To do a show about the music of New Orleans that concentrates on rhythm and blues is roughly like doing a show about Broadway musicals that focuses only on those of Andrew Lloyd Webber.
R & B and Webber are both the commercial end products of a long, complex musical evolution. They are not necessarily the most interesting parts of that evolution. (Blues and Dixieland, both more closely associated with New Orleans, offer far greater theatrical potential than R & B.)
Many of the songs in "The High Rollers Social and Pleasure Club," which is set in a private club in New Orleans around Mardi Gras, were written by Allen Toussaint, who conducts the onstage band. Like Louis Jordan, who was the inspiration for "Five Guys Named Moe," Toussaint has achieved success as a pop recording artist.
This does not disqualify either as the subject of a Broadway show, but the kind of music that's great to dance to or listen to on the car radio does not necessarily have enough emotional depth or variety to make an evening of theater. (Just as certain songs that work every well on stage would be dull on your car radio, and no one I know claims to enjoy dancingto the "Soliloquy" from "Carousel.")
Theater music - like theater itself - is about storytelling. Its music and lyrics should convey something about character or circumstance. An evening where one of the more memorable lyrics is "The touch of your lips/ Next to mine/ Gets me excited/ Makes me feel fine" is not very interesting.
I had looked forward to "High Rollers" because it marked Vivian Reed's Broadway return. Although she looks and sounds as stunning as she did in "Bubblin' Brown Sugar," this music makes use of precious little of her great talent.
The high points of the evening are the ferocious tap numbers, which Keith Robert Bennett and Tarik Winston do dazzlingly. David Mitchell's set has a delicacy that makes it a much better backdrop for "Streetcar Named Desire" than the one currently in use at the Barrymore. I suggest it be moved up to 47th St. immediately.
I think it also might be a good idea to move the show to the vacant Ambassador Theater on 49th St., across from "Five Guys Named Moe." Chits could be provided so "High Rollers" customers could use Moe's Bar. Customers at both shows might find a more interesting evening if they could see an act of each rather than two acts of either.
It's bouncy, loud, extravagantly cheerful, has a clutch of enthusiastically agreeable performances, and is a mildly OK way to spend an evening. What is it? It's "The High Rollers Social and Pleasure Club," a sort of musical which opened at the Helen Hayes Theater last night.
But this is a show where there are eight producers and eight performers, and the school of hard knocks has taught me to use a certain skepticism when approaching Broadway musicals where the number of producers matches the number in the cast.
In fairness, our performing eight does not include the seven-piece band led by music director Allen Toussaint, a non-counting that is perhaps a little unfair because music is the name of this particular game. It is, in effect, a concert set loosely in a Broadway image, and one still wonders why it needed so many to produce it.
The Producer/Conceiver (and here there's only one, presumably the one who puts in the light bulb, the others merely turning the chair) is Judy Gordon, who apparently thought it would be interesting to base a revue on music associated with New Orleans.
Could be. Could have been. New Orleans was the cradle of jazz and has a musical heritage that can be traced from West Africa and dated at least from 1817, when the officially sponsored voodoo drum dances were started on Congo Square. It found the voice we still hear today around the turn of the present century.
But what we are being given here is not New Orleans jazz. If Gordon had been really smart she would have taken a look at Donald McKayle's hilarious 30-year-old ballet "District Storyville," currently danced by the Ailey company, to see what Broadway might have made of similar, if musically superior, material. But here we have latter-day, nightclub New Orleans tourist Creole mish-mash gumbo, all easy on the Big Easy, which is, well...OK. As I say...mildly.
The musical inspiration is, choosing words carefully, the almost close to legendary Toussaint himself, and, in addition to a more than sizable and tuneful dollop from his own oeuvre, runs from Hank Williams to a few classics such as "I Ain't Gonna Give Nobody None O' This Jelly Roll," and even, for a finale, natch, "The Saints Go Marchin' In."
The production itself is pretty stylish. David Mitchell's setting has a lovely, authentic New Orleans feel to it, and Theoni V. Aldredge's costumes possess just the right blend of glitter, glamour and tack.
And these "High Rollers" have been briskly staged and choreographed by Alan Weeks, while the cast is excellent. The standouts are a svelte and haughty Vivian Reed and the jokey Eugene Fleming, but all of them, Deborah Burrell-Cleveland, Lawrence Clayton, Michael McElroy and Nikki Rene, together with Keith Robert Bennett and Tarik Winston, who between them do most of the dancing, get together to offer an adequately piquant mix, jambalaya-style.
For those who like it, you can even be doused with confetti in the finale!
"The High Rollers Social and Pleasure Club" is a Broadway excursion into the mood and street sounds of the city of New Orleans. There is a Mardi Gras party going on here. Whether or not one feels like an invited guest will depend on how much one enjoys the music, a gumbo of diverse ingredients, and what demands one makes for art to go hand in hand with entertainment.
