Cool Papa’s Party
Written and Directed by Tom W. Jones II
Produced by MetroStage
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
Cool Papa’s Party is a frantic smattering of music, dance, with bits of dramatic elements tossed on an overlay of historical chronology, coarsely swirling together as a wild-eyed homage to the life spirit of Sammy Davis, Jr., the ultimate hipster, swing Daddy Cool. Sammy. He was a force of nature – complex, conflicted, controversial, self-destructive, who barreled through his life story as the ultimate song and dance man, from cradle to grave. Ambitious to a fault, this rendition of the spirit of Sammy Davis Jr. and his times, is also complex, conflicted, reaches beyond the traditional boundaries, calls its own shots, and barrels through on the sheer life force of its own force of nature, by the name of Jahi Kearse who portrays the title character, Cool Papa Rose.
From his opening moments where he leaps over a fellow actor’s head to center stage, Kearse bursts onto the scene with explosive energy, charm, and appeal as the ultimate dance-man. He croons like a smooth operator and stalks along the stage with curved muscular arms spread out wide as if ready to take flight. And fly he does. All night long, strutting and tapping, slamming and flash dancing. Kearse hits the stage and doesn’t let up. And it takes its toll. It’s a blistering, withering, and demanding assignment. Kearse gives it all he’s got and then some, along with the more than capable cast. The question is, after all the exhausting choreography, the whirlwind history, blasting their voices to smithereens, what’s the heart of the story? There’s so much happening in a cacophony of movement, musical styles, and historical references, it becomes a hodgepodge that defies a narrative explanation. Just when you think you’ve got a clue about what’s going on, the piece spirals into a whole new direction. Unpredictability is fine, like free-associating jazzy riffs. But, when you’re given clues along the way that the main character is loosely based on a musical legend, and the familiar markers along the way all point in that direction, then any deviation from that feels disingenuous and confusing.
Even with all that, Cool Papa is still a party, filled with eclectic energy and as exciting as a bar room brawl waiting to happen. Depicted as “…A 20th century musical odyssey through the eyes of the “last great American hipster”, this musical is to Sammy Davis, Jr. and Nat King Cole what “Dreamgirls” was to the Supremes. ” The story goes from Cool Papa’s early hoofing and dance hall days, to stomping as a G.I. with all the segregated mess in between, to the accident where he loses an eye, to the brat packing hipster personae he created. Interspersed along the way, the play depicts historical snippets of the Civil Rights struggles, gun blasts of a Presidential assassination, even a quick Nixon hug that went down in infamy. Glimmering through all of that are fascinating questions about the character’s sense of identity, “finding his own voice,” and the hauntingly beautiful, “Lay Your Negro Down” an indelible reference to Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask.” In interviews, Tom Jones says that some of the passages just seemed to flow through him, and it shows. Some of the searing poetry will stop you in your tracks like when the main character asks ” “Am I your Native Son?” and later describes rain as “a Duke Ellington sonata.” Someway, somehow, the creators need to dig through all the wonderful rich material that’s currently crammed into the script, decide what story they want to tell, and create a solid, coherent piece. There’s certainly a lot here to work with and incredible moments to explore.
In the supporting cast, Roz White is a standout, a rich contralto whose timbre and clarity grow deeper and more rambunctious with each passing year. From her opening number “Ain’t No Life” as Grandma Rose (yes, as Grandma – it’s a stretch, but she makes it work), to her show stopping opening of the second act, White consistently proves she’s got serious chops and knows how to use them. Also, as part of the trio loosely based on the early Will Maston trio, Kearse teams with Anthony Manough and Gary E. Vincent, who substituted for William Hubbard opening night. The trio establishes some of the most heartfelt moments in the entire production, showing how the characters relate to, support, and care for each other to their tapping dancing end.
Composer and music director William Knowles with a fab five jazzy combo keeps a steady hand on the undulating rhythm and syncopated beats. His soaring melodies and sweet tight harmonies flow seamlessly through so many musical styles its enough to give you whiplash. From shuffling vaudeville, to jazzy riffs, and brat pack croons, to sounds of nature where the composition actually sounds like the” Wind,” the music helps to anchor the constantly shifting story, one song at a time.
Finally, what’s not to love and respect about the legendary Maurice Hines as choreographer, who worked with Davis and so many of the other greats. In addition to his many feats, Hines choreographed and directed the hip-hop sensation, Hot Feet, featuring the music of Earth, Wind and Fire that sizzled and nearly singed the Kennedy Center several years ago. Here, he puts the dancers through their paces with smack down ferocious intensity, churns out some sure fire hits, sometimes with just a bit too much unsustainable fervor, but nonetheless, with the impeccable style of a Broadway great.
Cool Papa’s Party is a breathless tribute to the lives of black performers who lived life to the fullest through devastating hardship and unjust treatment. Tom Jones II has his hands full in trying to create a coherent piece with so much material, but he is dementedly gifted in being able to blend personal moments and cultural pathos with a “let’s get this party started” funky beat. The title of Sammy Davis Jr’s autobiography, Yes I Can, is a fascinating precursor to the mantra that launched today’s new era. MetroStage serves as a precious incubator space and launches some of the most creative, original works in the metro area. This rough cut world premiere will undoubtedly go through its paces and will hopefully find its legs to gallop big time. For now, it’s still a hell of a party.
Running Time: Little over 2 hours
When: Thru March 15. Thurs – Sat at 8 pm, Sat and Sun matinees at 3 pm, Sun evening shows at 7:00pm.
Where: MetroStage, 1201 Front Royal Street, Alexandria, VA
Tickets: $40 $45