Also see John's review of Two Jews Walk Into a War ...
Bubbling Brown Sugar opens on the streets of Harlem in the 1970s, complete with larger than life afros and tighter than tight polyester pants. As people meet on street to chat, three middle-aged entertainers, Irene, John and Checkers, meet Jim and Ella. In an effort to show the couple Harlem in its hey-day, the entertainers take Jim and Ella back in time to the 1922s. With some historic narrative thrown in, they sample the sights, sounds and style of Harlem as found in places like the Cotton Club, Small's Paradise and the Savoy Ballroom. The show ends with a nod to the time period without the cast ever going back to the 1970s. The plot of may be scant, but it is, after all a revue, and the show is really all about the music, dancing and energy of the time period. With so much music by the likes of Duke Ellington and Fats Waller, it feels like a combination of Ain't Misbehavin' and Sophisticated Ladies with some gospel songs thrown in for good measure. Creative interpretation of some of the songs, and fresh and exuberant dancing make Bubbling Brown Sugar a welcome visit with some old, familiar tunes that are well worth another listen.
Both the choreography and dancing in this production are outstanding! The cast shows great versatility by performing different styles of tap as well as the stylized dancing of the time period danced with all the right athleticism and flavor. Highlights are the group numbers "Stompin' at the Savoy"/Take the A Train," "Strolling" and "It Don't Mean a Thing." The ensemble dancing is tirelessly tight and visually engaging throughout the show. The strongest performance of the evening is a well-written arrangement of "I Got It Bad" sung for all it is worth by Allison Semmes. Nadeen Holloway as Irene and Chris Patterson as John Sage turn in a nicely sung version of "Honeysuckle Rose" and carry the bulk of what little there is of the show's storyline. John Ramsey provides some wonderful comedic moments as the rich, white Charlie, whisking his way through Harlem's nightlife. The dark texture of Jim DeBose's voice is compelling in "Sophisticated Lady," though he indulges in all his songs the odd habit of carrying over the last note of each phrase without breathing. It becomes a game of listening for the moment he will breathe, rather than listening to the song. Only two of the more than thirty song performances are in need of repair. In the second act, Roslyn Seale does a lovely job singing "God Bless The Child," but as she does not act the song at all, its impact falls far short. While the second half of "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" is fine once the ensemble joins in, the first half of the song is raggedly sung by Teisha Duncan as she struggles to find her placement. It sounds like it is just in the wrong key for her, and she pushes needlessly. The show's tracked music (a necessary evil for many theatres) had a glitch on the night attended, and one of the songs, "Sweet Georgia Brown," had to be restarted. Kudos to actress Roslyn Seale who managed to not let it affect her performance. Aside from these minor issues, this production of Bubbling Brown Sugar is a truly enjoyable and entertaining show filled with great music and talented performances.
Bubbling Brown Sugar will be appearing at the Stage Door Theatre through November 22, 2009. The theater is located at 8036 W. Sample Rd in Coral Springs, Florida. The Stage Door Theatre is a not-for-profit professional theatre company hiring local and non-local nonunion actors and actresses. Their two stages in Coral Springs are open year round. For tickets and information on their season, you may contact them by phone at 954-344-7765 or online at www.stagedoortheatre.com.