Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be trapped in a old cartoon? One of those aggressively manic black-and-white pieces where everything has a face and bounces along to the music? Wonder no more. With Cab Calloway’s Minnie the Moocher, Pointless Theatre Company brings those cartoons to riotous, overwhelming, jazz-fueled life.
Originally premiering in 2012, Minnie the Moocher is a revamped and expanded version of the company’s earlier effort. Based on the titular song, Minnie follows the title character through Cab Calloway’s discography as she meets her man Smokey Joe, gets married, and is literally and metaphorically haunted by her life in the jazz-and-drugs subculture of the 20s and 30s. An eight-piece jazz orchestra (directed by Nick Wilby) swings its way through ten of Calloway’s hits, and if the narrative has to wander to fit the music, so be it. Calloway had a special relationship with the cartoons that form the second half of the play’s inspiration. While broadcasts of his band from Harlem’s Cotton Club had already made him a household name, the bandleader’s rotascoped appearance in a series of Betty Boop cartoons (Minnie the Moocher, The Seven Dwarves, and The Old Man of the Mountain) catapulted him to new heights. Pointless intended their play as a tribute to both Calloway and the old animated films, and boy do they deliver!
As The Band Leader (and stand-in for Calloway), Aaron Bliden smoothly guides us through the performance. Like the MC of Cabaret, Bliden is both welcoming and threatening, revealing the allure of a debauched lifestyle even as he presents its dangers. The lighting design by Navid Azeez highlights the dual aspect of the character, shifting along with the call-and-response song style. One moment the Band Leader is a performer working with an orchestra; the next, he’s a cartoonish, ghoulish figure supported by a chorus of unseen voices.
If I keep returning to the idea of cartoons, it’s because Pointless doesn’t let you forget them for a second. While there’s not much set to speak of, the puppets and art direction by Patti Kalil just scream animation. Attached to Lee Gerstenhaber’s period costumes, oversized masks create characters straight out of a Merry Melodies or Fleischer Brothers cartoon, while smiling flowers and hideous ghosts appear and disappear with equally little causality. Nobody walks or stands, either: characters slink, strut, leap and dance their way through the space, with Director Matt Reckeweg and Choreographer Olivia Reed keeping everyone in constant motion. And anytime that there isn’t enough action going on, dancers Sadie Leigh Rothman and Thony Mena are ready to jitterbug their way into the scene. There are always ten different things to be looking at, and it’s to Reckeweg’s credit that the chaos is so controlled.
The main characters of the piece, Minnie the Moocher and Smokey Joe, are puppets operated by Madeline Whiting and Scott Whalen. The puppets are half-bodies secured at their puppeteers’ waists, borrowing the legs of the real actors. It’s initially disconcerting to see how many ways the characters are represented at the same time, with puppet, actor, and a silhouette projection all showing the same character at the same time. But it’s all part of the show’s sensory assault, and once the audience acclimates it’s useful to attach a real person’s facial expression to the puppets’ demonstrative actions. While Whalen is clearly a talented performer, acting, dancing, and puppeteering all at the same time, it’s almost unfair to place him next to Whiting. Betty Boop by way of a Kewpie Doll, Whiting seems a perfect choice for the role of Minnie. She is – to use a technical artistic term – adorable, and her excitement is as contagious as her later sorrow is heartbreaking.
There’s one actor I’ve left out, and that’s Danny Martin. Martin has been gifted with the scene-stealing roles of the King of Sweden and the Reefer Man, and he takes that opportunity and runs with it. A fixed manic grin and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of energy make Martin a delight even in smaller roles like a bunch of flowers.
Pointless has two major successes herez-the first is recreating the feeling of both Fleischer cartoons and nightclub excess and the second is in reminding us how subversive and threatening both of these things could be. We look back at these things through a distance of time, and forget that there was a moral panic (then as now) against popular culture that attempted to blame all of society’s ills on the entertainment industry. Cab Calloway’s Minnie The Moocher is entertaining on its own, but it’s the sinister, psychedelic, threatening edge that really makes it worth noting.
Running Time: One hour long, with no intermission.