Sophisticated Ladies: Porchlight Hits The Mark with This Dazzling Performance

83520466_10157912440621322_386784125949837312_nLet’s take a walk back down memory lane during the Harlem Renaissance days where black performers like Cab Calloway, Bessie Smith, the dancing Nicholas Brothers, songstress Lena Horne, Ethel Waters, Peg Leg Bates graced the world with their talents. These historical figures played a vital role in the music of the Roaring ’20s; however, one of the key figures in the history of Jazz music during the Harlem Renaissance era was Duke Ellington. At the age of seven, he began studying piano and earned the nickname “Duke” from one of his friends. Ellington’s band was one of the most national profiled orchestras of the ’20s; it was music that covered the stain of the racial separation within America. 

Once in a while, Chicago brings back a time where music healed the souls of those that suffered through bigotry, where the songs of music not only soothes the savage beast of racism but, for several hours in the day, it allowed whites and blacks to congregate.  

Porchlight Music Theatre opens the doors to the Jazz Age with Sophisticated Ladies. The musical revue based on the music of Duke Ellington, who gained a national profile through his orchestra’s appearances at the Cotton Club in Harlem. 

Let’s remember; this was the time when blacks were only able to perform and serve at the Cotton Club. The Cotton Club was renowned for the caliber of its floor shows, featuring some of the most influential African American performers of the early 20th century; however, only white audiences could enter the club. This white-only establishment was a significant part of the racist imagery of the era.

83967194_10157912441466322_5576865629123641344_nSophisticated Ladies, which doesn’t have the usual storyline, is elegant and wildly entertaining as it displays the diverse personas of Duke’s style throughout the evening. Duke Ellington’s big band sound features all his memorable composed music including “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing,” “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Satin Doll” and “In a Sentimental Mood.” 

‘Sophisticated Ladies’ was written by Donald McKayle, directed and choreographed by Brenda Didier and Florence Walker-Harris with music direction from Jermaine Hill. Didier’s and Walker-Harris’ choreography showcased the dancing style with high energy and enthusiastic style of the jazz era with gymnastic-like dancing that included swing, tap, and the Charleston.

Porchlight brilliance is its stage. From the moment you walked into the theatre, you witness the beautiful elegance of the big band set staged in black and cream, welcoming you to the club. Angela Weber Miller’s stunning set design works well with the limited space in Porchlight. The prominent placement of the orchestra band sitting high on the stage with their shiny brass instruments and the white grand piano is Duke’s signature of elegance, which helps to bring a night of exuberant delight.

Sophisticated Ladies is breathtaking to look upon with its costumes that will take you straight to the roaring twenties. Theresa Ham showcases the Renaissance era perfectly with stunning ensembles with lots of glitz and glamour and sparkling flapper dresses and tuxedos.

83953994_10157912441096322_1427563158284795904_nThe original cast included Gregory Hines, Judith Jamison, Hinton Battle, Gregg Burge, Mercer Ellington, and featuring one of the most significant losses to the music world, Phyllis Hyman, how I miss that voice. Sophisticated Ladies, opened on Broadway at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on March 1981, and closed in January 1983, after 767 performances and fifteen previews.

Not to be outdone, all of the performances at Porchlight delivered a night of showmanship to the profound greatness of Duke Ellington. Donica Lynn, who is no stranger to Porchlight, was a knockout vocalist. Her ability to riff was mesmerizing in “It Don’t Mean a Thing.” Lorenzo Rush Jr.’s stage presence was exceptional in spades, and his solo songs were sensational. Rush, who is a powerhouse that is equally talented in dance, acting, and an impressive vocalist, is an actor you will remember. 

Lydia Burke held her own matched up with Rush with her impressive vocal range, and Molly Kral, the woman with the clear vocals and lots of vivaciousness, delightfully entertained us with ‘Imagine My Frustration.’ 

John Marshall Jr., who starts off playing a janitor, is not to be overlooked as he gets up the nerves to perform a duet with his vocal partner Kral. Marshall’s smooth tones and dancing was a treat.

The sophisticated, debonair Donterrio Johnson, was also a standout. He delivered his numbers with smoothness, with every calculated movement.  

84164125_10157912439996322_5927271244637405184_nWe could go on and on with names that wowed us with their performances, Williams, Stone, Bruns, Dorsey, Piner, Cribbs, Schoppe, Woodall, Neil Jervai, and Neil. All of these performances provided a night that roared right back into the ’20s with a Duke kind the pizzazz. 

Sophisticated Ladies is a musical thrill ride complete with exceptional dance performances that will have you tapping and doing the Lindy Hop in your seats. 

Let’s Play highly recommend Sophisticated Ladies at Porchlight Music Theatre, where you can go and get into the swing of things!

Concept by Donald McKayle
Music by Duke Ellington
Music Direction by Jermaine Hill
Director and choreographer, Brenda Didier
Co-Director and choreographer Florence Walker Harris
JANUARY 24 – MARCH 6, 2020


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