“It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing”…. So goes one of the legendary songwriter Duke Ellington’s most famous tunes. And, indeed, the musical theatre revue of his most celebrated music, Sophisticated Ladies, which just enjoyed a run at the Fulton Theatre in Lancaster, PA, and opens at Maine State Music Theatre in Brunswick, ME, on June 5, not only has an abundance of swing, but serves up rhythm and blues, jazz, classics of the American Songbook, all accompanied by a glorious big-band sound and breathtaking choreography that combines for an unforgettable theatrical experience. The show, originally conceived by Donald McKayle with musical arrangements by Lloyd Mayers and Malcolm Dodds, is given a glorious new co-production that is an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza
of splendid entertainment. And it proves to be the perfection celebratory tribute to its inspiration, the legendary composer, jazz musician, and bandleader Duke Ellington, whose 120th birthday would have been April 29th.
Edward Kennedy Ellington was born in Washington D.C. in 1899 and acquired the nickname of “Duke” because of his cultivated manners and bearing. He began playing piano as a child, and by the time he was seventeen, he was performing professionally throughout the D.C. area. It was at this time that he began to compose, and in 1923 he moved to New York City, where he formed his own band, the Washingtonians. By 1927 he had made a name for himself in New York as well and was hired to play at Harlem’s famous Cotton Club. This engagement helped establish his reputation and won for him recording contracts and radio exposure. In 1931 Ellington and his fifteen-person orchestra toured Europe, the first of many such extended engagement around the globe throughout his career.
As interest in the big-band sound waned in the 1940s and 1950s Ellington pursued other composing projects, including longer orchestral compositions, film scores and musical comedies. In 1956 he gave a triumphant performance at the Newport Jazz Festival that revived his career. From then until his death from lung cancer in 1974, Duke Ellington was acclaimed as one of the most important voices in American music and received many honors including the National Institute of Arts and Letters Medal, a Pulitzer Prize nomination, and the Medal of Freedom.
The author of over two thousand songs, Ellington helped create many of the classics that ultimately became the foundation of the Great American Songbook. Commonly considered a pioneer of jazz and an icon of the big-band era, Ellington’s music and sound were unique in their fusion of approaches and elements. While most big bands sought a unified sound from their players, Ellington, building on his jazz roots, preferred to work with gifted individuals whose voices played against each other underscoring dissonances and an improvisational feel. Among the greats who played with Ellington were Jimmy Blanton, Johnny Hedges, Cootie Williams, and Billy Strayhorn with whom he collaborated from 1939 onward as an arranger/composer and sometime pianist.
Ellington’s versatility as a composer is showcased in Sophisticated Ladies, which features many of his most memorable songs, as well as large portions of orchestral music served up as overture and entr’acte and as dance suites. There is no book – with the exception of a few brief remarks by one of the lead singers who hosts the evening. Rather, the mood, milieu, and storyline are all shaped though music, song, and dance. The thrust of Sophisticated Ladies is lyrical rather than narrative, and yet, by the end of the evening, one feels he/she has made the journey through the stages of Ellington’s artistic career and explored the many voices that defined American music in those decades.
Directed by Marc Robin, this revival Sophisticated Ladies employs three of today’s most fabled choreographers, Kenny Ingram, Robin himself, and Mark Stuart (with assistant Jaime Verazin), each of whom contributes a special expertise and style. The resulting work is a dazzling, rapid-fire series of intricate song and dance numbers using tap, jazz, ballet, and modern, and often combining and crossing lines among the styles. Robin, Ingram, and Stuart all know how to tell a story and to create character in dance and song, using seven thematic sections that each have an unspoken narrative which draws the audience into the world of the 1930s from the Cotton Club to the streets of Harlem to the glittering supper clubs.
The choreography is breathtaking. Robin’s directorial decision to stage the show using three different choreographers is brilliant and allows for some truly innovative collaboration. Robin, himself, is among other things, a master of tap; Ingram of Lion King, Ragtime, and Showboat fame, trained with Fosse as did Robin, and he brings a keen eye for the jazz and the African-American vocabulary in dance, while Mark Stuart is well-known for his modern, balletic approach that incorporates Latin and other multicultural elements. Together, these three create more than thirty dance sequences that keep the audience visually dazzled with their variety, their intricacy, and serve up some surprising combinations of styles within a single number.
E. Faye Butler | Felicia P.Fields
Sophisticated Ladies uses three lead singers, a dynamite ensemble of ten dancer-singers, each of whom gets individual moments to shine, and an eleven-piece orchestra, led by A. Scott Williams, who performs on stage with the cast. Jim Hogan serves as the evening’s host and delivers such show stoppers as “Duke’s Place,” “Something to Live For,” and “Sophisticated Lady.” Legendary Chicago divas E. Faye Butler and Felicia P. Fields bring vocal heft and charisma to immortal songs such as “In a Sentimental Mood” and “Take the A Train,” “Don’t Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me,” and “I’m Beginning to See the Light. And they join forces in a stunning duet, “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good/Mood Indigo.”
The ten-person ensemble performs with high-octane energy, delivering everything from fireworks to sultry lyricism and sentimental moods. Carissa Gaughran is showcased in several spotlight moments including a beautiful vocal rendition of “In My Solitude,” accompanied by Janay├ę McAlpine’s expressive dance solo. Jessica A. Lawyer lights up the stage in sequences like “Music Is a Woman.” Shari Williams headlines the “Harlem Suite” and is the glamorous sophisticated lady of the final sequence. Allie Pizzo and Greer Gisy both demonstrate their virtuoso tap skills. The male ensemble is equally stunning with Neville Braithwaithe, Louis James Jackson, Tyler Johnson-Campion, Connor Schwantes, and Jake Corcoran performing intricate combinations with mind-blowing ease and demonstrating an athleticism, lithe fluidity, and infectious charm in every number.
And if the sensational performance values are not enough to satisfy any audience’s desire for thrilling virtuoso entertainment, the production’s visual ones complete the package. Charles S. Kading’s art deco set complete with a tiered bandstand that moves forward and recedes depending on the number, while Jesse Klug’s lighting design bathes the stage in pastels and sultry saturated hues that change the mood effectively. Shannon Slaton creates a sound design that is faithful to Duke Ellington’s ethos, and Katelin Walsko supplies the elegant props. But perhaps in the design department, it is Jeff Hendry with his lavish costumes that seems to headline the roster. Creating several hundred outfits, one more glamorous than the next, Hendry not only brings to life a bygone era, but he visually defines the meaning of the show’s title.
In the penultimate number, “Sophisticated Lady,” there is an iconic moment when Shari Williams turns her back to the audience and cigarette holder raising in left hand poses before the band in a gold lam├ę, fur trimmed coat, white satin gown with a train, and glittering turban. It is an image that recalls the elegance of Ert├ę.
Sophisticated Ladies alternates such moments of lyrical grace with visceral high energy in a heady, intoxicating mix. The show combines the aural, visual, and kinetic into an unforgettable theatrical experience that pays tribute to the immortal genius of Duke Ellington.
Production photos courtesy of the Fulton Theatre (Kinectiv, photographer) and MSMT
Sophisticated Ladies played at the Fulton Theatre in Lancaster, PA from May 2 – May 25 and will then play at Maine State Music Theatre from June 5-22, 2019. For information on the MSMT production: