If high spirits, attractive performers and slick professionalism were enough to carry a show, "Honky Tonk Nights" would be a shoo-in. But last night's new musical at the Biltmore is a mostly empty entertainment, flashy and insubstantial.
Ralph Allen, who was responsible for "Sugar Babies," a fond recreation of white burlesque, has, with the collaboration of David Campbell, attempted to recreate black vaudeville. He takes the genre from its days on the West Side of midtown Manhattan to those when the black community moved uptown to Harlem.
But being on less sure ground than he was with the classic burlesque sketches he used in the earlier show, he has (with Campbell's aid) created his own book and lyrics, the latter set to music composed in old styles by Michael Valenti. The result is an unconvincing hodgepodge with only scattered moments of humor and charm.
For the most part, the book and sketches rely on puns and broad double entendres while the music skips along through ragtime and comedy songs. The only "book" sections are skimpily treated -- including one late scene (a weak reminder of the wrenching one toward the end of last season's "Williams and Walker") in which the troupe's star performer, hired for the "Ziegfeld Follies," is shown applying black makeup to his black skin.
With the wide array of colorful costumes, including ones for the men in ice-cream colors and ones for the women in silk and lace, and simple but well-conceived scenery, "Honky Tonk Nights" is good to look at. But somehow, this musical always seems to be standing still in spite of the peppy dance routines and acting flourishes (both staged by Ernest O. Flatt).
Neither a tap-dance trio, a boxing-ring duet, a juggling act, an Italian gangster trio nor the staging of an old joke makes much of an impression, though a male trio portraying nursemaids pushing baby carriages in the park while passing a flask around was fairly amusing. And a pretty ballad, called "I Took My Time" and planted exactly right (midway through the second half), was beautifully sung by the show's female star, Teresa Burrell.
Joe Morton gives a deft performance as the male star singled out by Ziegfeld, and in addition to the winning work by Burrell and Hawkins, there are solid comedy performances by Reginald VelJohnson, Danny Strayhorn, Susan Beaubian, and the eight other members of the all-black cast.
The sounds that come up from the pit are lively, and Flatt's direction is sharp, but "Honky Tonk Nights" is an off night in the black theater.
There is something terminally depressed about "Honky Tonk Nights," which opened at the Biltmore Theater last night, even though the plural in its title is faintly optimistic, and the performers are determinedly and unwaveringly cheerful.
This well-intentioned pastiche musical, with book and lyrics by Ralph Allen and David Campbell, and period-style music by Michael Valenti, is clearly meant as a sincere tribute to a long-vanished style of black theater.
Ralph Allen, an academic and theater historian, in addition to being a general man about the theater, was the brain-father of that enormously successful reminiscence of burlesque, "Sugar Babies."
Now, with an associate on that show, Campbell, he is clearly attempting to repeat, on a far more modest scale, the formula that brought "Sugar Babies" such sweet-toothed success.
But one vital element of that was the presence of a major star, Mickey Rooney, and also a style of music and comedy that had already penetrated the public consciousness, and won a certain familiarity through its marked influence on TV humor.
"Honky Tonk Nights" starts with no such advantages.
Around the turn of the century, the term "honky-tonk" was applied to saloons in New York's Hell's Kitchen and Tenderloin sections.
Just before World War I, the black honky-tonks, with their stride-piano music, a development of ragtime, migrated to what blacks thought of as "the Promised Land," Harlem.
This is the background to the present musical, which suggests the changing fortunes of a black music hall, and its move from Hell's Kitchen, chased out by the Irish, to Harlem, where it was exploited by the Mafia.
Allen and his collaborators remain historically true to their material -- even to the extent of having a hero, called Barney Walker, lured to the Broadway fleshpots by Flo Ziegfeld, only to discover that Broadway stardom required a black performer to wear blackface.
The best performances come from Joe Morton as the Bert Williams-style comedian, Teresa Burrell as the ingenue, and Reginald VelJohnson and Danny Strayhorn as a couple of nimble comics.
