Dizzy Gillespie brought to life in new show

Posted: April 05, 2013

BEBOP, the jazz subgenre that replaced the elegant melodies of big-band music with more angular and cacophonous motifs, didn't really gain a foothold until after World War II. But its roots date back almost a decade before. And some of those roots grew smack-dab in the heart of Center City.

That's the inspiration behind "Last Call at the Downbeat," which, this weekend and next, has its world premiere at Society Hill Playhouse as part of the monthlong Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts.

While a number of musicians played a role in the evolution of bebop (the name is an onomatopoeia representing the flatted fifth note that is at the music's core), few, if any, were more important than the late John "Dizzy" Gillespie (1917-1993), the groundbreaking trumpeter from South Carolina whose formative years were spent in Philly. It is he who anchors the one-man (sort-of) play created by longtime local jazz musician Suzanne Cloud.

"The show is set in November 1941, at a club in Philadelphia called The Downbeat that was at 11th and Ludlow," explained Cloud, adding that the story fits right in with PIFA's "time machine" theme.

"That was the place to go for musicians playing at the Earle theater, which was right around the corner, at 11th and Market. It was also the place for early beboppers before bebop was really known."

According to Cloud, Gillespie wound up playing for about two months at the long-gone nightclub, following his dismissal from Lucky Millinder's big band, which was performing at the Earle. "He got the gig at the Downbeat because he knew the people there," she said. "It gave him the opportunity to work with a small band.

"The 'young guns' who came out of the big-band tradition were looking to experiment with small groups. The younger musicians wanted to work in small groups, which is where bebop grew out of."

"Last Call," which utilizes archival photos on video screens, isn't a traditional one-man program. While actor Erin Fleming portrays Gillespie, and handles all of the show's spoken-word tasks, there will be a second, nonverbal "Dizzy" onstage in the person of trumpet whiz Duane Eubanks (of the musical Philly family).

"The way I've structured it, the actor is Dizzy Gillespie," said Cloud. "Duane is the 'spirit' of Dizzy Gillespie. It's almost impossible to find an African-American actor who can play trumpet with that kind of skill.

"Erin's going to be reacting with the trio like it's his trio. Stylistically, it works really well."

Following both Saturday performances, there will be "talk-back" sessions with 93-year-old Charlie Rice, a drummer who is the last living member of the Downbeat's house band.

Society Hill Playhouse, 507 S. 8th St., 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday, April 12 and 13, $25, pifa.org/events/6.

Tough 'Act' to follow

 We thought "The Addams Family" was the height of tuneful goofiness as far as touring Broadway musicals go this season. We were wrong.

That honor belongs to "Sister Act," the rollicking piece of absurdity that runs through Sunday at the Academy of Music.

Inspired by the 1992 hit film of the same name that catapulted Whoopi Goldberg to mainstream stardom, the stage version conjured by the composing team of Alan Menken (music) and Glenn Slater (lyrics), and authors Cheri and Bill Steinkellner and Douglas Carter Beane is so out-there, it makes its celluloid precursor look like something by Tennessee Williams or Henrik Ibsen.

The stage version hews to the movie's basic outline: A sweet 'n' sassy aspiring singer hides out in a convent after witnessing her gangster lover commit a murder. But there are major differences: most notably, the setting and time have been changed from San Francisco in the early 1990s to Philadelphia at the late-'70s height of disco.

The differences allow for a smattering of meaningful-only-in-Philly references, including Wawa stores, Germantown, the late John Cardinal Krol and the Cherry Hill-based daily the Courier-Post. They also provide the excuse for the music by Broadway and Hollywood heavyweight Menken ("Little Shop of Horrors," "The Little Mermaid") to pay homage to the dance music that swamped the pop culture of the day - especially that which emanated from Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff's South Broad Street-based Philadelphia International Records empire.

What ensues is nonstop music and mirth delivered by a superb cast led by West Oak Lane native Ta'Rea Campbell, whose atomic-powered turn as on-the-lam Deloris Van Cartier marks her as a top-shelf talent. Campbell doesn't merely carry the show, she balls it up and sticks it in her pocket as she rips and romps through the catchy tunes and snappy patter that fill the proceedings.

Despite its plot and stage-full of nuns, "Sister Act" is an ecumenical joy.

Academy of Music, Broad and Locust streets, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, $115-$25, 215-893-1999, kimmelcenter.org.

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