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Show recalls past without rose-colored glasses

The music- and history-steeped revue "What Good Ole Days?" had its world premiere Friday night as the Paul Robeson Theatre opened its 37th season. The play, described as an imagined interaction between the consummate comedian Jackie "Moms" Mabley and legendary entertainer Pearl Bailey, was written by Buffalo theater veterans Mary Craig, June L. Saunders Duell and Paulette D. Harris, Paul Robeson Theatre's creative director.

Strong performances by Craig, as Bailey, and Duell, as Mabley, made the show a great watch. They also co-directed, along with Harris.

The show is presented without much historical reference or explanation. There is no plot and not much action. Simply two great dames of African-American cultural history telling it like it was, giving their own unedited points of view.

Craig and Duell banter their way through their monologues and set pieces, their confidence and ease both with the material and with the casual nature of the show palpable.

Musical director and accompanist Frazier "Tom" Smith's contribution is immense. His constant and assured touch on the piano provides a perfect counterpoint to the women's speaking and singing. The music seemed both carefully composed and at times entirely improvisational.

Moms Mabley (1894-1975), as channeled by Duell, is presented with all her earthy and feisty characteristics intact. Duell's compact body and almost elfin face, with its luminous skin and pixyish eyes, help embody her character.

As Pearl Bailey (1918-1990), Craig is both stately and spirited. Her rich singing voice and expansive stage presence added up to an intimate glimpse at her character's motivations. As Bailey, who in real life was a special U.N. ambassador, Craig tells stories that exemplify how and why she became the activist that she did.

While no costuming credit was given, the clothes take on a life of their own. "Pearl Bailey" changed six or seven times, each outfit more flamboyant than the last. The audience's admiring oohs and ahs were easily integrated into the performance. "Moms," on the other hand, first appeared in a squishy hat, shapeless housedress and raggedy knee-highs, with white socks and frumpy old shoes. For the second act, she added a sleeveless housecoat to complement this ensemble.

The set, designed by Harlan Penn, is simple and evocative, a sparely decorated and slightly run-down nightclub with a view of the dressing room. Varying points of entry and exit keep the show moving and allow different focal points during the two-act evening.

This show, with its universal themes, its very personal tone and straightforward direction, is both charming and thought-provoking. The Paul Robeson Theatre's production reminds us that less can indeed be more, and that it is the little things in life that can add up to mean the most.


Review: 3 stars (Out of 4)

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