For many years, Woodford Theatre has maintained a fine tradition of ending its season with a musical. This year, it offers a revue of songs by Duke Ellington compiled around a script by local playwright/director Cathy Rawlings. “The Duke, The Music, The Women” offers an opportunity to relish anew Ellington’s suave music, seminal to the history of jazz.
Some of the area’s finest jazz musicians have assembled to play almost three hours’ worth of Ellington tunes, meticulously transcribed by trumpeter Sam Flowers and faithfully performed in exemplary style by the superb pianist Raleigh Dailey and a combo comprised of Flowers, saxophonist/clarinetist Kirby Davis, trombonist Ryan Moore, bassist Joel Murtaugh and drummer John Dittert.
Hearing these guys hold forth in these classic arrangements is by itself worth the admission. This is high-quality historical jazz performance.
The eight female singers, culled from the annals of Ellington’s performances, are somewhat more of a mixed bag than the band. Although some effort ostensibly was made to imitate the chanteuses’ vocal stylings, the same accuracy that went into transcribing the instrumentals didn’t carry over into the singing.
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Deirdre Darnell as Ella Fitzgerald is a capable singer, but her hot gospel rendition of “Just a Closer Walk” is not at all in the style of the cool, sophisticated Fitzgerald. Stylistic quibbles aside, all the singers present their songs enjoyably.
As a disclaimer, I perform frequently with Alicia Helm-McCorvey, but that doesn’t preclude me from observing that she is a real standout in this show. As Adelaide Hall, she brings tons of energy to the performance, scatting way up in her high range, and dancing up a storm. Rae’Shawna Campbell, as Ivie Anderson, is not much of a dancer, but her rendition of “Rocks In My Bed” is one of the evening’s highlights. Perhaps the finest moments by one of the women in the show is the gorgeous “Prelude To a Kiss,” sung by Vivian Lasly-Bibbs as Betty Roche, with Dailey working enchantment from the keyboard.
Erin Dailey-Demby is somewhat over-parted vocally as Joya Sherrill, but she holds her own in the stage proceedings. Angela Clemons Cummins as Marie Ellington and Tammie Harris as Kay Davis get to deliver some of Ellington’s most famous songs, and they don’t disappoint: Both have great voices and effective stage presence.
Some of the best numbers in the show feature the men, relegated to supporting cast in this production. Patrick Mitchell contributes a hilarious, engaging cameo as Louis Armstrong, in a duet with Jarshala Kavanaugh as Mae Alix. A more substantial impression is made by Simon Peter Rawlings as Sonny Greer, and his singing of “Come Sunday” to open the evening sets the musical bar high. Damon Greene portrays a fun Billy Strayhorn.
Six dancers choreographed by William Parris add enormously to the energy and entertainment of this production. Along with the band, Alicia Davila, Isaac Jones, Chantée Jordan, Jarshala Kavanaugh, Desmond Suter and Emmanuel “Manny” Thurman catapult this production into the “should see” category. The set by Mike Sanders and the costumes by Jacci Jackson and Charlotte Warren are well rendered.
As for the play itself, the new script needs a lot of work. It purports to be about the women who worked with Ellington’s band, but it fails to illuminate them in any narrative way. Instead, they briefly disseminate their family and musical backgrounds outside of Ellington’s circle, and then they barely explore their relationships with The Duke or even the band.
I left the show knowing little more about these women than when I had arrived. Perhaps if Rawlings had relinquished her script to another director, a different perspective might have brought out these salient aspects more, and guided more nuanced, distinctively varied performances from the eight women.
Nevertheless, if you love jazz, don’t miss this show. You’ll come for the women, but you’ll stay for the band.
Tedrin Blair Lindsay: firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you go
‘The Duke, The Music, The Women (A Tribute to Duke Ellington)’
What: The Woodford Theatre’s production of Cathy Rawlings’ show, with music by Duke Ellington.
When: 8 p.m. May 26, 27, June 2, 3. 2 p.m. May 28 and June 4.
Where: Falling Springs Arts and Recreation Center, 275 Beasley Dr., Versailles
Tickets: $20 adults, $13 students and children