If you're in the mood to grab lunch and head for a matinee, playwright-composer Jacqueline Hankins is currently serving an engaging side of cabaret theatre to go with what your stomach craves. "Cooking the Books" is a hip-hop musical mystery with an enjoyable score that features a cast that goes all out in a bold musical-comedy performance.
The show begins on a small projector screen with scenes from Riker's Island prison; a voice narrates while a prisoner suffers a fatal attack in a lonely stairwell. The characters receive their introduction via the silent movie, after which a handful of them energetically take the stage.
The intrigue leads back to the beginning when Harold Johnson, CEO of a brokerage firm, worries out loud about nefarious financial wrongdoing. To cover it up, he suggests "cooking the books" and making someone else take the fall. Johnson -- played with overwhelming confidence by Angel Martinez -- and his associates decide to tag the whole affair on an underling, Tommy Hall.
Next, Johnson meets an untimely death. His wife, Kenya, portrayed with exquisite flair by author Hankins, asks corporate attorney Abigail Morris to defend Hall, the likely suspect. In one of the wittier songs, she trades caustic barbs with the lawyer, who initially refuses. In order to free Hall, Morris agrees to reveal the bookkeeping scam, thereby turning her into murder victim No. 3.
What is most delightful and entertaining is the music (although recorded) and clever lyrics, ranging from upbeat company numbers and soft duets to rhythmic rap-inspired songs. One exception to the unified presentation is an awkwardly placed filmed scene between Hall and his mother.
The vibrant cast includes Anna Hill, Erika Staples, and Ann Estill for the live action. Filmed actors were Mykeko E. Bryant, Leroy Hankins, Stephen Robinson, and Loretta Poole. Multiple-threat Hankins directs with masterful musical cabaret panache.