The "new" Duke Ellington musical, Play On!, opened on Broadway March 20. For those who have seen the show -- either in New York or in its debut production in San Diego -- please write a review of the show.
How well does it use Ellington's music? How well does the story of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night update to the 1940s and how well does the music fit into the new story? How well do the actors perform their roles? Do we have a sleeper hit on our hands?
Write your review -- long or short -- and e-mail it to Managing Editor Robert Viagas at firstname.lastname@example.org. Reviews will be posted as they come in.
Please include your town and state, and please note whether you'd like us to include your full e-mail address so you can receive responses. This is optional, of course.
Here are the results so far. Playbill On Line thanks those who took the time to write. From Girodet:
I saw "Play On!" on April 6th and absolutely loved it. I have to agree with the majority of the responses that were disappointed with the book, but with all those fabulous Ellington songs and a superb cast, who really cares? The show is pure Broadway and it is a blast - bottom line. The audience I attended the show with was having a great time as evidenced by hoots, howls, enthusiastic applause and a crowning standing ovation. As a provision of an evening of sheer entertainment, "Play On!" succeeds.
I just have to comment on the loose use of "cheap" in reference to the producers on an earlier Playbill On-Line review of the show. At 3.5M, "Play On!" is the least expensive new musical mounted on Broadway this season - and after years of all those theatre sophisticates griping about the reliance on enormous budgets for shows of good or poor quality, it is refreshing that the producers chose to focus on the natural elements of a Broadway musical (great music, quality performers, etc.) opposed to the spending ridiculous sums on the manipulation of a fancy scenic design, costumes and technical mayhem (i.e. Titanic). The production value of "Play On!" is bright, cheerful and evokes pleasure, cheap looking or not, and that's all an audience needs to have fun. (4/19/97)
I was able to attend the opening of Play On! last week and came away a total fan. The show is packed with talent energy and true spirit. The songs selected to make the "book" work were terrific and my congratulations go to Sheldon Epps for making the project come together. I would highly recommend anyone looking for a great time and a thrilling evening of entertainment to attend Play On! The actors are probably the most talented cast on Broadway at the moment. I truly hope th e Tony nominators recognize the show for what it is . . . great Broadway entertainment at the very highest level. Play On! is terrific and should have a long, long run. (4/4/97)
From Kenny C. Gannon:
Play On! features a talented cast and the great songs of Duke Ellington, but a cheap producer and a lousy book has undermined the show's chances for success. It's just not Broadway quality. The disappointing book makes only a token nod in the direction of Twelfth Night (If you are going to use the Bard, use more than the name.), while the costumes and sets have the look and feel of bad amateur theatre. The dancing was overly ecstatic, rough and messy, and had little connection to the style and grace of Ellington's music. (The orchestra and the arrangements can't hold a candle to Chicago.) On the whole, despite some good singing from the energetic cast, Play On! seems more misguided and wrong-headed than Malvolio. (4/2/97)
From Scott Spalding:
I was fortunate to see a workshop preview of Play On! in San Diego last fall. The book was a bit weak but they were still cutting and pasting every day. Hopefully things have improved. However the book became superfluous in the presence of Mr. Ellington's music and the dynamic performances of this all-star cast. I am a bit partial toward my friend Carl Anderson with whom I worked on Jesus Christ Superstar (I played Pilate). The cast was uniformly excellent and Cheryl Freeman stands out as one of the most exciting talents of the decade. This young lady possesses both an exhilirating voice and a charismatic persona. The chemistry between her and Carl was electric. I wish I could see the Broadway production because this was one of the most entertaining shows I have ever seen. The whole audience was dancing in their seats. This is truly a feel-good show and I wish the entire cast and production team all the best of luck.(3/26/97)
The Ellington tunes are great. The cast is talented and lively. However, a flacid book, sophomoric choreography and some of the ugliest sets and costumes I have ever seen on a stage, sink this show. (3/21/97)
From Jim Malloy:
What a joy to go to the theatre and see a knockout production without having any expectation as to whether it is supposed to be good or not. I see every musical that opens each season, and Play On! is truly a sensational show!
