ONE MO' TIME, written and directed by Vernel Bagneris; production consultant, Pepsi Bethel; musical direction and arrangements by Lars Edegran and Orange Kellin; setting by Karl Elgsti; costumes by JoAnn Clevenger; lighting by Allen Lee Hughes; with Barbara Montgomery, Peggy Alston, Lady B.J., Ron Wyche and Tom Hull; and Arthur Dawkins, Mann, drums and Thomas E. Short Jr., tuba.
At Arena Stage through Dec. 14.
It's a wonder, the pretexts people will employ to justify a little singing and dancing.
In "One Mo' Time," which opened at Arena Stage last night, we are asked to follow the behind-the-scenes travails of the '20s black vaudeville group as it tries to wheedle its paychecks from a cheapskate white boss, and, simultaneously, to get through a show despite the fact that one member of the cast is in jail, a second has disappeared with the bail money, and a third is both late and drunk.
"One Mo' Time" like "Forty-Second Street," "A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine" and "Swing," is a happy-go-lucky revue with a flimsy backstage story woven in between the numbers. But the quasi-dramatic foolishness is mercifully brief. It consists of sketchy, old-joke-ridden mini-scenes that give way, just when they threaten to be annoying, to the real reason for our attendance -- musical numbers that evoke the easy blues style of black vaudeville, when stars like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and Sweet Mama Stringbean (a.k.a. Ethel Waters) played the "TOBA" circuit. (The letters stood for "Theater Owners Booking Agency" or, in performers' parlance, "Tough on Black A--es.")
The task of transporting us back to this era falls to four frenetically smooth performers (and a terrific five-piece band, which is a pleasure to listen to, without electronic embellishment, in the 500-seat Kreeger Theater). And I'll confess to having a favorite among the four stars: Barbara Montgomery, who plays the slovenly but silky Bertha, leader of the group.
Montgomery is the one who stumbles into the dressing room late and, when a colleague points out that she's drunk, replies: "If I ain't, I been cheated outa eight dollars." Guzzling liquor from the bottle and bumping into walls and furniture right and left, she insists she is perfectly fit to sing.
And is she ever! Instead of just dropping her drunk act once she gets onstage, she works it nimbly into the spirit of an absurd (and anonymous) little number called "Don't You Turn Your Back on Me," which Montgomery shouts out as a gentle battle cry to her man.
In the second act, she is back in a satin gown with a handful of feathers, and sweet-talking her way through the rollickingly funny "Kitchen Man" (music by Andy Razaf, a principal, if posthumous, contributor to "Ain't Misbehavin'"). "I'm wild about his turnip tops," she sings. "I like the way he warms my chops. I can't do without my kitchen man."
(If cleanliness is next to godliness, it should be said that "One Mo' Time" isn't.)
Montgomery's three fellow performers are Ron Wyche, an elegant soft-shoe dancer; Peggy Alston, who does a sensationally funny Charleston and, like Montgomery, never sacrifices the musical quality of a song to its laugh possibilities; and Lady B.J., a young, saucy singer whose shades-of-Bessie-Smith rendition of "He's Funny That Way" is one of the show's high points. (The song, incidentally, is by Richard Whiting, the same composer celebrated, far less deftly, in "Hollywood/Ukraine.")
The other numbers, representing a long, biracial list of songwriters, include some that are both familiar and delightful, and some -- it has to be said -- that are less familiar, less delightful or less of both. A program note describes black vaudeville (before its demise in the '30s) as an eclectic mix of ballet, opera, juggling, comedy and jazz, but "One Mo' Time" sticks to jazz, and mostly to a style midway between half-serious blues and honky-tonk.
So the show has a slightly repetitive flavor to it. And Pepsi Bethel's choreography, although frequently snappy and seductive, fails to make a few of the minor numbers sufficiently distinctive.
But if you're in a mood to laugh and maybe even stomp your feet a bit, "One Mo' Time" is probably just the scratch for your itch.