Saturday, January 31, 2009

Review: "Don't Play Us Cheap" soundtrack

Author: Becky Coleman

Written, composed and produced by Melvin Van Peebles; performed by original Broadway cast, including Esther Rolle of “Good Times” fame and former Ikette Joshie Jo Armstead.

An outrageous musical designed to pop off the party poopers, “Don’t Play Us Cheap” sends me with its glorious and grotesque blend of absurdity and earthiness, certainty and turmoil, sacred and profane.

Packed with laughs, straight talk and odd plot twists, the story is brought to life by its soundtrack, a singular medley of jazz, vaudeville, work songs, gospel, r&b, blues, showtunes and soul that can be enjoyed on its own but will only be enhanced by watching the movie. The songs are punctuated liberally with the performers calling and responding to each other — whooping up that loose, late-night party feeling.

The plot: Friends gather in a Harlem apartment, many of them transplants from the rural South, for a party on a Saturday night, and two devils (one destined for the bottom of your shoe) scheme to ruin their fun, but the good people are not having it because “when black folks throw a party, they don't play.” In an especially satisfying moment, a fiend tries to break the host’s records, but the platters, they just won’t shatter.

Like the shindig it portrays, the production offers escape, sweet and fleeting, from hard times. Has anyone tried to exploit your hospitality or spoil your hard-to-come-by good times? This story has a message for those fart-whippers: Good fun is foolproof, and love has the potential to win over haters. Have you ever been one of the party poopers yourself? Maybe you were confused, looking for love.

It’s not all sweetness. The celebration of joy is tangled up with the cacophony of moral contradiction that is the stuff of real life ... the pain that sharpens the pleasure ... the harshness that drives us to seek asylum in creativity and whimsy at best, and — at worst — hallucination, illusion, and delusion. However, the story masterfully navigates reality and fantasy with a disarming sense of humor.

— Miss Maybell (Esther Rolle), the party’s host

Auteur Melvin Van Peebles wrote this multimedia “comedy musical,” as a book, then as a Broadway stage production, then he rounded up the cast for a movie (shot in dazzling, candy color and full of cinematic flourishes, many of which Spike Lee has copped). The 1973 movie is available on DVD now, and the 1972 soundtrack — if you cannot track down the original double-record Stax release — is paired on a CD set with Mr. Van Peebles’ visionary “Sweet Sweet Back’s Badasssss Song” score.

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