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Maine State Music Theatre has kicked off its 2019 season with toe-tapping (literally) style with “Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies. 

This is a revue, which means it’s essentially a showcase for Ellington’s work, brought to life by a  powerhouse live big band and an ensemble of singers and dancers. It’s not designed to have a plot that connects each showpiece, there’s a little monologue and little-to-no dialogue. 

As a result, how one feels about “Sophisticated Ladies” rests largely on how one feels about Ellington’s music. For me, it’s personal. 

My grandfather made his living as a swing musician, forming a band in the late 1930s and drawing inspiration from Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman and other big band names of the era. Somewhere, I have a 45 of Grandpa’s instrumental interpretation of Ellington’s “Caravan” recorded in the early 1950s. 

When I hear Ellington’s “Take The A Train” or “In a Sentimental Mood,” I’m thinking about Grandpa, and how he pulled off the minor miracle of supporting his large Italian family by playing the music he loved. 

It’s that sort of nostalgia that “Sophisticated Ladies” taps into, with its stunning night club setting. Plenty of nostalgia-driven shows bath their productions with a sepia palette. But “Sophisticated Ladies” eschews that in favor of a set and costumes that employ pastels and other bold, high contrast colors, reflective of the actors’ energy. 

The show kicks into high gear early with an explosion of tap dancing, and keeps the pace going, slowing only enough for numbers such as Carissa Gaughran’s sultry rendition of “Hit Me with a Hot Note and Watch Me Bounce.” Meanwhile, Jim Hogan and Allie Pizzo are lovely in their duet rendition of “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore/I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart.” E. Faye Butler and Felicia P. Fields seem to steal the spotlight whenever either of them are on stage, but balance that out with their rendition of “I Got it Bad and That Ain’t Good/Mood Indigo.” 

Considering the costume changes and the number of high-impact tap dance performances (not to mention the fact that these performers do multiple performances within a day), I felt exhausted just watching the actors. 

To be able to hear a live band perform these songs live, as they were meant to be heard is a rare fortune for the average music lover in 2019. I can’t say enough about the orchestra led by A. Scott Williams. Fortunately, there are a couple of numbers that allows the musicians to shine on their own. 

“Sophisticated Ladies” is a call back before there was auto-tune, when a musician had to be more than just someone layering samples and drum programming on a laptop (of course, there were no laptops, but I digress). A musician had to stand on his or her own, whether that instrument was a double bass, clarinet, sax or their voice. 

As director Marc Robin wrote, it’s a reflection a time where people would “celebrate life” through a shared experience of live music at a swing club. “Sophisticated Ladies” doesn’t pause in to reflect on the turbulent times in which Ellington lived – there’s no acknowledgment of racial segregation or world war. (There is a gag involving a jilted lover brandishing a rifle that, while serving a nod to the humor of the time, hasn’t aged well.) 

 This show is about the music. Maybe that’s how it should be. 

Maine State Music Theatre’s “Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies” runs through June 22 at the Pickard Theater at Bowdoin College.  Visit msmt.org or call the box office at (207) 725-8769 for ticket information. 

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