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Face the Music 

Cabaret provides lots of energy, but not much story

Wednesday, Apr 4 2007
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The world has changed radically since cabarets first appeared in late 19th-century Paris. But despite enormous shifts in everything from the Earth's temperature to the devices we use to communicate with one another, cabaret lounges have remained pretty much the same. This is true both in terms of the kinds of performers attracted to the genre and the venues themselves. Riotous punk/drag acts such as the Dresden Dolls and Kiki & Herb might dominate views of the genre in the U.S. today, but the roots of these acts can be traced back easily to the likes of Edith Piaf and La Goulue and clubs like the Moulin Rouge and Le Chat Noir. From the cafe-style seating, casual atmosphere, and free-flowing booze of the typical nightspot to the hedonistic-nostalgic nature of the acts, cabarets have long been viewed as a comfort — a refuge from the daily grind.

The notion of cabaret as a sanctuary from a crazy world runs throughout Calvin A. Ramsey and Thomas W. Jones II's Bricktop. Receiving its West Coast premiere at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, the musical follows the extraordinary career of Ada "Bricktop" Smith, one of American cabaret's most luminous divas. Nicknamed for her flaming red tresses, Smith is remembered today for the string of hot boîtes she opened in cities as far-flung as Paris, Rome, and Mexico City, the artists whose careers she kick-started, and the celebrities she entertained.

Born in 1894 in West Virginia, Smith, who died in New York in 1984, lived during some of the most turbulent years of modern western history. If being a black female nightclub owner wasn't difficult enough, Smith also dealt with the upheavals of war and economic distress throughout her career. The impresario's string of Chez Bricktop nightclubs opened as quickly as they moved or shut down. In 1939, she was even forced to flee Paris as the Nazis were marching down the Champs Elysées. But anyone unfamiliar with Smith's biography would come away with only a fleeting sense of the tensions in the protagonist's life (not to mention those going on in the world around her) as they're re-imagined in Ramsey and Jones' musical. A work of vibrant, cozy nostalgia, Bricktop perfectly captures the highs of Chez Bricktop while dancing a carefree cakewalk over its lows.

In many ways, Bricktop makes for a fun, cabaret-style theatrical experience. From the moment we walk into the auditorium, a speakeasy spirit encircles us, gleefully eschewing the rules of traditional theater decorum to create an intimate bond between performers and cast. Before the show begins, the producers coax a few audience members into sitting up on stage throughout the performance at small, round tables hugged by a sweeping C-shaped runway. Every so often, cast members pull onlookers sitting in the orchestra to their feet for a quick dance, and players in the live band step onto the stage to interact with the performers as they might in a real jazz club. And just as Smith liked to get her audience to make noise other than clapping — she handed out noise-makers at Chez Bricktop — the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre considers applause to be passé. Every seat in the house comes with its own domroo drum (a small "shaker drum" that's played by tipping the instrument back and forth so that beads attached to both heads by strings alternately hit the skins). With each audience member so equipped, a cacophony of pinging beads, rather than clapping hands, greets the performers as they finish each song, like the sound of heavy rain hitting a tin roof.

The entire musical plays itself out like a sassy cabaret night. The bombastically energetic cast of seven headed by Peggy Ann Blow as the hot-haired, Bacardi-on-ice-cool Smith performs a few original songs alongside covers of great old standards, many of which were composed by members of Smith's own star-studded entourage. The numbers include Fats Waller's "This Joint Is Jumping," "J'ai Deux Amours" by Josephine Baker (who was one of Smith's protégés) and Cole Porter's "Let's Face the Music and Dance." (At her first meeting with Porter, in a Harlem nightspot, the maestro is reported to have asked, "Little girl, can you do the Charleston?" When Smith demonstrated the new dance, Porter exclaimed, "What legs! What legs!")The pulse of the performance races so fast from start to finish, that it's barely possible to keep up with the action as the cast members crack jokes, launch into songs, cozy up to audience members, and throw themselves about the auditorium as if high on life, liquor, or both.

This driving, feral energy is infectious. We leave the theater feeling as if we've truly escaped from the real world. But something important gets lost in the gyrating frenzy, and that's the story. The musical sets the character of Smith alongside two of her contemporaries, the legendary singers Mabel Mercer and Alberta Hunter. Conceiving of the trio as the "Dreamgirls" of their generation is historically inaccurate as their lives only intersected sporadically, (though Mercer performed at Chez Bricktop in Paris throughout the 1930s). But that's not the real issue; that Bricktop turns these women's biographies into a piece of particularly atonal bebop jazz is actually part of its charm.

Bricktop's problem relates more to the single-minded pace of the production. There are very few changes in tone in this musical. Besides "Mabel's Lament" a lovely, slow solo sung by the silk lamé-voiced C. Kelly Wright as Mercer, and an equally rich tri-harmonied version of the Jacques Brel classic "Ne Me Quitte Pas" performed by Wright, Blow, and Michelle E. Jordan as Hunter, the entire work steams forward like a runaway train. As a result, it's difficult to orient ourselves in the story. At one moment, we're in Chicago, the next we're in Paris, the next we're in Rome. Barely allowing us to get over the jetlag, the musical glosses over crucial world-changing events like World War II. Watching showgirl Carla Punch goose-step across the stage for a couple of minutes in black rubber hot pants simply isn't enough to suggest the encroaching danger of the Third Reich. We're left with a feeling for the glamour and excitement of Smith's life, but have little sense of her struggle. With only few ups and downs to create shape, the musical remains bizarrely flat despite the energetic performances.

There's a paradox in the lyric, "life is a cabaret, old chum." Set in a Berlin club during the Weimar Republic, John Kander and Fred Ebb's musical Cabaret gets at the essential contradiction between the cabaret as a place of hedonistic refuge and as a place where the real world is exposed, through subversive songs and savage banter, in even more frightening colors than reality. By focusing on pure entertainment at the expense of telling a story, Bricktop ends up showing us a good time but doesn't deliver the punch that it might. If the art of cabaret hasn't changed much over the decades, it's ultimately because of its pungent ability to shield us from the world and taunt us with it at the same time.

About The Author

Chloe Veltman

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