|In a word "Play On"! is fantastic! The Tony Award-nominated musical, conceived and directed by Sheldon Epps, is simply sizzling on Arena Stage's Fichandler Stage. The marriage between Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and the music of Duke Ellington flows so seamlessly, it's as if these two artistic geniuses collaborated on the effort. Though separated by time and space, Epps has very cleverly matched the joy, romance and music of his favorite Shakespearean play with the drama of Ellington's music.
"It always seemed to me that Twelfth Night was the most musical of all of Shakespeare's plays. In fact, the plot of the play had been musicalized several times in the past," explained Epps. "But I thought there was a fresh approach in moving the story and the major characters from the magical kingdom of Illyria to the swinging kingdom of Harlem in the 1940s. And who better to provide the score than Duke Ellington himself. For Count Orsino, music was the food of love. For Duke, music was his mistress. Already this seemed a perfect match."
Alexandra Foucard is the wide-eyed and innocent Vy who heads north with the dream of becoming a songwriter and working with the Duke~ When she does arrive in Harlem and meets up with her Uncle Cootie a.k.a. Jester (Clinton Dereks Carroll), her dream is momentarily dashed when be tells her that a woman will never make it in Harlem writing music; creating great jazz was said lobe the domain of men. She is undeterred so guided by Jester, Vy is transformed into Vy-Man and it is this masquerade that guides this high-energy musical bash
Vy-Man is introduced to the Duke who has lost his musical muse and the love of his life Lady Liv (Nikki Crawford). When he hears one of Vy-Man's songs he sends him with the song to Lady Liv hoping that the Cotton Club headliner will add the song to her repertoire and it will more importantly woo her back. But nothing turns out as expected and unrequited love runs rampant~ The Duke continues to pin away for Lady Liv as does her strait-laced manservant Rev (Richard Allen) But Lady Liv develops a thing for Vy-Man, who is enamored by the Duke.
The real strength of "Play On!" is that it has been successfully crafted to allow the whole ensemble their signature moment. And with 22 songs by Ellington, audiences have much to feast on. I can't imagine how Epps was able to whittle his way through Ellington's catalogue of over 2000 compositions, but each song chosen was an asset to the progression of the story. "Not only do the Ellington songs meet the dramatic needs of the plot structure, but they also offer the opportunity for dazzling performances," Epps shared. And the cast does deliver. Crawford is simply riveting when she croons "Mood Indigo" or unleashes "I Ain't Got Nothing But the Blues," while Jester and Sweets stopped the show with their drunken romp "Rocks In My Bed."
"Play On!" continues through Jan. 7,2001. Tickets are $32-$50 Call 202-488-3300.