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Warm up at MetroStage

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Entertainment,Music,Barbara Mackay

MetroStage has the perfect antidote to freezing temperatures and icy roads: a sizzling hot show, "Ladies Swing the Blues," with book and lyrics by Thomas W. Jones II and original music by William Knowles.

Set in 1955 in a club in the mecca of jazz on New York's 52nd Street, four divas gather to celebrate the memory of one of the major stars of the jazz world: saxophonist Charlie Parker, known to his many fans as "Bird." The sign on the stage's back wall says "Birdland," the name of Parker's famous club, and the four women (Roz White, Lori Williams, Yvette Spears and Sandy Bainum) excel at evoking not just Parker's life, but the spirit of the times in which he lived.

Smoothly directed by Jones, "Ladies" begins at the end of Bird's life, when he was only 34. Bird (Anthony Manough) appears at the beginning of the piece, playing his saxophone along with a sensational band (Greg Holloway, Grant Langford, Doug Pierce and Cheyney Thomas) under the precise musical direction of William Knowles. Then he disappears to die in the arms of his mentor, Countess Rothschild (Sandy Bainum).

The remainder of the play is a collage of reminiscences, in which all the great musicians of Bird's time are mentioned. The four women take on the outlines of four of the greatest singers the world has ever known (Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Peggy Lee).

Onstage
'Ladies Swing the Blues'
» Where: MetroStage, 1201 North Royal St., Alexandria
» When: Through March 17
» Info: $25 to $55; 703-548-9089; metrostage.org

Manough wanders back to life on a nearly empty stage to weave his memories into the play, for instance, the way it felt to bury his child.

The circuitous plot of "Ladies Swing the Blues" is not its strongest point, though the show is not intended to be an exhaustive, accurate historical tale. But it has the advantage of using some of the finest music ever written by the likes of Parker, Thelonious Monk, George Shearing, Vincent Youmans, Benny Goodman and Billie Holiday. In addition, Knowles and Jones have invented a number of songs to glue the structure of "Ladies" together.

"Ladies" also has the advantage of having a marvelous collection of voices. Dressed in '50s-style outfits and dripping with rhinestones, White, Williams, Spears and Bainum deliver precious nuggets of jazz, bebop, blues and scat singing that suggest how music developed in America throughout the 20th century.

Manough's strong tenor voice is equally powerful, especially in the higher range, and Manough is more than capable of acting the many elements that apparently made up this complex and infinitely talented man: sensitivity, humor, passion and an ability to create essential emotions in the unforgettable music he played.

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