The 1977 comeback of 82-year-old singer Alberta Hunter is the basis for this charmingly unpretentious revue that could have a long future ahead of it, thanks to the opportunities it offers to a pair of powerhouse performers.
Director-choreographer Marion J. Caffey (“Three Mo’ Tenors”) put together an affectionate tribute to the woman who dazzled America and Europe during a 40-year career, only to vanish during a two-decade hiatus as a nurse, returning in her final years to end it all in a blaze of glory.
The framework for the show is Hunter’s return to the Cookery, a legendary Greenwich Village cabaret. It gives her a chance to reminisce and — in the style of such shows — take us on a biographical tour. If there’s a problem, it’s that there really wasn’t much drama in Hunter’s life. She got famous early, stayed famous a long time, then stepped voluntarily out of the limelight. Outside of a brief incident of childhood abuse, a hint at her lesbian orientation and a few comments about American racism, the evening largely consists of dialogues with Hunter’s beloved mother and memories of great performances.
Sensing this lack of conflict, Caffey has come up with an engagingly clever way to present the show. Although the two characters are called “Alberta Hunter” and “The Narrator,” they actually switch roles frequently. Tony winner Ann Duquesnay (“Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk”) begins as the older Hunter, then becomes her mother and continues to alternate the roles. There’s never any confusion, thanks to the clear vocal distinction Duquesnay brings to the two parts.
Debra Walton (“Street Corner Symphony”) has an even more challenging assignment, not only playing the younger Hunter, but an assortment of minor characters, male and female. It climaxes in her showstopping imitation of Louis Armstrong, which is the show’s highlight.
Caffey and his cast concentrate on conveying both the warmth and the wicked wit of Hunter. Never forget, this is the woman whose biggest hit was the raunchy “Handy Man” about a hero who is “Up every mornin’, way before dawn/Trimmin’ the rough edges on my front lawn.”
There’s a lot of welcome sass in the script, which both Duquesnay and Walton know how to sling across the footlights. “The blues are like walkin’ through hell in gasoline drawers,” handles the dark side, while, “Good luck followed me so close I mistook it for my butt,” is a nice summation of the golden days. Only rarely do things slip into the “March of Time” narration that plagues shows like this. (“The Harlem Renaissance was in full swing… .”)
The music is handled with zest by the four-piece combo, with Duquesnay belting out the bluesy numbers and Walton scoring with the comic ones.
Dale F. Jordan’s simple unit set is attractive (if a bit reminiscent of John Lee Beatty’s original setting for “Ain’t Misbehavin’ “) and his lighting boldly colorful. Marilyn A Wall keeps the comedy costumes coming for Walton, while Duquesnay shimmers in cherry satin for the entire evening.
As it now stands, the first act is incredibly strong, and the end of the second act works equally well. The problems occur midway through act two, when the death of Hunter’s mother is handled awkwardly and expected to provide more drama than it actually does. Walton’s comedy number just preceding it (an awkward strip during a USO show) is her weakest as well, and that whole section of the show could use rethinking.
But apart from that, “Cookin’ at the Cookery” provides an evening that’s long on satisfying charm, leaving the audience with a feel-good glow that has translated into extremely strong sales in Buffalo and Rochester, N.Y. With a cast as strong as this, it’s a definite candidate for an Off Broadway run, given the right venue, and a long life in stock and regionals.