When Arena Stage announced Sophisticated Ladies this season, I have to admit that I was somewhat apprehensive, especially in the light of last season’s disasterous I Love a Piano. After all, both are plotless revues centering on the work of a specific songwriter (Duke Ellington and Irving Berlin respectively). It remains the fascinating mystery of the alchemy of the theater why Sophisticated Ladies works so well compared to the nearly unendurable I Love a Piano.
Of course, talent has a lot to do with it. Sophisticated Ladies is helmed by the veteran song-and-dance man Maurice Hines functioning both as star and choreographer. The always-superb Marva Hicks is the lead vocalist and Wynonna Smith who appeared in the original Broadway company of the show, appears in the lead danseuse role. The show also features teenage DC tap phenoms Leo and John Manzari as well as a terrific array of singers and dancers.
I also realized what a smart/lovely/appropriate tribute this is, for Arena Stage to be doing a Duke Ellington musical as its last Arena-Stage-in-Exile production being presented at the Lincoln Theater before returning to its new Soutwest DC quarters. Since the Lincoln Theater was part of DC’s “Black Broadway” where Ellington started his career, it was a special thrill to hear this material performed in this venue.
Moreover, Arena is saying goodbye with an opulent production. Although the set itself is merely serviceable, it is decorated with an 11-piece big band. Each number has its own eye-popping costumes thought-through with changes of wigs and shoes. And the combiantion of star, featured dancers, featared singers, and chorus feels luxurious in these theatrically auster times.
The show reminded me of the quality of the Duke Ellington Songbook that often slips past my radar. While Ellington’s swingier numbers such as Take the A Train, It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing, and I’m Beginning to See the Light the show really reminded me of how good and overlooked his ballads are. There are any number of singers in a cabaret situation who I can imagine doing very well with In a Sentimental Mood, In My Solitude, and Mood Indigo.
Sophisticated Ladies runs through May 30 (but I bet it gets extended).