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Lincoln Theatre revue 'Duke Ellington's Sophisticated Ladies' is a smash hit

These words, written by musician Wynton Marsalis, appear projected onto a screen on the softly lit stage, all dreamy-like. An ode to Duke Ellington:

"He didn't sleep at night. He believed that there were two kinds of music: the good kind and the other kind. He was the world's most prolific composer of blues, blueses of all shapes and sizes. Wrote music in all 12 known keys and some keys that are still unknown. Wrote music about the human experience; if it was experienced, he stylized it. In other words, Duke Ellington had a lot on his mind."

During the final act of the razzmatazz hit "Duke Ellington's Sophisticated Ladies," the show's star, Maurice Hines, tap, tap, taps, in a black tux lined with silver sparkles. He snaps his fingers. Snap. Snap. Snap. Gives one of those cool-cat, jazz looks. Agile, as he pops across the stage. His cast, in dazzling costumes, dance beside him.

Then Hines says, in the words of Ellington, to everyone seated before them: "We love you madly!"

Hah! The audience leaps to its feet and someone yells "We love you madly, too!" And the crowd explodes into applause, booming in the historic Lincoln Theatre on U Street NW. This revival show brings crowds night after night, making "Sophisticated Ladies" the highest grossing show in the history of Arena Stage. Its run at the Lincoln Theatre, which began April 15, was first extended through June 6, then to June 27. The crowd-pleaser ran on Broadway for 767 performances between March 1981 and January 1983.

"When they told us we broke the 60-year-old box office record, it was a thrill," says Hines, who choreographed it. He is sitting backstage in his dressing room, a star on his door. "You can't break a record like that without the audience loving the show and you can't break it without repeat business. I walk by the marquee on the way to the stage door and I hear people say, 'This is my third time seeing the show. This is my fourth time seeing it.' And it thrills me. It proves the legacy of the great Duke Ellington."

The legacy of Ellington, considered one of the "most prolific composers of the 20th century," is entwined with the history of U Street. This is Ellington's old stamping ground. "He started in the basement of this theater," Hines says. "It was destiny we do it here."

The show comes at a time when U Street has been resurrected and gentrified, and the actors and the theater reached out to the community in creative ways. Actors have gone to churches and schools and taught tap to students. They've offered jazz classes, hip-hop classes. The casting director invited the public to a discussion about the casting process. "I've never seen a regional theater do anything like this," says cast member Richard Riaz Yoder. "It blows my mind."

The show, a musical revue, celebrates the life and music of Ellington, who was born in Washington in 1899. Ellington grew up around the corner from the theater, on 13th Street NW. He played in jazz clubs and joints on U Street, including the Lincoln Colonnade, a public hall in the basement of the Lincoln Theatre, which was built in 1922.

During the 1920s, U Street was called the Black Broadway and starred, among others, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Moms Mabley, Bessie Smith, Hattie McDaniel and Billy Eckstine.

"Everyone says this show looks like a Broadway show," says Charles Randolph-Wright, the director, who did original research at the Smithsonian to find images, video and obscure facts on Ellington used in the show. "We had to do it right. I kept saying, 'Duke will haunt us if this doesn't look right.' " Ellington's image is pervasive within the U Street corridor. A mural depicting the jazz great can be seen across the street from the theater's entrance. "I was staying in the Ellington Apartments down the street when we were rehearsing," Randolph-Wright says. "You walk out on U Street and you can feel Duke's presence. I would walk out the front door and feel the pulse of what art was in the '20s."

The show tells a story of the man, following Ellington from his childhood in D.C. to Harlem, where he rose to international fame. The show displays Ellington's genius with such hits as "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing," "I Love You Madly" and "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good."

It travels to the Cotton Club. The Savoy. Paris. Hollywood. A cool cat with fabulous style who loved life and loved women.

"Oh, you're killing me, baby!" yells an actress.

Hines in a chocolate suit, portraying Duke as a ladies' man, sings to a woman on a pink sofa.

"I ain't gonna tease you, mama."

