For the better part of two decades now, Fort Worth's Jubilee Theatre has been relying on its musical ventures to finance the less commercial productions it stages. This is hardly a novel formula--it may, in fact, be the American theater's single most reliable life preserver--except that Jubilee has distinguished itself for the musicals and revues it generates as star vehicles for the theater's unofficial repertory company.
Beginning with 1984's Prodigal, which mixed blues standards with a staged poem by James Weldon Johnson (it later morphed into God's Trombones), director-writer Rudy Eastman and his composer Joe Rogers began to create a long series of tune-laden crowd-pleasers, first as the homeless troupe Jubilee Players, then inside their tiny storefront digs across from Texas Wesleyan University, and finally in their current, less cramped space in downtown Fort Worth. Straight, No Chaser, It Ain't Grease, It's Dixie Peach (an African-American reminder of the black pioneers of the '50s often overshadowed by the Elvises and Jerry Lees), Travelin' Shoes, The Sho-Nuff Blues, Back on the Corner and Fat Freddy's represent an informal mini-history of the last 75 years of American popular music created by black artists. In Jubilee's case, such adaptations and all-new books and scores have been created for black artists with formidable vocal and comic skills: Carolyn Hatcher, Robert Rouse, Kevin Haliburton, Sheran Goodspeed-Keyton and Beth Ivy, among many others in Eastman's fold.
Perhaps because he is more fond of the style now ubiquitously referred to as "old school" (and he has hinted onstage and in interviews that he's unsettled by the degradation central to so much hip-hop), Eastman has thus far avoided exploring rap music. But he's come right up to the edge by celebrating the '60s and '70s musicians who have been shamelessly plundered for hip-hop in Jubilee's thrice-staged Negroes in Space and its shiny new sequel Coop De Ville: Time-Travelin' Brother. George Clinton's Mother Ship is clearly the transportation of first inspiration by which Eastman arrived at the ray gun-wielding, nattily dressed character of Coop, who is somewhere between Shaft and Clint Eastwood but with a better sense of humor.
Coop DeVille: Time Travelin' Brother
Jubilee Theatre, 506 Main St., Fort Worth
Through August 19; (817) 338-4411
Eastman once again directs and writes the dialogue; Joe Rogers composes and leads the satin-smooth, unseen live band; and Rouse reprises Coop from his debut in Negroes in Space. For this installment, Mr. DeVille has been tapped to go backward from the 28th century to our day, where a bespectacled The Kid (Rickey L. Spivey) has been contemptuously dubbed MC Square by his sister for serving as DJ at their parents' high school reunion. Aware of the young man's adult destiny as a Luke Skywalker-type savior, Coop snatches MC Square and carries him through time and space to help rescue a kidnapped order of nuns led by Sister Superia (Sheran Goodspeed-Keyton). They're the sacred keepers of The Funk, complete with Prince's erstwhile, unpronounceable name-symbol embroidered on their gowns and daily tributes to James Brown and Aretha Franklin. They're being held by Tyrone the Terrible (Kevin Haliburton) and his assistant Commander Smash (Gary E. Payne) until Tyrone can find a princess hidden among the nuns, marry her and become "C.E.O. of the Universe."
There is an aesthetic to Jubilee's musical forays that might also be called "working on a limited budget," although in truth this has as much to do with the arrangement of their Main Street space in Fort Worth. You sometimes get the sense that the actors are being cornered by the audience, with a small, roughly triangle-shaped stage and fold-out chairs lined up right in front of the action. (Like most Jubilee musicals, Coop DeVille is a frequent sellout; who can blame a theater for wanting to accommodate as many paying customers as possible?) There simply isn't room for elaborate sets and props, and costume overkill would likely give the sensation of watching a vaudevillian's trunk explode in front of you. As a compromise, set designer Roger Ross and costumers Crickett Pettigrew and Eastman go for what might be called subdued tackiness. A string of Christmas lights surround the stage door that acts as a portal between times and places, and big tinfoil tubes that resemble air conditioner ducts pop out of the back wall as a kind of vague nod to Ed Wood sci-fi chic.
Mind you, Coop De Ville is the kind of musical comedy that lunges for laughs (and bags them) by having two of its women stars wear two-and-a-half-foot conical wigs, so if you're inclined to scoff at Jubilee's finite resources, then you're probably not willing to meet Rogers and Eastman's show on its own terms. Peaches (Melanie C. Bivens) is the flighty girlfriend of our eponymous hero, tired of being shortchanged by the latter's unpredictable universe-saving schedule and encouraged in her discontent by her equally tall-tressed Mama (Eleanor T. Threatt, who between this show and Hedy Understands Anxiety has perfected the intrusive matriarch).
"I know his type," she warns Peaches.
"What type?" her daughter asks.
"A man," Mama replies woefully.
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Later on, Threatt earned chortles by exhorting Bivens into a bar fight after a trashy patron attempts to walk off with Coop. They're the third in a string of comic sidekicks--including Coop and MC Square and Tyrone and Smash--that Eastman instinctively knows will generate the kind of repartee that extends the actors' appeal and audience identification across two acts.
Coop DeVille: Time-Travelin' Brother sports appropriately antic performances from its sextet of leads that occasionally drop the vigorous, generous silliness for an actor to savor a smart one-liner. When informed that Coop's now-dead scientist friend from Negroes in Space was named L. Dorado, MC Square asks, "Is everyone from your time named after GM products?" Rickey L. Spivey proves particularly adept with physical comedy, as he repeats the same near-fatal encounter with a caveman, an Egyptian king and a '20s gangster after flirting with their respective women.
Toward the end of the second act, Jubilee even flirts with live theater's version of special effects. Actors in black body suits dart and swoop in front of ticketbuyers with stuffed spaceships on their hands highlighted by dimmed blue lights, to simulate the battle between Coop DeVille's spaceship The Dogstar and Tyrone's fleet of fighters. (Our heroes escape when a ganja ray renders the villains paralyzed with giggles.)
If Coop DeVille derives its precocity from such shoestring moments, the production's arresting power comes from the musical pauses, which prove better integrated into the story line here than with past excursions. Rouse, surprisingly, doesn't receive the show-stopping tunes or at least doesn't treat them as such. He's more interested in smaller moments of mentoring Spivey as MC Square, like "Know When to Hit the Road" and their delightful, shared lament about women called "Never Gonna Please 'Em." His sometime vocal cutting-contest opponent Haliburton gets the final say in a duet with inimitable belter Goodspeed-Keyton titled "How Beautiful," and drops Tyrone the Terrible's lisp to bend notes and repeat phrases with gospel fury. Never mind Jubilee's economical design motifs; moments like that would render a production budget the size of the Dallas Opera's irrelevant.