There's lots of laughter at Vernel Bagneris' rehearsals, but don't be fooled. He runs a relaxed but purposeful ship. Pianist Steve Pistorius observes, "He knows what he wants and gets it done."
As Bagneris works at Le Petit Theatre on a revival of his musical hit "One Mo' Time" -- opening tonight -- the phrase his actors hear most from him is "None of this is written in stone."
Variations on this theme also issue from his preternaturally calm musical director Orange Kellin ("the calm that hides the turmoil," he says) and director of vocal harmonies Topsy Chapman, both members of the original team that took "One Mo' Time" from a one-night gig at the Toulouse Theatre (now One Eyed Jacks) to a six-year local run, a 3½-year off-Broadway success, a critically acclaimed London engagement with a Royal Gala Performance, an international tour and a month on Broadway four years ago.
"You know who was personally outraged when the producers closed the show on Broadway?" Bagneris asked. "Walter Cronkite! He used to come to Michael's Pub in New York to see me do Jelly Roll Morton and wrote a beautiful letter offering to do whatever he could for the show."
But then, people have been falling in love with "One Mo' Time" since its first staging Jan. 7, 1978 at the Toulouse. It's an irresistible blend of bawdy jazz and blues with tales Bagneris heard and sought out about the Lyric Theatre, a "colored" New Orleans vaudeville house that burned in 1927. Exuberant onstage song and dance and entertaining backstage squabbles combine with the precariousness of black entertainers' lives in the 1926 South.
For the show to return to the city whose rich musical tradition and earthy humor inspired it is not only welcome, but a theater event.
Bagneris, who travels the country performing, moved from New York back home to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. "I felt, 'I've got to go back,' but it's about my own self, too, wanting to come home and not wanting those winters in my face," Bagneris said. "Also, as we rebuild, I want to have a part in defining our culture. I definitely want my finger in that pie."
The invitation to do the show came from Le Petit, as part of its 90th "season of musicals."
"It's set in New Orleans, written by a New Orleanian," said Sonny Borey, Le Petit's artistic/executive director. "And it's an excellent 'up' show for the city right now. Just to have Vernel back in town is wonderful. He's the kind of talent you treasure, because the more professional theater people are, the easier they are to work with."
And, he might have added, the more they bring to the table. Bagneris is not only directing the show, he's recreating his role of slick Papa Du, the manager and sole male in Big Bertha Williams' vaudeville troupe who has to keep the show on track, its ladies happy and outfox the Man.
The scenery and lighting design are by Campbell Baird and John McKernon, duplicating their Broadway work. Original members of the "One Mo' Time" family on hand are Chapman, who's teaching the intricate vocal harmonies, costumer-turned restaurateur JoAnn Clevenger and choreographer Wanda Rouzan.
The all-important band includes Kellin on clarinet, trumpeter Mark Braud, who played the show on Broadway, Walter Payton, who's done the show just about everywhere playing bass the first weekend, succeeded by his student Demetrius Smith. Subsidizing their salaries are grants from The New Orleans Musicians Clinic and the New Orleans Jazz Centennial Celebration. "Another blessing!" Bagneris said. "Jason Patterson offered to go after this grant money so Orange and I would be able to compete for quality musicians. Jason procured the first $500 grant to present 'One Mo' Time' for 'one night only' at the Toulouse and helped build the original set. He manages Snug Harbor, and continues to help keep jazz alive in the city."
Others are contributing their work outright. "It's a gift," Clevenger said of her costuming, "to Le Petit and Vernel, who is so charismatic, he always manages to put together a great mix of people for this show."
The singing actresses are all new. Not one has even seen "One Mo' Time." Charlotte Lang, who's playing Big Bertha, was in high school when it first appeared, adding, "but I knew the three original leading ladies -- Topsy, Thais Clark and 'Kuumba' Williams."
When Bagneris mounted the 1989 sequel, "And Further Mo," Lang was part of the costume staff. "Now, to work with Vernel on another level, to perform with him, is a thrill," she said. "He knows what the goal is and helps us get there. But he gives you elbow room."
"This is the way I've always worked," Bagneris said. "It's like tailoring a suit to a person. You take it in, you let it out. You give performers the freedom to express themselves so that they own the character and feel comfortable with it. I want them to bring who and what they are to the show, which is an artistic freedom train. Jazz music has a flexibility and so does the show. You swing with it, so that once you hit center stage, everything you are is there."
Joan Spraggins, who's playing seen-it-all Ma Reed, has worked mostly in Slidell community theater. "I walked in to audition and thought, 'Girl, you are way out your league,' she said. "And when Vernel cast me, you could have flipped me over with a feather. It was scary! But Vernel's been reassuring and the girls very helpful. I just want to do this right."
Ellen Smith, who's been singing with Bob French's Original Tuxedo Band for eight years, plays the sensual, scheming Thelma. "I'd heard a lot about the show for years, mostly from Wanda and Topsy," she said. "Mark Braud recommended me to Vernel. It's been a pretty intense experience. I mean, I shake my butt with the band, but I've never done real choreography or delivered dialogue like this. And I like the way Vernel will tell us quietly, 'Now, remember what's going on in this scene,' or just come right out and tell me to 'point your boobs.' "
Carl Walker, better known as a director ("Native Tongues," "The Last Madam") is playing the small part of the theater owner who mixes it up with Big Bertha, and is also associate director. He's someone Bagneris trusts as another pair of eyes and ears to step in and help make a line or bit of business work, check sightlines, etc.
"I'm here because I'm Vernel's friend and I've never acted with him," Walker said. "Also, as much as I've worked with Charlotte, I've never acted with her, either."
Walker knows from funny, telling hair and makeup designer Melvin Callahan, "I want a bad toupee; a very bad toupee, more like a wig."
"They used to call them 'musician's' wigs,' " Bagneris chimes in.
"It should look like a dead squid," says Lang, who's making her own costumes.
At vocal rehearsal, everyone has his tape recorders to get the harmonies right. When Bagneris plays back something he's just sung, he says in character, "Oooo, chile, that ain't right! Who the hell is that?" Chapman tells the women, "All-a-y'all are singing in your throat. After a few nights of that, your voice is going to be stripped. You've got to breathe while you sing. Get you some air in so you can hold that note and don't let it out completely until the note is finished." After working the song awhile, she tells them "Better," then "That's good," and finally, "Now, you do it like that and we got it goin' on!"
"Thank you, Jesus!" says Spraggins.
There's a certain amount of reminiscing that goes on among the "originals." Kellin recalls being "flabbergasted" in London, "in a real theater after we'd been playing this basement in New York, to have these supposedly uptight British audiences screaming, cheering."
Bagneris remembers his mother and musicians Willie and Percy Humphries' firsthand recollections of the Lyric in New Orleans. And when he models a vest Clevenger has brought him and says it "looks right," Clevenger responds, "Well, it should. That's the same color you've worn in every version of the show."
Everyone agrees on what makes "One Mo' Time" so special.
"The music is pure New Orleans," Borey said.
"This early jazz is joyful music," Pistorious said. "I played it five nights a week for two years and it never got old."
"There is an excitement to the music," Kellin said. "It's a celebration of classic New Orleans jazz, largely forgotten, especially when we started. Now there's a whole new generation that hasn't been exposed to it."
"The show is authentic," said Russell Rocke, who ran the Toulouse Theatre and kept the show running there. "This is the music that brought New Orleans culture to the world."
Clevenger nailed it. "It's like Mickey and Judy saying 'Let's put on a show -- but let's do it in Preservation Hall!' "