By: David Sheward
Three decades ago, there was a seemingly endless parade on Broadway and off of plotless revues celebrating the magnificent heritage of African-American song and dance from the first half of the 20th century. One hit followed another-Ain’t Misbehavin’, Sophisticated Ladies, Bubbling Brown Sugar, Eubie, and Black and Blue, just to name a few. Now After Midnight, a new show for a new generation, evokes the music of Duke Ellington during his tenure at the Cotton Club, matching and even out-dazzling its predecessors.
Derived from a series of concerts presented by Encores! and Jazz at Lincoln Center, this production re-creates a typical lightning-paced floor show at the legendary Harlem nightspot where Ellington and his contemporaries would make jazz history nightly. Fluidly staged and choreographed in 90 breathless minutes by Warren Carlyle, the revue is packed with showstoppers-including flawless tap numbers, sassy blues, sensuous solo and group songs, thrilling orchestral breaks, and much more.
As mentioned, there is no story. The only element holding the material together is a "host" character, who occasionally joins in the merriment and recites Langston Hughes’s poetry to provide context. Dulé Hill, best known for his TV work but with numerous Broadway credits, fulfills his narrator chores with style and is a superb showman in his musical numbers such as a sprightly "I’ve Got the World on a String." American Idol winner Fantasia Barrino, billed as a "special guest star," gives her unique silky spin to such classics as "I Can’t Give You Anything but Love" and "Stormy Weather." Adriane Lenox channels blues divas Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters in two sizzling and sardonic solos. Everett Bradley recalls Cab Calloway in several humorous specialty spots. Carmen Ruby Floyd, Rosena M. Hill Jackson, and Bryonha Marie Parham impress as a vocal trio and in individual turns.
On the dance side, Daniel J. Watts, Phillip Atmore, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, and Jared Grimes are tops in taps, Julius "iGlide" Chisolm and Virgil "Lil’ O" Gadson elegantly contort their bodies like figures in a Max Fleischer cartoon, and Karine Plantadit moves like a flirtatious gazelle as a good-time seductress tempting various males, then playing the girl’s spirit in a mock-solemn funeral sequence. That latter is just one of Carlyle’s inspired dance vignettes. Others include "Peckin," wherein the guys in the chorus are decked out in top hats, white tie and tails and move close together like cards in a deck, and "East St. Louis Toodleloo," a naughty and fun depiction of a love triangle.
In fact, After Midnight is such an embarrassment of riches, crammed into such a fast running time, you won’t want to leave after the Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Stars orchestra finishes "Rockin’ in Rhythm," the socko curtain-call number.
Opened Nov. 3 for an open run. Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 265 W. 47th St., NYC. Tue 7:30pm, Wed 2pm & 7:30pm, Thu 7:30pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 1 hour and 30 minutes with no intermission. $60-199. (800) 745-3000. www.ticketmaster.com
Photo: Mathew Murray