William Thomas “Billy" Strayhorn was an American jazz composer, pianist, lyricist and arranger, best known for a nearly three decades collaboration with bandleader Duke Ellington. In this biographical musical, with numerous jazz favorites, book writer Carole Eglash-Kosoff shows us the emotional life of a true American genius. We see how, at the age of 23, he met and impressed Ellington with an impromptu backstage audition and, a few months later, was writing arrangements for Ellington's orchestra.
The author also reveals his long and close relationship with Lena Horne, who always said if he had been heterosexual she would have married him. He lived openly as a gay man, and we experience the toll his work took on the man who was the one great love in his life.
All beautifully realized by a superb cast, led by Frank Lawson as Strayhorn, Boise Holmes as Ellington, Michole Briana White as Lena Horne, and Gilbert Glenn Brown as Aaron Bridgers. Notable in multiple roles are Katherine Washington, Brad C. Light, Michael Covert, Keverlie Herron, Darian Archie, and dance captain Chris Smith.
John Henry Davis’ direction carries us smoothly through the great jazz years, showing how dynamic performances often mask haunted inner lives. Choreographer Cassie Crump and musical director Rahn Coleman almost bring down the house with the musical numbers.
Six dynamic musicians frame the action: Coleman (keyboard), Quentin Dennard (drums), Michael Saucier (bass), Rickey Woodard (awesome on saxophone), Nolan Shaheed (trumpet) and Stephan Terry (keyboard II).
At the Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave. West Hollywood, through December 18. Tickets: 323-960-7776 or www.plays411.com/jazzblues.
Photos by Ed Krieger.