Saints and Sinners

Interactive jazz history; hardcover ghost stories

When the levees broke and swamped New Orleans, Interact Theater had begun its first read-through of Live at the Funky Butt Jazz Club, the company's new musical about the Crescent City and jazz. The synchronicity might have been unsettling, but certainly no less disturbing than the explosive reaction between race, history, and politics that the work addresses--and that has left New Orleans where it is today.

Disabled actors from the Interact company team up with guest artists in this show, which is loose and funny but admirably willing to throw punches where appropriate. The action starts before the Civil War, where Mama Majesta (Mary Thomas) is whipping up a gris-gris composed of history itself ("I'm 900 years old," she proclaims, "and I'm tired"). Doug Christy follows with "Jump Jim Crow," a minstrel-show number popularized by T. Daddy Rice that, in its time, did little to promote racial progress. Here, Christy renders it a poignant reminder of the past.

'Funky Butt' opens rear window on New Orleans history
Courtesy of Interact Theater
'Funky Butt' opens rear window on New Orleans history

The primary guest artists, Xavier Rice and Kirsten Frantzich, do a nice job of anchoring several scenes. Rice has an easy and appealing stage presence, working up a silly duet with Sam Vedeen on "Tea Time at Tiffany's" and later dropping into a Louis Armstrong growl for Cole Porter's "You Do Something to Me." Frantzich pulls off a sensual solo piece in which she plays a housewife being vigorously seduced by her radio as it blares out Louis Prima's "Sing, Sing, Sing."

The script, by Jeanne Calvit and the company, exists in service to the songs, but a story line emerges. All points lead to the emergence of jazz and the establishment of the Funky Butt, a turn-of-the-previous-century all-night dance club--albeit one that shared space with a Christian congregation. One of the funnier scenes of the night takes place there, with a rolling church song and John Boler as a blind minister decrying jazz (in the typical racist terms of the time, complete with jungle imagery), then unknowingly walking back into the Funky Butt after services without realizing his congregation has been transformed into devil-music-lovin' heathens.

Director Warren C. Bowles's cast struggled at times to propel the narrative on opening night. Still, nice moments abound, such as Jerry Benning's acoustic take on Randy Newman's "Louisiana 1927," and the sweet tone of Karen Thorud's "Get Hip to the Jive." As is always the case with Interact's work, there were a number of times during the performance when my observation of the show's technical shortcomings was profoundly balanced by the near-palpable sensation of feeling my mind being opened.

 

Hardcover Theater remountsLondon After Midnight from this past summer's Fringe Festival, and its bookish silliness is a decent diversion. It's a send-up of Victorian penny dreadfuls, in which Charles (Anthony Brown, as a Milquetoast) tries to save his beloved Flora (Jane Froiland) from the clutches of vampire Sir Francis Varney (Robert Gardner), while a number of other subplots percolate and bubble with varying degrees of vitality.

Gardner starts out over the edge and remains there all night, hissing and leering and getting a large share of the laughs with his daft undead mincing. The show manages in a single hour to cram together the fall of a family, the genesis of Gray's Anatomy, a frantic vampire hunt, and a debate over London's law-enforcement system. And then it's over, with cliff-hanger threads adangle until the next installment. Matters end on a high note, after a spirited and inventive scenes-within-scenes climax, although one might have hoped to see this show expanded into something more substantial. Perhaps it's better as things are. If it had lasted much longer, I suspect Gardner might have started sinking those vampire teeth of his into some of the scenery.

 
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