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Just Cause



Twenty three skidoo, y'all. That's the opening line of Nighttime Naughties, the most recent musical confection offered by Ricky Graham and Company at True Brew. It sets the stage for all that follows: a light-hearted romp through the roaring '20s, local style -- or rather through an assortment of familiar Jazz Age fads, fashions, icons and argot. Naughties has a straight-ahead, razzmatazz vaudeville feel, with plenty of rim shots on the snare drum to punctuate bad jokes and enough fishnet to worry advocates for endangered sea turtles.

Not that the show lacks surprises. Madame Chow Chow's Oriental Pleasure Palace in old Algiers, for instance. As a result of long hours of research, writer Graham made an astounding discovery: The infamous kimono-clad madam of this prototypical bawdy house was actually more fluent in Yiddish than Mandarin. Undoubtedly, this revisionist claim will provoke a wave of angry letters from historians and the B'nai B'rith. The rest of the show is less controversial.

Madame Chow Chow, by the way, bears more than a passing resemblance to Becky Allen. And in some ways, not to underrate the other talented performers, the night belongs to the celebrated Dawlin' of Decatur. Ms. Allen is nothing if not game. And one sometimes has the feeling she gets thrown out in front of the crowd just because she's a sure thing. In Nighttime Naughties, however, she has some clever material that fits her to a tee. And she has a ball with it. As when she enters, for example, looking like an electrified Miss Bo Peep in a short mauve sun dress of synthetic rococo splendor and starts cavorting on her posy twined swing -- the overripe ingenue of some lewd and loony operetta. Or when she saunters across the stage with derisive seductiveness, in a bouncy comic number about dog days in the skin trade called "Too Hot to Trot."

But while Becky Allen is at the top of her form, the show is a genuine ensemble effort. In fact, it's something of an extravaganza by True Brew standards. There are eight performers in the cast, and a three-piece band (under the direction of Harry Mayronne Jr.). Graham and Heidi Junius shared directorial chores, while Junius gets credit for the snazzy dance numbers. Clint Delapasse designed the Deco-influenced Hotsy Totsy club, where the performance supposedly takes place. But the biggest visual impact comes from Roy Haylock's shimmering costumes. These are numerous enough to fill a salt dome and have undoubtedly caused a shortage of sequins in the entire Gulf South region.

Naughties is a musical patchwork stitched together out of a series of bits that often segue smoothly from one to the other. Naughty Nefretitty (the mellifluous, charming Angela Mannino), for instance, gets busted in the middle of her version of "Little Egypt" when a Keystone Konstabulary makes a maladroit raid (they collide and do pratfalls as expected). She and her cooch-dancer colleagues end up in night court presided over by an ersatz Groucho Marx who makes non-stop puns and gags while she begs him melodically not to put her "boop-boop-be-doop" in jail.

Danon Smith, of the impish eyes and gospel pipes, puts across the show's few ballads and belts out a Bessie Smith-type, double-entendre blues about her laundry man who "sooner or later will use his big strong agitator." Sean Patterson does yeoman's service with burley house patter, song and dance, and even mentalist routine. Brandi Cotagno, Jason Picus, Jessie Terrebonne and Robert Thomas ably complete the cast.

At heart, Nighttime Naughties is a compilation of songs with lyrics by Graham and music by the late Fred Palmisano. The lyrics are always adroit, sometimes inspired. And the music is always catchy, sometimes memorable. Graham as a writer (rather than lyricist) is much less in evidence than in such recent successes as ... And The Ball and All and Thoroughly Modern Millennium. One can't help feeling some old joke books got a pretty heavy workout during brainstorming sessions. And while the show offers a heavy dollop of good fun, there are some segments that simply perplex -- like the male striptease that preludes a boy's-night-out segment. Not that it matters all that much.

With Nighttime Naughties, I suspect you're either in the groove or you're not. If you like it, you'll probably like it all, including the occasional missed gag or clunky line. If it doesn't work for you, there will be no "there" there. In any case, for the ever-growing legion of Ricky Graham fans, a new show (or a renovated revival like this) is always a cause for celebration.

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