By Michael Buzzelli
When Billy Strayhorn (Darius de Haas), a poor, Black, gay man from Homewood meets his idol Duke Ellington (J.D. Mollison), his life goes from squalid to lush in “Billy Strayhorn: Something to Live For.”
P.S. All the spoilers for this show can be found on Billy Strayhorn’s Wikipedia page. Enter at your own risk.
Strayhorn’s relationship with Ellington is complicated. He is a father figure easily replacing Strayhorn’s abusive alcoholic bio dad, but Ellington takes the lion’s share of the credit for Strayhorn’s music. Ellington moves him into his Sugar Hill home with his wife and daughter (unseen) and son Mercer (Richard McBride).
His new life in New York seems far from his Pittsburgh upbringing. Strayhorn hobnobs with Lena Horne (Arielle Roberts) and Billie Holiday (Arielle Roberts in a dual role), but his life changes even more dramatically when he meets Aaron Bridgers (Charl Brown). Strayhorn and Bridgers become lovers.
In the play, we get flashbacks to his family life in Pittsburgh; his interactions with his mother Lillian (Keziah John-Paul), a brief devasting scene with his father, and a scene with his first crush, Mickey Scrima (Joseph McGranaghan) from his band days with the Mad Hatters.
Bridgers, unable to find a job in America, leaves for Paris and Strayhorn’s live implodes from the heartbreak.
His contentious relationship with Duke Ellington reaches a crescendo and Strayhorn must decide his own path.
Jukebox musicals have been around a long time, from 1942’s “Yankee Doodle Dandy” where the music of George M. Cohan is shoehorned into his autobiography. This might be the first Big Band musical, utilizing songs from the Strayhorn playlist. It’s a glorious compilation of the songwriter’s career. de Haas does a marvelous job with “Lush Life,” and Keziah John-Paul’s “Take the A Train” is a wonder, even capturing the personality of Ivie Anderson, winking at the bad and scatting to, literally and figuratively, beat the band.
The whole cast is flawless. The singing, dancing and acting is pure perfection.
de Haas masterfully plays Strayhorn.
Mollison’s Ellington is a charming enough to be dangerous. He’s a likable protagonist and Brown is an affable love interest.
John-Paul is charismatic as Ivie Anderson. She is exuberant, joyous. Every moment she’s on stage is a pleasure.
Interstitial dance breaks preformed by Taylor C. Collier and Tracy Anthony Dunbar act as transitions between the scenes. They are gorgeously choreographed by Dell Howlett.
There is excellent projection work in the show by Shawn Duan.
Warning: There are some trigger words bandied about, racist and homophobic slurs.
Kent Gash and Rob Zellers do an amazing job with brining Billy Strayhorn’s story to life. There is an inherent problem in all biographical stories. All biographers struggle with what to leave in and what to take out. There seems to be a superfluous scene with Billie Holiday (Arielle Roberts nailing the Holiday’s bluesy vocal style) that doesn’t forward the story as much as it should.
“Billy Strayhorn: Something to Live For” will need some trimming before it goes to Broadway, but it will most assuredly go to Broadway. See it now while it’s here in Strayhorn’s hometown.
“Billy Strayhorn: Something to Live For” runs until October 11 at the Pittsburgh Public Theater’s O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15222. For more information, click here.