“We spend a lot of time talking about Black struggle and not enough talking about Black joy, and I just feel we need to have that conversation more,” says Jodel Charles. “We should be living in a place of Black joy. We don’t need another 12 Years a Slave or a Harriet Tubman movie. Now more than ever, we need more of what Duke Ellington created: Black joyful music, and that’s what this show is.”
And that's exactly what Charles is contributing to as the musical director for Vintage Theatre's upcoming production, Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies. The high-energy musical about the life and legacy of the iconic composer is driven by themes of Black love, sexuality and enjoying life.
Director and choreographer Christopher Page-Sanders is proud that Vintage has selected this important show celebrating Black excellence as part of its 2022-2023 season. “What I love about this show is that it helps us better know our past so that we have a direction for the future,” Page-Sanders says.
Duke Ellington's Sophisticated Ladies, which is open now and runs through March 5, includes 32 of Ellington's greatest hits, including "Take the 'A' Train," "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing),” "In a Sentimental Mood" and "Sophisticated Lady.” The music takes audiences on a journey through Ellington's early days at the legendary Cotton Club nightclub in Harlem, his success and an intimate look at the private man who lived to love.
Ellington has been a part of Page-Sanders's life for as long as he can remember. His home is filled with Ellington’s music, and he has fond memories of attending a performance of the revue in the early 2000s. He also knows the show’s creator and book writer, Donald McKayle, from his time working as a dancer, so when Bernie Cardell, Vintage Theatre’s artistic director, approached him about directing the show, he was a little nervous.
“I was initially afraid because the show was so complex,” Page-Sanders says. “It has three complex parts: one is a dance exhibition; another is this jazz concert happening in the orchestra; and the third is the vocal execution of Duke Ellington's complex and sophisticated music. The music is not easy. I thought, ‘Can we do this show justice? Can we tell the story? Do we have what it takes to make this beautiful?'”
But Page-Sanders agreed; he wanted to help preserve the jazz composer's legacy, and he believed in the Denver theater scene. Page-Sanders previously choreographed for Vintage on Crowns and The Scottsboro Boys in 2019, for which he won the Colorado Henry Award for Best Choreography, and directed Five Guys Named Moe and Rogers & Hammerstein's Cinderella for the theater in 2021.
His previous collaborations with Vintage made him confident that the theater was serious about telling the Ellington story correctly. After accepting the job offer, everything just seemed to fall into place. “Our audition process for the show was incredible. Denver has some incredible talent,” Page-Sanders says. “A lot of the bandmembers also played in the Duke Ellington Orchestra. It just seemed like Duke Ellington was giving us these affirmations, like, 'Yes, y'all got it.'”
For the show’s intricate musical direction, Page-Sanders turned to his longtime friend and classically trained musician Jodel Charles. “He is a good friend of mine who is amazingly talented, and we've been trying to work together for years,” Page-Sanders says. “I knew he was the right person for this, and when I asked him, he said yes immediately.”
Charles wasn’t introduced to jazz music until he moved to the United States from Haiti when he was a teenager. Ellington was one of the first jazz musicians that he was exposed to; in fact, “In a Sentimental Mood” was one of the first pieces he learned and transcribed note for note while studying music. He deeply admired Ellington’s approach to harmonies and his ability to tell such rich stories through his music and lyrics.
Vintage has assembled a cross-generational, BIPOC and gender-queer cast of Denver's top talent to help tell the story. “It's been great, because we have these older cast members who brought this beautiful maturity and understanding of jazz to the younger vocalists,” Page-Sanders says. “Because we have that understanding of jazz, when we bring in these contemporary influences, it's an actual choice.”
Rehearsals have been dedicated to learning period-appropriate music styles, dances and dialects. Even though the process has been hard work, the cast applauds Page-Sanders for creating a safe space for them.
“I’ve known Christopher for years, and I just love the way he works as a director and choreographer,” Mary Louise Lee, a cast member and feature vocalist, says. “Christopher is so talented and creative, and he knows exactly what he wants to do in a scene and makes you see it. It’s just an honor to sing Duke’s music. I hope people will leave the theater and check out more music from him and have a greater appreciation of Black music.”
“Audiences should see this production, because it’s going to be incredible,” eden says. “It’s a Black, BIPOC and queer cast. I know these efforts were made on purpose by Vintage and the production team, and I’m really excited about that. It would be amazing if people made an effort to see these artists; we are cooking up something very special, and I think everyone will find something they can connect to.”
Duke Ellington's Sophisticated Ladies, Friday, January 27, through March 5; 7:30 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays at 7:30 p.m., and 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Vintage Theatre, 1468 Dayton Street, Aurora; get tickets and more information here.