Sophisticated Ladies means all the things at Porchlight | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

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Sophisticated Ladies means all the things at Porchlight

The Duke Ellington revue is pure fire and joy.

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I'm no fan of imperatives, but on occasion one simply must make an exception. To wit: Stop reading this. Not kidding. Cease immediately and go get tickets to Porchlight Music Theatre's Sophisticated Ladies. Directed and choreographed by Brenda Didier and Florence Walker Harris with music direction by Jermaine Hill, it is to jukebox musicals as the Grand Canyon is to sinkholes.

The revue of more than two dozen Duke Ellington songs (concept by Donald McKayle) begins with Hill's seven-piece orchestra unleashing an incandescent overture that sounds like a this-cannot-possibly-be-topped-finale. Then, it just keeps getting better. Sophisticated Ladies is the sound of glory, amplified by sublime dancing.

Let's start with Donica Lynn, whose mid-first act "It Don't Mean a Thing" is accompanied by a sparkly corps of snazzy chorines. You know how extraordinary feats of gymnastics are named for their creators, such as the double-double beam dismount known as the Biles? Lynn's molten vocals should be likewise codified. Nobody in musical theater out-Donicas Donica, and she is at her Donica-est here. Tens across the board. And we're not even halfway to intermission.

The choreography is fire, as is immediately apparent in "The Mooche," which showcases a corps of Josephine Baker-fine dancers outfitted in elaborate palm-leaf scanties that evoke Baker's iconic banana leaf costume. (Theresa Ham's designs deserve a runway.) The sizzler is so unabashedly sensual if feels like you could get pregnant just watching it. Opening night, there was a wig mishap that turned into a scene of pure inspiration during "Mooche." May we all handle whatever obstacles life throws our way with the unflappable, authoritative beauty of Teri K. Woodall schooling that rogue hair pile. Woodall gets a solo dance later with "Solitude" (sung by Lydia Burke with the intensity of a thousand breaking hearts). It's a breathtaking celebration of muscle, blood and bone, and physical power. This is what Walt Whitman was talking about when he sang the body electric.

Every song in the revue tells an elaborate story rich in detailed characters, the transitions between songs adding layers on layers. Some are entire scenes, such as "Ko-Ko" which features an edge-of-your-seat poker game where the mighty Lorenzo Rush Jr. eventually swaggers off with the loot. As is only fitting, because when Rush scats, it's pure money.

Speaking of: Joey Stone. Although Stone looks nothing like Ben Vereen, his dance—particularly his jazz and tap—evokes the great song-and-dance man at the height of his powers. Stone's line is Grecian-graceful and his footwork looks so effortless it's like he's saying, "Oh, this old backward double-time-step-buffalo-shuffle-pirouette-split-leap-Arabian thing? Just pulled it out of the hamper 'cause everything else was in the wash." Shut. Up.

If you have a pulse, Sophisticated Ladies will fill you with joy. Why are you still here?  v

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