Ladies Swing the Blues
MetroStage in Alexandria, Virginia, continues its string of polished music-based shows with the world premiere of Ladies Swing the Blues, which pays tribute to the work of the visionary alto saxophonist Charlie ("Bird") Parker through the voices of four stars of the jazz and blues world.
Director Thomas W. Jones II, who also wrote the book and original lyrics, has a distinct way with language: repeated rhythmic phrases, conversation sliding into rhyme, dialogue with echoes of both scat singing and hip-hop. The date is March 13, 1955, the night after Parker's death at age 34; the place, Birdland, the New York City jazz club named in his honor. The ghost of Bird (Anthony Manough), wide-eyed and guileless, shimmers through the proceedings, along with singers representing Billie Holiday (Roz White), Ella Fitzgerald (Lori Williams), Sarah Vaughan (Yvette Spears) and Peggy Lee (Sandy Bainum).
In a music-packed 90 minutes, the four women reminisce about Bird, the virtuoso performer who, along with Dizzy Gillespie, created the jazz offshoot known as bebop. "All jazzmen die a mystery," the women say, recalling Bird's transcendent musical gifts as well as his temper, his heroin addiction, and his rivals on the jazz scene. Less familiar are their stories of non-musicians "chasing the music," from novelist Jack Kerouac to the "Jazz Baroness" Nica Rothschild de Koenigswarter, in whose hotel suite Bird died.
While all of the singers have their moments, the single high point is Williams' shattering rendition of Thelonious Monk's "'Round Midnight." Knowles leads a driving combo from the piano: Greg Holloway on drums, Grant Langford on alto sax (sometimes providing the sound for Bird's pantomimed performances), Doug Pierce on trumpet, and Cheyney Thomas on bass.
Carl Gudenius' simple scenic design and Alexander Keen's lighting design bring the audience inside Birdland and its environs: an Art Deco bandstand, a few chairs, an old-fashioned microphone, and a loveseat representing Nica's apartment.