Fine performances save Arena's 'Brown Sugar' from weak moments

October 04, 1990|By Winifred Walsh | Winifred Walsh,Evening Sun Staff

A buoyant chorus and some outstanding musical performances highlight the musical revue, "Bubbling Brown Sugar," playing at the Arena Playhouse in Baltimore through Sunday.

A musical tribute to the history of Harlem, the show opened in New York in 1975 and had a respectable run and enthusiastic audiences.

"Sugar" covers 50 years of Harlem in one night as a prominent black singer and her two vaudeville friends take Charlie, a gullible, rich young white man and his singer girlfriend on a tour of the popular night clubs that starred the black celebrities of the day: Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong, Ethel Waters, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday and others.

The musical features the songs the black stars made famous. Old vaudeville routines, a drunken quartet and a thin love story provide the laughs.

David Bunn, a local composer who wrote the musical "Video," conducts the excellent ensemble at the Arena (piano, bass drum, saxophone and trumpet). Nicely directed by Sam Wilson there is some very good choreography by Teri Joyner, John Taylor and Ed Terry.

Like other community productions, this one has several weak performers and dragging moments. Also, the stage setting could stand a lot more glitter and glitz. The show does bog down at times but keeps redeeming itself. This is due largely to the fine ability of the two leads, Joan Coursey and Artartus Jenkins (as Irene and Sage) who light up the stage with their scintillating talents.

Coursey's renditions of "What Harlem Is to Me," "Honeysuckle Rose" and "They'll Be Some Changes Made" are belted out in velvet, melodious tones and with vivid personality.

The tall, loose-limbed Jenkins is a riot in his version of the great black comic Bert Williams singing "Nobody" and in his burlesque routines with amusing Harvey Denmark as Checkers. (Denmark needs stronger vocal projection).

Sheila Ford's versions of "Sweet Georgia Brown" and the famous Billie Holliday number, "God Bless the Child," are show stoppers. Other high points are Garfield Webb's romantic crooning of "Sophisticated Lady" ala Billy Eckstine style, and Linda Jones' fancy warbling of "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good."

A snappy tap dancing number, "It Don't Mean a Thing If You Ain't Got That Swing," ended the show on a bright note.

Disappointing was Cynthia Audrey's languid emulation of Billie Holliday singing "In My Solitude," and a miscast Ellen Strouse-Rhudy's tepid rendition of Sophie Tucker's famous number, "Some of These Days."

David Brintzenhofe as a sneering white racketeer turns in an inept performance as does Brian Banschbach as Charlie. In his big solo, "Harlem Makes You Feel," which should be delightfully hilarious, Banschbach fails completely.

Curtis Kane plays the young Sage and Shango Oseitutu is the young Checkers. Some of the roles are double cast. Curtis Isiah alternates with Jenkins, Kenyatta Hardison with Jones, and Cynthia Audrey with Coursey.

Many of the costumes are stunning. The band is first-rate and Coursey, Jenkins and Ford are well worth seeing.

Agatha Christie's delightfully old-fashioned murder mystery, "The Unexpected Guest," is on stage at the Dundalk Community Theatre through Sunday. Directed unevenly and with lethargic pace by Susann Studz, the play features the popular husband and wife team of Barbara and Tom Blair.

In an old English country house on a foggy night a wicked invalid is killed. All the bizarre people living in the house had solid motives. Who dun it?

The characterizations are only surface ones here and the English accents are so varied and inadequate it would be better to drop them altogether.

Greg Coale is amusing as a blackmailing little weasel, Michael Styer is a proper stuffy lover, Bill Grauer is an overly melodramatic detective and Jean Cassidy as a grand dame delivers her lines with funereal monotony.

But with better pace and movement, greater vocal and character development by all the too low key actors, "The Unexpected Guest" could be a more entertaining thriller.

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