Jammin’ With Pops

Apple Tree Theatre

Cookin’ at the Cookery: The Music and Times of Alberta Hunter

Northlight Theatre

Shows featuring early-20th-century African-American music–blues, jazz, and swing–almost can’t help being great. They also can’t help reminding us of the continuing impact of racial divisions on our society. If not for “urban renewal” projects on the south side, audiences might still be going there to hear brand-new music in those traditions. But the clubs our hipster grandparents frequented are long gone. And though it’s easy to giggle at the idea of the North Shore as a repository of black culture, in fact the efforts of theaters like Apple Tree and Northlight help keep the music alive.

Though most people know the names of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, the subjects of Jammin’ With Pops, they know little about them–and pioneer blueswoman Alberta Hunter, the focus of Cookin’ at the Cookery, has been almost completely forgotten. (I overheard members of the Northlight audience asking their companions, “Is this about a real person?”) Credit is due those who have picked up what otherwise would be an extinguished torch.

Four exceptional performers make these two loving re-creations of mainstream swing and early blues more than mere exercises in nostalgia–enjoyment doesn’t depend on recognizing the songs. Introducing them with great fidelity, the performers rise above impersonation to embody not just the artists but the periods from which they sprang.

Both shows are what the movies call biopics but with slightly more respect for the facts than is customary. (Cole Porter’s response to his own biopic was “Nice guy. I’d like to meet him.”) Barry Harman’s Jammin’ With Pops, set in the early 60s, is actually a double feature: the intertwined tales of Fitzgerald and Armstrong, known as “Pops” as well as the more familiar “Satchmo.” For those of us familiar only with Armstrong’s late, clownish turns in the movies, Joe Plummer’s performance is a revelation. He does a remarkable job of showing how Armstrong’s mannerisms flowed naturally from and complemented his musicality. Plummer’s acting and singing are so strong that we can feel fulfilled by a show in which a great trumpeter doesn’t play the trumpet, accepting the proffered excuse–that Armstrong’s lip is sore–almost without question.

As Fitzgerald, Felicia P. Fields rescues the great artist from the miasma of her final years, when she was reduced to imitating herself. Fields has the kind of singing voice we all have in our dreams: effortless, soaring, perfectly modulated. It’s thrilling to listen to her, and she and Plummer blend extremely well. They may be merely acting the part of old friends, but their mutual respect as musicians is clearly genuine. They’re also blessed with a first-rate sound design (by Josh Horvath), a tight band gently led by pianist Francesco Milioto, and fine comic supporting performances by Kenn E. Head and Don Shell. Marla Lampert’s charming, understated period choreography reminds us that this music was made for dancing.

Harman’s script is the usual bio drivel–“and then I played the Copa”–punctuated by laxative jokes and the occasional ill-fitting serious reflection on racism or sexual abuse. But Chuck Smith stages it briskly, and the music is so superb that the text really doesn’t matter.

Marion J. Caffey’s script for Cookin’ at the Cookery is funnier and more cleverly constructed, but those virtues come at a price. Alberta Hunter’s career was a bit odd: this founding mother of American blues, who influenced Armstrong and Fitzgerald as well as Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, gave up her singing career in 1954, spent 20 years as a practical nurse, and returned to the stage in 1977, at age 82. This is the event on which Caffey hangs his tale of a Memphis schoolgirl who ran away from home at 12, was singing in a Chicago brothel by age 16, then took New York and Europe by storm with her own brand of upriver blues. (But the author neglects to mention the collapse of the comeback tour in Chicago, where Hunter followed a smash-hit opening by breaking her leg and having to cancel the rest of her engagements.)

Caffey, who also directs, has two actresses divide all the roles, including playing Hunter at various periods of her life. While this device gives the storytelling some distance, and therefore some ironic wit, it also makes the music less affecting by distancing us from the performers, particularly Janice Lorraine. The most striking example is her humorous interpretation of Armstrong performing with Hunter. Presenting him as the familiar clown figure, she got every weird mannerism right–and the audience was in stitches–but the shtick interfered with our appreciation of Armstrong’s musicianship.

This is a backhanded compliment, however, to the extraordinary Lorraine, who completely inhabits every character she portrays. Playing Hunter as a child and a young woman, she also transforms herself into the old Jewish owner of the Cookery (a Greenwich Village nightclub), Hunter’s nursing supervisor, and the ugliest woman in Memphis, using little more than facial expressions. Lorraine has a pleasant singing voice and an earnest way with her few dramatic scenes, but her real genius is comedy–she richly deserved the standing ovation she got opening night.

If Lorraine is the show’s funny bone, Ernestine Jackson is its heart. Alternately playing the adult Hunter and Hunter’s mother–whom the singer supported throughout her life–she conveys wisdom as well as vulnerability only half concealed by cranky dignity. And her singing is the perfect vehicle for introducing Hunter’s music. Equally at home with a rocking blues and a folk ballad, Jackson lets the singer’s down-to-earth spirit shine through. Also wonderfully playful, she made an audience member feel so cheered and honored as the object of Hunter’s signature song “My Handy Man Ain’t Handy No More” that he took his own bow.

No one is credited with the show’s sound design, so it’s not clear who’s to blame for the hideously obvious amplifier strapped to Lorraine’s tush or the distracting microphones that made both women look like operators standing by. Doubtless it’s a challenge to make even strong singers audible in the big auditorium at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, but the theater should invest some money and expertise in the issue before its next musical effort.

That cavil aside, Cookin’ and Jammin’ are both smashin’.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.