After Delays, Uggams and Mills Ready for NJ Play On!, Nov. 24

News   After Delays, Uggams and Mills Ready for NJ Play On!, Nov. 24 Technical problems prevented Crossroads Theatre Company's Play On! from playing previews Nov. 17-23, but the scenic and costume issues of the past week are expected to be fixed in time for a Nov. 24 first performance of the Duke Ellington musical.

Technical problems prevented Crossroads Theatre Company's Play On! from playing previews Nov. 17-23, but the scenic and costume issues of the past week are expected to be fixed in time for a Nov. 24 first performance of the Duke Ellington musical.

Leslie Uggams and Stephanie Mills are anticipated to begin pondering "the food love" -- music, in Shakespeare parlance -- Nov. 24, barring any technical glitches. The previews were sold-out and some patrons will have to be reassigned. The official press opening is Nov. 28.

A possibility of an extension to accommodate disappointed preview audiences has been mentioned, but an extension might have happened anyway: The African-American take on Shakespeare's Twelfth Night (set in Harlem) has been an audience favorite elsewhere. No official extension has been announced yet, however.

Sheldon Epps' musicalization of the Bard's Twelfth Night, flecked with tunes by Duke Ellington, was originally to begin Nov. 17 but had a delay involving a broken set piece.

The resident production at the New Brunswick, NJ-based Crossroads, a Tony Award-winning troupe devoted to works by and for African Americans, continues to Dec. 19. *

The Broadway script plugs some of Ellington's best-known work ("Mood Indigo," "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," "Take the 'A' Train," and more) into a story about Vy (played by The Wiz veteran Mills), a Mississippi girl who disguises herself as a man to become a songwriter and conductor in the Duke's Orchestra in 1940s Harlem. Uggams (a Tony winner for 1968's Hallelujah, Baby!) plays songbird Lady Liv, who mistakenly falls in love with "Vy-man."

Andre DeShields, who earned a Tony Award nomination for performing in Play On! on Broadway in 1997, directs the Crossroads staging. Ellington's granddaughter, Mercedes Ellington, recreates her Broadway choreography.

The libretto is by Cheryl L. West, whose Jar the Floor played Off Broadway in fall 1999. Conceiver Epps, artistic director of the Pasadena Playhouse, also developed the revue, Blues in the Night. Play On! closed on Broadway May 11, after 61 performances and 19 previews.

The decision to close was made just hours after the show was nominated for three 1997 Tony Awards. Tonya Pinkins was nominated for Best Leading Actress in a Musical, Andre De Shields was nominated for Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical and Luther Henderson was nominated for Best Orchestrations -- a new category that year.

The Play On! company includes Dwayne Grayman, Kimberly Harris, Delphine T. Mantz, Michael McElroy, Weyman Thompson, Glenn Turner, Troy Blackwell, Jerry Clicquot, Izetta Fang, Dennis Stowe, Erika Vaughn and Dee Wright.

Designers are Eduardo Sicango (set), Felix E. Cochren (costumes), Susan A. White (lighting), Eric P. Talorico (sound). Musical arrangements and orchestrations are by Luther Henderson, musical supervision is by J. Leonard Oxley.

This is the centennial year of Ellington's birth. His songs include "Sophisticated Lady," "Satin Doll," "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing," and "In a Sentimental Mood."

Tickets are $24.50-$40. Call (732) 249-5560 for information.

-- By Kenneth Jones