One of the great unexpected pleasures of the new Broadway season is After Midnight, an effervescent tribute to the joys and spirit of Harlem in the 1920s and '30s, in particular the fabled Cotton Club. Bottom line: You're unlikely to find a more buoyant, sassy, and downright infectious time at the theater anywhere else in New York City right now.
After Midnight is a gussied-up version of Cotton Club Parade, the well-received 2011 Encores production. I didn't get a chance to see Cotton Club Parade, but if it's anything like After Midnight, then I think I must have missed out on something rather special.
Revues can be really tricky to pull off. I mean, they're fairly easy to throw together, if you don't particularly care about dramatic cohesion or flow. But that's just the thing: revues that have no sense of unity or continuity wind up being just an uninspired slog through song after song after song.
Fortunately, After Midnight comes with a built-in framing device: a typical Cotton Club revue. More important, After Midnight has director/choreographer Warren Carlyle, who whips the production up into an exhilarating froth, keeping the action moving inexorably forward, right through to two separate, and equally satisfying, finales.
For the uninitiated, The Cotton Club was a popular New York nightspot during the '20s and '30s. Although the club was in Harlem, it was nonetheless a whites-only establishment, at least when it came to the audience. The stage featured many of the best black entertainers of the time, including Count Basie, Bessie Smith, Cab Calloway, The Nicholas Brothers, Ella Fitzgerald, Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, and Ethel Waters. I've heard some carps from other critics that After Midnight doesn't delve at all into the social history of The Cotton Club, but that's not really what After Midnight is about. The point here seems to be to recreate the excitement of The Cotton Club, and to pay homage to the talent and legacy of the great entertainers who made those shows so electrifying.
After Midnight has some pretty electrifying performers of its own, including Fantasia Barrino, the first of a series of planned rotating guests stars. (In February, K.D. Lang joins the show, followed by Toni Braxton and Babyface.) I must admit, Fantasia was a pleasant surprise here. I'm somewhat (and by intention) ignorant of popular music, but I do know that Fantasia won "American Idol" a few seasons back. I was sort of expecting the showboating vocals and Mariah Carey melisma that seem all too typical of these televised singing competitions, but Fantasia was restrained and idiomatic in her smoky renditions of such standards as "Stormy Weather" and "I Can't Give You Anything But Love."
Sharing the stage with Fantasia is Dulé Hill, who as it turns out is a Broadway veteran, having among other stage gigs understudied Savion Glover in The Tap Dance Kid. Hill's smooth charm and pleasant singing voice raise him far above the dismissive charge of stunt-casting. (For those of you who, like me, don't watch television, Hill was featured on "The West Wing" and currently stars in "Psych.") Another major highlight of show in Tony winner Adriane Lenox (Doubt), essentially playing the lighter side of Ethel Waters with the delightfully sassy numbers "Don't Advertise Your Man" and "Where You Stayed Last Night."
Another delight from After Midnight comes in the form of the on-stage orchestra, the astounding Jazz At Lincoln Center All-Stars, conducted here by Daryl Waters. (Artistic director, Wynton Marsalis) Carlyle and company go out of their way to showcase the various members of the band, to the point where the orchestra even gets the final bow. What a pleasure it is to go to a show in New York in which the orchestra is more than just a supporting character. Here, they shine individually and as a whole, with numerous moments throughout the show to show their respective talents.
A good portion of the authenticity of After Midnight comes from the lushly orchestrated and lovingly performed music, much of which comes from the catalogues of Duke Ellington, Harold Arlen, and the various collaborations bewteen Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh, all of whom contributed extensively to Cotton Club revues during their careers.
What really gives After Midnight its effervescent tang are Carlyle's plentiful and high-octane dance numbers, including everything from swing to tap to novelty numbers. The tap here is sensational, particularly when dynamo Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards is on-stage. There's even a high-sprited homage to the marvelous Nicholas Brothers, featuring Daniel J. Watts and Phillip Attmore. (If you've never seen The Nicholas Brothers in the movie Stormy Weather, you haven't truly lived. Fred Astaire called this the best dance number ever to appear on film.) One minor misstep came in the form of a rather bizarre interpretive dance that had the otherwise arresting Karine Plantadit rising form the dead and dancing around her funeral procession. Plantadit is terrific, and the dance is sharp, but the moment is decidedly odd.
But in general, After Midnight is all about having a grand old time. Hey, if you're looking for social history, try Francis Ford Coppolla's underrated 1984 film, "The Cotton Club." But if you're looking to have a fabulous time watching great performers and immersing yourself into the delights of a bygone era, you might just want to give After Midnight a try.