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‘Play On,’ a William Shakespeare-Duke Ellington musical on Broadway

March 20, 1997

NEW YORK (AP) _ Its pedigree is pretty impressive. Using William Shakespeare and Duke Ellington as source material should give any musical a leg up.

So why isn’t ``Play On,″ a song-and-dance version of Shakespeare’s ``Twelfth Night″ that features marvelous Ellington melodies, a better show?

Well, director-creator Sheldon Epps, as well as adapter Cheryl L. West, have settled for the lowest common denominator in their production which opened Thursday at Broadway’s Brooks Atkinson Theater.

The tone is broad and boisterous and the production a little tacky, despite designer Marianna Elliott’s blinding Day-Glo costumes and James Leonard Joy’s scenery inspired by artist Romare Bearden.

West transplants Shakespeare’s comedy to 1940s Harlem where sweet young Viola, fresh off the bus from Mississippi, has arrived to become a songwriter. Since the profession is dominated by men, Vy’s Uncle Jester dresses her as a man to get her an audience with the Duke, a big-time bandleader.

``Twelfth Night″ revels in romantic and gender confusion. So does ``Play On,″ but without the subtlety or much of the wit. At times, it seems like a lesser companion piece to ``Victor/Victoria,″ Broadway’s other gender-bending musical.

The plot: the Duke pines for Lady Liv, the Cotton Club’s grand diva of song. Lady Liv pines for the disguised Vy, now called Vy-Man. Vy pines for the Duke. And the Rev, Lady Liv’s straight-arrow manager, pines for his demanding star.

The tribulations all get straightened out rather unsurprisingly _ interrupted by a few comic asides from Jester and his friends before the curtain finally falls. It all seems undernourished.

What the production doesn’t skimp on are the songs _ and the cast. The score is a parade of Ellington Band hits such as ``Take the `A’ Train,″ ``Mood Indigo,″ ``Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,″ ``I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good″ and ``Prelude to a Kiss.″

The performers are equally impressive, starting with Cheryl Freeman as a sunny-tempered and spunky Vy. She is a genial leading lady whose shy smile masks a fiery voice. Rafters at the Brooks Atkinson also are raised by several other singers. Tonya Pinkins, as the imperious Lady Liv, does it twice _ once in the first act with a sultry ``Mood Indigo″ and then in the second, wailing her way through the torchiest of numbers, ``I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But the Blues.″

The evening’s most exciting moment is provided by a pair of old pros _ a feline Andre de Shields _ too long absent from the Broadway stage _ and Larry Marshall. As a couple of randy men with major women trouble, they strut, swagger and slink their way through a raucous ``Rocks in My Bed.″ The duet is a genuine show stopper.

Carl Anderson maintains a calm dignity as the Duke _ a quiet force in the middle of all the high-decibel hubbub _ and Lawrence Hamilton, as the Rev, giddily transforms himself from uptight employee to unwound hipster.

Mercedes Ellington, granddaughter of the composer, provides the exuberant choreography. The dancers have plenty of flash, as do the show’s leading ladies and men. Yet the tale concocted by Epps and West lets them down, turning them into caricatures as soon as all that glorious music stops.

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