It's hard to name any working people, let alone entertainers, who have mounted successful career comebacks at the frequently dirt-napping age of 82. Yet that is what blues legend Alberta Hunter did, performing at the Greenwich Village nightspot the Cookery, and she actually kept it going for seven additional years. That remarkable renaissance alone would justify a musical tribute, which is now on the boards at the Cleveland Play House in Cookin' at the Cookery: The Music and Times of Alberta Hunter. The two women who compose this show's captivating cast win your heart with their portrayals of Alberta, some of her contemporaries, and their lusty re-creations of her song stylings. But writer-director Marion J. Caffey's script is too glancing and superficial to bring the real Alberta Hunter, whoever she was, to wholly believable life.
In the program, Gail Nelson is billed as Alberta and Carla Woods as the Narrator, but in fact, each actor plays Alberta at different ages, and Woods takes on most of the character cameos. Nelson is considerably better-looking than Alberta and brings a polished, resonant gloss to her songs, particularly "Downhearted Blues," which Hunter co-wrote. Most of the comic relief is delivered by Woods, as she plays some older men with impish good humor if not total verisimilitude. Her vocal impersonation of Louis Armstrong is just a half-octave too high, but the duet with handkerchief-wielding Satchmo and Alberta on "When the Saints Go Marching In" is still a highlight.
When the singing stops, Caffey's writing veers from colorfully vibrant (the discriminatory Theater Owners' Booking Association, TOBA, is also referred to as Tough on Black Asses) to flat and mundane. But the major flaw in the script is its lockstep recitation of Alberta's chronology. Organized like a dutiful eighth-grader's book report, it touches on every milestone of this iron-willed singer's life, but skims over the parts that beg for deeper exploration -- such as Alberta's lifelong lesbianism (which would make an African American woman of her time even more of an outcast) and the fact that her devoted mother never heard her sing.
When something dramatic does happen, such as Alberta's molestation by a man early on, it's tossed off with a couple of lines and a quick song. This shallow narrative approach, combined with the sharing of Alberta's role by both actors, creates a separation -- and the Alberta who emerges feels more like a carefully delineated résumé than a passionate, pulsating human being.
That said, Cookin' offers a plateful of 20 blues and jazz treats that shouldn't be missed. The music heats up particularly well in the second act, when Woods relishes the sexual suggestiveness of "I'm Hard to Satisfy," complete with some Marilyn Monroeish sexy squeals at the end, and Nelson digs in on "My Handy Man Ain't Handy No More." Both performers are luxuriantly comfortable onstage and handle Caffey's often clever direction with professional aplomb. In short, you may not leave knowing Alberta Hunter as deeply as you want, but you may start looking for her CDs.