Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Bricktop is a Fast Moving Splashy Musical

Also see Richard's reviews of Plain and Fancy, The Good German and Our Town

Lorraine Hansberry Theatre is presenting the West Coast premiere of the flashy musical Bricktop. This non-stop 90-minute romp is based on the life of Ada "Bricktop" Smith as conceived by Calvin A. Ramsey, with original music by S. Renee Clark. Original lyrics and book are by Ramsey and Thomas W. Jones II, and some real jiving choreography is provided by Dawn Axam.

Bricktop opened at Virginia's Metrostage in Alexandria in January 2007 where it received good reviews. The current production includes some of the talented members of the original cast. The show covers the life of entertainer Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia Smith (she says she had that long name because she was a whole lot of woman), better known as "Bricktop," from the early 1900s well into the late 20th century. Bricktop is a music express, from the early foot-stomping style to the smooth sounds of Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Cole Porter, Eddie Harris and Les McCann.

Bricktop is also the life story of two of Ada's closest friends, the legendary Mabel Mercer (Ms. Mercer appeared in San Francisco several times in her later years), whom Smith discovered, and terrific blues singer Alberta Hunter.  The show also includes the appearances of great entertainers such as Fats Waller and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. Other famous persons are mentioned, such as Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, F. Scott Fitzgerald (he once remarked "my only claim to fame is that I discovered Bricktop before Cole Porter") and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

The set is the famed "Chez Bricktop" in Paris in the later 1920s with three tables set for patrons from the audience. Ada later fled Paris when the Germans were marching down the Champs Elysee and she reopened Chez Bricktop on the Via Vento in Rome after the war. In the early 1960s while traveling in Italy, I visited this famed cabaret and met the amazing Ada "Bricktop" Smith.

Peggy Ann Blow (recipient of the NAACP Image Award and the original cast of Bricktop) gives a radiant performance as Bricktop.  The character opens the show by recalling affectionately her life touring the vaudeville circuit before World War I or, as she and the other artists called it "TOBA," which means "traveling on black ass." She does more reminiscing than singing ("I ain't no singer, I'm an entertainer" she tells the audience). However, Peggy Ann Blow has great vocal chops in some of the French duets and ensemble pieces. She is mighty fine belting out "Money" with a great ensemble backing her up.

C. Kelly Wright (original cast plus TheatreWorks productions of Memphis, Bay Boy, Gypsy, Little Princess, Dessa Rose) is once again supreme as Mabel Mercer.  This wonderful chanteuse is sublime in her rendition of "Mabel's Lament." She has a bell clear voice on Cole Porter's "Let's Face the Music and Dance."  Her duets with Peggy Ann Blow in the interpretations of Josephine Baker's "J'Ai Deux Amours" and Jacques Brel's "Ne Me Quitte Pas" are smooth as silk.  She is one sexy lady dressed in svelte gowns by Micha Kachman and a blonde wig.

Michelle E. Jordan (Crowns, SFBATCC circle award) is wonderful as blues belter Alberta Hunter. She brings down the house with Hunter's composition, "Downhearted Blues," and tears up the stage with Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle's "I'm Just Wild About Harry." Jordan gives a touching performance of "The Party's Over" toward the end of the fast paced show.

Carla Punch (Joe Turner's Come and Gone and Black Nativity) is sensuous as the showgirl, and her dancing moves are fantastic.  She has great vocal chops with the ensemble on Oscar Hammerstein II and Sigmund Romberg's "Lover Come Back to Me," "It's Paris" and "The Joint is Jumpin'" (by J.C. Johnson, Andy Razaf, Thomas "Fats" Waller).

The male ensemble members William Hubbard (original cast, The Three Sistahs and Crowns in Washington D.C), Anthony Manough (original cast member Broadway's The Lion King, Jesus Christ Superstar) and Gary E. Vincent (Great Men of Gospel Off-Broadway) give stellar performances in this high energy production.   Their voices blend well and their incredible timing in the dance department and energy is infectious.  William Hubbard gives a great rendition of the incredible "The Joint is Jumpin'." Anthony Manough shows the full range of his voice in Arthur Johnson and Sam Coslow's "Ebony Rhapsody." The dance moves of Gary E. Vincent as Bojangles are not only graceful but exciting as well.

Bricktop's audience also gets into the act as the dancers invited some of the patrons up on stage to jive.  Each member of the audience gets a "clapper," which was a signature of Ada Smith's establishment. These "clappers" sound out after each performance of an artist.

The five-piece orchestra, with James Campbell the conductor on piano and Joshua Hari on bass and co-conductor, is out of this world. Jonathan Krimstock plays a mean guitar on one number while John Stafford wails on sax in another scene. Ranzel Merritt brings up the percussion to make this one fine quintet.

Bricktop plays at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre through April 15th.  For tickets please call 415-474-8800 or online at

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

- Richard Connema

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