One mo' time." Vernel sure got that wrong. Of course, "Ten thousand mo' times" isn't as catchy. But, it's nearer the truth.
One Mo' Time is a musical revue that New Orleans' own Vernel Bagneris put together 25 years ago. Since then, it's gone around the country, around the world and now it's back at Le Petit Theatre. It's as fresh and delightful as the day it first opened. Some things like good wine (so they tell me) don't age, they improve.
The show is about old-time black vaudeville. A knockout New Orleans jazz band, led by clarinetist Orange Kellin, provides the accompaniment. Four talented performers sing hits from the roaring twenties, like "Kitchen Man" and "He's Funny That Way."
The fourth vaudevillian is Bagneris himself, who also wrote and directed the play -- with an assist on the directing from Carl Walker. Bagneris is a song-and-dance man with a seductive grace. Where many dancers tend toward virtuosity, Bagneris stays comfortably in the groove of his dance. This difference is hard to define, and that's unfortunate because, in a way, it's the key to the show's success.
It's not the only key, of course. The music is sensational. The playing and singing are right up there with the best. But the attitude -- the cool, easy poise of the piece -- has the Bagneris signature.
In all, One Mo' Time offers 22 song numbers. So, the audience essentially gets a concert, just like they might have in the Lyric Theater in 1926. To give more of a sense of that long-ago world, however, and to vary things a bit, the show also gives us glimpses into the dressing room.
I suppose you could call it a backstage drama. But that description somehow misses the point. The ease of these scenes is what reminds me of Bagneris' own ease as a dancer. Both win us over by not trying too hard. 'Not trying too hard' must be harder than it sounds -- because it's awfully rare.
In any case, here we are at the Lyric Theater. A gold proscenium arch and a bandstand, both aglow with light bulbs, take up one half of the stage. A somewhat scruffy, little dressing room takes up the other half.
The irascible theater owner (Carl Walker) stalks out onto the stage and badgers us, by way of a welcome, to "sit down, shut up, don't spit" because we're about to see the best in colored entertainment -- Big Bertha Williams and her Company. In a moment, we're off and away with "Dark Town Strutter's Ball."
Actually, Big Bertha (Charlotte Lang) has not yet arrived. Papa Du (Bagneris) is the company manager and he's managing Thelma (Ellen Smith) and Ma Reed (Joan Spraggins) -- managing in the sense of herding cats. Much of the fun comes from the banter and insults that fly back and forth. These digs at one another are often double entendre, in fact, single entendre -- that is to say, just down and dirty. In that respect, many of the risqu lyrics mirror the mood of the backstage feuds. When a deluxe dame says you can look at her bank book, but keep your hands off her purse, the message is pretty clear. And, by the way, in case you think that's vaudeville humor, Geoffrey Chaucer made the same joke in England around 1400.
The vocals are so good that it's hard to single out particular numbers for special praise. Smith, Spraggins and Lang have their own styles and attitudes. They all bring down the house one time or other. I must say, though, that Joan Spraggins was particularly effective with several slow tunes. In "See See Rider" and "Muddy Waters," she carries a burden of sadness and then soars up, lifted by the music into a kind of spiritual defiance.
Over the years, I've seen a number of seemingly well-bankrolled shows that opened here under a banner proclaiming "Bound for New York." None of them made it. One Mo' Time was a different story. Bagneris was part of the local theater community -- a great local actor, struggling along like the rest of us. Then in 1979, he got a $500 grant from the French Market Corporation to do a historical play about black vaudeville.
"We built the set in my courtyard at 808 St. Philip," he remembers, "Orange and the band rehearsed in the kitchen. The girls would roll up the living room rug and practice the dances. We opened, for a one night stand, at the Toulouse Theater (now, One Eyed Jacks)."
Modest beginnings, but apparently the stars were aligned right.
In any case, if you've already seen One Mo' Time, go see it again. If you haven't, don't miss it.
- John B. Barrois
- Vernel Bagneris is back starring in his hit musical One Mo' Time.