Ellington's `Queenie Pie' blends jazz, blues, opera

FROM the minute Miss Queenie Pie slinks down the steps of her spangled beauty pageant float, you know the Harlem hair queen contest has begun in earnest. Queenie Pie (Teresa Burrell) has won the contest for 12 years and has become a ``hair millionaire'' by parlaying her queenship into a successful beauty and cosmetology business. As the Duke Ellington musical opens, she is suddenly challenged by the threat of a younger, just-as-beautiful rival from New Orleans named Miss Cafe O'Lay.

The musical at the Kennedy Center here takes off like an exotic bird, as a desperate Queenie runs away to search for the ``Nuclii'' tree of eternal youth and beauty on a fantasy island.

In ``Queenie Pie'' the legendary jazz composer Duke Ellington wrote what he called a ``street opera,'' the last major work of his life.

This deep-dish ``Pie'' is filled with a rich mix of music -- not just jazz but also blues, swing, ballads, reggae, as well as music that is in the operatic, scat, and rap styles.

The first act, set in Harlem, shimmers with excitement, color, and sassiness. But the second act, in which Queenie is shipwrecked on a fantasy island, seems cast adrift.

It's like a separate musical from the first act, until the finale of the show, when Queenie Pie finds herself back in Harlem at the contest, again voted reigning queen.

While ``Queenie Pie'' is always exuberant and often winning, it suffers from a star shortfall: There is not one hit song in the show, the kind of song that made ``Porgy and Bess'' and ``Purlie'' so memorable.

Nor is there yet a star quality in either of the leads, although Teresa Burrell looks stunning and has a high, big voice like Melba Moore's. And Larry Marshall (who resembles Ellington in his earlier years) plays Queenie's love, Little Daddy, with great sophistication and style.

Ellington's music is the most beguiling thing about ``Queenie Pie,'' from the ripsnorting number ``Style,'' set in Queenie's salon, to Cafe O'Lay's sinuous ``Creole Love Call,'' to the breathless and funny ``Hairdo Hop.''

But the lyrics, by George David Weiss and Duke Ellington, are not nearly as polished as the music.

``Queenie Pie,'' you look marvelous, though. Visually the musical is a delight, right from the opening scene, which takes place against a Harlem montage of the Apollo Theater, 125th Street, the Cotton Club, etc.

The look of the show was inspired by the art of painter Romare Bearden, described in program notes as ``the greatest interpreter of the Harlem Renaissance.''

The set design by David Mitchell and Bearden, as well as Eduardo Sicangco's show-stopping costumes, reflect that influence. In addition to the Harlem scenes, there is also a beautifully designed shipwreck, which might have been taken from a Japanese watercolor.

Director and choreographer Garth Fagan has kept the pace of ``Queenie Pie'' fast and rambunctious, staging the musical numbers with 'elan. His major problem is bringing the second act into sync with the first; how he will do that is difficult to suggest.

The musical was adapted from an original story by Ellington, with a libretto by George C. Wolfe.

Some of the supporting players in ``Queenie Pie'' should take a special bow for their talents: the throaty, sultry Patty Holley as both Cafe O'lay and the island chief's Wife No. 1; the gifted bass Milt Grayson as Judge Mortimer Dead; and the flamboyant Denise Morgan, who plays gossip columnist Louella Dish with an Aretha Franklin blast of a voice.

Finally, Dennis Bergevin and Jeffrey Frank deserve a Golden Comb Award for their beauty contest wigs and coifs, one of which was an Afro so bouffant that a trumpet and a few octaves of piano keys nested in it.

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