Ellington review: tuneful, but unfocused
Sophisticated Ladies', Musical review based on the music of Duke Ellington. Concept by Donald McKayle. Choreography and musical staging by Mr. McKayle and Michael Smuin. Special tap choreography by Henry Le Tang. Directed by Mr. Smuin. Music under the direction of Mercer Ellington. Starring Gregory Hines, Judith Jamison.
Glamour goes flashy and gaudy in "Sophisticated Ladies," the latest in Broadway's attempts to recapture the time and tone of a celebrated musicmaker by sampling his output. The tinseled extravaganza at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater assembles a sheaf of Duke Ellington hits and lesser known numbers and tailors them to the styles and strengths of several highly accomplished performers. A cast headed by Gregory Hines, Judith Jamison, Phyllis Hyman, and P. J. Benjamin is backed up by a fine onstage band under the direction of Mercer Ellington, the composer's son.
That the unstinting efforts to please on the part of all these gifted people doesn't add up to a more consistently successful entertainment probably results from the unfocused nature of the show itself. The "concept" is credited to choreographer Donald McKayle. Apart from the designations of designer Tony Walton's neon signs, the concept is elusive. What makes "Sophisticated Ladies" succeed as an Ellington celebration is its lavish decor, vibrant momentum, and wealth of talent.
From the brassy and rhythmic overture medley to the final reprise of "It Don't Mean a Thing," the Ellington tunes are used for a song-and-dance show that accentuates dance.Any number can be the excuse for tapping, and with Henry LeTang overseeing the feasts of footwork, no excuse is needed. The climax comes in Act 2 with Mr. Hines's phenomenal "Kinda Dukish," after which he and lads play terpsichorean cards.Earlier on, the infectious entertainer takes a terrific turn at the drums before resuming his other chores. Mr. Hines is one of those communicative stars who invites the whole audience to share his zest and enjoyment.
A few impressions from among the arrangements and combinations of nearly 40 samples of Ellingtonia: Mr. Benjamin and Terri Klausner jitter-bugging to "BliBlip"; Miss Jamison doing a b it of classic modern to "Solitude" sung by Priscilla Baskerville; Miss Jamison with Gregg Burge and Hinton Battle in a medley of "I Love You Madly" and "Perdido." Mr. Hines driving a human taxicab (one of Willa Kim's more far-out costume creations) for "I'm Just A Lucky So-and-So." The burnished voice of handsome Miss Hyman in "In A Sentimental Mood" and "I Got It Bad, And That Ain't good."
Perhaps the performers and the Ellington magic will carry the day for this casually structured but irrepressible show. As far as urbanity is concerned, however, the most sophisticated thing about "Sophisticated Ladies" is the drop curtain photo portrait of the Duke himself --