KPBS AIRDATE: April 08, 2005
Consider this ‘the day of the Diva.’ Six galvanic singers in one cabaret revue, and a powerhouse performance at the Opera. One way or another, they were all singin’ the blues.
In “Simon Boccanegra,” the long-lost daughter of the title character (the 14th century Doge of Genoa), finds and loses love. The story of Verdi’s opera is complex and convoluted, but the soprano’s voice was crystalline in its clarity. The San Diego Opera’s new sets were stately, and the male singers robust. But Anja Harteros reigned supreme. Her dynamic range and dramatic skill were, as in last year’s “Traviata,” simply spectacular. I think this Metropolitan Opera star will always have a special place in the hearts of San Diegans.
Now, some local song stylists are letting their voices be heard at San Diego’s only black dinner theater, The Ira Aldridge Repertory Players. Founder/artistic director Calvin Manson created “Raisin’ the Rent” to close his three-year African-American Women in Music series. And what a grand finale it is! The piece is a spinoff of early 20th century rent parties, or Skiffles, where jazz and blues greats jammed, to help keep the landlord at bay. The host of this particular event is Ms. Ernestine Anderson, a Big Band jazz stylist who’s still singing today. The time is 1953, and we’re in Ernestine’s club, where she’s invited a few of her closest friends, to help raise the rent – but what they really do is raise the roof. You see, her chums are Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Etta James and Nancy Wilson.
These musical icons are revived by a superb, sequined and often heart-stopping cast. We hear a bit about each hardscrabble life, and then, the signature songs – “Stormy Weather,” “Misty,” “God Bless the Child.” These performers are dynamos in their own right; they’re suggesting, rather than channeling or imitating, the famous firebrands. Charmen Jackson is our high-energy host, Ernestine Anderson; Michelle Allen is elegant and statuesque as Lena Horne; and lovely Yvette Moneé makes a soft, sultry Nancy Wilson. But the real star turns are by Anasa Johnson, reprising her one-woman tour de force as Billie Holiday; the high-octane Arnessa Rickett as Etta James and electrifying Ayanna Hobson, scattin’ away with her 4 ½ octave range, as Ella Fitz. Try sitting still through this one!
Despite the inconsistent and problematic miking, and the uncertainty of the audience about whether they were really supposed to put money in the pot or not, this is one rafter-rattling entertainment. Snuggled into the attractive, intimate Caesar Café downtown, and backed by an outstanding quintet, featuring Mmanzo Hill on alto sax, the show has the real-deal cabaret feel. So you can sup and sip and get a bellyful of luscious blues and jazz.
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.