Theatre Reviews
Photo by Phillip Hamer courtesy of The Black Rep

If you’ve never heard of Eubie, as in Eubie Blake, (and shame on you if you haven’t) he was a popular pianist, composer, super-celebrity and songwriter whose works span the gamut of American popular music during the first half of the 20th century, from ragtime to blues, jazz, vaudeville and Broadway musicals. Together with his long-time collaborator Noble Sissle, he wrote “Shuffle Along,” credited as the first Broadway musical starring, written by, and produced by black Americans.

The musical revue “Eubie!” (with an exclamation point!), debuted in 1978. The Black Rep’s current revival of “Eubie!” retains the revue’s 25 numbers, 10 of them from “Shuffle Along,” as well as others from his vaudeville act as well as other musicals The prologue even includes Blake’s first composition, “Charleston Rag,” which he began playing in 1899 – and it’s still a catchy tune!

This last date is important because “Eubie!” is not a jukebox musical of old-timey tunes from way back or a staid overview of black musical theater development. Rather, it’s a homage to the vitality and lasting power of Blake’s best works – all tossed with old-school tap dancing, vaudevillian sketches and jokey bits studded with double entrendres.

A live band, hidden behind a gauzy onstage scrim throughout, consists of Joseph Dreyer on piano, Chris Tomlin on tuba, Bernard Long, Jr. on drums, Anthony Wiggins on trumpet and Harvey Lockhart on saxophone. The band captures the period of the music, though the use of electronic keyboard instead of an upright piano sometimes threatened to make the tunes seem less authentic.

“Eubie!” is directed by Ron Himes and choreographed by Vivian Watt and Heather Beal. This show asks much of its cast members (several of whom are making their Black Rep debuts) who must sing, dance and act in equal measure. Individually, each cast member may excel at one or two of these, but collectively, they deliver two well-rounded acts of satisfying entertainment, even if the tunes are new to you.

Stand-out performances include Tamara PiLar’s “My Handyman Ain’t Handy Anymore,” J’Kobe Wallace’s “Dixie Moon” and the duet featuring Robert Crenshaw and Evann De-Bose singing “Low Down Blues” and “Gee, I Wish I Had Someone To Rock Me in the Cradle of Love.” Another highlight is the cast ensemble’s gospel-fueled performance of “Roll Jordan.”

The up-tempo numbers, such as “Hot Feet” and “High Steppin’ Days” demonstrate the cast’s ability to bust a move – especially by Crenshaw. The choreography sometimes blended traditional dance and tap with more modern moves – including a moonwalk and some break dancing – to good effect.

This production of “Eubie! is a heartfelt, energetic homage to Blake and American popular music, and would make the perfect break from all the proms and graduations at this time of year.

“Eubie” continues at Edison Theatre at Washington University through May 21. For more information, visit the Black Rep web site.

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