U-M Department of Musical Theatre's "Sophisticated Ladies" is jumping with talent


The cast of U-M Department of Musical Theatre's "Sophisticated Ladies" gathers on the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre with signs for the Cotton Club, Savoy, and Apollo in Harlem circa the 1930s.

The cast "Sophisticated Ladies" gathers on the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre. Photo courtesy of of U-M Department of Musical Theatre.

It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing!

And, man, is it swinging at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre during the University of Michigan Department of Musical Theatre's sizzling production of Sophisticated Ladies. The musical revue is a tribute to Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington's ever-enduring music and the modern dance styles that it inspired.

Guest directors/choreographers Torya Beard and Ayodele Casel are dancers who realize the immense talent of U-M’s students and provided these future stars with the support and freedom they needed to excel. They also brought in dancer Mercedes Ellington to talk about her art form and to discuss her grandfather Duke and her father, band leader Mercer Ellington. The result is a production of almost nonstop energy, from the orchestra and the large company of dancers to the varied takes by several singers on Ellington’s beloved songs.

Under the musical direction of Maurice Draughn with Tyler Driskill at the piano, the orchestra is always on stage and performs in top form.

The set by Kevin Judge is a simple but elegant nod to Harlem's legendary Cotton Club, which in the 1920s and '30s featured Black performers for an all-white audience. Ellington’s group was the house band, which helped usher in the swing era and the dances that took movement to a whole new level. 

Ellington was a composer, pianist, arranger, and preeminent band leader. But Donald McKayle, who conceived the hit revue that debuted on Broadway in 1981, wanted Sophisticated Ladies to focus on the music and all that it inspired rather than present a biography of Ellington.

U-M has so many talented performers, and everyone in this production is performing at a professional level. They perform with such engaging style in Sophisticated Ladies that the audience immediately becomes a part of the energy the performers invoke.

Kate Louissaint and Cole Newburg are especially electrifying talents with bright futures.

Louissaint takes center stage on "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," scatting like Ella Fitzgerald and singing with a bluesy style that swings effortlessly. She is also an outstanding dancer who demonstrates what it means to swing. She is joined by Abigail Aziz and Maya Boyd for some hot syncopated dancing. Louissant and Nick T. Daly lead the ensemble in a fast, toe-tapping rendition of Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the 'A' Train,” the theme for the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Later she does a moody and perfect “In a Sentimental Mood” with the ensemble dancing as they may have danced at the Cotton Club.

Cole Newburg is a dynamic tap dancer. The original Broadway production of Sophisticated Ladies featured the talents of Gregory Hines, Hinton Battle, Judith Jameson, and many other elite dancers. Newburg has the ability to join those ranks. He has a fantastic sense of rhythm and creates an engaging rapport with the audience. Newburg can be dancing at a frenzied pace and then slow it down into a casual rhythmic stroll. He leaps, pirouettes, taps, and does the splits all in perfect harmony with the music.

Louissaint and Newburg are also assistant choreographers for the production and Newburg is an assistant director.

Performers are also paired as couples for several songs. Alyssa Sunew and Hoke Fraser are paired nicely for “Satin Doll” and “Squeeze Me.” Boyd and Kamibayashi team again on “I’m Checking Out Goodbye” and “Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me.” Seven Askew and Abigail Aziz perform “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart.” The performances are excellent and usually serve to introduce dance interpretations that emphasize the rhythm and expression of the songs in movement. Aziz is teamed with Caleb Quezon for “I Got It Bad” and “Mood Indigo.” Quezon is in drag as a torch singer.

Additionally, Sunew brings a sweet voice and upbeat personality to “Hit Me With a Hot Note (And Watch Me Bounce).” Maya Boyd sings a sultry “Solitude” accompanying an unusual dance performance by Ryo Kamibayashi that is meant to physically embody the emotions of the song. Nick T. Daly takes the lead on an easy-going “I’m Just a Lucky So-and-So.” Nile Andah, Jason Mulay, David Midikiff, Owen G. Scales, and Timmy Thompson form a quintet for one tune and blend syncopated dancing with humorous byplay.

The energy level is high and infectious throughout Sophisticated Ladies—and it's definitely got that SWING!

Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.

The U-M Department of Musical Theatre production of "Sophisticated Ladies" continues at 8 pm on October 7-8 and 14-15, at 2 pm on October 9 and 16, and at 7:30 pm on October 13 at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre on the main campus. For tickets, call 734-764-2538 or visit tickets.smtd.umich.edu.