Duke Ellington's Sophisticated Ladies
Also see Susan's review of The Liar
With its production of Duke Ellington's Sophisticated Ladies at the Lincoln Theatre in Washington, DC, Arena Stage brings the Duke back to U Street, the "Black Broadway" of his hometown, with a jolt of sheer electricity. It's as dazzling a song and dance experience as one will find on a Washington area stage this springdue in large part to one old trouper, Maurice Hines, and two astonishing youngsters, John and Leo Manzari. But more about them later.
Cast of Sophisticated Ladies
Hines, who choreographed the production in addition to starring, has history with Sophisticated Ladies: he succeeded his late brother Gregory in the Broadway premiere of this show in the early 1980s. Yes, almost 30 years have passed, but this performance proves that he still has some sleek and flashy moves, not to mention the good sense to surround himself with a top-notch cast of 14 "sophisticated ladies and gentlemen."
Director Charles Randolph-Wright provides the style and breathless pacing as he lays out Ellington's hits on a timeline: beginning in the 1920s in nightclubs on that very same block of U Street, then on to Harlem, then across the country and the world as the decades pass, ultimately returning home to discover new talentand that's where the Manzari brothers come in. Hines met John, age 17, and Leo, 15, when he conducted a master class last fall, and they show extraordinary skill and stamina in their extended, intense tap duet. (They fully deserved the mid-performance standing ovation they received on opening night.)
But enough about the stars. This cast has no weak links, and the standouts may be the rich voice of Marva Hicks and the smooth sound of Karla Mosley; the charisma of Janine DiVita; the way that Tony Mansker can shift from goofy to disciplined in a single step; and the radiant presence of Wynonna Smith, who also appeared in the original Broadway production. David Alan Bunn conducts the swinging orchestra, which sits on an Art Deco bandstand throughout the show.
The production is also a visual knockout, thanks to Reggie Ray's vivid costume designs and Alexander V. Nichols' use of archival photos and film in his projections. Greg Bazemore deserves special note for his impressive hair and wig designs.
Of course, everything else is merely frosting on the cake of Ellington's timeless songs. "It Don't Mean a Thing if It Ain't Got That Swing," "Hit Me with a Hot Note and Watch Me Bounce," "Take the 'A' Train," "Solitude," "Satin Doll," "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good," "Mood Indigo"they're all here.