EUBIE; music by Eubie Blake; lyrics by Noble Sissie, Andy Razaf, etc.; conceived and directed by Julianne Boyd; choreography by Henry LeTang and Billy Wilson; set by Karl Eigsti; costumes by Bernard Johnson; musical supervision and arrangements by Danny Holgate; with Terry Burrell, Leslie Dockery, Luther Fontaine, Donna Patrice Ingram, David Jackson, Jenifer Lewis, Bernard Manners, Bernard J. Marsh, Leonard Piggee, Roderick Spencer Sibert and Gina Taylor.
At the Warner Theatre through Jan. 25.
"Eubie," which made its belated landing in Washington last night, is a loud and lively tribute to the extraordinary career of Eubie Blake, who has the edge on Irving Berlin as America's longest-running popular songwriter.
The earliest Blake tune in the show, "Charleston Rag," dates from 1899, and it is said to be no easy task even now, as the composer's 98th birthday fast approaches, to lure him away from his piano. Not that longevity is his most notable achievement. Blake has written a trunkful of lovely slow tunes and rollicking fast ones in his long career, and it was his music that broke the race barrier on Broadway 60 years ago -- even if the success of "Shuffle Along" and other Blake shows had so faded from theatrical memory by the '60s that youngsters spoke of the Pearl Bailey/Cab Calloway "Hello, Dolly!" as the first all-black Broadway musical.
"Eubie" has brought Blake's work, and Blake himself, back before the public -- a commendable cultural good deed in itself. And it is a thoroughly enjoyable evening besides. True, this show lacks the grace, the precision and the inventiveness of "Ain't Misbehavin'," probably the most adroit of all recent nostalgic revues; equally true, its charm is a little standoffish in the vast confines of the Warner Theatre (where the inevitable amplification problems nearly overwhelmed the first act last night). But the singing and dancing skills of "Eubie's" 11-member cast, and the great allure of the songs themselves (written with lyricists Noble Sissle and Andy Razaf), triumph in the end.
For want of any more logical way of ranking of "Eubie's" on-stage assets, I will begin with the weightiest -- a dancer and unstoppable clown named Roderick Spencer Sibert, who comes on in an orange-and-white Big Lord Fauntleroy suit to sing "I'm a Great Big Baby [Craving for a Little Love]." He's not lying about being big, and for a big man, he certainly knows how to shake a leg. Someone in the audience shouted "Wahoo!" after Sibert's first number last night, and that captured my response exactly.
Jenifer Lewis is no less funny with "My Handyman Ain't Handy No More," with the silent support of Bernard J. Marsh as the deplorable object of her lament, who responds to her sultry come-on by taking a book to bed and shuddering under the covers.
On the less frivolous front, Henry LeTang's and Billy Wilson's choreography could be more robust, but Bernard Manners makes the most of his opportunities to tap, even proving at one point that he can tap sitting down (in a number called "Hot Feet") And Leonard Piggee dfoers a sensational rendering of the song "Low Down Blues," which is seductively matched up with "Someone to Rock Me in the Cradle of Love," sung by Terry Burrell (although, should anyone be concerned about historical verisimilitude, it is hard to believe such outgoing performances would have been permitted even in the permissive '20s).
There are times, unfortunately, when the cast puts too much lungpower and body English into songs that call for more delicacy. Under Julianne Boyd's direction, this is a show that goes to the well much too often. But those who know the songs of Eubie Blake -- and those, on the other hand, who don't -- will probably be inclined to forgive "Eubie" its excesses and enjoy its considerable delights.