Jump for Joy | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader
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JUMP FOR JOY

Pegasus Players

Talk about your blast from the past. Jump for Joy, Pegasus Players' compilation of Duke Ellington music and dance, is a palpable labor of love (at a cost of $150,000). Pegasus has painstakingly recreated Ellington's "lost" 1941 revue of the same name. But this all-too-retro staging reveals--more than it comes close to imagining in its insufferably smug second half--just how far we haven't come.

Jump for Joy opened in Los Angeles, bearing such treasures as "I Got a Passport From Georgia and I'm Heading for the USA" and the Ellington classic "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good." It spoofed black stereotypes of the era, like those in Cabin in the Sky, as well as the white performers who exploited the stereotypes. But World War II forced the bound-for-Broadway venture to close after 12 weeks. And eight songs that Ellington and lyricist Sid Kuller created for a revival planned for 1958 but abandoned remained unpublished.

Until now. Half a century later the show that was, the show that was meant to be, and the show that might be today combine in this Jump for Joy. Many of the old songs have been rescued from oblivion by Ellington experts Andrew Homzy and Bill Berry, who laboriously restored the original orchestrations from Ellington's lead sheets (stored at the Smithsonian Institution), and by Richard Wang, a University of Illinois music professor who served as music consultant. The scholars also drew on the recollections of Ellington's colleagues as well as Ellington's scrawled notes and an audiotape of the scotched 1958 version.

For better and for worse, the man most critical to this Lazarus act has been Kuller, one of two lyricists for the original production; Ellington collaborated with the white lyricist and screenwriter until Ellington's death, in 1974. Now 80, Kuller has shaped the Pegasus revival, drawing on his evergreen memory as well as notes left by cocomposer Hal Borne (who now suffers from Alzheimer's).

Of course the proof is in the hearing. Jonathan Wilson's staging is reason to jump for joy--until the second half, which "updates" eight of the songs from 1958 with new lyrics. John Watson's terrific 15-member band perfectly cooks the jazzy, brassy big-band sound in all its glory; in the brilliant "C Jam Blues," the musicians solo superbly. (This second-act opener could have continued another hour, and no one but the janitor would have grumbled.)

Buoyed by Jeffrey Kelly's period-perfect costumes and Chris Phillips's savvy lighting, the first half faithfully reproduces the show's anti-Uncle Tom songs and skits, sassy stuff that repudiates "Stephen Foster's [rose-colored] glasses." Its highlight is Cynthia Jackson's heart-rending rediscovery of "I've Got It Bad." But the opener, "Sun-Tanned Tenth of a Nation," is a thrilling, in-your-face declaration, bursting with gospel exuberance and performed in a kind of perpetual motion.

The 50-year-old satire still carries some sting, particularly Ellis Foster's rambunctious rendering of "Passport From Georgia": today the song's fervent anti-Jim Crow sentiment seems obvious and deserved, but in 1941 it triggered the wrath of the KKK, and "Passport" was cut from the run. "Zoot Suit Sketch" hilariously sends up the fashion that had swept LA at the time, wildly padded shoulders and high suspendered pants; it's poignant to watch the zoot-suiter get rabid over something we dismiss as hopelessly dated. (If only we could see the crazes of 1991 so clearly . . . ) Stanley White plays the zoot-suiter as a bug-eyed, sidesplitting exaggeration of Fats Waller (a bit of a stereotype itself).

Less successful is "You Got to Be an Israelite to Sing a Mammy Song," a takeoff on Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor's wailing minstrel songs in blackface. In this number, which wasn't even in the 1941 version, a black janitor (a marvelously deadpanning Cliff Frazier) plaintively asks a director if he can sing a "mammy song"; after all, he's from the South, has a mammy, and has paid his dues. But "Irving Cohen," "Sammy Schwartz," and "Sol Levine" (all slyly played by Aaron Stover) get the nod. The idea is cute but would have been dated even in 1941--not even Stepin Fetchit would have wanted to earn a living then going down on one knee and singing "Swanee" to white folks. (Interestingly, its target could as easily have been Chicago's phony "minority" businesses.)

