Photos by Lia Chang
Crossroads Theatre Company and New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) are presenting a co-production of Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies at NJPAC, 1 Center Street in Newark, Thursday, March 21 – Sunday, March 24, 2019. Click here to purchase tickets.
The high-style music of “The Duke” is the heart and soul of this 1981 Tony-winning Broadway hit, directed with dazzle by two-time Tony nominee and Emmy winner André De Shields (The Wiz, Ain’t Misbehavin’, Play On, The Full Monty) and choreographed by Kimberly Schafer.
Presented in the year marking the 120th anniversary of Ellington’s birth, Sophisticated Ladies is a first-class excursion back to the heyday of Harlem’s swanky Cotton Club. According to legend, the great bandleader and composer Duke Ellington once told his musicians that they had to play their best because they were about to open in Newark. All those glorious numbers – “Satin Doll,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” “Cotton Tail,” “Take the A Train” and “Mood Indigo” – return to the city in full swing with the arrival of Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies, a co-production of NJPAC and Crossroads Theatre Company.
A glamorous cast of Broadway veterans and bright young stars performs with an onstage band versed in the tradition of the orchestras of Duke Ellington and his son, Mercer. Talents from some of Broadway’s hottest shows are featured including Johmaalya Adelekan (Ain’t Misbehavin’, Ragtime); Ken Ard (Smokey Joe’s Café); Kaleigh Cronin (Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, A Bronx Tale); Jenny Laroche (Summer: The Donna Summer Musical); and N’Kenge (Motown). The cast also includes Jacqueline B. Arnold (Moulin Rouge!), Wesley J. Barnes (Pamela’s First Musical), Lamont Brown (42nd Street), Lianne Marie Dobbs (Himself & Nora), C.K. Edwards (Shuffle Along, Or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, After Midnight, Bill Elliot: The Musical), Danielle Kelsey (Village Theatre’s The Noteworthy Life of Howard Barnes) and Tommy Scrivens (Muny’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum).
The New York Times described the original Sophisticated Ladies as “the only Broadway revue of recent vintage that operates on a truly grand scale.”
André De Shields made his NJPAC debut six years ago in Prudential Hall as Zeus during an orchestral performance of The Creatures of Prometheus. He returned in 2017 to direct and choreograph the first co-production between NJPAC and The Crossroads Theatre Company, the critically acclaimed Ain’t Misbehavin’. In his half-century artistic career, Mr. De Shields has distinguished himself as an unparalleled actor, director, choreographer and educator. His numerous accolades include an OBIE Award for Sustained Excellence of Performance, the 2009 National Black Theatre Festival’s Living Legend Award, the Black Theatre Network’s 2016 Winona Lee Fletcher Award, and many more. His body of work includes Broadway, Off-Broadway, regional theatre, feature films, television, and cabaret. Mr. De Shields is best known for his show stopping performances in four legendary Broadway musicals: The Full Monty, Play On!, Ain’t Misbehavin’, and The Wiz (title role). De Shields heads back to Broadway in March as Hermes in Anais Mitchell’s Hadestown at the Walter Kerr.
Mr. De Shields’ creative team includes Burke J. Wilmore (Set and Lighting Design), Kimberly Schafer (Choreography), Gail Brassard (Costume Design), Musical Director Nat Adderley, Jr., Production Stage Manager Rick Steiger and Assistant Stage Manager Chelsea Olivia Friday.
Performances for Sophisticated Ladies are on Thursday, March 21st @ 7pm, Friday, March 22 @ 7pm, Saturday, March 23rd @ 2pm and 7pm and Sunday, March 24 @ 2pm. Click here to purchase tickets.
Below De Shields reveals his vision for Sophisticated Ladies.
Q: How was Sophisticated Ladies relevant in 1981?
In terms of cultural agency, the 1980s in America are remembered as The Golden Decade, when bigger was better: big television, big Rock & Roll, big Wall Street, big hair, big soul . . . big fame, big film and–yes– big Broadway musicals. Duke Ellington’sSophisticated Ladies was one of those opulent productions that ruled The Great White Way during the 80s. I still have vivid, visceral recollection of the spring of 1981. I was returning from having performed a six-month engagement of Ain’t Misbehavin’ in Paris. Once in New York, I discovered The Grapevine alight with rapturous acclaim for the lavish and glamorous Ellington revue. Inspired by the discography of Edward Kennedy Ellington–later to adopt the moniker “Duke”–Sophisticated Ladies played its first preview on February 16, 1981, at The Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, opened on March 1, 1981, and closed on January 2, 1983, having run a total of 767 performances. Arguably the greatest American composer of the Twentieth century, Duke Ellington had finally become a player on America’s main stage for live theatre. Audiences and critics alike were hard-pressed to find the adjective that possessed just the right amount of panache and gravitas to describe the lavish production that was Sophisticated Ladies. The word “fabulous” would soon acquire an even more prodigious connotation.
Q: And what is your vision for making it relevant to 2019?
