Also see Susan's review of Jitney
MetroStage in Alexandria, VA, is serving up a highly entertaining history of jazz and blues throughout the 20th century, told through the eyes of someone who was there. Bricktop recounts the legendary experiences of Ada "Bricktop" Smith (Peggy Ann Blow), who was born in West Virginia, spent her childhood touring in vaudeville and minstrel shows, and became the owner and hostess of one of the most famous cabarets in Paris in the 1920s.
Director Thomas W. Jones II, who also co-wrote the musical with Calvin A. Ramsey, has gathered seven vividly talented singing actors and five strong musicians to create his "sizzling cabaret." In keeping with the theme, Misha Kachman's scenic design incorporates several nightclub tables, including a few onstage, and audience members become part of the show on several occasions.
During her time in New York, Paris and Rome, Smith – a light-skinned African-American woman who got her nickname for her red hair and freckles – became an intimate of notables, from Cole Porter and Ernest Hemingway to African-American heavyweight champion Jack Johnson and Paul Robeson. This production uses familiar and not so familiar songs, along with some new songs by S. Renee Clark, to shine a spotlight on Bricktop's scintillating life and times.
The heart of the production follows the 60-year friendship between Bricktop and two noteworthy singers: Alberta Hunter (Roz White Gonsalves), who took time out from her career singing the blues to become a nurse, then returned to singing in her eighties; and Mabel Mercer (C. Kelly Wright), daughter of a white Englishwoman and an African-American man, renowned for her crystalline diction and skill at musical interpretation. Interestingly, the three women died within months of each other in 1984.
Adding to the general high spirits are the versatile William Hubbard, Anthony Manough and Gary E. Vincent, playing a variety of roles, and showgirl Robin L. Massengale.
Choreographer Dawn Axam keeps the 90-minute performance in fairly constant motion, from a hot tango to Josephine Baker's signature song, "J'ai Deux Amours," and Nicholas Brothers-like acrobatics on "I've Got a Girl Who Lives Upon a Hill," to a lesson in stride piano on "The Joint is Jumping" by Hubbard as songwriter-performer Fats Waller. Her one misstep, however, is rather serious: she depicts the encroaching danger of World War II with a bizarre number, set to "Let's Face the Music and Dance," featuring Massengale as an S&M storm trooper and the three men in skimpy drag costumes and elaborate feathered headdresses.
Each member of musical director William Knowles' talented combo has a chance to show off during the performance. Saxophonist Ron Oshima gets to dance with the cast, and guitarist David B. Cole briefly impersonates the celebrated gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt.