James "Red" Wilcher, in the role of the theatre owner, sets the tone of "One Mo' Time" right from the beginning. After the band has warmed things up with "Darktown Strutters' Ball," he stides out on stage, shaking an admonitory finger, and scolds the audience: "Just because you paid your 25 cents to get in here, don't think that gives you a right to mess the place up." Clearly, we are dealing with a fantasy.
In the framework of the show, the audience is supposed to be all black and sitting in the Lyric Theater in New Orleans, sometime before it burned down in 1927. If "One Mo' Time" is a fair sample of what used to happen on that long-vanished stage, the customers certainly got their quarter's worth: torch singing, comic routines, red hot mommas, dancers domestic and exotic, a bit of jazz with the venerable trumpet of Jabbo Smith, and a Dixieland band for such numbers as "Tiger Rag" and "Muskrat Ramble." It is a clever show, well-wrought, historically interesting and most of all, thoroughly entertaining. It will be at the National Theatre for six weeks.
The mainspring of the show is the formidable Sandra Reaves-Phillips, an actress of enormous endowments and a singer whose style lies somewhere between Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. She can communicate volumes by arching an eyebrow but spends most of the evening in a very broad vein of humor. When the scrawny theater owner stands in her way, she brushes him aside like a curtain, and when he threatens to withhold her pay, she picks him up like a rag doll. But she comes into her own in such superheated songs as "C.C. Rider" and "Muddy Waters," in the unambiguous symbolism of "The Right Key but the Wrong Key Hole," and the culinary obscenities of "kitchen Man," with its standard plays on such images as jelly rolls, sausages, frankfurts, sugar bowls and bologna: "How that boy can open clams. No one else can bake my hams." And when she demonstrates how to "shake that thing," the earth trembles.
All else seems slightly pallid in her company, but the small cast of "One Mo' Time" is expert and well balanced. Alan Weeks is a polished song-and-dance man. Deborah Burrell, a sly ingenue with a good voice, is just right for a song like "He's Funny That Way." Jackee Harry is a good, all-purpose singer and actress who could substitute for either of her female partners in an emergency, sings a touching, comic "After You're Gone" with a mop and bucket as props, and performs an exquisitely comic exotic dance. The whole troupe works together smoothly in ensemble numbers.
In a sense, the title of "One Mo' Time" describes the show's intentions. After so many recent and successful stage expeditions into black popular music of the '20s and '30s ("Bubbling Brown Sugar," for example, and "Ain't Misbehavin'"; "Eubie" and "Sophisticated Ladies"), it ventures into that same territory one more time and proves that there is still gold to be freshly mined. But it also attempts to represent accurately the whole spectrum of what was being performed on the black theatrical circuit in the '20s. The comedy routine "Monkey Man" is deplorable, though it helps to give the show dramatic point, and some of the songs ("Black Bottom," for example, and "Cake Walkin' Babies from Home") are mainly of archaeological interest.
In the overall quality of its material, "One Mo' Time" is hardly equal to "Ain't Misbehavin,'" for example. But its high points are very high indeed and the less compelling numbers are rescued from oblivion by inspired performances. It also works well because its vaudeville material is set into a sketchy but effective dramatic frame. The backstage situations interact with the on-stage numbers, giving them an extra dimension.