Bio-Musicals: You Hear Blues, Theaters See Green

By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 27, 2008

Ella's back. So is Alberta Hunter. And Dinah Washington's coming, too.

Blues and jazz greats are taking the stage in Washington this month in biographical musicals that are virtually a cottage industry here. Why? Affinity for late, great jazz-blues legends. Timeless songs. And easy money.

"Ella," starring Tina Fabrique as a scatting, passionate Ella Fitzgerald, is packing them into Arena Stage's new temporary digs in Crystal City. (The company's old building is under major reconstruction for the next 2 1/2 years.) Executive Director Stephen Richard says that by the time the "Ella" run ends next month, it will have been a sellout hit.

Alexandria's MetroStage hopes for that kind of success with "Cookin' at the Cookery: The Music and Times of Alberta Hunter," opening this weekend. MetroStage can point to a track record with such material -- "Mahalia," "Bricktop" and others. And has Producing Artistic Director Carolyn Griffin ever lost money on these musicals?

"Never," says Griffin, adding with a laugh that with other shows, "we have lost some money!"

Blues-jazz legends make up the audience-drawing dynamic Paul Douglas Michnewicz is banking on at Theater Alliance. Under recently departed artistic director Jeremy Skidmore's leadership, Theater Alliance accrued critical prestige for its high-minded dramas in the emerging H Street NE neighborhood, but attendance has been spotty.

So this month, interim artistic director Michnewicz announced he was canceling the upcoming "Brothers Karamazov" and replacing it with "A Nite at the Dew Drop Inn," with performances beginning Thursday. The headliner? Dinah Washington, more or less. The show is a cabaret, with a tribute to Washington built in.

"We're definitely marketing that," says Michnewicz, adding that the Dinah-for-Dostoevski swap will halve his production costs and likely give him a bigger draw. "Dew Drop Inn" is not a "life of" musical on Washington like "Dinah Was," which was a hit for Arena eight years ago. "There's no dramaturgy here," Michnewicz explains of this new show, conceived and directed by James Foster Jr. "This is four singers in a juke joint having a good time."

The shows are generally small-scale and technically straightforward; just add solid musicians and serve. "Dew Drop Inn" requires four singers and a pianist, down from the cast of nine (some from out of town, which can mean lodging costs and per diems) that had been slated for Anthony Clarvoe's adaptation of "Brothers Karamazov," which was also going to get a comparatively expensive set.

Griffin says: "It's a no-brainer for the writer and the producer. And it makes audiences happy."

Are bio-musicals and cabarets easier to produce than new plays? Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith contends the tuners can be harder.

"You have to have the talent," says Smith. "Ella" wouldn't be much of a draw if Fabrique didn't deliver the musical goods each night in a demanding part that seldom has her off the stage. So it went for Lynn Sterling two years ago at Arena, playing a late-career Billie Holiday in "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill" (which "Ella" creator Rob Ruggiero has acknowledged as the model for his show).

Bernardine Mitchell won a Helen Hayes Award in 2005 for her star turn in "Mahalia" at MetroStage, and perhaps should have won another in the 1990s as Bessie Smith in "Bessie's Blues" at the Studio Theatre. And lest it should seem that this is strictly a female phenomenon, Jimi Ray Malary has earned repeat gigs at MetroStage crooning tributes to Duke Ellington and Nat King Cole.

A late casting change has MetroStage bringing in two tested performers as the senior of the two Alberta Hunters featured in "Cookin'." Ernestine Jackson is flying in from Chicago for the first two weeks of the run; Jackson originated the role a decade ago in Florida. ("Cookin' " has played three dozen theaters since then; creator-director Marion J. Caffey -- who has since assembled the comparably scaled "Three Mo' Tenors" and "3 Mo' Divas" -- says, "I couldn't believe how much money you could make in an 800-seat theater selling out every night.")

For the last five weeks, Jackson will hand off to Jackie Richardson, who garnered an award playing the part in Toronto.

If biography seems to be part of the draw, Griffin says, "I don't think it should be surprising, especially when it's about people who made it out of the Deep South in the early part of the 20th century and had international lives. These are extraordinary stories."

Whether black plays get as much nurturing as black musicals is a fraught issue, but the fact that musicals tend to be an easier sell than plays is not news. That seems to go double when, as Smith points out, people already know and love the music and musicians in question.

Smith, in fact, even draws a useful comparison between small-scale, big-yield biographical shows and one of the unstoppable trends on Broadway in recent years: the jukebox musical, fueled by the pop catalogues of such acts as Abba and the Four Seasons.

Only with these jazz-blues bio-musicals, Smith notes, "it's an older jukebox."

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