You can’t beat the enthusiasm that the cast of “Nate Jacobs’ 50s Jukebox Revue” pours into every moment of the show that opens a new season for the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe.
Vocal qualities vary, but the broad smiles give a lift to this show about a troupe of singers traveling to theaters from Memphis to New York’s Apollo Theatre in what was known as the Chitlin’ Circuit.
But that charm only goes so far in the show written and directed by company founder Nate Jacobs, who awkwardly inserts backstage scenes between sets.
Nothing that happens backstage is as an interesting or entertaining as the musical routines. Listening to the women compare night cream rituals adds little to our appreciation of their abilities or personal stories. We understand the relationships — one guy cheats on two women, while Mama and Lula battle to be the top diva — but these stories lead nowhere.
The show would be more engaging if it were just a collection of hits like “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” (now running at Florida Studio Theatre) which features an overlapping songlist.
A cast of 12 sings and dances through 50 songs, often with a soloist getting some rhythmic backup from the cast and the vibrant, spirit-lifting onstage band led by musical director James E. Dodge II.
Emanuel Avraham plays the promoter and emcee T.J. Brown, who repeatedly calls himself the “Doc of Rock.” but he quickly passes the stage to the singers.
They include Michael Mendez, who has the kind of charismatic presence that makes you take notice as he kicks a little higher or sways with a bit more energy. He’s the crooning ladies man, bringing a smooth touch to Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” or Jackie Wilson’s “I’ll be Satisfied” and comically singing “The Banana Boat Song” to bring a truce between Mama and Lula.
You also take notice of the rich, supple voice of Alyssa White, who sings with a maturity far beyond her 16 years on such songs as “Good Rocking Daddy” and “Mama Said.”
Ariel Blue plays Mama opposite newcomer Kristal Walker as Lula. Both are big, bluesy singers with personalities that are brighter than their voices.
Choreographer Dhakeria Cunningham has the cast constantly on the move, and she takes the lead in several energetic numbers, partnered with Will Little.
The cast also includes the effervescent Gordon R. Gregory, Davronette Henson, Charles Manning, Tsadok Porter and Henry Washington, who inspire audience members to spontaneously sing along.
Scenic designer Michael Newton-Brown has Wurlitzer jukebox-like set with vinyl record-shaped stairs that leaves a large playing area for the dancing. Cristy Owen’s costumes offer a colorful array of styles, depending on what city the cast is performing in.
It’s an attractive package for a fun show that is dragged down by its efforts to add some depth.