Even with Duke Ellington’s music, Chicago Opera Theater’s “Queenie Pie” is barely skin deep

February 17, 2014
Anna Bowen, Jeffrey Polk and Karen Marie Richardson in Chicago Opera Theater's production of Duke Ellington's "Queenie Pie." Photo: Liz Lauren

Anna Bowen, Jeffrey Polk and Karen Marie Richardson in Chicago Opera Theater’s production of Duke Ellington’s “Queenie Pie.” Photo: Liz Lauren

Chicago Opera Theater opened its 40th season with Duke Ellington’s Queenie Pie, presented in its local premiere Saturday night at the Harris Theater.

The 2014 COT lineup is the first wholly planned by Andreas Mitisek. Duke Ellington’s uncompleted “jazz opera” is squarely in the new artistic director’s preference for unconventional genre-traversing hybrids that merge theater and music rather than traditional opera.

The scenario of Queenie Pie is based on Madam CJ Walker, the celebrated Harlem beautician who made a fortune from her beauty products for black women. Yet her happiness is thwarted by her rival in business and love, Cafe Olay.

The central conflict of the original libretto by Betty McGettigan (with additions by Tommy Shepherd) was centered on an older woman vs younger woman romantic triangle. Director Ken Roht’s revised scenario adds a social-political edge with Queenie Pie accusing the lighter-skinned Cafe Olay of betraying her race by marketing skin-lightening products.

There is some terrific music by Ellington in Queenie Pie, largely cast in his characteristic uptempo jazz style, along with some not-so-great music as well.

Unfortunately, Queenie Pie is so weak structurally and lacking in character development and dramatic cohesion that it can barely hold the stage. The narrative could have been a heartening tale of an African-American woman’s self-actualization and rising from humble origins to great business success against social odds. Instead in its current guise, Queenie Pie rarely rises above a TV sitcom level.

The central characters are fatally undeveloped and the moments of confrontation have all the dramatic weight of a Saturday Night Live sketch. The final reconciliation scene between Queenie Pie and Cafe Olay is completely unbelievable and seems to go on forever. (In hindsight, dispensing with the narrator of the previous versions may have been ill-advised, since it at least would have held the rickety structure together.)

The comedy and satire don’t come off very well today either. The second act when Queenie Pie travels to an unspecified island to console herself and falls in love with the island king has several cringe-inducing moments, including a witch doctor who chases her about the stage.

Ultimately Queenie Pie emerges as a jumble of mixed music by Ellington and an inchoate often pedestrian libretto that clearly needed a lot more work to make it stageworthy. In no way is Queenie Pie close to being an opera or even a “jazz opera.” In COT’s production it seemed more like a musical revue, without even the depth of good musical theater.

In this staging, Karen Marie Richardson’s brassy and sarcastic Queenie Pie emerges as more unlikeable than endearing making her a rather unsympathetic heroine. Her Broadway belting and fast one-liners seem more suited to comedy than dramatic roles.

Anna Bowen as Cafe Olay actually comes off as more admirable, in part because she has better music to sing, which included Bowen’s lovely rendition of “Full Moon at Midnight.”

Keithon Gipson showed an attractive baritone as the two-timing Holt Faye as well as doubling and doing a convincing Caribbean accent as the island king. Likewise, Jeffrey Polk was energetic and amusing as Queenie’s servant and confidante Lil Daddy, also taking on the thankless role of the Witch Doctor. The ten-member ensemble threw themselves into the singing and dancing with impressive energy.

Like most COT productions in the Mitisek era, the staging originated at Long Beach Opera. Danila Korogodsky’s sets are in the tradition of cost-conscious minimalism and Brandon Baruch’s evocative lighting made much out of little. Dabney Ross Jones’ colorful period costumes were dead on. Director Ken Roht handled the direction and choreography capably.

The most consistent pleasure of the evening came from the pit where Jeff Lindberg led the Chicago Jazz Orchestra, giving Ellington’s big band music superb advocacy throughout the evening with polished, full-tilt playing of huge panache.

Queenie Pie runs through March 5. chicagooperatheater.org; 312-334-7777.

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