Jazz musical ‘Oo-Bla-Dee’ never really finds its groove

OO-bla-Dee review

PHOTO BY T. CHARLES ERICKSON

From left, Stacey Sargeant, Marva Hicks, Allison Semmes, Stanley Wayne Mathis and Monica J. Palmer in “Oo-Bla-Dee,” at Two River Theater in Red Bank.

“Oo-Bla-Dee,” a musical now playing at the Two River Theater in Red Bank, has some intriguing elements but lacks a compelling central story to tie it all together. And so it never really coheres into something that’s fully engaging.

The main question is if bright-eyed young saxophone player Gin Del Sol (Allison Semmes) will earn her place among the hardened veterans in the all-female, African-American jazz band she has just joined. The climactic scene is in Chicago, where they have traveled (from St. Louis) in a cramped car, in order to secure a much-desired recording contract.

But that’s not much of a story, especially since it’s obvious from the beginning that Del Sol brings to the band a vitality and a spark that they need. They’re really lucky to have her, even though they don’t immediately recognize that.

And so playwright Regina Taylor (who also wrote the lyrics to the original songs, which feature music by Diedre L. Murray) fills the musical with other stuff.

We get a glimpse of the racism these musicians routinely experience (the play is set in 1946), though it’s offstage and told to us, rather than shown. There’s a gospel interlude, and an extended digression that has to do with the Bette Davis’ movie, “Now, Voyager.”

Allison Semmes in “Oo-Bla-Dee.”

Amber Iman plays Luna C, a kind of one-woman Greek chorus who often seems exasperated with the characters, and Chesney Snow adds anachronistic beatbox percussion to the musical’s jazz.

Marva Hicks plays the band’s imperious, diva-like frontwoman, singer-pianist Evelyn Waters. Stacey Sargeant plays volatile, sharp-tongued drummer Lulu; Monica J. Palmer is the earthier, kinder bassist Ruby. Stanley Wayne Mathis plays the quartet’s much-derided but devoted manager (and driver), Shorty.

Two love interests for the female characters are introduced late, though one is never actually seen, and we never learn enough about the other for him to become a truly three-dimensional character.

All the other characters are portrayed quite vividly, though, with Semmes particularly good as the smart, spirited Del Sol.

The music we hear is played not by the actors, but by a small band on the higher of the set’s two levels (George Caldwell, piano; Corinthia Cromwell, saxophone; Mimi Bones, bass; and Eli Fountain, percussion). In one of director Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s best touches, the actors don’t really pretend to be playing, but move gracefully, almost like dancers, as the musicians expertly handle the actual music.

We feel like we’re seeing the music, in addition to hearing it. It’s a very clever way to get around the potential problem of the actors not actually playing the music that is so central to Taylor’s story.

“Oo-Bla-Dee” will be at Two River Theater in Red Bank through June 30; visit tworivertheater.org.

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