The show aims to recreate the sorts of entertainment that would have been seen at the Cotton Club during prohibition, and offers up a high octane array of vocals, dance and instrumentals, occasionally interspersed with selections from the works of writer Langston Hughes. Impressively, the production manages to reproduce the ambiance of the era and its music without ever referencing the sorts of stereotypes that have also come to be associated with the period.
For instance, there's Tony Award winner Adriane Lenox's terrifically conceived -- both dramatically and comically -- delivery of two saucy, tough-as-nails comic numbers. She turns Sippie Wallace's musical remonstration about the ways women will steal other women's boyfriends, "Women Be Wise," into a wry, vaguely drunken musical monologue.
And Lenox never allows Sidney Easton and Ethel Waters' tune in which a woman shuts the door on the man who spent the night with another woman, "Go Back Where You Spent Last Night," seem as if it were just another in a long string of "I've been done wrong by my guy" numbers.
Similarly, Carla Cook delivers Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields' standard, "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," with such understated simplicity that it seems newly minted: a contemporary love song for the 99%. And when she imbues Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler's "Stormy Weather" with an equal measure of straightforwardness alongside Brandon Victor Dixon's delicately suave rendition of the team's "Ill Wind," the effect is equally revelatory.
Beyond the vocals, there are some simply terrific dance sequences. The busy Carlyle (represented on Broadway this fall with both Hugh Jackman's show and Follies) has created several exceptional tap specialties, particularly one for the seemingly rubberjointed DeWitt Fleming Jr. and Kendrick Jones, who simply exude joyous effervescence while singing and dancing Arlen and Koehler's "Happy As the Day Is Long."
Likewise, when Alexandria "Brinae Ali" Bradley cuts loose during these writers' "Raisin' the Rent," theatergoers can actually sense the struggle of trying to make ends meet as she dances.
Carlyle also offers up a whimsical take on "I've Got the World on a String" performed by the dancing ensemble and the Lindy-infused dance that accompanies Duke Ellington, Henry Nemo and Irving Mills' "The Skrontch," is a sheer joy. Meanwhile, company member Jared Grimes is credited for Johnny Hodges' "Going Nuts" and Garth Fagan contributes a confusingly abstracted solo for Nicolette DePass with Ellington and Bubber Miley's "Black and Tan Fantasy."
Throughout, one can revel in the orchestra's work -- particularly that of the brass section, which cannot only blare away with spine-tingling brashness, but also traverse a staccato melodic line with remarkable daintiness.
Toni-Leslie James' costumes are also a marvel: a mix of handsome period street clothes and understated formal attire, while John Lee Beatty's scenic design -- beautifully lit by Peter Kaczorwoski -- ably frames the action, allowing it to shift from the street to the club's elegant interior with ease.
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