Sunday, October 17, 2010

NYMF ’10: Trav’lin the Musical

Everybody recorded J.C. Johnson’s songs, most notably including Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald, yet his name has largely been forgotten, even among passionate devotees of the Great American Songbook. However, Johnson’s stories of jazz and Harlem nightlife made a strong impression on the young ears of Gary Holmes, eventually inspiring Trav’lin the Musical, whose book he co-wrote with Allen Schapiro. Years in development, Trav’lin finally graces New York stages as part of the 2010 NY Musical Theatre Festival in a limited run that ends tonight.

As the “unofficial mayor of 132nd Street,” Deacon George keeps an eye on his neighborhood. Naturally, he notices each new arrival, especially one that looks eerily similarly to Billie, his old flame from New Orleans. Now calling herself Ethel from Mississippi, Billie prefers not to reveal herself just yet, even as she finds herself romantically drawn to George once again.

No longer working on a Pullman Car, George has settled down into his community peacemaker role. Now, it is his nursing student niece Ella who is seeing a traveling man, straight-laced Nelson, a Bible salesman. He used to have eyes for Ros, the neighborhood beautician, but she remained true to her own traveling man, even if the smooth operating Archie was not always true to her. As Billie and Ros mentor the younger Ella their own romances fizzle and flair to the music of J.C. Johnson.

Johnson often wrote on love and longing, leaving many evocative standards and should-be-standards to chose from, including probably his best known tune “Trav’lin (All Alone),” a real highlight of the show performed as an epistolary dialogue between George and Billie/Ethel. However, the biggest showstopper has to be the low down “Empty Bed Blues” performed with verve and sass by Brenda Braxton channeling Bessie Smith as Billie.

Indeed, it is not surprising Johnson’s songbook lends itself so well to musical theater, since he often wrote for the stage, including The Jazz Train, a survey of popular African American music, with each train representing a particular period. (Though not widely seen in America, it was something of a sensation in Europe at the time and its cast album has since been reissued by Sepia, the British collector’s label.) A nice showcase for Johnson’s music, Holmes and Shapiro also pay tribute to his great collaborators through their characters’ names—Ella, Billie, and Ethel being readily apparent, while George is a tip of the cap to vaudeville lyricist George A. Whiting.

Trav’lin has a great cast and a strong four piece combo backing them up on-stage. Multi-reed player Marc Phaneuf has a distinctly bluesy sound on clarinet that sets the scene quite effectively. Musical director John DiPinto is also a strong player, but one wishes they could have shoehorned an upright piano into the theater for him, because music of this era never sounds quite right on a keyboard. Still, rhythm section mates Brian Brake and Benjamin Brown, on drums and bass respectively, set a swinging tempo that the cast definitely responds to. All six performers have strong voices, but Brenda Braxton and Doug Eskew arguably shine the brightest as Billie and George, the older experienced couple. While she excels in the Bessie Smith number, he nicely expresses the wistful nostalgia of “Louisiana,” which might have been Johnson’s most recognizable song in his day.

Cleverly staged by director Paul Stancato, Trav’lin feels like a bigger show than the limited space of the TBG stage would otherwise allow. An endearingly old-fashioned romance set to some swinging sounds, Trav’lin is faithful in spirit to the music that inspired it. Enthusiastically recommended, it runs once more under the auspices of NYMF, tonight (4:30), but hopefully it will soon return in some form for a longer run.