Duke Ellington’s granddaughter Mercedes, apparently forgetting the 1946 "Beggar's Holiday," has said that her grandfather always wanted to have a book musical on Broadway.
"Play On!," which she has choreographed, is presumably that musical. If only it had more of a book and, more important, if only it had more of the style of Ellington's music!
Cheryl L. West's book is a retelling of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" set in '40s Harlem. A young woman from the country is told that if she wants a career in the music business she has to masquerade as a man.
The plot this debatable premise precipitates is really just a peg on which to hang Ellington songs mostly familiar ones ("Take the A Train," "Solitude").
The plot of the original is pretty silly, but here the book deals with stereotypes that might startle even "Amos 'n' Andy's" Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll (and without the irony that undercut the stereotypes in "Sophisticated Ladies").
I would have been content to skip the story and just listen to the talented cast perform Ellington's irresistible songs. Even here, alas, there is a problem.
Although the show is set in the '40s, the singing style is decidedly contemporary, often self-indulgent, which means that the suaveness and elegance integral to Ellington's music are seldom in evidence.
Interestingly, the only performer who does Ellington in the classic, serene style the music deserves is Lawrence Hamilton, who plays a character based on the Bard's prim Malvolio. The character may be stiff, but Hamilton gives the songs a welcome sense of structure and distinction.
There are bright moments throughout. There's a rollicking jitterbug, a trio harmonizes beautifully on "It Don't Mean a Thing" and each performer gets a standout number. Andre De Shields shows he can still slide around the stage with the best of them, and Tonya Pinkins handles "I Ain't Got Nothin' But the Blues" like a true diva.
The sets are based partly on the art of Romare Bearden, Ellington's contemporary. The subtlety and refinement of Bearden's art might seem more apt if the corresponding qualities of the music were more apparent in the performances. Otherwise they seem odd, especially given the overstated style of the costumes.
"Play On!" has talent and energy to spare, but Ellington deserves something classier.
All Tonya Pinkins has to do to capture an audience is stare at it. In the lively but disappointing new musical ''Play On!,'' which opened last night at the Brooks Atkinson Theater, there comes a moment when this Tony-winning actress, portraying a love-crossed Cotton Club diva, peremptorily interrupts a big production number to step to the front of the stage and fix the house with an angry, woeful gaze you don't dare look away from.
When she begins to sing, a cappella, the opening phrase of ''I Ain't Got Nothin' but the Blues,'' by Duke Ellington and Don George, the sonorous, low-pitched voice matches the stare. Then, as the orchestra joins her, the voice gets bigger and bigger, shifting registers, vibrating like a tuning fork, holding notes past the vanishing point. It's a virtuosic performance all right, but it has also displaced the far more powerful mood that Ms. Pinkins first evoked.
That number represents an all-too-usual pattern in ''Play On!,'' Sheldon Epps's and Cheryl L. West's jerky transformation of Shakespeare's ''Twelfth Night'' into a romantic fable of 1940's Harlem, which uses the sublime songs of Ellington as its score. There's heat, energy and talent to spare on the stage, and, if you're talking about the music, brilliance. But this production, first seen at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego, squanders its impressive assets by consistently overselling them.
Indeed, there are times when you're tempted to think of this show as ''Mama, I Want to Scat.'' It is shaped by an unfortunate and increasingly pervasive theory that when it comes to performing, more is always more. The basis of gospel-flavored crowd pleasers (of which ''Mama, I Want to Sing'' is the prototype), it is something that has also seeped into television talent shows (like ''Star Search'') and current Broadway hits (like ''Smokey Joe's Cafe'').
Ellington's music is, of course, hardly without flash. But in its surprising turns of melody and supple harmonies, it is also filled with inspired nuances and delicacy. Can this be translated into the more brazen, audience-courting language of Broadway show-stoppers? ''Sophisticated Ladies,'' the hit Ellington revue of 1981, proved without doubt that it can. In ''Play On!,'' alas, elegance is almost always sacrificed to steam-roller eagerness.
The premise of the show, conceived and directed by Mr. Epps with a book by Ms. West, is terrific. So many of Ellington's songs are steeped in exasperated, wistful contemplation of that baffling thing called love in ways that do indeed correspond to the tone of Shakespeare's enchanted comedy. And why not substitute a bygone Harlem, nostalgically remembered as a stylishly self-contained cradle for dazzling musical talent, for the fantastical dukedom of Illyria?