'A feel for the city'

Before the show opened, the cast did a walking history tour of U Street. "The tour included some public businesses, houses and clubs," says tour guide Kim Roberts, a literary historian and editor of the Beltway Poetry Quarterly. "The idea was to let the performers get a feel for the city. They got so excited. When I got to the house that Ellington lived in as a teenager, they were jumping up and down." Ellington lived in two red brick houses on 13th Street.

Roberts showed the cast Ben's Chili Bowl, originally a nickelodeon theater. And what is now "Ben's Next Door," but was once the "Jungle Inn" managed by pianist Jelly Roll Morton. They went to the True Reformer's Hall at 12th and U streets, where Ellington had his first paid gig as a musician, and the 12th Street Y, one of the places where Langston Hughes rented rooms. They ended up at what is now the Arena Stage costume shop at 14th and T streets, which was a famous jazz club at the time called Club Bali.

"There are businesses all around U Street that Duke Ellington would have gone to," Roberts says.

'It blows my mind'

In October 2009, the theater sponsored "a series of free, advanced jazz and hip-hop masters classes -- an opportunity for local talent to dance with and learn from a legend," says Molly Smith, the theater's artistic director. Then the theater held an open audition for the show. That is where two young brothers, John, 17, and Leo Manzari, 15, stood out; Hines plucked them from the crowd to make their professional debut.

The brothers, who attend the Field School in Northwest Washington, have thrilled younger audiences. The two dance in the spotlight with Hines -- who with his brother, Gregory Hines, was cast in Francis Ford Coppola's 1984 film "The Cotton Club."

"Maurice is gracious," says Nancy Newell, owner of D.C. Dance Collective, where Leo and John take ballet classes. "He basically gives Leo and John the second act. It is reminiscent of what would happen in the Cotton Club."

Last Wednesday, students from across the city attended a matinee. "I have heard it compared to a rock concert of the Beatles or Jonas Brothers," says Rebecca Campana, a staff member of Arena Stage. "Girls were screaming whenever the Manzari brothers came on stage, some of them were reaching toward the stage, almost crawling toward it. I have never had to stand in front of the stairs to the stage after a performance to keep students from going backstage. It was unreal."

On Tuesday, members of the cast, Kristyn Pope and Cassie Abate, led tap jam sessions with members of the public who have scrambled on stage for a chance to be in the spotlight. Pope, in a blue shirt and silver shoes, calls out: "Heel, tap, tap and heel, push back. Five, six, seven, eight." And amazingly, the members of the public follow in unison. "Girls feel free to sass it up, add a little hip," Pope says.

Newell, wearing black leotards with pink trim, slides on stage and jams. She dances beside board members and students and actors trying to get a break, and rhythm tap legend Baakari Wilder in purple shoes. The show, Newell says, has been a hit because it is like "happy MGM musicals done to make people feel better" in dire economic times.

"Broadway tap was made to look easy, to take people's minds away from reality," Newell says. "A man in tails suddenly dancing with a woman in a beautiful dress. Tap dancing makes people feel good. In this show, there are great numbers that make people happy."

Susan Peevy, 45, a postal worker who lives in Rockville and who has brought more than 500 people to the show, sits in the balcony watching the jam. She has brought colleagues, church members and Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority sisters week after week to the show. "I send my own little e-mails and I wrote my own review of the performance," she says. "I'm willing to do it if it means you will be exposed to the arts."

On Saturday, during intermission, Teresa James, 33, who lives in Alexandria, Rhonda Thomas, 46, who lives in Bowie, and Susan James, 62, who lives in Southwest, sit in awe.

"I personally love Duke Ellington's music," James says.

Just then, as if Ellington were tapping her on he shoulder, a man in the row in front of James extends his hand.

"Will you dance with me?" asks Mel Cohen, 83, a bookseller from Long Island, who came here Saturday from New York. "I only dance with beautiful women."

"We need music," James insists.

"Music is in your ears," Cohen says. "Listen. What do you hear?"

"Ballroom music," James says.

One, two, three, four. He swirls her around. Two strangers dancing on their own set, a prim black woman dancing with a white man with flowing white hair -- in the aisle of the Lincoln Theatre.

The Duke, you think, would have loved it madly.


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