Victorian set, campy approach both work
The premise of "Cookin' at the Cookery: The Music and Times of Alberta Hunter" is pretty clear: the great jazz and blues singer is in the twilight of her years, looking back at her eight decades on earth.
And so one might assume that the star of "Cookin'" (in its West Coast premiere at the San Diego REP) would be the actress playing the older Alberta, in this case the respected and eminently talented Ernestine Jackson.
Except that somebody forgot to tell Janice Lorraine that she's not the star.
Lorraine spends much of the evening playing the younger Alberta from a young child first dreaming of being a singer up through her early 50s. And in these scenes, Lorraine is outstanding.
However, so is Jackson who radiates a kind of artistic regalness and who captures the thin, warbling singing style of Hunter's later years.
But Lorraine's role of "narrator" is completely misnamed, and reflects none of what she does; she is, in fact, a one-woman supporting cast. Her ability to change characters from an old man to a young girl, often in the same scene is utterly remarkable. And her impersonation of Louis Armstrong is one of the best ever created from Satchmo's head gestures and the way he shaped his mouth while singing to his bigger-than-life smile. She even captures his gait and way of standing. And, oh yeah, she nails his voice just nails it.
Lorraine never tries to steal a scene from Jackson; she's just such a bundle of creativity that every time she is called on the create a new character, she immediately owns it and the audience.
Singing, dancing, acting young Ms. Lorraine would have been perfectly at home in the age of Vaudeville, because she can do it all.
Marion J. Caffey's script is tightly kept on track, perhaps because Caffey is also directing. But it covers Hunter's life in detail without ever bogging down.
The stage design by Dale F. Jordan does a nice job of creating a sense of a New York nightclub a bit past its glory years, and the costumes (Marilyn A. Wall) complement the set and actresses wonderfully.
The music is, of course, stage center throughout. Hunter herself wrote quite a few songs that have become part of the American popular canon tunes like "My Castle's Rockin'," "Down Hearted Blues" and "I've Got a Mind to Ramble." She also is associated with dozens of other songs she helped popularize throughout the 20th Century (she was active from the 1920s-'50s, and then again in the '70s), so the music is every bit as rewarding as the REP's 2001 hit, "Love, Janis."
The four-piece house band is solid, if a bit too uptight at times they seem unsure whether to ever let loose and just swing. Still, Jackson and Lorraine are both such gifted singers that it can be easy to forget you aren't at a concert, but a musical.
Which is the truest performance one can ask for.
Review by Jim Trageser. Jim is a writer and editor living in Escondido, Calif.
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