Real estate types say that Harlem is hot now. Have money to invest in a brownstone fixer-upper? Still renting but long for more square footage? You must take the A train. But the joint is also jumping for another reason: The raucous, joyous, white-hot After Midnight pays homage to Harlem and the legendary Cotton Club through a series of spectacular song-and-dance numbers that show off a ridiculously talented array of hoofers, crooners and jazzmen – the latter handpicked by Wynton Marsalis. Wowing the crowds with lusty singing and swinging dance, these marvelous performers whip up a hurricane of fun.
Devised by producer Jack Viertel and road-tested twice at City Center as Cotton Club Parade, the program packs in more than two dozen numbers – many of them classics by Duke Ellington, as well as standards by Harold Arlen and others. It amounts to a jazz phantasmagoria that shifts from head-spinning tap by the charming trio of Daniel J. Watts, Phillip Attmore and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards to silken singing by MC Dulé Hill and tender ballads (“Stormy Weather,” “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and others) sensitively rendered by Fantasia Barrino (The Color Purple).
Choreographed and directed by Warren Carlyle (Finian’s Rainbow), the plot-free revue begins with Hill greeting us by the light of a rakishly angled streetlight and intoning a few lines by Langston Hughes. (The poet’s syncopated rhythms will recur throughout the night as mood-setting, connective tissue.) The goal is not a historical recreation, but to conjure up an idealized image of the time: zoot suits, wide-brimmed hats, flapper gals, hooch, sizzling moves and jazz, jazz, jazz. The onstage 17-piece band sounds terrific. The horn section blazes through “Braggin’ in Brass” and “Rockin’ in Rhythm.” Drummer Alvester Garnett seems to be in heaven. Conductor Daryl Waters keeps it tight but swinging.
And what a lineup of singers. Carmen Ruby Floyd coos and woos us through Ellington’s “Creole Love Call.” Hill gives a jaunty account of “I’ve Got the World on a String,” playing with a bright red balloon. Adriane Lenox brings down the house with her ribald, salty take on Sippie Wallace’s “Women Be Wise.” As for movement, there are attractive numbers danced by the fierce Karine Plantadit (last seen on Broadway in Come Fly Away) and beguiling mime sequences by lanky Julius “iGlide” Chisolm and short, compact Virgil “L’il O” Gadson. Jared Grimes’ tap prowess is on full display.
Although Carlyle doesn’t impose a narrative arc on the night, Gadson and Plantadit is one couple we follow from beginning to end. The mood also darkens somewhat as the show progresses. We watch a somber funeral procession for “The Gal from Joe’s.” But not even death can slow down the party; out of the coffin pops Plantadit, who practically incinerates the boards at the Brooks Atkinson with her moves to Ellington’s “Black and Tan Fantasy.” And Barrino’s early, heartbroken songs give way to the scat-tastic “Zaz Zuh Zaz,” co-written by the great Cab Calloway. “Jazz is a great big sea,” Hughes wrote in his 1956 essay “Jazz as Communication.” If that’s true, then this is one hell of a refreshing swim.
David Cote is theater editor and chief drama critic of Time Out New York. He is also a contributing critic on NY1’s On Stage.