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NEW YORK – The paramount requirement for any revue celebrating the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and ‘30s is stated right there in the Duke Ellington standard: “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).” And After Midnight has it in abundance, courtesy of a superlative jazz orchestra handpicked by producer Wynton Marsalis from among the best in the business. Ninety minutes of exuberantly entertaining song and dance, this is a show that renders it impossible to keep your toes from tapping. Up first in a series of rotating special guest stars, Fantasia Barrino with her luscious vocals sets the bar high.
Conceived by Jack Viertel, the elegant production was hatched out of Cotton Club Parade, a collaboration by two New York concert organizations, City Center Encores! and Jazz at Lincoln Center, where Marsalis serves as artistic director. After earning rapturous reviews in its initial 2011 run of six sold-out performances, the show was reprised last year and has now evolved into this more elaborate retitled Broadway version.
It follows in the dancing footsteps of musical revues such as Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Sophisticated Ladies, which recreated the Jazz Age variety shows that drew crowds to legendary Harlem nightspots like the Cotton Club and the Savoy Ballroom. While music supervisor Daryl Waters, working with Marsalis, has returned to many of the original Ellington arrangements, the white-hot syncopated rhythms also acquire an understated contemporary edge, both through the performers and the look of the show. A key component of this modern spin on period high-style are the fabulous costumes by Cuban-born fashion designer Isabel Toledo, who has collected enough bugle beads, sequins, feathers and shimmy fringes to outfit a flapper army.
Unlike most jukebox musicals, which impose an artificial story construct to thread the songs together, After Midnight economically sets the time and place with a few evocative excerpts from the poetry of Langston Hughes, a defining voice of the Harlem Renaissance. Those are read by Dule Hill as the evening’s Host. The actor also participates in a handful of numbers, notably a breezy “I’ve Got the World on a String,” in which red balloons on white ribbons show that sometimes the simplest devices can yield stage magic. Hill’s fellow cast members outclass him in terms of their energy level and musicality, but he’s a charming presence.
While there are definite headliners, this is very much an ensemble show. Director-choreographer Warren Carlyle gives everyone a chance to share the spotlight, which arguably shines brightest on the 16 musicians perched onstage on a moving big-band platform.
The vocal harmonies of a seductive female trio (Carmen Ruby Floyd, Rosena M. Hill Jackson and Bryonha Marie Parham) on “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” are sublime, enlivened by a mischievous strain of sassy humor. Floyd also has a standout moment later on with her insanely sultry warbling on Ellington’s wordless “Creole Love Call.”
The guys are no slouches either. Daniel J. Watts and Phillip Attmore duet on “Happy As the Day is Long,” selling the sheer joy of the song’s title in their tap-dance break, while Everett Bradley, Cedric Neal, Monroe Kent III and T. Oliver Reid harmonize up an ebullient riot, subbing for The Mills Brothers on “Diga Diga Doo.” Bradley also leads the spirited vocals with great comic verve on Ellington’s “Peckin’,” capping off a precision-tooled formation dance featuring five guys in top hats and tails.
Some of the ensemble dance numbers show the limitations of Carlyle’s choreography, which mimics the vernacular of the era well enough but could use an extra shot or two of inventiveness. What he does do well is smoothly integrate a smattering of contemporary elements – breakdance, moonwalk, hip-hop – to suggest the vintage roots of those moves.
The dance highlights tend to come from the specialty soloists. Watching Julius “iGlide” Chisolm’s slippy-slidey elasticity in a dance-off with Virgil “Lil’O” Gadson’s buoyant athleticism is exhilarating. Likewise, the tap virtuosity of Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards and the dazzling Jared Grimes, whose locomotive “Tap Mathematician” routine quickens the pulse as the finale approaches. As she demonstrated in Twyla Tharp’s Sinatra show Come Fly Away, Karine Plantadit’s combination of muscularity and grace is mesmerizing. But it seems a crime for a dancer known as much for her magnificent golden ‘fro as her superhuman leg extensions to be stuck in a stiff blonde bob that cramps her style. However, that’s just nitpicking.
One of the biggest surprises here is the star attraction. Broadway purists like to be sniffy about American Idol discoveries and their melisma-heavy vocal stunts. But Fantasia proved an exception – with solid acting chops to boot – when she stepped confidently into the lead role in The Color Purple in 2007. While her shoulder tattoo art is out-of-period, her performance here plunges into the jazz-blues vocal styles of another era, evoking everyone from Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday to Lena Horne and Ella Fitzgerald on such standards as “Stormy Weather,” “On the Sunny Side of the Street” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.” She even gives a rousing nod to Cab Calloway on “Zaz Zuh Zaz,” with Bradley and the guys answering her scat call-and-response from the box seats. Fantasia’s vocal skills are no secret, but she also nails the period moves and attitudes with supreme finesse, playing the baby doll in one breath and the torchy siren in the next. And she looks gorgeous in Toledo’s knockout gowns.
The indisputable scene-stealer of After Midnight, however, is the marvelous Adriane Lenox, a Tony-winner for Doubt. Sly, sexy humor ripples through this entire show, but nowhere more so than in Lenox’s two numbers. She summons Ethel Waters from the grave in “Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night,” slamming the door shut on a philandering man; and her rendition of the Sippie Wallace song, “Women Be Wise,” is a comedic revelation, effortlessly finding laughs in that bluesy cautionary lesson that may never have previously existed. Gulping hooch and shaking her bony limbs like an inveterate juke-joint floozy, Lenox alone makes this a party you don’t want to miss. It’s jazz heaven.
Venue: Brooks Atkinson Theatre, New York (runs indefinitely)
Cast: Fantasia Barrino, Dule Hill, Adriane Lenox, Karine Plantadit, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, Julius “iGlide” Chisolm, Virgil “Lil’O” Gadson, Jared Grimes, Marijah Abney, Phillip Attmore, Everett Bradley, Christopher Broughton, Taeler Elyse Cyrus, C.K. Edwards, Carmen Ruby Floyd, Bahiyah Hibah, Rosena M. Hill Jackson, Monroe Kent III, Erin N. Moore, Cedric Neal, Bryonha Marie Parham, T. Oliver Reid, Desmond Richardson, Monique Smith, Daniel J. Watts
Director-choreographer: Warren Carlyle
Conceived by Jack Viertel
Text: Langston Hughes
Set designer: John Lee Beatty
Lighting designer: Howell Binkley
Costume designer: Isabel Toledo
Sound designer: Peter Hylenski
Orchestrations: Larry Hochman
Music supervisor: Daryl Waters
Presented by Scott Sander Productions, Wynton Marsalis, Roy Furman, Candy Spelling, Starry Night Entertainment, Hal Newman, Allan S. Gordon/Adam S. Gordon, James L. Nederlander, Robert K. Kraft, Catherine & Fred Adler, Robert Appel, Jeffrey Bolton, Scott M. Delman, James Fantaci, Ted Liebowitz, Stephanie P. McClelland, Sandy Block, Carol Fineman, in association with Marks-Moore Turnbull Group, Stephen & Ruth Hendel, Tom Kirdahy
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