Duke Ellington's Queenie Pie is often described as an opera, yet with its zany plot and combination of spoken dialogue, musical numbers, and dance pieces it defies easy classification. Queenie Pie was unfinished when Ellington died, and the Oakland Opera Theater has taken on the task of restoring and supplementing the work. It is an ambitious project; according to the program notes, Ellington completed roughly 95% of the melodies and lyrics, 25% of a piano score, and no orchestration, leaving a great deal to be done in order to prepare the piece for a fully staged production. While the finished product is sometimes disjointed, this unique production has wonderful music and moments of great energy, and it succeeds in bringing this little-known work to a wider audience.
Queenie Pie is loosely based on the life of Madam C. J. Walker, an African American woman who became the first female self-made millionaire by developing and selling hair care and beauty products. The opera opens in Harlem, where Queenie Pie's ten-year reign as top Beautician-Cosmetologist is threatened by newcomer Café Olay. After Café Olay seduces and then kills Queenie Pie's lover, Queenie Pie leaves New York to journey to an island in search of a plant that will allow her to make the best beauty products available. There are several twists and turns along this journey including a shipwreck, a marriage with island royalty, and Queenie Pie's discovery that she can make anything she wants on the island. In the end, she must choose between the riches that she has discovered and her desire to return home to New York.
But the plot, which moves in fits and starts, isn't what gives this work its energy and appeal. Instead the opera is driven by Ellington's swinging melodies and the lively orchestration by arranger Marc Bolin, all brought beautifully to life by the Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra. Their playing is a constant pleasure, providing everything from rollicking dance numbers to scene-setting background music to impressionistic storm sounds. If at times the onstage action becomes confusing, you can always sit back and enjoy the band.
As Queenie Pie, Amanda King brings a commanding stage presence and great physical humor to the role. Her voice is expressive and it's unfortunate that the role doesn't give her more opportunities to show it off. Kathleen Antonia is a sultry and confident Café Olay. Tania Johnson gives a particularly strong performance as the singing, dancing, and narrating Lady Reporter/Observator. The male ensemble in Act II also stands out for their beautifully coordinated a cappella singing.
Ellington originally conceived of Queenie Pie in collaboration with public television station WNET in New York and it was meant to air on television. To stay true to that original intent, Oakland Opera Theater has framed the piece as if it were a live studio production, with sung "commercials" supplemented by video throughout the performance. While these interludes are well-performed by the Studio Singers, they stop the action and slow the momentum onstage. Overall the production could use tightening, with quicker transitions and fewer pauses so that the audience isn't pulled out of the story.
Ellington laid the groundwork for Queenie Pie, but for the work to be completed and performed many artists needed to collaborate on the final product. It's exciting to see a local company bringing together so many talented people on this unique and challenging project, giving audiences an opportunity to see this rarely performed work by one of the great masters of jazz.
Queenie Pie is at the Oakland Metro Operahouse through May 25, 2008. The Oakland Metro Operahouse is located at 630 3rd Street in Oakland. For tickets and more information visit oaklandopera.org.