Monday, November 4, 2013

After Midnight

Dulé Hill walks out onto a stage bare except for an old-time lamppost. Dressed all in white, with an oversized jacket and wide lapels, he invites the audience to the only place to be in 1932 -- Harlem -- and the only time to be there -- after midnight. Then in a snap we are transported to a land of music and dance as the Cotton Club comes to life, complete with a full big band orchestra onstage. And the fun begins and continues for 90 uninterrupted minutes at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre where After Midnight opened last night.

Hill (currently on TV’s “Psych”, formerly on “The West Wing”) serves as the narrator opening and closing the show, quoting from Langston Hughes and performing as well in this musical revue of more than two dozen jazz-era classics from the likes of Duke Ellington and Harold Arlen. Directed and choreographed (spectacularly) by Warren Carlyle, with musical direction by Wynton Marsalis, After Midnight features sexy performances by Tony Award-winner Adriane Lenox (Doubt) and Grammy Award and “American Idol”-winner Fantasia Barrino (Celie in Broadway’s The Color Purple), plus an ensemble of first-rate dancers, all to celebrate Ellington's years as band leader at the Cotton Club, using his original arrangements and performed by the 17-member Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Stars, conducted by Daryl Waters.

While it may be set in 1932, no hint of the Great Depression can be found in this production, which shoots more for glorious escapism than a realistic recreation. The show began life as Cotton Club Parade, conceived by Jack Viertel, and played sold-out engagements for City Center’s Encore! in 2011 and 2012. Isabel Toledo (who designs clothes for our ultra-stylish First Lady) created to-die-for costumes, from glittery gowns to jazzy flapper dresses, in all white or a blaze of colors. I would have been happy to have any one of them.

The spirited dances range from full-cast thunder to solo tapping and had me entranced. I love tap and don’t see much of it on New York stages, so watching Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards and Jared Grimes was a joy. They could have danced all night as far as I was concerned.

But then I also loved a whimsical cast number done to “I’ve Got the World on a String” that featured long and lanky couples in stark black and white dancing gracefully while hold red helium-filled balloons. It was as light and shiny as the balloons themselves.

The evening includes pieces by jazz composers of the time, including Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields ("I Can't Give You Anything But Love" and "Digga Digga Doo"), Arlen ("Stormy Weather," "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea") as well as Ellington ("Rockin' in Rhythm," "Cotton Club Stomp," "Black and Tan Fantasy" and "Creole Love Call").

After Midnight will follow the Cotton Club's tradition of “celebrity nights” by welcoming the stars of today in limited engagements throughout its run, starting with Fantasia who appears through Feb. 9. She will be followed by Grammy-winner k.d. lang (Feb. 11-March 9) and Grammy Award-winning artists Toni Braxton and Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds (March 18-30). I wish I could go back to see them all!

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