Jubilee Theatre is doing some time travelin' with its new show, Trav'lin.
The musical, which is enjoying its regional premiere at the theater, is based primarily on the music of J.C. Johnson, a black composer of the Depression era, and features a book and additional lyrics by Gary Holmes and Allan Shapiro. The authors have created a story involving the romantic difficulties of three couples of varying ages to showcase Johnson's tunes, which have a sort of Fats Waller feel to them.
This production features a cast of solid singers, beginning with Marvin Matthews as George, the self-proclaimed mayor of his particular Harlem neighborhood. His performance is enjoyable, even though his acting chops are not on a par with his vocals.
May Allen, as George's love interest, Billie, is a more complete package, playing and singing her role with equal comfort. And her duets with Matthews provide the show's best moments.
T.K. Bell is also highly appealing as the enticing beautician Roz. Thelma Mitchell has some exaggerated fun with Ella, the show's innocent, yet eager, ingénue. And Oris Phillips Jr. is very effective as the womanizing Archie, the sort of part Billy Dee Williams might have played in his younger days.
But the real standout in the cast is relative newcomer Michael Anthony Sylvester, as Ella's pursuer, Nelson. He captures the retro style of the show perfectly and plays the comic aspects of his character with exactly the right amount of Andy Hardy-esque "golly, gee whiz" earnestness. He acts, sings and moves exceptionally well. It is hoped that we will continue to see him often on Fort Worth stages.
Director Tre Garrett maintains a good pace and leaves you with the feeling that he is realizing the intentions of the authors well. Despite being a little overloaded with numbers, the production never lags, and Garrett keeps the running time reasonable.
There are points, however, where a few more dance moves from choreographer Jennifer Engler might have helped the staging. These players are good hoofers, but the production does not give them enough opportunities to show off.
The set, by Michael Skinner, is simple and serviceable. But its best attribute is the use of some arty projections to help set the scene. There is not nearly enough use of projections and other electronic visual elements in community theater, so this production deserves kudos for not only doing so, but for integrating those elements so smoothly.
The costuming, by Barbara O'Donoghue, is sharply done and keeps us tuned in to the time period of the show.
On the whole, this production offers the same sort of sweet, simple pleasure you might find in watching an old 1930s musical on Turner Classic Movies. It is not hilarious, but it is funny.
You will have forgotten most of the songs by the time you leave the theater, but they are pleasant enough in the context of the show. Trav'lin isn't thought-provoking, but it will entertain while you are there.