By Calvin A. Ramsey and Thomas W. Jone II
Produced by MetroStage
Reviewed by Debbie M. Jackson
Bricktop at MetroStage stomps and sizzles across the stage like there’s no tomorrow. Co-written by Baltimore playwright Calvin A. Ramsey and MetroStage favorite, Thomas W. Jones II, who also directs, Bricktop is a high energy, roller coaster ride through nearly four decades of musical styles and cultural experiences. More than simply a musical review, Bricktop covers ranges of musical theater and glimpses of history rarely covered in one setting. Filled with non-stop choreography by Dawn Axam, electrifying vocals, great musical direction by S. Renee Clark, and meaningful characters, Bricktop almost defies definition.
Along with incorporating many different and distinct artistic styles over an expansive time period, it includes the audience as part of the creative package. Some patrons are active participants even before the show begins by sitting at cabaret tables scattered on the stage in the middle of the action, on a gorgeous swirling set by Misha Kachman, who also designed the terrific costumes. In addition, special “clapping” devices are provided at each seat which create a unique theatrical sound of approval. Rubbing the instrument between our hands includes us as part of the performance ensemble.
More than just a rousing good time, the piece is muscular with full-throttle sensuality, bordering on raunchiness, and is thus, probably not for the squeamish or faint at heart. The opening scene sets the tone when Anthony Manough and Gary E. Vincent, fine specimens of humanity that they are, rip open their shirts and reveal gorgeous chiseled bare chests as part of the dance sequence. Ooh la la, we’re certainly not in Kansas anymore, or Washington, D.C.— but, who the hell cares? The music and lights have catapulted us to a cabaret Parisian night club in the 1920’s, owned and operated by Ada “Bricktop” Smith, nicknamed for her freckles and red hair. The multitalented Peggy Ann Blow brings this character to life, commandeering the spotlight and oozing sensuality while serving as hostess and comforter to weary, trepidatious travelers, M.C. through the ages, and friend and confident to musical legends. Like the show, she is stunning and spellbinding.
The entire cast delivers at red hot intensity and full out fearlessness, without a break. Roz White Gonsalves is outstanding as Alberta Hunter in delivering a soul stirring ‘Downhearted Blues’. C. Kelly Wright shines as the irresistible Mabel Mercer. And William Hubbard displays his range of showmanship jumping in to join William Knowles, pianist and assistant music director for an energetic and romping four-handed “Joint is Jumping.”
Billed as the “party to end all parties,” there is a pungent whiff of playful decadence throughout Chez Bricktop. Characters have gone through dire straits and seem resigned to accept whatever momentary pleasures life offers up, akin to a fleeting sexual rush. Lots of skin is revealed, pulsating flesh is rampant, groins are groped and there’s enough grinding gyration to keep the joint humping and jumping for an all night strut. One of the must-see numbers is the cross gendered Vegas “showgirls” act– whether sinuous and glistening hard-bodied or the abundance in flesh variety, sexual energy comes in all shapes and sizes, so come to the cabaret old chum, for a sight to remember. Another show stopper is David B. Cole’s spectacular guitar solo that pulsates and thrusts with Jimmy Hendrix orgasmic intensity. Mercy, mercy, and merci.
The geopolitical and cultural messages are woven into the tapestry of the script for smooth and natural delivery rather than abrupt “Black History Moments.” Life on the old vaudeville circuit, for example, Theater Owner’s Booking Association (T.O.B.A.) was clearly not the fun and games depicted in the slapstick routines and was referred to behind the scenes as ‘Tough on Black Asses.” The script careens in and out of pivotal historical moments, including Nazi Germany occupation, with the actors depicting larger than life characters who frequented Chez Bricktop– Fats Waller, Jack Johnson, Cole Porter, Josephine Baker and the Duke, to name a few. Most touching is the lasting affection among the trio of friends, Bricktop, Alberta Hunter and Mabel Mercer as reflected in their take on being “Pretty,” followed by the quintessential Jacques Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas” and ending with a good ole American standard “Girl Talk.” Friendship knows no bounds in providing love and support whether spanning years or crossing the Atlantic.
Admittedly, Bricktop is an ambitious project trying to cram so much into 110 minutes. Seat belts are definitely required for the rough and tumble ride. Why the creative team is resistant to an intermission is beyond me. Instead, the creators insist on the performers rushing through the numbers at neck-breaking speed. The material is so rich, and there’s so much to see and experience, the piece runs a fine line between exhilarating and exhausting. Still, being tired is a small price to pay for the thrill of a visit to Chez Bricktop, and a chance to learn about this incredible forgotten part of history tucked under the radar.
Bricktop runs through February 25th at MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St, Alexandria, VA, Wed-Friday 8pm, Sat at 5:30pm & 8:30pm, Sunday at 3pm and 7pm. Tickets: $35 – $40. 703 548-9044 www.MetroStage.org