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Kitchen Help 

The Producers Circle, the glamorous bi-coastal (north and south shores of Lake Pontchartrain) entertainment cartel under the stewardship of Roy Smith and Ricky Graham, has conga-ed into Le Chat Noir with a pert new show about the trials and tribulations of the waiting game.

The Black and White Blues, scripted by Graham (who also co-directed with Heidi Junius), is a well-crafted little musical confection that derives a great deal of its charm from the winning ways of its quartet of performers: Russell Hodgkinson, Jessie Terrebonne and Chris Wecklein and Heidi Junius (who has since been replaced by her sister, Jorinda.)

The laconic and precise set (by James Jennings) consists of white wainscot, a waiter's station and two brass sconces -- the very model of modern upscale restaurant (to paraphrase one of the funniest numbers of the show). Here, we meet the wait staff: Russell, who is a career server with more than 20 years in the industry; Heidi, who plans to open her own place one day; Chris, who is "really" an actor (though soliloquizing the daily specials for the past nine years); and Jessie, a bright-eyed newcomer working her way through college.

A series of sketches -- each built around a catchy tune by Harry Mayronne Jr. (who plays the accompaniment from "the piano bar," just off stage) -- takes us through some familiar and some surprising territory. The surprising territory is a total delight. Junius, for instance, is a winged loudmouth of a fairy god-waitress from some Midwestern hash emporium. Hilarious and inexplicable, with her tired feet and heavy hair, she dispenses gems of time-honored wisdom ("I been around since macaroni and cheese was a vegetable"), then offers a medley of travestied country hits, as hot and tasty as a side of wheat toast under a heat lamp.

In the same mood of extravagant nonsense, the staff re-incarnates as the food they serve, presenting a "four-course nightmare." We are serenaded by such alluring creatures as the titillating little Crepe Suzette and that old flash-in-the-pan, Steak (wearing Cecile Case Covert's inventive get-ups). However, it's Hodgkinson, "the very model of a modern trendy vegetable," who delivers the coup de grace. He offers us a parody of Gilbert and Sullivan's Major General song that takes this genre to a platonic level of droll wit, until the poor breathless plant confesses he's even become "nostalgic for those old bok choy and tofu days!" Hodgkinson, in fact, adds a nice new wavelength to the Graham spectrum -- balancing Junius' effervescent infrared with the florid diffidence of his ultra-violet.

All the performers have many chances to shine. Wecklein, for example, delivers "the second act slow song," a fantasia on the troubling overtones of the word "waiting" with arresting sincerity. Terrebonne takes the lead in the signature "Black and White Blues," among other things.

Most of the rest of the show is satiric, and the best of it was a sequence on Heidi's dream of creating her own restaurant, which she characterizes as ... well, let's just say she covers all the bases. One imagines one of those oh-so-very-now affairs, where the odd and perhaps edible decorative flourishes take up more plate than the entree. At any rate, Terrebonne is the hostess -- an ex-model/performance artist from New York with a "do-you-want-a-table-or-perhaps-you'd-rather-drop-dead" approach to the clientele. Running the kitchen is Hodgkinson as an ex-California skate-boarder with a long, long braid of hair who learned cooking while toasted on weed in the Yucatan ("It's so primal, man!"). There is also a droll number called "Cookin' on TV" that pits celebrity chefs Martha Stewart, Julia Child and the ubiquitous Emeril in a verbal food fight.

Restaurants are a local obsession, and the idea of making one the basis for a revue has that sort of brilliant simplicity that makes one wonder why it took so long to appear. It did seem, though -- despite the admirable flights of fantasy noted above -- the writer was somewhat hemmed in by his theme. Or to put it another way, I wish Graham had given the wilder side of his imagination even greater run, for it was at his wildest that he was at his best. I have a feeling, for instance, that Graham could invent a waiter's lingo that would make things like "I've got a deuce" and "watch your back" pale in comparison. And while pushy New York Jews and tacky Midwesterners are funny in their way, one senses there are bizarre, unsounded depths of obnoxiousness somewhere out there still untapped.

But, The Black and White Blues, like any good eatery, gives you more than your money's worth, both in the offerings and the way they're served up. You'd better reserve early; there's bound to be a line.

click to enlarge Service with a smile: Russell Hodgkinson, Jessie Terrebonne, Chris Wecklein and Heidi Junius play the waiting game in The Black and White Blues.
  • Service with a smile: Russell Hodgkinson, Jessie Terrebonne, Chris Wecklein and Heidi Junius play the waiting game in The Black and White Blues.
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