Friday December 01, 06
by David Cuthbert, Times-Picayune Lagniappe

The jubilant heart and soul of a raffish entertainment era onstage
Friday, December 01, 2006
By David Cuthbert
Theater writer

Overheard frequently at intermission and after the opening night of "One Mo' Time" at Le Petit Theatre: "Why couldn't this show just run forever in New Orleans?"

In the best of all possible worlds, it would. The pure pleasure of "One Mo' Time" -- its heady evocation of early New Orleans jazz, blues and ragtime; the naughty, bawdy lyrics; the depiction of big-time talent in small-time vaudeville; and snappy dressing room dialogue -- is irresistible. The only possible reaction to it is the title of the 1922 Gershwin-DeSylva song: "Do It Again!"

"One Mo' Time" is as brash and sassy as the day it opened in New Orleans 28 years ago. Creator-director-star Vernel Bagneris, who has taken the show all over the world, has distilled its essence, the bittersweet, jubilant heart and soul of a raffish entertainment era.

The year is 1926 and the location is the Lyric, a "colored" New Orleans vaudeville theater at the corner of Iberville and Burgundy. Big Bertha Williams' troupe is playing the Lyric on the T.O.B.A. circuit -- Theatre Owners Booking Agency -- although performers insist the acronym actually stood for "Tough on Black Asses."

The thread of a plot involves the white theater owner threatening not to pay because the group is one performer short, exotic dancer Edna having vamoosed. Big Bertha has a penchant for turning up late and boozed-up, the younger Thelma is trying to steal Bertha's songs by cozying up to co-star-company manager Papa Du, while seen-it-all veteran Ma Reed laughs at it all. Onstage, their numbers reflect both rivalry and camaraderie, along with the pain and occasional rapture they wrest from their precarious lives and timeless art.

This connective tissue is embodied by Bagneris' Papa Du. Just as his offstage wisecracks flow with an easy naturalness, his singing and dancing seem an extension of who he is. Velvety smooth, Bagneris' dance style ("Pickin' them up and layin' them down") is deceptively casual as he gets the most out of minimal movement, displaying liquid, masculine grace, his face always expressive as if he's letting the audience in on a joke. He partners the women expertly and his solos -- "New Orleans Hop Scop Blues" ("You gotta glide, slide") and "Papa De Da Da" -- are sensational.

Charlotte Lang is commanding vocally and physically as Bertha. She works her eyes and everything else as she duets with Bagneris on "Don't Turn Your Back on Me" and takes her time elegantly enunciating the raunchy "Kitchen Man" ("How that man can open clams; no one else can baste my hams"). Lang made her own costumes, which include a dazzling royal purple gown and pristine all-white outfit with a Sally Rand fan.

Ellen Smith's Thelma is a versatile looker, with a playfully seductive "Kiss Me Sweet," "I Got What It Takes But It Breaks My Heart To Give It Away," torching "He's Funny That Way" and revving up "Everybody Loves My Baby."

The find of the evening is Joan Spraggins' Ma Reed, who sums herself up with the line, "Nobody wants to marry me when I'm drunk and I ain't about to marry anyone when I'm sober." She displays real power as she blares Ma Rainey's "See See Rider," provides a classy intro to the lively "Black Bottom" and delivers "After You've Gone" in both leisurely and fast, jazzy tempos. But it's her "Muddy Waters" with its resonant flood and coming-home lyrics and Lang chiming in that galvanizes the audience. Carl Walker offers a rich, funny character turn as the cantankerous theater owner.

The group numbers -- "Honky Tonk Town," "Cake-Walking Babies From Home," "Just Wait Till You See My Baby Do the Charleston Dance" -- are heaven on a biscuit.

The band is outstanding, with Charlie Fidello's vibrant trumpet, Louis Ford's melodious clarinet work, Dimitri Smith's tuba providing the "roars" for "Tiger Rag" and piano player extraordinaire Steve Pistorious, with a perfectly played solo of Jelly Roll Morton's "The Perfect Rag."

Broadway designer Campbell Baird's set, with a section of an ornate, illuminated false proscenium, bandstand and footlights, was implemented by technical director Ed McIntyre, who also flawlessly ran the lights.

JoAnn Clevenger's consummate costuming offered pastels and bright colors for Thelma's chemises, a black, beaded flapper fringe dress for Ma Reed, and ritzy, showy satin wrappers. Wanda Rouzan's hot-to-trot choreography was unfailingly peppy, in ensemble work or shake-it-but-don't-break-it solos.

The joyful noise of "One Mo' Time" puts a smile on your face that lasts long after the last notes of "There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight" are played. It is must-see theater for residents and visitors alike.