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Ellington remembered in entertaining show

Beef & Boards honor jazz legend with musical revue ‘Sophisticated Ladies’
Sean Blake and Tiffany Gilliam sing “Music Is A Woman” in Sophisticated Ladies at Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre. Now on stage through Aug. 20, Sophisticated Ladies celebrates the music of legendary jazz pianist Duke Ellington. Tickets are available online at

Decked out in glittering blue unitards, sparkling checkered suits and top hats, the company of “Sophisticated Ladies,” Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre’s latest production, form a Rockette-esque kick line against the backdrop of a gilded picture frame. Its vintage bulbs twinkle harmoniously with a syncopated rhythm and lighthearted, brassy melody.

Beef & Boards is honoring 100 years since legendary jazz pianist and composer Duke Ellington began performing in New York City’s nightclubs and venues with “Sophisticated Ladies,” the Tony-award winning musical revue that first opened on Broadway in 1981.

Under the musical direction of Tenah B. C. Karimu — who also plays the keyboard and conducts the revue’s 30 musical numbers — the eight-member orchestra provides endless toe-tapping entertainment for the night. I was overjoyed to hear Bill Meyer’s upright bass even in the theater’s fifth row during the production’s first Saturday show directed and choreographed by Kenney M. Greene-Tilfo.

Michael Layton’s minimalist set design allows the audience to focus on what truly matters — Ellington’s rousing music. Art deco patterns and photographs of Harlem’s Cotton Club, where Ellington’s orchestra played as its house band for four years, are projected beside the stage to help ground the production in the jazz age.

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Rather than a narrative storyline, “Sophisticated Ladies” is snapshots of life and love, like Kelliann DeCarlo and Zachary Dyer’s portrayal of a couple’s first dinner date in “Bli-Blip.” Making their debuts at Beef & Boards, DeCarlo and Dyer’s performance is full of skillful scatting and endearing awkwardness bouncing between the two performers.

“Sophisticated Ladies” is also Darius-Anthony Robinson’s debut at Beef & Boards, and his contagious enthusiasm has me already hoping he’ll return for a future production. His infectious smile and warm, rich voice is one I longed to see and hear again whenever he exited stage left or right.

No matter who Sean Blake shares the stage with, his charisma emanates throughout Beef & Board’s intimate space, whether he’s scatting with Yvette Monique Clark in “Take the A Train” or miming dealing cards in a poker game during “Ko-Ko.” When Indianapolis-native Tiffany Gilliam joins him during “Music Is A Woman” and “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” they’re an alluring dancing duo I can’t take my eyes off of while they saunter across the stage together.

One of the production’s highlights is its use of lighting, like at the end of “Everything But You” when Dyer takes his broom and sweeps the spotlight onto Clark for “It Don’t Mean a Thing” in Act I. Clark’s soulful, conversational voice is perfectly suitable for jazz, and Saturday night’s audience could agree, as they couldn’t wait until Clark finished her last notes before applauding.

Dustin Cross’ costume designs are a spectacle in themselves too. Not only are there constant costume changes, but the company’s feathered, bold-colored attire truly emphasizes New York City nightlife’s glitz and glam. Clark and DeCarlo’s royal blue and plum evening gowns shimmer against moody lighting during their vulnerable duet, “Mood Indigo.” DeCarlo, a powerhouse of a vocalist, still belted out her anguish and anger across the theater despite technical difficulties with her microphone.

Beef & Boards’ “Sophisticated Ladies” is a nonstop, energetic celebration of human connection and Ellington’s influence on popular music that brings his talents back to the center stage for us all to enjoy.

“Sophisticated Ladies” runs through Aug. 20 at Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre. Tickets range from $52.50 to $79.50 and include Chef Larry Stoops’ dinner buffet and select beverages. To purchase tickets online, visit or call Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre Box Office at 317-872-9664.

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    Donna WileyJul 27, 2023 at 7:27 am

    I enjoyed the entire production from beginning to end…. I flew in from California to see opening night!!! Couldn’t have been more excited for the entire cast! And of course the direction given by Kenny Green-Tilford (yes my son)
    Great Production!!!!!