Theater review: Zach Theatre’s “Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies”

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Zach Theatre's "Sophisticated Ladies"

(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Claire Christine Spera.)

 

Imagine a musical with no plot, no dialogue — just music, song and dance: boom, boom, boom! Welcome to Broadway’s “Sophisticated Ladies,” the 1981 Donald McKayle concept based on Duke Ellington’s music.

More song-and-dance revue than traditional musical, Zach Theatre’s rendition of “Sophisticated Ladies” (directed by Abe Reybold) wows with playful (and skillful) tap dancing, costumes that range from the bedazzled to funky fresh, and some seriously powerful singing, not the least of which is performed by Jennifer Holliday of “Dreamgirls” fame (her performance as Effie “Melody” White garnered her a Tony Award for best actress in a musical).

Oh, and then there’s Ellington’s wonderful music, played by a 15-member onstage orchestra.

There’s nothing not to like, and there’s plenty to rave about.

Let’s start with the magnetic Holliday, shall we? For each number, she wore what must’ve been six-inch heels, and elegant outfits that glittered under Michelle Habeck’s lighting design. She didn’t do much onstage but sing — and she didn’t have to.

Zach Theatre's "Sophisticated Ladies"

Zach Theatre’s “Sophisticated Ladies”

In “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing,” Holliday’s voice was inflected with the perfect edge of fun that did this classic absolute justice. The icing on the cake was when six tap-dancing men in white bellhop uniforms joined her (the talented J.P. Qualters, Tony Merriwether, Matthew Shields, William James Harris III, Leslie R. Hethcox and Phil Young).

In Act II, Holliday’s performance of “Something to Live For” was met with a standing ovation. “I’ve got it bad, and that ain’t good,” she crooned in a crystal-studded evening gown. She was simply spectacular.

There’s practically as much dancing as singing in “Sophisticated Ladies,” and Broadway choreographer Dominique Kelley’s steps, whether tap, lyrical, jazz or swing, hit the mark.

And tap fans, take note: Zach Theatre drew on local talent in the form of the charismatic Shields (former Tapestry Dance Company member and cofounder of Hyperfeet Productions) and the exuberant Merriwether (current Tapestry dancer).

In “Kinda Dukish,” Shields and Merriwether tested their balance and coordination (both are working perfectly fine, incidentally) as they tapped up and down a series of stairs, their feet matching the pings of the piano — this, after Shields had already shuffled atop a suitcase. Their rhythmic feet, together with the band’s music, had the audience hooting and hollering.

“Sophisticated Ladies” abounds with flirtation — between a hot-pink-swimsuit-clad woman on holiday at the beach and her cocktail servers, and among the trio of “Dancers in Love” (Afra Hines, Brandon O’Neal and Harris), in which snapping fingers and gentle body slaps created a rhythm on top of the music.

Zach Theatre's "Sophisticated Ladies." Photo by Kirk Tuck.

Chanel Haynes-Schwartz in Zach Theatre’s “Sophisticated Ladies.” Photo by Kirk Tuck.

There are moments of longing, too, such as Chanel Haynes-Schwartz’s intoxicatingly soulful solo “In a Sentimental Mood,” in which she wears a long-trained dress that spills down the stairs.

“Sophisticated Ladies” may have no plot, but that’s the precise argument for going to see it. It’s just plain fun; there’s nothing more you need.

“Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies” continues through Aug. 23 at Zach Theatre. Tickets: $25-$73. www.zachtheatre.org


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