“Sophisticated Ladies,” which opens Maine State Music Theatre’s 2019 season, transports the audience to a time when swing was the thing and big band leaders were kings.
Fourteen performers and 11 band members tap, scat, beat and blow the music of the Jazz Age’s most talented ruler, Duke Ellington. Sexy, snappy and soulful, this is an express train revue of the man’s music with no whistle stops featuring his life.
For those who enjoy the American Songbook and Duke Ellington’s oeuvre, “Sophisticated Ladies” is a must-see show that slides and sizzles for a seemingly all-too-short two and spare change hours. If you’re looking for deep bio-pic revelations into what made Ellington’s music so magical, you won’t find it here. This show is all sound, no fury.
For many, big band music evokes a deep sense of nostalgia. While audience members may have been teenagers later in Ellington’s career, precious few are still alive who hoofed it in dance halls before and during World War II, when it was a soundtrack for the Greatest Generation.
This may be the music of parents, grandparents and great-grandparents at this point, but there is nothing fusty or musty about this production. The live onstage band, more than capably led by A. Scott Williams, is hot and fresh, with two drum sets to keep the beat at a brisk boil and a horn section adding spicy staccato or sultry slow slides to set the mood. What a thrill to hear big band music live and not as remixed versions on streaming radio.
Thanks to Marc Robin’s deft direction and his wise decision to work with two additional choreographers, each dance sequence moves seamlessly, like silk stockings, from one song to the next.
There is very little dialogue and no story to speak of, just a showcase of Ellington’s greatest compositions featuring some of the finest talent on the Eastern Seaboard in every aspect of this performance. Two mighty matrons of main stage, E. Faye Butler and Felicia P. Fields, who both first sang in “Sophisticated Ladies” 21 years ago, rule the deck as they smoothly switch from belting “I Got It Bad And That Ain’t Good” to “Mood Indigo.”
Butler’s scat battle with the band in “Take the A Train” is incredible to witness.
Standouts from the remaining dozen singers and dancers include Allie Pizzo and her incredible tap dancing in “Kinda Dukish” and Carissa Gaughran’s sultry singing of “Satin Doll/Just Squeeze Me.” Not a single player is out of step.
The lighting design by Jesse Klug is one of the best to ever illuminate the stage at Pickard Theater. A smoky dimness for nightclub solos jumps to warm bright chromatics spotlighting the full ensemble routines before easing back to colorful hue splits that coordinate with the red or blue costumes to enhance the minimal set dressing.
With more than 30 songs, the logistics of that many costume changes must be complicated. Aside from a few questionable design choices, such as when Faith and E. Faye wear mismatching colors or the opening of Act 2, making the dancers look more like ’50s sock hoppers than ’40s swing dancers (though perhaps that was the point?), Jeff Hendry once again creates stunning costumes that one hopes will eventually turn up at MSMT’s annual October sale so we mere mortals can have a slice of style. Can one reserve the iconic white ensemble straight out of an Erte illustrated magazine which drapes Shari Williams in the titular penultimate number?
“Sophisticated Ladies” is a real treat. As Jim Hogan, the narrator, warns at the beginning of the show, “There are no falling chandeliers or street barricades to keep your attention!”
No indeed, just pure jaw-dropping talent combined with finger-snapping, toe-tapping songs that have endured the decades. With a show like “Sophisticated Ladies” and the high production values of Maine State Music Theatre, may the late great Duke Ellington’s music live on for many more decades to come.
Sophisticated Ladies runs through June 22. For more information, visit www.msmt.org