- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 25, 2000

If music be the food of life, then "Play On" is a jazzy, joyful feast.

The musical, which has been retooled since its disappointing Broadway run in 1997, was conceived and directed by Sheldon Epps. It's an adaptation of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" set to Duke Ellington's music.

Mr. Ellington, a Washington native and one of America's greatest composers, dreamed of having a Broadway smash but never fully achieved it in his lifetime. Many of his songs are considered jazz standards, but in their time they lacked the snappy pop hooks people expected in Broadway melodies. The mingling of the work of Mr. Ellington and Shakespeare proves to be elegant and joyful, with "Twelfth Night" adapting itself to the musical conventions quite smoothly.

Cheryl L. West's book dispenses with anything in the original play that does not suit the purpose of "Play On," which is basically about falling in love, staying in love and appreciating the love you have. Miss West has taken Shakespeare's romantic comedy about mistaken identity and set it in 1940s Harlem.

Vy (Alexandra Foucard, who was such a delight last year at Arena as Miss Adelaide in "Guys and Dolls") is a hayseed from Mississippi who arrives in Harlem (to the tune of "Take the 'A' Train," naturally) with a cardboard suitcase full of songs she's written. Using her hipster Uncle Jester (Clinton Derricks-Carroll) as her guide to the big, bad city, she contrives to meet the Duke (David Jennings), a debonair composer suffering writer's block because he is pining for the Cotton Club diva Lady Liv (Nikki Crawford).

Jester tells Vy that women are singers or cuties in the chorus, not songwriters. She sets out to prove him wrong. She dons a snazzy pinstriped zoot suit and becomes Vy-Man, a strutting peacock who reminds one of a 1940s-era Prince.

The disguised Vy's songs catch the attention of the Duke — and Vy finds her female side going pitty-pat for the suave composer. But Vy-Man also catches the attention of Lady Liv, who is hot for something beyond Vy-Man's musical talents.

To add to the chaos, the ridiculous figure of Shakespeare's Malvolio has been transformed into the character of the Rev (Richard Allen), a sanctimonious, Grinch-like figure who is desperately in love with Lady Liv. He will do anything to win her over — even take jive lessons from Jester, Sweets (Wayne W. Pretlow), and Miss Mary (Julia Lema), who deck him out in a screaming-yellow suit with acid-green trim and a hat as big as a trash-can lid. They teach him how to hip-walk and talk, which he does with side-splitting buffoonery in the song "I'm Beginning to See the Light."

All the crisscrossed lovers get Mr. Ellington and Billy Strayhorn's creamiest ballads, including "I Let A Song Go Out of My Heart" (which the Duke sings with one of those silken caramel voices that just makes the ladies swoon), "Don't You Know I Care" (sung by Mr. Allen with exquisitely restrained passion) and "Something to Live For," a smoky duet between Mr. Allen and Miss Crawford — who, by the way, holds a note far more than humanly possible in her torchy rendition of "I Ain't Got Nothing But the Blues."

A beautiful moment occurs right before the close of Act 1, when Vy, Duke, Lady Liv and the Rev sit on opposite sides of the stage and sing "Solitude," with their voices blending in sumptuous harmony.

"Play On" has plenty of upbeat moments in between all the love stuff. The ensemble is peppy and game for anything, which it proves in the crowd-pleasing numbers "C Jam Blues," "Drop Me Off in Harlem" and "I'm Beginning to See the Light."

So sporting are the members that they carry off with terrific verve Marianna Elliott's fluorescent costumes fashioned in hot pink, fuchsia, taxicab yellow and blazing orange. The women wear flirty little skirts with matching shoes, gloves and hats, and the men are clad in fabulously exaggerated zoot suits and two-tone shoes.

The number that brings the house down has Sweets and Jester commiserating on their women troubles in a bar, to the little-known song "Rocks in My Bed."

Mr. Pretlow and Mr. Derricks-Carroll have such agile comedic and musical talents that they smoothly wring every drop of comic potential out of the rocking-blues ditty — swaying and dancing nimbly on faux-drunken feet and manipulating their voices until the audience roars for more.

As the gender-hopping Vy, Miss Foucard is minxish and adorable, an unstoppable motormouth who slows down and shows off her supple and pliant voice in "I Got it Bad and That Ain't Good," "I Didn't Know About You" and "Hit Me With a Hot Note."

"Play On" will not knock you out with its profound musings on the nature of love. However, Mr. Ellington's gorgeous songs, rendered with such excellence and high spirits, provide you with many a transcendent and joyful moment.

{*}{*}{*}1/2WHAT: "Play On"WHERE: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SWWHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday; 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Nov. 26, Dec. 17 and 31, and Jan. 7; and noon Nov. 29, Dec. 6 and Dec. 12.TICKETS: $32 to $50PHONE: 202/488-3300

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