Let’s take a walk down memory lane during the Harlem Renaissance days, when Black performers like Cab Calloway, Bessie Smith, the dancing Nicholas Brothers, songstress Lena Horne, Ethel Waters, and Peg Leg Bates graced the world with their talents.
These historical figures played a vital role in the music of the Roaring ’20s; however, one of the key figures in the history of jazz music during the Harlem Renaissance era was Duke Ellington.
At the age of seven, he began studying piano and earned the nickname “Duke” from one of his friends. Ellington’s band was one of the most national profiled orchestras of the ’20s; it was music that covered the stain of the racial separation within America.
Once in a while, Chicago brings back a time where music healed the souls of those that suffered through bigotry, where the songs of music not only soothed the savage beast of racism but, for several hours in the day, it allowed whites and Blacks to congregate.
Porchlight Music Theatre opens the doors to the Jazz Age with Sophisticated Ladies, the musical revue based on the music of Duke Ellington, who gained a national profile through his orchestra’s appearances at the Cotton Club in Harlem.
Let’s remember; this was the time when Blacks were only able to perform and serve at the Cotton Club. The Cotton Club was renowned for the caliber of its floor shows, featuring some of the most influential African-American performers of the early 20th century; however, only white audiences could enter the club. This whites-only establishment was a significant part of the racist imagery of the era.
Sophisticated Ladies, which doesn’t have the usual storyline, is elegant and wildly entertaining as it displays the diverse personas of Duke’s style throughout the evening. Duke Ellington’s big band sound features all his memorable composed music, including “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing,” “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Satin Doll” and “In a Sentimental Mood.”
Sophisticated Ladies was written by Donald McKayle, directed and choreographed by Brenda Didier and Florence Walker-Harris, with music direction from Jermaine Hill. Didier’s choreography showcases the high energy and enthusiastic style of the jazz era with gymnastic-like dancing that included swing, tap, and the Charleston.
Porchlight’s brilliance is its stage. From the moment you walke into the theatre, you witness the beautiful elegance of the big band set staged in black and cream, welcoming you to the club. Angela Weber Miller’s stunning set design works well within the limited space Porchlight uses.
The prominent placement of the orchestra band, sitting high on the stage with their shiny brass instruments and the white grand piano, is Duke’s signature of elegance, which helps to bring a night of exuberant delight.
Sophisticated Ladies is breathtaking to look upon with its costumes that will take you straight to the Roaring Twenties. Theresa Ham showcases the Renaissance era perfectly with stunning ensembles with lots of glitz and glamour and sparkling flapper dresses and tuxedos.
The original Broadway cast included Gregory Hines, Judith Jamison, Hinton Battle, Gregg Burge, Mercer Ellington, and featured one of the most significant losses to the music world, Phyllis Hyman; how I miss that voice.
Sophisticated Ladies opened on Broadway at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on March 1981, and closed in January 1983, after 767 performances and 15 previews.
Not to be outdone, all of the performances at Porchlight deliver a night of showmanship to the profound greatness of Duke Ellington. Donica Lynn, who is no stranger to Porchlight, is a knockout vocalist. Her ability to riff is mesmerizing in “It Don’t Mean a Thing.”
Lorenzo Rush Jr.’s stage presence is exceptional in spades, and his solo songs are sensational. Rush, who is a powerhouse equally talented in dance, acting, and an impressive vocalist, is an actor you will remember.
Lydia Burke holds her own matched up with Rush with her impressive vocal range, and Molly Kral, the woman with the clear vocals and lots of vivaciousness, delightfully entertains us with “Imagine My Frustration”.
John Marshall Jr., who starts off playing a janitor, is not to be overlooked as he gets up the nerves to perform a duet with his vocal partner Kral. Marshall’s smooth tones and dancing are a treat.
The sophisticated, debonair Donterrio Johnson, is also a standout. He delivers his numbers with smoothness in every calculated movement.
We could go on and on with names that wowed us with their performances – Williams, Stone, Bruns, Dorsey, Piner, Cribbs, Schoppe, Woodall, Neil Jervai, and Neil. All of these performers provided a night that roared right back into the ’20s with a Duke kind of pizzazz.
Sophisticated Ladies is a musical thrill ride complete with exceptional dance performances that will have you tapping and doing the Lindy Hop in your seats.
Let’s Play highly recommends Sophisticated Ladies at Porchlight Music Theatre, where you can go and get into the swing of things!
Through March 6
Ruth Page Center for the Arts,
1016 N. Dearborn St.
Tickets: $39-$66. Visit or call 773/777-9884 or www.porchlightmusictheatre.org