The Jefferson Performing Arts Society (JPAS) kicked off its 2013 Season last weekend at Theatro Wego!, 155 Sala Avenue in Westwego, with “Blueberry Hill,” an original labor of New Orleans love written, directed and starring Big Easy Award winner Butch Caire.
Anyone who grew up listening to the New Orleans classic rock and roll songs of the late Fifties and Sixties - songs like Lloyd Price’s “Personality,” “Just Because” and “I’m Gonna Get Married," Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill” and “Ain’t That a Shame” or the Dixie Cups’ “Chapel of Love" - will love to watch and sing along with these classic tunes as a very talented cast performs an original book and well-shaped storyline by Butch.
This is something like a New Orleans version of “Rock of Ages,” only instead of hearing songs originally done by Whitesnake and Journey, one will hear works originally written by songwriter Allen Toussaint and sung by local icons like Irma Thomas and Ernie K-Doe.
Female cast members include Ashley Rose Simpson and three real life sisters who play a number of the roles: Sabrina, Whitney and Jessica Mixon. Jessica, who plays Claudia, is paired with Peter Elliott, who has a fabulous singing voice and has recently been featured in several productions with Summer Lyric Theatre at Tulane University. He plays Johnny, the son of the owner of the fictional Blueberry Hill Lounge played by Caire. In an additional acknowledgement to the legendary old New Orleans recording sessions, Caire's character is named Cosimo. (Cosimo Matassa was the recording engineer who oversaw many of the biggest hits of that era.)
Rounding out the cast is Donald Lewis, who renders a comic portrayal of a loveable two-timing lothario with a major crush on Thomas. He delivers some amazing vocalizing, especially on the bass baritone parts in “Mother in Law” and “A Certain Girl.”
All of these songs were sung by black New Orleans artists at a time when segregation remained the law of the land. But the songs and the singers were universally loved and accepted by all audiences in the city and afar. The book takes this into account as well as the vast improvement in race relations since that time. Nevertheless, when the young interracial couple of Johnny and Claudia openly declare their love for one another at the time of the setting of the play in 2004, they still have a lot to overcome.
These songs are very much the center of the book and Caire takes a great care to very cleverly insert tunes like "It's Raining" an "You Talk Too Much" for maximum effect, setting the mood and enhancing the action on the stage.
While "Blueberry Hill" could have used a bit more dramatic action to lengthen the second act, most audience members didn't seem to mind. Choreography is hampered by the small size of the stage, but Griffin Collins did a creditable job in coming up with movements that worked more times than not. The audience enjoys keeping time with the six-piece band that accompanies the vocalists. Led by Donna Clavijo on keyboards, the ensemble includes a trumpet, tenor sax, bass, trombone and various percussion pieces.
“Blueberry Hill” plays at Teatro Wego!, 155 Sala Avenue in Westwego, until October 6 and then is on the road at the Fuhrmann Auditorium in Covington, LA the weekend of October 18-20 and the Harbor Center in Slidell, LA the weekend of October 25-27.