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Cookin’ at the Cookery

Delivering one show-stopper after another in the Geffen Playhouse's production of "Cookin' at the Cookery," Ann Duquesnay maximizes the spryness and deep church influence in her vocals to sock every viewer in the gut and the heart. The voice doesn't necessarily reflect Alberta Hunter's easygoing style, but Duquesnay is superb at selling every line of every song in this blues bonanza.

Alberta Hunter was a natural show-stopper, and in Ann Duquesnay her legend lives on. Delivering one show-stopper after another in the Geffen Playhouse’s production of “Cookin’ at the Cookery,” Duquesnay maximizes the spryness and deep church influence in her vocals to sock every viewer in the gut and the heart. The voice doesn’t necessarily reflect Hunter’s easygoing style, but Duquesnay is superb at selling every line of every song in this blues bonanza about a retired, forgotten singer who made a triumphant comeback in the 1970s when she had passed 80. Duquesnay, with “It Ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues,” “Jelly’s Last Jam” and “Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk” among her Broadway credits, has definitely aligned herself with Hunter’s spirit.

Hunter’s story is no typical blues tale — there are no bordellos, drugs, financial misdeeds, struggles with the devil or periods of unwanted obscurity. Born in 1895, she grows up in Memphis, Tenn., wanting to sing for the kings and queens of Europe and maybe someday the president; eventually, her dreams come true and she adds Broadway and cabaret stages across the U.S. to her credits. She stayed a step ahead of the game, moving to France before Wall Street laid its egg, returning to do “Show Boat” with Paul Robeson and getting back to the Continent via tours in front of the troops. That’s act one of her life.

Act two is a 20-year stint as a nurse in New York. (She subtracted 12 years from her age and went to nursing school in 1956.) And after being forced to retire, she accepted an offer to sing at Greenwich Village nitery the Cookery, which led to a Columbia Records contract, more international touring and a documentary film. She died in 1984.

All of this is told imaginatively with Duquesnay and Montego Glover (the Narrator) alternating between characters. Duquesnay plays Hunter and her mother. Glover is Hunter as a young girl and budding singer, a nightclub owner, a head nurse, Louis Armstrong, a record producer and so on. The clarity with which Duquesnay presents her two characters — as much as Hunter wants to see the world, her mother is happy to read about it in the newspaper — provides a calming emotional center for Marion J. Caffey’s first writing effort.

Glover is a fireball, her voice more shaped by Broadway than the blues. She prowls the stage like a gymnast and in her own show-stopper, “I’m Hard to Satisfy,” delivered as part of a USO show, Glover shines as brightly as her counterpart.

Show, which has played in 25 cities, struggles in the first act, when the exposition gets dark and heavy, pushing the explosive energy level to below a simmer in dialogue. Owing to the subject matter — molestation and racism, among other topics — there’s a sense Caffey wanted to expose all the ugliness as well as the joy, but this feels wedged in. (He tackles her lesbianism with a joke and a wink, never exploring or even discussing her love life.)

Caffey directs the work with a steady hand, allowing the more than two dozen songs and the singing to dominate. Musical works are well-known treasures such as “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “When the Saints Go Marching In,” genre classics “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” and “Darktown Strutters’ Ball,” Hunter’s own “I’ve Got a Mind to Ramble” and the Eubie Blake-Andy Razaf double-entendre jewel “My Handy Man Ain’t Handy No More.” In a basket of jewels, “Ramble” is just a pinch more radiant than the rest.

An ambitious yet simple set of an easy chair, an elevated walkway and two cane chairs beside a table allows the two actors to move from generation to generation, living room to nightclub, Memphis to the White House. The onstage quartet provides sharp and textured accompaniment.

For its first production in temporary quarters, the Geffen Playhouse has found a home remarkably similar to the Westwood venue with a few pluses. Sound is tremendous, the seats are more comfortable and traffic/parking is a breeze to negotiate.

Cookin’ at the Cookery

Cookin’ at the Cookery

Brentwood Theatre; 499 seats; $48 top

  • Production: The Geffen Playhouse presents a musical in two acts written, directed and choreographed by Marion J. Caffey.
  • Crew: Sets, lighting, Dale F. Jordan; costumes, Marilyn A. Wall; sound, Jonathan Burke; musical director, George Caldwell; wigs, Bettie O. Rogers; production stage manager, Jennifer Lakin. Opened, reviewed June 23, 2004; runs through Aug. 1. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.
  • Cast: Alberta Hunter - Ann Duquesnay The Narrator - Montego Glover