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When Jazz Had The Blues Theatre Review – The Era of Jazz And The Greatest Music Ever Written

By Ester Benjamin Shifren

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Playwright Carole Eglash-Kosof’s searing new musical, “When Jazz Had the Blues” centers on the life of musical genius, Billy Strayhorn, and his uneasy relationships with Lena Horne and Duke Ellington, as well as Billy’s lover, Aaron Bridgers. It was the era of jazz, big bands, and the greatest music ever written.

Set against a time of racism, homophobia, and World War II, the story follows us around Manhattan and the nightclubs of Harlem. We follow their lives through a musical songbook that sustained us during the worst of the Great Depression and the Second World War, a war in which blacks and whites served separately just as they weren’t allowed to share the same bandstand. 



The opening overture by a six-piece orchestra of fabulous musicians, ably led by Rahn Coleman on keyboard, delivers on its promise of a musical treat and feast of superb performances by the talented cast of eight actors and four member dance ensemble of “When Jazz Had the Blues.”

Billy Strayhorn (Frank Lawson) though rather self-doubting, shy, and small in stature, is a composer, jazz pianist and singer—a musical giant and prodigy—who gets his first opportunity after a meeting with already famous Duke Ellington (Boise Holmes). He accepts an invitation to visit Duke, overcomes his shyness, and sits at the piano to play “Take the ‘A’ Train,” a composition based on the travel directions jotted down by the Duke.



Duke Ellington takes Billy under his wing, fondly nicknames him “Sweet Pea,” and grabs credit for Billy’s hit songs, while setting him up in a nice home and giving him a lot of spending money. At first Billy doesn’t object to Duke’s blatant hi-jacking of his creative credits, which seems a small price to pay for a place in the musical sun. He takes the cudgels up later telling Duke,“I would like to see my name on all my work!”



Billy meets and strikes up a close relationship with Lena Horne (Michole Briana White), one of Duke Ellington’s back-up singers. She is just splendid in the role, wows in her rendition of “Stormy Weather,” followed by several fabulous hits, including “He’s Just my Bill.” She wants Billy to marry her, but though he adores her, he’s openly gay and living with Aaron Bridgers (Gilbert Glenn Brown). Lena marries Lenny Hayton (Michael Covert), while evolving to become a glamorous, classy star and civil activist.

Katherine Washington accompanied by back-up dancers Chris Smith and Darian Archie, renders a sizzling performance in “Drop me off in Harlem.” There were too many great songs and performances to list in this short review. Wonderful singing by all vocalists—Lawson, White, Brown, and Washington excel!



Kudos for great choreography by Cassie Crump for all dance performances, costume designing by Michael Mullen, the multi-functional stage so cleverly designed by Se Hyun Oh, Sound Designer Christopher Moscatiello, and to all the terrific crew and cast of “When Jazz Had The Blues.” A shout-out-loud bravo to John Henry Davis for the daunting challenge of so skillfully directing the cast in a story about the racially charged era during the 1930s and 1940s, and World War II.

Congratulations to playwright Carole Eglash-Kosoff, documentary producer and prolific author, for penning the fabulous musical, “When Jazz Had The Blues.” Don’t miss this show—it’s a real winner



“When Jazz Had The Blues”

Book by Carole Eglash-Kosoff

Musical Direction by Rahn Coleman

Choreographed by Cassie Crump

Directed by John Henry Davis

Produced by Leigh Fortier

Production Stage Manager is Debbie Blount.

Design Team Features: Set Design by Se Hyun Oh, Lighting Design by Leigh Allen, Sound Design by Christopher Moscatiello, Costume Design by Michael Mullen, Casting by Michael Donovan, CSA.

The Cast:

Frank Lawson as Billy Strayhorn

Michole Briana White as Lena Horne

Gilbert Glenn Brown as Aaron Bridger

Boise Holmes  as "The Duke"

India R. McGee as Trixie and in the ensemble;

Brad Light, Michael Covert, Katherine Washington, Chris Smith and Archie Derian.


Keyboard I, Musical Director: Rahn Coleman, Drums: Quentin Dennard,

Bass: Michael Saucier, Saxaphone, Rickey Woodard, Trumpet: Nolan Shaheed, Keyboard II: Stephan Terry


Performances begin Friday, November 18 at 8pm and run through Sunday, December 18 at the Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave. in West Hollywood.

Friday and Saturday performances are at 8:00pm; Sundays at 3:00pm. Ticket prices are $34.00 for all performances. $20.00 for Previews. Tickets are available online here or by calling 1-323-960-7776.



Published on Nov 23, 2016

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