Play review: 'Club 88' delivers glitz, great music

Nancy Welliver, Special to the HeraldMay 15, 2013 

The jazz piano player in a glitzy tuxedo chats up the nightclub patrons as he plays.

The old dame with frizzy dyed hair and too much makeup leans against the piano and belts out a sultry ballad.

The beautiful and dark-eyed bartender wearing a satin tuxedo vest, and not much else, joins the Marines to fight in Vietnam.

These odd creatures of the night are the denizens of Club 88, based on a real nightclub that operated in Los Angeles in the mid-20th century.

It is full of original songs by Tri-City musician/composer Steve Haberman and has a plot line loosely based on his life as a real pianoman at the Rose Tattoo nightclub in L.A.

The lead character in Club 88 is a piano player named Sammy, played by Bryan Foley.

The bluesy ballads, sung by the patrons and wait staff of the club, are catchy and touching. Haberman accompanies the cast on a Steinway that is hidden behind a screen on center stage. He is the invisible and a vital center of the show.

And boy oh boy can he play! His jazz piano renditions are fabulous and capture the smoky mood of the nightclubs of that era. Think Liberace in his smoother moments.

Foley is the piano player and music organizer for Club 88. He convincingly sits behind a dummy piano faking the music that Haberman plays. Foley also has a wonderful voice in the best Broadway mode.The man can sing the blues.

In fact, one of the strengths of this production is the singing. The individual cast members have lovely voices. When they sing together in the ensemble pieces, they are terrific.

The performers are a collection of oddball individuals who hang around the club because it is their life, their family. The show depicted this brilliantly.

Club 88 on stage is smoky and cheaply furnished to the point where I believed I was in an L.A. club. I felt as though I was part of the scene, one of the patrons. I found myself longing for the waitress to bring me a double martini and a pack of cigarettes as I listened to all that jazz.

Because the dialog was crafted by the cast based on Haberman's loose story outline, the dialog and story are relaxed, natural and easy. There are no snappy and clever lines, no sparkling wit, and not a lot of overt humor. But it feels real in its lack of conceit.

The story is told in flashbacks to different eras, making the plot a bit choppy and difficult to follow.

The costumes are glittery and beautiful, and there are many changes into fabulous wardrobe items. The characters' style of clothing is perhaps intended to help define which time period is represented.

However, this reviewer grew up in Los Angeles during the era depicted by this play and went into similar nightclubs on a regular basis. The costumes for Club 88 didn't always catch the exact design and tone of the period. That made following the plot even harder. As costumes, they were showy and lovely. But as period markers to clarify the plot, they fell short.

This production might not appeal to everyone because of its loose plot. But the piano playing is absolutely wonderful, and the fact that this play is homegrown out of the Tri-Cities is irresistibly appealing.

And if you love jazz, if you love fantastic piano playing, if you are a sucker for the 1960s to 1980s nightclub scene, or if you love glitz and glitter, don't miss this show.

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