REVIEW: Zoe Scruggs is Cookin'
Cookin' at the Cookery at MusicalFare
By ANTHONY CHASE
Cookin’ at the Cookery is first-rate among the “tribute” shows: tuneful, informative, fascinating, and simple. This is not a distinguished literary genre; the idea is simply to inform us while entertaining us. In this show, we learn about the life and career of Blues singer Alberta Hunter (189501984), whose career took her from Memphis to New York to London and throughout the world. In one intriguing life twist, she retired from singing at the age of 62 and resumed her career, singing at Greenwich Village’s “Cookery Club” at the age of 82 becoming an even bigger sensation than before.
Now playing at MusicalFare, Buffalo has seen this show by Marion J. Caffey twice before, but not recently. The Paul Robeson Theatre did it way back when with Mary Craig as Alberta Hunter. Then Studio Arena Theatre, in a co-production with GeVa in Rochester, brought the original New York cast, Ann Duquesnay and Deb Walton in the reprise their performances at Studio Arena Theatre.
The setup is uncomplicated. One actor plays young Alberta Hunter and most of the other people in her life. The other actor plays Alberta Hunter at the age of 82, as well as Hunter’s mother. The story goes back and forth in time and affords two performers with a crowd-pleasing showcase of talent.
Typically, the actor who plays Hunter at 82 is at least middle-aged. When young Zoë Scruggs was announced for the part, I will admit to a moment of pause. Would this be an awkward instance of a young person created a caricature of an older person?
I needn’t have worried. Scruggs dispels any hesitation with her first confident entrance and her fabulous musicality quickly scatters any doubt. She can sing those songs like nobody’s business and suggests the age of her character with a pursing of her lips, the squinting of her eyes, and a hand on her hip. She's sensational. She shows us the older Hunter as woman whose life informed by having been her younger self.
Very young Ember Tate is entirely lovable as young Hunter and as a panoply of other characters. The contrasting physicality of the two actors creates a winning transition between the younger and older Hunter, Scruggs taking care with the steps, Tate putting girlish exuberance or a sassy sashay in her walk.
Directed a choreographed by Victoria Pérez the narrative journey of the show is clearly articulated through straightforward storytelling.
Another highlight of the evening is music direction by Buffalo music icon George Caldwell who performs on the piano with an excellent band. The stunningly stylish set design, a gallery of images of Alberta Hunter, is by Dyan Burlingame, beautifully lit by Chris Cavanagh, who has also done the sound. Costumes by Kari Drozd. Wigs and makeup by Susan Drozd.
It’s an uncomplicated evening of great music, designed to remind us Alberta Hunter and to call our parents.
COOKIN' AT THE COOKERY continues through March 8th at MusicalFare.