When Jazz Had the Blues
Reviewed by Neal Weaver
Through December 18
Pianist/composer/arranger Billy Strayhorn (Frank Lawson) grew up in a family dominated by his alcoholic, abusive and homophobic father. His first love was classical music, but he was gay and black, and in the 1930s and 40s gay was emphatically frowned upon, and the classical establishment was almost entirely white.
So he turned instead to the world of jazz. Early on in his career, he met up with Duke Ellington (Boise Holmes), who would become his father figure, mentor, and — in a sense — his nemesis.
Ellington hired him as a member of the Duke Ellington Band and turned his composition “Take the A Train” into their signature number. Strayhorn was paid handsomely for his work, but Ellington claimed authorship or co-authorship of his songs and arrangements. So Strayhorn found his light hidden under the Ellington bushel.
Carole Eglash-Kosoff’s musical biography, now receiving its premiere production at the Matrix Theatre, depicts Strayhorn’s first encounters with Ellington and his long struggle to achieve recognition in his own right. We see his meeting with singer Lena Horne (Michole Brianna White), with whom he began a long platonic love affair, and his very non-platonic relations with his first male lover, Aaron Bridgers (Gilbert Glen Brown).
This is not a juke-box musical in the usual sense of the word. There is little or no new musical material here; all the numbers are songs associated with Strayhorn, Ellington and Horne.
Horne’s songs include “The Man I Love,” “Stormy Weather,” “The Lady Is a Tramp” and “Bill,” from the musical Showboat. Other songs include “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got that Swing,” and “It’s Not What You Do But the Way You Do It.” (It would have been decidedly helpful if the program had included a bio of Strayhorn and a song-list with attributions.)
Director John Henry Davis has assembled a top-notch cast. Lawson has the difficult task of playing a self-effacing man while also mustering the charisma necessary for the lead in a musical, and he pretty much pulls it off. Holmes is effective in the double role of Strayhorn’s father and Ellington, his spiritual father. White is not very like Lena Horne, with her cool, restrained dignity, but she’s a terrific performer in her own right. Brown achieves a real gravitas as Strayhorn’s lover, and performs his songs with style and brio. And the fine ensemble provides strong support, with special praise for Katherine Washington, Brad Light and Keverlie Herron.
Musical director and key-boardist Rahn Coleman provides the expert arrangements, and Cassie Crump created the exuberant dances. Michael Mullen furnished the glamorous beaded gowns, though some of his strapless outfits could have used some straps: the ladies in the cast were hard-put to keep them hiked up above the bra-line.
A disturbing foot-note: After Mr. Trump’s mean-spirited assault on the Broadway musical Hamilton, it’s hard not to wonder how shows like this one will fare under a Trump presidency. Given his racist rants and attacks on multiculturalism — which won him the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan — shows like this one might have a hard time of it. Particularly in the light of Actors Equity’s efforts to shut down our thriving small theatre scene, venues might prove few and hard to find.
The Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Avenue, West Hollywood. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 3 p.m.; through December 18. (323) 960-7776 or www.plays411.com/jazzblues. Running time: two hours and 15 minutes with an intermission.