Duke Ellington was not only talented, but his music also proved to be incredibly versatile, crossing the boundaries of jazz, ballet, pop and classical music.
It has also been enduring, spawning two musical productions, "Sophisticated Ladies" (1982) and "Play On!" (1997). Thirteen/WNET New York's "Great Performances" will premiere the latter tonight on WQED/WQEX at 9.
But even while one is watching "Play On!," memories of "Ladies" hover in the background. They are that close in spirit, if not in concept.
Amazingly enough, all but three obscure songs featured in tonight's production appeared in the musical revue format of "Sophisticated Ladies." "Ladies" and its gents put a satin finish on 36 Ellington standards. As prolific as the Duke was, that didn't leave much for the score of "Play On!"
Nonetheless, "Play On!" is not cut from the same cloth. It has a shine all its own.
Creator and director Sheldon Epps of Pasadena Playhouse decided to combine the Duke with a little of the Bard. Curiously, he borrowed from William Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" and transported it to 1940s Harlem.
Will's Viola becomes Vy (Natalie Venetia Belcon), an aspiring songwriter from Mississippi. But that field was, as all things were in the '40s, dominated by men. So she dons a wig and suit (as Vy-Man) to meet the famous Duke Ellington (Raun Ruffin), who plays a pivotal role here. She is immediately taken with him, but he has eyes only for Lady Liv (Nikki Crawford), a sultry songstress at the Cotton Club. Of course, Liv won't have anything to do with the Duke, so he must send Vy-Man with a new song designed to win Liv's heart.
What follows is a slim but snazzy interpretation of Shakespeare's comedy about love's mismatches and miscues. ("You look as if you sucked on sorrow and swallowed.")
Even with the snappy "play" on the Bard's words, "Play On!" is a revue like "Ladies" because the Ellington songs actually are the stuff of which this story is made. And this "Play" puts them in a dramatic context, where they fit oh so well. Here "It Don't Mean a Thing" becomes a comic teaching tool for the uptight Rev (Richard Allen) and a showcase for Yvette Cason's terrific scat-singing. And "Solitude" is a powerhouse quartet for the leading characters, each in a separate spotlight.
Call it a juicy slice of the musical life.
"Play On!" provides back-to-back big production numbers from the start with (what else?) "Take the 'A' Train" and "Drop Me Off in Harlem." Mercedes Ellington (granddaughter of the Duke) provides an upbeat choreographic style that expertly draws from ballet to be-bop.
The scenic design, James Leonard Joy's clever swirl of mirrors and key set pieces with a backdrop in the style of Romare Beardon, is sometimes lost because the focus is on the incredible energy of a talented cast.
Even as the play turns a little mopey, when everyone gets it bad (and that ain't good), they never stop putting out. Belcon is far more talented than a young woman from Mississippi could hope to be (and a wonderful dancer to boot), while Raun is a stiffly handsome look-alike of Ellington. Crawford belts out her standards, like "Mood Indigo," with the best, and Allen is the ultimate straight man.
But it's that second tier of characters that keeps the joint jumpin', including the aforementioned scatter Cason, along with Clinton Derricks-Carroll (Sweets) and Kevin Ramsey (Jester). Derricks-Carroll and Ramsey bring down the house with a firebrand blues number, the little-known "Rocks in My Bed."
We're glad this love's labor was not lost.