Can there be a show stopper when the show never stops? Porchlight Music Theatre’s production of Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies sings, dances and plays its way through the king of all’s greatest hits, at a furious pace that left the opening night audience exhilarated and almost a little exhausted.
If you love the music of the jazz and big band eras, you should go. If you love beautiful voices that hit the high and low notes, and have the scat singing of Duke’s era down, you should go. If you like dancing—tap, line, swing—you should go. And OK, Millennial, if you don’t know if you love all of the above, you should go anyway, because it’s a great way to find out if you’ve got that swing.
Sophisticated Ladies is a revue. There are a few minor story lines: a custodian overcomes his shyness to become a singing and dancing star, and some romantic sparks fly during several numbers. But there is no plot. This show is all about the music. Conceived by Donald McKayle and opened on Broadway in 1981, the current production of Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies is directed and choreographed by Brenda Didier and Florence Walker-Harris.
Three takeaways from this show. One is the enduring nature of great music. The show highlights so many Duke Ellington compositions—dating as far back as 1931—that continue to influence and entertain today: “Take the ‘A’ Train,” including the seldom heard lyrics; “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” which gets rollicking dance performances in both the first act and in the show’s finale; “Perdido;” “Don’t Get Around Much;” “I Let a Song Go;” “Beginning to See the Light;” “Satin Doll;” “Mood Indigo” and, of course, “Sophisticated Lady.”
The next takeaway that the show underscores is the amazing collection of talent we have in this city. Porchlight is one of Chicago’s many equivalents of off-Broadway (off-Randolph?) companies that provide star turns for performers who are talented enough to be playing bigger stages. The night was highlighted by the octave-leaping vocals and versatility of female leads Lydia Burke, Molly Krol and Donica Lynn. Lorenzo Rush Jr., a large man with a booming yet nuanced voice, owned the stage during several numbers; John Marshall Jr., the custodian-turned-hoofer, made the most of his time in the spotlight.
In one memorable scene, Burke belts out “Solitude“—a bluesy number about lost love—from the top level of the Cotton Club-inspired set, while Terri K. Woodall performs a modernist interpretive dance on the floor below.
The third takeaway is how much fun it is to experience performing arts in a small theater. The Ruth Page Center for the Arts, located at 1016 N. Dearborn, holds just a few rows of seats, making it a perfect boite for a show set in the big band nightclub era.
The music is driven by a small version of a big band (two reeds, a trumpet, a trombone, a bass, and drums), with veteran Chicago performer Jermaine Hill, resplendent in a white tuxedo, conducting and channeling Duke Ellington from the piano. It is a musical theater production in which you could close your eyes and still have a rewarding experience.
As enjoyable as the performers are, though, this is one show that might not mean a thing if it doesn’t set the scene. Scenic designer Angela Weber Miller’s bi-level, art deco set, with steps on both sides for the dancers to scamper about, does just that. Theresa Ham’s costume design is a fantasia of sequins, feathers, three-piece suits, paisley vests, and of course, a singer dolled up in satin. Denise Karczewski’s lighting design was especially enhancing during a couple of literally smoky numbers.
It’s early, and I may see a better show this year, but it’s hard to imagine having more fun.
Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies will be cutting a rug at the Ruth Page Center through March 6. The regular performance schedule is Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 3:30 and 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm, with matinees on Thursday, February 6 and 13 at 1:30pm, and added performances March 3-5 at 7:30pm and March 6 at 8pm. Tickets are $39-$66 and are available at PorchlightMusicTheatre.org or by calling the box office at 773-777-9884. Running time is 2 hours with a 15-minute intermission.