Dancehall Dreams

Nostalgia and jazz swing St. Pete's Manhattan Casino

When it finally gets around to it, Bob Devin Jones' musical Manhattan Casino tells an interesting if somewhat familiar story about the attraction of big-city showbiz to a girl from the provinces. Of course that's not all this production of the LiveArts Peninsula Foundation show is about. In keeping with the Foundation's mission, Manhattan Casino celebrates a Tampa Bay institution, in this case the nightclub and dancehall that for more than 40 years was a focus of African-American life in St. Petersburg. But for all its references to St. Pete in 1948 — to 22nd Street South and Central Avenue, to Gibbs High School and the Coliseum — the real dramatic question at the heart of the play is whether young, talented Althea Dunbar will sign a recording contract and move to New York. Of course, there's a problem with this storyline: By making the casino seem a possible conduit to the Big Apple, it reduces the end-in-itself importance of the nightclub and implies that dreams may start in St. Petersburg, but they have to go elsewhere for fulfillment.

Since LiveArts seems to have an opposite intention — to remind Tampa Bay residents that their lives, lived locally, are worthy of artistic rendering, I can't help but find Casino's central tale disappointing. And I can't help but imagine an alternative plotline — about a young girl whose ambitions end with the casino itself. I suspect that there'd be at least as much truth in that narrative.

The show's other main problem — aside from the acoustical difficulties and P.A. failures that garbled a lot of dialogue on opening night — is length. Basically, much of the play's first half-hour could be cut, thus reducing the performance to about two-and-a-half hours. And the first 30 minutes are eminently disposable; they're mostly made up of introductions to various characters and don't begin to be a plot until bashful Althea is offered that singing contract. Not that we don't need to meet the personages in the first few scenes. But efficiency and current dramaturgical principles suggest that we meet them during the plot, and not in what figures as a 30-minute prologue.

About that plot: Althea Dunbar is a St. Pete resident who's about to turn 18 and plans to go to Spellman College in Atlanta after graduation. Althea and two friends happen to be outside the Manhattan Casino when a minstrel show in search of a singer appears. Listening to Althea and her friends audition is Prather Fairchild, who represents Fairchild's Booking Agency in New York City and who has come to tell Rat, the casino's owner, that Duke Ellington won't be coming to the casino as scheduled. Fairchild is also a pianist in a jazz trio and has been looking for a woman to front his band. Now he thinks he's found her in Althea, to whom he offers a recording contract.

But not everyone is impressed by Fairchild: Althea's boyfriend Caleb Jefferson sees him as just another white exploiter of black lives, and Althea's father Calvin sees him as leading his daughter astray from enrollment in college and the prospect of a respectable job, perhaps as a schoolteacher.

Finally, these lives converge at the casino, where Althea and her friends are scheduled to sing, and Caleb, a talented horn player, is also to perform. But everything goes wrong: The girls' song doesn't come off, Althea's father comes to pluck her from the stage, and the police bust Caleb for running numbers. With Caleb arrested, Althea nabbed and the casino closed down, the question remains: Will any of these lives find a happy ending?

It's a sturdy, well-constructed plot, and if it doesn't seem strictly local — after all, the same events could happen in just about any city in the South — at least it allows Jones and co-lyricist Michele Lamar Richards ample opportunity to talk about St. Pete life in dialogue and songs. And it also presents some opportunities for fine acting and singing.

At the center of things is Monica Raymund, who plays Althea as an impressionable, star-struck teenager, and whose lovely voice is one of the best things in the show. Sharon E. Scott once again demonstrates, as Caleb's mother, Rosalie, that she's one of our very best vocalists and a gifted comic actress. Other standouts are Michele Lamar Richards as Althea's quiet-spoken mother and Paul A. Stewart as Althea's strong-willed, Bible-wielding father. Phillip Howze as Caleb could hardly be better. He's angry and quite sure that his answers to life's conundrums are the right ones; and Henry Lawrence as Rat provides an impressive performance as a man who's used to power but also capable of tenderness. One other standout is Nathan Burton, who plays his bookie's role impeccably, and does a wonderful job singing the delightful "Bolita."

Other elements of the show are of mixed quality. Author Jones is also the show's director, and though there's much excellent work here, there are also too many scenes played two-dimensionally on the forestage.

The music by Richards, Rick Steuart and Danny Hamilton is often tuneful, occasionally weak, and the dancing, to Paulette Walker Johnson's choreography, is seldom as completely convincing as it needs to be.

It also should be said that not all the voices in this production are of top quality; it's not at all unusual to hear a wonderful rendition followed by one that fails to please.

And still there's something excellent about Manhattan Casino — about the turning of local stories into dramatic art. Yes, the show has a few too many problems; but the LiveArts project is looking better all the time. Why should we find only Paris and London in our plays? Why not Tampa and St. Pete and the communities nearby? One of the things that art does is confer value on the thing depicted, and there's something wonderful in seeing that value applied here.

Manhattan Casino is no triumph, but it's unarguable evidence that something important is happening to Tampa Bay theater.

Performance Critic Mark E. Leib at [email protected] or 813-248-8888 ext. 305.

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