Interactive Theater’s “Hot Funky Butt Jazz”
A loud, proud, and messy take on the birthplace of jazz
By: Jay Dooley
Imagine misfit minstrels, a pair of cross-dressers, struggling black jazz musicians, a befuddled black Northerner, and the ghost of a voodoo practitioner all singing about the woeful state of small-time vaudeville in New Orleans. This scene is Interactive Theater’s production of “Hot Funky Butt Jazz,” in miniature; it’s as confusing, messy, and intersectional as it needs to be to successfully capture the vibrant environment that created jazz in the early twentieth century.
“Hot Funky Butt Jazz” opens with the funeral of Marie Laveau, the “Voodoo Queen of New Orleans,” played by Zena Moses. However, her death does little to stop Moses from giving a commanding performance marked by powerful charisma and endearing charm as her spirit drifts through the Storyville red-light vice district. In the Storyville Funky Butt dance hall, a “hot music” band headed by actor Jeremy Phipps’s Stringbean Russell is igniting a cultural revolution—and all the controversy that comes with it. The musical follows these musicians as they try to coexist with visiting Northern performers, brothel workers, Baptist civil rights activists, Vaudeville minstrels, and the white elite of the Jim Crow South.
The production’s greatest strength is its energetic aesthetics, alongside a terrific display of musical talent from Moses, Phipps, and the rest of the cast combined with innovative staging and costumes. If the musical is lacking, it’s in narrative and development. While it tries to show a nuanced black community, many of the characters and groups are left as caricatures of classic stereotypes. The script ends abruptly, leaving the audience with another great musical number but also a jarring lack of finality. If you go, expect to turn off the part of you that needs a clean, well-defined script, and instead, let your senses dive deep into the sound and atmosphere of “Hot Funky Butt Jazz.”