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They Sing of Harlem

Brooke Pierce reviews the cast recording of George C. Wolfe's celebratory Harlem Song. logo

Harlem Song is reminiscent of another George C. Wolfe creation: Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk, the socio-historically minded musical that chronicled the black urban experience through tap. Harlem Song zeroes in on the legendary New York City neighborhood named in its title, exploring the area's rich history, the social upheaval that its denizens have experienced, and the several renaissances (both past and present) that it has been through. Like Noise/Funk, this show has a score including material by Wolfe and musicians Zane Mark and Daryl Waters. Though these men are capable songwriters, their contributions don't really cry out for a cast recording; but people who enjoyed the show will find that the CD, now available on the Columbia label, is a nice commemoration of the live experience.

From a purely musical standpoint, the standards by jazz greats like Billy Strayhorn ("Take the 'A' Train," here performed in a Spanish translation by Nilo Cruz) and Count Basie ("Drop Me Off in Harlem") are much more enjoyable than the originals by Mark and Waters. Even in the context of the show, the new songs celebrating Harlem's great writers ("Doin' The Niggerati Rag") and musicians ("Uptown Jazzmen") are kind of dull; on the recording, they don't offer much beyond a smidgeon of a history lesson.

Among the disc's highlights are "Here You Come With Love," a heartbreaking solo for Queen Esther (who delivers Wolfe's delightful dialogue with aplomb throughout the album), and B.J. Crosby's sassy rendition of the naughty "For Sale." The cool, cool, coolness of Jimmie Lunceford's "Well Alright Then" is irresistible. And "Linda Brown," which features a cocky girl and a cheeky boy trying to one-up each other, brings the energy of the stage to the listener in a way that many of the other songs can't. Cases in point: "A Fable of Rage in the Key of Jive" and "Shake," the former chronicling a riot and the latter an overview of recent Harlem history, don't induce goosebumps without the benefit of Wolfe's powerful staging. Thankfully, the interviews with Harlem residents that give Harlem Song its authenticity are preserved, in part, on the recording. These fascinating first-person accounts -- including an amusing anecdote from the barber who claims to have "discovered" the Afro -- are gems.

B.J. Crosby in Harlem Song
(Photo: © Michal Daniel)
As always, it's nice to have lyrics included in the CD booklet -- but there are no liner notes. That's surprising and unfortunate in that notes would seem essential for this type of property, which, in addition to featuring a patchwork score that warrants elucidation from the people who put it together, has the distinction of being a Broadway-style entertainment that is playing well outside of the theater district. Since its August opening at the Apollo Theater, Harlem Song has nobly struggled to continue bringing theatergoers uptown to 125th Street; a few notes on the show's journey would have been advisable.

The only other regrettable exclusion from the disc is "Time is Winding Up," a traditional tune that provides Harlem Song with one of its most stirring sequences. Almost making up for the loss is the eerie and magical "Late One Night," which kicks off the recording, and the thrilling final sequence that begins with Pamela Warrick-Smith's gospel tune "Tree of Life." The song segués into "One Word," an exultant celebration that has David St. Louis crying "One word!" and inducing the audience to shout back "Harlem!" While it's not quite the same as being in the theater with a live audience, you'll still want to join in.

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