COOKIN' AT THE COOKERY written and directed by Marion J. Caffey, with Jackie Richardson and Montego Glover. Presented by CanStage at the Bluma (27 Front East). Runs to December 14, Monday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Wednesday 1:30 pm (except December 10 at 2 pm), Saturday and December 14 at 2 pm. $20-$77, limited Monday pwyc and half-price same-day rush. 416-368-3110. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
You have to wait nearly an hour for it, but when Jackie Richardson digs down deep into her larger-than-life soul to belt out a tune called Down Hearted Blues, Cookin' At The Cookery , Marion J. Caffey 's simple-minded tribute to blues legend Alberta Hunter, finally begins sizzling. It's worth the wait through the show's saccharine-tinged book, which sets up Hunter's remarkable comeback, at age 82, at the Greenwich Village club after two decades of working in obscurity as a nurse. It then backtracks to the singer's childhood in Memphis, her move to Chicago at 16 and the first of many Oprah-certified revelations (none of them dealt with later) that make the show feel at times like The Color Purple Lite.
More suited to an informal, cabaret-style theatre than the cold confines of the Bluma Appel (and why, exactly, is CanStage producing this show except as a showcase for Richardson?), Cookin' often feels like it's for children. Lines are oversold, and moments are so underlined you expect some songs to be accompanied by a follow-the-bouncing-ball graphic.
Caffey's book requires a ton of work from a second actor who must simultaneously play the work's narrator, the young Alberta and anyone else who crosses Hunter's path. Montego Glover succeeds admirably, and brings down the house with a kick-ass impersonation of frequent Hunter collaborator Louis Armstrong.
But the show could have worked well enough had it been conceived for a single performer.
Richardson exudes warmth and vitality, and backed by a first-rate band, her versions of some songs - among them the sexually suggestive My Handy Man Ain't Handy No More - should ensure her a Dora nomination.
Halfway through I thought, "Why not just forget the script - including some Hallmark Card embarrassments - and listen to Richardson in concert?"
Which is essentially what happens in the final quarter. Amen.