Lincoln Theatre revue 'Duke Ellington's Sophisticated Ladies' is a smash hit

In honor of the late Gregory Hines, the public was invited to join Sophisticated Ladies cast members to learn some of the choreography from the production currently at the Lincoln Theatre in Washington, D.C.
By DeNeen Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 29, 2010

These words, written by musician Wynton Marsalis, appear projected onto a screen on the softly lit stage, all dreamy-like. An ode to Duke Ellington:

"He didn't sleep at night. . . . . He believed that there were two kinds of music: the good kind and the other kind. He was the world's most prolific composer of blues, blueses of all shapes and sizes. . . . Wrote music in all 12 known keys and some keys that are still unknown. . . . Wrote music about the human experience; if it was experienced, he stylized it. In other words, Duke Ellington had a lot on his mind."

During the final act of the razzmatazz hit "Duke Ellington's Sophisticated Ladies," the show's star, Maurice Hines, tap, tap, taps, in a black tux lined with silver sparkles. He snaps his fingers. Snap. Snap. Snap. Gives one of those cool-cat, jazz looks. Agile, as he pops across the stage. His cast, in dazzling costumes, dance beside him.

Then Hines says, in the words of Ellington, to everyone seated before them: "We love you madly!"

Hah! The audience leaps to its feet and someone yells "We love you madly, too!" And the crowd explodes into applause, booming in the historic Lincoln Theatre on U Street NW. This revival show brings crowds night after night, making "Sophisticated Ladies" the highest grossing show in the history of Arena Stage. Its run at the Lincoln Theatre, which began April 15, was first extended through June 6, then to June 27. The crowd-pleaser ran on Broadway for 767 performances between March 1981 and January 1983.

"When they told us we broke the 60-year-old box office record, it was a thrill," says Hines, who choreographed it. He is sitting backstage in his dressing room, a star on his door. "You can't break a record like that without the audience loving the show and you can't break it without repeat business. I walk by the marquee on the way to the stage door and I hear people say, 'This is my third time seeing the show. This is my fourth time seeing it.' And it thrills me. It proves the legacy of the great Duke Ellington."

The legacy of Ellington, considered one of the "most prolific composers of the 20th century," is entwined with the history of U Street. This is Ellington's old stamping ground. "He started in the basement of this theater," Hines says. "It was destiny we do it here."

The show comes at a time when U Street has been resurrected and gentrified, and the actors and the theater reached out to the community in creative ways. Actors have gone to churches and schools and taught tap to students. They've offered jazz classes, hip-hop classes. The casting director invited the public to a discussion about the casting process. "I've never seen a regional theater do anything like this," says cast member Richard Riaz Yoder. "It blows my mind."

The show, a musical revue, celebrates the life and music of Ellington, who was born in Washington in 1899. Ellington grew up around the corner from the theater, on 13th Street NW. He played in jazz clubs and joints on U Street, including the Lincoln Colonnade, a public hall in the basement of the Lincoln Theatre, which was built in 1922.

During the 1920s, U Street was called the Black Broadway and starred, among others, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Moms Mabley, Bessie Smith, Hattie McDaniel and Billy Eckstine.

"Everyone says this show looks like a Broadway show," says Charles Randolph-Wright, the director, who did original research at the Smithsonian to find images, video and obscure facts on Ellington used in the show. "We had to do it right. I kept saying, 'Duke will haunt us if this doesn't look right.' " Ellington's image is pervasive within the U Street corridor. A mural depicting the jazz great can be seen across the street from the theater's entrance. "I was staying in the Ellington Apartments down the street when we were rehearsing," Randolph-Wright says. "You walk out on U Street and you can feel Duke's presence. I would walk out the front door and feel the pulse of what art was in the '20s."

The show tells a story of the man, following Ellington from his childhood in D.C. to Harlem, where he rose to international fame. The show displays Ellington's genius with such hits as "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing," "I Love You Madly" and "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good."

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