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Musical supervision, orchestrations, and arrangements by Joseph Joubert

Musical direction by e’Marcus Harper

At Arena Stage’s Kreeger Theater to Aug. 13

Ellington: The Life and Music of the Duke

Book by David Scully

Musical arrangements by John Engerman

Directed by David Hunter Koch

At MetroStage to Aug. 6

Like VCR/TVs and toaster oven/microwave combos, the musical revue is a dual-purpose appliance that rarely does either of its intended tasks well. (And don’t get me started on camera phones, ’cause I can cut you with this AARP card.) It’s not theater, really, as it generally lacks narrative, characters, or a sense of time or place. And if it’s music you want, why not go to a conventional concert, where you’ll likely find better acoustics and, perhaps, performers?

Over at Arena Stage, though, is a hybrid that functions quite nicely—and even has a heart. 3 Mo’ Divas comes with a title that requires some explanation. Marion J. Caffey, who presented last year’s Crowns at Arena, launched the “Mo’” concept, which the program notes describe as “a series of concerts celebrating the versatility of the classical voice,” with Three Mo’ Tenors in 2000. “Due to the extraordinary vocal demands of the production,” the program unblushingly observes, this distaff version takes the Kreeger stage with a double cast. The singers essay classical song, show tunes, jazz, soul, and gospel. Though some of the lyrics have been rewritten to personalize the show—inserting “Divas got style!” and the like—there’s too little of that nonsense for it to be distracting. Basically, you sit back, shut off the ol’ brain, and enjoy the hell out of some crackerjack performers.

Lesser revues might treat the classical passage at the beginning as the broccoli before dessert, but Caffey and company are committed to making it respectable to the cognoscenti and palatable to the rest of us. After three elegantly, if somewhat glitzily, dressed women—cast “A” on the night I attended—find their places in front of Dale F. Jordan’s Frank Lloyd Wright–inspired scrims and musical supervisor Joseph Joubert’s piano, they take turns at arias that reveal their impressive vocal training. There’s a funny bit when Gretha Boston, at the center, scowls as Jamet Pittman and N’Kenge manage to grab the limelight before her. This, and some other subtle glances and swirling choreography, tweak the idea of diva as green-eyed devil, if only to get it out of the way so the audience can get down to enjoying the three distinct voices of three decidedly sisterly artists.

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N’Kenge is the ingénue here, and she shares with Beyoncé not only a one-word name but also a predilection for rapid-fire booty-shaking that, fortunately, shows up far too late in the show to become tiresome. (She also covers “Crazy in Love,” though mostly as a duet for orchestra and butt.) A soprano with a deliciously clear, bell-like voice, she has nearly as much fun with “Minnie the Moocher” as does the audience, which she leads in the hi-de-his. The sloe-eyed Boston takes the low end; her compelling contralto suggests that she’s well-suited to the Marian Anderson production the program says she’s mounting. Local girl Pittman—she trained at Catholic University and works with the Choral Arts Society of Washington—has a range as wide as her frame is tall, plus a subtlety that makes it hard to tear your eyes away from her. These singers are backed by Joubert and his small band of strangely uncredited musicians with impeccable timing and verve.

There’s clowning aplenty, from N’Kenge’s impudent toss of an imaginary doobie into the audience after “Let the Sunshine In” to Boston’s passive-aggressive nail-buffing during “My Boyfriend’s Back.” But Boston and Pittman take on stoic dignity for the disturbing “Strange Fruit.” Mention must be made of Pittman’s beautifully controlled reading of “Your Daddy’s Son,” from Ragtime; it’s a whole play’s worth of drama in a single sad song. And Boston, who has an ability to start at what seems to be top gear until she shifts into overdrive, brings the house down at least twice: on “Downhearted Blues,” which is perfectly suited to her bitchy vibe, and a bravely drawn-out a cappella “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” which drew a lot of “Amen!”s as well as some self-conscious giggles from the crowd. I’d have preferred to hear more full-length songs, especially during a show-tune bit that went by way too quickly. And although the costumes work pretty well, why not glitz things up even more? During “It’s Raining Men,” those divas deserve some 6-inch light-up platform soles. But those are minor quibbles; Divas gives great revue.

MetroStage’s Ellington: The Life and Music of the Duke, on the other hand, is a sorry mutt indeed. Duke Ellington led an interesting life; unfortunately, you’d never know from David Scully’s grade-school lecture of a script, which is way more concerned with weary rhymin’ than with wit, energy, or even content. We get birth and death dates, and the idea that Ellington moved around a lot and changed his style to suit both himself and his audience, and that’s it. Just a few more details along the lines of the anecdote about how “Take the ‘A’ Train” almost ended up in collaborator Billy Strayhorn’s wastebasket would have been an improvement.An exploration of Ellington’s romantic life beyond a few platitudes about his infidelity and a nod to his wife via “Sophisticated Lady” wouldn’t be too much to ask, either.

Jimi Ray Malary is listed on the program as “The Duke,” but, puzzlingly, the script is all in the third person—unlike, for example, Hershey Felder’s comparatively successful George Gershwin Alone, which entertained musical-survey fans at Ford’s a few years ago. So Malary smirks and beams and trots around charmingly, talking about some guy he might well have the skill to inhabit if the script gave him more than a name and a list of musical numbers.

Malary, who that same program says has sung “in some of the leading opera houses of the world,” is gifted with the sort of baritone that rattles the soles of your shoes on the low notes but is limber enough to suggest callow emotion on the higher ones. He’s a good match for the somber grandeur of “Come Sunday,” from Ellington’s first foray into the concert hall, the suite Black, Brown and Beige. His easygoing charm is well-suited to “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” though he gets a little cutesy as things get up-tempo on, say, “Hit Me With a Hot Note and Watch Me Bounce.” But generally he seems to be working too hard at a métier that doesn’t suit him. It suits the instrumentalists, who have been seen in a number of revues at MetroStage and elsewhere: Saxophonist Ron Oshima and pianist William Knowles are particularly at ease with the demands of Ellington’s work. But the combo seems unbalanced: The drums overwhelm—perhaps Gregory Holloway needs one of those Plexiglas cases the rock stars favor, or perhaps he should be farther upstage.

In Divas’ program notes, Caffey lauds his performers for their fidelity to the genres: “[J]azz sounds like jazz and not an opera singer’s rendition of jazz.” That may be, but bombast sounds like bombast, too. And all Ellington is missing is the fat lady.CP