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.
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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.