Review: “Queenie Pie”

Where: Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph St.
When: through March 5
Phone: 312-704-8414
Web: chicagooperatheater.org

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

Chicago Opera Theater (COT) opened its 40th season Saturday night with the Chicago premiere of Duke Ellington’s “Queenie Pie” at the Harris Theater. Variously known as a “jazz opera” or a “street opera” or even a “jazz operetta in the key of make believe” and originally conceived as a television production to star Lena Horne, this piece was unfinished when Ellington died in 1974. There have been other attempts to complete the work and offer it on stage over the years, but none of these efforts have yielded much success.

COT’s production is a new stab at creating a coherent whole out of incomplete material, including the original libretto by Betty McGettigan.

The story was inspired by the life of Madam C.J. Walker (Queenie Pie), the first female African American self-made millionaire (recognized as such by the Guinness Book of World Records), whose success was in developing and selling hair and beauty products designed for Black women. She meets with fierce competition from a younger, light-skinned woman from New Orleans, Café Au Lait, who challenges Queenie Pie’s business success and sets her sights on the older woman’s boyfriend as well. The result is an odd and jarring combination of melodrama and broad comedy.

Director and choreographer Ken Roht says that his goal is to “contemporize the piece, and also to make the piece timeless, while dealing with the challenging social issues that seem to persist.” One of the elements added to the original is to make Café Au Lait a vendor of skin lightening products who tries to convince her customers that to have lighter skin is to be more beautiful. The scene where she makes the hard sell is darkly lit and so heavy-handed as to almost lose the social point being made.

Without a doubt there is a kernel of something worthwhile in “Queenie Pie” but COT’s completion doesn’t do enough. The two-act story is confusing from the outset and by the time the gun comes out at the end of the first act, leaving one of the characters dead on stage, you are bewildered and unconvinced.

The second act transports the action to an unidentified island where Queenie Pie has an incomprehensible relationship with a shirt-shunning king while simultaneously fending off the sexual advances of a bizarre witch doctor. Café Au Lait also visits the island and the conclusion is a cringe inducing, wholly unbelievable, painfully long-winded reconciliation between the two women even Hallmark would find over the top.

Such a pity that Ellington himself did not live long enough to complete his vision. His big band jazz is engaging and vibrant, but as the work stands, even in COT’s noble attempt to make it whole, it is merely an outline of some kind of musical theater piece. Like Beethoven’s “Fidelio,” it is lumbered by long stretches of spoken dialogue. This, even though the production includes some Ellington pieces the composer didn’t create specifically for this purpose. These spoken sections are made all the more unbearable by stilted line delivery and inapt timing.

The story is set in the Harlem Renaissance, with simple, effective sets by Danila Korogodsky. Costume designer Dabney Ross Jones dresses her characters perfectly and is the most successful member of the creative team in drawing out the differences between the two acts.

I’m not terribly conversant with jazz, but I found the singing to be splendid. Karen Marie Richardson gave the title role a boisterous, brassy interpretation well suited to the music. One of the most memorable moments is when the phone rings and she picks it up and scats into the receiver. The music is fun and frothy and contributes to a good laugh. Richardson is convincing as a businesswoman, although far less convincing as a woman looking for love.

Anna Bowen has a smaller voice, yet she deploys it well. She is achingly beautiful singing “Black Butterfly.”

Keithon Gipson as Holt Faye (first act) and the king (second act) sings with authority. His second act duet with Richardson, “Won’t You Come into My Boudoir” is one of the best parts of his performance.

Jeffrey Polk does the best he can with the music for Lil Daddy (first act) and the Witch Doctor (second act). He gives “My Father’s Island” a lot of heart and style. His two roles are the silliest of the lot, and I was surprised that when he picked up the phone to report the shooting of Holt that he didn’t give us a scat version of a 911 call. It would have been far less foolish than anything the Witch Doctor does.
Conductor Jeff Lindberg led the Chicago Jazz Orchestra in a fizzy and satisfying performance from the pit.

In spite of all its flaws, I recommend “Queenie Pie.” COT’s general director Andreas Mitisek (also the head of Long Beach Opera, where this production originated) has embraced COT’s goal of bringing new or rarely performed works to Chicago, one of the things that makes Chicago Opera Theater such an important and valuable part of the Chicago music scene.