By Patrick O’Brien
The season is not over yet, but Porchlight’s Sophisticated Ladies may have just set the record for most showstoppers in one evening. Three in the first act alone, by my count.
One on hand, this should not be surprising. It’s Porchlight and it’s a Duke Ellington revue. Who wouldn’t go in expecting superb interpretations of some of the most superb American music of the twentieth century?
On the other hand, Sophisticated Ladies, first staged on Broadway in 1981, may have gotten lost under all the other revues cropping up at the time. In those days, if you could lay claim to at least one page of the Great American Songbook, there was a Broadway revue with your name on it. Ain’t Misbehavin’ (done by Porchlight six seasons ago) seemed to lay down the formula: prolific composer plus modest production values equals boffo business.
But Sophisticated Ladies ain’t modest; it’s a damn grand and classy affair. At the Ruth Page, there’s a cast of nearly 20; a hep band led by the incomparable Jermaine Hill in white tie and tails; and Angela Weber Miller‘s set’s got enough sweeping staircases, crystal sconces and backlit Art Deco geometries to make a jazz hipster envious.
Nor can anyone reduce the breadth and depth of the Duke’s music to fit a “formula,” to just one page of the Great American Songbook. The man himself aimed to compose “beyond category,” and produced a vibrant and versatile catalogue with which Choreographer Donald McKayle to conceive the revue way back when, and for Director/Chorepgraphers Brenda Didier and Florence Walker Harris to set the stage a-swingin’ afresh here in Chicago.
Milieu? Classy as hell. Characters? Sure, there are names in the program (“The Soubrette,” say, or “The Jazzbo”), but, dollars to donuts, all that matters is those sophisticated ladies and gents are gonna cut some sharp figures in sharper costumes right before barreling into a high-energy dance break. Standouts among the high-caliber ensemble do emerge: Donica Lynn and Donterrio Johnson are at the center of several of those aforementioned showstoppers, skit-skat-shoppin’ and bwee-boppin’ up a storm to prove Duke’s immortal point that “It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.”
That particular showstopper comes halfway through Act One, by the way.
The biggest surprise, then, is there’s no room for an extension; must close March 6th, they say. Chicago may not have an ‘A’ train, but the Red Line ride will do—take it. Miss it, and you’ll have it bad, and that ain’t good.
Porchlight Music Theatre presents “Sophisticated Ladies” through March 6 at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn Street. More information and tickets are available here.