×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Rollin’ on the T.O.B.A.

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.

With:
Stevens - Ronald "Smokey" Stevens
Stewart - Ted Levy
Bertha Mae Little - Sandra Reaves-Phillips

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.”

Rollin' on the T.O.B.A.

El Portal Theatre, North Hollywood; 300 seats; $42 top

Production: El Portal Center for the Arts presents a musical comedy revue in two acts conceived by Ronald "Smokey" Stevens and Jaye Stewart (featuring excerpts from "The Simple Stories" by Langston Hughes). Directed and choreographed by Stevens.

Creative: Musical direction, David Alan Bunn; additional material, Irvin S. Bauer. Producer, Ashton Springer; associate producer, Jim Brochu. Sets, Larry W. Brown; lighting, Jim Moody; costumes, Michele Reish. Opened March 17, 2000; reviewed March 23, closes April 9. Running time: 2 HOURS, 10 MIN.

Cast: Stevens - Ronald "Smokey" Stevens
Stewart - Ted Levy
Bertha Mae Little - Sandra Reaves-Phillips

More Legit

  • Laurie Metcalf, John Lithgow'Hillary and Clinton'

    Why John Lithgow Worried About Starring in Broadway's 'Hillary and Clinton'

    When Lucas Hnath first conceived of “Hillary and Clinton” in 2008, he was writing for and about a very different America. Now, a total reimagining of the show has made its way to Broadway with Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow in the titular roles. At the opening on Thursday night, the cast and creatives talked [...]

  • Three Sisters review

    London Theater Review: 'Three Sisters'

    Ennui has become exhaustion in playwright Cordelia Lynn’s new version of “Three Sisters.” The word recurs and recurs. Everyone on the Prozorov estate is worn out; too “overworked” to do anything but sit around idle. Are they killing time or is time killing them? Either way, a play often framed as a study of boredom [...]

  • Patrick Page, Amber Grey, Eva Noblezada,

    'Hadestown' Took 12 Years to Get to Broadway, but It's More Relevant Than Ever

    When “Hadestown” was first staged as a tiny, DIY theater project in Vermont, those involved could never have predicted that it was the start of a 12-year journey to Broadway — or how painfully relevant it would be when it arrived. At Wednesday night’s opening at the Walter Kerr Theatre, the cast and creatives discussed [...]

  • Hillary and Clinton review

    Broadway Review: Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow in 'Hillary and Clinton'

    If anyone could play Hillary Clinton, it’s Laurie Metcalf – and here she is, in Lucas Hnath’s “Hillary and Clinton,” giving a performance that feels painfully honest and true. And if anyone could capture Bill Clinton’s feckless but irresistible charm, that would be John Lithgow – and here he is, too. Who better to work [...]

  • Hadestown review

    Broadway Review: 'Hadestown'

    “Hadestown” triggered a lot of buzz when this wholly American show (which came to the stage by way of a concept album) premiered at Off Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop in 2016. Arriving on Broadway with its earthly delights more or less intact, this perfectly heavenly musical — with book, music and lyrics by Anaïs [...]

  • Burn This review

    Broadway Review: Adam Driver, Keri Russell in 'Burn This'

    The ache for an absent artist permeates Lanford Wilson’s “Burn This,” now receiving a finely-tuned Broadway revival that features incendiary performances by Adam Driver and Keri Russell, playing two lost souls in a powerful and passionate dance of denial. AIDS is never mentioned in this 1987 play, yet the epidemic and the profound grief that [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content