Tuesday October 17th 2017

“Duke Ellington’s Greatest Hits” reviewed by Jeffrey Leibham

Highly Recommended ***** “Duke Ellington’s Greatest Hits” is, quite simply, what the title says that it is. Nearly 30 of the songs which Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington either wrote or co-wrote the music, lyrics or made popular as a bandleader in more than 20,000 performances during the course of his entire career are presented in an absolutely enjoyable and sophisticated evening of entertainment. Director Rudy Hogenmiller, who is also the Artistic Director of Music Theater Works (formerly Light Opera Works) has assembled top notch talent throughout this production. One thing that the program does not credit is who exactly “conceived” this event. It seems pretty clear that Mr. Hogenmiller worked very closely with Music Director Joey Zymonas in choosing the musical selections. Thankfully the program does list all of the songs in the order that they are performed and is very detailed in giving credit to the composer and lyricist responsible for it. There is no scripted dialogue between any of the songs nor are any of them “set up” with trivia about who originally recorded it, what year it was popularized, etc. Just all of Mr. Ellington’s magical and enrapturing music to behold. There is a nice half-page biography about Duke Ellington in the program for those of you who may be unfamiliar with his legacy.

The evening opens with three musicians walking onto the stage. Seated at the piano is Mr. Zymonas, who conducts the entire performance from the keyboard with the assistance of his iPad, which contains the score. Bassist Christian Dillingham and drummer Phillip Fornett complete the musical trio. They begin Part One with “Take the ‘A’ Train,” which has a lengthy musical introduction before the seven spectacular vocalists take the stage in song. These performers are Justin Adair, Dawn Bless, Jar’Davion Brown, Caitlyn Glennon, Amanda Horvath, Evan Tyrone Martin and Martin L. Woods. The real beauty of this show is that all of these performers get to shine in at least one solo number, and many are paired into lovely duets or trios in some cases when they are not all on stage together. Also, the songs are arranged in such a fashion that the pacing is perfect and the time just flies by. It certainly will leave the audience wanting more.

Highlights of Part One are a smoky version of “I Got it Bad (and That Ain’t Good)” by Ms. Glennon and Ms. Bless, adorned with a lovely black feathered headdress and boa singing “In a Sentimental Mood.” I am not quite sure if anyone has ever heard a more unique version of the Billy Strayhorn classic “Lush Life” than the one presented here. Mr. Woods delivers a very disciplined interpretation in a drastically slower tempo than is customary for this song. With his impeccable diction he creates a moment that resonates with the crowd. “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be” finds Ms. Horvath sparkling almost as much as the jewelry she is bedecked with and “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” starts out as a trio with Ms. Bless, Mr. Martin and Mr. Woods that quickly has the two gentlemen regretting the fact that they let the woman slip away from them, in true “the gal that got away” fashion. All three of the ladies share the stage for “I’m Beginning to See the Light” before Mr. Brown performs “Caravan,” a song that Mr. Ellington co-wrote with Juan Tizol, a Puerto Rican trombonist who was a member of Ellington’s band. (Tizol’s song “Perdido” is presented in Part Two of this show). The exotic “Caravan” has Mr. Brown doing some sultry choreography accompanied by a small percussion instrument that he holds in his hand. Ms. Glennon has some flirtatious interplay with the three musicians on “I’m Just a Lucky So and So” while Mr. Martin illustrates his very strong musical theater background on “Do Nothing Till You Hear from Me” as he convincingly acts out that piece. The first act comes to a conclusion as Ms. Bless, supported only by the piano on her solo introduction, is joined by the entire cast for a rousing “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” which has the men on one side of the stage and the ladies on the other in an almost musical duel.

