What can one say about a musical offering that has no plot, no discernible characters, and no particular theme, except for the music of Duke Ellington and a lot of jazz and tap dance?
Well, we say, “Give us more like this! A lot more!”
Seriously, we don’t need a chandelier crashing down on our heads or the horror of the post-French Revolution Terreur to have a good time. We don’t need a boy meets girl romance. We don’t even need a storyline. What we need is what “Sophisticated Ladies” delivered brilliantly – the lifetime musical review of one of America’s greatest songbook writers, Duke Ellington, and the talents of the Maine State Music Theatre company to bring those songs to life in voice and feet and brass and keyboard.
It is impossible to single out any particular member of the cast, since this is definitely an ensemble show of the first water. The orchestra, which never left the stage, was squeaky-tight. Piano/conductor A. Scott Williams playing, to the extent anyone was playing anything, The Duke himself, took swing to a whole new level, and clarinets and brass were top notch.
Songs include many classics – “It don’t mean a thing (if it ain’t got that swing)” gets a few reprises with the entire company, to the toe-tapping and enthusiastic clapping of the audience. A whole section called “Classics” includes songs like “I’m beginning to see the light,” “Don’t get around much anymore/I let a song go out of my heart,” the indomitable “Take the A Train,” and a superb rendition of “Caravan.” “I got it bad and that ain’t good,” paired with “Mood Indigo,” sung by E. Faye Butler and Felicia P. Fields, was a spectacular hit. “Sophisticated Lady,” performed by Jim Hogan and Shari Williams, was a heartbreaking look at trying to keep up appearances in the wake of life-altering loss.
In short, “Sophisticated Ladies” brought The Duke back to life, if only for a night, transporting the audience on a roller coaster ride of the American Century’s history through the unique lens of Ellington’s music and the places that made it great – the Cotton Club, the great swing and big band clubs of the 30s and 40s, and even the dance halls of the 50s and 60s, all the way up to Ellington’s final years.
Ellington reportedly joked in the 1960s, when he did not win a Pulitzer Prize for music in 1965, that fate was being kind to him, because she didn’t want him to become famous too young. He was 66 at the time. No African American was awarded a Pulitzer for music until Winton Marsalis in 1997, but Ellington’s fame didn’t remain under a bushel. He was ultimately awarded the Pulitzer posthumously in 1999, the last year of the American Century he ruled with nothing but a piano and a baton.
Don’t miss “Sophisticated Ladies.” Don’t let these particular songs go out of your heart.
Ticket information is available at www.msmt.org. “Sophisticated Ladies” runs through June 22 at the Pickard Theater on Brunswick’s Bowdoin College campus.