In the best of all possible worlds, the seats in the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center would have disappeared for Saturday's opening of Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities' knockout production of the all-singin', all-dancin' revue "Sophisticated Ladies."
The audience would have been seated at dainty café tables with twinkling lamps, champagne would have flowed, and everyone would have been dressed in evening finery -- just the way it was in the Roaring '20s, when people went uptown to Harlem's Cotton Club.
This exact sentiment was echoed by a more hyper than usual James Blackman, the company's executive director, as he introduced the show and went completely ga-ga over the fact that several members of the Broadway-bound production of "The Wiz," including Valerie Pettiford, were in the audience. I mention this because their presence definitely affected the performance, because those on stage knew they were playing to a select group of their peers.
We were all treated to a peerless performance of this sophisticated revue with its nonstop succession of Duke Ellington classics, rat-a-tat-tat tap-dancing steps, bluesy ballads and a fashion show that featured one incredible costume change after another.
"Sophisticated Ladies" premiered on Broadway in 1981. The next year it opened at the Schubert Theatre in Century City, featuring members of the Broadway company, including Hinton Battle and Gregory Hines. The cast also featured a lithe young dancer named Cheryl Baxter and an up-and-coming dance phenom, Eugene Fleming.
CLOSBC's "Sophisticated Ladies" reunites Baxter, who directed the production with a keen eye and firm hand, and Fleming, whose effusive charm and now veteran talent anchors the performance.
To paraphrase the lyric from Ellington's signature tune, all this wouldn't mean a thing, if it didn't have that swing. And this production swings! Baxter has assembled a cast worthy of Broadway. They infuse the show's 29 song-and-dance numbers with a combination of sultry sophistication and rambunctious, toe-tapping intensity.
There is no book to "Sophisticated Ladies," but the lead characters do sport names such as the Raconteur (Fleming), the Jazzbo (Lacy Darryl Phillips), the Danseuse (Carol Hatchett), the Chanteuse (Angela Teek), the Soubrette (Misty Cotton) and the Hipster (Rob Thompson).
The premise is a fantasy trip back in time to the days of the Harlem Renaissance and slumming, when white folks made their way to the Cotton Club (which did not admit blacks) to enjoy the best in what they termed "jungle music."
Presented in a loose chronological order, the show celebrates the era, including numbers such as "I've Got to Be a Rug Cutter" and "The Mooche" (from 1929), which re-create actual Cotton Club steps and costumes.
You'd have to have one foot in the grave not to enjoy this show. It's a nonstop jukebox of Ellington hits, including "Mood Indigo," "In a Sentimental Mood" and "In the Mood"; smooth ballads such as "Satin Doll," "I'm Beginning to See the Light," "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," "Something to Live For," "Love You Madly" and "Sophisticated Lady"; along with the sophisticated rhythms of "Hit Me With a Hot Note and Watch Me Bounce," "Caravan" and, of course, "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)."
The three sophisticated ladies in the cast, Hatchett, Teek and Cotton, belt, croon and cajole. Fleming holds forth in grand style, vocally and in his tap showcase number, "Kinda Dukish." Phillips and Williams dance up a storm, tapping with the speed of a machine gun, flying through the air and ending in splits that recall the Cotton Club's great duo, the Nicholas Brothers.
The music direction is by C. Steven Smith, who does a fine job leading the onstage jazz orchestra. Unfortunately, during the opening night performance the amplification added a brittle, metallic edge to the Duke's otherwise cool sound.
Sadly, there may come a time when the talent just isn't there to perform "Sophisticated Ladies," because it requires a level of dance skills (particularly tap) that fewer and fewer dancers possess. Baxter had a difficult time assembling this cast. But she did a great job. This is an homage of the first order.