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DC likes ‘Ladies’

But tour potential limited by rights issues

Arena Stage’s revival of “Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies” has turned into a runaway springtime hit in the nation’s capital, spurring talk of a potential tour.

But that road production — much less a Gotham transfer — doesn’t look like it’s in the cards, since the current first-class rights holder, producer Manny Fox, is planning the launch of his own production.

Even without a tour, though, this “Ladies” has proven a major hit.

The record-breaking success of the D.C. show, which opened April 15 and just extended through June 27, has clearly tapped a reservoir of pride and interest regarding one of the city’s favorite sons, the Duke.

Ellington got his start as an entertainer playing in a club in the basement of the Lincoln Theater, where “Ladies” is on the boards. He frequently performed at the ornate 1,225-seat house, a focal point of a vibrant entertainment district known during segregation as “black Broadway.”

Ellington’s early connection with the theater is prominently featured in the revue’s retrospective of his long and prolific career. Helmed by Charles Randolph Wright, the production is choreographed by Maurice Hines, who also is featured as a tapper in the show.

“Ladies” is Arena’s final production at the theater before the troupe returns to its refurbished campus on Maine Avenue in the fall. Its packed houses include an abundance of tourists, return visits by local auds and a high number of group sales, said Edgar Dobie, Arena managing director.

According to Dobie, the success of the revue is partly a reflection of 60-year-old Arena’s longstanding dedication to developing audiences and educating youngsters about theater. Prior to the show’s opening, for example, Hines and other company members participated in outreach activities that included master classes in tap dancing at Howard U. and the Duke Ellington School.

Those classes and a followup audition drew the interest of two talented teenagers, area brothers John and Leo Manzari. After watching them perform, Hines plucked the duo from the group and incorporated them into the show, where they have become big crowd-pleasers and teen idols for the younger set. The two athletic dancers share a lengthy spotlight with Hines during the second act, one of the show’s highlights.

Among those thrilled with the revue’s success is choreographer Hines, who said he is savoring audience reaction to his tap dancing skills as his career shifts largely to choreography. The last time Hines collaborated on a project with Arena Stage was the production 10 years ago of “Guys and Dolls,” which went on to a successful national tour. Hines said he’s ready and available should that possibility arise again.

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