In Sheldon Epps's new musical, Play On! -- whose world-premiere engagement at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego received excellent reviews -- the music of Duke Ellington is grafted onto Shakespeare's comedy, Twelfth Night. Thus, the magical Kingdom of Illyria is transformed into the magical kingdom of Harlem, a joyous 1940's world of African-American jazz, poetry, beauty and limitless possibilities.
Here, Viola is Vy (Cheryl Freeman), a Mississippi innocent who travels to the bustling city with a suitcase full of songs hoping to break into the songwriting biz, only to hear her Uncle Jester (Andre De Shields) pronounce: "Women sing; they don't write no music." Dressing her up as a boy, Uncle Jester trots his daughter off to a famous bandleader named what else? the Duke (Carl Anderson) who happens to be pining after Lady Liv (Tonya Pinkins), the reigning diva of the Cotton Club. Then . . . well, you get the idea.
De Shields, known to audiences for creating the title role of The Wiz and being one of the five originals in Ain't Misbehavin' got the call from Epps to discuss the role of Jester just after finishing starring as Willy Loman in a color-blind production of Death of a Salesman. He was intrigued, having created his own magical kingdom in the musical revue, Harlem Nocturne and long familiar with Epps's work, including the Tony-nominated musical, Blues in the Night.
"I love the idea of playing this wild, philandering Harlem dandy in this romantic game of chess, which Sheldon and [book writer] Cheryl L. West had created," says De Shields. "I reread Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and noticed that the subtitle was Or What You Will and thought that it coincided perfectly with Harlem at that golden time when anything was possible."
In rehearsals Epps encouraged a collaborative atmosphere among the talented cast. Upon further exploration, DeShields says that he was struck with how the Shakespearean theme, "how love makes us do foolish things," also dove-tailed nicely with the no-holds-barred attitudes among the funny and imaginative denizens of Harlem. "People were constantly re-inventing themselves on a daily basis during the Harlem Renaissance," says De Shields. "Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson, Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington these are people who because of certain sociological pressures and God-given talent were inventing a culture and civilization that has remained unsurpassed to this day."
Ellington's music is also a perfect fit for the adaptation because, as one critic pointed out, it "...helps explain why these characters fall instantly in love." But it is more than that, says De Shields, who finds in the Duke's work an emotional map as varied and all-encompassing as any in English literature. "Duke Ellington's music is playful and deceptively simple," he says. "But it is also passionate, powerful, spontaneous and, at times, tragic. 'Mood Indigo,' 'Rocks in My Bed,' 'I'm Just a Lucky So-and-So' provide all the different colorations in Twelfth Night and gives the audience a magic carpet to ride on."
Response to Play On! has been so overwhelmingly positive that producer Mitchell Maxwell and the Nederlanders plan to present it on Broadway next spring after a run at the Kennedy Center.