Fats Waller Tribute in Old Town; New Play Opens Theater

"What can purge my heart

Of the song

And the sadness?

What can purge my heart

But the song

Of the sadness?

What can purge my heart

Of the sadness

Of the song?"

--Langston Hughes

"Song for Billie Holiday"

"All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it."

--James Baldwin

"Sonny's Blues"

Ah, the slow, soft focus of nostalgia. A revue such as "Suds" at the Old Globe Theatre owes at least part of its popularity to its re-creation of a time in which tragedy can be defined by one's failure to obtain a date to the senior prom.

No such comfort is afforded by the revue "Ain't Misbehaving," the tribute to Fats Waller playing at The Theatre in Old Town through May 8.

Waller, whose real first name was Thomas, was--in his lifetime--often mistaken for a genial clown. It is an understandable error that Waller himself helped foster with his own unique blend of slapstick and jazz. It is hard to find funnier songs than some of the ones studded through this 28-song show: "Your Feet's Too Big," "Cash for Your Trash" and "Fat and Greasy."

But, as in most blues music, dark threads weave through the laughter. Like the classic humor of oppression, it is self-deprecating--a way of getting through the prejudice Waller and other blacks in his time endured.

The sadness prevails, though still with a lilt, when Waller lets himself go with songs like "Mean to Me," "Black and Blue" and the defiant Bessie Smith classic, " 'T'Ain't Nobody's Biz-ness."

To deliver the music in the spirit in which it was written requires performers who give the sensation of having been wasted by life or used to the bone. The current production by the International Company of USIU offers instead a showcase of fresh, likable and talented performers who deliver a show that is a toe-tapping pleasure.

It's a tricky criticism to say they create an enjoyable evening of Waller the clever, clowning composer. But only two give a whiff of the sensibility of Waller the artist with bite: velvet-voiced Leatrice Andry and the charismatic Glenn Carson, who carry the weight of the show between them.

There are no names or "characters" in this show, but, under Carl Jablonski's deft direction, definite personalities emerge in this gracefully choreographed ensemble work. While Andry sounds the numbers with dark shading like "Mean to Me," the comically gifted Kathy Todd plays sassy and Tracy Hughes, a diminutive thing with a spanking big voice, is all ingenuousness as she shows off her range as if it were a bright, shiny new toy.

Similarly, Carson, a powerful singer who commands the stage whenever he is on it, gets good support from the agile Walter Jones in slapstick bits and Maurice Neville Young who comes off as more of the ladies' man/dandy. The musical direction by Kerry Duse keeps the songs moving smoothly, one into the other. The lighting by Deborah Rosengrant flounders on the bare, box-like set, much like the emotional focus in this show. At times, this production tugs at the dark heart of blues, but the cues for the most part are better suggested by Juan Lopez's charming costumes--a colorful panoply of tropical feathers.

Performances at 8 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday, with Sunday matinees at 2 through May 8. At the Theatre in Old Town, 4040 Twiggs St., San Diego.

A new play inaugurated a new theater space in San Diego last weekend. Both the work and the venue are works-in-progress, rough around the edges; both augur well for the future.

"Childing Strangers," written, directed and co-starring local playwright Mark Melden, is a contemporary love triangle involving three young, struggling artistes: a girlfriend, boyfriend and the boyfriend's best friend, who has something highly questionable going on with the girlfriend.

It takes place in one of those classically overstuffed, poverty-line New York student apartments where the tables and bookshelves are made out of crates. The fact that the show is staged in a converted warehouse space at 2400 Kettner Blvd., newly christened the Media Arts Center in the Underground Theater, seems just right for the ambiance.

One of Melden's strengths as a writer is his ability to create characters who tease, please, provoke and explode right off the page at each other.

One of his weaknesses is that, once he's got those characters talking, he's not sure quite sure where to lead them. Consequently, the story, which starts out strongly, loses focus in the second act, and trails off inconclusively.

As a director, Melden elicits rousing, impressive performances from San Diego State University actors Reg Rogers as Alex Rosenberg and Stacey Rae as his girlfriend, Bridgette.

Rogers is particularly riveting as the 25-year-old struggling actor who is retreating from his lover over some ill-defined guilt connected with his father's recent death. Not only does Rogers' voice resound with power-in-waiting (ultimately released), but his very physical movements are a study in eloquence that crescendo with the undulations of his hands.

Performances at 8 p.m. Friday--Sunday at the Media Arts Center in the Underground Theater, 2400 Kettner Blvd., San Diego.

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