- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 1, 2007

Ragtime’s a drag time at Olney Theatre Center’s production of the revue “Eubie!” a celebration of the legacy of the famous black Baltimorean musical pioneer Eubie Blake that sputters when it should sizzle.

Veteran theatergoers might remember the original 1978 Broadway production and subsequent touring shows that starred Maurice Hines and Gregory Hines, whose brightly articulated tapping still strongly echoes in memory. The talents of the Hines brothers are impossible to duplicate, but in director Tony Parise’s revamped edition of “Eubie!” just two of the nine cast members — Fredena J. Williams and Randy Aaron — exhibit enviable skill at tap-dancing. The rest, to quote Eubie Blake’s most famous composition, just shuffle along.

Mr. Parise has re-conceived and updated the show to remove some of its disco-era traces, and in many ways, it resembles another revue from that time, “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” which was devoted to the music of Fats Waller. Dan Conway’s bilevel art-deco set, which is curved like a musical staff, seems inspired by “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” and the original production of the musical “Chicago” in its nightclub ambience.

The ill-fitting costumes, however, do not recall the slinky glamour of the 1920s and beyond — far from it. Every expense seems to have been spared. The first-act gospel finale looks like an homage to Wal-Mart separates, while the men’s suits throughout the program appear to have been borrowed from decades of R&B; wedding-band singers.

All of this could be overlooked if the ensemble showed an affinity for Mr. Blake’s catchy, deceptively simple ditties or even the rhythms and complexities of ragtime music. At times, when the singers are performing such classics as “Daddy,” “In Honeysuckle Time” or “Memories of You,” they exhibit such little knowledge or appreciation of ragtime or early jazz that they might as well be singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Some of the numbers are sung with such an absence of feeling that you wonder if the singers are reading the lyrics off cue cards.

The novelty songs “If You’ve Ever Been Vamped by a Brownskin” and “My Handyman Ain’t Handy Anymore” cry out for delectable comic interpretation, and “Brownskin” is particularly underplayed. Roz White Gonsalves fetchingly plays up the naughty double-entendres in “Handyman,” and Miss Williams shines with ample attitude — she easily is the most talented member of the cast — in her sexy, gymnastic number “I’m a Great Big Baby.”

A certain dynamism is lacking in Olney’s “Eubie!” and the energy level dips even more in the second act, although Mr. Aaron sells the tune “Hot Feet” with his balletic tapping and engaging manner. The show’s big duet, “Gee, I Wish I Had Someone to Rock Me in the Cradle of Love,” usually a highlight, never achieves the necessary emotional crescendo.

Pitch problems, wobbly vocals and a few instances of miscasting make this “Eubie” something even Harry might not be wild about.


WHAT: “Eubie!” music by Eubie Blake, conceived for original Broadway production by Julianne Boyd

WHERE: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Sundays and Tuesdays; 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through April 29.

TICKETS: $25 to $46

PHONE: 301/924-3400


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