April 18, 2009 - Queenie Pie at the McCullough Theatre
     Duke Ellinton's unfinished folk opera Queenie Pie is a mixed bag.  The music is exceptional and the vocal fireworks abound, but the story is disjointed and unfulfilling.  Telling the story of a New York cosmetics and beautition celebrity Queenie Pie, and her downfall and
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redemption, the second half of the story does not work with the first half.  And if you don't read the synopsis in the program, you're probably going to be lost - as was stated by the self-professed opera expert sitting behind us, who talked non-stop ( "you're going back to the Met next week; really?  We don't care…).
    But considering that the co-production presented by the U.T. Butler School of Opera and Huston-Tillotson University even made it to the Austin stage, all that is forgotten in the terrific show they created.  Using the manuscripts, notes, and journals kept by Ellington collaborator Betty McGettigan, U.T. Butler School of Music faculty Jeff Hellmer, John Mills, and Robert DeSimone have been able to piece together the original production that Ellington was creating at the time of his death.
   The orchestrations by Hellmer and Mills are amazing, bringing Ellington's musical genius to life.  The U.T. Jazz Orchestra handles the numbers with style and flare, earning a well-deserved standing ovation.
    Vocally, the cast is great - although the sound design was terrible.  The men in the chorus were impossible to hear, making the group harmonies very one-side toward the belting sopranos.  But once they stepped up to one of the several on-stage microphones, their clarity was immediately notes.
   Leading the cast in the title role is jazz legend Carmen Bradford.  Born in Austin, she carries on her family legacy with a voice that shows her technical skills and refined styling.  Her voice, style, and attitude are a perfect fit for Queenie Pie's journey.
    As her rival "Café Olay," soprano Morgan Gale Beckford shows great strength in her voice, playfully tempered with a seductive acting style.  Keithon Gipson in the dual role of "Lil' Daddy" and "The King" - which serve as Queenie Pie's spiritual guide and redeemer - provides a strong male voice and shows probably the best grasp of the material, making the role the stand-out for the night.  And narrator Nicole L. Taylor gets to show off her impressive pipes as well.
    But it's all about the Duke's music, and the show delivers over and over.  From swing to jazz to calypso, this score is jumping!
(Photo by Nathan Russell)