SOPHISTICATED LADIES; based on the music of Duke Ellington; conceived, directed and choreographed by Donald McKayle; scenery by Tony Walton; costumes by Willa Kim; musical direction by Mercer Ellington; orchestrations by Al Cohn; lighting by Jennifer Tipton.
With Gregory Hines, Judith Hamison, Phyllis Hyman, P. J. Benjamin, Terri Klausner, Hinton Battle, Greg Burge, Mercedes Ellington and Priscilla Baskerville.
At the Kennedy Center Opera House through Feb. 8.
"Sophisticated Ladies" is the New York Yankees, the Scrooge McDuck, the Abu Dhabi of big musical revues. It suffers from a problem most musicals would be delighted to deal with -- namely, an embarrassment of riches.
So it will be a crime if the likable production that opened last night at the Kennedy Center doesn't become downright lovable. It would have to be lovable, of course, to do justice to Duke Ellington, one of the great musicians of the 20th century and a particular glory of this city, his birthplace. But even if "Sophisticated Ladies" never becomes the show it ought to be, at least no one has to be afraid of getting less than his money's worth.
A singer named Priscilla Baskerville illustrates the abundance of talent here. Baskerville applies her sensational voice (identified as "spinto soprano" in the program) to two Ellington gospel numbers, "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" toward the start of Act One, and "Heaven" toward the end of Act Two. In between, she hits a few memorable notes in "Solitude," and is barely heard from otherwise. From the typography of the program's title page, I make her out to be the ninth featured player.
There are people with higher billing, too, whose duties never seem quite commensurate with their talents, or whose talents never seem quite commensurate with the show. But Gregory Hines and Phyllis Hyman are not among them. Hines is dynamite, whether dancing or singing (or, better yet, scat-singing). His skills in those departments more than make up for the utterly fatuous narration he delivers with all-too-appropriate lack of conviction. And Hyman has such a terrific voice when she simply faces the audiences and sings -- as in "Take the 'A' Train" -- that her occasional tendencies to muffle words or play too many games with a melody also deserve our forgiveness.
Simplicity is what "Sophisticated Ladies" needs more of, across the board. Donald McKayle has contributed some brash and lovely choreography that sits nicely with the music, but time and again the dances start out small and snappy (often with Hinton Battle and Greg Burge figuring prominently), only to end up big and cluttered. And the bigger the number, the more the choreography edges away from the spirit of Edward Kennedy Ellington to the spirit of Broadway bland.
Perhaps McKayle should listen harder to the music -- to the friendly fighting of the soloist and the ensemble that is the essence of Ellington -- and try to put more of that rambunctiousness into his dances. And while he is at it, he and musical director Mercer Ellington might find a way to give the band more spontaneity and bounce. If "Sophisticated Ladies" can't find room for a few outright jam sessions, it should at least sound, from time to time, like it is jamming. As things are, the orchestrations and the musicianship are just too premeditated and too tame.
Among its other distinctions, "Sophisticated Ladies" marks the Broadway-musical debut of Judith Jamison, whose name has long been connected with the Alvin Ailey dance company. Jamison cuts a statuesque figure on stage, moves with great elegance, and demonstrates surprising flair as an actress. But McKayle seems hardpressed to come up with dances that manage to suit her and the material at the same time, and in the end her bizarre costumes (including one that looks like pure Salvador Dali, with piano keys along her leg) make more of an impression than her steps. So I would reluctantly list her among the show's less essential assets, along with P. J. Benjamin, the multi-talented star of last year's "Charlie and Algernon," who is given little to do here and even less worth doing. A smaller cast might not be a bad idea in any case. That way, each performer could establish more of an ongoing identity.
Naturallly, "Sophisticated Ladies" has more than the usual complement of producers too. There are seven sponsors listed above the title, and it is presumably thanks to them that the show has been mounted in spectacular style, with a panoply of neon signs to identify the various cafes and clubs where Ellington performed.
The show is built around a guided tour of these sites, conducted by a narrator (Hines) who dreams of "the perfect note" and of "what it would be like to live in and be a part of Duke's world." I think I can state categorically that there isn't a word of this narration that couldn't be deep-sixed to everyone's benefit. And if that leaves the show without a structure, well, maybe a few biographical anecdotes or a few of Ellington's own words would suffice.
Or maybe the show shouldn't feel such a burden to justify its existence. Maybe the music is enough.