Armed with a remarkable book that not only limns the title character, warts and all, but also renders the racist world that shaped him, “Bojangles” shows solid potential for a New York run.
Presented via a limited-budget ($ 150,000) workshop production at the Barksdale Theater, 15 miles north of Richmond, Va., where Bill “Bojangles” Robinson grew up, the musical drama is filled with promise.
The poignant script by Douglas Jones provides a historical re-creation of the world of showbiz in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s. In those years, black performers were often forced to wear blackface onstage to appear less threatening and more clownlike. There was a “two-colored” rule in vaudeville, which Robinson broke when he became a solo headliner.
But, according to a show-stopping number, sung by a dynamic trio of hoofers and singers portraying Eubie Blake (Billy Dye), U.S. (Smoky) Thompson (Jerome Scott) and George Cooper (Calvin Grant), “It Was Worth the Price.”
The book was spawned by the score written by Charles Strouse and the late Sammy Cahn. It starts off a bit slowly, with the schism between Robinson and his religious grandmother Bedelia (Frederica A. Hoffman), who feels dancing is the devil’s work. Her gospel-tinted “Follow the Way of the Lord” is performed in counterpoint to young Bill (Guy Edward Cousins) singing the defiant “Makin’ It” (“Seeing a Chance and Taking It”).
As the musical proceeds, focusing on Robinson and others’ impressions of him, it is revealed that the fabled dancer was unable to read and was addicted to gambling and women. He had a terrible temper, three devoted wives, spent time in jail, had a permit to carry a gun, never drank and left no children.
Robinson’s story is told in vignettes that describe how he grew from an urchin dancing for pennies, made his way through the Chitlin’ Circuit to big-time vaudeville — starring on both the Keith and the Orpheum circuits — went to Hollywood, the Cotton Club and Broadway and gambled away almost all the millions he earned.
The play’s star, Equity guest artist Ronald Cadet Bastine, was a chorus dancer in “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and “Jelly’s Last Jam.” His tap is strong, his singing voice is pleasant and his maturation into the skin of the older Robinson is OK.
While script and score are tightly integrated, many of the songs are merely singable.
Except for the first 20 minutes, the show moves apace, sparked by the solid talents of local pros, Norvell Robinson’s choreography and the orchestrations of Ron Barnett, who augments a recorded score with synthesizer and piano. –Carole Kass