The show's first scene, accordingly, is infused with the anticipation of getting to this kingdom of jazz and hedonism, and the songs here are a natural fit. Billy Strayhorn's famous ''Take the A Train,'' accented by the yearning ''Drop Me Off in Harlem,'' is the opening number, set in Grand Central Terminal, and it is sung to and by a wide-eyed provincial named Vy (Cheryl Freeman), who wants nothing more than to become a songwriter. Vy, as you may have guessed, is this musical's answer to Shakespeare's Viola. Like that resourceful heroine, Vy must disguise herself as a man (since no one takes a female composer seriously). And like Viola, she soon discovers disguise can be a wickedness, not to mention the source of all sorts of plot complications.
Although Ms. West throws away much of Shakespeare's story by the end, she sets up fairly precise parallels to many of the characters in ''Twelfth Night'': the lovelorn Orsino, Duke of Illyria, is here a wildly idolized (though temporarily blocked) composer named Duke (Carl Anderson); Olivia, the disdainful object of Orsino's desire, becomes the proud Lady Liv (Ms. Pinkins), queen of the Cotton Club. And the secondary comic roles are more or less reproduced in Liv's coterie of hangers-on.
As per Shakespeare, Vy loves Duke; Liv loves the disguised Vy, whom Duke recruits to plead his case to Liv. And there's a subplot in which a fun-loving trio of pranksters (Andre De Shields, Larry Marshall and Yvette Cason) conspire to humiliate a straitlaced, arrogant prig, here called Rev (Lawrence Hamilton), who also loves Liv.
Ms. West is determined, however, to work in some Shakespearean meditations on identity and illusion, and they hang on the production like reminder notes taped to a refrigerator. (When Liv observes in the second act, ''It's strange how people feel they have to reinvent themselves before their true selves can be discovered,'' it's as if someone's switched channels on you.)
This awkwardness wouldn't matter as much if the show could create, as it obviously means to, a fluid, fairy-tale sense of Harlem as a hip Brigadoon. But while Marianna Elliott's jelly-bean-bright costumes and James Leonard Joy's kaleidoscopic set (inspired by the artist Romare Bearden) are certainly eye-catching, they also often feel like pieces in an unassembled puzzle.
The choreography by Mercedes Ellington (granddaughter of Duke), a jagged collage of overheated jitterbug steps, leaps and somersaults, is stronger on pep than polish. And Luther Henderson's brassy orchestrations sometimes feel at odds with the singers, who are jarringly over-miked.
The cast, while filled with big, commanding voices, seems to have taken the Ellington credo, ''Give that rhythm everything you've got,'' too much to heart. They don't need to work as hard as they do to put over their songs or the comedy, and you keep wishing that someone would rein them in. Ms. Pinkins's elastic displays of temperament and feverish vamping would be so much funnier if she just turned them down one notch; so would Ms. Freeman's gee-whiz country-girl bewilderment.
As it is, one looks hard for more satisfying signs of life, of the musical that might have been. They're there, peeking out like crocuses covered by a spring snowfall. There's Ms. Pinkins's beguiling, sultry ''Mood Indigo,'' which begins with her silhouetted against a multicolor moon, and Ms. Freeman's charming, sprightly solo turn in ''I Didn't Know About You.''
The rakish Mr. De Shields, who soared to stardom in the Fats Waller revue ''Ain't Misbehavin','' still has an unmatchable slither in his walk, but the dance numbers flatten his natural style. Ms. Cason has an infectious comic sparkle, and she can scat with the best of them. And though Mr. Anderson's Duke is low on the requisite charisma, Mr. Hamilton's Rev (inspired by Shakespeare's Malvolio) offers some winningly straightforward, emotionally honest crooning.
Then there's Mr. Marshall, who plays Sweets, a bandleader, and was an acclaimed Sportin' Life in the Broadway revival of ''Porgy and Bess.'' You don't notice him much in the first act. But in the second, he has a duet with Mr. De Shields: the feisty lament to erotic loneliness, ''Rocks in My Bed.''
Mr. De Shields pumps the number like a weightlifter on speed, purring, growling, yelling and rolling around. Mr. Marshall just plants himself and opens his mouth. What comes out of it is electrifying, a full, paradoxically joyous cry of frustration. The voice itself, as happens with the best Ellington interpretations, becomes a superhuman musical instrument that takes you into emotional territory that seems both exotic and hauntingly familiar.
