George pronounces the train “right on time” at the start of “Trav’lin: A 1930s Harlem Musical Romance,” and he’s right: This delightful musical comedy has shown up right when we needed it.
Onstage at Winter Park Playhouse, “Trav’lin” is a sure cure for the doldrums of these cloudy and Florida-chilly days and nights. George, a retired porter for the Pullman train line and self-proclaimed mayor of his neighborhood, “cleans up messes” that other people create — with plenty of humor, heart and a wonderful catalog of bluesy and toe-tapping songs.
“Trav’lin,” you see, is a jukebox musical — one of those shows with songs all by a single artist, or in this case, writer. But “Trav’lin” far transcends the average jukebox musical with a story that is equally silly and involving, moments of genuine emotion and songs that aren’t all that well known — a fact that makes this show feel fresh, even though its music is nearly a century old.
J.C. Johnson is the man behind the music. And though his tunes were performed by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, they didn’t stick in the mainstream consciousness after his era passed. They should have.
Including “You Better Finish What You Start With Me,” “Get Up and Follow Your Feet” and “Spinnin’ the Web,” Johnson’s songs are catchy and memorable — and thanks to “Trav’lin” creators Gary Holmes and Allan Shapiro fit neatly into the show’s story lines.
George may boast he cleans up messes “neatly, sweetly and discreetly,” but the audience quickly finds out he has made a big one of his own. When he took the porter job some three decades earlier, he rode off and left his best gal, Billie, waiting for him. Except he never came back. When she shows up in Harlem all those years later, he doesn’t recognize her. And she decides not to tell him the truth.
Meanwhile, George’s young niece Ella is falling in love for the very first time — with awkward Bible salesman Nelson. And friend Roz, the tough-talking owner of the neighborhood beauty shop, is trying to tame her squeeze, Archie — who’s roaming literally and figuratively too much for her liking.
All the plot makes the second act a little talkier than it might be, and yes, the supporting roles are stock musical-theater characters. But finely tuned performances by director Shonn McCloud’s actors give flesh and blood to the familiar tropes. And McCloud makes sure the humanity is in perfect balance with the laughs.
Johnathan Lee Iverson has just the right combination of authority and bonhomie to oversee the fun. Dayja Le’Chelle and Will Scott are nicely sweet and silly. Faith Boles gives Roz’s tart tongue a good workout and barrels through the comic “How Many Friends” with focused fervor.
Standout Rolin Alexis, as ne’er-do-well Archie, wraps a smoother-than-smooth baritone around the songs and a cheeky grin around Archie’s flimflam flatteries. “Baby, baby, baby,” he implores — or shares part of his romantic philosophy: “Ain’t no hurtin’ in the flirtin’.”
As the long-wronged Billie, Patrece Bloomfield holds this enterprise together. She makes the most of this woman, at times comic, stubborn, frustrating, loving and tragic — but always compelling. From Bloomfield’s first entrance, performing a soulful and raw “Empty Bed Blues,” you are squarely on Billie’s side.
With an additional musician in the Playhouse band, led with customary skill by Christopher Leavy, there’s more depth to the songs. A clarinet here, a flute there add color to the music. And the wail of a sax adds to the oomph of those blues numbers while Roy Alan’s choreography evokes the spirit of the times.
CJ Sikorski’s solid train station set provides a constant reminder we are all on a journey through life. Let’s hope it’s filled with as much rhythm, music, laughs and heart as this delight of a show.
- What: ‘A 1930s Harlem Musical Romance’
- Length: 2:30, including intermission
- Where: Winter Park Playhouse, 711 N. Orange Ave. in Winter Park
- When: Through Feb. 19
- Cost: $39-$46 ($20 for students and entertainment-industry workers)
- Info: winterparkplayhouse.org