Semi-Sophisticated Ladies

In Karamu's tribute to Duke Ellington, the master's songs get a down-home treatment.

No jazz-loving devotee of American Movie Classics who has carried his heart in Ella Fitzgerald's little yellow basket can resist the sight of tuxedoed men with slicked-back hair, tapping their asses off to "It Don't Mean a Thing if It Ain't Got That Swing." Just a few weeks back, a jet-propelled but rather heartless revue called Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk--which had little going for it but talent--exalted new-age hip-hop while reducing jazz-age hoofers and honky-tonk mamas to spangled Uncle Toms and Jezebels.

To make up for this grievous slight and celebrate the centenary of Duke Ellington's birth, Karamu's Jelliffe Theatre, a place that specializes in reviving jumping jive, is presenting Sophisticated Ladies, a singing and dancing tour through the Ellington oeuvre. It proves that mere talent and lavish budgets can be a superfluous luxury.

The afternoon I was to review the show, I received a nervous call from a PR representative/cast member, begging me to review it later due to a tardy band and under-rehearsal. Indeed, the opening night did have a puppy-like, endearing awkwardness. Yet what this production had going for it was nervous tap dancers with too-wide grins and hot mamas singing Ellington ballads with lukewarm fervor.

When Shraine Newman and company light into "It Don't Mean a Thing," the men and women on the bus are magically transformed into hipsters on a World War II soundstage--suddenly making the mundane magical.

Some snobs may look down on this, but those with a warm heart will realize that Ellington with polyester instead of satin, jitterbuggers that can only jitter so far, and semi-sophisticated ladies imbue the master with the down-home charm and warmth of a family reunion, which would cause even the master himself to ruefully grin and pour himself an Old Fashioned.

Cast member Erick Myricks stands out for his genuine terpsichorean skills and vocal fire, even a dash of sex appeal. He caught the A-train for talent, rather than mooching, strutting, and strolling by way of what Arthur Murray taught the other cast members in a hurry. Still, the ensemble gets by delightfully on guts and gumption.

The loquacious audience, fervently chanting everything from "Go, sister!" to "Speed it up--I got to get to work in the morning!" demonstrated how much more good-hearted camaraderie means than boring old professionalism. Nevertheless, by evening's end, the audience is left in a sentimental mood.

Sophisticated Ladies, through April 11 at Karamu House, 2355 East 89th Street, 216-795-7070.