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Geva cooks up a mouth-watering blues musical

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"You go to the theater night after night, hoping that something magical will happen," my guest said to me as we were leaving Geva Theatre on Saturday, "and tonight it did." Everybody knows what a tough business it is to try to produce new theater, especially a new musical show. But I don't think I'm going out on a limb by saying that Geva is opening its 30th season by co-producing a future off-Broadway hit.

            Cookin' at the Cookery: The Music and Times of Alberta Hunter is so skillfully put together by writer/director Marion J. Coffey that it needs no better dramatic exposition to tell its story and couldn't be a more engrossing and rewarding musical experience. I find it superior to similar musical biographies I've enjoyed, such as Vernel Bagneris' award-winning Jelly Roll. A co-production of Geva; The Hippodrome State Theatre of Gainesville, Florida; and Buffalo's Studio Arena Theatre, Cookin' at the Cookery played Florida first and now seems flawlessly polished. It's one of those rare theater works in which you can just sit back and revel in every minute.

            I remember Alberta Hunter being introduced on the televised 1978 Kennedy Center Awards, and then knocking out the distinguished audience with her rich-voiced, mesmerizing blues singing at the age of 83. I'd seen photos of the legendary Hunter co-starring with Paul Robeson in the London premiere of Show Boat in the '30s, but I hadn't known she was still alive, much less in fine voice. In fact, she'd been out of show business and working as a licensed practical nurse for more than 20 years. Just a year earlier, she'd made an incredible return at Greenwich Village's The Cookery. This show is set at the opening of that 1977 comeback, where this inspiring woman reminisces about her life as she gives us the wisdom and perspective of more than seven decades and still thrills us with her singing.

            Ann Duquesnay brings her fine acting skills and gorgeous voice to the role of Alberta; and the amazing Debra Walton, as narrator, transforms her face, body, and many voices into everybody else we need to encounter. Sometimes Duquesnay becomes Alberta's mother; or a young, innocent Alberta; or a lively aunt. But Walton becomes an aged Jewish man; a gawky little girl; and, spectacularly, a convincing sounding Louis ("Satchmo") Armstrong.  These two sing, dance, and act together to create all the drama and concert I could want for this revue. They are not good, skilled performers: I would advisedly call them great.

            The production is first rate. Danny Holgate's musical supervision and arrangements, and the band --- Joe Battaglia, George Caldwell, Rodney Harper, and Cliff Kellem, under Caldwell's rousing musical direction --- support the two singers on a level that should provide a big-selling CD. Dale Jordan's impressive scenery and exciting lighting provide a setting worthy of Marilyn A. Wall's perfectly evocative costumes. Walton deliberately does some comic-sounding singing when Alberta, as a little girl, is supposed to be out of her element, but there actually isn't a false note in this wonderful show.

Cookin' at the Cookery, written and directed by Marion J. Coffey, plays Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 4 and 8:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2 and 7:30 p.m. until Sunday, October 6, at Geva Theatre, 75 Woodbury Blvd. Tickets $12.50-$46.50. www.gevatheatre.org,585-232-GEVA (4382).

Theater note: Cookin' at the Cookery plays at Studio Arena Theatre in Buffalo after Geva from October 20 through November 23. It is headed to New York in 2003. Currently playing at Studio Arena Theatre is a very peculiarly directed revival of Tennessee Williams' classic drama, A Streetcar Named Desire.

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