Sophisticated Ladies

Zach Theatre's revival of this Ellington revue is just like Sir Duke's music: elegant and wildly entertaining

I've got to be a rug cutter: The cast of Zach Theatre's Sophisticated Ladies (Photo by Kirk Tuck)

Duke Ellington: a name that has more than stood the test of time, a jazz legend whose influence is practically without parallel. As with many other musicians of such clout, numerous songs and landmarks have been dedicated to his enduring legacy. In 1981, a musical revue in his honor, titled Sophisticated Ladies, made its Broadway debut. The show is being revived in Zach's beautiful Topfer Theatre in a staging by Associate Artistic Director Abe Reybold, and, as the title suggests, it is a refined, engrossing theatrical experience.

An impressive painted portrait of Sir Duke serves as the stage curtain before the show begins. But just as you begin to appreciate the dreamy image, it flies away, revealing a stunning set for a sexy, retro nightclub stage, complete with grand piano and old-school orchestra music-stand fronts. That's not just window dressing, though; the orchestra is really there in full swing, paying homage to Ellington's signature big-band style. This tremendously talented group of 10 musicians provides the integral first layer of the evening's experience – what would a jazz revue be without the music itself?

And the music is nonstop. From purely instrumental pieces to doleful ballads lamenting lovers lost, Sophisticated Ladies whirls by, note after unrelenting note. Because of the revue nature, the show has neither plot nor characters, but don't make the mistake of thinking that this lack of dramatic form equals a lack of entertainment. Just as jazz itself doesn't rely on traditional musical structure to evoke a gamut of emotions, this spectacle of a show doesn't, and it certainly does not suffer as a result.

The phenomenal singing serves as a perfect complement to the band, and this is largely due to the exquisite talents of Jennifer Holliday. A Tony and Grammy award-winning performer with a résumé as extensive as her vocal range, Holliday lights up the stage, blowing the audience away with her unbelievably powerful set of pipes, which hit notes that you'd generally have to listen to a Whitney Houston recording to hear. Of particular note is her rendition of "Something to Live For," which elicited a standing ovation.

Music aside, the night largely belongs to the outstanding dancing, brilliantly and inventively choreographed by Dominique Kelley. It is unfortunately rare to see a show with so much tap dancing, and even rarer to see that tapping executed so precisely. These dancers are clearly highly skilled at their craft, but also perform their routines with contagious energy and charisma. One of my favorite moments occurred when a tap solo became a tap duel, then eventually a full-scale tap battle à la West Side Story, another exhaustive display of immense skill that brought the audience to its feet.

Michelle Habeck's soft and romantic lighting paired perfectly with Susan Branch Towne's gorgeous costumes, making the production as compelling visually as it was aurally. For both the eye and ear, this Sophisticated Ladies is just like the inimitable music of Duke Ellington: equally elegant and wildly entertaining.

Sophisticated Ladies

Zach Topfer Theatre, 202 S. Lamar, 512/476-0541
Through Aug. 23
Running time: 2 hr., 15 min.
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Zach Theatre, Abe Reybold, Duke Ellington, Jennifer Holliday, Dominique Kelley, Michelle Habeck, Susan Branch Towne

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