Nalley's a definite knockout with powerhouse blues pipes
Spunk: Three Tales by Zora Neale Hurston: Music drama. Adapted by George C. Wolfe. Music by Chic Street Man. Directed by Darryl V. Jones. (Through June 3. Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, 620 Sutter St., San Francisco. Two hours. Tickets: $20-$32. Call (415) 474-8800 or go to www.lhtsf.org).

The music of the 1930s Harlem streets and the rural deep South enlivens the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre's stage in the aptly named "Spunk." That's only partly due to the engaging score by Chic Street Man and the musical stylings of the remarkable singer Kim Nalley. The primary credit belongs to Zora Neale Hurston, who recorded the music of popular language in the stories adapted for the stage by George C. Wolfe.
Subtitled "Three Tales by Zora Neale Hurston," "Spunk" was first seen here in Wolfe's exhilarating New York Shakespeare Festival staging at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in '91 -- with the composer providing brilliant musical accompaniment on acoustic guitar and the formidable Ann Duquesnay as the singer-narrator Blues Speak Woman. The Hansberry production that opened Saturday isn't in the same league, in either production and performance values, but it's an evocative musical, comic and affecting delight.
Directed and choreographed by Darryl V. Jones, the new head of the musical theater program at Cal State East Bay, "Spunk" is a story about Harlem street hustlers, sandwiched between two tales of rocky marriages in Eatonville, the all-black Florida community where Hurston grew up. The subject is sex, but Hurston captures many other societal details in that universal web. If the marital fables are strikingly different in tone and content, their outcomes -- one violent, the other redemptive -- are equally affecting and just.
All three are framed by the songs and spoken narrative of Nalley, accompanied by a capable Rodney Street on acoustic guitar with the other actors filling in on backup, duets and occasional solos. All three men in the cast are decent singers, though all are poorly miked, with sometimes distracting static. The one woman, C. Kelly Wright, is a knockout, with powerhouse blues pipes that nicely complement cabaret queen Nalley's potent and flexible voice.
The song list isn't quite the same as before. Jones and Nalley have replaced two of Chic Street Man's numbers with two of Nalley's, which is probably a good thing. Not that there was anything wrong with the originals, but Nalley's "Groceries Poppa (Complete My Recipe)" is a sweetly raunchy, tuneful feast of classic down-and-dirty blues double entendres. And her "Killer Diller Queen" is a buoyant, boogie-perfect introduction to the lingo of "Story in Harlem Slang." Jones cleverly backs up the songs with energetic period-sampling choreography.
"Slang" looks deceptively like a mere comic vignette at first, a bit of filler between the other tales. It's a "playing the dozens" insult face-off between two Zoot-suit Harlem pimps -- a word with a completely different meaning in that time and place. "Pimp," as Nalley explains, referred to men who hustled their own sexual favors for anything from a meal to steady support from the gainfully employed women of Harlem. The rich comic bantering and preening turn out to be a thin cover for near-starvation desperation.
Jones' pacing doesn't fully exploit the comic potential or poignant undertow, and James J. Fenton's set, aptly rustic for the other stories, is ineptly urbanized for "Slang." But the performers make the melodic Harlem street talk sing. Campo Santo veteran Donald E. Lacy Jr., in a fine Zoot suit (costumes by Rose Plant), ably brings out the contrast between his Jelly's studly veneer and gnawing insecurities and hunger. Hosea L. Simmons Jr. swaggers appropriately as Sweet Back, and Wright is magnetic as the ill-chosen target of the men's attentions.
Wright is even more compelling in the marital tales. In "Sweat," the first story, she's the long-abused, work-weary but still resilient wife of a violent, belittling man -- Lacy, riveting as the cocksure, insidious Sykes -- who spends her money on his other women. The sibilance of the chorus' "S-s-sykes-s-s" perfectly fits Lacy's performance, even before he introduces a rattlesnake into the marital equation. The impact is somewhat undercut, though, by the overly broad caricatures of Simmons and Reginald White as front-porch commentators.
Simmons is Sykes' complete opposite in the final tale, "The Gilded Six-Bits." He's a strong, gentle young husband, head over heels in love with a rapturously happy, bright-eyed Wright until a smooth operator (Lacy) poisons their bliss. How the young lovers respond to and cope with that rift is the central action that brings "Spunk" to a remarkably modern and resonant close.
E-mail Robert Hurwitt at rhurwitt@sfchronicle.com.

This article appeared on page C - 1 of the SanFranciscoChronicle