When it tried out in Washington 2 1/2 years ago, "Sophisticated Ladies" was pretty much a shambles. By the time it reached New York, matters had been turned around sufficiently so that the revue, built largely out of the music of Duke Ellington and some outrageous costumes by Willa Kim, was deemed a hit. Last night, the show returned to the Warner Theatre for a two-week run and, as if to prove that progress is eminently reversible, it is a shambles all over again.
What ever sleekness and style the show managed to accrue is barely detectable in this scaled-down touring edition, which combines the lesser virtues of a dance academy recital and an ice show. The orchestra, which once occupied a position of prominence on the stage, has been relegated to the covered pit and is totally dependent on the Warner's unique sound system. Consequently, Ellington's sassy, silken music sounds much as it did when people listened to it on 78s.
The cast numbers a mere 15, which would augur badly for the production numbers, if there were any. The sets consist mostly of drops and one staircase, overused in the second act. Worse, the show has no shape at all--it merely parades one number after another. The numbers really don't have all that much shape either. The singers sing their songs, then they walk off the stage. The dancers dance their dances, then they dance off the stage. Occasionally, someone gets pulled off the stage, as in the hoary old days of vaudeville.
The company is headed by Gregg Burge, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Ira Hawkins and Janet Hubert. Only Burge, a tap dancer of contagious enthusiasm and impressive alacrity, comes close to stopping the show, although the lithe Hubert, who looks as if she might have been drawn by Guy Pe ne du Bois, is fetching to behold. Neither Bridgewater nor Hawkins achieves much distinction with such vocals as "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good," "Solitude," "Take the A Train" and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore." You can't blame the composer this time.
"Mood Indigo" is sung by Christina Saffran, as if she were afraid it might stain her velvet dress. "Satin Doll" is sung by Jamie Rocco, who has the personality to sell used cars, perhaps, but not Ellington. However, just about everyone in the company appears capable of doing those high kicks, whereby the shin very nearly touches the forehead. There is a lot of high kicking going on. When in doubt, high kick. Things slowing down? High kick. Hanging around? Nothing else to do? High kick.
The production is staged and choreographed by Michael Smuin and Donald McKayle, who must have had more urgent business on their minds when it came time to prepare "Sophisticated Ladies" for the road. Only the tap dances, choreographed by Henry Letang, retain any electricity. What the show summons up in the way of an exotic Cotton Club number looks like bad burlesque. A confrontation between street dudes and hookers is garishly chaotic, although it does feature some high kicks.
According to one source, even this skimpy, second-rate production has to gross in the neighborhood of $200,000 a week to pay the bills. Something is terribly wrong with the theater today.
SOPHISTICATED LADIES. Music by Duke Ellington; concept by Donald McKayle; staging and choreography, Donald McKayle and Michael Smuin; sets, Tony Walton; costumes, Willa Kim. With Gregg Burge, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Ira Hawkins, Janet Hubert, Bruce Anthony Davis, Jamie Rocco, Christina Saffran. At the Warner through Sept. 25.