Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Ellington: The Life and Music of The Duke
Also see Susan's review of 3 Mo' Divas!
Duke Ellington (1899-1974) "left his soul in every song" he wrote, according to Ellington: The Life and Music of The Duke, the one-man retrospective now at MetroStage in Alexandria, Va. The truth of this observation comes through in the fact that Ellington's admirable songs stand alone. They don't need the support of the somewhat pedestrian, semi-rhyming biographical narration written by David Scully.
Jimi Ray Malary, a poised performer with a sleek baritone voice, performs a range of Ellington songs, backed by a noteworthy four-piece ensemble led by music director William Knowles. He also presents sketches describing the path of Ellington's life, from his childhood in Washington to his success as a composer and bandleader in Harlem and around the world, his musical partnership with Billy Strayhorn, and his uneasy relationship with the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.
Scully's lines strain at being poetic, but they're trite and overly literal compared to Ellington's and Strayhorn's peerless songs, here including the dreamy "Caravan"; aching, heartfelt readings of "Sophisticated Lady" and "I Got it Bad (and That Ain't Good)"; swinging "Hit Me with a Hot Note and Watch Me Bounce" and "I'm Beginning to See the Light"; rhythmic "Take the A' Train"; and examples of his sacred works, "Come Sunday" and Something to Live For."
MetroStage has created a look of elegance on a small budget: the scenic design by Brandon Guilliams turns the stage into a cabaret space, including a few tables in the front of the auditorium. The lighting design by Jason Mann occasionally shifts into expressionistic territory, turning red at dramatic moments, but for the most part it fits the material respectfully and without extra fuss.
Not only does Malary have a way with the music; he and the musicians demonstrate a genuine sense of interplay. Knowles presides at the piano, but each musician gets his moments to shine, in traditional jazz style: Ron Oshima on saxophone; Gregory Holloway on drums; and Mark Saltman, seamlessly sitting in for Yusef Chisholm on bass.