Harlem Renaissance, the musical

The Duke meets the Bard in this toe-tapping combo of Ellington and Shakespeare.

So what makes a Seattle audience happy? There were some interesting answers to this question at the opening night of Play On!, Sheldon Epp's musical that brings together the songs of Duke Ellington and the lyrical plot of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.

Play On

Seattle Repertory Theater, 443-2222

till October 31

The first significant explosion of applause from the spectators came when our heroine, Vy (Natalie Belcon), is joined on stage by the denizens of Harlem. Was it Marianna Elliot's neon-bright costumes that garnered the acclaim? Or Mercedes Ellington's jump-and-jive choreography? Perhaps. I suspect it was the undeniable pleasure of seeing 14 performers stretched from one end of the Rep's stage to the other. In the current lean-and-mean arts funding climate, it's become a joyful decadence to watch a large-cast show.

While the size of the cast is considerable, the aims of the show are significantly less so. Epps borrows just enough of Shakespeare's original to get from one song to another, and considering he's got 21 songs to get through, there's hardly time for any story at all. This leads to a curious problem. With its shipwrecked survivors, melancholy suitors, and most particularly the steward Malvolio (who is deceived into a humiliating romantic appeal to his Lady Olivia), Twelfth Night is far too complex a mixture of light and dark for a simple "happy ending." When Epps has his Malvolio stand-in, the stiff-necked Rev (the athletic Paul Stovall), start pitching successful woo to the "Lady Liv" (the gorgeous and full-throated Tonya Pinkins), the play is effectively over, although we've got a good half-hour and four songs to get through.

Play On! is more of a glorified revue than a full-out musical. With its wonderful songbook and accomplished cast of singer/dancers, this is much more Duke's show than William's. Add to that the snappy scenic design, the polished orchestration of great jazz, a few fun jokes, and that big old chorus line, and you have more than enough to please a local crowd.

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