By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
PLAY ON!STAKES A SIMILAR CLAIM UPON ENGLISH LIT -- Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, to be precise. Fortunately, it's almost impossible to reduce the Bard's comedy to anything smaller than the trifle it already is. Sheldon Epps (conceiver-director) and Cheryl L. West (book) nonetheless pare it back, seizing upon its essence: A female songwriter, here named Vy as in Viola (Natalie Venetia Belcon), arrives at the "The Magical Kingdom of Harlem" in the '40s, disguising herself as a man in order to get by. Things get a little spicy when she falls for the Duke, as in Ellington (Raun Ruffin), who swoons unrequited for the Cotton Club's diva, Lady Liv -- read Olivia (Nikki Crawford). The Duke employs Vy to send messages to Liv, whose veins burst with lust at the sight of the fella with the bulging cleavage. Hmmm.
All of this silliness is a transparent and beguiling excuse to string together almost two dozen of Ellington's greatest hits, and costume the performers in colors of blinding garishness (garb by Marianna Elliott), which match James Leonard Joy's set -- panels of sparkling mirrors that bounce the actors' reflections across the stage and are based on the paintings of Romare Beardon.
For all its sheen, Play On!is largely about grief and getting through it -- i.e., about why jazz, gospel and the blues are so uplifting. Crawford and Belcon, a pair of great alto sopranos, gleefully ape singing styles ranging from Dinah Washington to Ella Fitzgerald to Aretha Franklin. (Rahn Coleman leads the fine band.)
Even pompous twerp Malvolio shows up as Rev (Richard Allen), also swooning for Liv. And the ensemble scene in which the oaf is taught to boogie in order to impress her (via "It Don't Mean a Thing if It Ain't Got That Swing") is among the most transporting episodes of the year. Mercedes Ellington's sassy choreography captures this production's ebullient tone. You might leave the theater grinning like a fool, but that's not necessarily a bad thing -- which may be Play On!'smost salient point.
JANE EYRE | A musical by PAUL GORDON (music and lyrics) and JOHN CAIRD (libretto and additional lyrics) | Based on the novel by CHARLOTTE BRONTË | At LA JOLLA PLAYHOUSE on the UCSD campus, La Jolla Village Drive at Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla | Through September 5