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Cookin' at the Cookery
The Music & Times of Alberta Hunter

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

We've come a long way from the days of Gypsy and Funny Girl; today's bio-musicals eschew original scores in favor of compilations of their subjects' major songs. In some ways, this proves advantageous, as a major musical personality is defined primarily in the eyes of the public by the songs he or she sings. However, that also challenges the creators to find ways to efficiently musicalize a shows' characters without songs written for them in specific situations.

However a good a song is, it can't necessarily fulfill a dramatic purpose for which it was not intended. Cookin' at the Cookery: The Music and Times of Albert Hunter finds a way to make it work. The musical at Theatre Three is written and directed by Marion J. Caffey, who has taken songs written or made famous by Hunter and blended them with traditional or public domain songs (such as "When The Saints Go Marching In" or "Darktown Strutters Ball") that weave a musical tapestry of the influences on Hunter's life.

The story is based on an event so far-fetched, it had to be real: Hunter, after devoting decades to the music business, gave it all up and dropped into virtual anonymity, working as a nurse for twenty years. After her retirement, she returns to the Cookery in Chelsea to become a star all over again. That serves as the show's frame - in between, she is born and raised in the south, runs away to Chicago where she makes some famous friends, and then eventually becomes a major name on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet it is much to Caffey's credit that he is able to take the events of Hunter's life (until the last chapter, interesting but not overly dramatic) and give them the enchanting rendition they receive here.

His vivid theatrical imagination conceived of doing Cookin' at the Cookery as a two person show, and the casting of Ann Duquesnay and Debra Walton was a bona fide coup. Duquesnay, perhaps best known for her Tony Award-winning performance in Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk on Broadway, has a mountainous avalanche of a voice, capable of blowing apart the tiny theater. Walton doesn't have that, but she has just as much energy, channeled in ways that allow stark dramatic contrasts to pepper the story of a great performer whose life was mostly one long one-woman show.

Duquesnay has the bulk of the singing chores, rattling the rafters with nearly every note of the dozen or so songs that seem as though they might have been written just for her. Walton's comic and dramatic interjections are no less funny. One early, life-defining moment between Walton and Duquesnay (as the young Alberta and her mother) is heartbreaking, while Walton - capable of changing her age, sex, and skin color on her slightest whim - gives a dead-on impersonation of Louis Armstrong for one of the evening's non-sung highlights.

Dale Jordan provides a nice set and some effective lights, and Marilyn A. Wall's costumes revel in the elegance of simplicity, yet one aspect of the production almost irreparably damages Cookin' at the Cookery: Josh Navarro's sound design. It relies - as sound design today all too often does - on volume at the expense of theatrical intimacy and the glory of the human voice. A four piece band and Ann Duquesnay, in a theatre with only 99 seats, should not require amplification like this; every word, spoken or sung, sounds completely flat and unnatural, when you can understand them at all.

It's the only part about this tribute to Hunter that feels untrue or ill-conceived, and yes, it dilutes the experience. But not much else does. Cookin' at the Cookery lives, laughs, loves, and yes, cooks.

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Melting Pot Theatre
Cookin' at the Cookery The Music & Times of Alberta Hunter
Through March 2
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission
Theatre 3, 311 West 43rd Street and Eighth Avenue
Schedule and Tickets: Ticket Central (212) 279-4200