Queenie Pie

Los Angeles Review by Willard Manus

I've always loved Duke Ellington's music, which is why I looked forward to attending the only opera he ever composed, QUEENIE PIE. Recently produced by Long Beach Opera in a southern California premiere at the Warner Grand Theatre, San Pedro, QUEENIE PIE dates back to 1962, when Ellington got a commission from a New York television station to create an hour-long opera. Ellington asked his assistant Betty McGettigan to come up with a libretto. She took as her subject C.J. Walker, the African-American woman who became wealthy by selling her beauty products door-to-door.

Ellington wrote snatches of music and lyrics over the next ten years, but by the time he had cobbled together a first draft, the TV station lost its funding and the project was aborted. Ellington didn't quit on QUEENIE PIE, though. He continued to work on an expanded version of the opera until his death in 1974. After that much of the score was lost, but parts were later retrieved and served as the basis for productions in Washington DC, Austin, and Oakland.

Long Beach Opera's version of QUEENIE PIE was further rewritten by the arranger Marc Bolin and director/choreographer Ken Roht. The result of all this tinkering and retouching was not a thing of beauty. There are bursts of dynamic music in QUEENIE PIE and a few catchy songs as well, but most of the time the opera staggered aound on wobbly legs like a punchdrunk boxer.

QUEENIE PIE shouldn't even be called an opera. It is much closer in spirit and style to a nightclub revue. Ellington and McGettigan never go deep into character, never write truly meaningful and moving arias (except possibly for one called "Full Moon at Midnight"). They skim the surface rather than plumbing the depths, substituting showbiz shtick and lame jokes for fresh humor and satire.

The central conflict is between Queenie Pie (the C.J. Walker character) and the contender for her sway over the beauty products world, Cafe O'Lay, a Creole beauty from New Orleans. Issues and prejudices associated with skin tones in the African-American community are explored in Act One, with a love triangle exacerbating the competition between Queenie and Cafe O'Lay (sung and acted valiantly by Karen Marie Richardson and Anna Bowen, respectively).

It's a pity QUEENIE PIE didn't settle for its original one-hour length, which ended when Cafe O'Lay attempts to shoot Queenie but misses and kills her lover Holt Faye (the charismatic Keithon Gipson) instead. The expanded second act is set on a Caribbean island where Queenie journeys to find a magical plant with the powers of "everlasting anythingness." There she cavorts with a bunch of grinning, mugging, badly costumed "natives" right out of a 19th century coon show. The result was something far beyond awful.

That's when I decided to close my eyes and concentrate solely on Ellington's music. Delivered by a 17-piece band led by Jeffrey Lindberg, it managed to swing at times, only to be dragged down by the opera's leaden, implausible libretto.

On March 16 & 22, LBO will mount a production of THE DEATH OF KLINGHOFFER by John Adams. Terrence Theater, Long Beach. Call 562-432-5934 or visit lbopera.org