By: Paulanne Simmons
Dressed in top hat and tux, singer and dancer T. Oliver Reid returns to the Metropolitan Room, where he won the MetroStar Talent Challenge in 2010, to take the audience on a trip back to Harlem in 1934, when the jazz was as hot as the women and the booze flowed like water.
Drop Me Off in Harlem goes back to a variety of more or less famous clubs from Tillie’s Chicken Shack and the gay hangout Gladys’ Clam House to the Savoy Ballroom and the legendary Cotton Club. Not surprisingly, there’s a lot of Duke Ellington here: "Sophisticated Lady," "In a Sentimental Mood" and the iconic "Take the A Train." But there’s also Harold Arlen’s "Sweet & Hot" and "Satan’s Little Lamb," as well as Andy Razaf’s "S’posin" and "Lovely Liza Lee."
Most of the show is upbeat, much of it naughty. Razaf’s "If I Can’t Sell It" is as raunchy as it is rocking. But Reid also reminds us that at this time "the Ku Klux Klan was spreading hate in Long Island." In a "Blue Mini Suite" he puts great emotional strength in "Mood Indigo," "Am I Blue?" "Black and Blue" and "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues."
The most startling moment of the show comes when Reid turns away from the audience, then faces the audience again, this time in blackface. It takes courage to go back to a time everyone wants to forget about. But great performers embrace even difficult historical and emotional truths.
With musical director Lawrence Yurman on piano, Ray Kilday on bass, Trevor Newman on trumpet, and Damien Bassman on drums and percussion, Reid makes smooth transitions from sophisticated elegance, to sweet sentimentality, to bottomless blues. Eventually the bow tie is loosened and first the hat, then the tux come off. That’s when the night really gets hot.
Reid’s trip back to Harlem is sometimes sweet, sometimes a little bitter. But it is always smoking.
Drop Me Off in Harlem plays on four consecutive Sundays through Nov. 9 at Metropolitan Room, 34 West 22 Street, Call (212) 206-0440 or visit www.metropolitanroom.com.