Review: Queenie Pie (Chicago Opera Theater)

| February 22, 2014
Karen Marie Richardson stars as Queenie Pie in Chicago Opera Theater's "Queenie Pie" by Duke Ellington, directed by Ken Roht, conducted by Jeff Lindberg. (photo credit: Liz Lauren)        
      
Queenie Pie

Adapted from Duke Ellington  
Directed and Choreographed by Ken Roht
Conducted by Jeff Lindberg
at Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph (map)
thru March 23  |  tickets: $35-$150   |  more info
       
Check for half-price tickets 
    
        
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Though uneven, Ellington’s glorious music still shines through

     

Chicago Opera Theater's "Queenie Pie" by Duke Ellington, directed by Ken Roht, conducted by Jeff Lindberg. (photo credit: Liz Lauren)

    
Chicago Opera Theater presents
    
Queenie Pie

Review by Kat Hey

Duke Ellington called Queenie Pie his “street opera,” which was in reference to the subject matter and the accessibility of the story. This sumptuous music is more in the style of musical theater than traditional opera. Spoken dialogue is peppered throughout the show over a rolling motif of piano and drums. The fact that Ellington passed away before completing this opera does hamper the fluidity. There are lesser known compositions from the Ellington canon – pieces that go along with the story but still leave a musical gap of sorts.

Anna Bowen in Chicago Opera Theater's "Queenie Pie" by Duke Ellington, directed by Ken Roht, conducted by Jeff Lindberg. (photo credit: Liz Lauren)The acting and singing in Queenie Pie is top shelf. Karen Marie Richardson glows in the title role based on Madam C.J. Walker, the first Black American female millionaire. She has a full and lush mezzo voice with crisp diction and delivery. Her carriage and movement is gorgeous as she charges through the business days of empowering herself and other women. (Walker made her fortune by producing beauty products and tools for Black hair and skin. Her products were made to enhance and give women flexibility in fashion rather than promote a different standard of beauty.)

During a beauty contest set in 1937 Harlem, a fierce competitor comes to town, stealing Queenie’s man and trying to dent her business. Cafe Au Lait (Anna Bowen) is the ‘high yella’ woman who seduces Holt/King (Keithon Gipson) with her exotic charms. As Queenie Pie illistrates, the story of the color caste within the Black race is a long and painful one that still endures to this day. Café Au Lait profits in selling women on a White standard of skin color and hair texture. Bowen has a lovely soprano voice and plays the role like a sinuous cat on the prowl. Au Lait‘s character promotes several myths about the delicacy of White womanhood, i.e. they need to be protected and are so much more delicate. She is a hot house flower who lets her beauty come first instead of her character. Bowen is petite, shapely, and perfect for the role. The sexual frankness of the competition between the women is done with taste and with a deft comic touch.

Gipson shimmers on the stage with a style reminiscent of the great Geoffrey Holder. His lush baritone wraps around the words, and he has a wonderful brash style as both Holt the Harlem promoter and as King, the leader of the island. Jeffrey Polk, as Lil Daddy/Witch Doctor, has a flair for the comedic second banana role. As Lil Daddy, he is the watchful butler and caretaker for Queenie. The character is stock butler in the tradition of Arthur Treacher or Stephen Fry’s Jeeves.

The plot of Queenie Pie is the love triangle gone horribly wrong and a hero’s journey for both Queenie and Café Au Lait. The allegorical hero’s journey is taken for both women to reach their lowest point before seeing the error of arrogance and predatory actions. It is a good show, but it leaves me wondering what Ellington would have done. His exacting compositions and perfectionism speaks volumes on what is lacking here. Ellington considered music his “jealous mistress,” and would have left no loose ends or obvious fillers such as the “Black Butterfly” or “Fleur African,” which is given an extended play in the second act.

Karen Marie Richardson and Keithon Gipson in Chicago Opera Theater's "Queenie Pie" by Duke Ellington, directed by Ken Roht, conducted by Jeff Lindberg. (photo credit: Liz Lauren) Jeffrey Polk in Chicago Opera Theater's "Queenie Pie" by Duke Ellington, directed by Ken Roht, conducted by Jeff Lindberg. (photo credit: Liz Lauren)
Karen Marie Richardson in Chicago Opera Theater's "Queenie Pie" by Duke Ellington, directed by Ken Roht, conducted by Jeff Lindberg. (photo credit: Liz Lauren) Jeffrey Polk in Chicago Opera Theater's "Queenie Pie" by Duke Ellington, directed by Ken Roht, conducted by Jeff Lindberg. (photo credit: Liz Lauren)
Karen Marie Richardson and Keithon Gipson in Chicago Opera Theater's "Queenie Pie" by Duke Ellington, directed by Ken Roht, conducted by Jeff Lindberg. (photo credit: Liz Lauren) Anna Bowen in Chicago Opera Theater's "Queenie Pie" by Duke Ellington, directed by Ken Roht, conducted by Jeff Lindberg. (photo credit: Liz Lauren)

