One Mo' Time written and directed by Vernel Bagneris. Scenic design by Campbell Baird. Costume design by Toni-Leslie James. Lighting design by John McKernon. Sound design by Kurt Kellenberger. Musical supervision by Orange Kellin. Musical arrangements by Lars Edegran and Orange Kellin. Music performed by The New Orleans Blue Serenaders. Vocal arrangements by Lars Edegran and Topsy Chapman. Choreography by Eddie Robinson. Cast: Vernel Bagneris, B.J. Crosby, Roz Ryan, Rosalind Brown, Wally Dunn.
Real fires take a while to get started, and that's expected. Theatrical flames, though, can never come too soon, but when it takes a long time for them to arrive, especially in a musical with a premise that suggests they should be present at the outset, there's a problem.
That, in a nutshell, is One Mo' Time's problem. Now at the Longacre Theatre, the show originally played for over three years at the Village Gate Off-Broadway in 1979. One can't help but wonder if that production spent most of its two hours frantically fanning flames that never wanted to consume the audience. That's this production in a nutshell - at least up until the last few minutes.
The show begins promisingly enough, first with Campbell Baird's highly provocative set, displaying the Lyric Theatre of 1926 New Orleans. The stage is divided into one section (complete with proscenium) depicting the stage area, and another showing the cramped backstage area. Then, the overture ("Darktown Strutters Ball") starts and as The New Orleans Blue Serenaders play (under the musical direction of Orange Kellin, who also fulfilled that role in the original production and plays the clarinet in this one), you get the feeling you're in for a special evening.
It doesn't take long for that image to be dispelled.
That the stage of the Lyric Theatre set takes up about two thirds of the set of One Mo' Time is hardly insignificant, the show sets itself up as the music it contains being its only reason for being. Oh, there are backstage moments interspersed between the musical numbers, but about all we get from those is petty squabbling, low-powered (when not outright lame) jokes, a few mild double entendres, and the merest hint of a possible romantic rivalry. At times, it's difficult to not wonder why they bothered with any of this at all.
Well, there's the possibility that they wanted to better set up the tiniest thread of a dramatic through-line the show has, but even that seems unlikely. The owner of the Lyric threatens to throw them out for not fulfilling the terms of their contract - four singers, an exotic dancer, and a blackface performer - so, of course, they find ways around this restriction. But this "story" isn't introduced until well after the first act is underway, and it is "resolved" long before the second act finishes.
It's important to note, though, that there's absolutely nothing wrong with the show's performers: Vernel Bagneris (who also wrote and directed the show), B.J. Crosby, Roz Ryan, and Rosalind Brown all give the songs they perform at the Lyric their all, selling them for pretty much all they're worth.
Ryan, for example, as the troupe's leader Bertha, gets a great comedy song in "Kitchen Man," near the end of the first act, detailing the many virtues of the kitchen worker she can't bear to get rid of. (Think an earlier, jazzier version of "I Can Cook Too.) In the second act, her rendition of "Right Key But the Wrong Keyhole" (take a guess as to the subject matter) is also very funny. Crosby, as Ma Reed, gets some strong moments of her own, perhaps none funnier than her exotic dance, performed to "Hindustan," (and choreographed by Eddie D. Robinson in one of his less pedestrian moments in the show) though she raises the roof with a torch song ("After You've Gone") just as easily. Brown and especially Bagneris generally get the weakest material, but work very well in the larger group numbers. Though Wally Dunn has no songs in his truly thankless role, listed simply as Theatre Owner, he squeezes every drop of comedy out of it he can.
Still, for the quality of the performances, there's a certain dull and unexciting air throughout the evening. The music is great, but something is clearly missing.
The songs, of course, were never designed to carry the weight of a Broadway musical, but more importantly, it's impossible to avoid comparisons with Ain't Misbehavin', a late 1970s revue of Fats Waller songs (that also played at the Longacre), that, though similar in style, had a stronger and more inventive creative team (led by Richard Maltby, Jr.). They infused it with real characters and strong dramatic continuity that made it hold together and excite in a way that One Mo' Time almost never does.
Almost. Near the end of the second act, something extraordinary happens: One Mo' Time heats up not once or twice, but three times. First, Bertha and Thelma's offstage rivalry comes to a head onstage when the two sing "My Man Blues," infusing the song with an extra layer of meaning no song before it really had. This is exciting enough, but the coals are just getting hot.
Not much later, Ma Reed takes the stage to belt the heck out of "Muddy Water." It's already the high point of the show, but when Bertha, alone backstage, joins in to finish the song as a duet, you can feel the flames licking at your heels.
Only a few moments later, the Longacre is completely ablaze when (appropriately), the singers and band erupt with "A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight" throwing the audience into a fantastic frenzy. It's a fantastic moment, with the audience encouraged to clap and cheer along. They will, and rightfully so - it's only now that One Mo' Time achieves what it should have time and time again along the way.
Too little? The song doesn't seem that way at all. Too late? Unfortunately, yes.