Theater review: Arena Stage's 'Sophisticated Ladies' at Lincoln Theatre

Marva Hicks, Maurice Hines, John Manzari and Leo Manzari star in Arena Stage's production of the jazzy musical revue.
By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, April 21, 2010

With Arena Stage producing part time at the Lincoln Theatre while the troupe's regular home gets a two-year makeover, why not exploit U Street's roots with the Duke Ellington tribute "Sophisticated Ladies"? And since Arena has a working relationship with Maurice Hines, who starred in the company's "Guys and Dolls" and replaced his brother Gregory nearly 30 years ago in the original Broadway run of "Sophisticated Ladies" -- well, what could be more natural?

Obvious programming ideas can be good, and the results are terrific for the Lincoln, a historic but hard-to-program hall that's just right for this superheated razzmatazz. The theater's daunting height and depth are amply filled by the swinging orchestra onstage and the parade of glitzy costumes evoking hot spots and nightclubs from the Jazz Age through the 1960s. (The march of time, which pointedly includes U Street's heyday as a black entertainment mecca, is more literally depicted in set designer Alexander V. Nichols's tastefully understated video projections.)

Even Maurice Hines's restless, sassy choreography aims to connect with the farthest rows, though that occasionally becomes one of the evening's liabilities. The party hits the highest gear at every opportunity, rarely letting the dancers or the audience rest. As the action zips from the Cotton Club to the Savoy and then, as Ellington goes international, to places like Amsterdam, the high kicks and exuberant spins seem like they'll never stop. The stylistic reach feels too comprehensive -- African dance! 1920s fads! Classical ballet! -- and while it's an understandable response to Ellington's variety, the perpetual motion can be exhausting.

But it can also be a gas, as it is in a 1960s bit with a singer in a Mondrian-inspired dress, feeling left out while a cheerful go-go scene chugs around her. (This dance is by Kenneth Lee Roberson, credited with additional choreography throughout the show.) And of course we have Hines himself, still a gleeful ambassador of tap, surprisingly agile and full of mischief as he cocks his hips and prowls toward the various glamour-pusses inhabiting the highly decorated stage.

The Ellington band is swell, and great tunes such as "Take the 'A' Train," "Satin Doll" and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" give the show a lush framework. A real highlight, though, comes when the musicians lay out and Hines holds court with two young tap-dancing brothers, John and Leo Manzari. The music comes solely from the dancers' feet as the veteran throws down against the upstarts -- local high-schoolers, mind you, ages 17 and 15 -- swapping pattern for pattern in a friendly competition.

The kids are more than all right, and Hines generously gives the Manzaris their own space. Long live tap: The form seems to be on thin ice these days, and it's both satisfying and haunting to watch Hines watching the talented brothers wow the crowd.

Vocally, the show tilts more toward Broadway brassy than nightclub elegant, and the amplification is harsh; expert as Arena's technical staff is, it still hasn't licked this problem. (Oddly, the orchestra sounds warm and mellow, even routed through the speakers.) Otherwise, director Charles Randolph-Wright oversees a smooth-running enterprise, with the set's floor-to-ceiling panels neatly masking the entrances and exits of the dazzlingly dressed actors. Reggie Ray's costumes -- and there must be 10 for Hines alone -- are such an upscale eyeful that by the end, the glittery clothing practically glows, in keeping with the show's mantra of more, and still more.

"Not yet," Hines told Saturday night's audience at one point when it began to applaud. "I'll tell you when." You bet he will. And when he does, go right ahead.

Sophisticated Ladies

Concept by Donald McKayle, based on the music of Duke Ellington. Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright. Musical director, David Alan Bunn; lights, Michael Gilliam. With Sam J. Cahn, Janine DiVita, Marva Hicks, Sabra Lewis, Tony Mansker, Karla Mosley, Kristyn Pope, Wynonna Smith, Keith Lamelle Thomas, DeMoya Watson, Hollie E. Wright and Richard Riaz Yoder. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Through May 30 at the Lincoln Theatre, 1215 U St. NW. Call 202-488-3300 or visit

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