This 'Pearl' is sure to please the eye -- and ear

Roz White and company reinvigorate Bailey's signature songs, style

By Celia Wren
Saturday, November 28, 2009

It's a good thing actress Roz White packs so much pizazz into her impersonation of Pearl Bailey -- otherwise she might be upstaged by her own headgear. Portraying the eponymous theater, film and nightclub entertainer in MetroStage's "Pearl Bailey . . . by Request," White initially swans onstage wearing a blue, black and silver gown, rhinestone earrings, a boa and a luxuriantly feathered ivory-colored hat. The millinery is to-die-for -- vaguely resembling an ostrich that's been tussling with a box of confectioner's sugar. But you quite forget about the chapeau once White has laid it aside and plunged into her performance.

Conceived and co-written by White (Thomas W. Jones II is co-writer and director), "Pearl Bailey" is another example of that genre often loathed by critics and apparently loved by audiences: the juke-box musical, concocted around a set of familiar songs. Fortunately, as such souped-up concerts go, "Pearl Bailey" (which premiered at MetroStage last year and was recently seen in Atlanta) is quite fetching -- not to mention blessedly short (it clocks in at a mere 80 minutes). With polished ebullience and pitch-perfect timing, D.C. native White glides through wry, sultry renditions of some of Bailey's best-known songs (including "That's Good Enough for Me" and "Takes Two to Tango"), effortlessly tossing off poised-diva witticisms. "It took about 90 minutes to get all this personality into this dress," she deadpans at one point. "You can applaud that," she informs the audience after another zinger.

MetroStage veteran William F. Hubbard serves as White's sidekick and foil, principally depicting Oran "Hot Lips" Page (a trumpet player and singer who contributed to some of Bailey's recordings). Hubbard pitches in artfully on numbers like "Baby, It's Cold Outside" and briefly even dons a brimmed bonnet to portray Bailey's mother, seen scolding the young chanteuse for failing to collect a paycheck from a foundering venue. Such narrative snippets notwithstanding, "Pearl Bailey" doesn't peddle its heroine's biography too strenuously. The emphasis is rather on conjuring up a moment brimming with the star's warm presence and stylistic panache. (Bailey, who died in 1990, numbered among her accomplishments a Tony-winning turn in "Hello, Dolly!" and roles in films like "Carmen Jones" and "St. Louis Blues.")

The onstage four-person band, led by pianist and conductor William Knowles (the show's musical director and arranger), meshes seamlessly with the singing and comedy -- drummer Greg Holloway even punctuates quips with the occasional rimshot. Shoring up the production's glamour quotient are Jessica Lee Winfield's colorful lighting and the costumes (including the elegant alabaster gown White wears for an encore) designed by Janine Sunday.

Let's hope that Sunday and her colleagues have procured a sturdy hatbox for that feathery number: After "Pearl Bailey" closes in Alexandria, it's heading to Milwaukee.

“Pearl Bailey . . . by Request Conceived by Roz White; written by White and Thomas W. Jones II; arrangements and musical direction, William Knowles; sound engineer, Steve Baena. About 80 minutes. Through Dec. 20 at MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria. For tickets, call 800-494-8497 or visit http://www.metrostage.org. For more information, call 703-548-9044.

 

 



 

Pearl Bailey…By Request

 

By Brad Hathaway

November 22, 2009

 

MetroStage brings back one of its series of musical tribute shows that attempt to give audiences the chance to come close to experiencing an evening with a famous person of the past. This is the one that, as you can tell from its title, offers a chance to find out what it might have been like attending a club date of Pearl Bailey's. Some of MetroStage's series have been more successful recreations than this one, and all have provided more serious biographical sketches of the subject in the process. But they all have been enjoyable and this one is too. Roz White does the singing and the "Pearling." She developed the story (such as it is) and concept (which didn't take much developing) and polished it up with the help of Thomas W. Jones II who gave us some of the earlier "evening with..." shows. William Hubbard returns as well, performing as the master of ceremonies and recreating some moments with Hot Lips Page. Put it all together and its a pleasant diversion for a winter's evening.

Storyline: A club-act style recreation of the songs and shtick of Pearly Mae.

Audiences came away from last year's Cookin' at the Cookery with a real sense that they'd seen Alberta Hunter. Similarly, they had a chance to experience evenings with Nat King Cole and Duke Ellington in 2006 and Mahalia Jackson in 2004. Roz White's performance as Pearl Bailey last year didn't seem to work the same magic although it certainly hinted at what a performance by her subject might have been like. She's got her Pearly Mae down more convincingly now but still surveys the bare facts of her life while delivering the big numbers from her career. She more accurately catches the aplomb with which Bailey threw off asides, a characteristic that became more and more cartoonish as she became more a parody of her own distinctive personality in her later life. Thus, over the course of fifteen songs, White gives a fair sampling of Bailey's output including the iconic "Legalize My Name" which Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer wrote for her for the 1946 Broadway hit St. Louis Woman, a sample of the raunchy side of jazz performed with Hubbard, "The Hucklebuck," a tasteful repeat of  her early hit "Tired" and, of course, the two signature songs that have served every impersonator well when trying to "do" Pearly Mae - snippets from "Hello Dolly" and of "Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey."

