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BWW Review: The Robey Theatre Company Presents the World Premiere of BIRDLAND BLUE Honoring Jazz Great Miles Davis

BWW Review: The Robey Theatre Company Presents the World Premiere of BIRDLAND BLUE Honoring Jazz Great Miles Davis

At Broadway and 52nd Street in New York City, the nightclub Birdland was the legendary center of the jazz world, where the glitterati of Broadway, Hollywood and the sports world regularly filled its 500 seats. In August 1959, the biggest star in jazz was Miles Davis, who earlier that year recorded Kind of Blue, regarded then and now as the most innovative and best jazz album of all time. The Miles Davis Sextet, as constituted that summer, was regarded as the best jazz combo ever.

Honoring his love of all things jazz, Randy Ross Ph.D., an accomplished saxophonist and member of the jazz group the Blue Morning Quintet, spent several years researching Miles Davis and the amazing musicians in his Sextet. After gathering enough information to paint a clear picture of these jazz greats, Ross wrote BIRDLAND BLUE, now in its world premiere at the LA Theatre Center through May 12, directed by Ben Guillory, Artistic Director and Co-Founder of The Robey Theatre Company, the group producing the show. This play with music, in which we are given a behind-the-scenes look at Miles and the band on one evening that August, was developed in The Robey Theatre Company's Playwrights' Lab.

While not a documentary, BIRDLAND BLUE BWW Review: The Robey Theatre Company Presents the World Premiere of BIRDLAND BLUE Honoring Jazz Great Miles Davis offers an engaging dramatic speculation about a time in the life of an unforgettable musical genius, forced to deal with addictions to women, drugs, and gambling endured by each band member. As a fan of the coolest music, as well as the glamour the underground jazz scene offered at the time, I could not wait to see the show even though it took almost two hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic to get there on the Sunday afternoon I decided to go. So plan on arriving early if you drive, or take the train as it is only a 2-3 block walk from the Pershing Square station.

Realizing how difficult it would be to find actors who could authentically play instruments or musicians who could act, Ross and Guillory set out to find the right combination of talent to fulfill the needs of the play. After all, they would never be able to draw an audience if not for the talented actors and musicians who bring it to life in a perfect, basement-type jazz club setting thanks to set designer Yohannes Gardner, with scenes staged on three side of the seated-at-tables audience.

The dedicated cast BWW Review: The Robey Theatre Company Presents the World Premiere of BIRDLAND BLUE Honoring Jazz Great Miles Davis includes (in alphabetical order) Jermaine Alexander, Tiffany Coty, Rogelio Douglas III, Eddie Goines (sharing the role with Jason Mimms), Charles Isen, Marcus Clark Oliver, Darrell Philip (sharing the role with Shaw Jones), Michael D. Ricks and Damon Rutledge, all of whom learned to mimic playing their instruments while the great jazz is performed live by Ricardo Mowatt, Marion Newton and Randy Ross himself, positioning one level above the Birdland seating area.

Sixty years on, The Miles Davis Sextet's album Kind of Blue is hailed as a masterpiece of modern music, the bestselling jazz record of all time having sold nearly 5 million copies and certified quadruple platinum. It was No 1 on the BBC's 50 greatest jazz albums poll in 2016, number 12 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 50 greatest albums of all time and even, bizarrely, featured in VH1's "100 Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Albums." The album's 46 minutes of improvisation and first-class musicianship still attracts fans of all ages, many of whom will flock to see BIRDLAND BLUE.

Just be aware this is not just a jazz concert, although the trio creates the perfect smoky club mood as you are seated, waiting for the play to begin. Soon the actors start walking in, stopping to thank patrons who have come to Birdland to hear the Sextet play. But this is a dramatic play, so don't expect to more than a few numbers "played" by the actors, but rather a realistic look at their personal and professional lives as they attempted to cash in on their newly-found fame without destroying their friendships in the process.

Apart from Davis himself, who plays supremely well on the album, Kind of Blue features BWW Review: The Robey Theatre Company Presents the World Premiere of BIRDLAND BLUE Honoring Jazz Great Miles Davis John Coltrane on tenor saxophone, Julian "Cannonball" Adderley on alto saxophone, Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly on piano, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb - all superb performers at the height of their powers. This was not just a session group, but a working band relaxed in each other's musical company and very aware of each member's deep-seated problems which affected their entire lives as well as their ability to play.

This is the band we meet in BIRDLAND BLUE, led by Marcus Clark Oliver as the smooth-talking, woman crazy Miles Dewey Davis. Given the bravado on display by Oliver throughout the show, there is no doubt Davis would have had a bevy of women around him even as he struggled to control his addiction to hard drugs and alcohol. After meeting Lucinda Holmes (Tiffany Coty, who sizzles in a form-fitting sheath dress designed by Naila Aladdin Sanders), a beautiful reporter for a jazz magazine, he continues to flirt with her to give in to his advances, but somehow she resists. Not sure any other woman could have said "no" as often as she did and stuck to it. These two actors literally burn up the stage together.

But other challenges distract Davis from his focus on music and women, especially his arguments over proper compensation with Mo Goldman (Charles Isen), Birdland's owner/manager who promises the Moon and delivers nothing thanks to his gambling habit and demands made upon him by Shaw Jones as O'Brien, a violent, crooked, racist cop who also taunts Davis every chance he gets. Even more amazing is the fact Jones just recently stepped into the role, given how authentically menacing he was.

Davis copes with division within his ranks, BWW Review: The Robey Theatre Company Presents the World Premiere of BIRDLAND BLUE Honoring Jazz Great Miles Davis as two of his musicians, saxophonists Julius "Cannonball" Adderley (Damon Rutledge) and John Coltrane (Jermaine Alexander) are on the verge of leaving the Sextet to start their own groups, as well as substance abuse problems, both his own and that of one of his musicians, bass player Jimmy Cobb (Michael D. Ricks who actually plays a bass solo during the show after just learning to play it). Rounding out the sextet are Rogellio Douglas, III as Paul Chambers and Jason Mimms as Wynton Kelly. Each of these fine actors brilliantly brought these musicians to life during their character-reveling monologues.

Perhaps a few suggestions I could make for future revisions would be to add more musical numbers presented by these fine mimicking actors to enhance their real depth as the true jazz greats they were. I think selecting one of Davis' best-known numbers would be a perfect ending to the show, since it seems to end very abrupted as currently being presented. And while Tiffany Coty does a brilliant job portraying so many different women in the play, it was very confusing to think of her as anyone other than Lucinda, given how large-than-life her portrayal is of that character. In fact, I'm not really sure any other women really need to be in the play.

BIRDLAND BLUE BWW Review: The Robey Theatre Company Presents the World Premiere of BIRDLAND BLUE Honoring Jazz Great Miles Davis performances continue through Sunday, May 12 on Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 3:00 p.m., except Sunday, May 12, when showtime will be at 7:00 p.m., in the intimate Theatre 4 at Los Angeles Theatre Center, S. Spring St., Los Angeles, CA 90013. General admission tickets are $35. Seniors, students, veterans, LAUSD teachers, $22.50. Groups of ten or more, $20. For reservations, call (866) 811-4111 or visit www.thelatc.org

Photo credit: Ian Foxx



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