- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The In Series’ latest snappy cabaret-style production, “From U St. to the Cotton Club,” opened Friday at the Source. This knockout show evokes with near perfection, in word and song, the meteoric rise and eventual demise of the Harlem Renaissance.

Tightly directed by KenYatta Rogers, “U St.” was originally slated to open last season at the Source, but its debut was postponed until this year because of delays in renovating that theater-arts complex on 14th Street Northwest.

As with a fine wine, the extra year’s aging may have done this production more good than harm. Its pace is brisk and tight. Its subtle, prose-poetic book by Sybil R. Williams is quietly yet effectively evocative of the period. And the quality of the show’s performances is a cut above.

In fact, “U St.” could be the tightest, sprightliest, most interesting new show we’ve seen the In Series produce since we started following this durable little company in the mid-1990s. It’s also a compellingly literary production, exploiting the cabaret-revue format to unite prose, verse and music, helping open a window into a seminal period in American cultural history.

“U St.” is based on the fictional diary of sassy Lena. Her life trajectory takes her from South Carolina to Washington to New York, paralleling the historic migration of blacks northward during and after World War I in search of better jobs and greater freedom.

Sensitively portrayed by Michelle Rogers, Lena becomes part of the growing musical scene in Washington, but she is motivated to move farther north to Harlem in the aftermath of Washington’s 1919 “Red Summer” race riots.

Lena’s story serves as a bridge to the poetry of literary icons such as Claude McKay, Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes. Conveniently, her own musical gifts also draw her into the orbit of Duke Ellington, Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith, Cab Calloway and “Fats” Waller.

The musical selections of “U St.” trace spirituals and their eventual transformation into blues, big-band jazz and beyond. They’re vividly performed by Detra Battle, Brian Q. Thorne, Pam Ward and Stanley Webber, who virtually channel a riotous parade of song-and-dance characters.

The singers are smartly accompanied by a jazz trio led by the show’s musical director, pianist Stanley Thurston. He’s assisted by Rudy Gonzalez on sax and Nelson Alvarez on percussion.

“U St.” highlights include Mr. Webber’s great performance of Robert Johnson’s “Walkin’ Blues,” Mr. Thorne’s heart-rending rendition of Yip Harburg’s classic “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” and the ensemble’s razzle-dazzle renditions of Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ Train” and Duke Ellington and Irving Mills’ “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).”

“U St.” is Washington-style literary cabaret at its best, a great show on a bare-bones budget. Word will get around fast, so launch a pre-emptive strike by picking up the phone and reserving your tickets now.

★★★½

WHAT: “From U Street to the Cotton Club”

WHERE: Source, 1835 14th St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Saturday and May 1 and 3 p.m. Sunday and May 3

TICKETS: $33, $30 for seniors, $16 for students and youth

PHONE: 202/204-7763

WEB SITE: www.inseries.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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