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Sophisticated Ladies (03/01/1981 - 01/02/1983)


 

New York Daily News: "Duke knew all about 'Sophisticated Ladies'"

The Duke would have been pleased, I think. Although "Sophisticated Ladies," a sleek song-and-dance show that opened last night at the Lunt-Fontanne, touches but lightly on the genius of the late Edward Kennedy Ellington, whose music has coursed through the century like a lively, twisting stream, it has flash and class and, above all, some of the elegance that was always his. I loved it madly.

While fast stepping, lusty singing and the irresistible drive of a 20-piece onstage band led by Mercer Ellington (fittingly, son Mercer's "Things Ain't What They Used to Be," the Duke's standard sign-off piece, opens the overture) dominate the evening, the peak of artistry is reached with "Solitude." Coming midway in the first half, the brass sections sliding away on either side to leave the rhythm sextet in the middle, it offers the stunning Judith Jamison in a lovely dance solo as, high in the rear, the crystal-clear soprano of Priscilla Baskerville floats the Eddie DeLange lyric.

Jamison sings as well as dances, but "Solitude" is her supreme moment. Her co-star, Gregory Hines, while more at home in his spectacular and often humorous tap-dance routines and in up-tempo songs, nevertheless charms us as, in the next-to-closing "Sophisticated Lady," he croons the engagingly foolish words to that serpentine tune as the lady herself, in the statuesque person of a svelte, white-robed Jamison, moves coolly about the stage.

These two are not the whole show by any means. In a program of three dozen spiffily-outfitted numbers (many, like "Solitude," drawn from the Duke's song-hit period of the '30s and early '40s; some from the instrumentals he created in the early '40s for the greatest of Ellington orchestras, and a few altogether unfamiliar), a young hoofer named Gregg Burge does incredible things, and Terri Klausner (the matinee Evita until recently) and Phyllis Hyman (her "In a Sentimental Mood" will melt you), sing, sashay and caper dynamically. P.J. Benjamin (the Charlie of last season's "Charlie and Algernon") turns out to be as slinky and limber a rug-cutter in "Fat and Forty" as they used to come. Not to be ignored, either, is a large and agile dancer named Hinton Battle who partners Jamison in "Old Man Blues," and joins Mercedes Ellington (Duke's niece) and Burge in a lovely dance trio to that delicate and sprightly Ellington piece (originally a piano solo) "Dances in Love."

"The Mooch," "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," "Satin Doll," "Mood Indigo," "I Got it Bad" (but why always the bowdlerized version?), "Caravan," Billy Strayhorn's "Take the 'A' Train" (the band's signature) - they're mostly all there, along with those terrific instrumentals "Cotton Tail" and "Ko-Ko"; the haunting Ellington-Strayhorn "Something to Live For" and an amusingly-staged "I'm Just a Lucky So-and-So." There are, inevitably, a few letdowns, but they're quickly forgotten.

The backup dancers, four men and four women, are top-notch.

The choreography and musical staging (I guess that means directing the singers) is by Donald McKayle, whose idea the show was, and Michael Smuin, who is also responsible for the overall direction. The dazzling tap routines are the work of Henry LeTang.

Set designer Tony Walton has framed the evening delightfully in neon legends and other contours, and with many novel effects, including lighted piano-key stairways. Willa Kim has created a slew of eye-catching costumes, Al Cohn has devised smashing show orchestrations, and Jennifer Tipton has lighted the whole thing superbly.

The Duke, who never took a day off, thought and jotted down music night and day. And while always interested in larger forms, but easier in set pieces, he found in his late years the perfect vehicles for his aspirations in the "sacred concerts," none represented here, of course.

And since the entire Ellington band, not just the piano he conducted from, was his true instrument, I looked at the men in Mercer's charge and saw instead the specters of those magnificent sidemen Johnny Hodges, Juan Tizol (co-composer of "Caravan"), Lawrence Brown, Barney Bigard and, inevitably, baritone saxophonist Harry Carney, beside whom in Carney's big, black, sturdy vintage Imperial sedan the Duke would cross the country (he avoided planes whenever possible) and scribble bars of music on small pieces of paper as a passing scene - a stand of trees, a village square, a lithe girl - arranged themselves into musical tones in his head.

Yes, I'm sure the Duke would have loved this show. But then, that was him up there, anyway, wasn't it? Him all over.


