If you haven’t figured it out by now, I love music. My taste is broad and varied, covering numerous genres and styles. One of the many styles I like is jazz; my tastes run from New Orleans to Swing, Fats Waller to Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. My wife is also a jazz lover; her tastes are even broader, expanding to Marsalis and Coltrane, and a lot of the modern artists. We know the Dukes. We know the Kings. When I received an announcement of Chromolume Theatre (FB)’s latest show, Prez (a special selection for Black History Month), I was intrigued. Prez was a World Premiere solo show written by playwright Willard Manus, author of “Mott the Hoople” and “Bird Lives“. The play chronicled the unique life of jazzman Lester Young, whom I had never heard of. The press release noted that Young was a unique jazzman whose deceptively simple style–laid back, low key, relaxed yet earthy and swinging–-brought him fame, first with the Count Basie Orchestra, then with the likes of Nat ‘King’ Cole, Oscar Peterson, Teddy Wilson, and his best friend and alter ego, Billie Holiday. Born in the Jim Crow south to a showbiz family, Young was a non-conformist who fought against racism and intolerance all his life, climaxed by his battle against the segregated army in WW II, an experience that affected his attitude toward life but not his playing, which never lost its creative spirit–-the very spirit of jazz. This sounded fascinating for both my wife and I, and I quickly scored some tickets. Last night we saw the show, together with a co-worker and her husband.
Coming into the show, I knew nothing about Young other than what you read above — the information that was in the press release. Coming out of the show, I wanted to learn even more about the man and his music; I certainly plan to identify at least one of Young’s albums to add to my collection. Without saying anything else, I think that’s an indicator of good theatre: it makes want want to learn more about a subject or era; it uses its story to pique curiosity and interest. The show made me realize why Lester Young is probably the most important Jazz musician you’ve never heard of.
[I’ll note that while researching this write-up, I learned there was even more about Young than was in the play. For example, it was Young who originated musical hipster jargon, such as the terms “cool” for something that was interesting, and “bread” as a reference to money. His style of jazz influenced numerous modern jazz artists and styles, including Stan Getz, Charlie Parker, and Charlie Mingus. One website noted, “Whenever you hear a sax behind a pop singer you are hearing echoes of Young’s seminal body of work accompanying Billie Holiday.”]
Manus structured the story to be a one-man show. The conceit is that Lester Young, who was nicknamed “Pres” or “Prez” (as there was already a King, a Duke, and a Lady, and Young was a favorite of the people) was being interviewed by a off-stage French journalist (whom you never hear) while in Paris in 1959 for his last concerts at “The Blue Note”. Through her questions, he tells much of his life story — his ups, his downs, his successes, and his failures. The research I did when I got home from the show demonstrated that Manus captured much of Young’s life story in the presentation, although I did find a few places where the facts on the net disagreed or omitted some of the facts in the show (for example, Manus reported that Young served his Army sentence in Georgia; most articles have him at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas). None of these changes seemed substantial.
The success (or failure) of a biographical play with the solo structure selected here — assuming the subject of the biography is interesting — depends significantly on the quality of the book, the quality of the performance, and the quality of the direction. After all, dramatized vignettes of a real story can draw upon character interplay and dialogue and can spread the weight across multiple actors. Look at the success of a Jersey Boys, or the failure of a Chaplin, as an example. In a single-person show, the words must keep and draw the attention. The actor must not only inhabit the character, but become one with the character. He (or she) must be able to make you believe you are seeing the subject of the story come to life.
So did that happen here?
Storywise, I think it did. It certainly captured and help my interest. I heard one comment that perhaps it was too wordy, but I really didn’t feel that was the case. To my eyes, there was sufficient movement, music, and characterizations of others in Young’s life to keep things interest. The story moved at a reasonable pace from Young’s days with the family band through his time with Count Basie, the Army, and the Norman Grantz JATP era to his declining days in the 1950s.
It was helped tremendously by a strong performance by Leslie A. Jones (FB) (CDBaby) as “Prez”. Jones believably portrayed the man, capturing the internal pain as well as the external character of the man. He was also strong on the musical side, handling the drums, and Tenor and Alto Saxes well during the show. He never did a complete song, but essentially did samples of styles throughout. This actually fit well with the energy that Young had at this period in his life, where disease and drinking had just sapped his youthful energy.
[I should note one interesting thing I discovered about the performer after the show: we work at the same company. We were talking to him, and I complemented him on his ability to inhabit a character — a skill I don’t have as a computer security engineer. He indicated that he understood, as he worked with engineers every day in his day job. I asked him where he worked; he indicated “Aerospace”. I asked him if he meant The Aerospace Corporation in El Segundo. He said yes, which is when I pointed out that I worked there too, as well as the co-worker we had invited to join us. So if you see this, remember that you’ve got a “security officer by day” doing this remarkable job of inhabiting a jazz musician on the weekends.]
In addition to capturing what seemed to be realistic mannerisms of the man (having never seen Young on film, I can only go with their believability in the context created for the show), he captured the look well. As I indicated earlier, when I got home I did some web searching to read up on Young. Both Young and Jones had similar facial structures, and in his pork-pie hat (another stylistic aspect that Young originated) and long black coat, he looked remarkably like the pictures of the real Young.
