SPOHISTICATED LADIES -- At theKenedy Center Opera House through February 8. Dark this Sunday through Tuesday. EUBIE! -- At the Warner Theater through January 25.
Of the two "tribute" revues in town, "Sophisticated Ladies" at the Kennedy Center is the sleek one, and "Eubie!" at the Warner is the budget job. It would be nice to add that the simpler show had more heart or fresher talent than the fancier one, but actually, "Sophisticated Ladies" has more verve, imagination and entertainment, along with its expensive supply of neon lights and feathered costumes.
Both are elongated nightclub acts, using the excuse of paying respect to the career of a popular composer to present a program of his hits, through song, dance, orchestration and clowning around.
In waxing nostalgic about the great nightclubs of the past, these shows only remind their own audiences how much less satisfactory it is to have to watch and listen to them while remaining immobile and silent in the dark (not to mention being without a drink).
But given the disavantages of the format, "Sophisticated Ladies" has a decided asset. It's composer is Duke Ellington, whose work is of a level of complexity that provides its own variety and sustains the interest even when linked into one unrelieved blast of big-number excitement.
"Eubie!" does Eubie Blake a disservice by putting so many of his light and charming songs together. No matter how delightful each may be by itself, or as the centerpieces of a conventional show, they are too simple, musically, to bear the juxtaposition. One can't help noticing how often Blake's rhythms inspired his lyricists no further than rhyming "you" with "blue," "leaving" with "grieving" and "love" with "turtle dove."
"Sophisticated Ladies" has Ellington's son, Mercer, leading the orchestra, when he isn't turning around watching his daughter, Mercedes, in the chorus; it has Judith Jamison, the dancer, wearing an amazing, key-board size grin and marcelled hair in a rivetingly comic approximation of Josephine Baker; it has Donald McKayle's inventive choreography; it has an endless supply of fur boas and feather trains; it has Terri Klausner as sort of Judy Garland and Phyllis Hyman breathing out gospels and mood pieces; it has a precision chorus, equally good at singing, tap dancing and acting as human turnstiles; and it has Gregory Hines doing some snappy dancing when he doesn't have to deliver the dumb narration.
Some of its best touches were the least elaborate or costly -- four chorus members in yellow and black-and-white checks portraying a taxicab, or wearing white jumpsuits, clutching hands to convey the dipping of an airplane. And some of the least effective act are those in which dancers are encumbered with strange and luxurious tails. So at least within this show, effort triumphs over expenditure.