Short Term Listings
BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Review
By Rich See
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.
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide