Every day, artists get bored, distracted, or die, leaving their work in a state of limbo. The world's desk drawers must sequester untold numbers of semideveloped plays, novels, paintings, and string quartets. Yet for some reason, the idea of the unfinished artwork is a source of unbridled fascination for many of us. Some of these artistic fragments are masterpieces in their own right. The two existing movements of Franz Schubert's famous 1822 Symphony No. 8 in B minor (popularly known as The Unfinished Symphony) are a case in point, as is Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. But more often than not, we're unwilling to accept unfinished works for what they are. We want completion. Luckily for humanity, there's always someone desperate for the chance to add the finishing touches to an unfinished work. But whether the results of these efforts enhance or detract from the original creator's reputation is open to debate.
The outcomes of such projects can vary wildly, as the legacy of Duke Ellington's Queenie Pie proves. By all accounts, the first production of the late jazz composer and bandleader's only — and sadly incomplete — comic opera about a Harlem beauty queen's battle to maintain her crown was a critical success. “A wonderfully vital and coherent work,” critic Robert Palmer wrote in The New York Times of the 1986 American Music Theater Festival production in Philadelphia. I wish the same could be said for Oakland Opera Theater's lovably inept new version of Queenie Pie currently receiving its inaugural run at the Oakland Metro Operahouse. Despite the creative team's painstaking attempts to make a piece of compelling theater from the existing scraps of Ellington's musical homage to Madam C.J. Walker, a Harlem cosmetician who became one of the first female millionaires, the scars show through the makeup.
Reconstructing Queenie Pie posed a considerable challenge for the creative forces behind Oakland Opera's production. If nothing else, its appearance onstage represents a triumph of will, and the collaborators deserve praise for their sheer tenacity. For starters, there was precious little source material to play with. Ellington left the opera incomplete when he died in 1974. The company had initially planned to stage a revival of the 1986 version, but an extensive search for the score and libretto, which included several days of poking through boxes in conductor Maurice Peress' garage (Peress helped Ellington prepare the original vocal score in 1972, and had worked on the music for the 1986 production) yielded nothing. So the team decided to create its own version from scratch, based on Ellington's papers culled from the archives at the Smithsonian and UC Irvine. Though the cache yielded song melodies and lyrics, there was little in the way of a piano score, and no libretto or orchestral arrangement to speak of. To complicate matters further, no one knew who owned the rights to the work. It was only after 18 months of effort that the company managed to nail down the copyright holder — which turned out to be Sony — and get permission to use Ellington's content.
Considering the odds, Queenie Pie is a remarkable achievement, at least from a musical standpoint. The Marcus Shelby Big Band attacks the score with precision and verve. We know we're in the Duke's company straight away when a delicate, sparse melody played in octaves by flute and bass in the overture gives way to a wave of swinging sound from the full rhythm section and, eventually, the horns. Spiraling trumpet and saxophone solos create contrasting moods throughout the work, and the generous use of syncopation keeps our toes tapping. It's only a shame that musical arranger Marc Bolin and wordsmith Tommy Shepherd don't spin out the musical's songs, many of which start and finish abruptly, drawing attention to the spotty nature of source material. Still, if we shut our eyes and focus on the band, we're transported back 60 years to the concert halls and jazz clubs of Ellington's heyday. It's groovy.
But this is live theater, and we're supposed to experience it with our eyes open. The interesting conceit behind this production ought to keep us sitting upright. Ellington originally composed Queenie Pie for public television, and continued to work on the score even after the telecast fell through. As such, Oakland Opera aims to reconstruct the spirit in which the work was initially conceived. Old-fashioned spoof ads for assorted beauty products pop up between scenes on television screens flanking the auditorium, and a warm-up artist whose job it is to get the “studio audience” laughing and applauding on cue launches the show. Unfortunately, the opener lacks energy, and the intermittent “commercial breaks” mainly serve to interrupt the flow of the piece rather than to enhance it. Most of the rest of the action limps along in a similarly palsied fashion despite the performers' enthusiasm. Some of the main issues include the fact that the singers can't be heard over the band and don't fully know their lines, the hard-to-follow plot, the inane rhyming couplets of the libretto, the faltering pace, and a tap-dancing routine that sounds like an elephant stampede. At least Serena Tinio and Terri Sage's thrift-store island chic costumes in the second act entertain the gaze.
A more proficiently staged production may improve my opinion of this new version of Queenie Pie. But a nonstaged performance of the Ellington and Bolin score might be even better. I'm all for pulling half-finished works out of desk drawers. But sometimes it's better to let these creative fragments remain as unfinished sentences rather than forcing them to meet an unnatural end.