By Byrne Harrison
Good cabaret will often send me home wanting to hear more music by the artists who were highlighted in the show. It is a credit to Juneteenth Blues Cabaret that following the Friday night performance, I spent two hours digging through my blues CDs to continue listening to the music of Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith, two of the blues divas featured in the show. Also featuring the work of Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, and Lena Horne, the cabaret is equal parts history lesson and entertainment, and it succeeds well on both fronts.
Part of Juneteenth Legacy Theatre's efforts to highlight the female African-American experience, the cabaret features five women who have had a profound effect on the development of the blues, and demonstrates the effect each of these singers had on the women who followed. With songs chosen by director Lorna Littleway that best illustrate both the talents and lives of the singers, Juneteenth Blues Cabaret features many well-known standards, including "Fine Fat Daddy," "Sweet Georgia Brown," "Summertime," "What a Diff'rence a Day Made," and "Stormy Weather." Sung with nuance and power by Blues Queen (Jannie Jones) and her partner and foil Cool Dude (Jamil A.C. Mangan), and featuring music director Ivan Thomas, the show is a delight.
Jannie Jones does an excellent job channeling the styles and even the physicality of these five diverse singers. She has a strong, vibrant voice that is equally suited to the raucous numbers as it is to the quiet, sentimental ones. Jamil A.C. Mangan has a terrific onstage presence. Effortlessly changing from lothario to henpecked lover, he is the perfect foil or complement to Jones as each song requires. Though a confident performer who can handle both Littleway's dialogue and Robin Hemmings' choreography, he is a somewhat tentative singer. In some songs, this works perfectly, but in others, those where the Blues Queen needs a Cool Dude who is in every way her vocal equal, he falls a little short.
Overall, this is a strong cabaret piece, helped out immensely by the atmosphere provided by the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. It's an excellent space for this show, and one that can accommodate a decent-sized crowd.
If you are a fan of the blues or simply want to find out more about the remarkable women behind the songs, I highly recommend this cabaret.
Juneteenth Blues Cabaret
Book/Director: Lorna Littleway
Music Composition: Todd Hildreth
Music Director: Ivan Thomas
Choreographer: Robin Hemmings
Set/Props: Karen Leriche
Costume Designer: Ali Turns
Lighting Designer: Rome Neal
Dramaturg: Peach Pittinger
Publicis: Bunch of People
Casting: Lawrence Evans
Nuyorican Poets Cafe
236 E. 3rd Street
Thursday-Saturday at 7 PM, through November 19th
November 20th at 3 PM