Always remove one item before leaving the house.
This was the advice of the godmother of the little black dress Coco Chanel. Do the hair. Do the makeup. Get yourself fully dressed and then, before walking out the front door, pause by the mirror and remove one item. Maybe it’s the hat. Maybe it’s the piece of jewelry you really don’t need. But the line, according to Ms. Chanel, between knockout and near miss could be found in a single overdone object.
This sage advice seemed to hang in the air during Arena Stage’s production of the musical revue Sophisticated Ladies. An evening that is as much love letter as tribute to the work of homegrown American music legend Duke Ellington, Sophisticated Ladies traces Ellington’s path from his beginnings in the jazz clubs of D.C. to international fame on stages around the world.
Unfortunately, Arena’s production sometimes feels more like a television variety hour than a Sophisticated revue. What wants to be the show-a-little, hide-a-little exoticism of burlesque comes off more like ill-conceived Vegas dinner theater (”The Mooch”) or Moulin Rouge’s “Lady Marmalade” gone slightly sour (”Echoes of Harlem”). Fantastic choreography becomes obscured by an ambitious vision that sometimes fails to take into account physical realities of stage and dancers. Musical numbers with great potential fade into something formulaic.
But here’s why it’s impossible to simply toss Arena Stage’s Sophisticated Ladies into the dustbin. When it’s good, when that one silly feathered fan or Liberace-does-Mae-West coat is taken away, what you are left with are some true gems.
The talent assembled on the Lincoln Theatre stage is phenomenal – from the evening’s lead Maurice Hines to John and Leo Manzari. Not familiar with John and Leo Manzari? Wait about 20 minutes.
The Manzari brothers are high school students at D.C.’s Field School and take the stage for a tap number that will leave you as breathless as if you had been performing alongside them yourself. The pair exudes a kind of muscular athleticism that translates into a style equal parts free-willed aggression and strong-willed control. If every young person in the audience didn’t leave the Lincoln begging for tap lessons it would be astonishing. The brothers are show-stopping performers who the District should be unreasonably proud to consider its own.
Sophisticated Ladies is outfitted by award-winning costume designer Reggie Ray, and if there is one thing Ray knows it’s glamour. When one of his gowns is donned by a singer of great talent, like Marva Hicks, and lit by a single shaft of spotlight, you have one of those jewel-like moments that leaves you hungry for many, many more.
Hicks brings both the audience in the house and the ghosts of bygone days back to life with her performance of ”It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing” and again with her achingly gorgeous ”In a Sentimental Mood.” We see an equally brilliant sparkle from Janine DiVita with a refreshingly stripped down and elegant performance of ”Hit Me with a Hot Note and Watch Me Bounce.”
While ovation-level credit had to be given to the Manzaris, Hines is joined onstage by an ensemble’s worth of strong dancers. Richard Riaz Yoder, Keith Lamelle Thomas and Sam J. Cahn draw particular attention with fantastic technique, great energy and – as corny as it might sound – a real excitement for the work they’re doing.
Truth be told, that’s the hot note that makes some of the numbers in Sophisticated Ladies bounce. Musical director David Alan Bunn and the big band that joins him onstage prove that song after song. They play Ellington’s compositions the way they should be played, with great heart and great emotion. This isn’t a show that rests solely on technical expertise. (In fact, some of the show’s dancers appear to actually be hindered by training that tells them to favor posture over passion.) This is all about fire, and life, and the legacy of a man who showed the world how alive music could be.
Those are the moments in the show where Hines leaves no doubt at all why his name tops the marquee. When he lets loose and dances, as he does in ”Kinda Dukish,” taking command of the stage and admonishing the audience to hold their applause because ”they’ll know when to clap.” Facing off against the young Manzaris in a dance battle that puts every production of West Side Story ever done to shame. That’s when that spark is there. That’s when it all comes together.
It’s arresting, these times when the talent and the heart are allowed to shine brighter than the too often overly accessorized production numbers that showcase the disparity present in the dancers more than their vitality.
But, unfortunately, those Sophisticated moments are simply too few and much too far between to earn this Ellington train an A.