We Love Arts: Sophisticated Ladies

Wynnona Smith, Janine DiVita, Maurice Hines, Marva Hicks and Karla Mosley in the Arena Stage production of Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies (Photo by Scott Suchman)

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.

Janine DiVita, Tony Mansker, (l-r)Hollie E. Wright, Kristyn Pope, DeMoya Watson, Sabra Lewis, Leo Manzari, Sam Cahn, Richard Riaz Yoder and Keith Lamelle Thomas in the Arena Stage production of Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies (Photo by Scott Suchman)

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!

John Manzari and Leo Manzari in the Arena Stage production of Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies (Photo by Scott Suchman)

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…

Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies
Now extended through June 6
Arena Stage at the Lincoln Theatre
1215 U Street NW
Washington, DC 20009
Tickets 202.488.3300 or online

As one of the founding editors of We Love DC, Jenn’s passions are theater and cocktails. After two decades in the city, she’s loved every quirky, mundane, elegant, rude minute of her DC life. A proud advocate for DC’s talented drinks scene, she’s judged the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s ARTINI contest, the DC Rickey Month contest, the Jefferson Hotel’s Quill Cocktail competition, and is a founding member of LUPEC DC. A graduate of Catholic University’s drama program, she toured the country as a member of National Players, and has been both an actor and a costume designer before jumping the aisle to theater criticism. Writing for We Love DC restored her happiness after a life-threatening illness, and she’s grateful to you, dear readers. Send your suggestions to jenn (at) welovedc (dot) com and follow her on Twitter.

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4 thoughts on “We Love Arts: Sophisticated Ladies

  1. “And stroll down 13th Street humming “Mood Indigo” afterwards, waltzing with Ellington’s elegant spirit…”

    …I teared up when I read that.

    As a lover of all things Jazz History related, bravo.

  2. Aw, thanks Rachel! Really extraordinary to see that show in that space in that ‘hood. I love when history weaves in and out of the present. Add music and it’s magical.

  3. How was the sound design? I went last month and the orchestra sounded great, but the singers’ vocals were muddy and weak (although their voices seemed good). Appeared they were having issues with the sound system.

  4. Hard to tell, Kevin. Most of the singer’s vocals sounded very strong to me. Hines and one other male singer seemed a bit muddy on a few songs but strong on others. Not sure if that’s the sound system or where I was sitting, in an extreme side box.