Florence Mills, the Harlem jazz queen of the 1920s, never cut a record and never made a movie. Her legacy might well have faded into obscurity were it not for a retrospective by a Laguna Beach performance company titled, “Harlem Renaissance.”
This musical tribute by Gallimaufry Performing Arts to the Cotton Club performers in general and the legendary Mills in particular received its “out of town tryout” last weekend in Leisure World.
For those who missed it, Gallimaufry will present an encore April 28 on Laguna’s Main Beach.
A brassheavy band under the direction of Chris Dierl sets the tone for this upbeat and tuneful program of song and dance in the style of Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, Eubie Blake and others from the fabled Jazz Age.
It’s produced by Steve Josephson, who appears as Mills’ early benefactor, and beautifully choreographed by Ellen Prince. The show’s centerpiece is the vibrant Jonelle Allen, portraying Florence Mills as an energetic singer and dancer, seemingly all arms and legs, with an abundance of show-stopping talent.
Allen struts her stuff gleefully in “You’ve Got to See Mama Every Night,” cools things down with the ballad “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and kicks the show into high gear with the Jimmie Lunceford number “Jazznocracy,” backed by the colorful dance ensemble.
Two male dancers, Don Mial and Hector Guerrero, share the spotlight with Mial excelling on “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Minnie the Moocher” while Guerrero puts his signature stomp on “The Man From Harlem” and “Sweet Georgia Brown.”
Mial and Josephson offer dueling versions of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” with the latter’s tune coming out “I Can Give You Everything But Love” as he beckons her to perform in the Ziegfeld Follies.
There’s only one semi-sour note, and it’s not the fault of vocalist Kymberly Evans, whose rendition of “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” is compromised by a cranky sound system and an overzealous orchestra, which tends to drown out the singer.
Evans fares much better on “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” along with Meredith Woodson-Hubbard.
The Duke Ellington instrumental tribute, “Black Beauty,” which opens the show, was composed after Mills’ death, and in her memory.
It’s one of several upbeat orchestral numbers which punctuate “Harlem Renaissance.” Next Saturday’s special encore performance will be presented as part of Gallimaufry’s 2007 Arts Festival and will be a part of its Dance Day/Songs in the Sand celebration.
The show is likely to be packed, so call (949) 499-5060 for reservations.