Tapping into Ellington

Director André De Shields readies Sophisticated Ladies for NJPAC audiences.


André De Shields, Broadway’s legendary actor, singer, director and dancemaker – and a soft-spoken guy – is bellowing over the din of rehearsal. Gradually, the staccato of tap shoes cascades into silence and attention is riveted on his instructions.

Cast and creatives are gathered in a New York midtown studio for the first public glimpse of Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies, NJPAC’s second co-production with Crossroads Theatre Company of New Brunswick and the Emmy-winning, Tony Award nominee De Shields, who again directs. A hit on Broadway in 1981, the show sparkles with Art Deco glamour, from Duke Ellington’s best-of numbers played by a 10-piece onstage band to lavish costuming to smoldering vocals. 

Although the show represents escapist entertainment at its finest, according to De Shields, times have changed in the past 38 years. His point of view for this revival, on stage at NJPAC from March 21-24, is to celebrate the mystique of the “Ladies.”

“We’re looking at a 21st century iteration of Sophisticated Ladies,” says the director, whose theatrical career was shaped by roles in iconic musicals like The Wiz and Ain’t Misbehavin’. “Why not give voice to the women of the title?”

Without changing a note of Ellington classics like “Take the ‘A’ Train,” this Sophisticated Ladies carries a fresh, contemporary vibe. So a knockout song like “Hit Me with a Hot Note,” usually performed by a soloist, will be belted by the power trio of Danielle Kelsey, Kaleigh Cronin and Jenny Laroche. “I’ve Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good),” frequently heard in chic supper club settings, will be deepened into a bluesy lament for a woman broken by tragedy.

To De Shields, the production is less about design and more about conjuring fascinating characters – and “we’ve got our A-team,” he adds. Among the dozen cast members who bring them to life are N’Kenge, seen in Broadway’s Motown, and Ken Ard (Smokey Joe’s Café), who guides the audience through the action. Johmaalya Adelekan performed in last year’s revival of Ain’t Misbehavin’, NJPAC’s initial collaboration with Crossroads.

Choreographer Kimberly Schafer, a former dance assistant to Broadway tap master Tommy Tune, says she’s giving “a completely new spin” to the show’s dance sequences, such as “Drop Me Off in Harlem.” Expect lots of tap, but also waltzes, soft shoe, samba and modern – “it’s a dance lover’s show,” she adds with obvious glee.

Schafer and De Shields work hard to synch their respective visions in the limited time frame posed by the director’s unforgiving schedule. Sundays are reserved for rehearsal, while six days a week De Shields “commutes” to the nearby Walter Kerr Theatre, where he is preparing for an April opening of London’s stand-out musical Hadestown; he will reprise his role as Hermes, messenger to the gods.  

Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies is being presented in the 120th anniversary year of the birth of the famed composer and bandleader. All the more reason to celebrate, as De Shields puts it in his own rhythm of language, with a blend of “entertainment, enlightenment and ecstasy.” 

March 8, 2019