Top Pick! – Through the end of May, it’s going to seem just like old times at U Street’s landmark Lincoln Theatre, which first opened its doors in 1922 during the peak of the District’s black cultural and entertainment renaissance, and is now hosting Arena Stage’s snazzy revival of Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies.
Starring Maurice Hines and a fabulous cast of dancers and singers, this latest incarnation of the award-winning Broadway revue highlights the life and art of internationally renowned composer and big band leader Duke Ellington. Hands down, it’s the hottest show in town.
Hyperkinetic and full of life, Arena’s Sophisticated Ladies brings back the shimmering excitement, the sheer electric energy of the big band era. It whisks us away on a magical, musical time machine, panning across Ellington’s life and music stretching from the Roaring ‘20s to the “Mod Squad” 1970s.
Rather than a traditional plot, Sophisticated Ladies gives us a slice of life, a cross-section of humanity. The show’s talented singer-actors and dancers impersonate a wide variety of character types each of whom offers a new opportunity for another musical excursion.
Aside from the great music—most of it Ellington’s—what distinguishes this show from the ordinary is the spectacular tap-dancing of Hines & Co. Now an unbelievably youthful age 66, Hines is still the best tap dancer in the business, and an awfully good vocalist as well. He’s a throwback to famous tappers from the past, including the always cool Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, whose tap numbers with little Shirley Temple are regarded as Hollywood classics; and the dapper Fred Astaire who made even the most difficult tap maneuvers look as easy as pie.
With a warm and ingratiating stage presence, Hines has the right personality for tap, too. It’s a show-off, vaudeville dance style, athletic, friendly, often punctuated by humorous bits and asides to the audience. Each solo routine usually starts with a pattern which leads through a development to a final climactic display of skill—a little like a piano concerto’s cadenza—and then a big finish. Sometimes another dancer will interrupt the scene and offer a challenge, leading to even more spectacular improvisations. Tap ensembles are usually tighter and more specifically choreographed.
Hines executed his finest tap dancing moves in the show’s second stanza where he was eventually joined by the other two great tap dancers in this show, DC’s own Manzari brothers, John and Leo. These youngsters—just 15 and 17 respectively—were electrifying, simply dynamite, displaying an almost shocking sense of poise and maturity.
Now protégés of Hines, the Manzaris might just turn out to be the Hines Brothers of their generation. Smooth, fluid, fearless, and effortlessly athletic, they ultimately outdid their mentor during Thursday evening’s performance. Hines classily danced his way offstage allowing the kids take over and blow the audience away. These tap routines alone were more than enough to justify the show’s price of admission.
While we’re on the subject of dancing, the show’s choreography by Maurice Hines, assisted by Kenneth Lee Roberson, was a huge undertaking—and in the end, a highly polished and successful one.
Of course, dancing isn’t all there is to Sophisticated Ladies. Ellington’s wondrous music, which hasn’t aged a bit, makes this show sparkle. Every musical selection is an absolute delight. The most memorable songs and dance numbers include longtime faves like Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” “I’m in a Sentimental Mood,” “Sophisticated Lady,” and “Mood Indigo,” and Billy Strayhorn’s hit, “Take the A-Train.”
Along with Maurice Hines, songs and vocals are delivered by soloist and chorus singers that know how to sell them. Notable soloists in this production include Marva Hicks, Wynona Smith, Janine DiVita, Karla Mosely, and Tony Mansker.
And in an era where some shows can seem to drag, Charles Randolph-Wright’s stage direction revealed his unerring sense of pacing during the entirety of Thursday evening’s performance. This is a show that’s always moving, never stops. There’s something interesting going on every minute and there’s never a moment where even a somnolent husband has time to get bored.
Just when you think you’ve seen it all, suddenly there’s another surprise. For example: One of the show’s more unusual numbers, “The Mooch,” comes early in the first act. Heavily emphasizing the band’s percussionist, the staging and wildly gyrating dance routines in this set imaginatively conjure up the kind of primitive, sexually titillating, faux-African jungle tableaux that drew fashionable white audiences uptown to places like the Cotton Club in the 1920s and early 1930s. Ellington wrote a number of these “exotic” scenes and often used them during his frequent appearances at the Club.
Speaking of the band, the show’s onstage jazz ensemble, led from the piano by the show’s musical director, David Alan Bunn, was crisp and spicy-hot in every number, giving this production its incredible drive and impulse.
Alexander V. Nichols’ pastel art-deco sets and vivid black and white film and still projections added class, motion, and just the right touch of authentic historical detail to the production. Additional projections on a gauzy, full-stage scrim provided minimalist but highly useful historical notes without interrupting the flow of the show. Yet another hat tip to Reggie Ray whose costume designs sported a lavish, upscale Harlem sensibility.
Problems in this production? Only one that I could see. And maybe I’m just being churlish. But bear with me.
As in most popular shows these days, the stage and the individual performers in this production were amplified, though generally within the bounds of good taste and musical sensibility. But some individual microphones cut in and out a bit. And, given the level of amplification and the lively acoustics of the Lincoln, one or more of the female soloists occasionally overtaxed the system and at least some listeners’ ears.
As a longtime opera critic, perhaps I’ve gotten a bit too accustomed to soloists who can punch an aria into the upper decks of the second balcony without any electronic assist whatsoever. But I wonder, in the popular realm, if today’s vocal talent hasn’t sacrificed some technical skill by their reliance on increasingly sophisticated sound systems and the endless belting they tend to favor over a more nuanced delivery. In the end, it’s a personal preference, I guess.
Staging Sophisticated Ladies at the Lincoln was a classy move on the part of the venerable Arena. Born in DC’s West End at the turn of the last century, Duke Ellington (1899-1974) began his storied career right here, performing at the Lincoln and other venues in and around U St before seeking his fortune in the bright lights of New York City where he founded his first band in 1923 and went on to become one of the country’s top jazz bands. Arena Stage, too, moves on from the Lincoln, concluding its away-from-home season next month in Crystal City before returning to its renovated Southwest waterfront space, to be christened the Mead Center for the Performing Arts in October.
Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies
Concept by Donald McKayle
Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright
Choreography by Maurice Hines with Kenneth Lee Roberson
Musical Direction by David Alan Bunn
Produced by Arena Stage
Reviewed by Terry Ponick
Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies plays through May 30, 2010.
Click here for Details, Directions and Tickets.
DUKE ELLINGTON’S SOPHISTICATED LADIES