There's a good argument to be made that the music of Duke Ellington is the most American sound in the world.
In performance, Ellington's compositions are conversations among disparate voices from different places.
At points, the clarinet disagrees with the trombone, which disagrees with the sax. The trumpet always thinks it has a better idea. And behind it all is the rhythm section, providing solid ground beneath the conflict and driving the whole complicated story toward some kind of resolution.
If it sounds like I'm cribbing here from my colleague Jeff Miers, who recently wrote a passionate defense of jazz as a musical reflection of democratic ideals, I am. But it's for a point:
All the aspirational power of Ellington's gift and the medium he shaped is on display in MusicalFare Theatre's energetic production of the 1981 musical revue "Sophisticated Ladies," which opened Feb. 1 and runs through March 5. The show also features compositions by Ellington's collaborators including Mercer Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.
For this production, directed and choreographed by Buffalo theater veteran John Fredo, MusicalFare pulled together one of the better jazz combos you're likely to find on any local stage. The band, led by music director and Ellington Orchestra veteran George Caldwell on piano, features local jazz legend Bobby Militello on reeds, Tim Clarke on trumpet, John Hasselback on trombone, Dave Siegfried on bass and Rodney Harper of Chicago on drums.
From the first note of the overture, it's clear we're in for a high-energy ride, and it is Caldwell and company who lead the charge. Aside from a couple of awkward medleys, the show provides a captivating tour through the Duke's expansive repertoire for Ellington diehards and admirers alike
Guiding us on that tour is a cast of Buffalo theater veterans and fresh faces, executing Fredo's ebullient choreography to the best of their abilities and providing solid interpretations of his most recognizable tunes.
The cast's footwork is not always up to the level the dance-driven production demands, and some of the vocal interpretations seemed overstated for such an intimate space. But if these flaws seemed particularly evident during the opening performance, it may only have been because of the band's high level of musicianship.
As cast chemistry goes, nowhere was it better than between Cecelia Barron and Dudney Joseph Jr., whose charming duets on "The Mooche" and "Echoes of Harlem" provide the show's emotional center of gravity. Joseph, with his forceful baritone, plays the Harlem mover-and-shaker with convincing authenticity. And Barron, light as a feather and lithe as the weather, delivers the most finely honed dance performances in the show.
Also delightful are Annette Christian and Zoe Scruggs, both jazz singers of considerable experience and ability, who each imbue their performances with a kind of winking sense of humor. Scruggs puts her resonant and multi-textured voice to good use on many of Ellington's most sentimental songs, among them "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good" and the show's plaintive title song.
On a variety of songs, Ben Michael Moran has charm to spare if a tad too much cheek. Katy Miner often overstates her case, but when her attack is on target, she is lovely. And London Lee, a newcomer to the MusicalFare stage, turns in a solid opening night performance sure to become more polished before the run is complete.
If the show sometimes conflates numbers that would be better realized on their own -- such as "Mood Indigo" and "I Got It Bad" -- the overall effect is one of dizzying virtuosity.
Choreography by Fredo and Alexis Wilson, designed not for professional tap dancers but for this cast of charming utility players, succeeds in melding the playful with the grandiose while working in the constraints of the small MusicalFare stage.
Reducing the genius of Ellington and the energy of mid-century American dance into two hours as this amount of square footage was no small task. The result is far from perfect, but it strives to be. And with a soundtrack like this one, sometimes striving is enough.
2.5 stars (out of four)
A revue featuring the music of Duke Ellington, through March 5 in MusicalFare Theatre, 4380 Main St.
Tickets are $43. Call 839-8540 or visit musicalfare.com.