New York Daily News
03/02/1981

New York Post: "Lively 'Ladies' far from sophisticated"

Duke Ellington's Sophisticated Ladies, which opened last night at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater, is one of the most lavish musical non-musicals that Broadway has ever seen. In fairness, it is simply a handsomely tarted-up band-show, full of Ellington music, dancing and talent. Yet the total is less than the sum of its parts.

The idea for an Ellington musical came to the director/choreographer Donald McKayle, who devised this present concept. McKayle was dropped in Washington, exiting about the same time as former President Jimmy Carter, although some of his choreography and staging obviously remain in the present version.

Whether there was any kind of book to the show, or at least vestigial dramatic linking, in the Washington version I have no idea. The Broadway show, which has had teething problems, and still bears the teeth marks to prove it, has been staged by classicist Michael Smuin, co-director of the San Francisco Ballet, who is also jointly responsible with McKayle for the present choreography.

With a huge band on stage, framed by the most elegant setting by Tony Walton - the frontcloth is a particular joy - which features illuminated staircases in the Hollywood tradition and neon signs in the motel mode, and a large cast, dressed to the nines by Willa Kim, the show is undeniably sumptuous.

The Ellington music, under the direction of the composer's son, Mercer Ellington, makes up a formidable compendium. But the actual sound, and this could be nothing but the fertile imagination of my memory, as orchestrated by Al Cohn, with musical and dance arrangements by pianist Lloyd Mayers, and vocal arrangements by Malcolm Dodds and Mayers, seems more like homogenized Broadway-anonymous than the authentic sound of the old Ellington band.

However the show certainly moves along - with one zingy dance number succeeding the next. This is fundamentally a dance marathon, but the type of jazz and cabaret style dancing being offered is a touch too predictable. It is like a seven-course dinner, with each course consisting of lemon meringue pie.

Smuin - who obviously had the last word on the choreography - knows this style. Although a classic choreographer, his veins are pumped full of show-biz. He had paid dues as a Broadway gypsy, and for two years worked with his wife in a cabaret act. He knows the territory.

Despite Smuin's skill and consummate expertise - the tap numbers, by the way, were choreographed by Henry LeTang - the show misses the sublime simplicity of that Fats Waller Ain't Misbehavin', which presumably inspired it. Smuin's dynamo runs at full throttle throughout the evening, but gives little time for grace or subtlety.

Dancer, actor, singer and here, briefly, even drummer, Gregory Hines is the glue that has to hold the whole show together. He pounces into his material with an engaging mixture of glee and desperation. He can be both suave and feisty, he sings charmingly and dances like an on-course hurricane. Terrific.

As his co-star, making her Broadway debut, the great Judith Jamison, seems either a little out of her depth or to be paddling in shallow waters, the viewpoint is one of relativity. She sings pleasantly enough, but hardly ever hits her true dance potential. The one time she indubitably comes on as one of America's great dance stars is near the end. Here to the plaintive measure of Sophisticated Lady she simply walks on with the elegance of some magnificent bird of prey - the audience goes mad.

Phyllis Hyman makes a most attractive lead singer, with a jazz beat and a sultry line in blues, P.J. Benjamin and Terry Klausner are energetically eccentric, while Hinton Battle and Gregg Burge both perform with electric vigor and vivacity.

A cast of many talents, music steeped with nostalgia, relentlessly cracker-jack dancing and a setting full of nightclub chic - but not exactly a Broadway musical. And, despite the title, not perhaps for the sophisticated - for this is the kind of Broadway show for people who would secretly prefer to be at a cabaret.


New York Post
03/02/1981

New York Times: "Ellington's 'Sophisticated Ladies'"

In the course of his extraordinary career, Duke Ellington did just about everything with jazz that any mortal could be expected to do. Yet, strangely enough, there was one goal that eluded this giant of American music right up to his death in 1974: he never had a hit Broadway show to call his own.

Well, it sure looks as if he has one now. ''Sophisticated Ladies,'' the new musical revue at the Lunt-Fontanne, is an Ellington celebration that just won't quit until it has won over the audience with dynamic showmanship. It's not a perfect entertainment - let's save the flaws for later - but it rides so high on affection, skill and, of course, stunning music that the lapses don't begin to spoil the fun. What's more, this is the only Broadway revue of recent vintage that operates on a truly grand scale. There's a lavishness in this show's physical production (right up to the last spangle on the last top hat) and in its depth of performing talent (right down to the last member of the chorus) that actually squares with current Broadway ticket prices. Ellington, who had an extravagant style to go with his genius, would undoubtedly be pleased.

