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THE JOINT IS JUMPIN'
A ROCKING RETURN TO THE '20S BLACK VAUDEVILLE CIRCUIT

WELL, IT'S not perfect. A short list of imperfections is easy, a couple of which may already have straightened themselves out after a several more performances of the Paul Robeson Theatre's "One Mo' Time." The one they're stuck with is a stage design that looks as if it tried too hard to do too much and came up with too little. David Butler was faced with the difficult task of cramming the stage of a 1926 vaudeville house, the Lyric, and its backstage dressing room into the comparatively stingy space of the Robeson. Still, the proportions could have been different. The main complaint arises from not seeing anything at all of the band, and they are too good not to see in action: Jaman, the leader, on piano; Greg Millar, bass; Stanley Day, trumpet; Abdul-Rahman Qadir, percussionist, and Rey Scott, clarinet.

But if you take the music -- blues and pop songs of the general era around the 1920s black vaudeville circuit, played and sung with sly, joyful exuberance -- and if you install a little backstage comedy as counterpoint to the choreographed numbers, you have a show that prepares you to ignore any miscues for the sheer fun of being entertained.

"One Mo' Time" is Vernel Bagneris' idea. It is simple and effective. He takes a small, financially shaky circuit theater named the Lyric, and then in a series of imaginative steps brings on a touring troupe of six performers led by Papa Du (Michael Gibson in this performance, a graceful handsome figure with a high-wattage smile), who on arrival have shrunk to four. He opposes them to a theater owner snooping around for ways to discharge their contract, and then he sets up bickering among the four for the best of reasons -- sex, drink and money.

So what you have is a rousing stage number, followed by big-time attitudes behind the scenes, fol-lowed by another musical number performed with such eclat you'd have no notion one of the divas had just decked the weaselly theater manager. Besides Gibson there is the spectacular Mary Craig as Ma Reed, magnificent in neon red, draped in a white boa; Phobie Davis as Bertha, Papa Du's hard-drinking woman, magnificent in iridescent blue with white boa, and finally Catherine M. Roberts as Thelma, something on the side for Papa Du, a leggy vision in gold and white.

Reggie Kelly, the director and choreographer, has worked over the songs to allow a little dancing (small stage). The thing to know is, he has the singers to sing them. The fervor with which they attack them is catching. Some you'll know, like Mary Craig's dynamite "See See Rider," and some you may not, like Phobie Davis' wild "You've Got the Right Key But the Wrong Keyhole."

Last weekend the dressing room scenes were a little insecure. But that's the sort of thing that improves greatly over the run of a show (some of it seemed like actors still in rehearsal opening night). And any momentary lapses are easy to forgive in light of Harold Luther White's hugely funny performance as the theater owner.

White looks the scruffy picture of a wily confidence man. He's commanding, ingratiating, demanding and pleading, depending on who is in front of him at the moment. He makes a misstep with Ma Reed and she decks him. White exudes raggedy charm and venality about equally. It is a delightful performance.

The show is big, loud and fun. There are in the neighborhood of 20 songs, with the right singers singing their hearts out. If only they'd take the musicians who are playing their hearts out, and put them out there so we could see.

MUSIC THEATER
One Mo' Time

Rating: ****

Revue of 1920s black vaudeville and blues conceived by Vernel Bagneris.

Directed and choreographed by Reggie Kelly, featuring Mary Craig, Phobie Davis, Michael Gibson, Catherine M. Robers and Harold White.

Performances continue Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., plus Sunday at 6 p.m., through Oct. 11. Paul Robeson Theatre, 350 Masten Ave. (884-2013 or 885-2590).