‘Cookin’ at the Cookery’ at Musicalfare

Ember Tate and Zoe Scruggs in ‘Cookin at the Cookery.’ Photo by Bethany Burrows.

The more I see musical revues, the more I really enjoy the style. Cookin’ at the Cookery, playing at MusicalFare through March 8th, is no exception.

I wasn’t really familiar with Alberta Hunter going into the show, and shame on me for saying so. She’s a Blues Hall of Fame and Memphis Hall of Fame member, began performing in her early teens in Chicago after leaving Memphis to become a singer. After almost twenty years away, she came back and began a residency at the Cookery.

The show is told through vignettes, with Zoe Scruggs playing “adult” Alberta and also Alberta’s mother, while Ember Tate plays “young” Alberta and a slew of other characters. The Albertas share the narrative duties, as George Caldwell’s magnificent band carries the audience through the story.

To say that Scruggs is a little young to play 82-year-old Alberta Hunter is an obvious understatement, and yet, for 2 hours I believed every second. Scruggs is rare in her vocal prowess, she’s truly a jazz singer and handles the material and persona with ease. Her comedic timing is also excellent, and the sparse audience by MusicalFare’s standards were nonetheless engaged immediately. Tate has a difficult job to her role, as she portrays a very young Alberta. While Tate’s other characters are magnificent (including an unbelievable Louis Armstrong) and her turn as Hunter on a USO tour stops the show (Hunter would be proud), I found she took a little time to settle in to her portrayal of Hunter as a child.

A few line flubs did nothing to take away from the sheer magnitude of the stage presence of these two women, telling an important story about a truly remarkable woman. Without being overtly politic, I felt queasy listening to Scruggs as Hunter describe the perils of the pre-Civil Rights South and recognizing just how little we’ve learned. An especially poignant line comes when Scruggs and Tate co-narrate about segregation and make a statement about just seeing people as people, regardless of race.

Here’s where I get on my soapbox; I mentioned the sparsely attended performance because Buffalo audiences as a whole have a habit of only attending shows where there is “title recognition.” Not enough people witnessed these incredible performances Wednesday evening, and it’s disappointing. Support this production, which is MusicalFare at its best. Support local theater as much as you clamor to get Shea’s tickets or go see all the Oscar nominated movies. There are so many local companies to choose from, and its a shame to see even a single empty seat at MusicalFare’s astounding production of Cookin at the Cookery, running through March 8th.

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