Long Beach Opera Spins Up Ellington Scrap ‘Queenie Pie’

Cafe O'Lay (Anna Bowen) and colleagues (Alexander Pimentel, Ryan Vincent Anderson, Babatunde Akinboboye) in the Long Beach Opera production of Duke Ellington's "Queenie Pie."  (Production photos by Keith Ian Polakoff)
Café O’lay (Anna Bowen) peddles her own beauty product in an attempt to horn in on Queenie Pie’s cosmetic reign.
Duke Ellington’s “Queenie Pie,” Long Beach Opera. (Production photos by Keith Ian Polakoff)
By Richard S. Ginell

SAN PEDRO, CA – It would figure that a musician with the colossal ambition and fearlessness of a Duke Ellington would think of writing an opera, but few today know that he actually did, sort of. It was an unfinished torso of a piece called Queenie Pie, which Duke variously referred to as an “opéra comique” or “street opera” based on the life of Harlem’s Madam C. J. Walker, who became the first black female self-made millionaire by selling hair and beauty products.

Queenie Pie (Karen Marie Richardson) sings about "My Father's Island."
Karen Marie Richardson is Queenie Pie, Harlem’s cosmetics queen.

It seems that Ellington first conceived the idea for the piece as far back as 1936, mulling it over sporadically for nearly four decades when not writing thousands of songs, constructing concert suites, and constantly touring with a big band. Around 1945, the legendary tenor Lauritz Melchior was said to have considered appearing in it (now wouldn’t that have been a ground-breaker?). In 1965, Ella Fitzgerald was considered for the lead role;  by 1970, it was going to be an hour-long television opera for Lena Horne, and as of 1973, a full-length opera.

But to make a long story short, Ellington died the following year, leaving only about 45 minutes of original music and an ambiguous ending. Maurice Peress, who had worked with Ellington on the score, was commissioned by Ellington’s son Mercer to finish the piece, but it never really caught on – and after performances in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. (1986), and Brooklyn (1993), the parts apparently vanished.

Lil' Daddy (Jeffrey Polk, right) consoles Queenie Pie (Karen Marie Richardson).
Queenie’s ever-present factotum is Lil Daddy (Jeffrey Polk.)

Enter Long Beach Opera, the plucky, ever-enterprising Southern California outfit that long ago positioned itself as the radical counter-balance to the better-funded lords of opera on Bunker Hill in downtown Los Angeles. LBO took a different version of Queenie Pie that was performed at the University of Texas, Austin, in 2009, adapted it further, and presented it Sunday night (Jan. 26) in San Pedro’s Warner Grand Theatre, one of a battery of offbeat performance spaces that the company has used over the years. Given the 1930s Harlem Renaissance setting and ethos that stage director Ken Roht tried to evoke, the ancient, art deco-styled Warner Grand turned out to be a terrific synergistic choice for a performance space.

At first, the opera comes out swinging with a swaggering prelude and a New York number that could virtually hold its own with other, more famous New York numbers by Leonard Bernstein or Kander and Ebb. Queenie Pie has just won a beauticians competition for the tenth time and is strutting about, but now she has a rival, a lighter-skinned Creole appropriately named Café O’lay, who wants to horn in on Queenie’s business by playing on the desires of many in the African-American community at that time to look more like white people.

Duke Ellington at New York's Hurricane Club in 1943. (Gordon Parks)
Duke Ellington at New York’s Hurricane Club in 1943. (Gordon Parks)

Echoes of Ellington lore resound in the score: Queenie Pie scats like Ella at one point; the urbane ballad “Woman” could have been sung by Herb Jeffries. There are even some cute, custom-made Ellington commercial jingles for Queenie’s and Café’s beauty and skin-lightening products. But soon, the gaps in the score become apparent, for arranger/orchestrator Marc Bolin slipped in some Ellington evergreen tunes to fill the holes and amplify the plot. When, for example, the ladies get catty over racial matters, right on cue we hear the haunting vocalise “Creole Love Call.”   And later on, “I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart,” “Black Butterfly,” “I Like The Sunrise,” and others make cameo appearances.

When Café O’lay “accidentally” shoots her (and Queenie’s) lover Holt Faye toward the end of Act I, suddenly the piece turns into melodramatic opera for awhile; you wonder whether Ellington knew Kurt Weill’s Street Scene and conceived a similar transition. Act II finds Queenie and Café on an enchanted island – how Café got out of jail in the first place is not explained for a long time – and some brief, wild avant-garde effects and an exotic tango, “Full Moon Midnight,” turn up on the way to a not-quite-convincing reconciliation between the rival beauticians.

Queenie Pie, beautician extraordinaire, and her  happy customers.
Queenie Pie, beautician extraordinaire, and her happy customers.

As it stands in this 103-minute version – in all likelihood not the last – Queenie Pie exists in a kind of chronological and categorical no-man’s-land. It stands completely apart from the 1970s jazz scene, let alone the general cultural milieu of that time (notwithstanding librettist Betty McGettigan’s attempt to insert period clichés like “turn in, tune in, drop out” into the text). Some of it is first-rate Ellington, some of it not, but that is only to be expected from such a prolific, distracted composer. Dramatically it meanders; as an opera, it fits the billing only in fleeting spurts. In Long Beach Opera’s snazzy, jazzy, lively production, it looks and feels more like a show that could comfortably fit in on a Broadway stage of long ago.

The cast, led by the brassy Queenie Pie of Karen Marie Richardson and the sexy Café O’lay of Anna Bowen, overcame numerous microphone problems on opening night to give us some semblance of furthering the plot. The sets were colorfully lit abstract evocations of Harlem and the uncharted island, artfully executed by set designer Danila Korogodsky and lighting designer Brandon Baruch on LBO’s shoestring budget, and there was plenty of high-energy period choreography.

In Harlem shootout, Café O’lay 'accidentally' shoots Holt Faye, her lover and Queenie’s.
Café O’lay “accidentally” shoots Holt Faye, her lover and Queenie’s.

In a memoir, Peress claims that Ellington envisioned a performing apparatus consisting of his band augmented by French horns, harp, and strings. But in the Warner Grand, the pit ensemble was a duplicate of the Ellington big band – and a wailing good one, too, studded with well-known jazzers like trumpeter Bobby Rodriguez, trombonist George Bohanon, and baritone sax/clarinetist Charles Owens.

Of course, no one expected them to exactly replicate the inimitable timbres of the Duke’s collection of oddballs and mavericks; that’s impossible. Yet often, the band could evoke them with a whiff reminiscent of alto sax siren Johnny Hodges here, a clarinet solo channeling Jimmy Hamilton there, or the Sam Woodyard-like backbeat making things jump. The essence of Ellington was thankfully in the room – and ultimately, it was this band, as led by the Chicago Jazz Orchestra’s Jeffrey Lindberg, that alone made this production a must-see-and-hear for Ellington fans.

Long Beach Opera repeats Queenie Pie on Feb. 1 and 2, and then, the production travels to the Chicago Opera Theater Feb. 15, 21, 23 and Mar. 5.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide.