`Staggerlee' rides momentum of Toussaint's music

Staggerlee Rhythm-and-blues musical by Allen Toussaint (music and lyrics) and Vernel Bagneris (book and additional lyrics). Directed by Mr. Bagneris. Choreography by Pepsi Bethel. Murder and Mardi Gras, folklore and New Orleans jazz tradition furnish the ingredients of the musical ``Staggerlee.''

Adorned with a score mostly by the legendary Allen Toussaint, the new entertainment gumbo at the Second Avenue Theatre makes up in musical pleasures for some of its shortcomings in other departments.

Vernel Bagneris, author-director and co-lyricist of ``Staggerlee,'' is best remembered as the creator of ``One Mo' Time,'' a deservedly popular tribute to bygone black vaudeville.

Mr. Bagneris has been less successful in his attempt to update and revise the tale of Staggerlee, a 19th-century New Orleans gambler implicated in a killing.

In the Bagneris version, a bar owner named Elenora (Ruth Brown) frames Staggerlee (Adam Wade) for murder in order to keep him away from her convent-educated daughter June (Marva Hicks).

The haphazard and somewhat confusing plot is, however, less important to the proceedings than the show's comic burlesquerie and the infectious Toussaint score.

The numbers range from barrelhouse and boogie-woogie to gospel-type roof raising.

The dynamic Miss Brown sets the vocal style, with energetic assists from Juanita Brooks, Reginald VelJohnson, and company.

As his own conductor-pianist, the amiable Toussaint guarantees the rhythm-and-blues authenticity of ``Staggerlee.''

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