IT AIN'T SHAKESPEARE, but Arizona Theatre Company's season-opening musical easily outclasses the Vegas lounge acts the state company has previously fobbed off as musical theater. Play On! -- unlike every past ATC revue this decade except Ain't Misbehavin' and Blues in the Night -- is a sure box-office hit that's also sophisticated enough for a proscenium stage.
Now, "sophisticated" is a relative term. Play On! actually is Shakespeare, a louche -- er, loose adaptation of Twelfth Night. But the Bard's story has been grossly simplified and moved to Harlem in the 1940s. And as reconceived by writer Cheryl L. West and director Sheldon Epps, the characters are drawn far too broadly for us to care much about them when they stop singing.
Ah, but those songs: Play On! is suffused with the music of Duke Ellington, the Shakespeare of Swing. ATC's past revues have mostly boasted great music, too, but the linking material, if any, has tended to be badly written (the most egregious example being Five Guys Named Moe).
So the first point in favor of Play On! is that the book doesn't suck. But as a treatment of African American life, it still leaves us waiting to exhale. Most of those earlier shows merely tossed onto the stage a small group of oversexed African Americans with a great sense of rhythm; we've spent too long holding our breath for a musical with black characters as rich as in, say, a Lanford Wilson script. Play On! indulges those stereotypes, too, but it also revolves around issues of identity and sexism. It's a dizzy spin, but even this weak intellectual gravity holds things together better than its predecessors.
The scene is Harlem in the 1940s, and nobody's heard that the Harlem Renaissance ended early in the Depression. Life is colorful and fervent and whirls through vibrant sets inspired by the art of Romare Beardon. Into this commotion strides Vy, a talented Mississippi girl determined to become a songwriter. Vy appeals to her slick uncle Jester for help, but Jester informs her that songwriting is a man's business; as another character will later contend, a woman's passion isn't deep enough to give rise to a beautiful melody. So Jester dresses Vy as a man and introduces her to the great bandleader Duke.
Vy-Man, as she's now called, is smitten with Duke, but Duke pines for the singer Lady Liv, his former lady love. The bandleader enlists Vy-Man to win Lady Liv back for him, but Liv winds up falling for the unusually empathetic Vy-Man -- much to the distress of Rev, the inhibited club manager who carries a torch for Lady Liv with exaggerated, sorrowful dignity.
Poor miking on opening night made the dialog hard to understand over the pit band; the words only took wing when sung, the romantic entanglements pulled ever more taut by such Ellington classics as Mood Indigo, I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good, Don't Get Around Much Anymore and Prelude to a Kiss. Every song weaves perfectly into the story, and benefits from strong performances by cast members who aren't really jazz singers. Nikki Crawford's Lady Liv, for example, is at her considerable finest when she's belting out the blues. Natalie Venetia Belcon, who neatly balances Vy's determination and babbling innocence, brings an R&B flair to her numbers.
Their principal male counterparts are fine singers, but make even stronger impressions when the music stops. David Jennings' Duke carries himself with Shakespearean dignity. Richard Allen's Rev demonstrates that not all blacks have a natural sense of rhythm, with hilarious silly-walk spasms worthy of John Cleese.
The show features several big production numbers choreographed by Mercedes Ellington, the real Duke's granddaughter. Right at the start, she sends her dancers through a marvelous jitterbug evocation of turnstiles and subway cars in Take the 'A' Train. But the real showstopper involves only Kevin Ramsey and Clinton Derricks-Carroll, egging each other on with their raunchy lament Rocks in My Bed.
And that, alas, is what Play On! ultimately comes down to: horny Harlemites looking for love in all the wrong places. The show merely toys with deeper issues, above all the notion that, as Lady Liv puts it, people have to reinvent themselves before their true selves can be discovered. Vy disguises herself as a man; Lady Liv must play the part of the diva; the uptight Rev tries disastrously to jive. But what does this suggest about the elegant Duke -- that there's something phony about a talented, cultivated black man who sips fine wine and lounges in tux trousers and a smoking jacket? Play On! flirts with that nasty little insinuation, but fails to delve into it.
And although Vy strives for a fair chance in a male-dominated profession, the happy ending rewards most of the women on stage with nothing more than a micro-mini chorus-girl outfit complete with Wonder Bra and stylish crotch bouquet. This is progress? Well, the action's set in the '40s, so maybe this is just a reflection of period reality.
It's hard to tell exactly what the creators have in mind. Epps and West happily emulate Shakespeare's low comedy, but neglect to follow the Bard into darker realms of intellect. In its determination to make a splash in the shallow end of the pool, the frivolously enjoyable, gender-bending Play On! seems less an updated Twelfth Night than a blaxploitation version of Victor/Victoria.
Play On!, an Arizona Theatre Company production, continues through October 2 at the Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave. Tickets cost $26 to $38, with half-price tickets available one hour before curtain. For reservations and information, call 622-2823.