The world of vaudeville that's evoked in "Rollin' on the T.O.B.A." feels right at home at El Portal Center, which was carved out of a circa 1926 North Hollywood vaudeville and movie palace.
By focusing on black vaudeville, "T.O.B.A." also invests in the center's future, seeking a more diverse audience than the one that frequented the place in the '20s.
The T.O.B.A. (Theatre Owners' Booking Assn.) was the black vaudeville circuit. It didn't extend to the West; there's no evidence that the original El Portal ever hosted a T.O.B.A. show. However, the black and white circuits certainly shared some of the same traditions--and some of the same old jokes.
"Rollin' on the T.O.B.A." is not just a simulated vaudeville performance. It's also a meditation on the racism that created two separate circuits--and that abused the stars of the black circuit in ways that the white stars were spared (T.O.B.A. also was known as "tough on black asses").
So, on the one hand, the performers salute the entertainment that arose out of the T.O.B.A. and its ability to salve the sharpest wounds; on the other hand, they pick at those wounds, making sure that they aren't forgotten. On a much more modest scale, "T.O.B.A." treats black vaudeville as "Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk" treated black tap.
Most of the T.O.B.A theaters weren't nearly as imposing as El Portal ("holes in the wall" is one description used in the show). And so a smaller proscenium is in the middle of El Portal's big stage, used for the reenactments of the old T.O.B.A. routines. The rest of the stage is used for backstage ruminations and for scenes that are set on the trains that transported the talent from one T.O.B.A. theater to another.
The cast is small--three performers up on their feet, plus pianist, musical director and arranger David Alan Bunn. Not only do the soloists occasionally seem dwarfed by the dimensions of the stage, but surely the original T.O.B.A. shows were more populated. The picture of this show in the El Portal season brochure suggests a line of shimmying chorines, but they must have missed the train to NoHo. This production's only characters are the comedy team of Stevens and Stewart (Ronald "Smokey" Stevens and Ted Levy) and the big-beltin' mama Bertha Mae Little (Sandra Reaves-Phillips).
Of course, we get to know the three characters better than we would in a real T.O.B.A. show, where they would get on and off in just a few minutes. But the acts here become just a little repetitive.
The talent, however, is formidable. Stevens--who also is the show's co-creator (with the late Jaye Stewart), director and choreographer--is magnetic. Slim and sinuous, he appears to be totally in control of his body, yet on occasion he suggests a hilarious collapse of control, as when he loses his poker face during a Bert Williams routine about a card game.
Levy's Stewart is less elegant, more of a common-man type, who sings a number about how his woman's girth is so great that she was able to entertain another man on her other side. Stevens and Levy are brilliant in a mime (to the strains of Gounod) about a chess game in which each player fantasizes about doing violence against the other guy. Levy's singing voice is stronger than Stevens'.
Most of the singing is reserved for Reaves-Phillips, who wears glittery gowns and produces a big, smoky sound, but also dresses down for a notable comic bit as a slovenly, surly waitress.
The more serious commentary in the show can sound forced. One of the early songs ends with the line: "Your hair is nappy/Who's your pappy?/You some ugly chile." This cries out for some kind of comment, and Stewart goes into a backstage monologue bemoaning humor that relies on ridicule. Yet the words he uses, taken from poet Gwendolyn Brooks (credited only in the program), sound too self-consciously lyrical ("pendulous lips") for a song-and-dance man like Stewart. Likewise, Bertha Mae suddenly stops singing one number to berate the spotlight operator for some miscues, but the speech awkwardly evolves into a recitation of Langston Hughes lines about how whites co-opted black culture. Near the end of the show, however, other Hughes material is used more smoothly.
Bunn provides excellent musical support from a beautiful rose-colored piano. The problematic sound quality in this space, much discussed after the opening of the first production, is improving, and the Sunday matinee of "T.O.B.A." sounded better than the Friday evening opening.
* "Rollin' on the T.O.B.A.," El Portal Center for the Arts, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Sundays, 7 p.m.; Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends April 9. $35-$42. (818) 508-4200, (800) 233-3123. Running time: 2 hours.
Ronald "Smokey" Stevens: Stevens
Ted Levy: Stewart
Sandra Reaves-Phillips: Bertha Mae Little
Conceived by Stevens and Jaye Stewart. Includes historical material and additional material by Irvin S. Bauer. Directed and choreographed by Stevens. Musical direction and arrangements by David Alan Bunn. Set by Larry W. Brown. Costumes by Michele Reisch. Lighting by Jim Moody. Production stage manager George "Trace" Oakley.