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San Francisco by Richard Connema

TheatreWorks Presents Oo-Bla-Dee
in Palo Alto

Also see Richard's review of The Blue Room


Oo-Bla-Dee is having its Northern California premiere at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto. This is the revised version of Regina Taylor's jazzy drama of the lives, passions and music of a group of black female jazz musicians at the end of World War II. The drama takes place in St. Louis in 1946, when America had stifling racial laws. The unlikely title comes from the Mary Lou Williams song In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee, with lyrics by the late Dizzy Gillespie. The title is apropos since the plotline is connected to the start of bebop in the late '40s.

Ms. Taylor's play had its world premier at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in 1999 and later transferred to the La Jolla Playhouse on May 18, 1999. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival presented it last season in their 660 seat theater, the Angus Bowmer, where it won critical acclaim. It was my impression at the time that the playwright was trying to pack too many ideas into the two hour and 30 minute production.

Regina Taylor has tightened the script for the revised version now playing at the Lucie Stern Theatre. The play is less ethereal than the OSF production, and one of the major characters (Luna) is more natural as the narrator of the piece. Oo-Bla-Dee centers on Gin Del Sol, a black female saxophonist in 1946, determined to break out of a musical-novelty act and join the all female jazz quartet led by recording star Evelyn Waters. Gin has an alter ego who says her name is Mother Time, but she can be called Luna. Luna is the narrator, and she lays out the historical landscape of the play when black soldiers of the "big war" are coming home to a racially prejudiced country. Gin wants to find freedom from the dangers and humiliation of the racial laws. She also wants to guard her own collection of secrets very closely.

Much of the airy poetic opening scenes of the OSF production have been cut down and we get a big opening scene in which the mysterious Gin meets the members of the jazz quartet. This is a brilliant scene where we first meet drummer Lulu, a wild woman with a bottle of bourbon and a joint. We meet the bass player Ruby who is the direct opposite of Lulu: cool, calm and collected, with a good head on her shoulders. Finally, we meet the outrageous Evelyn Waters who is a cross between Dionne Warwick and Oprah Winfrey.

Another distinguished scene occurs at the beginning of the second act as the quartet drives from St. Louis to Chicago with their band manager Shorty at the wheel. The group of actors who are stage front without props make the audience believe that they are traveling in their '46 Buick. The beat, the timing, and dialogue between the group is perfect. It is a highlight of the drama.

The acting ensemble is superb and there is not one weak performance in the play. Alsa Lobo plays Gin with a little bit of street smarts. She plays the role entirely different than B.W. Gonzales in the OSF production. In that production Ms. Gonzales played it as if she were Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. Ms. Lobo is certainly not from Kansas. She is excellent in the role. Candy Brown plays group leader Evelyn Waters in a flamboyant manner. She is good, but she is a little too young for the part. This role needs a Ma Rainey type to be completely successful.

Wandachristine is marvelous as Lulu and her perpetual high is amazing. Veteran TheatreWorks actress C. Kelly Wright shines in the role of Ruby. She displays the calm manner of a woman with a past with astonishing clarity. Another outstanding performance is by Darryl Alan Reed who plays Shorty. He is perfect in the role as a lackey for Evelyn Waters. He has a flare for words and his automobile scene in the second act is priceless.

Peter Blow as Luna also gives a superb performance. In the OSF production Luna stayed mostly on the second tier of the large Bowmer stage throughout the performance, mimicking Gin's moves and occasionally giving out poetic lines. Director Shirley Jo Ginney has Luna come out front and talk to the audience about the changing times. Ms. Blow has a mellifluous voice; when she sings a Billie Holiday song in the second act, she brings down the house. She even does a wonderful parody of Bette Davis in Now Voyager in the first act. Rounding out the cast is David Stewart who plays a small role as a returning soldier in the second act. He makes good use of his two scenes.

The set is adequate with a minimal use of props. There is a wonderful simulated sound system, particularly when Gin fakes playing a sax and the group is bebopping in several scenes. Director Shirley Jo Ginney has done some great work with the reconstruction of Regina Taylor's work.

Oo-Bla-Dee runs through April 7 at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto. Tickets are $22 to 40. Call (650)903-6000 for tickets or visit the web site at www.theatreworks.org. The next production will be the world premiere of Bill Russell, Henry Krieger, and Steve Chbosky musical Kept. It will open on April 10 and run through May 5.


Cheers - and be sure to check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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