For the several past seasons MetroStage, under the leadership of Carolyn Griffin, has presented more than its share of world premiere musicals at its Alexandria, VA home. Often focusing on the stories of great musicians of the past, many have received acclaim from critics and audience members alike. Its current world premiere, Ladies Swing the Blues: A Jazz Fable, features an original book (director Thomas W. Jones II), jazz standards of yesteryear, and a selection of original music (William Knowles with lyrics by book writer Jones) and like its predecessors, is a veritable vehicle to showcase the tremendous vocal talent of the actors embodying the musicians we all know and love.
The time is 1955 and the place is jazz Mecca Birdland, then residing on 52nd Street in vibrant New York City. The legendary composer/saxophonist Charlie Parker (affectionately known as "Bird" and played here by the sensational and charismatic Anthony Manough), who served as the inspiration for this great music venue has passed away at a young age. Several jazz greats, identified in the play as Lady (Roz White), Ella (Lori Williams), Sassy (Yvette Spears), and Lee (Broadway's Sandi Bainum), congregate at the club to remember him, his professional successes and personal struggles, and the influence he had on the jazz musical landscape of the time. Although the singers portrayed in the play are fictional, their attributes immediately allow audience members to recognize them as versions of several real life, famous jazz ladies that played the club in that era, including Billie Holiday (Lady), Ella Fitzgerald (Ella), Sarah Vaughan (Sassy) and Peggy Lee (Lee).
While Jones' book has some definite shortcomings and can become a bit tedious at times - we can only hear so many times how "Bird" led a troubled life despite his musical genius - the music certainly shines in this production. Knowles' original compositions feel right at home amidst the standards such as "Fever" (with a strong showing from Sandy Bainum in particular) Harold Arlen's "Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home," and "Round Midnight." Of the new compositions, the most musically interesting is "Metaphor," which is expertly sung by Manough as Bird contemplates his legacy after he passes.
The four ladies - all talented vocalists in their own right - sizzle when singing the many ensemble numbers. Some also shine as actors when the spotlight is only shining on them. Bainum and Williams are the most successful at infusing solid acting moments into their songs. Of the four, Bainum is the one that has the most solid theatrical background and in this production she proves that she's equally at home singing jazz standards as she is with singing showtunes - to say that she's versatile is an understatement. Her take on "Lullaby of Birdland," in particular, demonstrates her keen ability to internalize the meaning of lyrics while sharing a technically impeccable singing voice with the appreciative audience. Williams delivers a mean scat in several of her numbers and her rendition of "Flying Home" would make Ella proud as it is as emotionally solid as it is technically on point.
With this kind of musical, it's impossible to downplay the importance of the band. Musical director Knowles is the glue that holds it all together on piano and Greg Holloway (drums), Grant Langford (alto sax), Doug Pierce (trumpet), and Cheyney Thomas (bass) also demonstrate solid musicianship and enthusiasm for the material. All have the jazz vibe down pat and make the strong songs even more memorable. While the production elements, from set (Carl Gudenius) and costumes (Jane Fink) to sound (Matt Rowe) and lighting (Alexander Keen), are solid and do well to establish the 50s club atmosphere, they do not detract attention from the real star of this show - the music. The music, in fact, is reason enough to give this show a chance.
Running Time: 95 minutes with no intermission. Ladies Swing the Blues: A Jazz Fable plays through March 17, 2013 at MetroStage - 1201 N. Royal Street in Alexandria, VA. For tickets, call 1-800-494-8497 or purchase them online.