I haven’t always attended Florida Studio Theatre’s numerous cabaret/musical revue shows in the past. While they can be entertaining, and have certainly been popular, they don’t necessarily give a reviewer much to write about—the usual things like plot, character development, etc. But since FST is just reopening its doors after a year shuttered due to the pandemic, it felt right to get back out there and see a show—in this case, Vintage POP!, now onstage in the larger Keating Theatre, for Covid-era social distancing reasons.
And after all, this new show, created by its star Carole J. Bufford and her collaborator Ian Herman, does tell a story, or maybe two or three, as she shimmies, shakes and sings her way through several decades of American pop music history. Telling a little anecdote about how a tune was created, or the framework against which it first touched the public ear, Bufford’s one-woman show (backed by bassist Isaac Mingus and keyboardist Jim Prosser) also reveals something about fashions (she manages costume changes behind a discreet screen), cross-pollination between musical genres and changing social mores.
Of course, that may sound like a lot for a 90-minute cabaret show to bear, but no worries. While ranging from upbeat numbers to wistful ones to out-and-out love songs, Bufford keeps her audience engaged from beginning to end, with a winning personality that often convinces them she’s letting them in on a little secret.
And she probably is. It’s doubtful many in that audience know that “Blue Moon,” which seems to have always existed, actually went through a lot of changes before becoming the standard it is, starting out as a childlike song written for a Jean Harlow movie before transitioning to a more adult number in the movie Manhattan Melodrama. Or that the peerless Sophie Tucker snuck in regularly to listen to Alberta Hunter deliver “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” before claiming it for herself. Or that Peggy Lee wrote “It’s a Good Day” when seeing the sun come out while recovering from a bit of (perhaps post-partum) depression.
Bufford can also make us see and hear a song in a whole new light, as with a moving, slowed-down rendition of the Beatles’ “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” or by proving her point (quoting Sister Rosetta Tharpe) that “rock ‘n’ roll is just rhythm and blues sped up” by delivering “A Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “All Shook Up” as their original performers (pre Elvis or Jerry Lee Lewis) did.
Navigating her way from 1920s flapper and blues style through the modish 1960s and into the 1980s with Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror,” Bufford’s sparkle extends beyond the costumes she’s wearing. She’s got a megawatt smile, expressive hands and body movements, and a clearly genuine appreciation for the carefully selected songs she sings. And Prosser and Mingus lend her just the support she needs, while occasionally getting to have their own moments in the spotlight.
Vintage POP! continues through May 9, having been extended from its original closing date. For tickets, call 366-9000 or visit floridastudiotheatre.org.