As of last Thursday night, Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies has become the best selling show in Arena Stage’s history (that’s a record-breaker over six decades of distinguished theater). It’s been extended through June 6 at the Lincoln Theatre, and rightly so. Go see it.
(I could just leave it at that, but of course I won’t!)
On my way walking the few blocks from my house to the Lincoln Theatre, I made a point of passing the house where Duke Ellington lived on 13th Street. There’s now a placard on the fence outside proudly proclaiming that fact. It gave me a bit of a thrill, walking up that street, past the Whitelaw, and then over to the storied Lincoln Theatre, thinking of the young Duke maybe doing the same. I’ve always had a crush on Ellington since I was a little girl listening to my dad’s jazz records, so I had a special feeling going to this performance – and it did not disappoint.
Glitz, glamour, class and sass. An excess of talented singers and dancers. The Duke’s scintillating music performed by a slamming onstage orchestra. And a legend of tap graciously highlighting two extraordinary newcomers. That’s what you’ll get with Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies.
I’m not sure I can emphasize enough the thrill of having a production of this caliber playing at the Lincoln in the exact neighborhood with so much of Ellington’s history. Director Charles Randolph-Wright helps firmly ground this history for those in the audience not familiar at all that Ellington is DC’s native son. It all starts off at the Lincoln Colonnade Club, which was housed at the time in the Lincoln Theatre itself, and even highlights a wildly energetic dance performance of “The Mooch” at the Jungle Inn, which was formerly Ben’s Next Door. All those ghosts of Washington history gave me the chills – in a good way.
Though there isn’t a plot per se, the production places the musical action against set/projection design by Alexander V. Nichols that helps illustrate Ellington’s journey from DC to New York City, Hollywood to life on the road. From the twenties to the present day, Reggie Ray’s glitzy costumes also tell a story through time. And of course, there’s the music. My glance at the program as the lights dimmed counted some 34 odd musical pieces – a rich sampler of some of Ellington’s best arranged by Lloyd Mayers with musical direction by Mercer Ellington. They are beautifully performed by an onstage orchestra that interacts vibrantly with the cast, especially under the direction of David Alan Bunn, who also plays piano with the mix of both gravitas, delicacy and fun necessary here.
The incredible ensemble cast of singers and dancers is extraordinary. Everyone is highlighted to the best of their abilities, and they well deserved the applause throughout. Maurice Hines helms as choreographer and his urbane presence, ever smooth, flows over you like silk velvet. Young performers take note – this is how you hold an audience in the palm of your hand. Even breaking into laughter mid-song thanks to some hysterical audience interaction, he made tap look effortless. He also knows how to be gracious to other cast members and showcase their talents – though it’s billed as “starring Maurice Hines,” at no point did I feel in the presence of a diva. He came out of retirement to reprise this role for Arena Stage, formerly performed by him on Broadway. This man is pure class.
Witness the showstopper which raised the audience to their feet in the second half (which apparently it does at every performance, and I’m not surprised) – Hines dancing with the two young brothers John and Leo Manzari. These amazingly talented teenagers are local students discovered by Hines at a master class and this is their professional debut. They are mesmerizing, with charismatic dancing that literally shook the floor. My hands hurt, I clapped for them so hard!
As if that weren’t enough there’s some exquisite singing here as well, most notably Marva Hicks and Janine DiVita, but really the entire cast is top-notch and I can’t emphasize enough that this is an ensemble choreographed and directed to showcase their best. If the production has any fault, it lies in the concept itself, which in the hands of a lesser cast would probably drag without a real plot. But here it’s well worth the risk.
You will be lulled by lovely music and energized by rousing tap until the end has you on your feet. So go ready to clap and get involved. And stroll down 13th Street humming “Mood Indigo” afterwards, waltzing with Ellington’s elegant spirit…