The scenery by Robert Cothran and the costumes by Mardi Philips are all sympathetically tatty, and the show as a whole has only a certain good nature to commend it.
It is a modest musical, but as Winston Churchill once said of an opposing politician named Clement Attlee, it "has much to be modest about."
If energy were the principal criterion in determining the quality of a Broadway musical, ''Honky Tonk Nights'' might stand high on the Richter scale. Despite the hand-clapping enthusiasm - and the musicality - of the cast, however, the show that opened last night at the Biltmore Theater is pallid entertainment. The book is bare and the songs, for the most part, have a bland familiarity.
Because the co-author and co-lyricist is Ralph Allen and the subject of the show is black vaudeville, one has every reason to anticipate that ''Honky Tonky Nights'' might be a black equivalent of ''Sugar Babies,'' which was conceived by Mr. Allen. Such may be the intention, but it is not the result. Furthermore, the show falls far short of ''Bubbling Brown Sugar,'' ''Eubie'' and other musicals operating in related areas.
The historical period under the academic scrutiny of Professor Allen is a decade beginning in 1912 when black vaudeville shifted its base from Hell's Kitchen to a newly emerging Harlem. The long first act takes place in a downtown music hall as a theatrical troupe prepares to emigrate to the uptown Promised Land Saloon. In the second act, the troupe moves. This is the sum of the story, except for a coda in which the show's star, Joe Morton, joins the white show business establishment, as represented by the ''Ziegfeld Follies.'' He is forced to put on black-face makeup (a scene that was treated with greater emotional depth, last season, in the musical ''Williams and Walker'').
Within this framework, Mr. Allen and his collaborators (David Campbell as co-author and co-lyricist and Michael Valenti as composer) have spliced sketches and songs at random, and, in Mr. Morton's case, have added some juggling and magic, none of which is likely to threaten the equilibrium of a New Vaudevillian.
Confronting a musical slough, the show resorts to audience participation, resisting only a singalong. On stage are a game of Bingo and an auction of articles of the leading lady's costume (in order to pay a supposed debt on the Harlem site). Both of these scenes are awkwardly intruded, as are the various moments when the actors rush up and down the aisle.
Remembering ''Sugar Babies,'' one certainly does not expect sophistication, but most of the sketches created by Mr. Allen and Mr. Campbell lack laughter and too often seek humor by trading on stereotypes - Irish and Italian as well as black. The music is less than individual, as in ''The Honky Tonk Nights Rag,'' which opens the show and sounds like all the ragtime songs one has ever heard. The lyrics, in the words of the title of one song, simply ''Roll With the Punches,'' as typified by the line, ''O Lily, she's a dilly,'' which is also rhymed with ''willy-nilly.''
As it turns out, Teresa Burrell, the actress playing Lily, is the evening's principal musical adornment. This lithe actress, well-remembered from ''Dreamgirls'' and other musicals, sings several solo ballads, including ''I Took My Time,'' that might have a life beyond ''Honky Tonk Nights.''
Miss Burrell and Mr. Morton play Walker and Meadows, a vaudeville team that. in typical backstage fashion, is too busy and too individually ambitious for any permanent alliance - until the final curtain. The relationship between them remains unexplored dramatically.
The talented Mr. Morton is called upon to be both leading man and one-man band (he plays cymbals with his knees) and clown show, and his hard work interferes with his clowning. His singing, however, is a nice blend with that of Miss Burrell, and the two of them are melodically contrasted by the booming tones of Ira Hawkins in the underwritten role of the entrepreneur of the music hall. In supporting roles, Danny Strayhorn and Susan Beaubian show promise of being able to perform more demanding assignments.
Robert Cothran's toy theater-style set looks flimsy. One worries that it might not withstand all the stomping that occurs in front of it. Ernest O. Flatt is responsible for both the direction and the choreography, and in neither area can it be said that he has overextended his imagination. Most disappointing is the fact that the subject has such musical and dramatic potential, especially in what it says about the theater's misuse of talent as performers are forced by society's strictures to deny their own identity.