The world premiere of the musical Ladies Swing the Blues, book and lyrics by Thomas W. Jones II and music by William Knowles, was presented on Sunday, January 27, 2013 at MetroStage in Alexandria, Virginia.
A fable, set shortly after the March 12, 1955 death of legendary alto saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker, played by Anthony Manough, features four jazz divas played by four fabulous actresses and singers – Roz White (Billie Holiday); Lori Williams (Ella Fitzgerald); Yvette Spears (Sarah Vaughan), and Sandy Bainum (Peggy Lee) who gather with other Parker friends at New York’s famous Birdland Club to commemorate his untimely passing. Just 34 years old when he died, for many Parker’s virtuoso playing style represented jazz musicians as intellectuals rather than as mere entertainers and his passing left a permanent black hole in the fabric of jazz music that has never been filled.
Notwithstanding his unequaled artistic talents, Parker’s well-known battles with heroin addiction, alcoholism and mental illness throughout his adult life caused turbulence in his career and personal relationships. These challenges, unfortunately, form the common bridge between Parker and the play’s four divas, “Lady,” “Ella,” “Sassy,” and “Lee,” from which they explore the folklore, mythologies and backstage stories of the 40’s and 50’s. This is artfully accomplished by each actors vignettes in a ladies’ lounge and their time on stage when its their turn to sing. The women compete by telling stories of their teenage years and escapades with such jazz greats as Charlie “Bird” Parker, and Monk.
To my great pleasure, all the songs were hits. Most notable for me was “Billie’s Blues (Lady),” a sultry composition; the famous show stopping lyrics of “Round Midnight (Ella);” the renditions of “Lullaby of Birdland (Lee),” “Sometimes I’m Happy (Sassy),” which expressed my personality, and “Parker’s Mood (Bird),” all of which drew strong applause and standing ovations. Special appreciation goes to the music and lyrics of “Baroness Lair (Jones/Knowles).” Through all of the divas dialogue and singing, Bird enters and exits. One must assume either the presence of a posthumous Bird at his own “wake” or the extrapolation of time and events. Bird’s (Manough’s) superb singing of “Metaphor,” “Angel Eyes (Bird and Lee),” and “Bye Bye Baby Girl” expressed a particularly poignant rendition commemorating the death of his two year-old daughter, Pree, singing “I put two souls in the grave that day, I never saw laughter dry up so fast.”
In telling the story of Parker’s final days, there is a frenetic intensity exemplified by the constant movement of the five actors in a small space, the continuous melodic sounds of a highly skilled supportive quintet, the choices of mostly loud, gutsy up tempo songs, as well as the actors offstage ‘comings and goings’ and Bird’s reappearances as the play progresses. Add to that dialogues of each divas own life challenges, (Billie – sexual abuse, drug addiction, racism, spats with Sassy and numerous jailings; Ella— shy, overweight teenage runaway, exposure to racism and segregation; Sarah – cocaine and liquor abuse, three failed marriages and financial difficulties; and Lee – alcoholic father, physical abuse by her stepmother and ill health) and we have an insight into the New York jazz scene of the 1950s.
Although these factual realities abound throughout the dialogue and may at times overshadow the celebration of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Peggy Lee as vocalists – laughter and appreciative applause still shine brightly. The jewel in their telling of portions of their life stories is that we see their humanness beneath their immense musical talent. Sharing mutual pains such as infidelity – a necessary danger of being with any jazz man, and the ever trying hunt for a man who will love them, I get a sense by the end that they make peace with their lives and themselves.
What are some of the folklore and mythologies are still abound today? Whether Bird was really mentally ill has been debated; whether he actually gave up heroin after the death of his daughter Pree, and other myths which I will leave to you to explore in this diverse, multifaceted play.
Running Time: One hour twenty-five minutes, with no intermission.
Ladies Swing the Blues plays through March 17, 2013 at MetroStage – 1201 North Royal Street, in Alexandria, VA. For tickets, call (800) 494-8497, or purchase them online.