Syncopated or synchronized; scatting, swinging or serenading; in white satin or black silk, the more than three dozen supremely talented entertainers of “After Midnight” – singers, dancers and musicians – thrill with an astonishing 27 musical numbers over 90 intermission-less minutes. Entitled “Cotton Club Parade” when it originated in City Center’s Encores! series, the revue celebrates the years that Duke Ellington presided over that famous Harlem nightclub, which coincided with the era of the Harlem Renaissance.
Encores! artistic director Jack Viertel, who conceived “After Midnight,” cleverly borrows a practice used by the Cotton Club known as “Celebrity Nights,” an excuse to feature the reigning talents of the day. The first guest artist is Fantasia Barrino, the American Idol winner who floored Broadway audiences with her performance as Celie in The Color Purple. (Future guest artists already lined up after Barrino leaves the show in February: kd lang, then Toni Braxton and Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds.) It is a different Fantasia – luscious, sparkling, dressed in celebrated fashion designer/first-time Broadway costume designer Isabel Toledo’s flattering ensembles – who floors us in a completely new way with her polished singing of the enduring jazz standards “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” “Stormy Weather,” and “On The Sunny Side of the Street,” as well as her fabulous scatting in Cab Calloway’s snazzy “Zaz Zuh Zaz.”
But this is a show too rich in talent to have to depend on any one star. Even the orchestra is called the All-Stars — “The Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Stars,” 17 musicians billed as “hand-picked” by Jazz at Lincoln Center artistic director Wynton Marsalis. (Are they normally picked by machine?) They are well-named; stars they are. Indeed, this is the only current Broadway musical that puts the orchestra so front and center – figuratively and literally: The musicians are visible on stage for the entire time, and the bandstand even slides up to the very lip of the stage for “Braggin’ in Brass,” one of the several purely orchestral pieces.
While just 11 of the 27 pieces in the show are by composer Ellington and his collaborators, bandleader Ellington played all the music with his Cotton Club Orchestra; “After Midnight” uses Ellington’s original orchestrations, to magnificent effect.
These are pros up on the stage of the Brooks Atkinson, and they have us from the get-go. Adriane Lenox, who is a veteran of nine Broadway shows, moves her dangerously sultry way through the bluesy “Women Be Wise,” sipping from a half-empty whiskey bottle. Carmen Ruby Floyd, previously on Broadway in Avenue Q and Porgy and Bess, sings wordlessly in the almost unbearably exquisite duet for voice and trumpet of Ellington’s “Creole Love Call.” Karine Plantadit, who was so impressive in her dancing for the Sinatra-Twyla Tharp collaboration “Come Fly With Me” and the Billy Joel-Tharp “Movin’ Out,” here outdoes herself in Ellington’s Black and Tan Fantasy.
A stand-out among the dancers making their Broadway debuts is the shockingly gifted Virgil J. Gadson, nicknamed “Lil O” whose short height is to his advantage, since it is easier to spot him in the many numbers – although we would be sure to notice him anyway, mischievous and agile as he tap-dances, leaps, flips and breakdances. Yes, that’s right, he and Julius Chisolm (also making his Broadway debut; also with a nickname, “iGlide”; and also easy to spot, because of his braided hair) incorporate into several of their traditional jazz dancing some unmistakable Michael Jackson moves.
It seems nearly an injustice to omit mention of any of the cast, since this is a show full of what would normally be show-stopping numbers, except this show doesn’t stop. Director and choreographer Warren Carlyle, who is sure to get the recognition already well-deserved for his work on such shows as “Finian’s Rainbow,” “Follies,” “Chaplin,” and “A Christmas Story,” makes sure this show keeps moving; what’s best about it is how much variety and pacing is built into the presentation, including some musical numbers that more or less tell their own story; one takes place at a funeral. But “After Midnight” is not so much a Broadway musical as a nightclub revue; you almost wish the Brooks Atkinson had replaced their normal seats with little round cloth-covered tables.
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Dule Hill, best-known for his roles in The West Wing and Psych on television, turns out to be a song-and-dance man of the old school, cooly covering such standards in “After Midnight” as Arlen’s “I’ve Got The World on A String” and “Ain’t It De Truth.” He is primarily employed as the host, the Master of Ceremonies, with a different snazzy suit and a new poem by Langston Hughes in-between almost every number.
On paper, the choice of Hughes’ poetry as the sole text in-between the musical numbers makes sense. Hughes is a central figure of the Harlem Renaissance and an innovator of jazz poetry.
There are two ways, however, in which Dule Hill’s use of Langston Hughes’ poetry as the sole spoken text of “After Midnight” strikes me as a missed opportunity.
First, Dule Hill doesn’t so much recite Langston Hughes poems as drop snippets from them in the guise of a jive-talking hipster; all that’s missing is the zoot suit. This is the same Langston Hughes who wrote the poem entitled “Harlem”:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
It was the poem from which Lorraine Hansberry got the title for her play A Raisin in the Sun, and it reflects an undercurrent of frustration and oppression that is absent from “After Midnight.”
Did you know that the Cotton Club was founded under a different name by the African-American boxing champion Jack Johnson, but was taken over by Owney Madden while the gangster was in Sing Sing prison? Did you know that the club barred blacks from attending in the audience even while it featured on its stage the biggest black stars of the era? Did you know that Duke Ellington, a bandleader who led his orchestra for 50 years, wrote some 1,700 compositions. This is information that is not in the show (nor in the program), the lack of historical context what I consider the second missed opportunity.
“After Midnight” does not in any intellectual or historical way bring the Broadway audience back to the era it is supposedly depicting. Few, though, will even notice. It may not take us back in time, but “After Midnight” does transport us.
Brooks Atkinson Theater
Conceived by Jack Viertel, selected text by Langston Hughes, music directed by Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Stars, music conducted and supervised by Daryl Waters.
Directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, scenic design by John Lee Beatty, costume design by Isabel and Ruben Toledo, lighting design by Howell Binkley, sound design by Peter Hylenski
Fantasia (October 18 – February 9)
k.d. lang (February 11 – March 9)
Julius “Iglide” Chisholm
Virgil J. Gadson
Carmen Ruby Floyd
Rosena M. Hill Jackson
Monroe Kent III
Bryonha Marie Parham
T. Oliver Reid
Taeler Elyse Cyrus
Erin N. Moore
Daniel J. Watts
Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Stars (Wynton Marsalis, Artistic Director)
Tickets: $60 – $142
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.