Happy birthday to Duke, happy birthday to Duke...
You'll likely be hearing that phrase all over NYC's Rockefeller Center April 29, 11:45 AM-12:30 PM. That's when the Center will jump and jive in honor of Duke Ellington's s birthday. The gig is in front of the Statue of Prometheus -- where the late jazz king and the band performed April 1969.
The free and open to the public event will feature a giant birthday cake in the shape of a piano (complete with chocolate legs). Granddaughter Mercedes Ellington, who choreographed Broadway's Play On!, will be on hand to do the cake cutting.
And speaking of Play On!, the cast and musicians of the musical will be out in force at the birthday bash. The band will play "C Jam Blues," followed by "Drop Me Off In Harlem" for Cheryl Freeman & the company. Other numbers from the show will include "I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart" (Carl Anderson), "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" (Cheryl Freeman, Tonya Pinkins), "I Ain't Got Nothing But The Blues" (Tonya Pinkins), "It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing" (Yvette Cason, Lawrence Hamilton, Larry Marshall, Andre De Shields), and "Rocks In My Bed" (Lawrence Hamilton & Andre De Shields).
Other performers scheduled to attend the festivities are jazz pianist and historian Dr. Billy Taylor, gospel singer Cissy Houston (mother of Whitney), Valerie Simpson (who will likely sing "Happy Birthday"), and the Boys Choir of Harlem. *
Play On!, which updates Shakespeare's Twelfth Night to 1940s Harlem with a score of Ellington standards, recorded its original cast CD April 14 on the Varese Sarabande label, for release May 20. (The producers had been hoping to time the CD release with Ellington's birthday, but that wasn't be feasible.)
Toplining the cast of Play On! are Andre De Shields (Ain't Misbehavin' and the original Wiz in The Wiz) and Tonya Pinkins, a Tony Award winner for Jelly's Last Jam.
Sheldon Epps conceived and directs the piece, which transposes the basic gender-bending plotline of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night to "the jazz center of the world," 1940's Harlem, alive with the sounds of swing. With a book by Cheryl L. West and featuring the songs of Duke Ellington, the musical fantasy recreates a rarely-seen slice of pre-war and wartime New York.
Choreographing their jumps will be Mercedes Ellington, granddaughter of Duke. Luther Henderson (Ain't Misbehavin') did the orchestrations.
Ellington tunes making their appearance in the show include "Take The A Train," "It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing," and "I'm Just A Lucky So-and-So," as well as some "rarely heard treasures." Audience favorites in the show include "Rocks In My Bed" and "I Ain't Got Nothin' But The Blues"
Along with De Shields and Pinkins, those delivering the songs will be (Jelly's Last Jam), Cheryl Freeman, Larry Marshall, Yvette Cason, Lawrence Hamilton and Carl Anderson, who originated the role of Judas in the Broadway national tour and film version of Christ Superstar. Ensemble members include Crystal Allen, Cadet Bastine, Jacquelyn Bird, Wendee Lee Curtis, Byron Easley, Frantz G. Hall, Bryan S. Haynes, Gil P., Lacy Phillips, Stacie Precia, Lisa Scialabba, Erika Vaughn and William Wesley. The creative team for Play On! includes James Leonard Joy (set), Marianna Elliott (costumes), Jeff Davis (lighting) and Jeff Ladman (sound). Joy's set makes much use of sliding panels and mirrors; Elliott's costumes range from zoot suits to an ornate red robe for Ellington. Cheryl L. West has written the plays Jar The Floor, Puddin' N Pete and Holiday Heart.
The Maxwells and the Nederlander Organization supported a workshop of Play On! last year at New York's Second Stage Theatre. According to Anne Marie Welsh's story in the San Diego Union-Tribune, Mitchell Maxwell's comment on the piece was, "This is the most lucky thing that's happened to me in years."
At least two previous musicals have been based on Shakespeare's Twelfth Night: Your Own Thing in 1968 and
A full-age NY Times ad announcing the show hit the papers Jan. 19, featuring an eye-catching, colorful, art deco-style drawing of a snazzily dressed black woman (in a man's tuxedo) dancing with a saxophone and two horns nearby. The caption quotes the Shakespearean line that gives the musical its title: "If music be the food of love...Play On!"
Tickets are now on sale for Play On! at (212) 307-4100.