Sign up for our free newsletter
As the handsome woman in a shimmering beaded dress sidles up against the curve of a baby grand with a practiced ease, we see that she’s got a few years on her. She beams at the audience, takes a breath, and stops. A look of confusion or regret, or possibly panic, crosses her face. It’s an intriguing moment, and if director Thomas W. Jones II had been more interested in exploring the provenance of that look, MetroStage would have a memorable evening on its hands. But this musical profile of Ada “Bricktop” Smith, mainstay of Parisian nightclub life from the 1920s to the ’60s, doesn’t much care to spend its time on things like character and conflict, preferring to cast its lot with splashy musical numbers. And strictly on that level, it succeeds. The onstage musicians are adroit, and the cast is in fine, full voice. Dawn Axam’s choreography slinks and purrs during smoky ballads and grows suitably boisterous when it comes time for the Fats Waller tune. This is cabaret, a genre that comes with a certain amount of pre-installed software: You should know to expect the appearance of a goose-stepping gamin in a leather bustier and swastika armband. You should know, too, that the sleek cast will haul audience members to their feet during dance numbers, filling the stage with a disconcerting blur of feathers, sequins, and polar fleece. It’s hard not to get caught up in the joy the performers radiate as they tackle standards by Porter, Brel, Mercer, Berlin, and others. But the show’s glittery veneer keeps you from feeling the tug of empathy that rounded, emotionally complex characters would inspire. As Ada, Peggy Ann Blow is given plenty to sing and say; the show is stuffed with 22 numbers (including S. Renee Clark’s eight originals) whose dense lyrics are expected to do the show’s expositional heavy lifting. Emotionally, however, Blow isn’t given anywhere to go; Ada opens the show by reminiscing fondly and closes it by fondly reminiscing. In the interval, costumes change; the characters don’t. It’s only when Ada’s cantankerous, affectionate banter with chanteuse Mabel Mercer (C. Kelly Wright) and blues belter Alberta Hunter (Roz White Gonsalves, the show’s purest voice) is front and center that you begin to glimpse how affecting this show could have been if the characters were allowed more breathing room.