"High Rollers" is principally the creation of Allen Toussaint, who wrote a half-dozen of the more than 40 songs and is onstage as pianist, leading a tuneful combo. As the composer of songs like "Mother-in-Law" and as a successful record producer, Mr. Toussaint has made a considerable contribution to New Orleans rock and soul. But one can get the drift of a revue that opens with a garishly costumed jester standing atop a bar promising "a big powwow in the sky." He then introduces "the legendary Allen Toussaint," a description that may have been written by the aforesaid composer.
In other words, the show at the Helen Hayes Theater starts out on the wrong foot, achieving a kind of alienation effect on the audience. Later, it missteps, as vulgarity is confused with sexuality, and as some of the production accouterments like Theoni V. Aldredge's costumes cross the border into bad advice. On the positive side, the show has spirit and exuberance and a fervently talented cast, which sings and dances as if possessed by some musical genie. The performers, even more than the music, are the essence of the show.
The women are a striking trio: the willowy Vivian Reed, Deborah Burrell-Cleveland playing the role of "the queen" and the delicate Nikki Rene. Each has her own style, with Ms. Reed specializing in lowdown blues like "You Can Have My Husband" ("but don't mess with my man"). Singing together, as in Huey P. Smith's "Sea Cruise," they become a bouncing boogie-woogie black version of the Andrews Sisters.
Trapped by their obvious roles, and wearing black tights that would be more appropriate in a bicycle race, the men have a more difficult time asserting their individual identities. In his bowler hat, the muscular Michael McElroy seems to be reaching for the Geoffrey Holder crown, and Eugene Fleming preens beneath the glitter as the jester. But both of them and Lawrence Clayton have strong voices, especially so in the case of Mr. Clayton, who joins Ms. Burrell-Cleveland in the sinuous "Dance the Night."
They are followed by an equally passionate duet by Ms. Reed and Mr. McElroy. In a fillip to the first-act conviviality, the saxophonist Gary Keller (like the other instrumentalists, he looks out of place in a conventional suit) takes center stage for a mellow solo. After "the good times," as the first act is called, the second act's "more good times" are a bit of a letdown.
Spicing the menu are Tarik Winston and Keith Robert Bennett, paired as the Wonder Boys. They are like a couple of newsies tapping their way through "Feet, Don't Fail Me Now." Between their syncopated dancing and leaping splits, they further enliven an already lively show. As for the other men, they seem to have taps on their tights.
Although the revue may or may not be typical of New Orleans, the songs try to make a virtue of eclecticism. There are nonsense ditties like "Tu Way Pocky Way," which could be a cousin to "Push Ka Pi Shi Pie" in "Five Guys Named Moe," a "Jelly Roll" and even a reach into the bayou for Hank Williams's "Jambalaya."
All of the talk and especially the voodoo mumbo jumbo could be excised without harm, and there is too much hand waving in what passes for choreography. Under Alan Weeks's direction, the show speeds quickly by, with the final three numbers merging into an obligatory chorus of "When the Saints Go Marchin' In," accompanied by a shower of confetti over the audience. Walking down 44th Street after the show, one can easily tell which theatergoers have just seen "High Rollers." This jamboree is as diffuse as it is frenetic, but in contrast to the casts of audience-participation shows at other theaters, these performers do all the work and earn their place in the musical spotlight.
Like "Five Guys Named Moe," "The High Rollers Social & Pleasure Club" just about kills itself trying to show the audience a good time. The company of eight marches up and down the aisles of the intimate Helen Hayes Theater and rainbow confetti shoots out over the audience. The tone suggests that if you want to join in, well you go right ahead, hon.
Also like "Five Guys," "High Rollers" is a musical revue that even at well under two hours (including a 25-minute intermission), buries a handful of terrific songs in a lot of dross. Despite the presence of self-proclaimed New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint fronting the onstage band, "High Rollers" works too hard and comes up with too little to justify a Broadway run.
The bookless show is an homage to Crescent City music, mostly rhythm & blues and a good deal of it by Toussaint. It's set in the club of the title during Mardi Gras, which gives the cast the chance to camp it up in some of Theoni V. Aldredge's kitschiest costumes ever.
The first act of "High Rollers" is merely innocuous and occasionally raunchy, with a medley of rock numbers that includes Toussaint's "Mother in Law" and a mildly diverting tap routine. But it ends with a big drag number that's, frankly, a big drag, and the show goes notably downhill from there. The second act includes a side trip to the bayou, where the company is forced to perform as singing slaves on a day off. It's one of the more embarassing numbers in town.
As usual with such enterprises, even talented people are shown at less than their best. That includes David Mitchell's pedestrian setting and Beverly Emmons' ditto lighting.
While the company comprises several good singers and dancers, their creamy, pop-music voices lack any edge whatsoever and their dancing is utterly routine. Alan Weeks is of the arms-flying, hands-waving school of directing, tiresomely abundant here, as is his bump-and-grind choreography. All in all, "High Rollers" isn't very sociable and its pleasures are decidedly limited.