Cookin' at the Cookery

A legendary Chicago blues singer revived onstage by a tremendous belter

Alberta Hunter was a blues singer in Chicago before the word "jazz" referred to music, which is to say she got in on the ground floor. By the 1920s she was singing with Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller and writing songs that other people, like Bessie Smith, would make famous. In 1957 she gave up singing to become a nurse, but 25 years later she staged a brief, triumphant comeback at a Greenwich Village club called the Cookery -- at the age of 87. Marion Caffey's musical about Hunter jumps back and forth between the Cookery gig and the highlights of Hunter's early life, giving us a glimpse of her time in Chicago speak-easies and her fond relationship with her mother. This counterpoint between old and young is interesting, but the show exists mainly for the songs ("My Castle's Rockin'," "St. Louis Blues"), which Ann Duquesnay performs tremendously. Duquesnay saw one of Hunter's shows at the Cookery in 1982, and she gives us all of the singer's earthiness and salty jazz-age humor, but sings with a pair of Broadway-seasoned lungs not even Hunter was blessed to have. Janice Lorraine is less compelling as the young Hunter, but she's a brilliant physical actor who folds herself into a dozen different minor roles with infectious energy. When Hunter goes onstage with Louis Armstrong -- evoked by Lorraine using a handkerchief, a raspy voice, and a huge elastic smile -- the results are nothing short of amazing.

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