Barbara’s Blue Kitchen
Soon to be demolished, the storied Lamb’s Theatre is on its way to becoming a lamb chop. But before that sad day arrives, the Lamb’s is serving up one last parting gift in the form of a winsome and winning new musical called Barbara’s Blue Kitchen, written by and starring the luminous Lori Fischer. The show, which we first saw as a workshop production in the Berkshires six years ago, is a unique combination of sensitive writing and tour-de-force acting. The book, music, and lyrics are alive with a homespun charm that is deepened by the constant presence of an honest, keenly felt humanity.
Delicately directed by Martha Banta, Barbara’s Blue Kitchen is billed as a comedy with music, but to our minds it’s fundamentally a musical with a score that’s cleverly integrated into its story. Some of the music comes by way of a Watertown, Tennessee radio station; Scott Wakefield, who plays the deejay, can be found at the rear of the stage in his studio. Throughout the show, we hear a variety of original songs — sometimes funny, sometimes touching, sometimes both. The radio show is sponsored by Barbara’s Blue Kitchen, a diner owned and run by Barbara Jean (Fischer). Her establishment, handsomely designed by Bobby Bradley, occupies the bulk of the stage.
The show begins at the start of one fateful day at Barbara’s Blue Kitchen. We hear the diner’s theme song on the radio — and, as Barbara Jean sings along, we’re immediately in Fischer’s grasp. Whisked into her diner, we enter the lives of seven very different characters (all played by Fischer), as well as such unseen people as the cook in the kitchen, Barbara Jean’s mother, and two twins named Troy and Trey who are as real as rain even though they have no lines of dialogue.
But the characters Fischer embodies are those that really stand out. Take Miss Morris, a nurse who gives up a trip to the pyramids in order to baby-sit for three kids who don’t belong to her, just to give them some of the love that their miserable mother cannot. At one point, she talks about “the Seven Wonders of the World.” Left unspoken, but beautifully displayed, is the stunning wonder of the human heart.
Fischer also portrays that miserable mother, who spitefully destroys a gift given to her youngest son, and the little boy himself, who later sings a heartbreaking song about the picture of his father that he hides in his shoe. Perhaps most touching of all is her stunning performance as Miss Tessie; an old woman from the retirement home across the street, she’s a wonderful mix of brash comedy and heart-tugging sentimentality.
Now, where would a musical be without a romance? Barbara Jean has been dating Lombardo, the local hairstylist-lothario, for quite some time, and today is the make-or-break day for their relationship. Lombardo gets quite a buildup before he finally shows up; Fischer is hilarious yet generous in her portrayal of this small-town Southern Italian with a cowboy hat.
None of her characters are fools, nor are they complete saints or sinners. They are fully realized, genuine human beings. In short, this countrified pocket musical is a little miracle of art and heart.