In highlighting 10 original songs by Atlantans Phillip DePoy and Tyrone Jackson, “Nick’s Flamingo Grill” comes to vibrant life with its celebratory embrace of the 1950s jazz scene. The musical numbers in this Alliance Theatre production (unlisted in the program) are vigorously performed by co-stars Jimmy Kieffer, Antwayn Hopper and Diany Rodriguez, accompanied by a sensational three-piece ensemble (led by musical director Jackson on piano).
Presented in the same Hertz Stage space where the Alliance premiered DePoy’s haunting Appalachian folk musical “Edward Foote” in 2015, “Nick’s” is directed by Tinashe Kajese-Bolden (Synchronicity’s “Eclipsed”), whose design team — including Kristen Robinson (set), Lex Liang (costumes), Ben Rawson (lighting) and Joshua Horvath (sound) — infuses the period flavor of the songs with a flashy polish that’s as worthy of Las Vegas as New Orleans.
Or Atlanta, where the bulk of DePoy’s play unfolds, inspired by the true story of the city’s first integrated nightclub. We meet Kieffer’s white Ben Davis and Hopper’s black Bechet Thompson in flashbacks to post-WWII Paris, where the ex-GIs have found success as jazz singers. In partnership with a French Resistance fighter named Claudine (Shakirah Demesier), who’s also black, they resolve to realize the unfulfilled dream of an ill-fated friend, Nick (Cordell Cole): taking their “mixed-race act” back home to the States and opening their own nightclub.
Ben and Claudine are more idealistic — if not naive — about the “virtuous” venture, about returning to a “new world (where) everything’s changed,” or “making a better world (and) being a part of history.” Bechet is more pragmatic about the potential problems they could face in the segregated South. A “black club” that also appeals to whites may be “adventurous,” he notes, but a “white club” that might also attract blacks would be just plain “trouble.”
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By the time Nick’s finally breaks ground and takes off in Atlanta (circa 1958), Ben and his longtime Cuban girlfriend, Chi Chi (Rodriguez), are the unmarried parents of a 7-year-old daughter. Adding to the dramatic mix of the play, Ben also happens to be Jewish, and their local business partner (Robin Bloodworth) also happens to identify as “queer.”
Yes, needless to say, there’s “trouble” ahead. Almost as though he were consciously checking off as many historical events and still-relevant social issues as possible, DePoy works in passing mentions of segregated drinking fountains, lunch-counter protests and bus boycotts — interspersed with moments of more direct and immediate conflict from right outside the nightclub’s door: a drive-by shooting, even a bombing (depicted in stark slow motion).
The admirable aspirations behind the Flamingo Grill — trying to create a “palace of peace and harmony” in a world of hate and indifference — were short-lived. It closed in a matter of months, largely a result of the tumultuous racial unrest at the time, but apparently also due, in part, to that old showbiz cliché of a singing group torn apart when one of the members is offered a solo career (in this case Chi Chi, by a record producer played by Daniel Triandiflou).
The aspirations behind “Nick’s Flamingo Grill” are admirable, too. To be sure, as Bechet ultimately observes, “You can’t change the world with a song and a smile,” a point that the script tends to drive home with a rather heavy hand. It’s in the uplifting jazz numbers that the show makes its strongest and clearest statement about the true power of music.
“Nick’s Flamingo Grill”
Through Oct. 28. 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; 7:30 p.m. Sundays. $20-$55. Hertz Stage (at the Woodruff Arts Center), 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000, alliancetheatre.org.
Bottom line: The music sizzles, the drama falters.