By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
In a chat between the two acts of the brand-new musical Fat Freddy's, Rudy Eastman defused the notion that such bawdy, rollicking material is guaranteed to graze on sold-out houses and fatten his company through the rest of a more adventurous season. The artistic director of Fort Worth's Jubilee Theatre--who insists that straight plays are where his real passion lies--says that this kind of musical is so relatively expensive to produce, even a smash-hit run basically just returns the investment. Of course, keeping within a modest budget has enabled Jubilee to burrow its roots ever deeper into the area stage scene during the last two decades, so you shouldn't expect giant rolling props or elaborate, silky period costumes (they'd just clutter up Jubilee's tiny, round corner-of-a-stage space on Main Street, which is always part of the company's charm). Production values are never what a Jubilee musical is about--they dazzle you with a revolving roster of singer-dancer-actors who've become marquee names to the company's regular attendants. Long ago, ticket buyers began to keep watch for their glittery faves, who on the best nights weave gold through the cheapest on-stage threads. It would be a stretch to say they make Jubilee's modest resources seem greater, but these Fort Worth stage stars do render them irrelevant.
This Fat Freddy is not to be confused with the mob comedy And Fat Freddy's Blues, which had its world premiere at Stage West five years ago. Jubilee's incarnation boasts an eye-popping roster of talent who belt, prance, and make serious fun under Eastman's direction, but the show could use a bit of liposuction before it truly knocks you flat--pulling out, say, three songs and a little more of the redundant comic dialogue would give this production a truly entrancing "flo' stroll," the sexy entrance stride that Deja (boisterous, big-voiced Sheran Goodspeed-Keyton) practices for her reluctant friend Maddie (Carolyn Hatcher). They have come to the eponymous after-hours dive, a nocturnal bacchanal evoked by playwright diannetucker and composer/musical director Joe Rogers where "anything can happen." These writers and director Eastman aren't interested in reviving those homicidal Southern blues joints known with little fondness as "buckets of blood," although a knife pulled or a gun waved (underscored with appropriate musical forays that'd turn The Bar Fight into An Event) might add a peppery flavor of menace to the evening. The only tension that percolates in Fat Freddy's, which boasts neither windows nor a street sign announcing its presence, is the sexual kind. Deja persuades Maddie to trade her usual weekend plans to watch videos alone for a girlfriend's night out at Freddy's, and poor Maddie is subjected to a series of hip-thrusting, tongue-wagging advances from a variety of men, including silk-suited, derby-topped doorman Trip (Kevin Haliburton in full-tilt court jester mode). There's even a hint of lesbian attraction when glamorous regular Layne (a stunning Evette Perry-Buchanan, with heavily lashed cat eyes and cheekbones sharp enough to cut glass) strikes up a conversation with Maddie, although playwright diannetucker seriously overplays the idea of homosexuality as exotic and dangerous in this, the year 2001 (Fat Freddy's is set in an urban nightclub, not a Southern Baptist congregation, for God's sake). These performers are given two of the evening's showstoppers, delivered from different perspectives--an aghast Hatcher bounces with dexterous lyrical emphasis as she begs "Someone Please Tell Me (What I'm Doing Here)," while Perry-Buchanan does a hip-grinding burlesque with "Keep 'Em Coming," about what it takes to keep a working girl lavishly pampered and unemployed. While she hasn't developed the vocal pyrotechnics of many of her co-stars, Kia Dawn Fulton provides a hilarious running commentary as Sunny, an unenthusiastic waitress whose ebonically rich chatter becomes a black variation on that reliable comic device, the malapropism.
I'd love to have an original cast recording of at least half of Rogers' songs (Goodspeed-Keyton downshifts from the slurred drunken humor of "Down For My Crown," as in "Royal," to a touching ballad about boozing to stave off loneliness), but ultimately, the book and the score to Fat Freddy's become parallel shows that never quite converge. A bit of business about who owns the place--patrons and employees speculate about whether Fat Freddy ever really existed--toys with creating a new black urban myth, but when the question is answered in the denouement, we're underwhelmed. As a subplot, it's never taken seriously enough to create the sensation of a mystery being solved for the audience. The folks at Jubilee Theatre seem too concerned with "merely" staging a revue, but Fat Freddy's works best when it shouts and shimmies out of the plot coils that regularly try to constrict it.