April 22, 2010 at 5:28 pm EDT | by David J. Hoffman
Ellington’s spirit lives on

The musical language of body and soul soars through the Lincoln Theatre on U Street where D.C. native Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington has come home again to where he began musically at age 17, playing jazz clubs on U Street including the Lincoln Theatre’s own Colonnade, one of the first desegregated clubs in the city.

The work of song and dance impressario, star of the show and its choreographer, openly gay Maurice Hines, the musical triumph of “Sophisticated Ladies” has taken up short-term residence at the Arena Stage production at the Lincoln Theatre through May 30.

Get thee to see this show — no excuses are allowed.

With Hines as its artistic muse and star, this magnificent recreation of the musical career of Duke Ellington and his big-band hits such as “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing,” “Satin Doll” and “Mood Indigo” lights up the Lincoln stage with high-voltage hot notes and cool moves in a multi-talented sensational ensemble cast of 15 singers and dancers.

If you like your showgirls who can dance as well as flaunt their sexuality, strutting their stuff in a negligee, this is the show for you. Same goes of course for the chorus boys, all in tight pants and smooth moves. So what’s not to like?

Flirtatious and toe-tapping, this show does a tap dance all over the audience, especially when dance veteran Hines — born in 1943 and older brother to the great dancer-actor Gregory, who died in 2003 after a long battle with liver cancer — takes the stage.

And Hines wows the audience every time his feet touch the ground, which is often as tap dancer, especially in his show-stopping tap-off with two brothers he found in D.C. and encouraged to audition for this show — teenagers John and Leo Manzari, who attend The Field School and who grew up on the city’s waterfront next door to Arena Stage’s permanent theater complex.

The brothers Manzari make their professional regional theater debut in this show, but when you see them duel Hines to a draw in the tap-dance department, you know you haven’t seen the last of this dynamic fraternal duo. At the end, Hines stands back with an infectious avuncular grin at how every good they are.

This blend of vaudeville and burlesque and the best of big band and Broadway is all agog with non-stop singing and dancing, as fingers snap, bodies pop, and hips swivel while the Charleston, bunny hop and swing are performed. Among the numbers are show tunes and jazz hits such as “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” “I’m Just a Lucky So-and-So,” “I Got It bad and “That Ain’t Good.”

The show sparkles with enough bubbly entertainment that a full magnum of every expression of Duke Ellington elegance couldn’t contain these carbonated moments of pure delight. The Duke’s own sophisticated musicianship lives again on U Street now.

Finally, Hines reveals his partisan colors by showing both Michelle and Barack Obama some hot dance moves (they were not in attendance the night I was there but the president has seen this show). Hines said the special moves were designed for the president, to “chase away those pesky Republicans.” Another moment to remember comes when Hines arrives on stage literally riding a man-mobile, moving parts of men forming the look and feel of a sleek automobile.

Hines began his own acclaimed career at age 5 and soon he and his younger brother Gregory were appearing on Broadway and touring as the opening act for such legendary headliners as singer-stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Their father joined the act, and soon Hines, Hines and Dad were performing to rave reviews in New York, Las Vegas and Europe, and appeared 35 times on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. Later, Hines was chosen to star as Nathan Detroit in the national tour of “Guys and Dolls,” which he recently reprised in another national tour, and in 1978/79 he created a sensation on Broadway in the hit show “Eubie!”

As for the legendary composer, conductor and pianist Duke Ellington (1899-974), his spirit lives on in this show. Ellington was a giant in the world of jazz and brought its rowdy subversive soul into concert halls and religious services. His works spanned genres including symphonic as well as film scores and jazz classics. “Sophisticated Ladies” first opened on Broadway in 1981 and garnered eight Tony nominations, including best musical.

Tickets for “Sophisticated Ladies” range from $25 to $74, with discounts available for students and groups, as well as a limited number of $10 tickets available weekly for patrons under 30 and half-price tickets also available day of performance.

Shows run Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday at 7:30 p.m., with a 6 p.m. curtain on April 25; Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.. Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. (1 p.m. curtain on April 25). Also, weekday matinees at noon run on April 21, 27 and May 5.

‘Sophisticated Ladies’
Arena Stage @ Lincoln Theatre
1215 U St., N.W.

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