A few numbers exist for the pure pleasure of their showmanship. "Chocolate Shake" jitterbugs to a clever combination of African movements, swing rhythms, and a great tap dance by Reginald McLaughlin. The "Old Fashioned Waltz," a pretty throwback, is set to a wistful Ellington tune.

Some songs carry a hidden weight: racially specific love songs like the lilting "The Brown Skin Gal in the Calico Gown," beautifully sung by White and LaTonya Holmes, could not be stolen by white performers. Similarly specific is a charming song-scene in which a white cop (Gary Taylor) tries to bust a tavern, then discovers it's been transformed into an emergency church; he gets into the swing in short order. We can still savor the wishful thinking behind it all--a cop, no less!--and every note makes it seem very, very right.

Then comes the big spoiler. For the second half, Kuller has "updated" the 1958 songs with lyrics that supposedly address African American problems in 1991. Hell, these numbers wouldn't have been relevant to the Eisenhower era, let alone the days of Clarence Thomas.

Nothing here is even remotely as controversial as "Passport From Georgia" was in 1941. Kuller's lyrics deal with such burning black concerns as irresponsible gossip columns, pro-Southern songs, and John Sununu. "Strictly for the Tourists" sympathizes with blacks who have to cater to white prejudices by pretending to be African natives. This derivative sketch was dated in 1941: in 1927 the second act of Showboat depicted sophisticated New York blacks who, though bored out of their skulls ("Take me back to Avenue A!"), had to dutifully play Dahomey villagers at Chicago's Columbian Exposition.

No matter how persuasive Ellington's well-wrought melodies, the new lyrics consign the songs to oblivion. In "Uncle Tom's Cabin Is a Condo Now" (tell that to Cabrini-Green!) Kuller has the temerity to suggest that blacks today--symbolized by a 1991 Uncle Tom and Aunt Jemima--have got it made, and can even vote Republican! We're told that "Uncle Tom's cabin will be the White House!" (Pandering can go no further.)

Though belted with gusto by Pascale Trouillot, "Rocks in My Bed" is doomed, a paltry attempt to rival Cole Porter at his world-weariest. The cleverest of the new bunch, "Walk It Off!" dares to offer the title solution to problems like the CTA cutbacks. (A friend who had a car laughed, but I couldn't.)

The worst offender is the ghastly/peppy finale. It declares that African Americans should "jump for joy" because segregation has ended (this in the most segregated city in the country!) and because Thurgood Marshall made it to the Supreme Court (this when his legacy may be savaged by an Oreo successor!).

With wrongheaded fervor, without a hint of irony, Kuller's new songs fight yesterday's battles, combat irrelevant stereotypes, and ignore burning inequities to pretend that between Jump for Joy's first and second productions, gosh, we managed to solve our racial strife. Political only in the most glib, superficial way, these songs do more damage than if they had ignored the racial issues and aimed at an honest nostalgia.

In order to promote its chamber-of-commerce optimism, Jump for Joy misses countless deserving targets: Willie Horton-style scare tactics, lily-white golf clubs, whites who distort the concept of discrimination to create "reverse discrimination," the war on drugs that has turned entire communities into interdiction zones, the far-from-accidental fact of inferior schools for disposable children. Oh, yes, there is one daring moment: a Ku Klux Klan member tries to scare a leather-jacketed homeboy, but the kid says "Boo!" and the white sheet runs away in terror. (Try that one out in Marquette Park.)

Over the last half-century both aesthetic sophistication and social expectations have grown. Pathetically out of touch, Jump for Joy's new but unimproved songs are typical of the spinelessness of today's pop culture, where a "revolution in panty hose" is easily confused with the real thing. What's the point of updating a show that winds up less relevant to contemporary concerns than the original show was to its era?

Though other problems pale before the craven irrelevance of the for-whites-only second half, they do mar this ambitious and well-intended offering: the clumsy or obvious dances choreographed by the usually reliable Joel Hall, the performers' poor diction, a sound system that favors the band over the singers.

The good news, of course, is that Duke Ellington's jazz won't die. The original show probably didn't need updating, any more than Of Thee I Sing or I'd Rather Be Right. But it sure didn't need this insulting downgrading; a neo-minstrel show can't have been Ellington's idea of a 1991 Jump for Joy.

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