'Spotlight on Duke Ellington'

Marcella Rose Ruikas says taking on the music of Duke Ellington is not something you do lightly.

"Ohmigosh," the singer says. "It's extremely challenging. I've been working on it a couple months. Mike (musical director Vannice) has been working with me, basically taking care of me."

Ruikas will be the featured vocalist when Camelot Theatre Company presents "Spotlight on Duke Ellington — a Little Biography and a Lot of Music!" Musical direction and arrangements are by Vannice, with script and narration by Dennis Nicomede. The live combo features Don Harriss on keyboards, Vannice on tenor and alto sax, clarinet and flute, Bill Leonhart on guitar, Jim Calhoun on bass and Steve Sutfin on drums.

Born in 1899, Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington was one of America's most influential musicians. He was a gifted pianist but considered himself primarily a composer and arranger. Perhaps his real instrument was his orchestra, and he played it with unparalleled style and sophistication.

"Spotlight on Duke Ellington" comes with 22 songs, including "I Got It Bad (and That Ain't Good)," "It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," "Mood Indigo," "Satin Doll" and "Sophisticated Lady."

"Songs like 'Sophisticated Lady' are difficult," Ruikas says.

In a prolific career, Ellington performed over the years as Duke Ellington and his Kentucky Club Orchestra, his Cotton Club Orchestra and the Washingtonians. He composed film scores ("Anatomy of a Murder"), stage musicals ("Sophisticated Ladies") and orchestral works to showcase individual musicians ("Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue").

"The amazing thing is that it's so varied," Ruikas says. "Songs like the blues from 'Black, Brown and Beige' made the hair on my arms stand up. 'Come Sunday' doesn't sound like anyone else's music. He was a genius."

Ruikas collaborated with Eric McFadden in San Francisco and has been mentored by Dal Carver and current musical partner Jim Quinby, with whom she performs in the band Smoky Red. Her style has been influenced by Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae, Nina Simone and many others. She prepared for her stint with the Ellington songbook by listening to the different singers who worked with him.

"Like Betty Roche," she says. "Her timing was all over the place, wherever she felt like.

"I learn everything by ear. I basically learned to sing on stage over the last 20 years. I listen to singers and try to figure out how they shaped those sounds.

"This has stretched me."

In contrast to Ruikas, Dennis Nicomede says his role in the production — writing and narration — was a piece of cake.

"All I had to do was compile a background of his story," he says. "With a life as rich as his, that was easy."

Nicomede says there are about 10 pages of narration between all the songs.

"You're telling the story from his birth to his passing," he says.

Since moving to the Rogue Valley a little over five years ago, Nicomede has appeared at Camelot in "Fahrenheit 451," "The Dresser" and "Man of La Mancha" and with Rogue Opera in "La Boheme." He wrote and narrated Camelot's "Spotlight on Tony Bennett."

"There were two giants," he says, "Duke and Coltrane. Duke was a genius, the Bach of our era. Even though Duke was music royalty and a prolific writer, he became a very spiritual man."

Bassist Calhoun has been performing throughout Oregon and California since the late 1970s. Harriss is an internationally known recording artist and the touring keyboardist with Ronnie Hawkins and Pat Travers. Leonhart has performed at Yoshi's in the Bay Area and the Blue Note in New York City and often appears at Paschal Winery and at the Rogue Regency Hotel in Medford.

Sutfin, Camelot's resident drummer (and photographer), has been a percussionist for more than 40 years and now enjoys playing in musicals with area theater companies. Vannice has toured and recorded with Robert Cray and Lowell Fulson, played with Anthony Braxton, The Temptations and the Four Tops and has played in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival Green Show.

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