Stage & Dance

Review: 'The Duke, The Women, The Music'

Venetia Nettles and Darren Price dance while Peter Rawlings, back, sings during a rehearsal for Agape Theatre Troupe's latest production titled The Duke, The Women, and the Music.
Venetia Nettles and Darren Price dance while Peter Rawlings, back, sings during a rehearsal for Agape Theatre Troupe's latest production titled The Duke, The Women, and the Music. Lexington Herald-Leader

There is one quality no one can dispute about the cast of Agape Theatre's latest production: they sure can sing.

Playwright and co-director Cathy Rawlings tapped eight vocally diverse, musically gifted women to portray the female singers of Duke Ellington's legendary jazz and blues band in the troupe's first full season opener, The Duke, The Women, The Music.

Rawlings and co-director Deb Shoss have created a glamorous, swanky evening of top-notch crooning, glitzy costume changes, and swinging dance numbers that bring a golden era of African American music to life. Interspersed among musical numbers are scenes of connective dialogue, some meant to playfully entertain, others meant to inform and educate.

While the dramatic scenes could be stronger in places — perhaps plumped up with even more back story and character development to satisfy a music history lover's thirst for knowledge — it is the music itself that is the real star of the show. Because the show is a tribute to the performers who popular memory often overlooks, perhaps that is as it should be. Music does, after all, receive billing in the show's title, so it's easy to see why Rawlings chose it as her artistic focus.

The evening's retrospective unfolds chronologically, with Deidre Darnell cranking out an Ella Fitzgerald tune as the standard-bearer of an era.

Tiffiney Baker and Elaine Baker are next up to portray some of the earliest collaborations between The Duke and female singers Adelaide Hall and Mae Alix. While both women nail their musical numbers, it is anecdotes from their personal histories that provide startling reminders of the racism of the era. Hall purchased a home in a white neighborhood in New York, only to have her family shunned and her house set ablaze. And while Alix was being courted by Ellington band members, she was ultimately denied because her light skin color would not fly while touring the South.

After Alix's rejection, we are introduced to the band's longest running female singer, Ivie Anderson, who put in a twelve year stint with The Duke before retiring due to asthma. Sylvia Howard is a natural in the role of Anderson and her soaring vocals in Rocks in My Bed and Minnie the Moocher brought down the house. Her scene of dialogue with Vivian Lasley-Bibbs, another impressive vocal talent who plays Anderson's replacement Betty Roche, is full of humor, energy, and most importantly, information about life with Duke's band.

Act Two features singers from the band's later years, with Charlette Thompson as Marie Ellington (no relation to Duke) and Danielle Easley as Kay Davis. Both women have rafter-raising, spine tingling voices and embrace their roles with relish. However, it is Eryn Dailey-Demby as Joya Sherrill who threatens to steal the spotlight when her jazz number How High the Moon morphs into a lengthy, wildly impressive scat number.

Rawlings deserves particular praise for marrying the right performer with the right character and songs. The women of Ellington's band displayed remarkably diverse strengths and Rawlings effectively demonstrates this. She also pulls double duty, along with Charlotte Warren, as costume designer, both capturing the retro glamour and sparkle of the era in their rich designs.

William Parris also deserves praise for his choreography of the half dozen dancers who add much needed movement and visual focus to the show without competing with the singers.

And the singers flourish under musical director Sam Flowers, whose interpretations and arrangements, particularly in the crescendo of the production's powerful ensemble finale, fuel the musical thrust of the show and fill Lyric Theatre with the kind of jazz and blues it featured in its prime.