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BWW Review: Jazz Legends DUKE ELLINGTON and ELLA FITZGERALD Are Celebrated By Performing TRIPLE THREATS In Classy Style at the Friars Club

The cast for "Triple Threats" (l to r): Loni Ackerman,
Dezhon Fields, Andrea Frierson, Judi Mark, Larry Marshall,
Mercedes Ellington, Kathy Conry, and Alex Cowings.

The spirit of jazz legends Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald (with a little Tito Puente) was palpable in the Milton Berle room at New York's Friars Club on April 25 for the second-annual production of Triple Threats. Broadway veterans (including Duke's granddaughter, Mercedes Ellington, who also co-produced the show) joined some of America's most accomplished jazz musicians to celebrate the April birthdays of the music greats and to honor those performers who sing, dance, and act at the highest levels.

As co-producer Judi Mark--who also sang an Ellington medley in the show--put it, "Now everyone has to do everything--and gymnastics! Very few can fit the bill. It's special, and that was my aim in creating the show and hunting for talent."

Co-producer and host Judi Mark

Hunt--and find--she did. Actress, singer, producer, and writer Andrea Frierson set a high bar with the opening number, "Drop Me Off In Harlem" (Ellington/Nick Kenny), a song both about romantic love and the deep sense of community ("heaven") in 1940s Harlem. Frierson's smooth, lush voice and almost preternatural sweetness captured this double love: "Harlem has those southern skies/They're in my baby's smile/I idolize my baby's eyes/And classy up-town style."

Shifting gears, Frierson performed a condensed medley from Me and Ella, the title of Andrea's 2014 debut show at 54 Below dedicated to the "First Lady of Song" and directed by Ron Abel (who accompanied Frierson at piano at this venue with his usual panache). Dezhon Fields, perhaps the best Sammy Davis Jr. impersonator working today, sang a high-energy "Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me" (Ellington/Bob Russell) and "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" (Ellington/Fitzgerald/Armstrong).

You do a bit of a double take when Fields takes the stage, wondering how Sammy managed to come back from the dead, seven inches taller no less. Fields' voice can't compare to Frierson's, with her classical training and God-given instrument, but his overall presence and dance talent do impressive.

Andrea Frierson captivates the Friars Club audience.

The biggest laugh of the night went to Broadway actress and native New Yorker Loni Ackerman, who grew up on 79th and Amsterdam thinking, "Anything west of Central Park was California." Like so many Broadway stars over a half-century, Ackerman studied jazz dance with Luigi as well as with Hama (his most famous protégé), and still has the body of a young dancer (thanks largely to CrossFit, she told me).

Walking on stage in a form-fitting black lace dress that fell just below the knee with bass/treble clef strappy heels, Ackerman projects true star power. Her last role on Broadway (before retiring to raise two sons) was Griselda in Cats, but on this night she sang an elegant "Lush Life" (Billy Straythorn), surely one of the most demanding, vocally bare songs in jazz. Ackerman's vocals conjured the "feel of life from jazz and cocktails" as well as the existential longing in Straythorn's heartbreaking lyrics.

Dezhon Fields channelling Sammy Davis, Jr.

Alex Cowing's exhilarating tap number was like a lightning bolt that roused the audience from its reverie after "Lush Life." Combining precision with passion, Cowings seemed to defy gravity with the shifting diagonals of his upper body. Resting briefly after the number, the exquisite dancer joked, "I'm not out of breath; the breath's out of me!"

Born in St. Croix to jazz musicians and tap dancers, Cowings began to dance at five. He's shared the stage at major national venues like Lincoln Center, Lake George Jazz Festival, and The Negro Ensemble Company. In recent years, Cowing has turned his attention to music. His Beats and Ballads has appeared at The Producer's Club and Uptown Grand. While dance is clearly his forte, Cowings' vocal chops were clear in a heartfelt, technically solid "I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart" (Ellington) and "Solitude" (Ellington/Eddie DeLange/Irving Mills).

"'C' Jam Blues" (Ellington), the evening's only instrumental number, left no doubt that well over 150 years of jazz experience was gathered to the left of the Friars Club stage. Under the musical direction of Frank Owens, the band (Dave Gibson on drums, Wilbur Bascomb on bass, James Zollar on trumpet, and Patience Higgins on saxophone) played the highly improvisatory 12-note jazz standard in C major with energy and true joy.

The band (clockwise from back left):
Patience Higgins, Dave Gibson, MD Frank Owens,
Wilbur Bascomb, James Zollar

The bio of each musician would fill the space of a review, which, ironically, accounts for the show's only flaw: a dry enumeration of credits before the opening song. One understands co-producer Marks' desire to share the extraordinary musical accomplishments of this band--a living testament to American jazz history--but it would have been better to include them in a program, or to follow the example of Lynda Carter in her recent Jazz at Lincoln Center show, Long-Legged Woman. Instead of presenting the resumes of her large A-list Nashville band and backup vocalists at the outset, Carter detailed the background of the musicians one at a time between numbers. The strategy might not have worked as well in a show of this nature, but certainly preferable to presenting the information in one big chunk at the beginning.

"'C' Jam Blues was an effective prelude to "The Green People and the Purple People" (the evening's only duet) with Kathy Conry (George M!, No, No, Nannette) and Mercedes Ellington from My People, the 1963 musical performed only once until its 1989 revival in Chicago after painstaking work to reconstruct musical numbers, narration, and original set and lighting design. It was Ellington's "Kubla Khan," a mere fragment. An allegory of race relations, the work as a whole underscores what Howard Reich, the Chicago Tribune arts critic, called the "Ferocity of [Ellington's] commitment to civil rights." Mercedes Ellington's inspired choreography helped make the revival an aesthetic, not merely historical, triumph.

Ellington's most explicitly political statement in art, the musical manages neither to be "heavy-handed" nor didactic. The Ellington/Conry number about two groups pointlessly at odds (because in its most famous line, "all of the blood [on the battlefield] is red") was light-hearted, even campy. By making us smile, rather than weep, Ellington brings out the absurdity of race conflict.

Triple Threats finished as transcendently as it began with "Don't Get Around Here Anymore" (Ellington/Russell) and "Satin Doll" (Ellington/Fitzgerald), sung by Larry Marshall, a veteran of 14 Broadway shows with a booming voice and gentle but outsized presence worthy of Ellington himself.

Photos by Stephen Sorokoff

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