This Ellington opus may not look much like opera, but it sure swings like the Duke
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., April 24, 2009
McCullough Theatre, through April 26
Running time: 1 hr, 35 min
Duke Ellington called it an opera. It's being staged by the Butler Opera Center. Still, you could be forgiven for mistaking Sir Duke's unfinished opus Queenie Pie for something else, particularly given how UT's Butler School of Music is presenting it. Richard Isackes' set, with its tiered stage, vintage microphones, and elegant gold-on-black art deco lines, yanks you back to a Harlem nightspot at the height of the jazz age, and Michael Hite's sumptuous costumes – extravagant cloche hats festooned with flowers and feathers, flapper gowns covered by richly patterned silken robes dripping with fringe – hold you there. The UT Jazz Orchestra, under the baton of a nattily attired Jeff Hellmer, stylishly impersonates a classic big band, dishing up sultry Ellington tunes with a lushness of sound from an era long ago and far away. That music comes in the short bursts of a revue or cabaret, slices of yearning and regret tenuously yoked together by a wafer-thin storyline as improbable as it is fanciful. This is what Broadway musicals looked like in the Roaring Twenties, and indeed Queenie Pie has more in common with No, No, Nanette than Götterdämmerung.
So maybe in dubbing this work an opera, Duke was having a bit of fun with the form, making light of its penchant for grandiosity. After all, his heroine is royalty by virtue of being voted Harlem's best beautician, and the challenge to her "crown" comes from a cosmetology competitor, the cheekily named Café Olay. Ellington teasingly introduces Queenie Pie with the sort of grand flourish that precedes a leading character's first aria, only to have her exit without singing, ceding the stage (and most of the first act) to her challenger, who also becomes her rival in romance. Even when that ends in a deadly crime of passion, Ellington treads lightly. No arias of grief or madness, just a quick dispatch of Queenie to her yacht to set sail for a tropical paradise. She begins there seeking a magical elixir and ends finding fulfillment in the arms of a true king.
As dramas go, Queenie Pie has all the substance of meringue. But in the music, Ellington took his opera seriously. Here he penned some 20 pieces that evoke the Duke in his prime: the seductive swing of "Satin Doll," the syncopated exoticism of "Caravan," the sinuous rhythms of "Sophisticated Lady." The melodies feel familiar even when they're not; they're so recognizably Ellington. Some credit for that must go to Hellmer and John Mills, who crafted the arrangements here from the composer's incomplete score and nailed the Ellington Orchestra's trademark sound. And their fellow artists take full advantage of the opportunity to sing some serious Duke. The large chorus, drawn mostly from the Huston-Tillotson University Concert Choir, brings exuberance to the assignment, and director Gloria Quinlan keeps the chorus in the swing. UT alum Keithon Gipson, who fills the dual roles of Lil' Daddy and the King, slathers his numbers with soulful charm. Current UT student Morgan Gale Beckford, who slips into the role of Café Olay as if it were a satin peignoir, mines the Duke's melodies for all their sensuality, turning up the heat in a steamy duet with a solo trumpeter. And though Carmen Bradford's Queenie takes her sweet time breaking into song, the wait is worth it. A jazz singer in full command of her talents, Bradford draws out all the sass and sorrow and sexiness in Ellington's music; she teaches you about his genius.
In the end, Queenie Pie has the chance to return to New York, but she chooses to stay on the island, to be with her real king and be a real queen. She recognizes what she has. Whether we call it an opera, a musical, or what, what we have in Queenie Pie is a new set of sublime tunes from Duke Ellington. To paraphrase a wise man of the theatre, this piece by any other name would swing as sweet.