If you enjoy live R&B/jazz and are looking for an entertaining musical evening out, the MetroStage world premiere production of Pearl Bailey . . . By Request admirably fills the bill. If you fondly remember Pearl Bailey and her music, you are doubly blessed. On the other hand, if you do not have much familiarity with Pearl Bailey and want to understand why she was one of the most beloved entertainers of the twentieth century, the show only provides a partial glimpse into this unique lady.
Pearl Bailey . . . By Request is set in a nightclub and is based upon a 1950’s album of Pearl Bailey’s most requested songs from her Columbia Records era. As a cabaret performance, the show is an unqualified success. Roz White is a terrific performer. Area theatre fans who have seen her in shows like Two Queens One Castle and Three Sistahs know that the lady can sing. Earlier in her career she performed as Effie in a national tour of Dreamgirls, a role that help you appreciate the fact that she has seriously powerful pipes.
The show features fifteen songs that were Pearl Bailey classics. Most of the songs were those that let Pearl Bailey demonstrate her memorable personality, including the song Personality, as well as other highlights like A Woman’s Prerogative and Takes Two to Tango. The show is nicely balanced with some more powerful ballads as well, such as Here You Come With Love and her signature hit Tired.
Roz White handles all of the numbers with skill and style assisted by a fine four-piece combo. Marvin Ford plays piano and leads the group in a achieving a smooth, warm sound that nicely complements the signing of Roz White and William Hubbard, who makes supporting appearances as one of Pearl Bailey’s frequent collaborators, Oran “Hot Lips” Page. The two performers have a nice rapport on duets such as “Ain’t She Sweet” and “Baby It’s Cold Outside”.
Roz White sings in the style of Pearl Bailey and has mastered her memorable on-stage patter, much of which was taken from Pearl Bailey’s past recordings. She playfully interacts with the band and the audience, often using mild sexual innuendo that was a Pearl Bailey trademark.
With all that’s done well in the show, why doesn’t the performance feel like a full Pearl Bailey experience? First, while the show mentions some episodes of Pearl Bailey’s biography such as her start as a teenager in Philadelphia and her 1952 marriage to white jazz drummer Louie Bellson, the book is a little light on her overall life story. The show only makes glancing reference to the performer’s overall film, TV, and stage triumphs, many of which (like her Tony® winning performance in an African American revival of Hello, Dolly) came later in her life. Although the show does mention the fact that President Nixon named her Ambassador of Love to the World, it’s a shame that the show could not have found a device to include more of the interesting highlights of her life, especially given that the performance only runs seventy minutes. Perhaps some program notes would also help the younger members of the audience.
The second problem involves what I call the Paradox of the Tribute Performance. Only those performers who had a rare and special quality merit a tribute show, yet by definition it’s hard to recreate that one-of-a-kind quality. While Pearl Bailey may not have had quite the voice of Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, or the other performers featured in the pre-show music, she had an indescribable warm and pleasing quality. That special quality made her an exceptional entertainer who could transcend racial and musical barriers to appeal to a broad audience in any medium. As fine as Roz White is, both she and the show are better at capturing Pearl Bailey the singer than Pearl Bailey the overall entertainer.
Pearl Bailey . . . By Request is a pleasant evening of entertainment. Yet at the show’s conclusion, that old adage about “always leave the audience wanting more” comes to mind, and not necessarily in a favorable way.
Running Time: 1:10 (no intermission)
Where: 1201 North Royal Street, Alexandria, VA 22314
When: Though November 9, 2008 (Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 5:00 and 8:30 p.m., and Sundays at 3:00 p.m.)
Info: Tickets can be purchased through the box office [703-548-9044] or on-line