A soulful ensemble brings the heat to A Snowy Nite at the Dew Drop Inn (★★★☆☆), a holiday version of the jazz and blues revue that director Stephawn Stephens staged in a previous production at the Anacostia Playhouse. For the company’s first show back after a long hiatus, Stephens revives the entertaining evening of stories and song with several members of his previous cast.
Not all of the performers are working with the same firepower, but the night never flags, even as the singers shake, rattle, and roll their way through more than two dozen numbers, backed by musical director William Knowles on piano leading the three-piece Bootleggers band.
Only the slimmest threads of plot and character stitch the songs together, as Sunshine Shug (Sherice Payne), Buster Broadnax (Robert E. Person), and Pearl Bon Temp (Yvette Spears) drop in at the Inn, where Li’l Johnny (Marcel Miller) tends bar, Mr. Percy Calhoun (Fashad Tyler) emcees the show, and Gayzelle (Ayanna Hardy) rules the roost.
The Dew Drop’s really more like a roadside juke joint, with the wood-frame walls suggesting some backwoods getaway where the liquor’s strong and the blues are down-and-dirty. A Christmas tree and makeshift decorations join the photos of legends — Ella, Dinah, Fats Waller, and more — adorning the walls.
The atmosphere is right, if somewhat sparse, with Megan Holden’s barroom set spilling out into the theater, alongside a working bar. Patrons can pull up a close seat to watch the “dangerously delightful” lineup, as Percy dubs them, swap tales and tunes.
Each performer, including the three musicians of the small band with the big sound, is afforded their moment, or several moments, to shine. As “Songbird of the South” Shug, Payne consistently delivers powerhouse vocals and nuanced interpretation, whether in a scorching “Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean” or a divine “What a Difference a Day Makes.”
A Snowy Nite at the Dew Drop In — Photo: Bill Lee
She digs into the jazzy innuendo of “Right Key, Wrong Key Hole” with determination, a quality conveyed powerfully also by Spears in her numbers as lovelorn Pearl Bon Temp. Via her vivid performance, and expressive numbers like “That Ain’t Right” and “This Bitter Earth,” Spears etches the most affecting characterization of the night. Pearl alone seems to get a beginning, middle, and end out of her stay at the Inn.
Tyler might not make as much of a character of Mr. Percy, but his sound is smooth and lovely, and his swagger, accentuated by Alison Johnson’s nice costumes, suits the mode of the music. He’s got the emcee energy that pulls the crew and the crowd together. Although, the stage often looks too crowded when the whole ensemble lines up for a number, dancing downstage from, or in between the tables.
The awkward formations undermine the tightness of the ensemble in executing whatever Shawna Williams is aiming for with the choreography. And John D. Alexander’s lighting does little to help draw our focus, or define the movement. Regardless, Stephens and company keep the train moving at an entertaining pace, powered by a solid ensemble and choice songbook of blues, jazz, and soul — with a dash of Christmas cheer on the menu to help celebrate the season.
A Snowy Nite at the Dew Drop Inn runs through Jan. 9, 2022 at Anacostia Playhouse, 2020 Shannon Pl. SE. Tickets are $25 to $50, with East-of-the-River discounts available. Call 202-241-2539 or visit www.anacostiaplayhouse.org.
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