COOKIN’ AT THE COOKERY, a musical by Marion J. Caffey celebrating American blues/jazz icon Alberta Hunter, directed by Victoria Perez, starring Zoë Scruggs and Ember Tate, runs through March 8, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7 p.m., Fridays at 7:30, Saturdays at 3:30 and 7:30, and Sundays at 2 at MusicalFare Theatre, 4380 Main Street (tip: enter off Getzville Road) in Amherst (839-8540). www.musicalfare.comRuntime: 2 hours with one intermission
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Backed up by a veteran on–stage quartet led by pianist George Caldwell (who played with both the Count Basie and Duke Ellington orchestras), two actresses portray the older Alberta Hunter, the younger Alberta Hunter (born in Memphis, the birthplace of the blues), Hunter’s mother, and several other characters as the story requires. We hear 18 songs (with several reprises) which keep the musical moving along, or cookin’, if you will. And if you haven’t heard of Alberta Hunter (she stopped performing for 20 years before her comeback and she passed away over 25 years ago) don’t feel bad. Even the great record producer John Hammond had to be brought around to her comeback. She may not be as famous as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, or Billie Holiday, but to millions, including those of us who got to hear her live after her return to the stage in the late 1970s, she is equally beloved, especially for her signature styles including upbeat syncopated songs such as “I’m Having a Good Time” and very sexually-suggestive double-entendre blues such as “Rough and Ready Man” or “My Handy Man,” a style of lyrics she developed when she was singing cabaret-style in Chicago bordellos.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Not unlike the television series “The Crown” which takes three actresses to portray the life of Queen Elizabeth II (now 93 years old), in COOKIN’ AT THE COOKERY author Marion J. Caffey employs two singers to cover the 84 year life of Alberta Hunter (1895 – 1984). One, Zoë Scruggs plays the older but ever-energetic Alberta Hunter who was a success in Chicago, on Broadway, internationally, and who toured with the USO through both WWII and Korea but retired in the 1950s to become a nurse for 20 years! Convinced to return to the microphone primarily by Barney Josephson who owned the Greenwich Village club “The Cookery” she developed a whole new generation of fans and was invited by Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter to sing at the White House in December 1978.
The other actress on stage, the younger Ember Tate, also sings and picks up a number of utility roles. She was especially charming dressed in a khaki uniform as a USO singer and was especially funny portraying the older, stooped over, white club owner Barney Josephson (who, by the way, before “The Cookery” owned the club “Café Society” where Billie Holiday sang “Strange Fruit” for the very first time).
Both performers have honed their chops, with Zoë Scruggs, the daughter of Lorna Hill, having grown up with Ujima Theater where she performs regularly, in addition to a solo singing career under the name “Curtis Lovell.” Ember Tate is a graduate of the impressive Niagara University BFA program and is starting to become a MusicalFare regular. We want more! You can watch dress rehearsal footage here.
When both Scruggs and Tate combine their voices in duets, it’s impressive how they match, older and younger Alberta Hunter, and the effect was thrilling. I was especially taken with the song “I’ve Got a Mind to Ramble.”
But, hey, the entire musical experience was first rate with George Caldwell at the piano, Rodney Harper on Drums, Mike Moser on Guitar, and the amazing Sabu Adeyola on bass. Note: any bass players out there? You simply must attend one of the performances to hear Mr. Adeyola’s ensemble work.
The direction is, as it ALWAYS is with Victoria Perez, sure and believable and charming with no awkward moments. I’ve said it many times before. I don’t know how she does it (“iron fist in a velvet glove”???) but by God she gets great performances from every performer in every venue.
The set by Dyan Burlingame makes great use of the smaller, low ceilinged MusicalFare stage, with a wrap around back featuring historical photos of Ms. Hunter, the band upstage, a living room set downstage left and a utility table downstage right. Very minimal, very serviceable, just right.
And, we often heap kudos on the Drozd sisters, Kari for costumes and Susan for hair, wigs, and make-up, but here they have out-done themselves. Every actor will tell you that getting into the costume and make-up helps them to “be” the role, and you could tell that Zoë Scruggs was feeling it and selling it. On the other hand, Ember Tate got to dance around in a variety of stunning costumes as “Younger Alberta” and you could tell that she was, as the song title says, “Having a Good Time.”
UP NEXT: On the MusicalFare main stage April 22 through May 24 it’s the 2014 Tony Award winning “best musical,” A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER, about low-born Monty Navarro who finds that he is eighth in line to inherit an earldom. He figures out that he could move up the ranks if various other family members were gotten, shall we say, conveniently out of the way.
Then, for 2020, MusicalFare, one of the five producing theaters who have joined together as “All for One Theatre Productions,” will collaborate in a production of THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME, to be held at Shea’s 710 Theatre, March 12-29, 2020.
Lead image: L-R Ember Tate as Barney Josephson and Zoë Scruggs as the dubious Alberta Hunter | Photo by Bethany Burrows
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!