“Blackbirds of Broadway,” a tribute to black revues of the 1920s and ’30s, is set to open the 18th Intl. Montreal Jazz Festival June 25, an appropriate venue given that the terrific onstage six-man combo is the show’s propelling force (the instrumental set that opens the second act is a high point). While the cast is wondrously energetic, it lacks a central star presence or two that could ignite the production’s real possibilities: A stronger “conjure man” emcee and one really convincing singer could make all the difference.
Meantime, the brassy, bluesy group led by pianist Charles M. Vassallo goes a long way toward picking up the slack. This homage to Lew Leslie’s 25 “Blackbirds” revues on Broadway and elsewhere during the Jazz Age concentrates on their songs (“St. James Infirmary,” “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” “Minnie the Moocher,” “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good,” among many others) and omits the comedy sketches (several Langston Hughes jazz poems are included). The result is a lively song-and-dance revue with an all-black cast.
The “Blackbirds” revues introduced many hit songs, including “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” by Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh, who wrote the score for “Blackbirds of 1928.” Oddly, it isn’t among the numerous beguiling-to-raunchy numbers in “Blackbirds of Broadway,” though their pre-Gershwin “Porgy” is. One of the good things here is that audiences already know many of the songs, happily singing and clapping along, for example, with “Minnie the Moocher.”
But dragging up an unwilling audience member to participate in “Skrontch” isn’t a particularly good idea, nor is the repetitive, lengthy tap sequence in act two.
Throughout “Blackbirds,” though, the many costume changes reveal an eye-popping parade of Jeff Fender’s flapper dresses and zoot suits in a wide range of blacks, silvers, crimsons and whites. The costume-changing activity must be as physically challenging as the windmilling, Charlestoning and strut dancing.
As the show’s conjure man, H. Clent Bowers doesn’t have quite enough singing and dancing ability, just as Kimberley Michaels isn’t a convincing enough stylist to cope with the dramatic “Stormy Weather” she attempts. The cast seems to be made up of good supporting performers who are out of their league when asked to solo.
Yet “Blackbirds of Broadway” is often as entertaining as many of the countless other omnibus compilations of songs put together in recent years. And because of its first-class instrumental musicians and its cast’s beaded-and-feathered physicality, it has a vitality that takes it well on the way toward fulfilling its promise. Following its Worcester run, which has been extended a week through May 4, “Blackbirds of Broadway” is set to open the Westport Country Playhouse season in June, prior to the Montreal festival. If its creators and producers can strengthen its weak spots while maintaining its strengths, it could well have a life beyond its current three dates.