note: entire contents copyright 2003 by Carl A. Rossi
Narrator … Montego Glover
Alberta Hunter … Ernestine Jackson
Guitar … Joe Battaglia
Piano … Darryl Ivey
Bass … Steve Skop
Drums … Pieter Struyk
Describing a joyous night at the theatre is similar to describing a delicious meal or a heavenly orgasm: you simply have to be there. When a critic switches from the physical (the performance) to the cerebral (the review), the public is often given comic book explosives such as “Two Thumbs Up!” etc. Well, true joy can be found at the Huntington with its current production of COOKIN’ AT THE COOKERY (yes, that’s right: at the Huntington --- the Old Girl has got herself one hot little show!) and while I try to think up fresh clichés to describe it, you’d better reserve your tickets now cuz, honey, this celebration of Alberta Hunter, legendary blues and jazz singer, ain’t gonna be ‘round for long.
Though her career spanned seven decades and two continents, Albert Hunter (1895-1984) is remembered nowadays for her sassy comeback in the late 1970s; using Ms. Hunter’s 1977 debut at New York’s Cookery as a starting point, writer-director Marion J. Caffey skillfully takes us back and forth through Ms. Hunter’s life, charting her rise, decline and rise from an adorable, wide-eyed Memphis child to the beloved, clear-eyed octogenarian, from the Depression (“white folks jumpin’ outta windows; colored folks jumpin’ outta basements”) to racial prejudice (the American South; her not being “High Yaller” enough for Broadway musicals) to touring with the USO during WWII and the Korean War, and backed with plenty of showstoppers delivered in the inimitable Hunter style (blessedly, only a few of the songs are treated as conventional numbers in a book musical). Mr. Caffey’s affection renders Ms. Hunter nearly wart-free but judging by the show’s evidence, Ms. Hunter’s private life offered little to keep her in the public eye: she switched careers in midlife to become a nurse for twenty years, her one weakness was for Coca-Cola, her major regret was that her mother (her strength and her rock) never heard her sing in public, and she seems to have been a discreet Lesbian (fear not: Mr. Caffey adds just enough dashes of salt to keep Ms. Hunter from total sainthood). No doubt Ms. Hunter would be pleased with COOKIN’ AT THE COOKERY; “Yeah, child!” she would rasp, “this is how I want to be remembered --- as a SINGER!”
COOKERY’S mighty cast are composed of two women --- and that is all you need when you have the epic talents of Ernestine Jackson and Montego Glover to encompass young Alberta, old Alberta and the various people, male and female, in her long, song-filled life. Ms. Glover is an astonishingly gifted young singer/dancer/protean actress, equally convincing in pigtails and in ripe womanhood, and she does a stunning impersonation of Louis Armstrong that brings down the house. My only nitpick is there is nothing in Ms. Glover’s performance to suggest the tough/tender, sweet/tangy oldster that Ms. Hunter would become; Ms. Glover’s Alberta is more Broadway- than Jazz-baby. Ms. Jackson, the show’s centerpiece, beautifully evokes Ms. Hunter in her golden years; though she herself is far from being in her eighties, Ms. Jackson captures the singer’s age, voice and mannerisms with uncanny accuracy while adding a younger woman’s vocal strength to such songs as “Handy Man”, “Darktown Strutters’ Ball” and Ms. Hunter’s own “Downhearted Blues” (but where is “You Can’t Tell the Difference In the Dark”?); she even suggests that Ms. Hunter was a damn good nurse, too. Ms. Jackson’s performance, in short, is one of the year’s Great Ones. Think: JOY.
The four-piece, onstage band play like a dream, and Dale E. Jordan has cleverly designed and lit the vast B. U. stage, using half-moon arches, low-key lighting and spots to keep tight, tight focus on Mss. Jackson and Glover; not once was I aware of the usual yawning universe above Huntington heads.
All right, I’ll end with just one explosion; don’t see it as a cliché but rather as an incentive to get thee to COOKERY’S box office: JUST GO!