You won’t know any more about composer Eubie Blake coming out of the Piccolo Spoleto revue Eubie than you did going in, so here’s a quick orientation: Blake was a musical prodigy who earned his place in pop culture history in 1921 by co-writing “Shuffle Along,” the first hit African-American Broadway musical. A revue of his work was another Broadway hit in the 1970s, and Charleston’s Art Forms and Theater Concepts revived it for the 2008 Moja and 2009 Piccolo Festivals.
So most of what you need to know about this show is right there: The show’s a known commodity, the music is American-classic, and it’s a revue, so there’s no storyline to consider.
In other words, it’s all about the music with this show, and its first performance of the festival quite simply had its problems, starting with the amplification.
I’ve never been convinced that relatively small venues like Footlights require microphones and speakers, but Eubie! used them, and they vexed the cast through two acts. Without getting overly technical, there seemed to be a problem with inconsistent levels, so that some of the singers and instruments routinely overpowered the others. Things didn’t improve after intermission, either. On the bright side, the band played with much more confidence and cohesion in the second stand.
“Eubie!” rolls out the kind of big choral firepower that doesn’t require amplification. Tamara Delaine Saunders can coo or belt it out, and she shares her earthy growl with Tiffany R. Summers. The best-received number of the first show blended Saunders’ sultry “Cradle of Love” with Husain Williams’ cool “Low Down Blues.” Jacquez Brown chewed up the stage as a big-voiced comedic singer, and Juanita Green had her cutie-pie sexpot mojo working during “If You’ve Never Been Vamped By a Brownskin.”
But the most complete performer on stage was Trané, a veteran trouper who commanded the stage nicely during several numbers, singing lead, supporting other castmembers and providing deft physical comedy. She could become a favorite.
Those combined talents fought the show’s flaws more or less to a draw. Audience reaction seemed mixed as well, with about a dozen people slipping out early and roughly half of those who remained giving the cast a prolonged standing ovation.
Any show can have a night when things don’t quite work, so chalk this one up to the festival gremlins.