Why on earth did we have to wait so long to hear this? ''Play On!'' doesn't know its own strengths.
A musical has to work pretty hard to let such an inspired idea slip through the floorboards, and "Play On!" does nothing if not work hard. Director Sheldon Epps' notion of marrying Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" with the music of Duke Ellington would seem the stuff of genius --- two geniuses, to be exact --- but the broadly written, boringly choreographed and loudly orchestrated result rarely lifts above the enthusiasm and efficiency of an awards show production number. Unless it manages to approximate the critic-proof success of "Smokey Joe's Cafe," "Play On!" will have trouble living up to its title.
Relocating Shakespeare's comedy to 1940s Harlem, "Play On!" maintains (loosely) the Bard's storyline and characters, but replaces complexity with sketch-comedy mechanics. Sophistication --- certainly one of the better single-word descriptions of Ellington's music --- is here represented by little more than the silk ascot worn by the Duke character, the subtlety of the composer's music dulled, if not entirely lost, by the brassiness forced on uptempo numbers and the melodrama of the ballads.
At its best during the several instances when Cheryl L. West's pedestrian book is set aside and the uninspired choreography of Mercedes Ellington (the composer's granddaughter) is reduced to an unobtrusive minimum, "Play On!" occasionally lets loose its cast of good singers (the acting is spottier) on some wonderful Ellington gems, whether standards ("Don't Get Around Much Anymore") or obscurities ("Rocks in My Bed"). But as often as not, the director's heavy hand gets in the way, as too many songs are interrupted, whether by comic business ("Love You Madly"), tears ("I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good"), or busy, overwrought staging ("Solitude").
"Solitude," one of Ellington's most loved and poignant ballads, was further marred at the reviewed performance by set machinery that squeaked loudly during a quiet moment. The machinery, at least, can be oiled. The production's other problems, beginning with West's book, won't be so easily solved.
The Shakespeare-Ellington pairing would seem a perfect fit, so much so that the Duke character doesn't even need renaming. Into "the magical kingdom of Harlem" (having taken the A Train, naturally) comes Vy (Cheryl Free-man), a country girl who wants to be a big-time songwriter. Told by her hipster uncle Jester (Andre De Shields) that only men can be songwriters, the former Viola becomes Vy-Man, donning a man's broad-lapeled pinstripe suit and seeking the career guidance of Duke (Carl Anderson). As with Shakespeare's Duke of Illyria, this Duke of Harlem sends Vy off to curry favor with his beloved Lady Liv (Tonya Pinkins), a famous Cotton Club jazz diva who, of course, falls for the cross-dressed Vy.
In a role that combines Shakespeare's Malvolio and Sebastian, Lawrence Hamilton plays Rev, Lady Liv's uptight, stuffy manager whose interest in the singer is more than professional. Other Cotton Club habitues include Sweets (Larry Marshall), Miss Mary (Yvette Cason) and CC (Crystal Allen).
In keeping with the musical's comic-book style (Marianna Elliott's day-glo zoot suits recall the now-ubiquitous tones of Broadway's "Guys and Dolls" revival), the characters are one-dimensional creations broadly played, so that Duke comes off as a suave, velvet-robed stiff, Vy as a wide-eyed innocent, Jester as a strutting ladies man and Rev as a nerd to rival television's Urkel. Lady Liv at least has two dimensions: tyrannical but vulnerable.
Even with two hours and 45 minutes of stage time, neither Epps nor West can find time for the farce that the plot calls for, instead using the thin storyline to thread together a crowded roster of 23 songs, which wouldn't be so bad if the songs were better presented. Luther Henderson's arrangements and orchestrations are as free of nuance as the acting style that, given the performers' better work elsewhere, must have been a choice of the director. Mercedes Ellington's choreography --- lots of routine jitterbugging --- offers no surprises.
Although James Leonard Joy's set makes nice use of the Harlem Renaissance paintings, with vibrant purples, blues and reds, too often the production simply relies on mirrors and colored lights, most disappointingly in the re-creation (or lack thereof) of the Cotton Club itself. A chance to visit the famed Harlem nightclub remains, like most of "Play On!," a missed opportunity.