Jazz is all about improvisation, so it's appropriate that there's an impromptu quality to the Duke Ellington tributes at two of Atlanta's theaters. Either sheer coincidence or possibly the late big-band maestro's ghostly influence can explain why the Alliance Theatre stages the musical revue Duke Ellington's Sophisticated Ladies almost simultaneously with the Center for Puppetry Art's world premiere of Duke Ellington's Cat just around the corner.
Ellington remains one of the legends of jazz music, but his mystique endures not based on tragedy like Charlie Parker or Billie Holiday, nor because of an outsized persona like Louie Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie. Ellington's reputation rests on his unparalleled output and innovation, which include at least 1,000 songs (not counting orchestra works) he recorded.
It's fascinating to compare the ways such a musician influences two of Atlanta's most daring theatrical artists. Each draws inspiration from the Harlem Renaissance, as Duke Ellington's Cat writer/director Jon Ludwig combines kid-friendly slapstick with lush musical numbers while Sophisticated Ladies director/choreographer Kent Gash offers a lavish spectacle that doesn't overlook the precision of its performers.
Since Cat is accessible for all ages, it's best to think of it as an Ellington primer with plenty of silly doodles in the margins. Ellington's eponymous pet narrates the show on the eve of Ellington's 1958 debut of a suite for the queen of England. When music-snob mice steal the composition, the power of music sends them on a chase back through time.
Cat leaps from the pool halls of Washington, D.C., to New York's Cotton Club and recounts such incidents as Ellington's near run-in with Nazi soldiers before World War II, as well as his comeback concert at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival (where the cat and mice played crucial roles). The musical numbers suggest Jazz Age animation come to life, such as boy and girl cats dancing the Lindy Hop to "Take the 'A' Train," a shadow-puppet version of "Caravan" in the desert, and giant hands playing a giant piano for "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)." Cat's use of luminescent paint, in a style evocative of collage artist Romare Bearden, makes the vibrant colors almost upstage the swinging standards.
Ludwig doesn't quite crack the challenge of combining Tom-and-Jerry antics, biographical facts and musical numbers into a seamless whole. Still, at times the show blends with civil rights struggles in unexpected ways. His inability to enter the Cotton Club ("This entrance is for white cats only!") inspires a back-alley crooning of "Mood Indigo."
Sophisticated Ladies reserves racial commentary for a single number, but it packs a wallop. Laurie Williamson, who shows the control and vocal power of an opera star, sings "Solitude" before a mammoth reproduction of a 1940s newspaper announcing, "Record Number of Lynchings!" Otherwise, Sophisticated Ladies' only melancholy moments are the lovelorn songs, and the show plays in a key of sheer exuberance.
Loosely evoking an evening of vintage Ellington numbers at the Cotton Club, Sophisticated Ladies boasts a talented ensemble of eight performers. (They're so versatile, I was actually startled there were so few when they took their final bows.) Perhaps the evening's most amazing feat belongs to DeWitt Fleming, whose tap-dancing solos feature countless "How does he do that?" moves. Tracee Beazer could be a one-woman source of global warming with her go-go dancing in "Imagine My Frustration" and strip-teasing in "Hit Me with a Hot Note and Watch Me Bounce." Meanwhile, pianist William Foster McDaniel, who leads the 10-piece orchestra, proves to be no slouch in the sophistication department with his fingerless white gloves.
Terry Burrell combines a stately bearing with a playful demeanor; scatting like a muted trumpet during "It Don't Mean a Thing," she seems as delighted to be on stage as a thrilled first-timer. Dressed to the nines in Austin K. Sanderson's gowns for "In a Sentimental Mood" and "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good," she croons movingly while striking poses of almost painterly stillness. (She seems to sing higher than her comfort zone for "Take the 'A' Train," however.)
The show's design features some self-consciously kitschy touches, such as the oversized cabbie hats for "Drop Me Off in Harlem" or the flashlights in "Beginning to See the Light," and at times there's a coldness to the show's striking visual effects (which include a stage-size replica of a famous Ellington portrait). Fortunately, most of Gash's effects feel authentic to the period, and Sophisticated Ladies overcomes the predictable, "jukebox" quality of big revues. The show offers outlandish surprises while offering a showcase for performers and famous tunes.
In "It Don't Mean a Thing," Ellington (and lyricist Irving Mills) asserted, "It don't matter if it's sweet or hot." You could say Gash's Sophisticated Ladies are the hot ones, while Ludwig's Cat is definitely sweet. Ellington left a legacy of such abundance that there's apparently room for everyone on the bandstand.
When will you be accepting applicants for the 2014 competition?
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