For a fast blast to the past of a speak-easy, a cool jazzy set is swinging at the Flashpoint Mead Theatre Lab. With creative and stylistic verve, Pointless Theatre has organized the songs made famous by Cab Calloway in a back-story bringing the characters to life with cartoonish flair. The lyrics unfold to tell the story and establish the zany tone while the musical numbers get the joint jumping like back in the day.
From the start, the charismatic Band Leader Aaron Bliden immediately bonds with the audience with Cab Calloway’s famous carousing refrain—Hi-dee, Hi-dee, Hi-dee, Hi– and riffs on all the possible variations with mastery and showmanship. Bliden also connects the scenes during the transitions and descends into his own slippery slope of degradation with silver flask in hand.
From the onset, Minnie refreshingly has a full personae instead of just being the renown “moocher.” She cared for her beloved Smokey Joe with school girl glee, and got caught up in the trappings of opulence almost as a sidebar. The band leader helps tell the story along with the scripted song titles printed on the screen, along with a crudely assembled rolling script. No need for artificial sophistication when the basic gadgetry will do — and what’s more basic than puppets to tell a story.
Point of fact, Pointless Theater takes puppetry to a new level, where the actor’s emotions nearly fuse into the hand-held character. It almost does them a disservice to call them puppets since instead of being externally manipulated, they are attached to their human counterpart and can thus move with utter abandon. When the Minnie character gets caught up in the music (and controlled substance de jour), she dances as if possessed, oblivious to her surroundings, head bobbing ferociously, nearly transported to another zone and twirling in the capable hands of Madeline Whiting. Similarly, Scott Whalen who handles her love interest then husband Smokey Joe, communicates the precipitous fall of the once upstanding character who hits the skids after succumbing to the seeded under belly of life. Powdered substance is flung about with abandon, and actor Danny Martin portrays the ominous “Reefer Man,” who, true to the lyrics, ushers all who will follow into mayhem, destitution and death.
Four members of the eight piece band flank sides of the stage as integral elements to the show. They set the mood from the beginning with jitter bugging intensity– several even nod out as if fatigued from late gigs, or too much booze (and substances) or all of the above. Under the skillful direction of banjo playing Nick Wilby, they swing with sophisticated ease and remarkably delicate decibel levels, especially considering the intimate space.
Director Matt Reckeweg shows a keen theatrical sensibility as the characters transition from carefree light to solemn somber using lighting, sound, and movement along the course of their respective journeys.
Dancers Sadie Leigh Rothman and Thony Mena complete the ensemble with perfectly placed positions, lifts, and arabesques amidst gut-bucket gyrations during the frenzied drum sequences. Choreographer Olivia Reed lets them strut their stuff whether cake-walking, juke-joint jiving, jelly-rolling or lurching in death dancing despair.
Minnie the Moocher
Closes January 25, 2014
Pointless Theatre at
Flashpoint’s Mead Theatre Lab
916 G St NW
Slightly less than 1 hour
Tickets: $20 – $25
Wednesdays thru Saturdays
Lee Gerstenhaber did some double dipping in replicating the costumes for both puppet and human counterparts, and her handiwork helped confirm the seamless connection between the two. The band members were also properly attired and topped with cool cat hats that the musicians could pull over presumed bloodshot eyes between numbers.
Ending with the reprise of the main number about Minnie brings the show to a satisfying close, showing her full of life and vitality of early love and carefree infatuation. Ending at the beginning gives everyone a second chance to do it right, if they only would.
That Minnie the Moocher was produced through special arrangement with Sony, and special thanks to the Calloway family is a remarkable achievement for a young production company, a reflection of their care, attention to detail, perseverance and chutzpah. This short piece, actually expanded from a 2012 rendition, is packed with great music and lots of energy as a jazzy stylized homage to Cab Calloway’s music and pop cultural times.
With a sold-out crowd opening night, the award winning Pointless Theatre Company (2013 Best Emerging Theater Company, Washington City Paper) is well on its mission to “gleefully smash the traditional boundaries between puppetry, theatre, dance and music and the visual arts” and to “bring a new theatrical experience” to the metro area.
What a concept, and what a show!
Cab Calloway’s Minnie the Moocher. Directed by Matt Reckeweg. Featuring Aaron Bliden, Danny Martin, Thony Mena, Sadie Leigh Rothman, Scott Whalen, and Madeline Whiting. The Pointless Band featuring Paul Fraunfelter, Rick Netherton, Brian Farrow, Nick Wilby, Noah Langer, Brittney Lynn, Paul Weiss, Chris Epinger, Lindsay Williams. Music Director: Nick Wilby. Arrangements by: Jonah Richmond and Nick Wilby. Dramaturg: Alex Leidy. Choreographer: Olivia Reed. Puppet and Set Designer: Patti Kalil. Costume Designer: Lee Gerstenhaber. Lighting Designer: Naveed Aziz. Production Stage Manager: Sarah Wilby. Assistant Stage Manager: Josie Felt. Production Manager: Lex Davis. Produced by Pointless Theatre Company . Reviewed by Debbie Jackson.