"We ain't had our days, but we sure had our nights," says Ruddy Garner about halfway through "Bubbling Brown Sugar." He is speaking for Harlem in the '20s and '30s, whose glittering night life is the subject of the show. Last night at the Warner, the best of those nights was condensed into two hours of sparkling entertainment that ended with a standing ovation for a newcomer to the show, Cab Calloway.
If one thing has been made perfectly clear in this town during the past five years, it is that Washington loves the bubbling black musical, now on its fourth visit here since 1975. The show has changed slightly through the years, for better and for worse, but it still balances vitality and nostalgia in almost ideal measure. It still has no plot to speak of, but the tunes are magnificant and well-sung, the dancing is spectacular, and the presence of Calloway gives the current production a new dimension.
For those who have missed it before "Bubbling Brown Sugar" is a musical tour of Harlem in the '20s and '30s. Its slender plot concerns the conversion of a white visitor, Charlie, from stiff-and-proper to loose-and-lively. Harlem manages this by exposing him to song-and-dance material identified with artists ranging from Bert Williams and Bill Robinson to Billie Holliday, Duke Ellington and, of course, Cab Calloway. The plot is an excuse for the music and dancing; it is not particularly plausible, but for this kind of material any excuse is good enough.
Calloway, filling the role formerly played with great distinction by Avon Long, makes it completely his own. He does not seriously try to evoke the great Bert Williams in his first number, "Nobody," as Long did. His interpretation is pure Calloway and acted as magnificently as it is sung -- a cameo of alienation so complete that it is comic. On opening night, he substituted a torrid, beautifully projected slow blues number, "Mr. Charlie's Got the Blues," for "Love Will Find a Way," and it worked perfectly. His duet with co-star Ann Duquesnay in "Honeysuckle Rose" was a show-stopper, but the climax was, of course, "Minnie the Moocher," with a series of choruses in which he had the whole audience running lustily through a series of fantastic variations on "Hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-ho." He also did some pretty fancy dancing.
Calloway was the only living legend on stage, but he was supported by some fine talent -- particularly Duquesnay, whose voice was rich and well-styled in songs that ranged from "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" through "Stormy Monday Blues" to "There'll Be Some Changes Made." Myles G. Savage was equally versatile, switching from Gospel in "I'm Gonna Tell God All My Troubles" to a remarkable approximation of Billy Eckstine in "Sophisticated Lady."
Cecelia Norfleet had probably the toughest assignment, following the unforgettable Vivian Reed's performance in an earlier production. She managed it beautifully in a "Sweet Georgia Brown" that was as funny as it was erotic, but seemed a bit inhibited in "God Bless the Child." Her interpretation was daring; she gave the old song a contemporary sound and sang it almost immobile in a sitting position (probably a mistake for one who moves so well). It was well-applauded, but did not erase memories of Reed.
Wayne Cilento, playing the role of Charlie (in dark-rimmed glasses that made him look a bit like a kempt Woodie Allen), sang and danced brilliantly. For dramatic suspense, he should have saved it all for the finale, as has been done in earlier production -- but that would have been a waste of an outstanding talent -- and nobody takes the plot seriously, anyway. Other outstanding solos included Dawn Ashby, who danced "Sophisticated Lady" on opening night, and The Bobby Hill, who made his comic number, "Pray for the Lights to Go Out," sound even funnier than it is.
There were a few opening night problems in the sound system, the lighting and a band that (except for the drummer) has not yet lived with the music quite long enough -- but these were minor and should be soon corrected.This would be a good show without Calloway, and with him it is a great one.