SAN DIEGO — "Cookin' at the Cookery" doesn't produce a totally substantial meal, but it generally satisfies. Written, directed and choreographed by Marion J. Caffey, it's the song-spangled chronicle of Alberta Hunter, the blues singer who is legendary among musicians but less known outside that world, despite her decades of accomplishments.
Born in 1895, Hunter left Memphis for Chicago at a young age to be a singer. She reached stardom in South Side "colored" nightclubs, then moved to New York and even more success in recordings, clubs and stage shows.
As part of that flowering of African American culture known as the Harlem Renaissance, Hunter became, in 1923, the first black singer to be backed by a white band.
She is credited for blending classic blues with a cabaret style and for introducing the blues to Europe, where she often ventured in the '20s and '30s. During World War II she joined the USO, entertaining troops around the world until 1952. She quit show business four years later after the death of her beloved mother. Lying about her age, she enrolled in a nursing class, then spent 20 years working at a New York hospital before being forced to retire at 82, an age her employers thought was 70.
Shortly afterward, an old friend located Hunter and put her back on stage in his Greenwich Village club, the Cookery. Rave notices and reborn popularity followed, including TV appearances, new albums and a performance for President Jimmy Carter. Hunter died in 1984, sitting in her easy chair.
"Cookin'," at San Diego Rep's Lyceum Stage, opens with that '77 request to reappear, then flashes back to dramatize her life. Ernestine Jackson, in Hunter's trademark red ruffled dress and topknot, displays warmth and vocal talent in portraying the singer's older years, while Janice Lorraine uses a wonderfully elastic face and body to play Hunter as a child, along with several other characters. Her young girl is a tad exaggerated, but she's otherwise unerring, notably in a gravel-voiced imitation of Louis Armstrong.
The score artfully blends Hunter's best-known songs ("My Castle's Rockin'," "Down Hearted Blues") with others ("When the Saints Go Marching In," "Darktown Strutters Ball") that recall eras. Caffey's script is less successful, however, too often relying on "And then I
Dale F. Jordan's set neatly evokes a brick-walled club setting -- with the four-piece band tucked into a metal-stair arrangement topped with blowups of Hunter -- and his lighting enhances the various moods. Marilyn A. Wall's costumes help Lorraine delineate periods and characters.
The production, like so many these days, is over-amplified. Since the theater is not that big, and both women have strong voices, sound designer Peter Hashagen could have lowered the volume and eliminated those all-too-common face mikes. Many of the clever lyrics get lost in the decibels, and blues numbers, in particular, communicate better when they sound as if they're coming from the soul, not a speaker.
'Cookin' at the Cookery'
Where: San Diego Repertory's Lyceum Stage, 79 Horton Plaza, San Diego
When: Tuesdays, 7 p.m.; Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m.; April 19 matinee, 2 p.m.
Ends: April 20
Contact: (619) 544-1000
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes