BWW Review: NICK'S FLAMINGO GRILL jazzes it up at Alliance Theatre

BWW Review: NICK'S FLAMINGO GRILL jazzes it up at Alliance Theatre

Putting on a brand-new, original musical can be a daunting and challenging task for any theatre company. If you're doing a golden oldie such as, say, Camelot, you have a familiar score, and just about everyone knows the songs. Then again, Camelotwas new once and someone had to give it a go, so I applaud the ALLIANCE THEATRE for kicking off their 50thanniversary season with Nick's Flamingo Grill, a new jazz musical written by Atlanta playwright Phillip DePoy. The show fits very nicely into the Hertz Stage, a beautiful black box space with the stage in the center and audience members on either side, making the story an intimate experience and getting all of us to feel as though we are the jazz club audience during the musical numbers. And what numbers they are! But more on that later.

When I spoke with Phillip DePoy last month while the show was in rehearsals, he told me the story of the origins of the musical: "The play began about three years ago when my father was dying and all he wanted to do was reminisce. He reminded me that when my brother, Scott, and I were young we were on a swimming team. We lived on the south side of Atlanta (Cascade Road) and the team practiced at Westminster. To get there we drove from West End through the Armor Meat Packing Plant district (now called Castleberry Hill). For a short while on those drives he would point out the window and say, ;That's where the jazz club is.' Some of his colleagues at the Atlanta Symphony (he was a French horn player) apparently went to the club to sit in and jam. The club was opened by two ex-GIs, WWII veterans, an African-American and a Jew, who had lived in Paris for ten years or so, decided racism was over, and came to open a jazz club in Atlanta in 1958. As far as I've ever been able to find out, the club never had a business license or even a name. It was mostly an ad-hoc jam session in a mostly abandoned building. And it didn't last long. It closed after a few months. Most of this comes from my father and a few of his friends, all of whom had dim or vague memories. As to verifiable, authentic historicity, I've never been able to find any. But that's really what makes the story so great. It's mythology. It's Camelot."

Something Phillip didn't tell me about was his incorporation of two women into the plot. The first is Claudine, a French resistance fighter during the war and former Parisian jazz club manager who gets the pair their first job and a well-known Paris Jazz locale. She is played with a wonderful sincerity by Shakirah Demesier. The second is a Cuban singer who forms a trio with the boys. This character, Chi Chi Lopez, is a real scene stealer and actually a primary figure in the musical. Diany Rodriguez plays her with a delicious vivacity that can go from the comic to the tragic in a flick of a Latin beat. The two also become the love interests of Ben and Bechet, the white Jewish man and his talented black friend.

The play starts with a mix of flashbacks from the post-war Paris beginnings and scenes from the 1958 Atlanta present, as the ex-GIs go from free and easy France to the racially tense Georgia. This mix is not at all jarring and performed seamlessly (though the costume changes from Army duds to 50's style civvies must be frenetic off-stage). Here we learn of another member of the group, Nick Thibodeaux (played with a bubbling stew of enthusiasm by Cordell Cole), who is killed before they can realize their dream of owning their own American jazz club. In tribute to their friend, they name that club "Nick's Flamingo Grill."

Of course, trying to run an integrated jazz club in late 50's Atlanta brings exactly what we expect: racist interference and, finally, mindless violence. During one particularly disruptive encounter, the director uses a kind of strobe lighting effect with slow motion reactions from the actors: flash/two characters slowly fall, flash/a character reaches for another, etc. Now, Tinashe Kajese-Bolden's direction was mostly spot on, but this moment seemed slightly out of place. The choice definitely extended the dramatic power of the scene with these theatrical special effects, but they could have verged on the comic with the smallest mishandlings.

The two ex-GIs eventually have to part ways. The black man, Bechet, played with aggressive vitality by Antwayn Hopper, will return to Paris with Claudine where he can perform without fear. The white, Jewish man, Ben, given a solid performance by Jimmy Kieffer, will, ironically, work as a kind of musical director at Ebenezer Baptist Church and the burgeoning Civil Rights movement. And Chi Chi? She is "discovered" by a record producer who visits the club and lures her away with a recording deal. I may be doing a little spoiling here, but the story has its predictabilities . We all know this "Camelot" moment won't be able to be sustained. Ben tells his friend Bechet as they part ways, "Let's meet in ten years." Bechet, with well-earned cynicism, says, "Let's make it twenty."

A small weakness in the story might be in the relationship between Ben and Chi Chi. They have had a child together and are supposed to be a couple, but even in the scene where the daughter is banned from a white school because she is part Cuban, it never seemed as though they really connected. A hug or two and a peck on the cheek wasn't enough. But this is a minor criticism of this complex and riveting story.

What makes this show so worth seeing is the music. Songs that seem to come straight out of the 50's were created by Music Director Tyrone Jackson and DePoy himself, who is certainly no stranger to music, serving as composer-in-residence for the Academy Theatre for many years and composing music for seventeen Alliance productions. The songs range from the sultry ballad "3 a.m." to the explosive "Firecracker," weaving different styles of the era into excellent performances that had the crowd totally enthralled, as if we were hearing forgotten classics. From the clever song about the importance of the number three to the Latin-flavored solo by Chi Chi about her disillusionment in the "American Dream," the music carries the show to heights of pure, joyous entertainment. Tyrone Jackson's jazzy piano, EC3's rousing drumming (and, yes, his fans get a wild solo from him), and Scott Glazer's perfect bass provide just the right background for the singers. The Alliance has certainly kicked off its 50th season with a bang.

Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 2:30 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., September 29 - October 28, 2018, on the Hertz Stage.

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From This Author David Muschell

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