Review: ‘Duke Ellington’s Neighborhood’ from The In Series performing at Gala Hispanic Theatre

Engaging, sophisticated entertainment and education that didn’t talk down to the intended audience; children who may not have been familiar with the grand musical and cultural figure, DC’s very own Duke Ellington: that was my takeaway from the In Series very short run of Duke Ellington’s Neighborhood.

Marketed as a production for the younger set (and their families) to learn about a musical genius, the performance more than met what the In Series sets out to do: “An interactive journey through Duke Ellington’s DC,” discovering “how a local hero championed African-American musicians, influenced the Harlem Renaissance, shaped the cultural history of D.C. and became an international star.”

Duke Ellington’s Neighborhood. Photograph by David Siegel.

Written, narrated, and performed by an enthusiastic, animated Mattias Kraemer, Duke Ellington’s Neighborhood, was a fully-staged cabaret-like rendering with several small round tables (Jonathan Dahm Robertson set designer and Marianne Meadows lighting designer). The production had snappy direction by Angelisa Gillyard. She also was the choreographer.

With a small selection of seven numbers from Ellington’s massive songbook (and those of several of his band mates) as the jumping point, the production showcased the talents of a sharp three-member musical combo with solid singing from two vocalists. Ellington’s classic tunes became an aural road map to Ellington’s life starting on the mean streets of early 20th century segregated DC.

The vocalists (they were also well-turned dancers) were Adrienne Ivey and Sylvern Groomes, Jr. The tuneful musical trio consisted of Stanley Thurston (piano), Ephraim Wolfolk (bass), and Steve Walker, percussion.

With Kraemer’s impressive child-centered skills (earlier productions were in DC public schools), the show began as he interacted with the children in the audience. This was not to be just a sit-still-and-“eat-your-vegetables” performance. From my vantage point, the children in the audience were involved from the get-go,

Kraemer would ask the children questions to gauge their interest and learn about them. He actually wanted to know about them. Who they were, their initial knowledge of Ellington, and such. He asked how they got to the show; did they walk, take the Metro, or were they driven? (And as I took it, learn if they were from the Columbia Heights neighborhood, elsewhere in DC, or the suburbs.) He asked if anyone played instruments and if so what (most mentioned the piano). There were other “let’s involve you” and warm-things-up type questions.

Then he took some steam-punk like goggles, and asked everyone to get their own “imagination goggles” ready so they would no longer just be sitting, but would be traveling through time and locations. Kraemer seemed genuine and not theatrically artificial. As I looked around I saw children making goggles with their fingers.

Duke Ellington’s Neighborhood. Photograph by David Siegel.

Over the course of the fast-moving, intermission-free 40 minutes,  each of the three musicians received a spotlight as did the singers. In a tune-up to the main event, the musicians spoke about their instruments with joy. Then they made their instruments come alive showing how music can move from high notes to low, as well as how different rhythms and melodies can sound. Sounds moved easily from Michael Jackson to “Moonlight Sonata.” Then from Hip-Hop to Latin Rhythms and of course, the music of Duke Ellington. There were seven Ellington numbers performed. They were a wide range of moods and outlook. The musical numbers included Ellington compositions such as “Do Nothing Till You Hear from Me,” “Drop Me Off in Harlem, “Don’t Mean a Thing” as well as numbers well-connected to Ellington such as “Minnie the Moocher” and “Perdido.”

Now, anyone, including me, cam quibble with the musical numbers selected, suggesting others. But that seems a waste of time. The kids at the performance I attended were listening. Some songs made them laugh with glee, while others had them sit enthralled. The children were involved with the narrative, the music and the on-stage dancing.

All-in-all, Duke Ellington’s Neighborhood was entertainment and a learning experience that focused on an African-American man, who went from a childhood in a segregated Washington, DC to someone admired throughout the world.

Duke Ellington’s Neighborhood as produced by the In Series was an engaging production full of verbal, aural and visual delights. Yes, nicely done.

Running time: 40 minutes, with no intermission.

In Series Duke Ellington’s Neighborhood played only December 9 and 10, 2017, at the In Series performing at GALA Hispanic Theatre – 3333 14th Street, NW, in Washington. DC. More information about upcoming In Series performances online.

Note: The In Series folk even provided crayons for the children to color in a picture of musicians as part of the Duke Ellington’s Neighborhood program.

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