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Please Come To Boston 

What's cookin' at the Booth

ArtsPulse

Although we hardly deserve it, Gretha Boston is back in town.

Boston has made some glorious memories at Booth Playhouse. She made her Charlotte debut there alongside Andre De Shields, Randy Skinner and Marla Schaffel in a star-powered production of Let Me Sing! -- Charlotte Rep's pocket history of the American musical -- in 2003. Later that same year, she appeared opposite TV/film star Suzzanne Douglas in Jar the Floor, her maiden attempt at a straight play.

Upstaging Douglas, Boston snagged Best Actress nominations from CL and from the Metrolina Theatre Association for her performance as Lola, a midlife momma with a lurid past and no apologies. But the acclaimed production of Cheryl West's life-affirming comedy -- with Boston delivering the saltiest, most powerful affirmations -- was the beginning of the end for Charlotte Repertory Theatre.

Shortening the run of Jar the Floor before it opened wasn't the only stupid move made by Rep's meddlesome board of trustees during its reign of error. But surely this was the trustees' most offensive move: Telling a sterling cast that, in essence, they had failed before their first performance.

Having won the Tony Award for her portrayal of Queenie in the 1994 revival of Show Boat, Boston was certainly foremost among those entitled to take offense. So there must be a sense of satisfaction for Boston, albeit bittersweet, returning here for a different kind of revival.

No, the Rep isn't being resuscitated. But the Booth, where the Rep expired on February 20, is beginning a welcome revitalization.

Through January 29, Boston is headlining Cookin' at the Cookery, a celebration of the life and music of jazz diva Alberta Hunter. It's the first Actor's Equity production at Booth Playhouse since Rep exited with The Exonerated nearly a year ago.

Reopening the Booth is just a first step for the Performing Arts Center. After celebrating the life of a cabaret chanteuse, the PAC will partially transform Booth Playhouse into a cabaret venue. They'll follow the formula they used last spring at McGlohon Theatre for Forever Plaid, the ultra-square musical that ran a then-record 64 performances.

"We're building a drink rail for about 100 of the seats," PAC prez Tom Gabbard has told us. "Everybody will be allowed to bring food and drink into the theater. So that will create a whole different ambience and environment for the Booth Playhouse. One of the consultants on the original PAC has told me, when I told him we were doing this, 'Finally! We designed it for that kind of thing to happen.'"

You can bet the PAC is undertaking this remodeling project for a bankable property. The interactive mystery opening at the Booth on April 1, Shear Madness, has the distinction of being the first, the second and the third longest-running play in the history of American theater.

For now, we get a wonderful opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with Boston's brassy bravura. She's not just jazzy and bluesy as Alberta Hunter in Cookin' at the Cookery. At times, she'll be downright raunchy.

Mostly, she's swinging such standards as "Sweet Georgia Brown" and "Darktown Strutters' Ball." Or moanin' the "St. Louis Blues" and "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out."

But expect things to get down and dirty when Alberta digs into "Rough and Ready Man" and "I'm Hard to Satisfy." The steam really rises at The Cookery when we hear Eubie Blake's "My Handy Man" with a wicked double-entendre lyric by Andy Razaf. Count that number as unforgettable, worth the price of admission all by itself.

Review: Adobe Blues Brothers

Michael Simmons sprang out of a hospital bed, shaking off the effects of multiple kidney surgeries, to pilot CAST's current production of The Late Henry Moss. While suffering invasions of his viscera -- and maybe some waistline shrinkage -- Simmons certainly hasn't curtailed his involvement with the product out on Clement Avenue.

Not only does he direct this contemporary Western with tact and vision, his set design is outstanding. The roofbeams of Moss's adobe hut jut out at us, and the entire floor is convincingly distressed, simulating the harshness of the dry New Mexico climate. Details, down to the little mousetrap under the grill, are deftly sketched.

Simmons nearly takes us all the way to Sam Shepard's dysfunctional Promised Land. But either Henry's sons, Earl and Ray Moss, must sound a little more like they're at home in the Southwest or they must look more like strangers who have journeyed far to reach their father's deathbed.

Once I blocked out what David Blamy and Jonathan Pesola sounded like as the combative sibs, I developed a healthy appreciation for the way they captured the texture of their relationship and the pulse beat of their interaction. Blamy is the elder, more successful brother, Earl, who receives a distress call from Henry's neighbor. As the action begins, Earl is completing a three-day vigil with his dad's corpse, poring over the family album, and bringing younger ne'er-do-well brother Ray up to speed on how their father died. Guardedly.

Both brothers have unresolved issues with their dad, who abused their mother and abandoned the household. And of course, Earl and Ray have issues with each other, stemming largely from class differences but really centering on the fact that the older brother, following his dad's example, also abandoned the restless, seething Ray.

Since this is Shepard after all, you can bet the younger Mosses haven't grown far from the tree in terms of violence and abuse. Thanks to Tony Wright's fine fight choreography, the sibling animosity comes across with admirable brutality. Amid Ray's plodding detective work, I find these explosions most welcome.

So are the comical, sensual and mystical delights that Shepard bestrews throughout the long evening -- clocking in at 2 hours and 22 minutes plus two intermissions. Jim Esposito is marvelously poised and flavorful as the neighbor Esteban, ideally combining peasant meekness and simple wisdom. As the taxi driver who conveyed Henry on his last binge, Kyle Whitford was even more literal-minded and unimaginative than Ray -- once he put everything into proper gear.

Leela Vox is a spellbinding eyeful as Conchalla, the temptress who seduces, exploits, inebriates and casts a fatal spell over Henry. Her nude bath scene is unlikely to escape your memory as you motor homewards.

Through flashbacks, we also see Henry during his final days, living with a reckless, haunted gusto that sometimes puts his petty sons to shame. Hugh Loomis has explored these frontiers of desperation and madness before. He has mastered the territory, occasionally lending a Hemingwayesque grandeur to this doomed patriarch.

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