theater (reviews)

review: the city club

The City Club

Music and Lyrics by James Compton, Tony Demeur,Tim Brown
Book by Glenn M. Stewart
Directed by Mitchell Maxwell
Featuring Kristin Martin, Andrew Pandaleon, Ana Hoffman
Minetta Lane Theatre, 1822 Minetta Lane
April 23, 2012 — open run
production web site

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
April 24, 2012

A story of a noiry quasi-urban American gin joint in 1934  — a year selected perhaps to be both Depression era (that employment insecurity hook) and immediately post Prohibition so liquor could be served (that gin joint hook) —  in a nameless American city that is admirably blind to race but in an era-violating 21st century way. Fathers, brothers, children, relationships, drugs, corruption, lurking resentments all combust in one storytelling heap.  Murders without stage blood (by knife, by gun), and at least one death by overdose. This is not a bedtime story but a world created to house some tremendous tunes (not all but a good many) and to show off some lovely costumes and a few nifty dance numbers (though some are too Broadway high-kick for a divey blues joint).  The City Club story has both too many plot lines and not enough specificity to provide the specifically American resonance this story requires.

Parker (Kenny Brawner) leads the resident City Club band, and remains onstage with several other musicians throughout the show.  Club owner Chaz (Andrew Pandaleon) has inherited the joint from his father, which he has staffed with several showgirls with various degrees of drug problems, a starring singer Crystal LaBelle (Kristen Martin) who pines for Chaz and who has come from the wrong side of the tracks and can see a grifter when she comes through. That grifter appears to be Maddy (Ana Hoffman), a woman with a fabulous voice and a relationship (daughter or lover or something else) with a corrupt Lieutenant (Peter Bradbury) with a beef who wants to put Chaz out of business for reasons of his own.

The book by Glenn M. Stewart creates confusion for the thoughtful and brings you out of the resonant world of a 1930s blues club that the music alone begins to create. Too many of the plot points feel contrived and bizarrely blind to the rampant and extreme racism of those years in America (Maddy appears to be of mixed race and her relationship as daughter to white Lieutenant is a plot point nor is the question of her mother), and how those conditions differed dramatically from urban center to urban center in different regions of America.  At the performance I attended the book writer took the stage after the curtain calls and asked the audience whether they thought the play took place in a particular city (many members shouted out particular places ranging from New Orleans to Chicago where they had believed the action to have taken place) and when informed the story was intentionally generic location-wise, a number of vocal members shouted out: “Keep it that way it works.”  I had a distinctly different reaction. The location of this city is clearly intentionally obscured and this decision has costs. This blindness to some key, pivotal, divisive American truths of those years does not serve the play.  People want to root their understanding in specifics (as do performers but that’s yet a different tale) in order to find the universals in any story.  And here we are in a grey no-person’s land.

Costumes by David C. Wollard are often gorgeous, set by Rob Bissinger is functional and evocative, lighting by David F. Segal is often inspired in the high narrow Minnetta Lane space.

Somewhere in America a blues musician is wailing.  Somewhere in America a jazz musician is telling a tale. And each of those songs-as-stories is set specifically and couched as a story pared to its essence.  That context is not provided here in this production.  Note that tunes in the hands of singing, piano playing, masterful performer Kenny Brawner often steal the show.

© Martha Wade Steketee (April 26, 2012)

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