Bricktop, A CurtainUp DC Musical Review review, CurtainUp

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I got a lot of names, because I'm a whole hell of a lot of woman.— Bricktop

Aficionados of cabaret performance and lovers of "le jazz hot" will embrace MetroStage's newest musical offering Bricktop. Based upon the career of Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia Smith who was better known simply as "Bricktop," the show covers the life of its subject -- and thus the journey of jazz -- from the early 1900's well into the latter half of the century.

For those who do not know her, Ada Smith was a major influence on popular culture and musical history, not because she was a great songstress, but because she was a wonderful hostess and saloon keeper. In fact, Bricktop referred to herself not as a singer, but as a performer; something the musical's writers, Calvin A. Ramsey and Thomas W. Jones II, make note of by frequently having her friends request that she not sing.

Born in West Virginia and raised in Chicago, Bricktop (so named for her flaming red hair and freckles) began performing in Vaudeville and Black minstrel shows at age 16. It was while she was living in New York that Cole Porter discovered her and took her to Venice to entertain guests at his parties. From there she moved to Paris where she opened her world famous café, Chez Bricktop, which was frequented by the wealthy and famous for 30 years in its various incarnations in Paris, Mexico City, New York and Rome.

Ramsey and Jones' play melds the life stories of not just Ada Smith, but also jazz singers, Mabel Mercer (who Smith discovered) and Alberta Hunter, both of whom were Smith's close friends. With songs like "I've Got A Girl Who Lives Up On A Hill" and "The Party's Over" Ramsey and Jones explore the culture of The Lost Generation while also, melding the experiences of the three women. The authors also touch upon the civil rights movement, gay culture, the Great Depression and the changing styles of the musical time periods.

Appearances by Fats Waller, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Cole Porter pop up as references are made to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Sammy Davis Jr., Langston Hughes, F. Scott Fitzgerald and a host of other cultural luminaries; showing us the reach of Bricktop's influence within high society and the arts.

Directed by Thomas W. Jones II, this is a high energy production where the performers give their all to create a fast paced visual and musical blur of sight and sound. With a free flowing set by Misha Kachman, John Burkland's lighting makes good use of the red stage and red tabletops sprinkled about the space. Dawn Axam's intense choreography fits well on the small stage, as performers gracefully enter and exit, using the cabaret tables to great effect.

A difficult point within the show is the pacing of the performance, which could be slowed down just slightly since there is so much is constantly happening on stage, that one has a hard time keeping up with the songs and the dialogue. Additionally, Misha Kachman's costumes, while correct for the time period, somehow look second hand and the women's wigs are in desperate need of a stylist.

The seven member cast is stellar in a production that must be exhausting for each. Voices meld well, timing is wonderful and the energy on stage is infectious. Incorporating audience participation and the signature "clappers" of Ada Smith's establishment, this production is more like a night at Chez Bricktop than a traditional musical.

Peggy Ann Blow does an admirable job in the title role. While simultaneously narrating the story and participating within it, Ms. Blow especially shines with the male ensemble on Cole Porter's "Just One Of Those Things." And she captures the character's desire to enjoy life and not take it too seriously to the fullest when she espouses, "I took every look like a crook. Every view like it was due. Wouldn't you?"

Roz White Gonsalves as Alberta Hunter provides a touching "The Party's Over" and "Downhearted Blues." Ms. Gonsalves recreates the uniqueness of a woman who quit singing to become a nurse and then returned to the limelight at 80 years of age.

C. Kelly Wright's Mabel Mercer is the stabilizing force between the ever argumentative Bricktop and Hunter. Ms. Wright shows a wide emotional spectrum as she does back-to-back arrangements of "Let's Face The Music And Dance" and then "Mabel's Lament."

And the ensemble made up of William Hubbard, Anthony Manough, Gary E. Vincent and Robin L. Massengale gets a bit of spotlight on their own with "Lover Come Back To Me," "It's Paris," and "This Joint Is Jumping."

Even if you are not a jazz connoisseur, Bricktop is worth seeing just for the performances and the energy on stage. It also provides a wonderful glimpse into the interesting lives of its three women and a glimpse into the fascinating time period of pre-World War II Parisian culture.

Book and lyrics by Calvin A. Ramsey and Thomas W. Jones II
Original music by S. Renee Clark
Directed by Thomas W. Jones II
with Peggy Ann Blow, Roz White Gonsalves, William Hubbard, Anthony Manough, Gary E. Vincent, C. Kelly Wright, Robin L. Massengale
Music Director: S. Renee Clark
Choreographer: Dawn Axam
Set and Costume Design: Misha Kachman
Lighting Design: John Burkland
Sound Designer: Steve Baena
Running Time: 1 hour forty minutes with no intermission
A production of MetroStage
1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, VA
Telephone: 703-548-9044 or 1-800-494-8497
WED - FRI @8, SAT @ 5:30 & 8:30, SUN @3 & 7; $35-$40
Opening 01/17/07, closing 02/25/07
Reviewed by Rich See based on 02/01/07 performance

Musical Numbers
Trying To Remember . Ensemble
Welcome to Bricktop's . Bricktop and Male Ensemble
I Never Knew . Mabel
I'm Just Wild About Harry . Alberta
This Joint Is Jumping . Fats Waller and Ensemble
J'ai Deux Amours . Bricktop and Mabel
Ebony Rhapsody . Barker
Trouble . Father, Pimp, Bojangles, and Jack Johnson
Downhearted Blues . Alberta
I've Got A Girl Who Olives Up On A Hill. Eric Sizemore and Duke Ellington
It's Paris . Ensemble
Let's Face The Music And Dance . Mabel
Mabel's Lament . Mabel
Lover Come Back To Me . Male Ensemble
The Party's Over . Alberta
Money . Bricktop and Male Ensemble
Just One Of Those Things . Bricktop and Male Ensemble
Compared To What . Mabel and Male Ensemble
Pretty . Alberta
Ne Me Quitte Pas . Alberta, Bricktop and Mabel
Girl Talk . Alberta, Bricktop and Mabel
Been Said . Bricktop and Ensemble

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