The jazz really cooks at MetroStage in “Ladies Swing the Blues.” The premiere, a vibrant tribute to alto sax jazz great Charlie “Bird” Parker, falters only when it tries too hard to explain the inexplicable.
A five-member combo, piloted by William Knowles at the keyboard, tears up the place right off the bat with “Shaw ’Nuff” by Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and it never disappoints thereafter. Five fine singers also fill the room with sweet high notes and smoky low notes, keeping up with the band, no problem. Yet it’s those guys at the back of the cabaret-style stage who lock the show up.
Conceived as “a tonal poem told in the key of jazz,” this piece works best when the musicians and singers cover classic tunes by Parker and others of his era. The show skips a beat whenever director/writer/lyricist Thomas W. Jones II and Knowles insert their original tunes and dialogue to comment on Parker’s life or educate us about his art.
Jones and Knowles have done several shows in this vein, exploring the rich history of jazz, but they haven’t quite cracked how to make dialogue that is essentially fact-filled exposition work with the rest of the show. In “Ladies Swing the Blues,” they have more success, using scat, rap and blank verse, but it still feels a bit like a lecture.
As the show starts, Parker, played by the winning Anthony Manough in a porkpie hat and skinny tie, informs us that he has just died. Joining his spirit onstage are four legendary jazz singers listed by first names only: Lori Williams as Ella (Fitzgerald), Roz White as Lady (Billie Holiday), Yvette Spears as Sassy (Sarah Vaughan) and Sandy Bainum as Lee (Peggy Lee). The setting is Birdland, the fabled New York jazz club named for Parker. It is the day after his death.
In 90 intermission-less minutes, the ladies and Manough, with his sweet tenor, sing about 20 songs by Parker, Gillespie and a host of other jazz and Tin Pan Alley legends. Particularly impressive are Spears’s billowy contralto and Williams’s acrobatic soprano, channeling Vaughan and Fitzgerald. In the spoken dialogue, all four women wonder whether it was Parker’s heroin addiction that finally got him.
In the end, Jones and Knowles conclude: “All jazz men die a mystery.” If that wisdom were more consistently applied in “Ladies Swing the Blues,” the show would flow and the tale would tell itself.
Horwitz is a freelance writer.
through March 17 at MetroStage,
1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria. Book and lyrics by Thomas W. Jones II, original music by William Knowles. Set design, Carl Gudenius; costumes, Jane Fink; sound, Matt Rowe; lighting, Alexander Keen. With Knowles on piano, Greg Holloway on drums, Grant Langford on alto sax, Doug Pierce on trumpet, Cheyney Thomas on bass. About 90 minutes. Metrostage.org; 703-548-9044.