Ladies Swing the Blues at MetroStage packages the old tales about early jazz and blues greats into a new lyrical presentation. The script is deeply rooted in the oral tradition of telling the story with Thomas W. Jones II as the urban griot having written the book and lyrics with original music by the accomplished and always dependable William Knowles, a master of jazz phrasing and execution. Each is an exceptional artist in his own right, together in synch interpreting the lives of the great jazz legends, the Jones/Knowles combo is irresistible.
Five remarkable performers make up the dream cast, each one hitting an individual groove while fitting into the well-tuned ensemble. The script relays the stories of early jazz artists by way of Birdland, a reference to the NYC jazz club where legends joined Charlie Parker headlining the most happening joint in town in the 1950’s.
In Ladies Swing, the characters are identified as refracted aspects of actual performers– Roz White reflects the deep gravitas of Billie Holiday, Lori Williams scats up a storm as Ella Fitzgerald, Yvette Spears uses her sonorous warbling gifts as Sarah Vaughan, and Sandy Bainum carries the classy sophistication of Peggy Lee.
Jones coaches the performers to portray stylistic aspects of their characters rather than revert to impersonations or mimicry. When Roz White slows down the rapid-fire pace of the cavalcade of songs with a hefty expletive, it’s a crowd pleasing “What Would Lady Day Do” moment that helps personalize her character.
Anthony Manough as “Bird” is a song and dance man with charm galore. With a mega-watt smile and sweet falsetto, Manough can high step with Broadway’s best when depicting the manic highs between bouts of life-sapping depression and misery suffered by some of the great jazz musicians.
Jones’s text is silky smooth poetry that can melt the heart of even the most ardent music historians. Referring to the artists’ lives as a metaphor is a recurring theme that he hammers home, maybe too much for some, but the message fits and forms the core of the experience.
As a new work, some patches are still raw and require smoothing, as can be seen in the lurching attempts to wrap up an ending, but the finale is worth waiting for as the individual characters get a final chance to have their say. True to the jazz tradition where each instrument has a moment to shine, each character bids a final farewell to the old school jazz stylistics intoning, “What’s a Metaphor to Do?”
The genius of the script is that rather than spend time recounting the life experiences of these legends, the stories focus on the inner lives and even psychological workings of the women, infusing each with life and vitality. In one marvel of a scene, Lady and Ella square off, each raising the stakes of who had the tougher childhood, the most neglected home life, the seediest beginnings, even hints of physical and sexual abuse, all within a round of melody and song where they demonstrate the undeniable gifts that propelled them to the top.
The script also provides a glimpse at the colorful characters in the background, including those who clung onto musicians like dysfunctional deities. Jones captures the adoration of folks like Jack Kerouac who adored the music like a magical elixir—he couldn’t get enough of the stuff as portrayed by Bainum, so well done you can almost see the imaginary lit cigarette dangling between his/her lips. Bainum also provides a stunning portrayal of the “Baroness,” Parker’s reported benefactor who fell hard for the music and the wounded souls who created it.
The compilation of songs is a treasure and includes such classic standards and favorites as “Round Midnight,” “My Mother’s Son in Law,” and “Angel Eyes,” all presented with flash, style and sophistication. The original music is just as effective including the melodic interludes of Baroness Lair, Yardbird Law, and Dead Clock on the Wall, music by Knowles and lyrics by Jones.
The choreographer is not credited but should be since the movements work nicely whether the performers are part of a strutting ensemble or solo as in Manough’s terrific barrel turns.
Ladies Swing the Blues, a Jazz Fable
Closes March 17, 2013
1201 North Royal Street
1 hour, 30 minutes without intermission
Tickets: $50 – $55
Thursdays thru Sundays
Costume designer Jane Fink accentuates the strengths of each character for dress—plunging the neckline for the gorgeously endowed Roz White, shimmering cascading form-fitting silver ensemble for Sandy Bainum, colorful flower print for perky Yvette Spears, and a sturdy and reliable Sunday best basic tan shirtdress tied delicately in the back for Lori Williams, all further evidence of designer’s attentiveness to the director’s vision and premise.
As a new work, Ladies Swing the Blues is still working through its own pace and phrasing. Still it hits high marks for a creative rendering of classic jazz icons, breathing life into larger than life talents who would otherwise be stuck as historical footnotes. These people were real and thanks to Tom Jones and William Knowles, we can get a sense of the heartbeat and soul of the innovative jazz artists who changed musical history from the stage of Birdland.
Ladies Swing the Blues, a Jazz Fable . Written and Directed by Tomas W. Jones II . Original music by William Knowles. Starring Yvette Spears, Lori Williams Anthony Manough, Roz White and Sandy Bainum. Produced by MetroStage . Reviewed by Debbie Minter-Jackson.