From the moment the Duke Ellington Big Band’s 15 members started to play “Take the ‘A’ Train” at Birdland (April 25, 2011), the great sound reminded those assembled of what really solid music can be like, as it was in the hands of the late but ever-remembered Duke. The occasion was Broadway at Birdland presenting the 30-year-Reunion Celebration of the Broadway opening of Ellington’s “Sophisticated Ladies.” The special attraction: the presence of numerous members of the original cast reprising their stuff. Having seen the original, I can attest that it was one solid show, and as was pointed out, it broke ground or a Broadway musical by having a band on stage instead of in the pit.
Just hearing all that music all over again and enjoying the string of charismatic performances—all singing, no dancing because of no stage room—begged a question. Isn’t “Sophisticated Ladies” ripe for a revival? How great it would be to hear the Ellington sound echoed on Broadway again. When it played the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, opening March 1,1981, it ran for 767 performances.
Mercedes Ellington, the Duke’s grand-daughter and one of the original choreographers, joined by Bruce Heath, filled the audience in on the history, who were present and who are no longer alive. The idea was to honor everyone, and I felt a special pang as Gregory Hines’s name was called.
But honors are best done with music. Frank Owens led the band as music director/pianist and soloed at the keyboard as well. Highlights included the singing of Valarie Pettiford, Ty Stephens, Terri Klausner, P. J. Benjamin and Adrian Bailey, to name a few. I especially liked Klausner’s “Hit Me With a Hot Note and Watch Me Bounce,” and Bailey’s “Drop Me Off In Harlem,” but all were in swinging form.
You can’t go wrong with numbers like “Perdido” “Caravan, “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” “Satin Doll,” “Mood Indigo” “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” and of course, ”Sophisticated Lady.” Now that’s music. Reviewed at Birdland, 315 West 44th Street. Phone: 212-581-3080.