It felt a little like Old Home Week gathering at Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe’s Donelly Theatre for the company’s season-opening production of the musical revue Eubie! It’s been a long, long time since guests were allowed inside, due to Covid, and although the audience was smaller than usual, the feeling of relief at some return to normalcy was palpable. And that was even before the 11-member cast started the show.
Probably not many of those audience members remember a much earlier WBTT production of this salute to composer Eubie Blake, acclaimed as the father of Black Broadway for his groundbreaking shows including Shuffle Along, a century ago. The theater was a fledgling then; now it’s spread its wings, with a more highly professional cast and crew interpreting Blake’s impressive mix of music styles, from comic to bluesy to spiritual to jazz.
And interpretation is a crucial word here, as director Jim Weaver makes clear in his program notes. The types of songs and performances Black actors were expected, or allowed, to do in the 1920s, before and often after, can run the risk of seeming dated or even offensive in a more contemporary context. But Eubie! succeeds in showing how those performers triumphed against the odds.
Eubie! features some familiar faces and voices for WBTT followers, along with a few newcomers. Under Weaver’s direction (with excellent musical direction by Brennan Stylez and choreography by Weaver and Donald Frison), the evening is well-paced, with upbeat tunes like Blake’s most famous number, “I’m Just Wild About Harry” or “High Steppin’ Days” alternating with more somber pieces, like “Weary,” “Low Down Blues” and “Memories of You.”
The production moves along most engagingly when the full company is onstage. But the individuals in the cast get their opportunities to shine, too. Take Jai Shanae on the sultry Daddy, slinking on a divan and making quite plain her longing for her man. Or Brian L. Boyd on those “Low Down Blues” and Idella Johnson on “Rock Me in the Cradle of Love”—plaintively expressing the needs of two lonely souls who, fortunately, come together. Or Syreeta S. Banks, bringing out every innuendo in the naughty “My Handy Man Ain’t Handy No More.” Banks also leads the ensemble on a rousing version of Roll Jordan that will have watchers swaying and clapping in their seats.
There’s humor, as in a courtroom scene starring Brentney J as the “brown skin” in “If You’ve Never Been Vamped by a Brown Skin,” or Warren Nolan Jr.’s delivery of “I’m a Great Big Baby,” ending in a temper tantrum on the floor. There’s sentiment, as on the closing “Goodnight Angeline,” featuring some lovely harmonies by Delores McKenzie, Vallea E. Woodbury, Quinn Q. Cason and Boyd. McKenzie also sings her heart out on “I’m Craving for That Kind of Love,” while Woodbury does the same on “Memories of You” and Jarius Cliett takes us to another mood with “Oriental Blues.” There’s some tapping on tap, too, thanks to the work of Brentney J as Ty-Gabriel Jones sings “Hot Feet.”
Some viewers may wish for more splashy dance numbers, or for a little background on the man the show honors. There’s no narrative pulling the songs together, although some projected images of people and places do help provide a sense of period, as do the often stunning costumes by Darci Collins.
Overall, though, the music is the thing here, and it’s delivered with style and power. Eubie! continues through Nov. 21; for tickets, call (941) 366-1505 or visit westcoastblacktheatre.org.