Firstly, one of the most amazing things is how seamlessly the Ellington songs fit into the story as if they were original compostions created for this production. The cast is superb, even secondary characters have such good voices and talent that they could carry a show by themselves. The dancing is enjoyable (isn't it great to actually have dancing back in musicals!!). And there are three bona fide showstoppers in the second act -- and I do mean showstoppers, the applause just would not die down!
I hope this becomes the sleeper hit of the season, and the critics don't find something to trash about it when it opens this Thursday. It would be an absolute shame for this show not to last a long time and "wow" many audiences to come. This is why I usually go to shows during final previews, so I am not "told" whether a show should be great (i.e. Rent, am I the only one who was not impressed with this show) or garbage (i.e. Carrie where I saw it 3 times in previews, each time to thunderous standing ovations!). I wish everyone in Play On! great reviews and a long run! (3/17/97)
I saw "Play On" at last Saturday's matinee and was disappointed. First, they delayed the show for 20 minutes because of technical difficulty. Then, during the show, some track kept squeaking and squeaking, and you wanted to scream: "WD 40!"
That aside, I thought some of the numbers were fun, but it was much of the same style over and over. The book is sadly uninteresting and confusing, and even though all the conceptual translations of "12th Night" into Harlem in the 40s are quite clever, the play falls down in the area of character. You have a hard time caring about anyone, they're all so busy posing...
This is truly sad, because the cast is terrifically talented, and their voices are wonderful, particularly Cheryl Freeman who may get a Tony nomination. Mercedes Ellington's choreography is all form and style, and we hardly have an opportunity to feel anything, because its always being forced upon us -- VERY flashy, too flashy. The scenery is quite good and the costumes fun, but the whole thing doesn't add up. If the book was meant to be a fable, the performances needed to be more stylistically specific. If it is meant to be meaningful, we needed opportunities to know the characters. If it was just meant to be silly fun, its needs many, many more (good) laughs. Maybe I'm totally off here, but I think audiences have a hard time with this sort of material today. (3/17/97)
From Stuart Gittlitz:
We saw Play On at the March 15 matinee. Loved the music and the wonderful talented performers.
The plot is a big loser, however. Don't believe all the stories about being related to Twelth Night.
Here's the real plot. A young girl comes to Harlem in the 1940's to find success by selling her songs. People tell her that women can't sell songs, just men. So she dresses as a man and tries to sell her songs. She becomes caught in a triangle between a songwriter and the girl he loves. Other than the cross gartered buffoon, that's the plot. Many years ago "Your Own Thing" took the Twelth Night story and turned it into a funny and endearing rock musical. Obviously, the Play On staff is not this clever when it comes to story telling.
The shame is, there are many reasons to see this show, The talented cast and great music will make a CD that will be a joy to own if they have a chance to record it. The plot will destroy any chances the show has for success.
We bought our tickets at TKTS. Watch out for seats in the center front orchestra. We thought we were lucky to obtain these seats at half price until the show started. The sound system causes a null zone at the front of the theatre. There were many times, before we moved back to other seats, that the sound disappeared completely. Since the reason to see this show is primarily about listening to its music, watch out where your seats are. <3/17/97)
Here is a show that is human-scaled, not a mega-monster-spectacle, and yet slick enough to be a crowd pleaser on the order of a Smokey Joe's Cafe. Cheryl L. West's book is broad and jokey, and it is staged and played that way. Yet Ms. West, with her plot alterations, very much keeps true to the vision of her source material, Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night", as she transplants it to Harlem in the 40's. (Truth to tell, the show has a very "guys and dolls-ish" feel to it, reflected in the production design.)
