Denver legend has it that the great Billy Eckstine performed in several Five Points jazz clubs of yesteryear, bringing his silky-smooth baritone to such venues as the Rainbow Ballroom and the Rossonian. Piqued by the opportunity to make a local connection to Eckstine's music, members of Denver's Shadow Theatre Company are currently performing In Search of Eckstine: A Love Story, an original play with music written by company members Hugo Jon Sayles (who also directs) and Jeffrey W. Nickelson. The 130-minute play features several beautifully sung Eckstine-inspired ballads, which provide an appealing framework to an otherwise unremarkable love story.
The play is set in the Green Dolphin Street Club, a Fifties watering hole that features cheap art-deco furnishings and a fishnet adorned with a green porpoise. It begins with a hobo (Nickelson) begging for money from the audience. The coughing and wheezing tramp fails in his procurement efforts until his salvation appears in the form of The Magic (Daniel Horsey). Costumed in the basic-black garb of a street performer, The Magic promises the down-and-outer that his fondest wish in life might be attained simply by flipping three magical coins. Naturally, the hobo wants nothing more than to inhabit a life similar to that of Billy Eckstine's. And so, at the flip of the third coin, the shabbily dressed derelict is transformed into the nattily clad crooner Tristan Williams (also played by Nickelson), who, we are told, once heard Eckstine perform in Five Points and has been imitating the legend's sound ever since.
We're quickly introduced to the denizens of the Green Dolphin: club owner Quentin Harrington (Vincent C. Robinson); his wife, Misty (Rhonda Jackson); French-accented singer and dancer Nia Forche (Debbie J. Lee); a waitress with an Arkansas twang named Johnnie Mae (Janice Guy-Sayles); and a barkeep/ bouncer, Mr. Kylie (David Pinckney). Trouble is, the new Tristan has difficulty recognizing the old Tristan's friends and co-workers because, unbeknownst to any of them, he remains a bum in lounge singer's clothing--a humorous predicament that director Sayles fails to exploit to its fullest comic effect.
As the play plods on, Tristan learns that the unhappily married Misty harbors romantic feelings for him. After initially rebuffing her overtures, though, he realizes that Misty is the one true love of his life--much to the chagrin of Quentin, who happens to be Tristan's best friend. Each of the characters overcomes several predictable obstacles in the second act to finish the play on a happy note.
Nickelson gives a bravura performance as Tristan, standing behind a vintage Fifties microphone to deliver masterful renditions of several romantic ballads. A couple of the tunes are old favorites ("Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" and "Misty"), but what's remarkable about this show are Nickelson's superb renditions of several less-familiar refrains. As he seductively sings "My heart is sad and lonely/For you I cry, for you dear only," it's enough to melt even the coldest of hearts.
Apart from the show's abundant musical allure, however, much of this production falls on deaf ears. Virtually all of the scripted dialogue is poorly constructed, and the sluggish plot development doesn't help matters much: It isn't until 45 minutes into the play that we learn about Misty and Tristan's supposedly intense romantic interludes, and a full ninety minutes pass before we discover the depth and nature of Tristan and Quentin's friendship.
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Proper treatment of this rich material could lead a local theater company to unparalleled heights. It's a wonder, for example, that Sayles and Nickelson don't take full advantage of the historical treasure trove still waiting to be discovered in their own backyard. Surely there are more than a few residents of Five Points who would be eager to share their memories of the old neighborhood. Why not propel the play with dramatized versions of their actual stories instead of relying on this mishmash of a love story to hold our interest?
As it is, the production offers little more to theater-goers than an impetus to discover more about Billy Eckstine, which we can more easily achieve by staying at home with a few of his CDs. Except for Nickelson's wonderfully crafted performance, In Search of Eckstine, so rich in possibilities and potential, hasn't made it very far out of Five Points.
In Search of Eckstine: A Love Story, through March 21 at the Ralph Waldo Emerson Center, 1420 Ogden Street, 322-2695.