Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
The Olney production of this revue, originally staged on Broadway in 1978, showcases the historical significance of Blake and his times while bringing his music to life for a new generation. The staging incorporates slides and voice recordings of Blake, and a life-size wax figure of him seated at a piano, courtesy of the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum, greets theatergoers in the lobby. Also on display are photos from throughout Blake's long career and information on the composer provided by students at James Hubert Blake High School, located just down the road from the theater.
Blake was born in 1887, although he began adding four years to his age when he was 11 so he could perform in bordellos and bars. He died in 1983, shortly after what was then believed to be his 100th birthday but was actually his 96th. He kept performing almost to the end of his life.
Director Tony Parise revised the show with the help of the original producer and conceiver, Julianne Boyd. He is working with a noteworthy nine-member singing and dancing ensemble, although the program does not list who is singing which numbers.
On a skeletal set by Daniel Conway, with scene-setting lighting designed by Charlie Morrison and vivid costumes by Nanzi Adzima, the company puts across a variety of Blake's songs, from his most popular, "I'm Just Wild About Harry," to his own favorite, the melancholy "Memories of You." In keeping with his era, he wrote sentimental looks back at the good old days (specifically, the "high-stepping days" after the abolition of slavery), and offered genre songs both sacred and sensual. The choreography ranges from the shimmy and cakewalk to muscular male ensemble numbers.
The high points of this production are two solos that give their performers a chance to vamp the audience. Fredena J. Williams, a large woman with remarkable grace, sells "I'm a Great Big Baby," while sleek, self-assured Roz Gonsalves White triumphs with the double-entendre-packed "My Handyman Ain't Handy Anymore."
Olney Theatre Center