Review | “Sophisticated Ladies” at Porchlight

Review | “Sophisticated Ladies” at Porchlight

(L to R) Chuckie Benson, Terri K. Woodall, Joey Stone, Madison Piner and Tristan Bruns | Photo by Michael Courier 

By its very nature, a musical revue highlights the songs of a particular composer, singer, or era. A traditional storyline doesn’t exist in the revue, so the theatergoers can experience exclusively the pure joy of an artist’s song catalog. Once in a while, however, a revue transcends its traditional form and elevates the medium, resulting in an all-around stellar production. The gorgeous and superb SOPHISTICATED LADIES at Porchlight Theatre accomplishes this challenging feat. Led by the fantastic co-director-choreographers Brenda Didier and Florence Walker-Harris and a magnificently talented group of singers, dancers, and musicians, SOPHISTICATED LADIES showcases the timeless music of Duke Ellington, taking us on a journey of the evolution of a true American artistic genius.

Two uniquely American art forms, jazz and tap dance, form the foundation of the evening. Ellington’s music made an inestimable contribution to the creation of jazz, and as the revue unfolds, we experience The Duke’s music as it moves from his ragtime roots to the legendary Cotton Club nightclub in Harlem and on to worldwide acclaim. Each of the 15-member cast gives superb performances, and to single anyone of them out does an injustice to the rest. The Sophisticated Ladies and Gentlemen (Shantel Cribbs, Madison Piner, Jenna Schoppe, Terri K. Woodall, Chuckie Benson, Tristan Bruns, Kaimana Neil, and Joey Stone) execute Didier and Walker-Harris’ stunning and energetic choreography to perfection. The Jazzbo (the suave Donterrio Johnson) leads the group with the astonishing vocals of The Raconteur, Lorenzo Rush, Jr. Rounding out the singers are The Chanteuse (Donica Lynn, in a star-making turn), and the slinky sexy Danseuse (the fantastic Lydia Burke), and The Soubrette (the vocal powerhouse, Molly Kral), who enjoys an adorable flirtation with The Hipster (the hilarious John Marshall, Jr.). Some highlights among the gems onstage: Kral blows the roof off with “Hit Me With A Hot Note,” and Burke turns up the heat with Rush in “Music Is a Woman.” Lynn and Rush’s scat singing in “Take The A Train” would impress even Ella Fitzgerald, and Lynn scores a direct hit to the heart with “In a Sentimental Mood.” Stone, Williams, Johnson, and Benson bring the audience to their feet with “Got To Be A Rug Cutter.”

The fine musicians—led by the extraordinary pianist/conductor Jermaine Hill on a classic white piano—merit mention as well: bassist Marcel Bonfim, Darius Hampton and Jonathan J. Golko on the reeds, Justin Kono on the drums, trombonist Stephanie Lebens, and trumpeter Sam Wolsk. 

As terrific as the performers are, the design elements are equally as impressive. Angela Weber Miller’s classy Art Deco-inspired set and Denise Karczewski’s glorious lighting transport the audience immediately to the glamorous big band era that was captured both in live performance and in cinema of the ’30s and ’40s. Robert Hornbostel’s exceptional sound design makes the seven-piece band sound like a 40-person orchestra. Theresa Ham’s glitzy, outstanding costumes move and sparkle and frame the performers perfectly.

Porchlight has outdone themselves with SOPHISTICATED LADIES. Though the production is only running through early March, it could and should be extended – or perhaps given a commercial life beyond Chicago with all elements and performers intact. It’s honestly, truly that good.

About author

Elizabeth Ellis

Elizabeth is an actor, playwright, musician, and a graduate of De Paul University. She studied theatre and improvisation at the Second City Training Center, the Actors’ Center, and at the Royal National Theatre Studio in London. Elizabeth has performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Tympanic Theatre, Congo Square Theatre, Second City's Children's Theatre, Stage Left Theatre, Bailiwick Arts Center, and London's Canal Cafe Theatre. Six of her plays have been chosen as part of the Abbie Hoffman and the Around the Coyote festivals.