When you go to a preview of a show things often don't go as smoothly as a little further on in the season. There weren't a great many such details this evening but a few things needed a tweak.
We were welcomed by the M.C., the smooth talking Marcus Danger who also doubled as programme seller and general all-round flirt as he worked the bar and tables. Clad in a tuxedo minus the shirt he informed some giggly girls nearby that "this evening he was wearing his fur." He introduced the show with an evocative poem about the luscious racial mix of the women of Harlem in the 1920's and 30's.
The format of the show was that each of the five featured female characters would relate a little of their history, working up to their becoming leading ladies of the jazz clubs and notorious rent parties, and sing a couple of songs they were known for at the time. As so-called guests at a rent party the audience was invited to dress for the period (most did) and participate in the general rowdiness of the scenario.
Kali Caramia (Ma Rainey) took her monologue too slowly to really get any of the desired response. The secret revealed from the get-go was that most of these featured women were lesbian or bi-sexual. All were black and mostly hell-raisers from gutter level backgrounds. Some rose above their origins to slide again. Some stayed on top.
A nifty five piece backing band served the show brilliantly. Caramia's earthy "Wild Women Don't Worry" featured a blistering trumpet solo, the first of many by Robert Bresland.
Polished professional Libby Hammer, warmed up the audience as the confident but tough beauty Bessie Smith. "You don't mess with the Bess!" Her numbers included the well-known "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" and a rip roaring version of "Give Me A Pig's Foot and A Bottle of Beer". A zippy piano solo got the desired audience response for Lewis Moody.
Odette Mercy (Gladys Bentley) took the stage in an oversize version of a tail-coat, waistcoat, shirt and pants. With her frizzy hair pulled tightly back she was the perfect incarnation of the woman who preferred "the company of the fairer sex".Sassy and outrageous she busted out some sweet moves along with wailing blues. Interestingly she returned dressed as a woman. Times were changing so she re-invented herself later in her career to be less confronting and personally safer.
The second half of the show, running late due to a delayed commencement, opened with a crackingly paced number showcasing each individual band member's talents.
The glamorous Natalie Gillespie (Ethel Waters) or Lady String Bean,"so tall and such a fine figure," told of her rise from hotel maid to singing in fancy Harlem clubs. A woman who never slipped back down the slippery slope, her numbers included "Down in My Heart I'm a Troubled Soul" and the witty "Come Up and See Me Sometime."
Unlike all the other cast members dressed in their performing finery, Harry Deluxe (Alberta Hunter) wore a red wrap and carried cases to show she was escaping her miserable past.
Possibly, because the show was running over time, she was told to prune her introduction, but anyway she lost her way and had to be prompted. Her high speaking voice did not evince the conviction of the earlier performers but her singing was much better. "You Can't Tell the Difference When It's After Dark" was very good. As was "Ain't Nobodies Business If I Do". At this point she was interrupted by an incensed patron who was waiting for the second show of the evening to commence. "This is the last song. We've been waiting forty five minutes".
With profuse apologies she quickly segued into "My Castle's Rocking" bringing all the singers and M.C. back on stage to close the show.
HMS PopUp Productions presents
A Saucy Little Secret
by Melanie Bainbridge
Directed by Erin Fuery & Harry Deluxe
Venue: The Ellington Jazz Club | 191 Beaufort St, Perth WA
Dates: 30 July – 4 August 2012
Tickets: $20 – $40