Written and performed by storyteller, cultural historian, and vocalist John “Br. John” Anderson (who takes on the character of “Carr Mel Brown” for the show), “Minnie the Moocher” is a combination of monologue, history lesson, and cabaret act that tells a condensed version of the history of the famed Harlem night club that showcased the talents of a veritable honor roll of African-American talent in the 20s, 30s, and 40s—mostly for the entertainment of white patrons.
Decked out in a black and yellow striped suit and hat reminiscent of the sartorial style of the great Cab Calloway, Mr. Anderson croons, growls, shouts, scats and struts his way through period classics like “Sing, Sing, Sing,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got that Swing),” “Take the ‘A’ Train” (musical directions to Harlem’s ritzy Sugar Hill area), and (of course) “Minnie the Moocher”—complete with call-and-response with the audience. He’s not shy about pointing out the political dark side of The Cotton Club (how could he be?), but he never allows the message to overwhelm the music.
He also does a mean Louis Armstrong impersonation.
“Minnie the Moocher” is not a show for the reticent. Mr. Anderson goes out of his way to encourage the audience to sing and, at one point, dance along with him. I sometimes find that sort of thing annoying (usually I just want to be an audience member), but Mr. Anderson’s “Carr Mel Brown” persona is so engaging that only a dogged curmudgeon could resist the invitation to scat with him in the title tune.
The show isn’t without its issues. Mr. Anderson doesn’t have most of it memorized yet (maybe it’s new material), which sometimes causes lyrics to come out wonky, and I thought it all bogged down a bit in the middle when he went off on a tangent with performances of “The Old Black Magic” and “I’ve Got the World on a String” that weren’t tied back into the overall theme. The use of pre-recorded music tracks done in a variety of different styles also felt like a distraction to me, although I can appreciate the economic incentive to avoid the extra cost of hiring a pianist/music director. Those folks don’t come cheap.
Still, that’s small change. “Minnie the Moocher” delivers up the right mix of fun and facts. I recommend it, especially if (like me) you’re interested in the roots of American jazz. As I’m writing this, there’s one more performance on Sunday, June 23, at 2:30 PM in the lounge space at Fubar, 3108 Locust. An added bonus: the lounge at Fubar is also a bar, so you can have a brew with your music. To quote Mr. Gershwin, “who could ask for anything more?” For more information: stlfringe.com.