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In ‘Play On!,’ the Bard Swings With the Duke

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s amazing that the Pasadena Playhouse is still standing after all the bring-down-the-house singing in last summer’s production of “Play On!”

Recorded as it finished its run, the musical--a riff on Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” that is set in 1940s Harlem and incorporates many of Duke Ellington’s greatest hits--airs tonight as a “Great Performances” presentation on KCET. In this outstandingly successful stage-to-small-screen transfer, directed by Gary Halvorson, the show retains all the spontaneity of live performance, while gaining the close-ups and the sense of movement only the camera can provide. It’s sure to rekindle the good times among those who saw it in Pasadena (or in its 1996 San Diego debut or brief 1997 Broadway run), while enlisting new admirers.

In Shakespeare’s romantic fantasy, a woman must disguise herself as a man to survive in a hostile world. In “Play On!"--conceived by Sheldon Epps and written by “Jar the Floor” playwright Cheryl L. West--that scenario becomes the story of a woman who travels from rural Mississippi to Harlem in hopes of writing for the vibrant music scene epitomized by Ellington. Told that women aren’t taken seriously in the field, Vy concocts a male alter ego and solicits Ellington’s help. (So the duke in Shakespeare’s story here becomes the Duke--a nice play on words.)

Ellington’s songs are inventively used to further the action. Vy’s coaching in the fine points of impersonating a man comes via “You’ve Got to Be a Rug Cutter,” for instance, while the story’s tangled romances and missed connections find aching expression in such torchy numbers as “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good” and “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ but the Blues.”

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Though the show has a lot going for it--including its jitterbugging jazz dances by Ellington’s granddaughter, Mercedes Ellington--there was a reason it drew mixed reviews and faltered in New York. Among its biggest problems is its portrayal of Ellington, who comes across as bland and weak. (Raun Ruffin’s curiously expressionless performance, now preserved for posterity, compounds the problem.)

The other performers, however, are dynamite. Natalie Venetia Belcon’s dusky voice is a perfect complement to Vy’s male guise, and both she and Nikki Crawford, as an icy nightclub chanteuse with whom the Duke is smitten, turn the lush moodiness in Ellington’s songs into pain of the most exquisite kind.

In roles paralleling Shakespeare’s clowns, Kevin Ramsey and Clinton Derricks-Carroll prove to be gifted funny men as well as electric blues singers as they wail and wallow through “Rocks in My Bed,” after they’ve been knocked down a peg or two by lovers fed-up with being taken for granted.

For all-around dynamism, though, no one tops Richard Allen as the starchy Cotton Club manager who also pines for the beautiful lady singer. In terrific back-to-back scenes, he secretly pours out his heart in a haunting rendition of “Don’t You Know I Care,” then, in hopes of learning how to impress the singer, attempts to mimic the ultra-cool moves that the clowns show him in “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing"--with hysterically stiff-limbed results.

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It’s all great fun, so make a quick structural analysis of your home--to make sure it can withstand the rafter-shaking--and tune in.

* “Play On!” airs tonight at 9 on KCET. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for younger children).


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