‘Barroom Brawls’ brings Jazz Age to riveting life - The Buffalo News

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‘Barroom Brawls’ brings Jazz Age to riveting life

The 1920s live.

In the Statler on Friday night, the Hutch-Tech prom included one couple in complete Jazz Age get-up, he in an impeccable suit and top hat, she in a flapper dress.

Earlier in the week, I had soaked up the sounds of the Fredtown Stompers, a group of music students from Fredonia State College who played ’20s hits for the college swing set.

Most dramatically, the Shea’s 710 Main Theater – the former Studio Arena Theatre – is playing host this weekend to a strangely riveting double bill that brings the era to life as mere costumes cannot do.

Buffalo Opera Unlimited, led by Tim Kennedy, is partnering with LehrerDance for “Barroom Brawls.” The production, which repeats this afternoon, comprises two mini-operas that tell tales of tragedies in bars.

The first is “Blue Monday,” by the young George Gershwin. The second is a premiere, a jazz opera called “The Fall of Stag Lee,” by Buffalo native Darryl Glenn Nettles. Just so you know what you are dealing with, Nettles was called to the stage to acknowledge the loud, long applause – and did a moment or two of tap dancing. But I am getting ahead of myself.

The Gershwin comes first. You sense the tension before anyone even appears on stage. Kennedy is poised over the accompanying ensemble, not just conducting but breathing along with the beat. Pianists Garrett Martin and James Welch, bassist Barry Boyd and drummer Abdul-Rahman Qadir did an admirable job of negotiating the tricky music.

The creative set by Reed Rankin employs muted but vivid colors and shows a bar dominated by a row of oversized bottles.

“Blue Monday” sounds like the work of a young man. It’s not “Crazy For You.” But it’s good. It’s taut and nervous and has memorable melodies and hooks. With its classical vocal lines and melodramatic ending, it shows the influence of operetta. Alfonzo Tyson, as the doomed Joe, has phrases you could imagine on the opera stage, lines that anticipate “Porgy and Bess.”

Tyson pours his soul into his part, and his voice is a pleasure. Brittany Louie sings well the role of his jealous girlfriend, Vi. Kofi Hayford, Billy Flood and Eric Wilbon round out the cast; they’re all fine.

LehrerDance has contributed some excellent 1920s-style dancing. Their motions are fluid, not sharp. Arms, wrists and even fingers make waves in the air. The steps are intricate but smooth. Sometimes, watching them, you catch your breath. The jewel-toned costumes add punch and spirit.

“The Fall of Stag Lee,” like “Blue Monday,” shows great promise.

Nettles, in the notes, cited classical influences, and you can hear them. The ghost of J.S. Bach appears in the piano’s counterpoint. One of Nettles’ chief melodies just a step away from the 1923 song “Dinah.” Smoldering segments are built around the first chords from Rachmaninoff’s famous Prelude in C Sharp Minor. Nat “King” Cole loved that piece, too, and riffed on it with his trio.

Jeffrey Thompson, serving as narrator, has a clear tenor voice that sets the stage for the simple, age-old drama (one man kills another man in a bar). The shooting is a shock. If you are looking elsewhere on stage you will miss the signs of trouble. Just like in real life.

Friday, the piano was sometimes too loud, drowning out the singers. And not all of the singers were up to the demands of the music. But when the piece is good, it is very good.

Nettles was imaginative in filling out what is, let’s be honest, an uninspiring story. On the surface there’s not much interesting about Stag Lee. He is just, as the song goes, a bad man.

Nettles surprises you by putting the shooting early in the show. Scenes that follow show William Lyons’ widow singing to his tombstone and Stag Lee in prison being visited by his girlfriend. Lighthearted episodes feature two dancers show an unrelated couple flirting with romance.

The lighthearted scenes work. They break up the drama, and there’s something moving about them. Other moments, too, linger.

Billy Flood, as Stag Lee, is all bad as he commits the murder. With Lyons (Ernest “Buzzy” Griffin) sprawled eloquently on the floor, Flood points the gun at the rest of the patrons to silence them. It’s a great shocker.

And talk about shockers. In prison, Stag Lee is visited by demons to drag him to hell. (Nettles might have been thinking of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.”) These demons, two rail-thin male dancers dressed in red, are chilling. The way they slither is horrifying.

The piece has an experimental air. You could argue about which scenes are necessary. But that demon scene sure was. And “The Fall of Stag Lee” makes me wonder what Nettles could do with a more substantial story. I get the idea he will write more. I hope he does.

“Barroom Brawls” repeats at 2:30 p.m. today.

email: mkunz@buffnews.com

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