How well do you recall 1976? The year of the American Bicentennial provided a calm interlude between the excesses of Watergate and the Iran hostages. Radio stations still played John Denver and Barry Manilow. Moviergoers fell in love with a pug boxer named Rocky. The most popular TV series was All in the Family.
On Broadway, two of the hottest tickets were Chicago and Bubbling Brown Sugar, two ambitious revues that, by sheer happenstance, were both set in the early 1920s. Now, 26 years later, these two musicals are currently enjoying extremely entertaining local productions.
Bubbling Brown Sugar bills itself as a time-traveling evocation of Harlem in its heyday. As performed by a large, high-spirited cast (pay special note to a young talent named Sophia Stevens), the revue highlights the enduring music of the likes of Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Ethel Waters and Bert Williams. But as staged by Ron Himes, this St. Louis Black Repertory Company production is more than merely a tribute to a neighborhood. As the revue traces the generic roots of black music, it reveals Harlem as a state of mind. By evening's end, what began as simply diverting becomes deeply moving.
Bubbling Brown Sugar marks the buoyant finale to the Black Rep's 25th anniversary season. And a remarkable five-play season it has been. Each production, in its own distinctive way, has offered provocative, stirring and rewarding theater. The odds against any theater season batting five-for-five are enormous, but under the supervision of producing director Himes, the Black Rep pulled it off.
It's also easy to admire the current New Line Theatre production of John Kander and Fred Ebb's musical Chicago. Although on surface (and there's a lot of surface) the show is chronicling a sensational murder trial, the original 1975 production was an empty display of style over substance, a pretentious exercise that pretended to offer cynical comments about the glorification of criminals but was mostly concerned with glorifying director-choreographer Bob Fosse. Chicago's current high-gloss Broadway revival is yet another homage to the unquenchable Fosse legend.
But because the New Line production is stripped down to its essence, it reveals something that neither of the flashier, more expensive New York productions embodied: likeability. Here, a winning cast captivates (rather than razzle-dazzles) us throughout the evening. As Velma Kelly, who hopes to take to the vaudeville circuit as soon as she is acquitted, Stephanie Brown is all Kewpie-doll eyes, perched atop a supple, rag-doll body. As her nemesis, headline-snagging Roxie Hart, Alice Kinsella is a deft blend of attitude and naivete.
Director Scott Miller has done all sorts of clever things to make his production cohesive. Here, Roxie's simpleminded husband (Terry Meddows) is not the appendage he usually is; he's integral to the show. John Ricroft's choreography, while acknowledging the Fosse style, is not handcuffed by it. And the raucous six-piece band sets the evening's tone with its shrill, brassy playing. All in all, this is the most fully realized New Line production I've yet seen. Who would have thought that a Bob Fosse "message" musical could actually be charming and fun?
Back in 1976, both Chicago and Bubbling Brown Sugar were nominated for Broadway's Tony Award as best musical, but neither show won, because that was the season of a tidal wave called A Chorus Line. By sheer serendipity, that Pulitzer Prize-winning musical will perform at the Muny next week (June 17-23). So here's a thought. Why not step back 26 years and attend all three Tony contenders? This is the sort of opportunity that musical theater lovers pray for, and then travel great distances to indulge in. Only this time no travel is required. It's available, as Lucille Bremer exclaimed at the end of Meet Me in St. Louis, "right in our own hometown."