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Writing for CurtainUp NYC Weather
|A CurtainUp Review
Editor's Note: Since audiences tend to respond to musicals with more passion than any other type of theater, I urge those who disagree with my review to read or, as the case may be, re-read The Duke of Ellington by Richard N. Hughes.) which concludes as follows: "The vitality and longevity of his music will get a fresh test later this month when a musical version of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, using Ellington compositions, will open on Broadway. It will be fascinating to see how the music fits the drama." Re-reading these words and the whole article prompts me to write this review as an open letter.
Let me begin by saying that Shakespeare's story of romantic confusion in Illyria actually lends itself quite nicely to the Harlem Ellington knew in the 40's. The girl in love with the Duke (Carl Anderson) is now Vy (Cheryl Freeman), a would-be songwriter forced to cross-dress to get ahead in a male-dominated profession. Her advisor is her uncle Jester (Andre de Shields) and other players in the mix-up are Lady Liv (Tonya Pinkins) and her manager Rev (Lawrence Hamilton). While Shakespeare devotees have lately swallowed a lot of Shakespeare updates, (for example, the recent Texas style Two Gentleman of Verona), this isn't likely to go over big with them; nor is it likely to win the Bard any new converts.
Duke Ellington's songs don't fare much better. Oh, there are plenty of them to keep your feet tapping but, you see, Mr. Hughes, for the most part this is not the Ellington you remember so fondly. The words that come to your mind in relation to The Duke -- dignity. . . elegance. . . subtlety--are drowned out by heavily miked, overly intense delivery. The ruling nouns now are--noise. . .hyper- intensity. . .flash.
The overall effect of Play On comes closer to your anecdote about Pinky Tomlin and his orchestra--( The Duke of Ellington paragraph 6)-- who "exemplifies the urgency with which lesser band leaders tried to ingratiate themselves with the audience." As I adjusted my eyes to the Marianna Elliott magic-marker bright, nightclubby costumes, I thought of your description of the first time you saw Ellington--( The Duke of Ellington paragraph 7)-- in the days when "Moon Indigo" was his theme song and the Duke came onto a stage "flooded with a deep blue light. . . wearing a white full dress tail suit. . ." with a simple thank you at the end of each number and "No hysterics." Worse still, while the setting may be true to the 1940's and even has some images reminiscent of the famous painter Romare Bearden, the singing styles are from more recent decades. Result: No Ellington elegance! No Ellington subtlety!
It's too bad for the cast is loaded with talent and there are are some terrific numbers, and even a few quiet ones --like Tonya Pinkins' "Moon Indigo,"and the group's "Solitude." Andre De Shields' Jester is certain to thrill all the Wiz fans, but I think he's too flashy for your taste. You'd find the Carl Anderson's Duke most to your liking since it comes closest to the subtle, dignified Ellington that's ingrained in your memory.
Since this is a musical, I should mention the choreography, especially since it's by Ellington's granddaughter Mercedes. All I can say about that is that she's no chip of the old block. Oh, and I don't even like to bring this up, but the director Sheldon Epps has a penchant for peppering songs with bits of stage business--that includes hamming up your tenderly recalled "Love You Madly.""
In fairness to the show, I should add, that while this may not be your idea of an Ellington musical, or mine--the audience I observed was largely enthusiastic. Oh, I overheard a few grumbles about the costumes being garish and the story silly but there were many more comments like: "great. . .don't you just love Cheryl Freeman?. . .that Tonya Pinkins is terrific. . .he's, better than ever"" (he meaning Andre DeShields).
If you're planning a trip to New York, pack up your earplugs and check out the show for yourself. (The earplug tip doesn't apply if you get stuck in the front of the orchestra which a number of people I spoke to said was not so much deafening as deadened sound). There's probably no rush about coming here. As I said, the audience seemed to like Play On well enough so that this might just be one of those in-spite-of-the-critics hits that may just play on and on.
Love you madly (well, I'm only joking--what I really mean is that I loved your article madly). . Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.