The celebratory title of this black vaudeville revue, which has graduated to Broadway two decades after a successful Off Broadway run, has some uncomfortable overtones this time around. Despite the many kilowatts of musical energy expended by a talented quartet of singers matched by a red-hot jazz band, there’s something a bit creaky and secondhand about this evening at the Longacre. Somehow the joint resolutely fails to jump.
The joint may be part of the problem. “One Mo’ Time” first opened in New York in 1979 at the Village Gate Downstairs, a more intimate and casual space than the Longacre, which seats 1,000-plus. The show is a re-creation of an imaginary 1926 evening at New Orleans’ Lyric Theater, a house on the famed Theater Owners Booking Agency (T.O.B.A., aka Tough on Black Asses). A program note informs the Lyric itself seated a maximum of 500.
Written and directed by Vernel Bagneris, who also starred, “One Mo’ Time” stayed Off Broadway for a healthy run of more than three years, even as similar black-music revues, such as “Eubie” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” which slightly preceded it, and “Sophisticated Ladies,” which followed, found success on the Great White Way itself. It’s understandable that in reviving the show, Bagneris — who repeats his multiple chores this time around — would have a hankering to finally strut his stuff on Broadway.
But the new setting serves only to point up the deficiencies of “One Mo’ Time.” Most of the audience is at a cool distance from the heat of the performers, and the use of those head mikes — on the shaven head of Bagneris, most noticeably — both flattens the sound and adds a layer of artificiality that you overlook in more complex musicals.
And complex “One Mo’ Time” certainly isn’t: Bagneris and his three distaff co-stars play a bickering troupe of circuit players, led by Roz Ryan’s imperious Bertha. At the right is a small dressing room; at left is the performing space under a partial proscenium, with the band, dubbed the New Orleans Blues Serenaders, on a riser that slides forward for the band’s solos and back when the singers step to the fore. The whole has been sketched by Campbell Baird in pretty pastel colors that add an ersatz tinge to the proceedings.
Little morsels of backstage sass — Bagneris’ Papa Du is making time with both big Bertha and Rosalind Brown’s younger and svelter Thelma — alternate with onstage performances in a clunkily repetitive manner that becomes monotonous long before the show’s two hours are up. Ironically, the supplementary book scenes only accentuate the flimsy feeling of the evening; a straight-up revue, coming in a half-hour shorter, probably would be more satisfying.
This isn’t to say the performers don’t deliver. They certainly do, both in the sketchy backstage moments and, more importantly, in their stylish musical interpretations. Bagneris performs Eddie D. Robinson’s soft-shoe choreography with lovely, lithe grace; 20 years on, there may be something a little careful in his slides, but his liquid legs are still limber and he has a witty, easygoing style in his vocal performances.
Brown plays the uppity young ingenue with pleasing tartness, and nicely shows off Toni-Leslie James’ pretty costumes, which are nevertheless too splendid — and too numerous — for a gang so short on cash they don’t know where they’re going to spend the night. Brown has a rich voice with a bright, tangy edge to it, and her standout solo is one of the show’s few straightforward ballads, “He’s Funny That Way.”
Ryan has most of the evening’s risque numbers, which she performs with commanding flair, rolling out the raw culinary double-entendres in “Kitchen Man” with crisp, winkingly elegant style.
Rounding out the cast is B.J. Crosby as Ma Reed, a blowzy, seen-it-all dame with a great, soulful bellow of a voice. She blazes her way through a bluesy “After You’ve Gone” and later duets with Ryan on a powerhouse rendition of “Muddy Water,” perhaps the only occasion in an evening of more than two dozen songs in which a performance actually suggests a larger statement about the experiences of these characters or their prototypes.
The band is sublime. Fleet-fingered clarinet player Orange Kellin, the show’s original musical supervisor and arranger, is back on board here, and his solos alone are practically worth the price of admission. But you wouldn’t want to miss trumpet player Mark Braud’s stylish ones either, or the complementary sounds of tuba player Walter Payton, Conal Fowkes at the keyboard and Kenneth Sara on percussion.
Maybe because we don’t have to experience them through a few layers of theatrical artifice, the most viscerally exciting numbers are actually the band solos — “Darktown Strutters Ball,” “Tiger Rag” and “Muskrat Ramble” — which are glorious examples of seemingly free-style but extraordinarily artful music-making. They set the toes tapping and the heart racing with a natural ease that the rest of the show struggles — and mostly fails — to equal.