What's up, Duke? The cast of Play On!.
What's up, Duke? The cast of Play On!.

Thou Swellington

Even without the impressive singing and dancing that make Play On! a gratifying evening of theater, its princely pedigree is enough to sell some tickets. A musical tribute to jazz legend Duke Ellington with a book based in Shakespeare, Play On! is Arizona Theatre Company's most ambitious, most enjoyable production in years.

The story, inspired by Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and shoehorned between 22 Ellington Band hits, goes like this: Young, black songwriter Viola (Natalie Venetia Belcon) comes to 1940s Harlem to convince her idol, big-time bandleader Duke Ellington (David Jennings), to listen to her songs. To gain entrance into the male-dominated music biz, Vy dresses as a man and gets an audience with the Duke, to whom she is introduced as Vy-Man. Duke, who is desperately in love with Cotton Club diva Lady Liv (Nikki Crawford, wearing the ugliest wig in Harlem), likes Vy's song and sends her to play it for Lady Liv, who falls in love with Vy-Man. Enter the very upright Rev (Richard Allen), Lady Liv's beck-and-call manager who secretly pines for her, and you've got an awkward love triangle that's resolved in predictable musical-theater fashion.

Cheryl Epps' book -- heavily rewritten after the show flopped on Broadway in early 1997 -- borrows Twelfth Night's gender-bending plot line and certain of its character conceits, but ditches that story's subtle wit in favor of crowd-pleasing musical numbers. The result is a tuneful hybrid; sort of Ain't Misbehavin' meets Victor/Victoria.

No matter. The book is little more than an annoyance; and no one, neither Ellington aficionados nor Shakespeare enthusiasts, is coming to this show to be wowed by its story. It's Ellington classics like "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," "Mood Indigo" and "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing" that we're after. And they're here, handsomely executed by Rahn Coleman's slick seven-piece band and an expert cast of singer-dancer-actors.

Yowza musical numbers stop the show dead several times; Crawford alone does it twice, once with a fiery reading of "Mood Indigo" and later with a mournful "I Ain't Got Nothin' but the Blues." Belcon is a lively leading lady whose shy, aw-shucks demeanor keeps erupting into some of the best blues singing the Herberger has ever heard. (Interestingly, these two ladies swap personalities for their curtain calls: Beaming with undisguised glee, Crawford -- who for two hours has been playing an imperious diva -- drops a demure curtsy, while Belcon stares disdainfully past the footlights during her long, dramatic bow.)

The evening's most exciting number, a loud and rowdy rendition of "Rocks in My Bed," belongs to Kevin Ramsey and Clinton Derricks-Carroll as a pair of lovesick Lotharios whose runaway dance routine is an amalgam of music-hall feistiness created by Mercedes Ellington, granddaughter of the Duke.

Miss Ellington's most dazzling choreographic gems belong to the remarkable Richard Allen, whose honey-soaked baritone turns "Don't You Know I Care" into an achy plea for love. His performance as Rev is so appealing that it even survives a ludicrous and overlong "makeover" that turns him from a clumsy bore into a jerky jazz cat and back again.

If the show is a mixture of ecstatic musical highs and silly story lows, it is never less than wonderful to look at. Marianna Elliott's blinding Day-Glo costumes punch up the era's zoot suits and breakaway skirts, and James Leonard Joy's blazing scenic design is inspired by artist Romare Bearden, a real-life colleague and friend of Duke Ellington's.

Nothing -- not a trifling story nor the frequent and annoying appearance of bandleader Coleman's bobbing head above the footlights -- can derail this resplendent A-Train. It's only fair that a genius jazzmaster like Duke Ellington should be celebrated in a near-perfect evening of song and dance, and no wonder that its misty-eyed opening night audience rose to its feet to express its gratitude.

Play On! continues through Sunday, October 24, at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe.


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