A strength of the evening is the work of the four piece jazz combo headed this time out by musical director and arranger William Knowles. David Cole repeats the tasty work on guitar that impressed last year and Greg Holloway is, if memory serves, even more inventive on the drums. Yusef Chisholm holds forth again on bass. Last year, White acknowledged their work but not by name, just asking the audience to applaud for "guitar man" or "piano man." Not so this year. Names accompany the credit where credit is do.

The combo and cast work on a fairly bare stage. A two-step platform on the stage gives White a pedestal on which to pose as Pearl and, later, an area for two chairs so that White and Hubbard can execute a nifty sitting tap and soft shoe routine. Steps down to the audience level on both sides of the stage let both White and Hubbard work the crowd, stirring up the enthusiasm and sharing an occasional brief dance with a patron. This year Janine Sunday gets credit for costume design and White shines first in blue and then in white that allows her smooth skin to set off her sparkling necklace with flare.

Book by Roz White and Thomas W. Jones II. Story concept by Roz White. Directed by Thomas W. Jones II. Music direction and arrangements by William Knowles. Design: Janine Sunday (costumes) Kevin Laughon (properties) Jessica Lee Winfeild (lights and stage management) Colin Hovde (photography). Cast: William Hubbard, Roz White. Musicians: Yusef Chisholm, David Cole, Greg Holloway, William Knowles.

Running time 1:15 - no intermission
A pleasant hour or so of song and skit
Price $45 - $50

 

 



 

MetroStage comes back for a second helping of 'Pearl Bailey'

 

By Barbara Mackay
November 27, 2009

 

You may have seen "Pearl Bailey ... By Request" before, when it played Alexandria's MetroStage last October.

But some musicals are like Thanksgiving dinner: So full of tempting dishes it's easy to enjoy them again and again, year in and year out.

"Pearl Bailey ... By Request" is that kind of musical, offering classic numbers that never get boring, especially when delivered by the powerful singer Roz White.

White developed the story concept for "Pearl Bailey" and wrote the book with Thomas W. Jones II, who directs the show. The majority of the musical dwells on Bailey's successes in the music world, the songs she made famous and her appointment as America's "Ambassador of Love" by President Nixon. Bailey makes some passing references to difficult social moments in her life, but they are treated as minor bumps along the way, nothing to dim the bright lights of success.

Like Bailey, White is skilled at creating a connection between herself and the audience, walking from the stage down into the audience to mingle, talk and dance. There are a few tables set up in front of the stage, so the theater feels like a club, the intimate atmosphere in which Bailey was most comfortable.

White interacts well with the dynamic four-piece band onstage, comprised of piano (William Knowles), bass (Yusef Chisholm), guitar (David B. Cole) and drums (Greg Holloway). Under Knowles' direction, the band offers jazzy new interpretations of some old favorites, including "Frankie and Johnny," "Personality" and "Legalize My Name."

William Hubbard, who plays the emcee and trumpeter Hot Lips Page, is onstage much of the time, dancing with White in Bailey's famous numbers "The Hucklebuck" and "Takes Two To Tango," and acting out the part of Bailey's husband. But the show belongs to White. Stunning first in a sapphire and rhinestone dress and then in a white gown (by Janine Sunday), White uses a few props -- a fox stole, a huge feathered hat, a champagne glass -- to create a sense of an era that will never be duplicated and a woman who will never be forgotten.

 

 

 



Request ‘Pearl’ for the holidays

 

By David Hoffman

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

 

Pearl Bailey is back -- and this Pearl sparkles in the moonlight.

"Pearl Bailey ... by Request" reconnects us with the great singer, who died in 1990 after bringing so many magical musical moments to life. And that's the magic on view again at MetroStage, where show business legend Pearl Mae Bailey is reborn and personified by the shape-shifting skills of Roz White.

White slips effortlessly from sashaying sexpot to soulful balladeer, with several forays into the audience to dance with a lucky few. Her standout performance ranges from a jazzy-bluesy feel, to swinging nightclub-style.

Shows are scheduled to through Dec. 20. This is one for the family, as well as anyone who has a love of music.

As one of Bailey's songs says, "You've got to have personality," and this show has it in abundance. Just consider the songs you'll hear channeled through White, who thought of this tribute to Bailey and cowrote it with Thomas W. Jones II. One demonstration of that personality is found in "Hello Pearly," taken from the all-black revision of "Hello Dolly" that the acclaimed songstress brought to the Broadway stage and to a Tony award in the late 1960s. Other great songs are featured, too, such as "Frankie and Johnny," "Takes Two to Tango," "That's Good Enough for Me," "Ain't She Sweet" and "Baby, It's Cold Outside."

The show ends on a triumphant note with "Won't You Come Home Bill Bailey," including a special riff on that number with her costar, William F. Hubbard. Hubbard relives his role as Bailey's emcee and sometime recording costar, Hot Lips Page, when they join together in a rib-tickling "Won't You Come Home Pearl Bailey" and segue into yet another magical duet. Hubbard stars also as the sly butt of her humor and her amiable straight man, who knows full well that the shortest and surest distance between their two points of view is the beeline for the funny bone. And to watch them together singing "Baby, It's Cold Outside" is to watch what makes birds and bees multiply -- in a sexy appeal shot through with a broad streak of self-mocking humor.

You can't see this shining "Pearl" and not grin. It's the perfect holiday tonic, at just the time when you'll need it the most, after the turkey has been devoured and family and friends have departed.