Thursday, May 18, 2017

Trav'lin Back to the Past

Trav'lin: The 1930s Harlem Musical -- Seven Angels Theatre -- Thru June 11

Cherry Torres, Teren Carter, Miche Braden, Lothair
Eaton, Yewande O. Odetoyinbo and Jacobi Hall.
Photo by Gary Rosengrand

J. C. Johnson.

Don’t know the name? Well, that’s probably because you’re not a student of jazz and the blues, but if you are you know that Jay Cee Johnson (1896 -- 1981) was something of a mini-legend, collaborating with the likes of Fats Waller, Chuck Webb and George Whiting and writing songs that were recorded by Ethel Waters, Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Eckstine, Louis Armstrong, Fred Astaire, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Bette Midler. He even wrote Bessie Smith’s theme song: “Empty Bed Blues.”

Many of Johnson’s songs form the heart of Trav'lin: The 1930s Harlem Musical, which is having its Connecticut premiere at Seven Angels Theatre in Waterbury. If you like songs that draw on jazz, the blues and just a touch of gospel, then the evening, despite the thin and sometimes painful storyline, will reward you. If, however, you’re thirsting for more traditional musical fare, complete with show-stoppers, you may find yourself twitching in your seat.

Written by Gary Holmes and Allan Shapiro, Trav'lin is basically a song-constructed musical, much like Mamma Mia -- select the songs and then figure out a storyline that will allow them, with minimal head-scratching as to song-plot relationship, to be performed. Of course, Mamma Mia was a success (despite critical grumblings) on both the stage and the screen. Even if you loathed ABBA, if you are of a certain age the group’s songs are lodged (some might say “fester”) in your sub-conscious. “Waterloo,” “Dancing Queen” and Super Trouper” (which one are you humming right now?) have had people dancing in the aisles in theaters across the country. Well, what about “Somebody Loses, Somebody Wins,” “Believe it Beloved” and “Basin Street Lover”? Go ahead, hum a few bars. Bet you can’t.

That’s the basic problem with Trav'lin. The songs are not familiar to the current general public and so they really can’t override the basically banal plot. With Mamma Mia, who really cares about the plot – just let yourself get swept away by “Voulez-Vous.” Unfortunately (for better or worse), “Get Up and Follow Your Feet” ain’t “Dancing Queen.”

The frame for presenting some 20 or so of Johnson’s songs in Trav'lin, directed and choreographed by Paul Stancato, consists of three oh-so-well-worn love stories: there’s George (Lothair Eaton) and Billie (Miche Braden), an item back in New Orleans some 40 years ago now sort-of reunited in Harlem. Then there’s the slick traveling salesman, Archie (Teren Carter), who has an eye for the ladies, much to the consternation of Roz (Yewande O. Oedetoyinbo), who patiently waits in her beauty parlor for Archie’s return. Finally, there’s the ingĂ©nue, Ella (Cherry Torres), George’s niece, who is smitten with Nelson (Jacobi Hall), an earnest bible salesman. Obviously, “The course of true love never did run smooth,” so all three couples have “problems,” and that basically drives the plot, such as it is. Will they, by the curtain, resolve said problems? (Well, duh!)

Trave'in is basically a juke-box musical without the juke box. Although many of the songs are well crafted, and the cast does its best to sell them, since the recognition factor is nil or absent, there’s no emotional connotation attached to them; the emotion has to be generated by the show itself, and since the characters are basically cardboard cutouts, it’s difficult to care about them. Thus, Archie and Roz’s “You Better Finish What You Started With Me,” is pointed and effective, but I doubt it raises many fond memories or stirs emotions. “Spinnin’ the Web,” “Get Up and Follow Your Feet” and “How Many Friends?” are a lot of fun (especially given Carter’s kinetic, slick-Sam take on Archie) and Torres sings the hell out of “You’ll Come Back to Me,” but, to switch metaphors, this is something of a bagpipe production -- the cast has to keep pumping air and energy into what is going on less the whole thing deflates. They try their damndest, but the effort can often be tiring for both the cast and the audience.

Trav'lin runs through June 11. For tickets or more information call 203-757-4676 or go to

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