The cast of the forthcoming Broadway musical Play On! performed seven numbers from the show at a Feb. 13 press preview, and Playbill On Line was there.
Opening March 20 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, the show transposes the plot of William Shakespeare's comedy of hidden identities -- Twelfth Night -- to an idealized vision of 1940s Harlem, something director Sheldon Epps calls "The Magical Kingdom of Harlem."
The title is taken from Shakespeare's line, "If music be the food of life, play on!"
Librettist Cheryl L. West (Puddin' N' Pete, Jar the Floor) has woven classic Duke Ellington songs into the story to make a musical. Thus, when aspiring songwriter Vy (formerly Viola -- played by Cheryl Freeman) arrives in New York City and asks a crowd at Grand Central Station how she can get to Harlem, they launch into a high-energy rendition of "Take the A Train," which turns into a dance number.
Mercedes Ellington, the composer's granddaughter, devised the choreography. Her previous Broadway credits include No No, Nanette and a previous revue of her grandfather's work, Sophisticated Ladies. The preview was held at Aaron Davis Hall in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem, just blocks from the home where Ellington lived and wrote. As introduced by director Sheldon Epps (Tony nominee for Blues in the Night), the preview began with "'A' Train," which is also the show's opening number. Freeman led the 14-member ensemble in the dance sequence, which tries to recreate the hurlyburly of Grand Central, then the subway ride uptown, which segued into, naturally enough, Ellington's "Drop Me Off in Harlem."
To help get started in the music business, Vy seeks help from a famous songwriter called The Duke (Carl Anderson), based both on the Duke in Twelfth Night -- and on Duke Ellington. She catches him at the piano where he's singing the soulful "I Got It Bad (and That Ain't Good)." As she approaches him and he takes notice of her, the number turns into a duet.
To find the true heart of Harlem, Vy is told, she should visit the famous Cotton Club. As action shifts to the famous jazz emporium, Ellington's less well-known "C'Jam Blues" erupts into a tap production number, again using the full ensemble .
No longer going in order, the preview then showed a scene based on the one in Shakespeare where tricksters Sir Toby and Anthony Aguecheek try to fool the lovesick Malvolio into making a fool of himself, under the guise of giving him courting advice. In Play On! Sir Toby is now Jester (Andre De Shields -- the original Wiz in The Wiz), Anthony is now Sweets (Larry Marshall). They are joined by Miss Mary (Yvette Cason) in trying to teach the Malvolio character, now the terminally uptight The Rev (Lawrence Hamilton) how to dance. The comedy dance sequence is set to "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)."
Instead of being persuaded to wear absurd crossed garters, as per the Bard, The Rev is coaxed into a canary-yellow Zoot Suit in his quest to woo the aristocratic Olivia, now Lady Liv (Tonya Pinkins).
Even with no electrical amplification, Pinkins, a Tony-winner for Jelly's Last Jam, shook the cavernous rehearsal hall with a soulful rendition of "Nothin' But the Blues," and took her ovation from the startled audience with a catlike grin.
In "I'm Beginning To See the Light," the klutzy Rev finally comes out of his shell and shocks Lady Liv with a suave rendition of this standard.
And what becomes of the Rev? Shakespeare's Malvolio is the only one left out of the rejoicing and nuptials in Twelfth Night and retires with curses. Nothing like that for Play On!, Mercedes Ellington said. "We have a happy ending for everyone," she said.
Ellington said her challenge in choreographing her grandfather's music is to be true to two very different time periods: mainly jitterbug-era Harlem, but also, to a lesser degree, the show's Elizabethan roots.
For the first, she's brought aboard two dance "consultants" -- legends Louis Johnson and Franklin Manning, both now in their 80s.
She said her mentor, Donald Sadler, taught her "always to respect period pieces, to try to bring back an era: never a caricature, always a genuine reproduction of the period."
As part of her research, she has brought the cast to Welles, a dance club at 132nd Street and Seventh Avenue in New York, where the Harlem Renaissance Band plays and where young people are learning the dances of the 1940s, sometimes from some of the original jitterbugs.
To suggest the show's origins, she uses the occasional Elizabethan flourish: such as a courtly bow "with swirling hands" now and again.
On Broadway the songs will be played by 12 musicians, augmented from the six who played at Old Globe in San Diego, where this production originated in fall 1996. The production is orchestrated and arranged by Luther Henderson (Ain't Misbehavin')
James Leonard Joy's sets are mostly abstract, but include murals inspired by the work of period artist Romare Bearden.
The song list as of Feb. 13 was as follows and in this order, though some of the numbers in the three-hour show were expected to be cut. Epps, who has been working three years on the show, said he combed Ellington's 1000-plus-song treasury to find the songs best suited to the story:
"Take the 'A' Train"
Drop Me Off in Harlem
"I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart"
"C Jam Blues"
"Don't Get Around Much Anymore"
"Don't You Know I Care"
"It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing"
"I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good"
"Hit Me With a Hot Note"
"I'm Just a Lucky So and So"
Everything But You"
"I Ain't Got Nothin' But the Blues"
"I'm Beginning To See the Light"
"Rocks in My Bed"
"Something To Live For"
"Love You Madly"
"Prelude to a Kiss"
"In a Mellow Tone"