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She's back!

That might well be the thought of anyone experiencing "Cookin' at the Cookery" at Studio Arena Theatre.

The play, by Marion J. Caffey, celebrates the life of blues singer Alberta Hunter, who was born in Memphis, had fame in New York and Paris in the 1920s, left music to become a nurse in the 1950s and staged a stirring musical comeback 30 years later, when she was 82.

Though Hunter's recordings continue to win her a passionate following among blues and jazz fans, she never became a household name.

What a joy, then, to see her thrust into the spotlight with conviction and poetry in Studio Arena's "Cookin' at the Cookery." Hunter had a tremendous spunk and fire, which showed in her magnificent, gravelly contralto. Her spirit comes through wonderfully in the efforts of Ann Duquesnay and Debra Walton, who play her on stage.

Alberta Hunter fans identify her records as either "Old Alberta" and "Young Alberta." That's the way it is with this play, too. Duquesnay plays the earthy Old Alberta, who in the first scene reluctantly accepts a gig at the Cookery, a Greenwich Village club. ("Old men make me mad," she declares, hanging up the phone. That's what her humor's like.)

Walton plays Young Alberta, running around in a school dress, a choir robe and, as she grows into her 20s, a demure flowered dress. Both actresses, too, play other roles. Duquesnay, in some of the play's most poignant scenes, plays Alberta's mother, telling her high-spirited daughter, "Go on, have a good time. I'll be right here when you get back."

The rubber-faced Walton is a revelation. Is there anything she can't do? She dons a bowler hat and adopts doddering mannerisms to play Barney, the owner of the Cookery. She brought the house down as the nursing bureaucrat who forces Hunter into retirement. She plays Louis Armstrong - and yes, it's outrageous. And as the schoolgirl Alberta, she's funny but extremely moving. Having her play so many roles not only dazzles us, but it serves a higher purpose as well, I think. It adds a touch of old-time vaudeville, which helps us back to the spirit of the early 1900s. It brings us, in other words, closer to Hunter.

Duquesnay, uncannily aged to play Old Alberta, gets a lot of laughs with her constant crotchety pronouncements. "I'm a nurse. That's how I knew you were pale," she tells Barney. (Walton snaps back: "I'm not pale, Alberta. I'm white.") But she brings a real gravity to the part. Stooped over in a red dress, balanced on red heels, she gives us Alberta's songs in all their gutbucket glory. "My Castle's Rockin'," "He's My Handyman," "Sweet Georgia Brown" . . . they're all here.

So funny is the show that its moments of sorrow are wrenching.

"THESE are the blues!" Duquesnay declares through her tears, remembering the moment her mother died. It's very affecting to hear both Albertas tell a story together, echoing each other, adding details. "You call that dancing? That ain't dancing," Old Alberta mutters, watching her younger self.

How wonderful it would have been to have known Hunter, many a viewer might think at such moments.

What a pity so many of us were born too late.

These are the blues.


"Cookin' at the Cookery"

* * * (out of four)

What: playby Marion J. Coffey, based on the life and times of Alberta Hunter.

When: Through Nov. 23

Where: Studio Arena Theatre, 710 Main St.

Tickets: $28 to $48, 856- 8025.

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