COOKIN’ AT THE COOKERY: THE MUSIC AND TIMES OF ALBERTA HUNTER
(This is Jerry's review of the original Arts Club production from last September.)
A host of great black women singers made the 1920s one of the most fabulous musical eras of the century. Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith, Ida Cox, Sippie Wallace, Lucille Hegamin, and Victoria Spivey led the lengthy roll call of “blues queens,” with their big voices, extravagant costumes and elaborate stage shows. Accompanied by the new giants of jazz like Eubie Blake, Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong, these remarkable women established the traditions that led directly to the hip hop and r&b divas of today.
Writer, director and choreographer Marion J. Caffey has all sorts of problems creating an effective dramatic vehicle for telling the story of blues queen Alberta Hunter. But God bless the child for allowing us to see and hear the phenomenal Jackie Richardson strut her stuff. When she gets cookin’, she burns down the house.
Cookin’ at the Cookery takes the familiar form of musical-revue-as-biography. Richardson and Janice Lorraine, backed by Bill Sample’s four-piece band, portray Hunter from her childhood in turn-of-the-century Memphis, to her three decades of successes in Chicago, New York and Europe, to her triumphant comeback in her eighties at The Cookery nightclub in New York after having retired from show biz and worked as a nurse for twenty years.
Besides her comeback, there’s nothing really remarkable about Hunter’s story. Neither her personal nor professional life was particularly stormy. And Caffey’s relentlessly chronological and undramatic telling of it is whizzes past potentially compelling dramatic moments like a biographical express train clipping by local stations along the track. Hunter’s two-week-long marriage followed by her awareness that she was lesbian—whoosh! There go her confrontations with racism on tours though the Jim Crow South, just barely noted.
Caffey chooses to make Hunter’s relationship with her single mother the dramatic crux of her life. But it’s never really clear why mama wouldn’t come to hear Alberta sing, and Alberta’s guilt at mama’s death feels contrived. There are some nice dynamics between Richardson and Lorraine as they switch off playing the two characters. And Lorraine is a strong singer and dancer. But she tends to overact all the characters she plays, turning young Alberta, a club owner, a record producer, and Louis Armstrong into caricatures.
The success of the show rests on the ample talents of Richardson. A big woman with a rich, booming voice and megawatt personality, she makes you love her. She can do elegant or earthy with equal wallop, from mainstream classics like “Sweet Georgia Brown” and Irving Berlin’s “Always” to bawdy vaudeville blues like “My Handy Man.”
Her utterly transcendent rendition of Hunter’s 1923 hit “Down Hearted Blues” gives you the privilege of experiencing a real blues queen at the height of her powers.