If early twentieth-century aesthetics are what you’re looking for (think Art Deco-inspired club scenes) and swing music makes your heart sing, you’re in luck. “Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies” is a 1981 musical revue of the great Duke’s storied history. From early hits like “The Mooche” and “Mood Indigo” to later bops “I’m Beginning to See the Light” and “Satin Doll,” this stylish revue taps the Duke’s music back onto the stage where it belongs.
Revues don’t always make for great theater. In fact, they often don’t. They’re usually a hodgepodge of someone’s favorite music slapped into costumes and presented as a concert. But this isn’t a concert. It’s an experience.
Complete with show-stopping costumes by Theresa Ham—seriously, where can I get some of that shiny firework fabric?— and impeccable performances directed and choreographed by Brenda Didier and Florence Walker-Harris, Porchlight Music Theatre’s “Sophisticated Ladies” is phenomenal. At two hours, this show packs thirty-three of Duke’s songs into a tribute deserving of his iconic top hat, a replica of which sits atop the onstage piano.
Although the performance suffered a few mishaps, from singers being overpowered by on-stage brass to a dancer losing a wig partway through a dance number—which she took care of with grace, flinging the piece off stage while never missing a step—opening-night flaws were nothing compared to what the show had to offer.
Musically transporting us back to the age of the great band leaders are a host of iconic voices made for this kind of jazz. You’ve got The Danseuse (Lydia Burke), The Jazzbo (Donterrio Johnson), The Soubrette (Molly Kral), The Chanteuse (Donica Lynn) and The Raconteur (Lorenzo Rush Jr.) all throwing their hearts to the rafters. From Lynn’s gift for scat to Rush’s velvety vocals, this revue’s musicality is on point.
Not to mention that Johnson, dressed to the nines—another shout-out to Ham—could give Ellington a run for his money. Perhaps a production of “Play On!,” the 1997 “Twelfth Night”-Duke Ellington musical mashup should cross Porchlight’s desk. Clearly they’ve got the chops.
What’s the necessary companion for the Duke’s swinging music? Dancers! This show does not disappoint there, either. Not only are these dancers engaging, they’re also multifaceted: tapping, flipping, Charleston-ing and more. This ensemble is breathtaking. None more so than Terri K Woodall, whose interpretive dance to Burke crooning “Solitude” will break your heart.
Since I never know what to expect from a revue, the show was surprising in so many ways. From the variety of dance and musical styles to the always-present big band, “Duke Ellington” gives the Duke a commendation worthy of his talent. And it gives us an evening of toe-tapping bliss. (Amanda Finn)
Porchlight Music Theatre, 1016 North Dearborn, (312)337-6543, $39-$76. Through March 6.