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The Big Blind, Kurt Elling’s wildly ambitious “live radio drama,” received its premiere performances March 1-2, in front of packed audiences at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater. Elling first conceived this star-studded play-with-music some 15 years ago, basing it on The Joker Is Wild. That 1957 film told the true-life story of singer Joe E. Lewis, whose attempt to leave his employ at the Green Mill nightclub in 1927 led the club’s owner to order the singer’s throat cut. Left for dead, Lewis recovered and became a comedian associated with the Rat Pack. Not coincidentally, the movie about his life starred Frank Sinatra.
On stage and off, Elling has long emphasized his roots in Chicago, and especially the years spent honing his music each week at the Green Mill (still in its original location). Lewis’ story hooked Elling since the first time he heard it. Although Elling used The Joker Is Wild for inspiration, he has made considerable changes to the plot. He moved the main action from the 1930s to the 1950s; altered the details of a central love triangle; and most important, takes the knife from the nightclub owner’s goons and gives it to Lewis’ manager, who attacks him in a fit of professional and personal jealousy. He further contextualized the piece by framing it as a radio drama: no scenery, actors reading from scripts, an announcer/Foley artist behind a table full of sound-effects gadgetry, and an onstage (“in-studio”) orchestra.
That orchestra — drummer Ulysses Owens Jr.’s consistently brilliant New Century Big Band, augmented by a 10-piece string section and guest solos from tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander — deserves notice. So do the arrangements by longtime Elling collaborator Guy Barker, whose overture conveyed traditional curtain-raising excitement while avoiding all the normal musical-theater clichés. With the script and new songs co-composed by Elling and Grammy-winning songwriter Phil Galdston, The Big Blind also boasted direction by Steppenwolf Theater co-founder Terry Kinney. Elling shone in the rangy title role, sharing the stage with veteran actor-singer Ben Vereen, vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater and exciting young actress-singer Allison Semmes.
With all that pedigree, the production promised much. It delivered some. There’s a well-wrought and quite affecting musical play in there; you could see it breaking through the clutter of overlong scenes, clunky blocking on a crowded stage, some questionable casting, and unsharpened line readings that fluttered where they should have snapped. In other words, The Big Blind needs the normal pruning and shaping that takes place at the very beginning of any theater piece, usually in out-of-town tryouts. This production didn’t have the benefit of those. What we saw was the play in its infancy, with the attendant missteps but grand potential. —Neil Tesser
Photos by Lawrence Sumulong.