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'Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope' review: Glorious civil rights-themed revue

Wayne Pretlow, right, leads a number in Encores!

Wayne Pretlow, right, leads a number in Encores! Off-Center's "Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope." Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

WHAT "Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope"

WHEN | WHERE 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, City Center, 131 W. 55th St.

INFO Tickets from $25; 212-581-1212, nycitycenter.org

BOTTOM LINE Savion Glover directs a loving revival of a song-and-dance show that defines the black experience.

Despite its rather insouciant title, "Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope" is a musical steeped in the heavy and heady days of the civil rights movement of the early '70s.

The musical, conceived by Vinnette Carroll with music and lyrics by Micki Grant, marked many firsts when it landed on Broadway in 1972 — Grant was the first woman to write the music and lyrics to a Broadway musical, Carroll was the first black woman to direct one. It earned four Tony nominations and ran for more than two years.

Surprisingly, it's been seen little since, making it prime material for the popular Encores! Off-Center series, where a loving revival impeccably directed and choreographed by Savion Glover brings new relevance to this joyful song-and-dance revue that defines the black experience with everything from gospel to calypso to blues.

It starts most movingly with a recording of a gravelly voiced Grant speaking the words to her “Universe in Mourning," which — among other things — addresses the death of a teenage soldier in Vietnam: "He gladly gave his life, they say. I think someone is lying."

This launches the enormously talented cast into the intense spiritual “I Gotta Keep Movin’," allowing three of the five lead singers (Aisha de Haas, Wayne Pretlow and Rheaume Crenshaw) to display their impressive vocal pyrotechnics. The most political song is one of protest, with the cast in Black Power berets. "You think we can tote a barge," they sing. "Well we can . . . and perform open heart surgery . . . and sing Verdi and Puccini . . . and become president of the United States." (Barack Obama's name is mentioned, suggesting there have been revisions.)

In keeping with the bare-bones standards of Encores! this all transpires on Donyale Werle's simple nightclub set, with the cast decked out in the best the '70s had to offer (did costume designer Clint Ramos actually find real Nik Nik shirts?). It all comes to a close (sort of) with the rousing gospel song, "Good Vibrations," with everyone in red choral robes and leaving it all on the floor with Glover's best tap number, although the dancing, from the Charleston to contemporary jazz, is spectacular throughout. 

The title song makes for a deliciously lighthearted encore of sorts, with the actors singing quick vignettes that convey the philosophy of the show. My favorite, an apt reminder of the perils of inflation, describes the aftermath of a visit to a shrink: "He said, the trouble with you is you can't cope. Then he asked for a 50 dollar fee."  

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