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July 1, 2004



Theater Review

              

Alberta Hunter Cooks it up fresh and hot at the

 Geffen Playhouse

     

BRENTWOOD, CA - "Ladies and gentlemen put your forks and spoons together and give a great Cookery welcome to the one and only Alberta Hunter !"
    
The Geffen Theater has found a temporary home and lit a fire in the hearth. Taking the stage and "stopping the show" at the beautifully refurbished Brentwood theater is the life and times of legend Alberta Hunter told in music and song, with a production that crackles and burns called Cookin at the Cookery Written, directed, and choreographed by Marion J. Caffey.

It is simultaneously spring of 1977 and somewhere around 1910 during the first few moments of "Cookin" when Montego Glover, who is listed as the narrator but actually plays a young and blooming Alberta (along with many other incendiary incarnations), helps us fall in love with this spirited singer who is ready to take on the world; just wantin and waiting to perform, if she could only get out of Memphis. Moments later Glover morphs into the old as dirt Cookery owner Barney Josephson, inviting the retired Alberta Hunter to resurrect and resume what was a sparkling Career.

That's when we first get to hear that gravely down and dirty up and heavenly blues belt with control to spare voice of Tony Award winner Ann Duquesnay. For those who never saw Alberta sing, you feel like you just had after Duquesnay torches "My Castle's Rockin" and follows it with "Rough and Ready Man", seizing each moment and either laying it out flat or holding it up to God to be recognized. She is the embodiment of the older and wiser Alberta who knows Blues, Jazz, and everything else a woman can sing inside out.

The story is told in flashback from then on and Glover does fantastic character work to become many in the cast of characters while sharing the role of Alberta with Duquesnay. Script wise, it's a lot of territory to Cover - almost 80 years of life packed with everything you might expect and more so it's difficult to cover some of the moments that way you would like and Caffey had to decide what to include carefully. One of those choices that becomes pivotal to the piece is the relationship Hunter has with her mother, who never went to see her daughter perform. Duquesney covers the role of the mother in a high pitched cheerful voice where she seems to constantly say "Oh baby, I just can't go today. Now you go on and have some fun and I'll be right here when you get back," and yet they share pain, including trauma they both had as children so that when mother holds her daughter to sing " The love I have for you" we are all touched by the bond.

   

   
The play stretches through the days of Chicago and then on to New York where Alberta establishes herself as a recording artist and singer/songwriter of significance; she talks about still collecting royalties on her song "Down Hearted Blues". And when she steps off the stage she becomes a trailblazer of a different nature when she breaks off a short lived marriage because she realizes what women do for her instead. The journey is interspersed with moments of greatness and glory, including a moment Glover and Duquesnay share. Glover has such a gift for physicality and character that we are all caught up in the surprise of the moment when she rips into a Louis Armstrong impersonation and then sings "When the Saint's go marching In" as a Duet with Duquesnay -The audience at the reviewed performance loved it. On the Vocal side, Glover's voice is beautiful and she plays Alberta into middle age, but there are moments where we don't see or hear the shining star that was Alberta at her peak.

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Caffey's direction and choreography is smart and stylish from the beginning; there is a fluidity to the piece that keeps our toes tapping while we cover the years. Adding to the delightful mix is Musical director George Caldwell who leads a four piece combo that helps to light up each song and keep us bobbing along with every turn Alberta takes, whether it is taking Europe by storm, or when World War breaks out following her to the USO on tour.

What is stunning about this life of Alberta Hunter is that for almost 20 years she did not sing and became a nurse. When singing could be not be the way she saw it should be, she just let it go, which makes the recordings post 1977 that much more amazing. We get to realize that when she lost her nursing job and became bored at the age of 82, she had yet to sing for the President of the United states.

In "Cookin at The Cookery", all the elements come together just right. The Geffen at The Brentwood has stepped out on a high note and served up a production that is hot and fresh for anyone who pulls a chair up to the table. - Kevin Kendlin

    

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