‘Hot Funky Butt Jazz’ heats up the Dowling; Pulitzer winner ‘Silent Night’ returns

“Hot Funky Butt Jazz” cast
Provided by Interact Center
Members of the “Hot Funky Butt Jazz” cast, left to right: Zena Moses, Messiah Moses Albert, Jeremy Phipps, Naa Mensah and Michael Wolfe.

With a cast of more than 50 characters, 11 scenes and nearly 20 songs, Interact Theater’s “Hot Funky Butt Jazz” bubbles with energy, music and motion. Revisiting a show that has seen a couple of different stagings, the creators – the Interact ensemble and artists from New Orleans – have set it firmly in the NOLA of the early 1900s, a time when Jim Crow was in full force.

Working New Orleans musicians Zena Moses, Jeremy Phipps and Eugene Harding have been key members of the team. (Fun fact: Moses is Irma Thomas’ goddaughter.) They’re back, reprising their roles as wise and powerful voodoo priestess Marie Laveau and Funky Butt band members Stringbean Russell and Zutty MacNeil. The Funky Butt was a late-night club where legendary black cornetist Buddy Bolden once played.

Director and Interact founder Jeanne Calvit grew up in Baton Rouge. Over a decade, she and script supervisor/composer Aaron Gabriel made several trips to New Orleans. The show has the grit of historic authenticity. It also speaks to our present time. Bits of dialogue sound contemporary. An example: “Some folks only see differences, but some make choices to change themselves. Look inside and see love instead of hate. Or hate instead of love.” Reference is made to the Robert Charles riots, which began in a shootout between a black man and a white police officer.

The story flows from the French Quarter to the docks, an early NAACP meeting to a minstrel show, a high-society tea house to the brothels of Storyville. An early scene in the French Market bustles with life and rhythm. It’s here we meet Professor James London (Michael Wolfe), a black man on his first trip to the Big Easy. He’s traveling with white dancers Victor and Eileen Manor (Scotty Reynolds and Heather Bunch) as the conductor of their band. “In Chicago,” Eileen explains to a group of disbelieving bystanders, “it’s very fashionable to have a Negro band leader these days. You should catch up to the times.”

Keep an eye on London. There are several memorable characters: Marie and Stringbean, Victor and Eileen, church deacon Cora Russell (Cayla Pierson), madames May Moreaux and Fanny Bloom (Ivory Doublette and Sheridan Zuther), the prostitute Kidney-Foot Jenny (Stephanie Muue), vaudeville queens Candy Dapple and Coco Vaughn (Sam Videen and Jeffrey Haas). But London stands out. He moves through the play, listening and learning. New Orleans changes him. Hearing jazz changes him. The “hot” music derided by whites as an immoral influence (“Jazz is music gone mad!” “It plunges people into depravity!”) gives him the courage to stand up for himself.

Also keep an eye on child actor Messiah Moses Albert as Little Louie. The kid knows his lines, he can dance, and he doesn’t seem the least bit self-conscious before an audience. When he picks up a horn and blows, you know which Louie he is, if you haven’t already guessed. We may be seeing the next Trombone Shorty.

“Hot Funky Butt Jazz” is powered by music, including a raunchy song (“Sin in Sin-copation”), a hilarious song (“Small-Time Vaudeville”), a wistful song (“Jasmine in the Wind”) and a song with teeth (“Mista Jim Crow”). It’s about many things: history, jazz, human struggles, racism, survival and improvisation in the face of oppression.

It may ultimately be about hope. Twice during the play, near the beginning and again near the end, Marie Laveau tells us we all get three wishes: to remember the souls from the past, to be happy in the present, and to hope for the future.

If you’re not yet familiar with Interact, it’s a professional theater whose trained (and paid) actors are mostly people with physical and mental disabilities. The theater is part of Interact Center for the Visual and Performing Arts, whose mission is to create art that challenges perceptions of disability.

Part of the Guthrie’s Level Nine initiative, “Hot Funky Butt Jazz” continues in the Dowling Theater through Nov. 18. FMI and tickets (all $9).

The picks

T. Mychael Rambo
T. Mychael Rambo
Now at the Illusion Theater: T. Mychael Rambo: “Present.” In his new one-man show with music, the beloved stage actor, Penumbra company member and singer explores how he has been present in his life with music. In turn, the stories he tells and the songs he sings – R&B and gospel favorites, Stephen Sondheim, Carole King, John Legend, standards and surprises – are a present to the audience. Michael Roberts directs. 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($25-45). Ends Nov. 17.

Now at the Howard Conn Fine Arts Center in Plymouth Church: Uprising Theatre Company: The Laramie Project Cycle. A rare pairing of two plays about the brutal Oct. 1998 slaying of Matthew Shepard on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming. Created by the members of New York’s Tectonic Theater Project, who traveled to Laramie a month after the murder, “The Laramie Project” has been seen by more than 30 million people across the U.S. In 2008, Tectonic returned to Laramie to explore how the town had changed in the decade since the murder. “The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later” explores how history is written and rewritten. The two plays are running in repertory. FMI and tickets ($20 each play, $30 for both). Shannon TL Kearns founded Uprising Theatre after performing in a production of “The Laramie Project.”

Thursday and Saturday at the Trylon: “All Quiet on the Western Front” with live soundtrack by the Great River Film Orchestra. The Oscar-winning 1930 film about the brutality and futility of war is still shockingly contemporary. The Trylon will screen the Library of Congress silent version, where the imagery is the star. Great River member Keith Lee explained, “Our musical take is to show this movie simply for what it really is: a horror film. And given World War I being the cultural and technological start of the modern 20th century, we will be employing modern electric instruments and improvisation.” Lee, Matt Sowell and Nathan Grumdahl will make their debut as the Great River Film Orchestra. Proceeds will benefit the Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans, dedicated to ending homelessness for Minnesota veterans. FMI and tickets ($25); Thursday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 4 p.m.

Friday through Sunday at the Cowles: Zenon Dance Company 36th Season. With its signature blend of modern and jazz dance, the Minneapolis-based company is presenting new works and favorites from its repertory. The season opened last weekend and concludes this weekend with a world premiere by emerging New York choreographer Sam Kim (“Procession”), a Zenon premiere by Minnesota choreographer Wynn Fricke (“Just Her Time”), Gregory Dolbashian’s look at fierce intimacy and physicality (“Eternal Reveal”) and Mariusz Olszewski’s tribute to the mambo, the cha-cha and salsa (“Pink Martini”). 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($34).

Photo by Michal Daniel
Production photo from the 2011 world premiere of "Silent Night" at the Ordway.
Opens Saturday at the Ordway: Minnesota Opera: “Silent Night.” Born here as part of the Minnesota Opera’s New Works Initiative, “Silent Night” – music by Kevin Puts, libretto by Mark Campbell – won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Music and has had many productions since, including its European premiere at the Wexford Festival in 2014 and a monthlong run at Glimmerglass this summer. Based on the true story of a momentary Christmas truce between Scottish, French and German soldiers during World War I, it’s coming home for the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day. Soprano Karin Wolverton will return as Danish opera singer Anna Sørensen; baritone Andrew Wilkowske will reprise the role of Ponchel. Tenor Miles Mykkanen will sing the role of Nikolaus Sprink, whose voice inspires peace. Six performances. FMI and tickets ($25-200); 612-333-6669.

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