Review: AFTER MIDNIGHT Shimmers with Harlem Elegance
Though Duke Ellington and his orchestra had further uptown destinations in mind when they advised nightlife-seeking denizens to take the A train, Broadway patrons seeking a luscious sampler of the music and styles that flourished in venues like The Cotton Club, The Savoy and The Sugar Cane during that golden era known as The Harlem Renaissance needn't travel further north than 47th Street, where the Brooks Atkinson Theatre is jumpin', stompin' and downright roof raisin' with the sounds of Ellington and his contemporaries in a dazzling showcase of talent christened After Midnight.
Conceived by Jack Viertel and directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, the plotless song and dance revue originated as collaboration between Jazz at Lincoln Center and New York City Center, with an earlier version premiering in town as Cotton Club Parade.
While the ninety-minute evening has been tweaked and regenerated, what remains at its sizzling core is the exhilarating play of Artistic Director Wynton Marsalis' Jazz At Lincoln Center All-Stars, a ravishing collection of brass, woodwinds, strings and percussion under Daryl Waters' baton. Their arrangements are a combination of period originals, some transcribed, and additional creations by Waters.
The on-stage orchestra is by no means there to simply back up the singers and dancers. Soloists are frequently spotlighted and pushed to the forefront as they enliven both classics and lesser-knowns from the songbooks of Ellington ("It Don't Mean A Thing" "Braggin' In Brass" "Black And Tan Fantasy" "Cotton Club Stomp") and the likes of Ted Koehler and Harold Arlen ("Stormy Weather" "Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea" "I've Got The World On A String"), Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh ("I Can't Give You Anything But Love" "On The Sunny Side Of The Street" "Freeze And Melt") and Cab Calloway ("Zaz Zuh Zaz").
Fronting the band is a top-shelf ensemble, with Dulé Hill grounding their kinetics with urbanely spoken snippets from Langston Hughes. Though care has been taken to recreate the feel of the era, the occasional contemporary vocal inflection or dance styling is done in the spirit of showing how interpretations of art forms evolve with time, rather than inflicting the material with modern improvements.
John Lee Beatty's set is appropriately minimal, recreating the essence of attending an uptown supper club, but Isabel Toledo's costumes are anything but, ranging from swanky art deco angles of black and white to vibrant splashes of color.
Adriane Lenox may be best known for her Tony-winning dramatic turn in Doubt, but she preceded that gig with a healthy collection of musical theatre credits, and emerges here as a broadly belting comic showstopper, sassing up Sippie Wallace's romantic advice in "Woman Be Wise" and uproarious telling off her man with Sidney Easton and Ethel Waters' "Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night."
Vocal highlights are also supplied by smoothly harmonizing ladies Carmen Ruby Floyd, Rosena M. Hill Jackson and Bryonha Marie Parham and the comical quartet of Everett Bradley, Cedric Neal, Monroe Kent III and T. Oliver Reid.The assemblage of dancers appears to be competing to see who can make the most eyes pop and jaws drop. The synchronized splits of tap dancers Daniel J. Watts and Phillip Attmore pay joyful homage to the Nicholas Brothers. Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards' heels and toes likewise scorch the floor with rapid precision. The charismatic Virgil "Lil' O" Gadson mixes wild acrobatics into his featured number and performs a snazzy challenge dance with the snake-like Julius "iGlide" Chisolm.
Sinewy Karine Plantadit performs a captivatingly sensual solo, but the evening's 11 o'clocker (more like a 9:30er in this case) belongs to Jared Grimes' meticulously clean and lightening quick routine to "Tap Mathematician."
A unique feature of After Midnight is to spotlight a special guest star for a limited stint; calling to mind how jazz celebs might pop into Harlem's clubs on a whim to perform a number or two. Filling the bill through February 9th is Fantasia Barrino (using her full name this time), who fits beautifully into the period; scatting with delightfully naughty subtext for "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," leading the audience in a crazy call and response in "Zaz Zuh Zah" and gorgeously smoldering under the "Stormy Weather."
But with all due respect, this is truly an all-star production, and don't you dare think of leaving right after the curtain calls because the biggest stars of the evening are the sensational musicians taking us a bit closer to the midnight hour with a rousing turn at "Rockin' In Rhythm."