Theater Review: SOPHISTICATED LADIES (Porchlight Music Theatre at Ruth Page Center for the Arts)

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by Lawrence Bommer on February 1, 2020

in Theater-Chicago


Some shows are just pure pleasure, delivering unpretentious delight with no plot to process or points to proclaim. Much like Ain’t Misbehavin’, an infectious romp that salutes the music and mirth of Fats Waller, Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies is a 1981 confection conceived by Donald McKayle that enthralls audiences with two dozen hit numbers and lesser treasures from the prolific songwriter and bandleader.

The king of the Cotton Club, Duke and his Orchestra played his wonderful creations — many created with genius pianist-composer Billy Strayhorn — to packed, dance-crazed crowds as well as larger radio audiences. Their advice to “Take The ‘A’ Train” was well followed.

Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, Chicago’s state-of-any-art Porchlight Music Theatre is reviving this revue in a powerfully perfect staging directed and choreographed by the phenomenal Brenda Didier and Florence Walker-Harris. The dancing alone — tap, jitterbug, lindy hop, boogie-woogie — is sufficient draw. The songs, marvelously matched in mood or melody, seal the deal.

No story, it’s all situation — a high-spirited, jive-talking floor show in a swank nightclub (designed by Angela Weber Miller) that corrals the best of the Duke. Sophisticated Ladies also splendidly showcases fifteen of Chicago’s finest hoofers, belters, singers and swingers.

Along with a chorus of eight of “sophisticated ladies and gentlemen,” there are seven “types,” given mainly French terms that suggest the florid fauna that Toulouse Lautrec pictorialized at the Moulin Rouge. Theresa Ham’s period-perfect costumes continue the characterizations.

Joined by The Raconteur (Fats Waller look-alike Lorenzo Rush Jr.), The Danseuse (sultry Lydia Burke) brings soulful intensity and joint-is-jumping pizzazz to “Beginning to See the Light.” Smooth sailing Donterrio Johnson is the mercurial Jazzbo, tearing up the town in “Drop Me Off in Harlem” or the forgotten curiosity “I’ve Got to Be a Rug Cutter.”

Molly Kral (The Soubrette) slinks her sassy way through “Hit Me With a Hot Note (And Watch Me Bounce).” Her fervor is matched by scat-crooning, Ella Fitzgerald-recalling Donica Lynn (The Chanteuse) in “In a Sentimental Mood.” Joined by Kral, Lynn delivers the ever enchanting “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)” and “Mood Indigo” with sincerity to spare.

As The Hipster, John Marshall Jr. plays everything from a doting stagehand to an uptown slummer, his ardent tenor an asset in “Satin Doll” and “Everything But You.” Finally, Eustace J. Williams scorches the stage as The Danseur in “Ko-Ko.”

When the ensemble joins forces for a blow-out “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing”), you’ve exceeded your monthly happiness quota. Once more all the classics are classy: “I Let a Song Get Out of My Heart,” “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” “Perdido,” “Sophisticated Lady,” “I’m Just a Lucky So-and-So.” There’s even a gambling number where the players create sound effects for the dealers’ prestidigitation.

It’s two hours of sterling showbiz, the hottest night a winter ever asked for. As the once and future Duke said, whether composing, performing, or just enjoying, listening is everything to making music matter. You’ll be well rewarded at the Ruth Page Center for doing just that.

photos by Michael Courier

Sophisticated Ladies
Porchlight Music Theatre
Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn St
Wed at 7:30 (Feb. 26); Thurs at 1:30 (Feb. 6 & 13, March 5) & 7:30;
Fri at 8; Sat at 3:30 & 8; Sun at 2
check for additional performances
ends on March 6, 2020
for tickets, call 773.777.9884 or visit Porchlight

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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