Fort Worth — Handsome, nostalgia-kindling film clips and still shots of celebrated singers, dancers and musicians performing at Harlem's fabled nightclubs over three golden decades (1920s to 1950s) move across the entire back wall of Jubilee Theatre's perfectly raked arena stage. (No bad seats in this house.) Black-and-white film arouses our sense of a past we can still grasp, and lighting and projection designer Scott Guenther coordinates the images beautifully with the music of the era.
The larger-than-life photos of Eubie Blake, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Pearl Bailey, The Mills Brothers, Billie Holiday and other famed African-American artists clearly delight the opening weekend audience members, taking their seats for Bubbling Brown Sugar, a musical revue that opened on Broadway in 1976. Based on a concept by Rosetta LeNoire, with a book by Lofton Mitchell, the show features hits of the era, as well as original music composed by pianist Emme Kemp, and arranged by Danny Holgate. Directed here by Michael Serrecchia, with musical direction by Sheliah Walker, the adroit three-piece band for the show sits in an elevated lighted box, stage right, following the singers and cueing up the dance numbers.
Everybody's set to hear those seductive golden oldies from Harlem sung by ardent young musicians in live theater. But, alas, first we have to wade through a slow-moving plotline about an argumentative older couple (snooty Genine Ware and jivey Ausben Jordan, II) and their dedicated sidekick (fervent, hard-working Jason Scott Hallman), all recalling their early days as performers or wannabes in early Harlem. On the corner of 131st Street and Seventh Avenue, the trio meets a young white couple with their own hang-ups. He's a rich Harvard brat (smiling, sweet-shoed tapper Preston Isham) and she's a beauteous, coy blonde (clingy, pretty Caitlin Jones). After some rhyming and silly machinations about what's truly historic and what's not, the hometown trio agrees to take the curious couple on a time-travel tour through Harlem.
The ensemble of five men and four women give it their all in the forgettable title song, but the dancing and singing heat up on "Strolling," wherein choreographer Megan Kelly Bates stretches her finger-snapping troupe across the stage in an easy evocation of this rock ‘n' roll craze of the 50's. Costume designer Michael A. Robinson's pastel zoot suits for the men fit fine, and the women look good in swingy skirts.
Ware's thin voice is haughty, but Jordan's gravelly voice warms up the duet in "Honeysuckle Rose," a yearning Fats Waller jazz standard. More Harlem folks join in the fun with "Sweet Georgia Brown," a trio of song and dance, executed with determined high kicking by pert Christian Joelle Jones, Kevin Davis, Jr. and Bennie Adkins.
The second act moves faster, with Jordan delivering Fats Waller's "Ain't Misbehavin’" in a comic, teasing turn, while Ware looks on, unconvinced. Tall, dark, eager-to-please Hallman strains on high notes and loses the low notes in "Pray for the Lights to Go Out," but delivers a playful, upbeat "Them There Eyes" in a range better suited for his voice.
The evening attains the real bubbling point when beautiful, full-throated Rita Kotey opens up her rich mezzo voice on "I Got It Bad," sung with the kind of easy confidence and vulnerable yearning of Nina Simone, bringing on happy applause and whistles. Christian Joelle Jones begins "God Bless the Child" on a wavering note, but when Kotey joins in with her big voice, the two women truly celebrate Billie Holiday and her heartfelt anthem to the joys of God-given talent.
Ensemble numbers heat up with an energetic evocation of the revved-up dance scene of the Harlem Renaissance at dance clubs like Small's Paradise and the Cotton Club. Everybody gets down to the Lindy Hop, but Isham really shines when he puts on his tap shoes, and Christian Joelle Jones is one lithe and leggy dancer partnered with any of the guys.
Some 20 songs later, the plot brings the couples to a happy ending, and it's time to swing. The finale, sung and danced by the full ensemble to "It Don't Mean a Thing" feels like New Year’s Eve in spring, with everybody glitzed out in fantastic beaded dresses and tuxedos heavy with sequins and velvet trim, and dancing like it's midnight at the Savoy. Audience applause at curtain call gave Kotey her well-deserved due. Pianist/conductor Scott A. Eckert, bassist Peggy Honea, and drummer Alan Pollard got a special whistle and stomp for their tight work throughout—and the big percussion at the end.