By Jane Recker
The only thing worse than under-seasoning food is over-seasoning it.
In fear of presenting a bland concert, Director Rudy Hogenmiller has over-seasoned Music Theater Works’ Duke Ellington’s Greatest Hits. His saccharine directorial style serves the jazz a little too sweet and turns a potentially classy jazz tribute concert into a show choir swing dance.
This isn’t Musical Theater Works’ (formerly Light Opera Works) first staged concert, with previous iterations including the likes of the music of Cole Porter and Jule Styne. And while Evanston’s Nichols Concert Hall might be an appropriate venue to showcase some composers, it feels grossly extravagant for the likes of Sir Duke. The architectural design – somewhat reminiscent of Carnegie Hall – and the rigid, pew-like seats are too stuffy to allow the performers to really swing. When they do find a groove, it’s quickly dispersed by Nichols’ wet acoustics that boom the sound around and transform a tight jazz combo into a lackadaisical collective of musicians.
Despite the acoustical challenges, the company as a whole has a strong musical foundation. The jazz trio – led by the gifted, grinning Joey Zymonas at the helm of the piano – effortlessly play off of each other and stay right in line with the singers.
Caitlyn Glennon is arguably the best singer in the company, and has a dynamic performance in “Hit Me With A Hot Note.” The coquettish opening features her crystal clear high range, then lets her melt into her warm and creamy middle for a sexy, sophisticated number. Unfortunately, her acting often gets in her own way: her voice is expressive enough to communicate the text on its own; her excess of extraneous gestures creates a sense of confusion onstage.
Dawn Bless channels Ella in all of her numbers, and sports a similarly hooty high register. While she errs flat at times, these small errors are easily forgiven and ignored thanks to Bless’ superb control of her voice. Belting at the top of her lungs at one moment, she has the discipline and wherewithal to pull it back to a smoky, haunting straight-tone that makes hairs stand on end.
This homage to Ellington would not be half the show without the crooning of Evan Tyrone Martin. A gifted singer, he keeps his acting simple, adding in calculated expression in choice moments, allowing the music to speak for itself. His honey-like, velvety tone channels the romance in every number and feels like a lover’s warm embrace. He is everything one could want in a jazz singer.
Sadly, the talent of these vocalists is often upstaged by the corny direction. While a few numbers offer enough backbone to support his love of schtick (Bless has a fun, brash time with “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got That Swing)”), the majority of Ellington’s music is simply too svelte to justify the impetus to infuse everything with comedy. The first time he has a man chase a coy woman with a love song it’s funny; the fourth time it’s just tired. And his attempt to shake up his show choir revue by putting Amanda Horvath in a poodle skirt and vintage glasses in “Imagine My Frustration” feels grossly out of place.
It’s a common mistake that happens too often when producing classic theater and music. Directors equate the word classic with tired and get the idea that they need to shake things up. Classic shouldn’t mean anything other than classic. Ellington’s standards have remained an integral part of the jazz and popular canon because they set universally resonant lyrics to brilliantly composed music. Any attempt to augment these fan favorites reads not as a fresh coat of paint, but as a poorly applied veneer.
That being said, the company ultimately produces a fast-paced, well-sung tribute that makes for an enjoyable night for the whole family. Just be prepared to bring some wine to pair with all of the cheese onstage.
Music Theatre Works presents “Duke Ellington’s Greatest Hits” through October 15 at Nichols Concert Hall, 1490 Chicago Ave, Evanston. More information and tickets are available here.