Part Two opens with just the musicians playing “C Jam Blues,” which allows them all to enjoy a solo to demonstrate their prodigious talents. “I Didn’t Know About You” features a very strong Mr. Martin once again finding true emotion in his rendition and also permits him to show off his warm falsetto in it’s concluding measures. “In a Mellow Tone” has all four of the gentlemen on stage, having shed their formal tuxedo jackets and wearing crisply pressed white vests for a more casual mode. They gather round Mr. Adair, who plays the song on a guitar and is supported by Mr. Zymonas on electric bass guitar. The vivacious Ms. Glennon does wonders with “Hit Me With a Hot Note and Watch Me Bounce” and while she may look like she is channelling her inner Billie Holliday in ermine shawl and white gardenias in her hair, Ms. Bless is sure to make her version of “(In My) Solitude” all her own. “Everything But You” has Mr. Brown showing off his whistling skills and Mr. Martin and Ms. Glennon endure verbal acrobatics (and some nice dance moves as well) on “Bli-Blip.” Mr. Woods returns with a clarion “Sophisticated Lady” and Mr. Adair shines with “Something to Live For,” which was also written by Billy Strayhorn. You will hear much sadness in this song and be sure to listen closely to the lyrics. Strayhorn, who was a jazz composer, pianist, lyricist and arranger and also a successful collaborator and close friend of Duke Ellington, was also a meloncholy and  closeted genius. “Come Sunday” has the entire company once again back on stage and this spiritual-like hymn nearly raises the roof off of the intimate and cozy Nichols Concert Hall. After a reprise of “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” the encore is a musical selection not written by Duke Ellington but in honor of him: “Sir Duke” by Stevie Wonder.

If there is one misstep in this entire show it would have to be in the inclusion of the song “Imagine My Frustration.” Ms. Horvath is forced to act the part of the nerdy girl at the high school prom who can’t find anyone to dance with her. Incidentally, it is also the only time that the costumes deviate from the monochromatic color scheme of black, white or brushed and muted greys. Ms. Horvath arrives in a metallic copper skirt with red-framed eye glasses. It is easy to forgive, nonetheless, as the song does encapsulate the later period of Ellington’s compositions and it incorporates some be-bop melodies.

There is one running gag throughout this show which is very funny and endearing. Mr. Brown many times (at the end of Part One, during his moments paired with the other men and at the very end of the show) steals the spotlight by exaggerating his dance movements and reluctance to leave the stage. It just makes for a clever through line to tie this mesmerizing evening together, and Mr. Brown is a natural performer who will bring a smile to your face.

The members of a production team that never get mentioned, many times because they may not be utilized, are the stylists. Jane DeBondt and Jesus Perez have done an outstanding job to make everyone look truly elegant. Also, credit Connor O. Speck for wardrobe that drapes the ladies in countless gorgeous evening gowns and the men in their best tie and tails. They have guaranteed that this evening has the sly debonair quality that it requires to be the smashing success that it is.

The set is simply two large canvas placards with photographs of Duke Ellington himself. On the left we see Mr. Ellington as a young man, dressed in black evening jacket, white tie and a top hat jauntily tilted upon his head. His eyes are bright with hope and his subtle smirk is spry. The photograph on the right is one of Mr. Ellington towards the end of his fifty-year career, leaning against the music rack of his grand piano in a reflective, somber and contemplative mood. Acting as two book ends, the action that unfolds between them is an incredible tribute to the man who many consider to be the greatest jazz composer of the twentieth century. This show is exemplary. I’m sure that “Duke” would approve.

The run is very limited

performances are as follows:

10/11 at 2 p.m.

10/12 at 2 p.m.

10/13  8 p.m.

10/14  2 p.m. and 8 p.m.

10/15  2 p.m.

Tickets start at $34 and can be purchased by calling 847-920-5360 or online at www.musictheatreworks.org

Street parking is very available in the downtown Evanston area. The Nichols Hall is located at 1490 Chicago Avenue

To see what others are saying, visit www.theatreinchicago.com, go to Review Round-Up and click at “Duyke Ellington’s Greatest

 

 

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