Simon Cowell, “American Idol”’s razor-tongued judge, took a swipe at Detroit during last week’s auditions for the hit television show. After spending days evaluating thousands of performers, he asked if there was any “mo” left in the “town.” Of course, there is, but he might have been looking in the wrong place.
Instead of looking among the low-rider jeans and Phat Farm-wearing youngsters who packed the Atheneum Hotel, Cowell’s time would have been better spent four blocks north, where a cast of Detroit’s most talented singers, actors and dancers were preparing for the opening of the Plowshares Theatre Company-Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts presentation of Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies.
This night is for you, the one yearning to hear music with class. You miss love songs that make love seem reborn, not recycled. Sophisticated, classy music, not confusing messages.
The curtain rises, and an opening overture offers images of the man who gave the world priceless gifts such as “Take the ‘A’ Train” and “In a Sentimental Mood.” Marcus Belgrave, whose trumpet made icons like Ray Charles and Ella Fitzgerald sound golden, will conduct the band for you tonight.
You’ll love the cast, a holistic balance of Detroit legends, masters and students. Harold McKinney — “Baba” McKinney, we called him — passed on last year. But his family — wife Jahra Michelle and daughter Maia — is on stage tonight. Maia performs dances given to her by choreographer Mayowa Lisa Reynolds with power and poise. Even on opening night, where the little, expectant mistakes happen, she stands on iron ankles. Her movement is graceful, seemingly second nature. And when Mama Jahra sings Ellington’s “Imagine My Frustration,” the stage becomes her playground. It’s good to see the family continuing the tradition that has garnered the love of an entire community.
This is not a play with heavy dialogue and scene changes. It’s more of a serenade. Cast your burdens aside. You’ll need a light heart tonight, one like an empty cup, eager to be filled. Ellington’s music filled hearts that were like empty cups. Filled them with smooth, dignified grooves and new ideas.
I don’t envy these performers. They’ve got a heavy load to carry. But they’ve got this cat named Ivan Griffin, who brings a Paul Robeson-like timbre to “Solitude,” and Terry Horn, who changes notes in “Everything But You,” running the scale in seemingly effortless fashion.
This one young gun’s going to surprise you: Anthony Hamilton II. I don’t want to tell you his age. You’ll probably peg him for a mid-twentysomething. His attitude suggests that kind of maturity. You’ll see what I mean when he dances to “Kinda Dukish.” It’s like he’s showing off for Mr. Belgrave, and the audience gets to watch through the window.
No one blasts off, though, like Linda Boston. She sings “Mood Indigo” like she wrote it. She sings “It Don’t Mean a Thing” like she wrote it. She sings “Sentimental Mood” like … right. She picks up where she left off in Moms Mabley, with a powerful and convincing performance. Not too many artists have the ability to make you forget who you’re watching. She does that.
You ever have someone sing to you? Dance for you? Play music for you? The ones who do it best have a way of knowing you. They know when to start and stop. Sophisticated Ladies ends it all just at the right time. After about two hours of being Duke-ish, they send you home, ready to pour your heart out to whoever wants to know what filled you.
Yeah, Cowell doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Then again, he’s searching among new jacks. He should walk up the street, where the folks who have been doing Detroit for years are at it once again. He should be watching the sophisticated ones.
Maybe you’ll come. Then you can write and tell him what he missed.
Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies, by Plowshares Theatre Company, is at Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts (350 Madison, Detroit) through Sunday, Nov. 3 — Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., Sunday at 6 p.m. Call 313-872-0279.Khary Kimani Turner writes about music for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]