Scandalous People A Sizzling Jazzical
nytheatre.com review by E. Michael Lockley
August 21, 2009
Scandalous People: A Sizzling Jazzical is quite an entertaining exploration into the nitty-gritty world of showbiz in the Roaring '20s. Dewey Demarkov is a black man who creates and stars in nightly revue in Harlem called the Do Drop Inn. The revue is complete with a fast-talking, sexy, sidekick (Dewey's wife, Dez), a featured dancer (Dez's sister, Cindy), and Dewey's own dancers, the Do Dropettes. The revue is wildly popular and they find that many white audiences come up to Harlem just to see their outstanding show. Among them are Mae West, the wise-cracking actress, and Dutch, a rich gangsta who has a way of "making things happen." At a certain point Mae wants to be in the show, but that falls flat after the police threaten to take Mae in for "racial mixing on stage." Then Dutch suggests that he can take Dewey's show to Broadway, BUT with a few changes. More manipulation, deception, and musical numbers proceed.
The show, which is skillfully directed by Fredi Walker-Browne, tackles a lot more than the obvious issues. It goes beyond the "they take what's ours" tradition of whites exploiting black culture for their own financial benefit and raises a number of other issues from various perspectives. One moment that stands out is a number where three ebony beauties proudly sing and dance, covered in white feathers proclaiming, "once you have a midnight black, you'll never go back." The play has many moments like this where it will tackle a matter head on, but with a wink. Issues such as light skin vs. dark skin, selling out, and choosing family or love, are all explored and help to create the epic that Scandalous People has the great potential to become.
I say potential primarily because Scandalous People has all the makings of a great musical—show-stopping numbers, captivating characters, elements of romance and betrayal—but something feels just short of being "perfect." Part of the issue is the space. While the Minetta Lane Theater is probably the best space FringeNYC could provide for a musical with a horn section and live band on stage, the whole production felt cramped. At moments, a necessary and perhaps rehearsed caution with space sometimes inhibited the performers. I can just imagine what they could have done if they had the room to really stretch out.
Yet another thing that might help to push the show to the next level is the varied use of the very funny but sometimes scene-stealing Trixie. Trixie, played with fabulousity by Mr. Terry Lavell, is in charge of costumes and assists with dressing the Do Dropettes. While it seems very right for Trixie to show off when she's finally given a chance to perform in a hilarious musical number, it feels very wrong for her to steal the spotlight in a tender scene between sisters Dez and Cindy. A moment that seems to be an emotional realization between sisters, instead becomes a laugh fest as we watch Trixie react and check her hair and makeup. While amusing, oftentimes those moments that tug at an audiences' emotions allow for an audience to invest more deeply into a story and its characters. If librettist Myla Churchill can fine-tune those moments throughout the show, not only will it better prepare an audience for a shocking and unconventional conclusion, but I'm convinced that the overall story will really be heartbreaking and inspiring all at once.
There are standout performances by Nicole Hill (Dez), Jennifer Swiderski (Mae West), and Eugene Fleming (Dewey). They really fill the house with their energy, and their understanding of the character types of that era brings a level of experience that really drew me in. It was a lot of fun to watch the comedic banter between Dewey and Dez or to anticipate which of Mae West's one liners might come next. And the dancing Do Dropettes certainly shine throughout the show, changing into one costume after another for their numerous song and dance numbers. And I cannot forget to mention the music! I thoroughly enjoyed composer Benny Russell's understanding of the music of that time, and how he and musical director/ arranger Tommy Jones are able to seamlessly interject contemporary sounds to create a mix that is unique to this "jazzical" show (although Jones playing Duke Ellington is more than a stretch).
Scandalous People is without a doubt a good time at the theatre, with a strong story, standout music, fun characters, and overall undeniable charm. I hope that it will have a life beyond FringeNYC where it can spread its wings further and really have the opportunity to sizzle.