We open with an infectious rendition of “Roll Jordan Roll” rousing the club like fireworks. This is one fabulous band. If they came together only for the gig, these musicians might consider repeating a clearly winning combination. Angels One and Two, author/performer Trent Armand Kendall and Natasha Yvette Williams, excavate the heart and gut of gospel.
Premise: Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) and Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996), arguably two of the most influential musicians in our American pantheon (and repeated collaborators) are wandering around Heaven with amnesia. Louis wants to see what his legacy will be, while Ella has unaddressed regrets. Both need to resolve issues before passing into the light. Angels will assume the artist’s forms. “Tonight we’re gonna do our best to offer some closure, so the souls can cross over…”
Memory comes back gradually. When the old friends meet, they don’t recognize each other. Louis is a cocky flirt. Ella backs away wary and proper. Perhaps alluding to a fugue state, he sings “St. James Infirmary” with engaging, short/long phrasing and enthusiastic stomps. She, ostensibly clinging to her Bible, offers a bouncy, resonant “I Shall Not Be Moved.” “Steppin’ Out with My Baby” and “Cheek to Cheek” follow (to show that the pair realize they’re in Heaven) as Louis comes onto her. “I ain’t lookin’ for trouble, just a friend,” he assures Ella, at last getting her to take a few turns around the celestial dance floor.
Lack of logic next presents Ella’s terrific version of a silken “Stompin’ at the Savoy” and then a duet of “I Won’t Dance.” Sometimes song choices make sense, at others they appear arbitrary. As Act II is a concert to The Almighty, numbers don’t need intros, yet the sequence could be better considered. Occasional banter is rather sweet and evocative. Exposition, on the other hand, often seems crammed in without ballast in the way of related lyrics. A librettist would help. He might at the least jettison the laxative commercial. (No kidding.)
About half way through Act I, Ella and Louis realize with whom they’re singing duets. “Louis?” “Ella?!” “Do you feel like you just woke up from a dream?” Still, she protests, “No monkey business, no jazz” in order to get into the ambrosial fields. (?!) Ella’s “Sentimental Journey” is sheer velvet. “Ba ba ba bome,” Louis comes in from a stage right stool. A well integrated parenthesis talks about life partners and her beloved mama. Next comes “Our Love is Here to Stay” and a gleeful “When You’re Smiling.” It’s a mutual admiration society.
As in actual later life, Ella no longer yearns for the spotlight, while Louis can’t get enough. She has to be talked into doing a show for “The King of Kings.” A lush, soulful “Something to Live For” embraces the audience. Williams looks into our eyes. We believe every word. It’s thrilling. “You sure know how to make an old man smile,” Louis comments speaking for the audience.
The show is overstuffed. Act II contains in part, several Cole Porter choices, some audience interaction (we scat), and cute direction on “Can’t We Be Friends.” Louis’ “The Home Fire” is lovely and mellow, almost an old fashioned soft shoe. Ella’s famous “A Tisket, A Tasket” with nifty band call-outs and a mute-horn-like “Skylark” are a pleasure. The pair remember their respective passing and are ready to move on.
Kendall is all energy. Though he moves appealingly, affects convincing period/genre gestures, and definitely sings well, anyone familiar with Armstrong would know Satchmo never acted like this. For one thing, Pops busied himself with a trumpet, minimizing the physical. That Kendall cannot – the script says Louis ruined his lip, is uncomfortable. Simply holding the instrument becomes an irritating tease after awhile. Only once does the actor mime playing – Ella pushes him into it – while to his left we watch Gabriel (the very fine Eli Asher) actually making music. (Admittedly those unacquainted with the icon will not feel cheated.)
The performer might also take it down a notch vocally. Too many of his numbers are too big. Armstrong was skillful at the unfussy and modulated with his sandpapery vocal and easy laugh. Imitating is not suggested, but channeling a bit more carefully…
Williams is marvelous. Her Ella is at first proud and decorous, then warm, but never over a ladylike line. Exuberance is visceral, Blues sound experienced. The actress puts herself into lyrics. Vocals are low or bright, sculpt octaves like ready clay, and scat with mastery. (An expertise of Ella.) Intimacy with the audience is palpable. She emulates the honoree without parroting.
The piece offers a tandem ending of “Smile”/”What a Wonderful World” and “Swing Low”/”When the Saints Go Marching In.” One or the other, please.
Both artists are talented. Though Louis and Ella has much to offer in the way of entertainment, a piece with dialogue and story has demands not met here.
Director/Choreographer Jeff Whiting uses his space well, onstage and off.
This is a good idea but, to me, only part way there.
Louis and Ella!
A new Jazzical by Trent Armand Kendall
Trent Armand Kendall and Natasha Yvette Williams
Mark Berman- MD/Piano, Eli Asher-Angel Gabriel/Trumpet, Belden Bullock-Bass,
Brian Floody-Drums, Sean Nowell-Sax
The Cutting Room
44 East 32nd Street
March 5, 2017