For some time Broadway has been the place for swellegant black revues, the most recent being last season's superlative After Midnight. One of the many reasons for that entry's standout status was cast member T. Oliver Reid.
No slouch -- although a sassy performer's slouch is one of his appealing mannerisms -- Reid has now brought "Drop Me Off in Harlem," his one-man revue back to the Metropolitan Room, where it played in October and where in 2010 he won the room's MetroStar Challenge.
Not putting too fine a point on it, I'll just say that as he celebrates way uptown, Reid has single-handedly moved the swellegant Broadway-revue style downtown. Entering in tuxedo and top hat, he announces his feisty as well as noble intentions before he sings a single note or says a single word.
As he begins warbling and speaking, he completely realizes his intention in an act that defines the meaning of sophisticated cabaret entertainment. I'll say that viewed from the concept-act angle, it's the show of the year. Cabaret lovers miss it at their loss. (He repeats it on three up-coming Sundays -- February 8, 22 and March 22.)
It's the Harlem Renaissance that Reid is honoring and, in particular, the year 1934. As if piling his audience into a Daimler, he takes a tour of the clubs where black performers strutted their considerable stuff. The Cotton Club, the most famous -- yes, he reprises Cab Calloway's "Minnie the Moocher" -- is hardly the only establishment he visits. He gets to Small's Paradise and Connie's Inn, where Harlan Lattimore spoke-sang.
He's even more obscure by dropping into the Clam House and Radium. Before we even had the term "on the down low," they were gay hangouts. Entering them, he sheds his jacket, undoes his black tie and executes some serious hip swiveling. (He's doffed the topper much before but puts it on again later.)
As Reid makes his rounds, he sings songs done at those clubs, much of the material written by white composers and lyricists wanting their latest to be introduced in Harlem. Among them, Harold Arlen is most prominent, working with wordsmiths like Ted Koehler, Johnny Mercer and E. Y. Harburg. Naturally, Andy Razaf and Fats Waller get the smooth yet gritty Reid treatment.
Rather than list every song he carefully picks, I'll only mention "Sophisticated Lady," the Duke Ellington instrumental to which Mitchell Parish later added the poignantly evocative lyrics. The empathy with which Reid delivers it is exquisite. I've heard the most venerated singers interpret this one -- many of them missing Ellington's specified notes on the words "Is that all you really want?" -- but none I've heard has ever reached the depth of feeling Reid does.
Throughout, Reid performs -- in front of Lawrence Yurman on piano, Warren Vaché on trumpet, Ray Kilday on bass, Damien Bassman on percussion -- with a joyful confidence that conjures images and sounds of various predecessors. Needless to say, he gives the impression that he's recreating the Cotton Club atmosphere, at least for those of us who missed its glory days. But there's also something of Barney Josephson's Café Society here, and, though it's clear he isn't attempting an impersonations of Bobby Short's Blue Angel and Café Carlyle stays, he radiates some of that hot stuff, too. Reid even takes on the Short staple, "Gimme a Pigfoot (and a Bottle of Beer)."
Should Steve Tyrell, who also possesses some of Short's ebullience, ever leave his Christmas
season Carlyle gig, Reid is an obvious successor. Higher praise than that isn't easily come by.
Speaking of venerable and venerated songs, Texas in Paris comes to mind. It's the two-person revue at the York, put together by Alan Govenar and Akin Babatundé from Govenar's recordings of two untrained Texas singers.
When Govenar began his journey to chronicle homebred music, he found Oseola Mays and John Burrus. He took down indigenous spirituals in Mays's case and cowboy songs in Burrus's. His recordings were so admired in many places that in 1989 Mays and Burrus were invited to give a series of Paris concerts.
With music supervision by Amy Jones, Govenar and Babatundé have recreated the events, while editing them. It's a straightforward matter with the always warm-hearted Lillias White in the Mays chair and Scott Wakefield in the Burrus chair. (York artistic director James Morgan found two shiny, mismatched kitchen chairs for the only set, enhanced somewhat by Jason Johnson-Spinos's projections.)
The upshot, which Babatundé directs with welcome simplicity, is mild entertainment at its best. And, thanks to the engaging White and Wakefield, it often is at its best. Ironically, it's also substantiation for those who may have insisted over the decades that all cowboy songs sound alike, as do all spirituals. After a while, the effect is of two long songs being alternated in chunks.
White gets the better known traditionals -- "All God's Children Got Shoes," "Nobody Knows the Trouble I See" and "Wade in the Water." Wakefield's song list is mostly obscure, at least to me, an East coast boy.
In between numbers, White's Oseola and Wakefield's Burrus, who, according to this telling, hadn't met before their flight to France, strike up a friendship. It doesn't happen quickly. Burrus, apparently a taciturn strummer, wasn't prepared for Mays's non-stop chatter, much of it about her bruised feelings as a black woman living in a white world.
As seems highly likely to happen, the two eventually get chummy, and Burrus reaches the point where he's ready to join Mays in her later renditions. Their exchanges can't readily be termed dramatic. Pleasant is more like it -- or, as I say, mild.