I was invited to attend opening night of Queenie Pie, Duke Ellington’s “street opera.” Unfortunately, Mr. Ellington died before finishing the work, so each production is necessarily a unique interpretation. Chicago Opera Theater’s version, however, was created by Ellington collaborator, librettist Betty McGettigan, and declared closest to Ellington’s original version.
The story was inspired by the life of Madam C.J. Walker, the first self-made woman American millionaire. Madam C.J. Walker’s granddaughter was in attendance for opening night of Queenie Pie.
Also present for opening night was Duke Ellington’s granddaughter, who must have been proud to hear her grandfather’s music performed so beautifully by the Chicago Jazz Orchestra and the small cast headed by Queenie Pie herself, Karen Marie Richardson.
Go for the music, not the story. Ellington was a terrific musician and composer, but may have lacked as a storyteller. A fellow attendee considered that a collaboration between Ellington and Langston Hughes would have allowed each man to focus on what he did best. To be fair, the second act’s failings may have to do with the fact that Ellington didn’t complete it before his death.
But a live performance is much more than a story arc. The orchestra sounds wonderful, playing that fun, swingy, brass-heavy jazz. The cast’s voices are clear and bright. And of course Duke Ellington’s compositions are unparalleled.
Though it is an opera, Queenie Pie isn’t boring or stuffy. It’s jazz, not Classical. There’s scat and other styles of wordless vocalization. There’s some Dixieland since our heroine’s rival, Café Au Lait, hails from New Orleans. Being a relative newcomer to jazz appreciation, I can only guess as to the other styles that show up in Queenie Pie, but they all sound interesting.
With only three more performances – February 21 and 23, and March 5 – Queenie Pie isn’t to be missed.