Jack Viertel's musical tribute to the Cotton Club will make you long for a late-night visit to Harlem. I suggest you just visit the one lighting up Broadway.
In 1936, Harlem's Cotton Club relocated to the heart of Broadway on 48th Street, barely a stone's throw away from its new home at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. Luckily, the ghosts of legendary musicians and performers like Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and Billie Holiday are still lingering around midtown, for they seem to have cozily settled into the feet, throats, and hearts of the brilliant cast of After Midnight.
The title of the production's earlier incarnation, which played two engagements at New York City Center, was Cotton Club Parade, taking its name from the iconic jazz hub's biggest-grossing show of all time, headlined by Harlem Renaissance star Adelaide Hall. While the name change does conjure a few unfortunate images of scatting werewolves and vampires, it defuses our expectations of seeing a particular Cotton Club performance reenacted on a Broadway stage. Instead, we can sit back and embrace the joyful tribute to this era of song and dance that Jack Viertel has dreamed up for New York audiences.
Musical revues are Mr. Viertel's specialty, having co-created the Grammy Award-winning Leiber & Stoller revue Smokey Joe's Café and contributed to the current Janis Joplin-inspired musical A Night With Janis Joplin, playing just a few blocks south at the Lyceum Theatre. True, if you gather together a group of Tony Award-winning designers, a company of stunning dancers and singers, and the Jazz at Lincoln Center All Stars band and let them go to town on one of the greatest eras of American entertainment, it would be a feat not to strike oil. Still, rather than merely cobbling together 90 minutes of Cotton Club-inspired acts, Viertel, along with choreographer/director Warren Carlyle, have curated a beautiful and intelligently designed montage of legendary jazz performances, while adding in a few modern twists that offer glimmers of their lingering silhouettes in contemporary popular culture.
Carlyle melds vintage jazz with modern-day hip-hop and break dance as Julius "iGlide" Chisolm and Virgil "Lil' O" Gadson throw down in a dance battle to Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh's "Hottentot." Tony winner Adriane Lenox, meanwhile, spouts hilariously bitter diatribes in Sippie Wallace's "Women Be Wise," embellishing the tune's message with some uniquely modern profanities. Special guest star Fantasia Barrino (performing in the spirit of the Cotton Club's "Celebrity Nights") similarly infuses a hint of her signature R&B style into her four classic jazz numbers throughout the evening — though, if not for the mosaic of tattoos on full display through her collection of spangled dresses (sleekly designed by Isabel Toledo), you would think she was pulled straight from this bygone era of legendary musicians. Barrino offers a gut-wrenching interpretation of the classic Ted Koehler & Harold Arlen number "Stormy Weather" that could stand up to any of its great renditions by artists like Etta James, Billie Holiday, and Lena Horne, followed by some adroit scatting to Cab Walloway and Harry White's "Zaz Zuh Zaz." The ping-pong match of zaz, zuh, zaz, zuh, zays between Fantasia and the commanding Everett Bradley, who, in his gold lamé jacket, presides over the company like the godfather of jazz, rank as one of the evening's highlights — though each number that parades onstage seems to outdo the one that came before it.
John Lee Beatty's minimal yet eye-catching set design filled with vibrant blocks of color (along with Howell Binkley's complementary lighting), offers a perfect canvas for the performers to create their masterpieces. Featured dancers Karine Plantadit and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards shine in their solo numbers; Carmen Ruby Floyd, Rosena M. Hill Jackson, and Bryonha Marie Parham make up a soulful singing trio; and Daniel J. Watts and Phillip Attmore show off their tap dancing expertise — though the tapping pyrotechnics come from Jared Grimes who performs a jaw-dropping solo to Duke Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing."
Gluing together the pieces of this Cotton Club montage is the debonair Dulé Hill, who, with a "Leading Player" aura, conjures the spirits from this golden age with silky smooth recitations of Langston Hughes poetry and an occasional soft-shoe. While providing a much-needed throughline that is all too often absent from musical revues, Hill's poetic interludes confront the Cotton Club's unsavory past as a "whites-only" establishment, making one of the most influential African-American voices of the Harlem Renaissance the engine that drives the production forward. As Hill guides us through this evening of dazzling performances, the house lights occasionally rise as if to remind us to appreciate the faces in the audience as much as we do those onstage. And might I say, Harlem after midnight has never looked better.