A major bone to pick is the imbalanced sound. The singers are all wearing microphones, and yet there are entire phrases drowned out by the orchestra. It’s very disappointing to miss some of the phrasing and denouement nuances in the music. No excuses to be had here, and this needs to be addressed.

Ken Roht’s direction is well done. The pacing is like a 1930’s George Cukor film. The talk is fast and the drama accents the overarching theme of characters striving to be someone extra special. The choreography, unfortunately, doesn’t measure up to the other segments of the production, feeling rehashed from several all-Black cast musicals. There could have been some more spectacular dancing with different songs. Why not pay homage to the Nicholas Brothers or Sammy Davis Jr.? Hearken back to the fabulous Timbuktu with Holder and Eartha Kitt. There are no real show stoppers or knock-you-back entrances in this production, even with a sturdy cast of professionals with long resumes.

All this being said, Queenie Pie is worth seeing if just to hear Ellington’s music in such a robust and lively manner. Chicago is fortunate to have companies such as Chicago Opera Theater to bring forgotten or neglected productions as well as new works to our cultural vista. If nothing else, it will send you to your record collection or the CD bins to really hear Ellington’s genius and to research the Harlem Renaissance that nurtured such creativity and enterprise.

  
Rating: ★★½
  
   

Queenie Pie continues through March 23rd at Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph at Millennium Park (map), with performances Wednesday and Thursday, March 19th and 20th, at 7:30pm; Saturday March 23rd at 3pm.  Tickets are $35-$150, and are available by phone (312-850-9744) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at ChicagoOperaTheater.org(Running time: 90 minutes, includes an intermission)

Karen Marie Richardson and the ensemble in Chicago Opera Theater's "Queenie Pie" by Duke Ellington, directed by Ken Roht, conducted by Jeff Lindberg. (photo credit: Liz Lauren)

Photos by Liz Lauren


     

artists

cast

Karen Marie Richardson (Queenie Pie), Anna Bowen (Café Au Lait), Keithon Gipson (King, Holt), Jeffrey Polk (Lil Daddy, Witch Doctor), Carrie Louise Abernathy, Loren Battieste, Chris Carter, Darryl Harrell, Donica Henderson, Cortez Johnson, Brian-Alwyn Newland, Keewa Nurullah, Ninah Snipes, Trequan Tate (ensemble)

orchestra

Chicago Jazz Orchestra: John Wojciehowicz (alto sax 1), Bill Overton (alto sax 2) Scott Burns (tenor sax, flute). Eric Schneider (tenor sax, clarinet), Jerry DiMuzio (baritone sax), Danny Barber, Chris Davis, Pharez Whitted, Art Davis (trumpets), Scott Bentall, Andy Baker, Bryant Scott, Michael Young  (trombones), Dan Trudell (piano), Denis Carroll (bass), George Fludas (drums)

behind the scenes

Ken Roht (director, choreographer), Jeff Lindberg (conductor), Danila Korodgodsky (set design), Dabney Ross Jones (costume designer), Brandon Baruch (lighting designer), Liz Lauren (photos)

Anna Bowen, Jeffrey Polk and Karen Marie Richardson in Chicago Opera Theater's "Queenie Pie" by Duke Ellington, directed by Ken Roht, conducted by Jeff Lindberg. (photo credit: Liz Lauren)  Karen Marie Richardson and Keithon Gipson in Chicago Opera Theater's "Queenie Pie" by Duke Ellington, directed by Ken Roht, conducted by Jeff Lindberg. (photo credit: Liz Lauren)Karen Marie Richardson in Chicago Opera Theater's "Queenie Pie" by Duke Ellington, directed by Ken Roht, conducted by Jeff Lindberg. (photo credit: Liz Lauren)  Keithon Gipson and Anna Bowen in Chicago Opera Theater's "Queenie Pie" by Duke Ellington, directed by Ken Roht, conducted by Jeff Lindberg. (photo credit: Liz Lauren)

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Category: 2014 Reviews, Chicago Opera Theater, Harris Theatre (at Millennium), K.D. Hopkins, Millennium Park, Opera

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