By Karen Isaacs
Discovering a little known composer – at least to me – and finding his works delightful and well-presented is one of the joys of being a theater critic.
That’s what happened when I saw Trav’ling – the 1930s Harlem Musical now at Seven Angels Theatre in Waterbury through June 11.
The music for this production – which is more revue than true musical – is by J. C. Johnson. Don’t recognize the name? We’ve all heard his songs. He wrote “This Joint Is Jumpin’” with Fats Waller with whom he collaborated for many years. But he also wrote with Andy Razaf. The Ink Spots, Billy Eckstine, Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald and Connie Boswell ( and the Boswell Sisters) were among the artists who performed and recorded his music.
The plot is slim but the emphasis is on the talented performers presenting these songs that will have your feet tapping.
It’s about three couples in Harlem in the 1930s. There’s Deacon George who sort of overseas the Harlem bloc and his niece Cherry recently arrived from Chicago to go to nursing school. Then there’s Nelson, a young man who sells Bibles but is still naïve, inexperienced and awkward with women. You can bet that Nelson and Cherry will hit it off but there will be some complications.
We have the neighborhood beautician Roz who is older and wiser, but still in love with Archie Stone, a smooth talking, womanizing traveling salesman. She thinks they have an agreement that he will not mess around in NYC.
And then there’s Billie. Billie is older and arrives in the neighborhood from New Orleans; she has mission to put to rest a romantic ghost from her past, so for a while at least she is Ethel from Mississippi.
You don’t have think much about the plot – in fact, some of it doesn’t withstand logical scrutiny. Let’s just say these three couples – yes, Billie and George become a couple – each have minor bumps on the way to a happy ending.
But if the plot is miniscule, the performances aren’t. This is a top-notch cast of experienced actors who can sing and dance and even make the story seem logical. They are backed up by a four piece orchestra, ably conducted by musical director/pianist John DiPinto.
You may not recognize the songs, but quite a few caught my attention. I’m going to be seeking out recordings to hear them again. The opening number, “Somebody Loses, Somebody Wins” is terrific as performed by Lothair Eaton as George. But there is the “Empty Bed Blues,” the jazzy “Believe It Beloved,” the danceable “Hold My Hand,” and the terrific “When You Fall in Love.” And I forgot to mention “Dancin’ with My Love.”
Each of the performers knows how to put over a song, from Teren Carter as the jivin’ and smooth talking Archie to Yewande Odetoyinbo as the long-suffering Roz. Jacobi Hall conveys the uncertainty of the young Nelson and Cherry Torres projects the innocence and joy of Ella. But I can’t leave out Miche Braden as Billie and Lothair Eaton as George; he reminds you a bit of Waller.
Paul Stancato has directed and choreographed the show with finesse. He keeps the pace moving and the tone is just about perfect – respectful of the characters but with a hint of a wink behind it all. His choreography is also good and in Hall and Torres he has talented dancers.
Stephen Dobay has created a clever set that provides an interesting backdrop for the projections by Christopher Ash. Kudos also to costume designer Janell Berte and lighting designer Keith A. Truax.
Treat yourself to this enjoyable show.
Tickets are available to Trav’ling – the 1930s Harlem Musical by calling 203-757-4676 or online at Seven Angels Theatre