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Review: MSMT Launches 61st Season with Duke Ellington Extravaganza

Review: MSMT Launches 61st Season with Duke Ellington Extravaganza

So what does a theatre company do to keep its momentum and even up the ante after a 60th anniversary season that broke all records? Why not hire three choreographers, fourteen virtuoso singer-dancers, and an eleven-piece big band orchestra, to mount the largest dance show in its history that celebrates the music of one of America's immortal musical geniuses, Duke Ellington? That is precisely what Maine State Music Theatre has done in its 2019 season opener with its sensational all-singing, all-dancing, visually opulent extravaganza, SOPHISTICATED LADIES, that is currently blowing the roof off the Pickard with its high-octane visceral energy, heady joy, and pure lyrical magic.

The show, originally conceived by Donald McKayle and first premiered on Broadway in 1981, offers a musical journey through Duke Ellington's most famous songs and instrumental compositions. There is no book, and the only spoken dialogue is the host's brief introductory remarks. Instead, Ellington's musical story is told completely in song, dance, and orchestrals, arranged thematically to give the viewer an opportunity to journey through the various periods of the composer's creative life from his years at the Cotton Club, to his life during the Harlem Renaissance, to his creation of great rhythm and blues, swing, and American songbook standards.

Marc Robin directs with his customary sense of fast-paced, seamless action, punctuated by poignant lyrical moments. He makes the brilliant choice to employ three different choreographers to accomplish the breadth of the show's dance vision - each of whom has a fabled resume and contributes a special expertise and style. Kenny Ingram (of LION KING fame) creates the Harlem style with its jazzy, bluesy roots; Mark Stuart (with Jaime Verazin) tackles the swing style with their own blend of modern, ballet, and Latin-infused dance, while Robin, himself, provides the breathtakingly dazzling tap sequences. Each choreographer has moments in which to showcase his signature style, and then there are other moments when all the elements are incorporated into a single sequence that is stunningly complex. The resulting dance narrative is quite simply mind-blowing, giving the Pickard audiences something to talk about for a long time to come.

MSMT's production also relies on the finest musical values, faithfully recreating the rich big band sound with eleven excellent musicians playing on stage under the eloquent leadership of Music Director A. Scott Williams. Not only do they channel the sounds of the 1920s and 30s with consummate style, but they bring Duke Ellington's longer instrumentals compositions to life in the Overture, Entr'acte and "Harlem Suite."

Review: MSMT Launches 61st Season with Duke Ellington Extravaganza The physical production does MSMT proud with the elegant, clean lines and grand scale of Charles S. Kading's Art Deco set with props by Katelin Walsko, lit by Jesse Klug in a kaleidoscope of pastels and darker, saturated tones that thoroughly capture the mercurial moods of the music. Shannon Slaton manages to create a pleasing acoustic that balances orchestra and vocalists and has a palpable aural frisson. Stage Manager Mark Johnson anchors expertly. And then there are the lavish costumes by Jeff Hendry (wigs/,makeup Anthony Lascoskie, Jr.) that vividly bring to life a bygone era with elegance, glamour, and even a touch of the outrageous that makes each and every one of the more than one hundred outfits unforgettable. Perhaps the single most indelible image Hendry creates is in the penultimate number, "Sophisticated Lady," where Shari Williams turns her back to the audience and cigarette holder in hand poses before the band in a gold lamé, fur-trimmed coat, white satin dress with train and glittering turban; she becomes an icon straight out of an Erté painting.

The cast is an insanely talented ensemble. Legendary divas E. Faye Butler and Felicia P. Fields, together with Jim Hogan, deliver some of Ellington's greatest vocal classics. Butler with her powerhouse dark voice serves up sultry, smoky, raw, and ravishing vocal moments in songs like "Love You Madly/Perdido," "In a Sentimental Mood" and "Take the A Train," while Fields belts and riffs using her lush contralto to find the emotion and humor in sequences like the signature "It Don't Mean a Thing,""Do Nothin' Till You Hear from Me" or "I'm Beginning to See the Light." When the two combine talents as they do in the duet "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good/Mood Indigo," the result is show stopping. Hogan demonstrates his vocal mettle in big numbers like "Duke's Place," "Something To Live For," and "Sophisticated Lady."

The eleven-person ensemble delights with their rapid-fire versatility, moving among dance and song styles, and creating cameo characterizations in each of the segments. Carissa Gaughran shines in several spotlight moments, especially in her beautiful vocal rendition of "In My Solitude," accompanied by Janayé McAlpine's expressive dance solo. Jessica A. Lawyer ignites the stage in sequences like "Music Is a Woman." Allie Pizzo and Greer Gisy prove extraordinary tap dancers, and Shari Williams delivers some of the most characterful dance vignettes, including her provocative, sultry heroine of "Harlem Suite" and her jaded "Sophisticated Lady." The male ensemble is equally stunning with Neville Braithewaite, Tyler Johnson-Campion, Louis James Jackson, Connor Schwantes, and Jake Corcoran excecuting some of the most intricate, astoundingly difficult combinations a strong athleticism and lithe fluidity that make them seem deceptively easy.

Review: MSMT Launches 61st Season with Duke Ellington Extravaganza SOPHISTICATED LADIES has all the glitter of a golden age of American music and culture. It captures the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance, of the dawning jazz age, and it pays singular tribute to one of the cornerstones of American music, Duke Ellington. MSMT's production knocks the audience off its feet with its heady, intoxicating mix of styles, its sheer visceral high energy and wit, and it equally arresting moments of lyrical grace. This is perhaps the most ambitious show this company has mounted in its first slot, and one of the most demanding and sensational dance productions ever to be seen on the Pickard stage. It speaks to the ways in which the company has grown artistically each and every year, to the uncompromising standards of excellence it sets, to Artistic Director Curt Dale Clark's and Director/Choreographer Marc Robin's unerring abilities to cast the very best talent, and to that extra special something in the theatre's commitment and culture that makes the entire company find those WOW! moments.

Photographs courtesy MSMT, Kinectiv, photographer

SOPHISTICATED LADIES runs from June 5- June 22 at MSMT's Pickard Theater, 1 Bath Rd., Brunswick, ME 207-725-8769

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