When Uptown Players does its annual fundraising show, Broadway Our Way, they give the torch songs usually sung by women to men and vice versa. The result is a delightful, sometimes comic, often moving and thoughtful reinterpretation of the familiar.
A Brief History of White Music, in WaterTower Theatre’s studio space, takes a similar tack, giving goofy white-bread songs to an all-black ensemble (Cedric Neal, Chimberly Carter and M. Denise Lee, pictured) and letting them have at it. So does it work?
Has Elvis left the building?
As jukebox musicals go, this pastiche of songs from the Big Band era (the Andrews Sisters’ “Bei Mir Bist Der Shoen,” Glenn Miller’s “(I’ve Got a Girl in) Kalamazoo”) through early rock (Elvis), British invasion, beach music and novelty songs (“Love Potion No. 9″) doesn’t have much thematically to unite it except that they are mostly courtesy of milquetoast bands with great middlebrow sensibilities.
“Black folks can’t surf,” Lee clucks when Neal boogie-boards his way into “Surfin’ U.S.A.” which is exactly the point.
In some ways, this is the musical equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel. Give this cast a chance to sing the ingredients on a tube of toothpaste and they could discover soul in it. Neal, who controls his pitch as if he had some invisible switch to play with, has a gospel-tinged tenor; Lee, who has also redefined cabaret music in Dallas, has a set of pipes as impressively colorful as the Pompidou Center; Carter’s trembling baby-doll soprano is wonderfully balanced
But the show has a great sense of humor about its music, the disconnect between lyric and singer, and itself that makes it tons of fun. Of all the songs, only the Beatles medley, especially the oddly arranged “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” don’t really work at some level. Seeing Lee and Neal impersonate Sonny and Cher for a rendition of “I Got You, Babe” alone justifies the admission price.
Forty years ago, the Broadway production of “Hello, Dolly” got a makeover when the entire cast was replaced by Pearl Bailey, Cab Calloway and other African-American stars. It smacked of gimmickry, but they were great, so who cared?
Anyone who can sing “Downtown” and give Petula Clark a run for her money deserves her props, and an entire show of that rocks.
Addison Theatre Centre, 15650 Addison Road. Through Aug. 26. Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays-Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. $17-$20. 972-450-6232.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 10, 2007