Two years ago, during Black History Month, Chromolume Theatre (FB) in the West Adams district presented a one-man show about Lester Young, the great Jazz musician. The wonderful performance here introduced us not only to Young and to Chromolume (where we have since subscribed), but to Leslie Jones, a very talented young man and musician. Unfortunately, the demands of facility scheduling meant that the production at the Chromolume had to close far too fast, and not everyone was able to see his great performance.
Recently, we learned that Jones was reprising his performance in a remounted production much closer to home, at the Write Act Repertory location in North Hollywood (one block up from where Vineland, Lankershim, and Camarillo meet). My wife enjoyed the first production so much she wanted to see it again, and so this afternoon we went to see it again. Unfortunately, my chronic migraines decided to make themselves known, but I was able to just listen to the story and the wonderful music.
What follows is an update of my writeup from the original production. Alas, the production pictures I have are from the Chromolume production, but the setup at WriteAct was essentially the same staging. This is a really great production, especially if you love Jazz of the Big Band Era (as we do), and love history, and love great one-man shows. This show is running open-ended on Sundays at 2pm, in repertory with two other plays by WIllard Manus, The Wicked, Wicked Mae West on Saturdays at 8pm, and Their FInest Hour: Churchill and Murrow on Fridays at 8pm.
Here’s the updated writeup on the show:
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 learned about Prez, 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.
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.
[ETA 3/5/18: The author commented with a correction: Luc Delannoy’s book on Young:”Pending approval, Lester was sent to the stockade at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. But a few days later the military authorities decided to send him to the stockade at Fort Gordon, Georgia. What happened during the ten months of incarceration he spent in Georgia will never rally be known. Lester always refused to talk about it.” So my comment above is more an error in the Internet (no big surprise there) than an error in the actual script.]
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. 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.
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.
The last aspect making the show work was the direction of Daniel Edward Keough (FB), who also did the scenic design. 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.
[Note: I had some scenic quibbles on the original production. Rereading this, I note they were all addressed.]
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. This setup was sufficiently timeless to work. Similarly, the lighting design and production support by Alonzo Tavares (FB) was simple but effective. Where were no credits for sound design. There was no credit for costumes, so I’ll just note that they effectively appeared to capture Young’s unique style. Jonathan Harrison was the stage manager. Other credits: Tamra Pica (FB) – Producer; Jonathan Harrison – Associate Producer; and John Lant – Producing Artistic Director.
Prez continues in an open-ended run at Write Act Rep on Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are available through Brown Paper TIckets.
Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music 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 currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) [the company formerly known as Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)], the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre (FB) in the West Adams district, a mini-subscription at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB), and as of Friday, Ahmanson Theatre (FB). 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.
Next weekend sees us at the LA Premiere of the musical Allegiance at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (FB) and the MRJ Man of the Year Dinner. The next weekend brings Steel Pier at the UCLA School of Television, Film, and Theatre (FB). The penultimate Friday of March was to bring Billy Porter singing Richard Rodgers at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB), but that has shifted to June and that weekend brings only the joint TBH Brotherhood/MoTAS Mens Seder. The last weekend of March is currently open.
April looks to be a busy month. It starts with Love Never Dies at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) [as an aside, there was just a great interview with Glen Slater, the lyricist of that show, on Broadway Bullet that is well worth listening to]. The second weekend brings A Man for All Seasons” at Actors Co-op (FB). The third weekend brings The Hunchback of Notre Dame at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) (nee Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)), as well as our annual visit to the Original Renaissance Faire. The last weekend of April sees us travelling for a show, as we drive up to San Jose to see friends as well as Adrift in Macao at The Tabard Theatre Company (FB).
Continuing into May and June: The first weekend in May will bring School of Rock at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), with the following weekend bringing Soft Power at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). The middle of May brings Violet at Actors Co-op (FB). The last weekend will hopefully bring a Nefesh Mountain concert at Temple Ramat Zion; the weekend itself is currently open. June — ah, June. That, my friends, is reserved for the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB), including The Story of My Life from Chromolume Theatre (FB). Additionally in June we’re seeing the postponed Billy Porter singing Richard Rodgers at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB), The Color Purple at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), and possibly Do Re Mi at MTW. The latter, however, is on a Sunday night in Long Beach, and so Fringing may win out. Currently, we’re booking all the way out in mid to late 2018!
As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-Lemons, Musicals in LA, @ This Stage, Footlights, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.