Arlington Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee. Their voices defined the history of jazz alongside the likes of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. But it is the indomitable influence of Charlie “Bird” Parker that sets the stage for “Ladies Swing the Blues: A Jazz Fable,” now playing at MetroStage.
Set in 1955 at New York City’s famed Birdland jazz club, “Ladies Swing the Blues” imagines the backstage stories of Parker’s life as told through a vocal tapestry woven together by the voices of Ella, Sassy, Lady and Lee on the night following the untimely death of Parker at the age of 34.
“It was an electrifying evening,” said vice Mayor Allison Silberberg following the Jan. 24 performance. “The stories embedded in the music were captivating and the talent in the show was phenomenal.”
Making its world premiere at MetroStage, “Ladies” is an original musical with book and lyrics by Thomas W. Jones II and music by William Knowles. Under the direction of Jones, the incomparable talents of the cast soar to the sounds of the on-stage jazz ensemble.
Anthony Manough is Bird, the tragic Charlie Parker, whose life is seen in flashbacks told by Ella (Lori Williams), Sassy (Yvette Spears), Lady (Roz White) and Lee (Sandy Bainum).
Manough’s silken tenor vocals are especially sublime in the upper octaves, while the incredibly gifted Williams, Spears, White and Bainum put on a powerful display of vocal flexibility and dexterity that repeatedly brings the audience to its feet.
A Helen Hayes award-winning composer and musical director, Knowles (on piano) reshapes familiar melodies like “Fever,” “’Round Midnight,” and “Billie’s Blues” with unexpected notes and arrangements that showcase the talents of Grant Langford (alto sax), Doug Pierce (trumpet), Cheyney Thomas (bass) and Greg Holloway (drums).
The 25-song pulsating score is augmented with original tunes by Knowles, including “Bye, Bye Baby Girl,” a poignant duet sung by Bainum and Manough following the death of Parker’s 2-year-old daughter.
Filled with music that will seduce and move generations to come, “Ladies Swing the Blues” is a tour de force production for MetroStage and Artistic Director Carolyn Griffin.
“I am so excited to be doing this show in this space,” said Griffin of the converted lumber warehouse in North Old Town. “You can feel the music … you can touch it here. Birdland has nothing on us.”