It is appropriate that this small-scale but energetic tribute to the glory days of the black vaudeville circuit (1911-1932) is presented at North Hollywood’s recently rejuvenated song-and-dance palace of yesteryear. The three-person ensemble of Ronald “Smokey” Stevens, Ted Levy and Sandra Reaves-Phillips (accompanied by music director-onstage pianist David Alan Bunn) adroitly re-create many of the historic comedy sketches and musical numbers of this bygone age, only slightly hampered by Jim Moody’s awkward lighting and El Portal’s yet-to-be-enhanced acoustics.
The emergence of a viable black middle class at the beginning of the 20th century gave rise to a nationwide theatrical entertainment circuit known as the Theatre Owners Booking Assn. (T.O.B.A.). For such legendary black performers as Bert Williams, Bessie Smith, Bill (Bojangles) Robinson, Ethel Waters, Moms Mabley and others, the circuit was a launching pad to crossover acceptance by America’s white society. But for the majority of black vaudevillians, the second-class travel, usually substandard performance conditions and very low pay was to be the height of their careers.
Co-created, directed and choreographed by Stevens, “Rollin on the T.O.B.A.” focuses on the major trials and minor triumphs of three stalwart performers during 1931, the waning years of vaudeville. Power-lunged blues diva Bertha Mae Little (Reaves-Phillips) has taken on the dance and comedy duo of Stevens (Stevens) and Stewart (Levy) to be her opening act as the trio wend their way through a circuit of T.O.B.A. palaces, including the Monogram, Royal, Booker T. and Regal in Chicago. Along the way, the production makes telling use of poet Langston Hughes’ “Simple Stories” as an ongoing social commentary on the hard times of the day and the yearnings of a society struggling to establish its own identity.
Reaves-Phillips offers a memorable portrait of a solitary artist, longing for her young daughter, angered by her subservient status, yet totally vibrant in performance. Her Bertha Mae just soars through such legendary fare as W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” “Let the Good Times Roll,” “Take Me as I Am” and “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”
Stevens and Levy exude a joyous rapport as they prattle and tap their way through a plethora of classic vaudeville shtick. They do great justice to the grammar-scrambling comic genius of Miller and Lyles (who pre-dated the word-play success of Abbott and Costello) and Stevens performs a fitting tribute to comic legend Bert Williams. Levy struts his stuff with the Kermit Goell/Clancey Hayes comic ode to one man’s monumentally rotund girlfriend, “Huggin & Chalkin’. ”
Bunn strives mightily to underscore all the action from his onstage upright piano but much of his virtuosity is lost within El Portal’s inadequate sound reinforcement. And lighting designer Jim Moody’s almost comically meandering spotlight misses as much action as it enhances. In one train-travel sequence, an unlit Stevens was forced to improvise, “We must be going through a tunnel.”