Fast forward nearly another two decades to 2019, and the culture has gone through a tectonic shift. No longer made solely of the solidly impervious fabric of male dominance, contemporary American culture has been stretched to the point of porosity. And those porous imperfections are currently being mended by the stitch work of twenty-first century, self-empowered womanhood. Flipping the script has become a necessary tool of the postmodern female. And since it is the responsibility of my generation to explain to the prior and succeeding generations how we got from There to Here, I searched for a piece of entertainment that could be unpacked for its implicit information regarding the psychological, emotional and intellectual relationships between men and women. It occurred to me that Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies was ripe for the picking. The title alone begs to be parsed. For example, have we actually ever heard from the sophisticated ladies referenced in the title? Isn’t it about time that we get to better know the women that the Duke and his collaborators apotheosized in song for sixty years? One of the several definitions of “sophisticated” is “enlightened.” I suggest that we all lean forward, and open our eyes, ears, hearts and minds to the perspective of the enlightened woman, wherever she is encountered. I am convinced that we will find her revelations “beyond category.”
Q: What can the audience expect from this new production of Sophisticated Ladies?
From this new production of Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies, NJPAC audiences can expect dynamic entertainment, sparkling enlightenment and nuanced ecstasy. My creative team and I have not changed any lyric or adulterated any melody. We have great respect for the integrity of the original Broadway show. What we have done is made the choice of not drenching the production in luxury. A simple yet elegant set with Art Deco highlights has been designed by Burke J. Wilmore, who also serves as lighting designer. Our choreographer, Kimberly Schafer, has created a palette of dance genres, featuring tap, to keep the audience’s feet patting, fingers snapping and shoulders shaking. And costume designer Gail Brassard has taken the approach of not anchoring the production in a singular historical period, but rather to allow the costume design to subtly reflect the changing status of the female over various windows if time. The entire physical production is meant to reveal a minimalist set of core design values in order to emphasize our investigation into the seed of the seed: what the authentic sophisticated lady has to say about herself?
Q: What are four words that best describe this newly conceptualized production?
The four words that best describe this newly conceptualized production are original, imaginative, unpredictable and inventive.
Q: What most excites you about returning to NJPAC following a successful run of Ain’t Misbehavin’ last season?
Following last season’s successful run of Ain’t Misbehavin’, that which most excites me about returning to NJPAC is the opportunity to continue expanding and solidifying the network of collaborators dedicated to the mission of Crossroads Theatre Company: To create and present professional theatre of the highest standards of artistic excellence that celebrates the culture, history, spirit and voices of the entire African Diaspora.
About Crossroads Theatre Company
Crossroads Theatre Company continues to lead the nation with its commitment to literary works that examine the African American experience so that it may be understood and appreciated by all people. When co-founders Ricardo Khan and L. Kenneth Richardson envisioned a space where, as actors, the two young men could work on substantive, non-stereotypical roles, little did they realize that their vision would grow into the major institution that it is today. Crossroads has filled an otherwise empty space on the cultural canvas of the country and the world, with a collective body of work that remains unparalleled by any other of culturally-specific theater in the nation by presenting over 50 world premieres. Crossroads forged its vision into reality through the development, production and touring of new works from throughout the African Diaspora where positive images of African American life, history and culture is celebrated. These honest theatrical portrayals helped move the consciousness of the nation forward. Crossroads continues to lead twenty-first century story-telling by building bridges of understanding and veracity between people of all backgrounds in this society and the world. Find out more at CrossroadsTheatreCompany.org.
New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC), located in downtown Newark, N.J., is America’s most diverse performing arts center, and the artistic, cultural, educational and civic center of New Jersey, where great performances and events enhance and transform lives every day. NJPAC brings diverse communities together, providing access to all and showcasing the state’s and the world’s best artists while acting as a leading catalyst in the revitalization of its home city. Through its extensive Arts Education programs, NJPAC is shaping the next generation of artists and arts enthusiasts. NJPAC has attracted more than 9 million visitors (including over 1.7 million children) since opening its doors in 1997, and nurtures meaningful and lasting relationships with each of its constituents.
Location and Directions: NJPAC is located at 1 Center Street, Newark, New Jersey; a short walk from the Newark Penn Station stop by Newark-bound PATH Train or Amtrak.
Lia Chang is an actor, a multi-media content producer and co-founder of Bev’s Girl Films, making films that foster inclusion and diversity on both sides of the camera. Bev’s Girl Films’ debut short film, Hide and Seek was a top ten film in the Asian American Film Lab’s 2015 72 Hour Shootout Filmmaking Competition, and she received a Best Actress nomination. BGF collaborates with and produces multi-media content for artists, actors, designers, theatrical productions, composers, musicians and corporations. Lia is also an internationally published and exhibited photographer, a multi-platform journalist, and a publicist. Lia has appeared in the films Wolf, New Jack City, A Kiss Before Dying, King of New York, Big Trouble in Little China, The Last Dragon, Taxman and Hide and Seek. She is profiled in Jade Magazine and Playbill.com.
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