Chicago Theatre Review
Porchlight Theatre: This Joint is Jumpin’!
It may be bitter cold outside and the snowfall does seem endless, but inside what looks like the Cotton Club during the Harlem Renaissance (thanks to a very classy and practical set design by Jeffery D. Kmiec) the room is jumping hot. At Stage 773 audiences are transported back to the 1920’s and ‘30’s when Thomas “Fats” Waller created a new sound called swing, which became mainstream in American nightclubs and over the air waves.
Waller’s music surfaced everywhere during that time: from posh uptown venues to downtown’s Tin Pan Alley, from basement clubs and seedy dives to international concert halls. A testament to his talent, many of Waller’s songs became pop standards, such as “Honeysuckle Rose,” “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.” In 1978 Richard Maltby, Jr. assembled and directed this joyous musical revue that renewed the nation’s interest in Fats Waller’s music. It took Broadway by storm and featured five talented African American actor/singers performing 30 wonderful hits. It not only earned Tony Awards for Maltby as Best Director and for the inimitable Nell Carter as Best Actress, it won the accolade for Best Musical. Now, four decades later, this highly enjoyable, scrappy musical revue, filled with contagious, toe tapping melodies, bawdy lyrics and sassy performers is again a much-welcome hit.
Multiple Jeff Award recipient, director/choreographer Brenda Didier keeps this musical revue saucy and slick. Before the show actually begins, Ms. Didier sets the evening in motion by having Chicago’s favorite pianist, the incomparable and highly-energetic and animated Austin Cook, readying the performance space, giving last minute instructions to his four talented band members and welcoming her superb cast of performers. Ms. Didier stages her show with cleverly stylized dance steps and audacious character interactions that keep her cast in constant motion. Her production is so infectious that the audience, encouraged to clap, sing along and even dance in the aisles, found it difficult to remain seated on opening night.
This electrically-charged cast boasts, in particular, two enormously talented and versatile actors. Donterrio Johnson and Lorenzo Rush, Jr. are worth the price of admission alone. Johnson is like liquid; he’s sheer poetry in motion. Whether dancing up a storm in “This Joint is Jumpin’” or seductively oiling his way around the stage in “The Viper’s Drag” this young man is a director’s dream. Rush, who bears more than a striking resemblance to Waller himself, is sheer comedy making the most of his expressive, rubbery mug and double-jointed body in numbers like “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Your Feet’s Too Big.” Both accomplished singers also get to strut their stuff together in comic duets like “Fat and Greasy.”
Not to be outdone, the “Ladies Who Sing With the Band” are three lovely triple-threats who offer their own brand of cheek. Sharriese Hamilton, plays the younger, more flirtatious sex kitten character, belting out numbers like “I’ll Keep My Fingers Crossed,” while swing dancing and tapping up a storm. Lina Wass recreates her much-acclaimed role from a few years ago at the Goodman. Her very accomplished and versatile vocal work stands out in solos like “When the Nylons Bloom Again” and group numbers like “Lookin’ Good But Feelin‘ Bad.” Earthy Ms. Robin Da Silva is the ensemble’s red, hot mama, crooning tunes like “I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Fallin’,’’ “Cash for Your Trash” and the delightfully naughty “Honeysuckle Rose.” Whether flirting shamelessly with Rush or scolding the other ladies for hitting on her man, Ms. Da Silva is able to level an offender with just one look. And most numbers are comic in this revue, touching songs like “Mean to Me” and the poignant “Black and Blue” offer quieter moments of melancholy and sublime introspection.
The best way to shake off this winter’s blues and heat up the night can be found along Belmont’s Theatre District with a visit to this energetic, effervescent production. This show celebrates Fats Waller’s genius while showcasing a top-notch cast and superlative musical support, all orchestrated by a terrific director/choreographer. This two-hour revue charges out of the gates and never lets up until long after the audience as departed the theatre. This is one giddy, spectacular production Chicago shouldn’t miss!
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented February 1-March 9 by Porchlight Music Theatre at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 773-327-5252 or by visiting their web at www.porchlightmusictheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found at www.theatreinchicago.com.