Strummer Theater

When an actor as skillful and strongly grounded as Cooper, with a rich singing voice to boot, has an extra string like that to his bow (if you'll forgive the mixed metaphor), you're in the presence of something exceptional that only the American theater —and most often the African American theater—can give you. Leslie Uggams, Cooper, Fernandez, Marva Hicks, Michael McElroy: This is a cast of actors who are fine comically or tragically, fresh and energetic and alive in the moment. And then you hear them sing: Hicks opening up to blast a song through the back wall of the house, McElroy soothing your ears with tones of purest honey. Yes, there are quibbles here, too: Fernandez, a solid actor, is not the magically flamboyant artist you can believe has dropped in from the other world. And Uggams, an epitome of beauty and sweetness, struggles a little with the brassiness and sharp edges of her role. (She made me think, though, of another vaudeville-linked black play, long overdue for revival, in which she'd fit the lead role perfectly—Ed Bullins's The Fabulous Miss Marie.) But quibbles remain merely quibbles. If Thunder Knocking on the Door isn't going to stay high on my list of memorable works, I propose to look back on it as a classic instance of the way, in music theater, human values and musical virtues can overcome dramatic limitations. Now shall we have a voice vote on that motion? Carried unanimously—how did I guess?

I'm sorry to report, however, that my reflections took up so much time that you've all missed dessert, a double pity because it would have confirmed, totally, the feelings we've been sharing here. Dessert, you see, was the first-ever revival of Moss Hart and Irving Berlin's Face the Music, one of the few successful musicals of the Depression, in a desperately patched-together but nonetheless diverting concert staging by Musicals Tonight! We'd better not ask if Mel Brooks ever saw this show, which has astounding resemblances to The Producers: It's still Hoover's presidency, you see, so New York's gripped by Depression and Prohibition. The only ones with money are crooked cops, who keep it in little tin boxes, for this is also the time of the Seabury Commission's investigation into corruption in our city government. When the cops have to ditch their surplus cash, they give it to a notoriously lavish loser-producer named Weissman—sorry, Reisman—whom they expect to vanish it for them. Then, naturally, they need their bucks back—to save the city from the Crash, if you please—so they have to turn Reisman's folly into a hit, by making it so lewd the anti-vice vigilantes get riled up. Amazing, how relevant it all sounds, and without an ounce of updating.

McElroy, Uggams, and Hicks in Thunder Knocking on the Door: vocally, a clean sweep
photo: Joan Marcus
McElroy, Uggams, and Hicks in Thunder Knocking on the Door: vocally, a clean sweep


Thunder Knocking on the Door
By Keith Glover, songs by Keb' Mo', Anderson Edwards, and Keith Glover
Minetta Lane Theatre
37 Minetta Lane

Face the Music
By Moss Hart, songs by Irving Berlin
Musicals Tonight!

Though there was, to my regret, some tinkering. Hart's book was left to revel in its loose ends and ancient topical jokes (there was even a Julian Eltinge joke), but Berlin's score had two film songs of the same era grafted onto it. That's hardly painful—there's no such thing as too much Irving Berlin—but Face the Music's largely unknown score, which features long "sung-through" numbers, is brilliant enough to deserve close scrutiny without retouching. Its climax, a cartoon trial scene with weird parallels to both Weill's Mahagonny and the later Weill-Hart Lady in the Dark, dramatizes what's missing in the sustained sequences of today's musical dramas: wit. Only Sondheim, whose humor is far darker than Berlin's, comes anywhere near his comic flair. The young, raw-ish cast of Thomas Mills's production didn't come too close to Berlin's style, either, but a few of them, notably Vanessa Limonides and Patrick Boyd as a feisty dance team, had more than youth and brashness to offer.

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