Every time Jerry Jones’ “The Chicago Club Rumboogie” assumes the trappings of a serious drama about gangsters and race, it falls flat. Luckily, the bulk of the evening is given over to lengthy and story-free interludes of song and dance. Against all odds, a smashing jazz quintet and large, lively and attractive cast transform a visit to this nightclub into respectable breezy summer entertainment.
The plot, no sooner introduced than dispensed with, concerns the Powell brothers, Bennett (Carl Crudup) and Ed (Fitz Houston), who, saddled with a $10,000 debt, transfer majority ownership of their South Side joint to Italian mobster Castalla (Bobby Jasmin). He’s said to be vicious, though nothing much comes of his threats. There’s also talk of a feud with another Italian gangster, but nothing much comes of that either. Here and there two characters argue and one gets shot, or scenes flirt with questions of racism and postwar black economic opportunity, but all is forgotten once the mirror ball starts spinning above the renamed Club Rumboogie.
Fans will readily recognize here the same jaw-dropping mix of raw language, cartoonish violence, sexual innuendo and off-color jokes that playwright Jones co-authored in the blaxploitation “Dolemite” movies. The one-dimensional characters plant their feet, look out at the aud rather than the person they’re addressing, and say exactly what’s on their minds. Nuance is checked at the door.
Eventually the stage comes to be dominated by supercop Sylvester Washington, known as “Two-Gun Pete.” He’s a major presence, though his main function is to hide behind the bar and leap out to mow down hapless thugs. (This occurs twice in identically staged scenes, though the repetition seems incidental.) To his credit, Kenneth Foster’s Cagneyesque portrayal cuts deeper than the writing would seem to permit. Alternately conveying integrity and blowhard menace, Foster lends credence to the black community’s ambivalence at the time about Pete’s brand of shoot-first, I-am-the-law justice.
Other real-life denizens of 1950s Chicago, some of the period’s great entertainers, appear thinly veiled here and their music offers the evening’s ultimate redemption. When Carla Bagnerise sizzles through “For Sentimental Reasons” as Sarah (read Dinah) Washington or Constance Denise evokes Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, the story disappears. As the band plays, the actors dance, laugh, smooch and quarrel, and the environment suggests what “The Iceman Cometh” would look like if Harry Hope’s saloon had a mostly black clientele and a jukebox. It’s all extremely pleasant, at least until the plot cranks up again.
Several actors besides Foster make a strong impression. Despite having little to do, Crudup’s feckless Bennett and Houston’s long-suffering Ed are credible and touching and merit their own, better play, as does Angela Bennett, delightful as Ed’s wife. Sherrima Queen and Ilka Andnado play prostitutes with no trace of cliché. Best of all are the swinging Chicago Five, who offer superb accompaniment and underscoring while stuck up there on the bandstand throughout.
Director Chris Palmquist deserves as much applause for the easy, believable ensemble feel as he does censure for the messy and awkward staging, endless unnecessary blackouts and stop-and-start pacing.