When does the exuberantly seedy spirit that animates Pointless Theatre’s “Minnie the Moocher” flare into full view? Is it when two sinister figures wearing skull masks caper comically on, their enormous skeleton hands bearing trays of gold coins?
Is it when the white-tuxedo-clad Band Leader (Aaron Bliden) breaks into a bout of jitterbugging, his exaggerated moves — crouching walks, angular footwork, violent knee raises — suggesting a current of insanity beneath the dapper exterior?
Actually, the revelatory moment probably coincides upon first glimpse of this ingenious show, which fuses puppetry, shadow theater, jazz concert, film footage and dancing as it interprets the music of showman and band leader Cab Calloway. When you walk into the Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint, an eight-piece jazz band is already carousing through bluesy tunes. Their faces smudged, their clothes tramplike, the musicians sit on either side of the stage, beneath glowing-red Chinese lanterns — the kind of cheap glamour that might gladden a speakeasy’s squalor.
The band keeps swinging as the production, directed by Matt Reckeweg, with the Band Leader’s singing as narrative voice, riffs through an ebullient cautionary fable about the eponymous Minnie and her hapless suitor, Smokey Joe, characters who succumb to the dangerous temptations of Prohibition Era big-city nightlife. Minnie and Smokey Joe are characters who recur in several Calloway songs; in Pointless’ rendering, performers Madeline Whiting (Betty Boop eyelashes, white flapper dress, purple stockings) and Scott Whalen (a wide-eyed dandy wannabe) embody the characters while also animating similarly attired puppet versions.
That dual-faceted portrayal — which hints at how addiction, like a puppeteer, manipulates Minnie and her beau — is just one of the doublings and oppositions that give the show a bracingly textured look and resonance. (This production reimagines and expands on a “Minnie” that Pointless staged in 2012.) Sometimes the fleet-footed dancers Sadie Leigh Rothman and Thony Mena, like intoxicated Minnie and Smokey Joe doppelgangers, throw themselves into Roaring ’20s hoofin’. Sometimes silhouettes on a screen at the back of the stage evoke the characters, shadow-theater-style. Sometimes two figures wearing grinning black-and-white masks frolic around, their look reminiscent of the Fleischer Studios cartoons that, according to Reckeweg and Patti Kalil, the show’s puppet and set designer and art director, were a source of inspiration for the show. (Reckeweg and Kalil are Pointless’ co-artistic directors.)
Another conceptual touchstone for the piece — 1930s exploitation films, such as the breathlessly admonitory “Reefer Madness” — is reflected in tongue-in-cheek text that scrolls down the screen periodically, warning about the dangers of nightlife and, especially, jazz. The flatness of these and other screen sequences (an animated cascade of dollar signs, in one instance) contrasts piquantly with the three-dimensional vigor of the dancing and the narrative tableaux (which at various points feature taxi-cab puppets and the curtains of an opium den). Particularly delightful are the appearances by Danny Martin, who hot-foots about as, among other characters, the Reefer Man (in a leafy costume), the King of Sweden and an enigmatic figure who sneaks onstage and steals a garbage can.
The most energetic performance comes from Bliden, whose Band Leader is an enjoyably hyperbolic impression of Calloway’s onstage physicality. The band — supervised by the show’s music director and winning banjo player, Nick Wilby — are co-creators in the show’s seductive and unnerving Jazz Age dream.
Wren is a freelance writer.
Created by Matt Reckeweg, Patti Kalil and Alex Leidy. Directed by Reckeweg; dramaturgy, Leidy; art direction, set and puppets, Kalil; arrangements, Jonah Richmond and Nick Wilby; choreography, Olivia Reed; fight choreography, Lex Davis; costumes, Lee Gerstenhaber; lights, Navid Azeez. About 50 minutes. Through Jan. 25 at the Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint, 916 G Street NW. Tickets: $15-$25. Visit www.pointlesstheatre.com.