The music and jazz orchestra performances of Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington moved America for decades. So it’s no surprise that Sophisticated Ladies, a revue built around that music, became a Broadway hit in 1981. Nor is it a surprise that Stage Door Theatre in Coral Springs would share that familiar music with its large, loyal, older audiences.
Put together for Broadway by Donald McKayle, Sophisticated Ladies is driven by songs that range from haunting to amusing, and by elaborate dance numbers that originally showcased the dazzling prowess of star Gregory Hines and his cast mates. The revue has almost no dialogue, and audiences learn nothing about Ellington beyond the evidence of his prolific musical legacy.
At Stage Door, under the direction of Dan Kelley and with elaborate choreography by Chrissi Ardito, Sophisticated Ladies becomes a by-the-numbers song and dance show. Some of those numbers -- particularly those featuring the expert jazz vocals of Ziarra Washington -- are exquisite invitations to get lost in Ellington’s world. Others feel like filler, as one singer goes ever-so-slightly flat and another struggles with a melody that doesn’t lie comfortably in his range.
The use of prerecorded instrumental accompaniment isn’t always a problem, but it is here. While that choice might be understandable -- there are, after all, 11 singer-dancer-actors to pay -- the give-and-take of live music would deepen a show born of a jazz aesthetic. The lack of live musicians is a bit ironic, given Ellington’s history as a pianist and orchestra leader, and it makes the number-to-number transitions that much more difficult. Sophisticated Ladies is all start, stop, start, stop, with little flow.
The performers, dressed in a constantly changing array of colorful costumes by Peter Lovello, bring plenty of vocal and dance talent to the piece, leading to a number of memorable moments.
The standout singer, though not the only impressive one, is Washington. Slender, self-assured and adept at revelatory phrasing, she scats opposite the appealing Christopher George Patterson on Take the ‘A’ Train, delivers an aching In a Sentimental Mood, turns a duet with Stevanie Anita Williams (a blending of I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good and Mood Indigo) into one of the show’s highlights. Williams brings a torch singer’s sensibility to Solitude and Lush Life, and she and Patterson find the bounce in I’m Beginning To See the Light.
Led by lanky Gregory Omar Osborne, dancers Clint J. Hromsco, Marcus Davis, Walter P. Kemp II, Courtney Blackmun, Karma Jenkins and Shenise Nuñez turn Caravan into a demonstration of precision tapping. Brooke Martino brings vocal exuberance and high kicks to Hit Me With a Hot Note and Watch Me Bounce, and Patterson shines opposite Washington in the counterpoint number Don’t Get Around Much Anymore/I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart.
For many in the Stage Door audience, Sophisticated Ladies will seem a perfectly pleasant way to spend an afternoon at the theater. But musicians and smoother transitions would make for a better show.