Sunday, December 01, 2013

Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies: Broadway in Movie Theaters

Don’t call the Ellington Orchestra a ghost band.  At least it wasn’t in the early 1980’s.  The maestro would still recognize most of the members, especially the leader, his son Mercer.  Though the Ellington patriarch had gone off to the great bandstand in the sky, the family business was still going strong, thanks to a Broadway show featuring Ellington’s most popular songs and the band, under Mercer’s direction. More of a revue than a musical per se, Sophisticated Ladies ran for 767 performances at the Lunt-Fontanne.  Captured live in-performance in 1982, Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies (trailer here) makes its big screen debut in all its restored and re-mastered glory, courtesy of SpectiCast, beginning this Wednesday at participating theaters.

If there is one theater Sophisticated Ladies tries to evoke, it is the Cotton Club.  Our first clue is probably the big neon sign hanging from the back of the stage that says Cotton Club.  However, the production conceived by choreographer Donald McKayle and directed for the stage by Michael Smuin is not pedantically faithful to the era or venue. Ellington’s final theme song, “Satin Girl” duly finds its way into the program. Also conspicuously anachronistic is the multiracial company of hoofers who dance to Ellington’s classics together, which would have been a major no-no during the Cotton Club’s heyday—so some things really aren’t how they used to be.

On the other hand, the immortal appeal of Ellington’s swinging standards comes through loud and clear.  Ladies actually starts with the “Sophisticated Gentlemen” performing a relatively minor piece of Ellingtonia, “I’ve Got to be a Rug Cutter,” but it sure is a handy vehicle for some tap pyrotechnics.  Likewise, “Music is a Woman” has never been excessively covered, but it is a nice up-tempo introduction for Paula Kelly, who looks terrific in flapper fashions (some might also recognize her, or perhaps not, from her trailblazing appearance in Playboy).

In a related development, one of the Ladies’ few missteps is a Josephine Baker-esque “jungle” style rendition of “The Mooche” that is probably quite true to the show’s Cotton Club roots, but has not aged well.  The band still sounds great on it.  Terri Klausner then commences torching up the old chestnut “Hit Me with a Hot Note and Watch Me Bounce” something impressively fierce.  Kelly, two gentleman admirers, and a red piano keep the sassiness cranked up to the max with a “Love You Madly/Perdido” medley.  It is elegant, but also pretty darn hot.

Phyllis Hyman starts “It Don’t Mean a Thing” in an unusally diva-ish bag, but it segues into show-stopping tap showcase for the gents.  The video crew really shines during these big dance numbers.  Clearly, multiple cameras were involved, mostly captured the company in full Astaires, with a few close-ups of their flying feet thrown in for good measure.  The jitterbuggers take over during “Cotton Tail” and they don’t skimp on the air-steps.  The rendition of “Solitude” is a bit miasmic for jazz tastes, but Kelly cranks the energy level back up with a duet-medley of “Don’t Get Around Much/I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart.”  Unfortunately, a killer “Drop Me Off in Harlem” is slightly barred by a dated Chinese caricature.

For hardcore Duke fans, “Diminuedo in Blue” leads into the intermission, but without the “Crescendo,” probably because nobody would want to try to replicate Paul Gonsalves’ epic solo.  Oddly, there is nothing representing the Sacred Concerts, which seems like a lost opportunity, but so be it.  Considered the star, Hyman specializes in ballads like “In a Sentimental Mood” that are all very nice, but Kelly steals the show out from under her with saucy twists on favorites like “I’m Beginning to See the Light.” There is also good reason why she is the featured dancer for the pseudo title song, “Sophisticated Lady.”

The choreography of McKayle and Smuin (with a tap assist from Henry LeTang) translates well to the screen.  In fact, the dance sequences are distinguished by an exuberance that remains fresh and appealing thirty-some years later.  The cats in the band sound great too, but they are mostly stuck behind a gauzy curtain for most of the show (at one point future Lincoln Center mainstay Joe Temperley can be positively id’ed, but few others get even fleeting face time).  The current Broadway production After Midnight does a better job in this respect, featuring the Jazz @ Lincoln Center affiliated band clearly on-stage, even giving them their own front-and-center number.  It is a great show, but if you cannot make it to New York, there is considerable crossover between the two productions’ choice of tunes, so keep an eye out for Ladies.

Indeed, there is both timelessness and nostalgia to be found in Sophisticated Ladies.  Most of Ellington’s songs sound as vital today as they did in the 1930’s and a few outliers are nicely rehabilitated by the Sophisticated Ladies and Gentlemen.  Yet, when the camera pans the audience, we see folks dressed to the nines for Broadway.  The men are wearing suits at the least, with a fair smattering of tuxedoes out there. Those days are gone, but the music swings like it always did.  Highly recommended for fans of Ellington and Broadway, Sophisticated Ladies will have limited screenings in select theaters nationwide, beginning December 4th until the 18th, depending on the schedules of participating locations—including this Wednesday (12/4) at the Chelsea Cinemas in New York.