Chicago Theater Review: DUKE ELLINGTON’S GREATEST HITS (Music Theater Works)

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by Lawrence Bommer on October 7, 2017

in Theater-Chicago


In his 75 years of marvelous music-making, Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington really was American nobility if not royalty. The sultan of swing was also the jazz king, a sophisticate with the common touch who merged Broadway with Main Street, a composer of countless songs that launched dozens of careers. And the Duke is well worth this too-brief song-and-dance salute. Considering that it contains “Sophisticated Lady,” “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Just Squeeze Me (But Please Don’t Tease Me)”,” “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” “I Got It Bad (and That Ain’t Good),” and “Satin Doll,” along with almost two dozen other top tunes, Duke Ellington’s Greatest Hits is just that, a classy-sassy showcase for seven excellent artists and a very hot three-man combo.

A concert presentation by Music Theater Works at Evanston’s Nichols Concert Hall, the two-hour tribute is staged by artistic director Rudy Hogenmiller as a free flow of unstoppable charm. Occasionally the performers turn their numbers into a semblance of a story, as the men’s jaunty “Drop Me Off in Harlem” sobers into Jar’Davion Brown’s haunted solo “Perdido” or the seductive “I Didn’t Know About You” soars into “I Let A Song Go Out of My Heart.” In “Imagine My Frustration” a suddenly mousy Amanda Horvath has an extended mad scene at a dance joint. But mostly the songs speak for themselves, from their vocalists–and right to us.

It really doesn’t signify a thing if it lacks that swing, to give an uptown paraphrase to Ellington’s suitably suave signature number. It sure means a lot when the women wail “I’m Beginning To See The Light” and the men groove to the well-named “In A Mellow Tone.” Or bounteous Dawn Bless (what a lovely name!) intones and reinvents “In A Sentimental Mood.” Evan Tyrone Martin and Caitlyn Glennon make a jitterbug jamboree out of Ellington’s less-known, juicy-jiving “Bl-Blip.” Martin L. Woods turns “Lush Life” into a soulful soliloquy. Justin Adair’s take on “Prelude to a Kiss” incarnates the risks that heartbreak happens.

The good work here is marred only an imbalance in amplification that makes the voices sound like instruments themselves, the lack of individual mikes for the seven singers making sometimes crucial lyrics sometimes hard to discern. No question, the best sound from this stage comes from the band in the second-act opener, “C Jam Blues,” a terrific chance for music director Joey Zymonas, Christian Dillingham, and Phillip Fornett to riff as one.

A few songs not by His Grace are certainly about him, like Caitlyn Glennon’s bouncy “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be,” Billy Strayhorn’s credo “Something To Live For,” or the finale “Sir Duke,” infectious homage by Stevie Wonder. And one number, the almost operatic and harmonic “Come Sunday,” seems uncharacteristically solemn for a composer whose usual request is “Hit Me With a Hot Note and Watch Me Bounce.”

Sensuous, cosmopolitan, silky-smooth and beyond sweet, 43 years after the composer’s death, these hits fully justify their joy. We’re still taking the “A” Train.

photos by Brett Beiner

Duke Ellington’s Greatest Hits
Music Theater Works
Nichols Concert Hall
1490 Chicago Ave. in Evanston
ends on October 15, 2017
for tickets, call 847.920.5360
or visit Music Theater Works

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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