One Mo' Time
Now at the Longacre, within a Broadway proscenium and under a partial secondary proscenium, there's room for a retracting bandstand, a stage left dressing room, and a capacious downstage playing area. Set designer Campbell Baird has decorated the space with a kind of bright shabbiness that sets off the performers beautifully. There's also a fashion parade of shiny costumes or, in Bagneris's case, muted but snappy suits that celebrate the period.
The revue, which Bagneris wrote, directed, and stars in alongside B.J. Crosby, Roz Ryan, and Rosalind Brown, has as its premise the notion that top-notch interpreters handling top-notch songs can't go wrong. The cast members--usually solo but sometimes in twos, threes, and fours--offer up the likes of "See See Rider," "Tiger Rag," "He's Funny That Way," "Everybody Loves My Baby," "After You're Gone," and "He's in the Jailhouse Now." (Incidentally, that last-named song is included on the Grammy-winning O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack album.)
In addition, there's a full complement of the innuendo songs that teased the sexual appetites of audiences during that provocative, bygone era. These ditties, all of which require and get a twinkle in the eye and an arched eyebrow, are "Kitchen Man," "Right Key But the Wrong Key Hole," "I've Got What It Takes," and "What It Takes to Bring You Back." Then there are the songs about dances popular in the '20s and earlier: "Cake Walking Babies," "Wait Till You See My Baby Do the Charleston," "Black Bottom," and even a mock-hoochied-cooched "Hindustan." Everything in the score has been arranged by musical director Orange Kellin, Lars Edegran, and Topsy Chapman for harmonic pizzazz.
With Eddie D. Robinson choreographing saucily, the </>One Mo' Time players strut their abundant stuff so shrewdly that they collectively become a glowing example of attitude as style. They are self-possessed in a way that makes them impossible to ignore. As a singer and a hoofer, Bagneris is eager to show how much can be done while appearing to do very little; playing a character called Papa Du, he's as tall and insistent as an exclamation point. When he's dancing, his legs are like jelly parentheses. But he never does a lick more than needed to establish his coolth. Although this show is his brainchild (and how that child has grown!), he is so confident about his own impact that he's happy to turn the stage over much more often than you might expect to the three women with whom he's chosen to work.
B. J. Crosby, as a seasoned belter called Ma Reed, comically hauls her sorry self off stage after each of her songs; but, when she's in the spotlight doing them, she never stints on energy or feeling. She's the one who gets to perform the exotic dance and is a good sport about it. Towards the end of the show, she splits the spotlight with Roz Ryan on an impassioned reading of "Muddy Water" that puts cracks in the ceiling. As for Ryan, who plays the supposed head of the touring troupe, she instills everything she does with an umm-umm-girl force. Pointing her dragon-red fingernails, she lets it be known that she means it when she sings "Don't Turn Your Back on Me" and, when she decides to show her sunny side, she flashes a smile as broad as a keyboard. Rosalind Brown, playing Thelma as a flashing-eyed, picture-pretty soubrette, is effective in both her upbeat and downbeat numbers.
Costume designer Toni-Leslie James has provided shiny period dress after shiny period dress with material swagged around the hips. She knows what she's doing, helping to call attention to the sensuality of hip motion of the distaff performers. The on-stage band, led by clarinetist Orange Kellin, also enlists the razzle-dazzle services of pianist Conal Fowkes, percussionist Kenneth Sara, tuba player Walter Payton, and trumpeter Mark Braud. Everything they do, including the occasional vocal, is done with Bourbon Street bounce.
In order to suggest that One Mo' Time is not simply a revue, Bagneris has threaded in a sketchy storyline concerning what unfolds in the dressing-room area of the theater. The performers who are traveling together have their own petty relationships. Bertha might be the headliner, but she tipples too much and resents the fact that Papa Du may be two-timing her with Thelma. Ma Reed just wants to make sure she gets her weekly check. On the day in 1926 the show supposedly takes place, that awaited check is jeopardized because the martinet theater owner (Wally Dunn) thinks he's found a loophole in the contract.