‘It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got That Swing’

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Ladies in sparkly gowns and men in tuxes croon such  tunes as “Satin Doll,” “Prelude to a Kiss” and “In My Solitude” in “Duke Ellington’s Greatest Hits,” a Music Theater Works production.

Ellington tribute at Music Theater Works. (Photo by Brett Beiner
Ellington tribute at Music Theater Works. (Photo by Brett Beiner)

The show includes songs popularized, written or arranged by one of the greatest jazz musicians of the 20th Century. Ellington defined sophisticated elegance and cool.

The performers have fun with the exotic melodies of “Caravan” and “Perdido,” and pick-up the rhythm with jazz classics “Take the A Train,” “Sophisticated Lady,” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” as well as the sultry “Mood Indigo.”

Singers Justin Adair, Dawn Bless, Jar’Davion Brown, Caitlyn Glennon, Amanda Horvath, Evan Tyrone Martin, and Martin L. Woods move seamlessly from song to song delivering a steady stream of familiar hits.

Adair who performed Older Patrick in Music Theater Works’ recent production of “Mame,” surprised the audience by accompanying the ensemble on the guitar playing “In a Mellow Tone,” showing yet another of his many talents.

The three piece band with Christian Dillingham (bass) and Phillip Fornett (drums) is energetically directed by Joey Zymonas (piano).

This is an entertaining 90 minutes or so that celebrates the legacy of this great composer and entertainer but “Ain’t got” enough “swing.”

DETAILS: “Duke Ellington’s Greatest Hits” is at Music Theater Works (formerly Light Opera Works) at Nichols Concert Hall, 1490 Chicago Ave., Evanston, through Oct. 15, 2017.  For tickets and other information call (847) 920-5360 and visit MusicTheaterWorks.

Reno Lovison

(Guest reviewer Reno Lovison is married to pianist Julie Lovison who is proud to say she kissed Duke Ellington on the cheek after one of his performances.)

Gypsy still comes up Rose and roses

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Knowing how vaudeville acts had to move around to make a living or even how current performers continue to do so, it’s easy to understand they live what is thought of as a gypsy life.

Mary Robin Roth (Rose) and Lexis Danca (Louise) in 'Gypsy' at Music Theater Works. p[hoto by Brett Beiner
Mary Robin Roth (Rose) and Lexis Danca (Louise) in ‘Gypsy’ at Music Theater Works. photo by Brett Beiner
But when hearing ‘Gypsy’ capitalized as in the 1959 Broadway hit by Jule Styne (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) and Arthur Laurents (book), you are likely to think Ethel Merman as the indomitable stage mother of entertainer Gypsy Rose Lee and actress June Havoc.

In the Music Theater Works production of  ‘Gypsy,’ Mary Robin Roth is so believable as Rose, an over-the-top stage mother, that her character is not easy to like. Indeed, a few theater-goers might equate how she directed her daughter’s lives with their own experience.

However this is the show Merman arguable made famous with her brash portrayal of Rose so, everyone can expect Roth to belt out commands and the show’s famed “Everything’s Coming up Roses.” They won’t be disappointed.

It’s also fun to watch the incredible transformation of Louise, the shy, unimposing elder sister of Baby June into the renowned burlesque entertainer, Gypsy Rose Lee, a sophisticated and striking strip tease vedette.

Along the way there is the charming voice of Sophie Kagi as the young Baby June, the boys who march with her in the early stage troupe and the talented young lads who accompany the older June (Rosie Jo Neddy) as an aging troupe. They’re featured in several fine dance numbers choreographed by Clayton Cross.

The evolution from young troupe to older was amazingly accomplished in a whirling, order-in-chaos dance scene thanks to Cross, stage director Rudy Hogenmiller and lighting designer Andrew H. Meyers.

In addition, Russell Alan Rowe is the long suffering Herbie who loves Rose, acts as the troupe’s agent and is sensitive to the needs of the boys and Louise.

The musical is based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee who was also an author and actress (“Stage Door Canteen” 1949).

‘Gypsy’ is at Music Theater Works (formerly Light Opera Works) now through Aug. 27, 2017. The show is in Northwestern University’s Cahn Auditorium at 600 Emerson St. at Sheridan Road. For tickets and other information visit the box office at 516 4th St., Wilmette, call (847) 920-5360 or visit Music Theater Works.