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Shaw Festival Fall Concert Series at The Hare Winery. Back row: Kyle Blair, Andrew Broderick and James Daly. Front row: Kristi Frank, Alexis Gordon and Olivia Sinclair-Brisbane.

Katie MacCabe/Shaw Festival

The Stratford Festival has long celebrated its history with the great jazz composer Duke Ellington – who wrote his 1957 “Shakespearean jazz suite” Such Sweet Thunder for the Canadian theatre as well as music for a 1963 production of Timon of Athens.

But with Stratford in hibernation this pandemic season, the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., has snatched the Duke – born Edward Kennedy Ellington in 1899; died an international icon of what he simply called “American music” in 1974 – away from its Ontario destination theatre rival.

Ellington’s music is the focus of one of three revues Shaw is touring to different locations around the Niagara region this fall to lure folks to the area to spend money at wineries and in restaurants. (The other two focus on composer/lyricist Cole Porter and lyricist/book writer Dorothy Fields.)

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I caught the Ellington show this week outdoors on the grounds of the Hare Wine Company, not far from the Shaw Festival’s usual digs. Eight musical theatre performers, dressed in their own idiosyncratic personal wardrobes and uniform masks, set up on chairs at a safe distance from one another in front of a beautiful backdrop of vines and fields and blue skies.

This was the most actors I’ve seen in one place since March – and, while they kept a hockey stick away from one another, I still found myself almost overwhelmed with pleasure hearing their voices break social distancing guidelines and intermingle harmoniously in the opening medley of Take the A Train and Satin Doll.

Ellington is the odd person out in this series performed by musical-theatre actors. While he did at times write music for the theatre, Ellington didn’t write much musical theatre per se, in the sense that Porter (Anything Goes, Kiss Me Kate) and Fields (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Sweet Charity) did.

Perhaps Ellington would have written more show tunes were there not racist roadblocks in his way as a Black American, however. In 1941, he wrote the music for Jump for Joy, all-Black musical revue on social-justice themes that enthusiastically upended stage stereotypes. Its Los Angeles run was marred by death threats and the beating of a cast member – and it never transferred to Broadway as the composer had hoped.

Then in 1946, Ellington wrote Beggar’s Holiday, a jazz version of The Beggar’s Opera. It did play on Broadway, but was picketed nightly due to its depiction of interracial romance. That was his first and last book musical.

The bulk of the Duke’s compositions were, of course, written for (and with) his jazz orchestra – and many of his most famous songs were actually originally written as instrumentals with words only fitted onto them later on.

So how actable are they, really?

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In his solo rendition of Sophisticated Lady, the Shaw Festival’s Andrew Broderick makes a strong dramatic case for the tune with a slightly abridged version of the lyrics Irving Mills and Mitchell Parish later shoehorned in.

“Smoking, drinking, never thinking / Shining, dancing, dining with some man in a restaurant?” he sings. “Is that all you really want?” Broderick acts this as a scolding the first time through, then as a searching of his own soul the next. It adds up to a surprisingly moving musical exploration of shame.

In total contrast, Olivia Sinclair-Brisbane’s sizzling rendition of Hit Me With a Hot Note (And Watch Me Bounce) is the highlight in terms of pure musical excitement; the up-and-comer has clearly has taken the title of another Ellington song, It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got that Swing), as gospel.

James Daly’s Don’t Get Around Much Anymore isn’t as technically wowing, but it is almost as much fun; he gives this old standard a cocky, rock feel that culminates in him picking up a Gibson 335 and joining in with the three-person band (associate musical director Ryan deSouza on keys, Ross MacIntyre on bass and Tom Jestadt on drums).

The Shaw’s Ellington revue also features thoughtfully rendered, if not always the swingingest, takes on tunes from Kristi Frank (Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me), Jonathan Tan (Prelude to a Kiss), Kyle Blair (I’m Beginning to See the Light) and Alexis Gordon (Solitude).

The only minor misfire is I Got It Bad (and That Ain’t Good), which originated in Ellington’s aforementioned all-Black revue Jump for Joy and is sung here by Élodie Gillett.

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Gillett, a long-time Shaw company member seems disconnected from the tune, not because she’s white, but because of the overly sunny smile with which she presents a song about a woman with a lover who “never treats me sweet and gentle the way he should”.

It would have been nice to have had this song and others put in some sort of context in the revue, which is directed and choreographed by Kimberley Rampersad and musically directed by Paul Sportelli. It’s a bit off-brand that they’re not: One of the things theatregoers appreciate about the Shaw is how the programs are full of in-depth essays.

There’s no program here and almost nothing said by the performers between the opening land acknowledgement and the closing thank-you to FedDev Ontario, the regional development agency that gave the Shaw Festival money to perform these shows.

The economic aim of this Ellington showcase is therefore much clearer than its artistic aim – and surely a playwright, jazz writer or dramaturge could use a little of that stimulus cash too?

For dates, times and places of upcoming Shaw Festival revues, check the the theatre company’s social media accounts on Twitter (@shawtheatre) and Facebook.

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