“Nick’s Flamingo Grill” is a snazzy, jazzy piece of theatre to welcome us to Alliance Theatre’s 50th season. Directed by Tinashe Kajese-Bolden, it runs on the Hertz Stage through Oct. 28.
In 2015 the most critically acclaimed play in the city was Philip DePoy’s “Edward Foote,” also at the Hertz. Mr. DePoy is back with a new play with music that is based on truth and involves the city of Atlanta in the 1950’s.
It seems there was a short-lived downtown jazz club back then, and when Mr. DePoy and his brother were children, their dad, a musician, would play music there with top-notch musicians for integrated audiences. The program notes the club was “more of an ad-hoc jam spot in a run-down building than an actual club”; and interestingly, “DePoy has never been able to find verifiable proof of its existence. He suspects it never had a business license or even a name.”
However, Mr. DePoy has interviewed several musicians and audience members, and something existed there. It reminds me a bit of “Brigadoon,” the Lerner and Lowe musical about a Scottish village which appears for one day every hundred years.
However, thanks to the playwright’s powerful dramatic imagination, the story of “Nick’s Flamingo Grill” begins in Paris during World War II when friends Chi-Chi (Diany Rodriguez), Ben (Jimmy Kieffer), Bechet (Antwayn Hopper), and Claudine (Shakirah Demesier) became pals and bonded over jazz and gumbo, made by friend Nick (Cordell Cole). They stayed in Paris a bit after the war and played at Le Mars Club.
Nick wanted to open a free (that is, integrated) jazz club in the U.S., but he was killed (by Nazis, I think). His friends, however, took the dream to the states. (I wonder a bit why they chose Atlanta over New Orleans; Tennessee Williams wrote in 1947 in notes for “Streetcar” that “New Orleans is a cosmopolitan city where there is a relatively warm and easy intermingling of races in the old part of town.” Just a thought. Of course, Mr. DePoy’s memories are about Atlanta.)
At any rate the friends meet a smart real estate dealer named Harold (Robin Bloodworth) and open a club which starts playing to sold-out crowds—for awhile. A recording executive (Daniel Triandiflou) scouts them and is particularly interested in Chi-Chi.
Director Kajese-Bolden and scenic designer Robinson are brilliantly successful in creating an enticing jazz club ambience. The audience sits on either side of the stage; every seat is a good one.
The performers are magnetic: Ms. Rodriguez, one of the most versatile actor-singers in Atlanta, just keeps on getting better. In fact, every actor I’ve mentioned is top notch, and most sing like a dream. Tyrone Jackson is the composer, orchestrator, and music director; he’s terrific. And Mr. DePoy writes lyrics and additional music (a true Renaissance man). By the way, Ms. Demesier’s Claudine is enchanting; when she’s onstage, you tend to focus on her. There are performers like that.
But—this is 1950’s Atlanta. Racism, sexism, homophobia—all rear their ugly heads. There is a bombing of the club—more than one. The performers gallantly do their best to recover, but it’s not easy. (This is why I mentioned New Orleans earlier; but that’s not where “Nick’s Flamingo Grill” happened. Ask Mr. DePoy.)
“Nick’s” is bracing, vibrant, romantic, tragic—and well-nigh irresistible. It’s not big on characterization, but it has something intangible that makes me urge you not to miss this show.
For tickets and information, visit alliancetheatre.org.