Zach Theatre celebrates The Duke with the lively, hot ‘Sophisticated Ladies’

Duke Ellington was one of the most celebrated and influential music men of his times, and Zach is looking to celebrate his work with their latest production, a conflagration of song and dance called “Sophisticated Ladies”. Bringing in the big guns, Zach has called in none other than Tony Award-winner Jennifer Holliday to lead the party, along with a collection of some of the best singers, dancers, and musicians the city, the state, and even the country have to offer. The result is a lively, hot, and ever-enjoyable production, full of undeniable energy and memorable tunes that you’ll be humming all the way home.

Jennifer Holliday is one of the biggest gets in Zach Theatre history, and it’s easy to see why they took the trouble to bring her in. When she sings, everything else seems to stop, your attention gripped tight to this gorgeous voice. That’s not to say she only sells the ballads, as she brings the heat when poppier numbers come to call. Backed by an absolutely exhilarating live band, she brings the music to life, making it feel all the more modern. Holliday’s far from the only amazing voice to take the stage, as Louisiana soul singer, Chanel Haynes-Schwartz, brings many emotional moments to the stage, her rendition of of many of the more sombre numbers sure to bring a tear to anyone’s eye with its raw emotion.

It’s not just the ladies bringing the vocal talent in this production, as the show also brings out its fair share of gentlemen to bring life to the Duke’s tunes. Of particular note is Brian Whitted, whose velvety smooth voice really helps to breathe some life into some of Ellington’s most well known tunes, such as the enjoyable “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”, all while tearing up the keys on his piano, and leading the band in the process. Also getting his chance to show off his vocal prowess is JP Qualters, whose powerful voice really helps sell the tunes to the back rows, keeping in pace with even Holliday herself in some of their duets.

Though the vocal theatrics are notable, the most sizzling moments of “Sophisticated Ladies” come when the dancing starts. Intricate but energetic, each dance number is a wonder, knocking the socks off even the most hardened of viewers. Afra Hines steals the stage nearly every time she shows up, her stunning visage and body awareness making her captivating to watch. She sells each movement with ease, her flexibility and movement making each of her number snap alive every time. Also showing incredible ability for body movement is Christa Oliver who’s shown amazing work in previous productions such as “The Gospel at Colonus” and here shows off an amazing range, showing off a skill for everything modern dance, to jazz, to swing, and even tap.

If you’re looking for stars of tap, however, you’ll find plenty of folks to deliver. Not the least of which is Matthew Shields, who becomes unforgettable the moment his feet hit the wood. Never stepping out of rhythm, Shields plays his time in the limelight with amazing liveliness, and only becomes more impressive when he’s joined by his fellow dancers. When the entire group comes together, it’s awe-inspiring, as music and actor come together for a glorious marriage.

Cool music, hot dance numbers, and soaring vocals highlight this whizz-bang of a musical, with the top talents around pulling out all the stops to take the audience on a non-stop roller coaster ride. It’s foot-tapping, finger-snapping fun, and another engaging evening of entertainment from the most celebrated company in town.

“Sophisticated Ladies” is playing at Zach’s Topfer Theatre through August 23rd. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit zachtheatre.org

Photo Courtesy of Kirk Tuck

Sensitive performances take center stage in Hyde Park’s ‘The Night Alive’

Conor McPherson’s plays provide fascinating snapshots from the darkest sides of Ireland, and they burst with life and energy. Hyde Park has been taking these plays and turning them into gold for some time now, and with their latest, they bring out one of the most grounded and honest of these productions, in “The Night Alive”. Following a down-on-his-luck Irishman who takes in a mysterious woman after saving her from an altercation, the action in “The Night Alive” seems to grow forth organically from its fully-formed world, brought to life with intricate detail by scenic designer Mark Pickell, with moments of the pain, frivolity, and intimacy that strike hard against the nerves.

It’s hardly rare to see Ken Webster star in a Hyde Park show, but yet, it’s always a delight to see him appear on stage. He has such a presence, bringing such charisma to each performance, and “The Night Alive” is no different. Webster brings a breezy firmness to the role, akin to a “Apartment”-era Fred McMurray, showing an easy charm and warmth while still hiding something more sinister beneath it all. You don’t doubt the authenticity on display, and he carries his brogue better than many of the others. While his performance may never reach the heights they did in his one-man shows, such as “House” or “Saint Nicholas”, he still provides a fine point for the plot to pivot upon.

Hyde Park has found something special in Jess Hughes, who practically stole Hyde Park’s previous production of “The Christians”, winning a Austin Critics’ Table Award for her efforts. Here, we see more of the remarkable sensitivity that made her so captivating in “The Christians”, supplemented this time with a hardened edge. Her character, the mysterious Aimee, comes on the scene with trouble, and Hughes wears it like a glove. The way she holds the tension in her mouth, the way her eyes are cast, a brief chirp or tremble in her brogue, all veil storm clouds on the horizon, heavy water beating against the levy. Even in scenes where she’s letting loose, as in the refreshingly casual scene in which the cast grooves to classic dance tunes, there’s still something guarded about her, which keeps the audience connected in a very palpable way.

“The Night Alive” is not McPherson’s best work, lacking he poetry of “St. Nicholas” or “Port Authority”, but thanks to nuanced, sensitive, and often quite humorous performances from its cast, it’s buoyed into something truly stirring. McPherson and Hyde Park make an amazing fit, and one can only hope that they continue their relationship for many seasons to come.

Photo Courtesy of Bret Brookshire