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Limitations of ‘Queenie Pie’ and its stars magnified in lavish COT production

The cast 'Queenie Pie' Chicago OperTheater. | PHOTO BY LIZ LAUREN

The cast of "Queenie Pie" at Chicago Opera Theater. | PHOTO BY LIZ LAUREN

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‘QUEENIE PIE’

Somewhat Recommended

When: To March 5

Where: Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph

Tickets: $35-$125

Info: (312) 704-8414;
chicagooperatheater.org

Updated: February 16, 2014 7:38PM



Tantalizing. Novel. Incomplete. A puzzle unsolved.

It’s hard to crystallize thoughts about “Queenie Pie,” the unfinished “street opera” by one of America’s greatest composers and one of history’s legends of jazz, Duke Ellington.

And Chicago Opera Theater’s new attempt to bring it to the stage — shared with general director Andreas Mitisek’s California company, Long Beach Opera, where it premiered last month — doesn’t make this task any easier. For the problems here are much more with staging and performing a work that not only was never finished by its author, but never tested and developed with his band and other colleagues in the way that was essential to Ellington’s method throughout his life.

Ellington applied himself and brought innovation to every aspect of music from melody to harmony, songs to orchestration, nightclub to sacred music. In many ways he made his own genre — Ellingtonia — with his work in any medium best presented under his leadership and with his musicians. And while his songs and band charts will live forever, even his two 1940s attempts at Broadway or Broadway-style musical theater — “Jump for Joy” and “Beggar’s Holiday” — never fully translated to the stage or entered the repertoire.

We know that Ellington knew classical music deeply; his late 1950s adaptations with his close collaborator Billy Strayhorn of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” and Grieg’s “Peer Gynt Suite” are works of genius. And we know that he wanted to write an opera. But it appears that we will never know what that opera might fully have been if Ellington had focused more on it or lived past 1974.

COT and Long Beach have done their best to start from the existing materials — from full, if quite brief, numbers to little more than scraps, an intriguing feminist plot line looking at “colorism” within the black community but rather wooden dialogue, sketches for orchestration — and make the best work out of it that they can. But the result might be better in a more informal workshop or small theater setting. A full-blown production in the 1,525-seat Harris Theater magnifies both the work and the performers’ limitations. (As Mitisek is a pioneer in using alternative spaces — his recent swimming pool productions of Ricky Ian Gordon’s “Orpheus & Eurudice” were tremendous successes — it’s surprising that he pushed “Queenie Pie” in a full opera house direction.)

The story follows the title character, a black cosmetics millionairess inspired by Madam C.J. Walker (1867-1919, much earlier than Ellington’s 1930s setting), as she is challenged in business, love and skin tone by a young competitor, Cafe Au Lait. The first act is set in standard Ellingtonland, a.k.a. swinging and sophisticated Harlem; the second, more fantastical, on an unnamed “magic” Caribbean island. Along the way there is a man, a king, a butler turned witch doctor, and an enthusiastic ensemble of 10.

You want somehow for the work to both bust out and be tighter. Director-choreographer-adapter Ken Roht, a “collage theater” artist from Los Angeles, has done many fine things and lets much of the work communicate in its own intra-black-community terms; over-the-top pseudo-commercials Ellington penned both trumpet and mock the desire for lighter skin and straight, “good” hair. If the second act seems to carry more of its share of racial stereotypes, they are types that Ellington himself identified. (Advertised even in the program as a 90-minute evening, the show actually runs 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one 20-minute intermission.)

As Queenie, Karen Marie Richardson, a Bloomingdale, Ill. native, seemed to be having a bit of opening-night trouble taking control of the enormous stage. But there was so much in her performance musically, comically and dramatically that I’m sure she will shift into full and delightful gear in the subsequent three performances. Young Anna Bowen, who writes on biracial issues as well as singing attractively about them, had some odd miking problems in Act Two which one hopes can be resolved. Keithon Gipson as the male love interest and then island king is the only opera artist in the cast, and the tall, athletic bass-baritone deservedly won the most applause for his two numbers.

Several unrelated Ellington songs added to the show, including “Black Butterfly,” “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart,” “I Like the Sunrise” and a lyrics-added “Creole Love Call,” underline the weakness and incompleteness of some of the more scrapbook material. Jeff Lindberg and his 16-piece Chicago Jazz Orchestra (who also played for Long Beach) played Marc Bolin’s appropriately neutral arrangements so that you heard Ellington’s ideas. Why not have them up on stage as a part of the action rather than unseen in the pit?

Danika Korogodsky’s sets and Dabney Ross Jones’ costumes, all lit by Brandon Baruch, served the work and the collage treatment well. But a fragmentary and experimental work is itself often better served by recognizing that it will never be what it might have been, rather than presenting it as something it never became.

Twitter: @andrewpatner



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