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A production so hot, West L.A. is sizzling

Performances put the scorch in 'Cookin' at the Cookery,' at the Brentwood Theatre.

June 25, 2004|Don Shirley | Times Staff Writer

Two Cinderella stories take shape in the sizzling L.A. production of "Cookin' at the Cookery: The Music and Times of Alberta Hunter."

One of the stories is Hunter's. Who would have imagined that after the elderly Hunter was forced to retire from nursing, she would become the darling of New York's cabaret scene?

Likewise, not many people would have guessed that a once-drab little auditorium -- built during World War II as a combination veterans' rec hall and air raid shelter in an oddly isolated location -- would be transformed into a spiffy 499-seat theater. But that's the story of the Brentwood Theatre, which has reopened with the Geffen Playhouse's production of "Cookin' at the Cookery."

Hunter's story is less surprising than the Brentwood's. Hunter had been a blues sensation as a singer and songwriter for decades before she chucked it all to become a relatively anonymous nurse for 20 years.

The Brentwood, by contrast, has never been a customary haunt for L.A. theatergoers. Yet it has suddenly become the theatrical hotspot of West L.A., thanks to a decision by the Geffen management to move its programming to the newly renovated theater while the Geffen undergoes its own refurbishing.

Then again, any theater could become a hotspot if it booked "Cookin' " with the Brentwood cast of Ann Duquesnay and Montego Glover. Theirs are two scalding performances.

They toss the role of Hunter back and forth between them. Glover plays Hunter into her 50s (although she is billed as The Narrator), while Duquesnay plays her in her older years.

Marion J. Caffey's often formulaic script is structured around Hunter's sensational comeback at the Cookery nightclub in Greenwich Village in 1977 at age 82, with flashbacks to follow. So we actually see more of Duquesnay's Hunter than we do of Glover's.

Duquesnay takes full advantage of every opportunity. She may have won a Tony for "Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk," but compared to this role, that one didn't amount to much. She sings here with such nuanced power and with so many memorable flourishes that it seems plausible Duquesnay herself could be the subject of a stage homage in 30 or 40 years.

Her rumbling alto sounds a lot like the recordings of the octogenarian Hunter, but she goes far beyond impersonation, seizing each song on her own terms. Her performance isn't only musical; she handles Hunter's dry retorts and slightly stooped posture with precision.

Duquesnay also appears in a variety of other speaking roles. She plays Hunter's relatively high-voiced and beloved mother. And she briefly and successfully tackles men's roles, such as a gruff employer and a heckler.

Still, in the male impersonation department, the evening's reigning champ was Glover. In the show's most jaw-dropping vocal stunt, she transforms from a willowy young woman who often sounds like a soprano into a credible Louis Armstrong, with his patented growl. Her Armstrong lasts only a minute or two, but it's hard to forget.

Glover also plays Barney Josephson, the elderly operator of the Cookery who cooked up Hunter's comeback.

Yet for most of the show, Glover is a lithe, girlish presence who looks more strikingly like a model than the young Hunter ever did in photographs.

Glover's youth is especially problematic when she plays Hunter in her 50s. Although Hunter wore sexy gowns when she entertained the troops in Korea, Caffey's script overdoes her va-va-voom factor when it has Glover's Hunter perform a quasi-strip number down to her underwear -- just before she receives a phone call about her mother's death. In fact, she had returned from the tour about a year before her mother's death.

The script offers a few good jokes. But it seldom escapes the usual problems of shows that try to cover an entire life in a couple of hours. It has Hunter briefly referring to her lesbianism light-heartedly in front of her Cookery audience; judging from Frank C. Taylor's authorized biography, this is something she never would have considered.

Still, Caffey deserves credit for his direction of these two live-wire performances and his efficient choreography. The evening unfurls crisply and smoothly.

Musical director and pianist George Caldwell, whose four-piece band is at the back of the stage, also helps keep the show on track. Dale F. Jordan's set includes a metallic grid and some projections, avoiding the trap of being too tied down to any particular scenes in the flashbacks.

It's heartening to see the Brentwood busy in the wake of the recent closing of the Westside's most comparable midsize theater, the Canon in Beverly Hills. May the theatrical cookin' continue at the Brentwood long after "Cookin' " closes.

*

'Cookin' at the Cookery'

Where: Brentwood Theatre, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., Building 211, West Los Angeles VA campus

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 4 and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Aug. 1

Price: $32-$48

Contact: (310) 208-5454

Running Time: 2 hours,

15 minutes

Ann Duquesnay...Alberta

Montego Glover...The Narrator

Written, directed and choreographed by Marion J. Caffey. Set and lighting by Dale F. Jordan. Costumes by Marilyn A. Wall. Wigs and hair by Bettie O. Rogers. Sound by Jonathan Burke. Musical director/pianist George Caldwell. Production stage manager Jennifer Lakin.

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