THE BASICS: SOPHISTICATED LADIES, a musical revue showcasing the Duke Ellington songbook directed by John Fredo, starring Cecelia Barron, Annette Christian, Dudney Joseph, Jr., London Lee, Katy Miner, Ben Michael Moran, and Zoe Scruggs runs through March 5, Wednesdays & Thursdays at 7 p.m., Fridays at 7:30, Saturdays at 3:30 & 7:30, and Sunday afternoons at 2 at MusicalFare Theatre, 4380 Main St., Amherst (839-8540). Full service bar in a beautiful piano lounge that often has Theresa Quinn at the keyboard after the show, plenty of parking. Note: The Getzville Road entrance is a more direct route to the venue. Runtime: a little less than 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission. www.musicalfare.com
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: A fast paced musical revue of American jazz icon Duke Ellington’s greatest hits, four women and three men sing solos, duets, trios, and ensembles to a live 6-man band all the while dancing on a very classy set wearing stunning period costumes.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: John Fredo, the choreographer and director, has hand picked talent from a variety of WNY’s best companies, picking up folks from The Paul Robeson Theatre, Ujima Theater Company, Irish Classical, and Nickel City Opera, to name a few. And, since this production doesn’t have the original 1981 Broadway show’s Gregory Hines to fall back on, Fredo has carefully choreographed a dizzying display using each of the ensemble’s best talents.
It was eye-opening to read Fredo’s bio/credits in the playbill. He’s been on local stages for nearly 100 productions, but his international career has seen him working with Mr. Hines and other world-class dancers such as Joel Grey in a variety of musicals. He’s got cred, which explains how he was able to assemble the band.
And this band is something else. George Caldwell, who currently leads the UB Jazz Ensembles and played in both Duke Ellington’s Orchestra and The Count Basie Orchestra, leads the combo as Music Director from the keyboard of a real (not electronic) piano, a grand no less. He’s smooth, cool, and self-assured, and his very presence itself says “sophistication.” With Dave Siegfried on bass and Rodney Harper of Chicago on drums, that’s a tight jazz trio. Now add in jazz legend Bobby Militello playing clarinet, alto and tenor sax, Tim Clarke on trumpet, and John Hasselback on trombone and we’re cooking. These guys are “old school” and it was an honor to be in the same room with all that talent and experience.
Admittedly, on the cold Friday night we went, the opening medley was a little rough as if everybody needed a warmup, but the sextet redeemed itself in the prelude to Act II, a memorable arrangement of Ellington collaborator Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train” and with 35 accompanied songs in 30 separate numbers you will get your money’s worth.
The musical numbers come at you at a dizzying pace delivered by seven able performers. In alphabetical order they are: Cecilia Barron who is the Duracell Battery of this show. What energy. Annette Christian also sings at True Bethel Baptist Church and delivers that full, rich, gospel sound. Dudney Joseph, Jr. and Landon Lee are both big guys who are amazingly light on their feet. Sure, they could do more if the show were named “sophisticated gentlemen,” but remember that the musical is named “sophisticated ladies” and so their roles are more supportive. Katy Miner is a local cabaret singer equally at home on the opera stage and her voice is sweet. When Ben Michael Moran first appeared on stage, we did a double take. Seen many times before, somehow in this role he is the spitting image of a younger John Fredo (the director) with a very pliable and comic face. And Zoe Scruggs is also a very active local singer, rounding out a cast of actor/singer/dancers who let you, as the airline pilots say, “sit back and enjoy the ride.”
Once again, Chris Schenk has completely transformed the MusicalFare stage with a set that just oozes sophistication.
Once again, Chris Schenk has completely transformed the MusicalFare stage with a set that just oozes sophistication. The central location of the band, framed on left and right by panels which change throughout the show, and for a while become screens upon which are projected images of Harlem in Ellington’s era, not to mention the stylish railings, is perfection. MusicalFare sets are among the best in Buffalo and this one, as my five year old used to say, is “much more better.”
I can only hope that Kari Drozd (costume design) and Susan Drozd (hair, wig, and make-up design) had as much fun creating the looks, for both men and women, as we did seeing them. The designs were almost an eighth player on the stage.
If there is a flaw, it’s that this show is a revue, which means that it has no overarching plot or story line. True, there are short moments where something like a story emerges, but then we’re off on another tack. This could have been a very good “juke box musical” with the songs arranged to service some sort of dramatic arc, the standard one being “meet cute, complications ensue, true love triumphs.” However, the juke box musical works well in biographical musicals such as JERSEY BOYS, SISTERS OF SWING, TENDERLY, and TAPESTRY to name a few. Why not here?
But, lack of plot aside, go for the talent onstage and a chance to experience one of America’s true originals (Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington) and one of the greatest original American art forms ever invented: Jazz.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!