Duke's Up

Phoenix Theatre pays flawless homage to Ellington in its high-flying Sophisticated Ladies

Idon't know that I've seen a show all season that I've enjoyed as much as Sophisticated Ladies, which is currently whirling its way flawlessly across Phoenix Theatre's main stage.

I confess to being surprised. I've seen more musicals upended on this company's stage than I care to remember — but Sophisticated Ladies is not among them. Everything about this show is right: The dancing and singing are superb, the gifted cast is full of surprises, the set and costume design are outstanding. Every word, note and gesture jibes with our memory of Duke Ellington, whose music is celebrated in this 1981 musical revue.

Gregory Jaye's vibrant, two-tiered set design is the first tip-off that audiences are in for something special. Its geometric bandstand and abstract Gotham skyline come alive with bright colors, courtesy of Nykol DeDreu's exciting lighting design, and provide a perfect, pinstriped contrast to Timothy Slope's endless parade of extravagant, colorful costumes.

The hazard of Duke: Local legend Dennis Rowland takes on the daunting task of heading up a 31-song, 11-instrument tribute to Duke Ellington, and pulls it off like a star.
Laura Durant
The hazard of Duke: Local legend Dennis Rowland takes on the daunting task of heading up a 31-song, 11-instrument tribute to Duke Ellington, and pulls it off like a star.

Thirty-one smooth Ellington standards are recalled on this swell stage, and nearly every performer in the full-voiced ensemble claims one for their very own. Concord Jazz artist and local legend Dennis Rowland receives top billing and a chance to shine in mostly comic numbers, notably "Drop Me Off in Harlem," in which he duets with a human taxicab. Rowland's is more than a star turn; he brings plenty of stage presence and even a few dance steps to ensemble numbers and solos alike. He's a wonderful foil for Katherine S. Todd, whose jazzy scat on "Take the A Train" helps to make that number a showstopper — though it's soon trumped by "It Don't Mean a Thing," combining Todd's soulful lead with high steps from eight nattily dressed jazz dancers who bring the house down.

Among these uniformly talented players is young Lauren Hildebrandt, whose great growling voice and stunning stage charisma belie her 20 years. She sells the steamy "Hit Me With a Hot Note" like a seasoned pro and neatly steals a medley of "Satin Doll" and "Squeeze Me" from suave song-and-dance man Reggie Kelly — no mean feat. Even blank-stare ballads of the love-walked-in variety are given new life: Larry Ray's melancholy solo on "Something to Live For" and Sharon Muthu's poised recital of "In a Sentimental Mood" are standouts.

If Ellington has given this talented cast something to sing about, it's director/choreographer Michael Barnard and co-choreographer Robert Harper who have given it a reason to leap. Topped by "The Cottontail" — in which the stage throbs with color and the cool moves of four couples who toss one another about like rag dolls — each exuberant dance is wonderfully conceived and executed. Every form of dance is given a turn: "I've Got to Be a Rug Cutter" offers a charming tap solo for each of four sophisticated gents, "The Mooch" features Philippe Hall's nimble gymnastic ballet, and Harper's hoofing to "Kinda Dukish" shows off his talent for fleet-footed comedy.

Normally I don't like to see a show's song list tampered with, but Barnard has rearranged the order of these tunes to imply a sort-of story about pub-crawling in Harlem. With seamless segues between musical numbers and breakneck pacing, Barnard has created a resplendent evening of wall-to-wall dance and song.

Not even the playhouse's dreadful sound system — which buries some vocals, overamplifies others and muffles much of Ron Colvard's wonderful 11-piece orchestra — can spoil this stunning show. Phoenix Theatre's Sophisticated Ladies is as much a tribute to the quality of Ellington's songs as it is to the winning way in which they're unfurled.

 
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