It really was a strong performance (and that was something I felt before I discovered he was a co-worker 🙂 )
The last aspect making the show work was the direction of Daniel Edward Keough (FB), who also did the scenic design. Modulo a couple of “nit” level quibbles, the direction was spot on. I’ve noted before that in a good production, it is difficult to separate the actor from the director — to know what aspects come from each. That was true here. The two together created believable movement and reactions, from putting on records to the addiction to absinthe, from the mannerisms of clipping on the Sax to how Jones/Young moved through the room.
[So what were my quibbles? First, Young played about 5 records on the older record player in the room, pulling them from a 1920s style record album (which was like a book) of records, as opposed to individual LPs. However, this wasn’t a player with a obvious stacker, and Young didn’t take off the old record and put it away before playing a new one. A musician such as young would most likely have done so. Secondly, there was a torchiere lamp in the rear of the room; lamps of that style weren’t around in 1959. My wife also noted that the musical cases weren’t 1959 era. As I said, minor quibbles that only an engineer would catch, and that don’t affect the show.]
Turning to the technical and creative: I’ve already noted the set, which was designed by the director. This was a simple hotel room: chair, coats hanging on hooks, a dresser with a collection of liquor, and the horns and drums. Modulo the quibbles, it was sufficiently timeless to work. Similarly, the lighting design by Lauren J. Peters (FB) was simple but effective. I noticed a few lighting changes, but generally they unobtrusively amplified the mood without being obvious. The sound design by James Esposito (FB) was more problematic, primarily because the on-stage speakers were turned up so high there was a continual amplifier hiss that was distracting. This was unnecessary; at worst, as the actor was not amplified, they could have been turned up the few times they were used to play music. Other than that, Esposito did a reasonable job of making it appear that the sound was coming from the record player. There was no credit for costumes, so I’ll just note that they effectively appeared to capture Young’s unique style. Olivia Sedoryk (FB) was the stage manager.
[ETA: One additional suggestion I forgot: During the show, loads and loads of names of Jazz musicians are mentioned. Most audience members will not be familiar with this artists. Their experience would be enhanced if the program had contained mini-reference of Jazz contemporaries of Lester Young.]
This was our first time visiting Chromolume Theatre (FB). I was pleased to read in the program that the theatre is part of a family-run minority-owned business. I’ve written before about the importance of diversity (see here and here), and I’ve felt that diversity must be on-stage, back-stage, and in the audience. Having a minority-owned theatre is a great step in ensuring that voices will be heard. I plan to keep my eyes open for more interesting productions at the Chromolume. As for this production, there is just one more weekend, and I strongly encourage you to go see it. This is a show that could succeed at the Colony or Pasadena Playhouse (quick, someone get Sheldon Epps down here before he leaves the Playhouse), so go see it at the intimate level while you can.
Prez continues at the Chromolume Theatre (FB) through February 28, 2016, with shows Friday and Saturday at 8pm, and Sunday at 2pm. Tickets are available through the Chromolume Store online, as well as through Goldstar.
Dining Notes: Before the show, we went to dinner at My Two Cents (Yelp, FB), a wonderful southern-style restaurant with horrible signage about five minutes away on Pico just W of Hauser. They are at the end of one of those corner malls, and their primary signage doesn’t have the restaurant name; look for 🍴 and ♥ (i.e., the sign has “fork” + “knife” = “heart”). What is intriguing is the large number of gluten-free items, including an incredibly rich gluten-free Mac and Cheese, gluten-free BBQ fried chicken, and “grits fries”, which are cheese grits formed into fry-shaped sticks and fried. If you’re bell pepper sensitive, be aware that their braised greens have peppers, so ask when you order.
* 🎭 🎭 🎭 *
Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I subscribe at three theatres: The Colony Theatre (FB), Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB), and I just added the Hollywood Pantages (FB). In 2015, my intimate theatre subscription was at REP East (FB), although they are reorganizing and (per the birdies) will not start 2016 shows until August. Additionally, the Colony just announced that the remainder of their season has been cancelled, so the status of that subscription is up in the air. Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.
Upcoming Shows: This evening continues the music with “String/Awakening” from Muse/ique (FB). February closes with The Band of the Royal Marines and the Pipes, Drums, and Highland Dancers of the Scots Guards at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB). March starts with “Man Covets Bird” at the 24th Street Theatre (FB) on March 6 (the day after the MRJ Man of the Year dinner). The second weekend of March recently opened up, due to the cancellation of “Another Roll of the Dice” at The Colony Theatre (FB). We’ve replaced “Dice” with another musical: “All Shook Up” at the Morgan-Wixson (FB) in Santa Monica. [This also permits me to get more music for my iPod Classic (now at 512GB) by visiting Record Surplus)] The third weekend of March takes us back to the Pasadena Playhouse (FB) on March 19 to see Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina, followed by Bach at Leipzig at The Group Rep (FB) on March 20. The last weekend of March is being held for “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) (pending Hottix). April will start with Lea Salonga at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB) on April 1 and an Elaine Boosler concert at Temple Ahavat Shalom on April 2 (this concert is open to the community; get your tickets here). April will also bring the Turtle Quintet at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB), “Children of Eden” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) , and our annual visit to the Renaissance Faire (Southern). April may also bring A Shred of Evidence at Theatre 40 (FB). As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves.