a “just-so” tilted forward fedora giving him that ‘50’s cool look.

Book and lyrics by Thomas W. Jones II. Directed by Thomas W. Jones II.  Music Direction and original music by William Knowles. Choreography by Maurice Hines. Design: Carl Gudenius (set) Kristina Lucka (costumes) Terry Smith (lights) Steve Baena (sound) Colin Hovde (photography) Jessica Lee Winfield (stage manager). Cast: Benjamin Horen, Jahi Kearse, Anthony Manough, Gia Mora, Gary E. Vincent, Rosalind ("Roz") White, Lori Williams. Musicians: Yusef Chisholm, Greg Holloway, William Knowles, Ron Oshima, Alvin Trusk.