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Duke Ellington's Sophisticated Ladies

Maurice Hines proves he still has the moves in Arena Stage's elegant and high-energy production of the popular musical revue.

Marva Hicks, Karla Mosley, Maurice Hines, Janine DiVita,
Wynonna Smith in Duke Ellington's Sophisticated Ladies
(© Scott Suchman)
Arena Stage is saying goodbye to their temporary home at the legendary Lincoln Theatre by filling it with the glorious sounds of Duke Ellington's Sophisticated Ladies, the three-decades-old musical revue based on Ellington's music -- an eclectic mix of big band swing, jazz, blues, pop, and classical. It's a fitting location as the Lincoln was a familiar stop on his schedule as Ellington expanded his reach from Washington D.C. to the world.

Fortunately, nostalgia is not the main attraction. Star performer and choreographer Maurice Hines and director Charles Randolph-Wright have crafted a high-energy, elegant, and often glossy production that fills the beautifully restored theater with pulsating rhythm and athletic dance. A splendid company plays, sings, and dances their way through all the famous tunes -- "Take the "A" Train," to "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," "Satin Doll," "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good," "Mood Indigo," "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing,)" and "I Love You Madly:" You will indeed love them madly.

At 67, Hines still has the moves, and while his more vigorous dance sequences are carefully spaced throughout the show's three dozen numbers, he conjures up the old magic and generally holds his own against the young performers. Sporting a scruffy beard the elegant Ellington might look askance at, Hines sings in a slightly husky voice. His choreography is all fluid and highly charged as it moves from the era of the Charleston in the 1920s through the frugs of the 1960s.

The production may well be remembered as the show which first showcased fleet-footed brothers John and Leo Manzari. (It's a shock to read in their bios that they are only 17 and 15, respectively). As members of the ensemble, they are steady performers. But in an act two sequence, they join Hines onstage after he dazzles the audience in an extended solo sequence growing out of "Kinda Dukish." Building on riffs in "Ko-Ko," and with Hines eventually beating a hasty retreat offstage, the duo brilliantly combines classic steps with a looser, hip-hop sensibility that nevertheless reveals a highly disciplined, tightly planned routine.

Standout performances also come from two ladies. Arena veteran Marva Hicks has several stirring solo moments, her liquid alto taking on bluesy tones in several ballads, while Karla Mosley has stage-filling charisma and a voice that's alternately bright or torchy. She wrings every ounce of the blues out of "Mood Indigo" and "Solitude" and every light note out of "Everything but You."

Randolph-Wright pushes his cast rapidly from one song to the next, the segues gliding effortlessly on Alexander V. Nichols' multi-level, art-deco bandstand setting. Nichols has devised innovative projections which appear in the background, on sliding panels, or on stage-filling scrims to put the music into perspective with Ellington's journey through life.

Wisely, the director also knows when to give the audience a rest. For example, he and Hines take us gloriously over the top for "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" in which eight dancers clad as Pullman porters dance about with large suitcases while a complex mashup of computer animation, still photos, and map projections provides a dizzying backdrop. But the glitz then gracefully fades away to Hines, standing alone and still for a soulful "Something to Live For."

David Alan Bunn's orchestra is a bit thinner than Ellington's big band ensemble, but still has dynamic range. It's significantly bolstered by seemingly superhuman drumming from David Gibson. He pounds away non-stop on tom-toms for African-themed rhythms and accents everything with machine-gunned rim shots for punctuation and crashing cymbals for fill.


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