We enjoyed the show better, though, when it concerned the event itself. The great and beautiful thing about cabaret is the fact that it presents all kinds of stories — comedies, dramas, diaries and letters, etc. — and makes the audience the active participant. Most productions, both live and television, tend to cover the retelling of the story rather than what happened to the character who was performing it. This, sadly, is a time-honored custom in certain musicals, and maybe a pragmatic one, as well. But when Richard Maltby Jr. and Tom Jones, with a little help from Sheldon Harnick, revamp “Eight Is Enough,” the original “Shuffle Along,” to present it as a source for blues, everything about the plot, once thought to be something to worry about, feels set aside in order to make room for jazz singing.
The situation itself is kind of crazy. The founding mothers of the more popular group, Mamie Smith and Ruth Eckerd, realized they were being overshadowed by the group’s major producer and asked their daughter Ethel to play along with them. In turn, she asked her cousin, Fanny Brice, to join the group. Brice didn’t yet have her own leg up in the business yet, but Ethel saw that she could use her talent to the group’s advantage, for if she could play a ukulele, so could Fanny. The three of them had, most importantly, made an arrangement: Because of the death of Fanny’s father, she would be the group’s central female vocalist for the first year. Over time, as she learned a little bit more about jazz and phrasing, and as Mamie, Ruth and Fanny merged their voices, Ethel gradually assumed the solo role, temporarily taking over the show. (The show was over for a while in 1952, when in came Nat King Cole.)
The one thread (with nice support from Fred Ebb) that hadn’t been addressed before has been that of Ethel’s relationship with her own father, Tom Smith, a divorced, high-flying jazz singer, who discovered his daughter in Vassar and started a family and a career for her. Somehow, he encouraged a young woman to pursue a more avant-garde career as a trumpet player, when it would have been far easier for her to marry a well-born husband and settle down. For a time, she allowed her brother Bert to go on the road with her, and eventually she stopped living at home and became a professional performer on her own. Even after Tom died, she continued to dedicate herself to the work of jazz. Her daughter Pamela, whom the show makes it clear has benefited from these circumstances, says the current performance takes place seven years after her father’s death.
The evening is warm, breezy and, ultimately, emotional, with great solos from Ethel and the members of the band. You can practically taste the bottles of Prunewood Whiskey being soaked up in the wee hours. It’s a fine way to spend an evening, if it feels something like a small victory for women.