Indeed, there are times in this evening of three dozen songs when he might be beside himself. That certainly seems the only fitting response to the show's star, the esteemed Gregory Hines. It's no secret that Mr. Hines may be the best tap dancer of our day, but he's never had a chance to show himself to quite the advantage that he does here. Wearing slicked-back hair, a series of sleek evening outfits and a raffish smile, he's more than a dancer; he's the frisky Ellington spirit incarnate. And, like the show's unseen hero, he seems to be able to do everything - including, at one point, a solo on the drums.

His singing is raspy, but so charged with feeling that he makes that wistful Ellington-Billy Strayhorn ballad ''Something to Live For'' the evening's most moving number. The show's funniest song also belongs to him: on ''I'm Just a Lucky So-and-So,'' Mr. Hines comes out carried by a human Checker cab and proceeds to trade giddy notes with his vehicle of transportation. (Don't ask questions; you have to see for yourself.) As for his tap dancing, what more is there to say? In his big Act II solo, Mr. Hines provides a one-man tour of his calling. He sweeps about gently and then lets loose with cataclysmic force; he takes big leaps and then tucks in his wings for a dazzling display of terpsichorean precision. This man is human lightning, and he just can't be contained.

But don't think that ''Sophisticated Ladies'' is a one-man show. Gregg Burge, a lithe fellow with an insouciant grin, would be the standout tapper in any other musical. He and the chorus turn themselves into a silver-lame airplane for ''Caravan,'' and, when smoke pours onto the stage, you wouldn't be surprised if they actually took flight. A little before that, Mr. Burge and Mr. Hines exchange high kicks on ''It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing).'' By the end of this joyous song, the two men are both leapfrogging so deftly about each other that one has no choice but to call their informal dancing duel a draw.

Forced to choose between the two sultry female singers of the evening, I'd also have to equivocate. When Phyllis Hyman, a cool tomcat of a woman, applies her powerful, smoky voice to ''In a Sentimental Mood,'' she immediately transports the audience to a 52d Street saloon of yesteryear at 3 in the morning. Terri Klausner, last seen playing ''Evita'' at Wednesday matinees, is likewise no slouch in the smoke department. Slithering about in a dress of midnight blue and silver to sing ''Hit Me With a Hot Note and Watch Me Bounce,'' she uses a bluesy, guttural attack to send us bouncing on every line. It's unfortunate that Miss Klausner is often paired with the show's one wrong-note performer, P.J. Benjamin, who has here come down with a distracting case of the cutes.

Even Mr. Benjamin wouldn't attempt to distract us from the other star of the evening, Judith Jamison, and no wonder. The towering, charismatic Miss Jamison, on furlough from Alvin Ailey, is a commanding work of art just when she's standing still. Too much of the time, perhaps, she does just stand there - as if the show's creators were too intimidated to figure out what to do with her. But Miss Jamison sings well when asked, especially when lounging luxuriantly across a red piano for ''I Love You Madly.'' More important, she gives the evening a presence that no one else can provide. Beaming and sassy, wearing one spectacular Willa Kim costume after another, she becomes a mesmerizing incarnation of 1920's Cotton Club glamour. By the time she descends a staircase, a vision in white, to Mr. Hines's rendition of ''Sophisticated Lady,'' she'll take your breath away.

Miss Jamison also makes something sweet out of an inadequately conceived mock-ballet solo that accompanies Priscilla Baskerville's lush soprano reading of ''Solitude.'' While the show's three choreographers - Donald McKayle, Michael Smuin (of the San Francisco Ballet) and Henry LeTang (for tap) - have generally done a sprightly job of recreating (if not reinventing) old-time Harlem razzmatazz, you'll notice such occasional imaginative sags, as well as a few repetitions. You'll notice, too, a lack of wit in the lyrics that often accompany Ellington's melodies; there are not the opportunites for humor here that Fats Waller's songbook offered ''Ain't Misbehavin'.'' While the music is as vibrantly played as it is sung - Mercer Ellington's big band is on stage - the inexcusably raucous amplification, ''designed'' by Otts Munderloh, at times violates its spirit.

The evening's flaws duly noted, we should count the other blessings. Tony Walton has created a handsome set (not unlike the one he did for ''Chicago'') with a floating bandstand, a Deco frame and high-flying explosions of neon. Jennifer Tipton, that wondrous lighting designer, has sculptured romantic, soulful and glamorous spaces out of thin air. Miss Kim's costumes are so profuse and brightly hued that they transform the cast into an ever-changing satin rainbow. That's just how it should be when you've got Duke Ellington to back up your rainbow with pure musical gold.


New York Times
03/02/1981

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