Ms. West also manages a difficult trick - she integrates songs not specifically written for the show, and some of them quite well known, seamlessly. Her plot and her characters support them. The music is flat out wonderful, drawing from Duke Ellington's catalog of work with various lyricists, and is a huge selling point for this show. The skills of the show's creative team contribute to making a handful of them bona fide, spine-tingling show-stoppers.
There is a most hard-working ensemble who make the absolute most of Mercedes Ellington's choreography. Everyone is bound to have a favorite among the seven high- powered principals. I would say especially watch for Lawrence Hamilton's solid, appealing work. You won't have to watch for, indeed you won't be able to take your eyes or ears off, the sublime and remarkable Tonya Pinkins. Her numbers alone are worth the price of admission. Here is a show that will offer a lot of entertainment, and won't insult your intelligence. Bring on a cast album! (3/15/97)
Play On started previews this week and I suddenly became obsessed with seeing it yesterday afternoon (3/5).
For once I am glad I let my obsession take over b/c it was GREAT! It has its problems, but the good definitely outweighs the bad, and if they can pull it together in time for reviews, this just moght be a hit.
It is Shakespeare's Twlefth Night set in Harlem in the "swingin' 40's" with a score of well placed Duke Ellington tunes.
All I have to say is Andre DeShields (is the Wiz). (<--I can't say his name without adding that b/c it always killed me on the title page of The Wiz). And Cheryl Freeman. ROCK MY WORLD. It's all about folks singin'. The entire show could SUCK, and the fact that these AMAZING singers sing song after amazing and somewhat familiar well arranged song would be enough to have me on my feet at the end. But the book is pretty good and makes sense and has some really funny and well delivered lines. They just need to get more comfortable with it. And Tanya Pinkins was out last night, so it may be even tighter with her in.
The obvious weak link was Carl Anderson who can clearing sing all day, but is obviously uncomfortable acting. But Cheryl Freeman was enough of an endearing presence for the both of them - and everyone else for that matter. And her voice!
The end gets sort of long, but I would be sad if they cut any of the songs. Andre DeSheilds and Larry Marshall have an AMAZING number during this stretch called "Rocks in My Bed" that was one of the best things I've seen on stage. There was an old white Jewish woman yelling at the stage like she was in church it was so good.
Another highlight is Andre DeSheilds, Larry Marshall, Yvette Cason and Lawrence Hamilton in Act 1 doing "It Don't Mean A Thing..."
The constant highlight was any time Cheryl Freeman opened her mouth. This soundtrack is going to sell like no tomorrow. I can't wait.
The sets (James Leonard Joy) were good with some good nice images (projections I think). The scene changes were smooth and un-noticable. The staging was pretty good in places now that I think abou it. A very good marriage between the sets and the staging.
The lighting seemed like they were still fidgeting with some stuff (this is their first week), but fit in well with the mood of the show. Now that I think of it, there were some pretty AMAZING set pieces. Small, but really effective.
The choreography and the costumes were a bit questionable. It was ok, but at times you wanted it to live up to the fabulous and sharp and music you were hearing. All of my problems with the costumes were in the chorus costumes - with the exception of the girls in Andre DeSheilds' solo number.
Overall, I though it was wonderful. It was something new, and you pretty much forget that it's Twelfth Night. It seems people have been trying to put together a Duke Ellington show and this one is definitely IT. It was exactly the type of evening I wanted to have in the theatre.
From Lauren Riccio:
I was the play Friday night with my husband. It was fabulous. I can not say enough wonderful things about the play and it's cast. I really enjoyed seeing Tonya Pinkins as I watched her for a long time on All My Children. Cheryl Freeman has a voice that won't quit. The dancers and the rest of the cast were superb. It was truly a magnificent show. I have to say it is one of the best I have seen, and we get into the theater monthly. And to top it off, guess who sat in front of us. Bette Midler, and she and her two companions seemed to totally enjoy themselves as well. Congratulations on a show well done. (3/10/97)