The dancers’ mix of surprise and awe were priceless, so much that Greg Williams Jr. can’t help laughing about it now.
“They didn’t know that all the dances they’re doing today originated with the Lindy Hop, the dance their grandparents were doing back then,” says Williams, New Venture Theatre’s founding artistic director. “They thought they would be doing some easy dances because this music was written so long ago, right? Well they’re working harder than ever.”
And choreographer Jeoffery Harris Jr. has done his research to make sure all of the dances are accurate.
But dancers are only a part of New Venture Theatre’s production of the Broadway hit, “Sophisticated Ladies,” which tells Duke Ellington’s life story through his music. The show opens Thursday, Feb. 19, at the Manship Theatre with a cast of 42, which also features actors, singers and a seven-piece band that will perform on stage.
It makes sense. Ellington’s orchestra was always center stage, especially from Dec. 4, 1927, to June 30, 1931, while headlining as the house band in Harlem’s Cotton Club.
“And when you walk into the Manship Theatre for this show, it’s going to be as if you’re walking into the Cotton Club,” Williams says. “That’s the setting we’re creating, and you’ll be in the audience watching this show set to Duke Ellington’s music.”
“Sophisticated Ladies” is a musical revue connected by a running narrative told by Ellington, played by Christian Jones, who played the lead character in New Venture’s fall production, “Choir Boy.”
“This show isn’t as difficult as ‘Choir Boy,’ ” Jones says. “I had to carry that show, but everyone carries this one.”
All of the characters are on equal footing in this production.
“Duke Ellington is telling the story, but even he’s not the main character,” Williams says. “There is no lead. Each character is as strong as the next, and we have an amazing cast for this show. I know I’ve said this before about other shows, but the cast for this show is the strongest with which I’ve ever worked.”
New Venture attracted a contingent of performers from New Orleans on audition day.
“Some of the people in this show have performed in jazz bands,” Williams says. “Some have even led their own bands. When they heard we were doing this show, they had to be a part of it. They couldn’t miss this chance to tell Duke Ellington’s story through his music.”
Ellington was born Edward Kennedy Ellington on April 29, 1899, in Washington, D.C. He died on May 24, 1974, in New York. Though considered a pivotal figure in jazz, Ellington described his work as “American music” that was beyond category.
“He said, ‘Every song I write is a love I never found,’” Williams says. “The ladies that he may have been dating at the time when he wrote these songs are singing the songs to him in the show.”
“Sophisticated Ladies,” premiered on March 1, 1981, in Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre starring late actor and dancer Gregory Hines.
Characters representing the jazz performers of the jazz master’s day tell their stories and sing such Ellington hits as “Mood Indigo,” “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Hit Me With a Hot Note and Watch Me Bounce,” “Perdido,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” and, of course, “Sophisticated Ladies.”
“And I get to sing ‘Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,’” Angela Smith says. “I also sing, ‘Women Be Wise,’ where I give advice to younger ladies.”
Smith plays Miss May, a seasoned-yet-rambunctious singer who likes to drink and say a few bad words every now and then.
“She’s brash and on edge,” Smith says. “And she loves singing Duke Ellington’s songs.”
Smith loves Ellington’s music, too, and jumped at the chance to audition for this show.
“I’m so glad that the auditions came at a time that I could do it,” she says. “I was just praying that I would get a role.
“When people walk into the theater, they’re going feel like they’re there. They’re going to be in the Cotton Club with Duke Ellington. It’s going to be a fantastical experience.”