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Bettye and the Jockettes Spinning Records at the Holiday Inn

An entertaining return to the era of Elvis and his effect on the pop music scene of the 1950’s.

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The cast of Christie Perfetti Williams’ “Bettye and the Jockettes Spinning Records at the Holiday Inn” at the Gene Frankel Theatre (Photo credit: courtesy of the production)

[avatar user=”Joel Benjamin” size=”96″ align=”left”] Joel Benjamin, Critic[/avatar]

Christie Perfetti Williams’ genial new play Bettye and the Jockettes Spinning Records at the Holiday Inn transports the audience back to the moment Elvis Presley became an international star via his appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in July 1956.

Working at the tiny all-female Memphis radio station, WHER, tucked off the lobby of a Holiday Inn, Bettye (Heather E. Cunningham) is devoted to spinning jazz records and does the occasional interview.  She is not a fan of Presley’s music but is given the assignment of interviewing him, a task made all the more important for the station now that Presley’s career is about to zoom into the stratosphere.

WHER is the product of the imagination and wherewithal of Sam (Joe Mathers), a record producer on the low side of middle age and he is excited that Elvis will be staying at the Holiday Inn and that his tiny, weak-beamed station has the inside track to get him as a guest.

Perfetti Williams has assembled a well-balanced cast of characters: Kit (Alisha Spielmann), the efficient calm center of the storm who is keeping her own secrets; Esther (Tracey Beltrano), the slightly ditzy librarian, always carrying heavy loads of books and tapes, a hero in-waiting; Dottie (Marie Elena O’Brien), the sultry, femme fatale whose over-the-top flirting hides inner issues; Catherine (Morgan Nadia Williams), the eager newbie advertisement copywriter who has not told the entire truth; and, Ben (Matthew Tarricone), the charming record promoter and Bettye’s former intimate wanting to renew their relationship.

Central to the action is Lauren Barber’s clever set which—shades of Stereophonic—is divided into two levels, a sound booth where recordings are played and the communal office space in front and below.

Heather E. Cunningham in the title role of Christie Perfetti Williams’ “Bettye and the Jockettes Spinning Records at the Holiday Inn” at the Gene Frankel Theatre (Photo credit: courtesy of the production)

Bettye balks when told she has to interview Presley which Sam cannot understand.  She also comes to the studio wearing—wait for it—pants!  She is warned to change into a dress before Elvis arrives.  She demurs, her proto-feminist sensibility offended.

As Bettye unfolds, Catherine proves that, even though she showed up unannounced, she has the ability to make the WHER commercials shine and please both the advertisers and the staff.

Bettye and Ben have a past at WHER and she feels that, although he has gone on to bigger things as a promoter, he has also given up his integrity in order to represent a musical form he doesn’t really like or understand.  He retorts to her criticism with comments about her wearing trousers, particularly when she is about to represent the station in a momentous moment.

The fun of Bettye is watching each character expand from their initial superficial impressions.

Viviane Galloway’s period-perfect costumes—including those devil pants!—are witty evocations without being “costume-y,” from Dottie’s slinky dresses to Esther’s dowdy outfits.

Mathew Tarricone, Joe Mathers and Heather E. Cunningham in a scene from Christie Perfetti Williams’ “Bettye and the Jockettes Spinning Records at the Holiday Inn” at the Gene Frankel Theatre (Photo credit: courtesy of the production)

Ndanu Mutisya’s lighting skillfully directs the audience’s attention where it needs to be.

All the actors inhabit vivid characters with skill, occasionally veering off into comic exaggeration.  Cunningham in the eponymous role holds the play together with a combination of warmth and strength, standing her ground against the men, but she finds great support in the work of her fellow cast members.

Sara Thigpen’s direction allows them and Perfetti Williams’ words to glow and reveal details of plot and character in natural, conversational rhythms.

Bettye and the Jockettes Spinning Records at the Holiday Inn isn’t a deep play, but is an entertaining vision of the behind-the-scenes issues that the public never gets a chance to see.

Bettye and the Jockettes Spinning Records at the Holiday Inn (through May 18, 2024)

Retro Productions

Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, visit http://www.retroproductions.org/buy-tickets.html

Running time: one hour and 45 minutes including one intermission

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About Joel Benjamin (561 Articles)
JOEL BENJAMIN was a child performer on Broadway and danced with leading modern dance and ballet companies. Joel has been attending theater, ballet and opera performances ever since childhood, becoming quite opinionated over the years. He was the founder and artistic director of the American Chamber Ballet and subsequently was massage therapist to the stars before becoming a reviewer and memoirist. He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.

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