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Shakespeare and Ellington Beget 'Play On!'

Theater review: The Bard's "Twelfth Night" is set to the music of the Duke in a lively and promising production at the Old Globe Theatre.


SAN DIEGO — "Play On!" is "Twelfth Night" set to the music of Duke Ellington, and it's not as nutty an idea as it might sound. Ellington's sophisticated songs--the supple melancholy of "Solitude," the abandon of "It Don't Mean a Thing . . . If It Ain't That Swing," the longing of "Prelude to a Kiss"--all fit surprisingly well into the outline of Shakespeare's comedy. In fact, Sheldon Epps, who conceived and directed this exciting new musical, might just have a very big hit on his hands.

I say might because there are elements that need fixin' in the half revue/half book musical that opened Saturday night at the Old Globe Theatre. But the casting is perfect. In Cheryl Freeman, Tonya Pinkins and Yvette Cason, Epps has assembled a trio of delight, whose very different voices each meld sublimely with Luther Henderson's superb arrangements. They will make you pant for a cast album. And the men aren't bad either.

Epps resets the story from Shakespeare's magical Illyria to "the magical kingdom of Harlem," in the 1940s. After taking the A train (as portrayed by a dancing chorus), Vy (Freeman) arrives in Harlem with a suitcase full of her own songs, hoping to meet Duke, the famous bandleader. But according to her Uncle, known as Jester (Andre De Shields), "women saing; they don't write no music." So he dresses Vy up as a credible-looking guy in a hep pin-stripe suit and presents her to Duke (Carl Anderson, the original Judas in "Jesus Christ Superstar") as "Vy-man." After listening to Duke sing a smoky "I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart," Vy falls instantly in love (Ellington's music certainly helps explain why these characters fall instantly in love).

Duke, however, is morose. He lounges around in a maroon dressing gown mooning over Lady Liv (Pinkins), the reigning Cotton Club diva. The majestic Liv is not interested. Duke sends Vy-man to court Lady Liv. She does, by singing one of her songs, the irresistible "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," which the two women perform together, smooth as a dream. Lady Liv falls instantly in love with Vy-man ("why, he's almost perdy").

Things get sorted out a little differently than they do in Shakespeare, but no one's counting. The characters are fun, and, in the hands of these performers, the score offers endless pleasure. Cason plays Lady Liv's tart-tongued assistant Miss Mary. As she displayed in "Sisterella," Cason's got wicked timing and a powerhouse voice. She's a pleasure to watch.

Can Cheryl Freeman really be the woman who played the Acid Queen in "The Who's Tommy?" She is appealingly wholesome as Vy, and adorably funny, with a clear, strong voice that signals integrity. As in "Jelly's Last Jam" (but looking more zoftig), Pinkins is a sultry goddess, her voice like a long silk rope that can go any which way, particularly when she digs into the deep melody of "Mood Indigo," standing still before a lavender moon on the stage of the Cotton Club.

"Play On!" is more of an integrated musical than was "Sophisticated Ladies," the 1981 revue that was the first and only Broadway hit made from Ellington music. Book writer Cheryl L. West ("Jar the Floor") keeps the dialogue light and the story moving, so that the songs can be dropped in with an apparent effortlessness. Sure, Lady Liv's first act "Moon Indigo" could be switched with her second-act "I Ain't Got Nothin' but the Blues," and it wouldn't make any difference. But it also works as it is. Despite a few clinker jokes, the book is airy and clean. Small quibbles: The initial rapport between Lady Liv and Vy-man needs to be less one-sided or Lady Liv's later feeling of betrayal makes no sense.


James Leonard Joy's set is a good idea that works well--his four glass towers stand for Manhattan. Then, when the show moves to Harlem, prints and fabrics appear in deeper, richer colors from the palette of Romare Bearden, and those colors are reflected on the glass towers under a shimmering light, designed by Jeff Davis. This lovely effect is not matched by Marianna Elliott's costumes. Particularly disappointing are the women's dresses, which are glitzy but not chic. If the dresses are going to look off-the-rack, they need to be more Bonwit's, less Filene's Basement.

There are more bumps in the road. Unfortunately, the choreography (by Mercedes Ellington, Duke Ellington's granddaughter) does not live up to the music. Vy's arrival in the first number lacks the kind of snap and originality that would open the show on the right note, and all of the bigger dance numbers look like the kind of pointless entertainment you might find as filler on an awards show. The smaller dance numbers work much better, also thanks to the idiosyncratic physicality of the play's two very good clowns, De Shields, who plays a slithering dandy better than anyone, and Larry Marshall as Sweets, a lovable Cab Calloway kind of rascal. "Rocks in My Bed," their charming duet which each dances with a glass of bourbon in hand, is a Second Act highlight.

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