Sheldon Epps has very odd ideas about honoring Duke Ellington. For the composer’s centenary, Epps, the artistic director of the Pasadena Playhouse, gives auds “Play On!,” a book musical he conceived using songs by Ellington and a plot derived from –drum roll, please — Shakespeare. But is a loosely referenced homage to “Twelfth Night” the proper way to salute an American musical giant? Aside from Ellington and the Bard’s male lead, Duke Orsino, sharing a name, there’s no connection. Yet this lame plot construct is only one of the many failings and abuses to which “Play On!” lays claim.
A program note maintains that the musical, which has already been staged in San Diego, Chicago, Seattle and, believe it or not, on Broadway, owes its genesis to Ellington’s desire to see his songs united in a proper book musical. The result of Epps and Cheryl L. West’s efforts, however, does the musician no honor and audiences no service.
For inexplicable (and unexplained) reasons Epps sets the action at the Cotton Club, circa 1940, even though Ellington’s heyday there was during the 1930s.
The Shakespeare straitjacket forces Epps to make this show’s protagonist a lost woman, in this case Vy (the likable Natalie Venetia Belcon), who comes to Harlem seeking fame and fortune as a songwriter. Naturally, she wants to sit at Ellington’s knee. But women aren’t considered suitable for the songwriting trade, so Vy (read Viola) masquerades as hip dude Vy-Man (read Cesario). Luckily, Duke (a callow, wooden Raun Ruffin) takes a shine to Vy-Man, finding himself curiously attracted to this stranger.
But Duke has writer’s block: He’s all moony for this sultry, bitchy singer named Lady Liv (the imperious Nikki Crawford), as in Olivia. So naturally he sends Vy — who in this show writes all of Ellington’s best songs, but never mind that — to go and convince Lady Liv that she should succumb to Duke’s overtures. While all this is going on, a coterie of Harlem denizens develop an elaborate plot to embarrass the starchy Rev (lanky Richard Allen), as in Malvolio, by getting him to dress up in a yellow zoot suit and confess his love for Liv. The show’s ending is completely predictable, especially for those who’ve brushed up on their Bard.
Perhaps all this forcing of round pegs into square holes wouldn’t matter so much if the re-sults justified the liberties. But they don’t. Sure, many of Ellington’s best songs are here, including “Take the A Train,” “Mood Indigo,” “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got that Swing,” “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good,” and “Prelude to a Kiss.” But they’re not necessarily well sung. Or well danced.
Some very good singing does crop up here — mostly from Crawford, who can soar; sassy Yvette Cason, lending welcome earthiness to the show; and Allen, whose mellow, resonant voice proves particularly appealing. But there’s plenty of feeble vocalism, too, primarily from the light-voiced Ruffin, who has trouble staying on pitch. The show’s enervated, unimaginative choreography — by Ellington’s granddaughter, Mercedes, no less — further mars matters. James Leonard Joy’s anachronistically art deco sets and Marianna Elliott’s colorful costumes work better.
On a few occasions, in numbers like “It Don’t Mean a Thing …” and “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But the Blues,” all the elements of first-rate entertainment are present. But these are fleeting moments in an ill-conceived, unconvincing show. Audiences deserve better, and so does Duke Ellington’s memory.