This high-spirited revue aims to capture the music and dancing of the Cotton Club, especially as led by its most famous bandleader Duke Ellington (with a significant nod to his successor, Cab Calloway). That’s the entire aim of After Midnight, and it succeeds marvelously, though more than once I found myself wishing it had tried for more.
The music, they’ve gotten exactly right. The band is no ordinary pit orchestra, it’s The Jazz at Lincoln Center’s All-Stars, among the city’s most accomplished big jazz bands (of which there are more than you might think). The show’s best known singer is “special guest star” Fantasia Barrino, who gets to do the majority of the evening’s better-known standards. Barrino is no stranger to Broadway, so when she’s called upon to dance a bit in some of those numbers, she’s more than game.
The real winner in the vocal department, though, is Adriane Lenox, delivering two bitchy blues numbers – Sippie Wallace’s “Women Be Wise” and Ethel Waters’s “Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night” – with infectious comic relish. Hers is definitely the evening’s most memorable performance.
The great majority of After Midnight, however, is devoted to dance numbers ranging from duets to stage-filling production numbers. This is a ridiculously talented dance corps, which has one surprising downside: every dancer, no matter how talented, seems underused. Karine Plantadit is one of the most expressive and flexible dancers anywhere, but even in her big solo “Black and Tan Fantasy” it feels like choreographer Warren Carlyle isn’t giving her amazing talent full play.
The same goes for Julius “iGlide” Chisolm and Virgil “Lil’O” Gadson – they get one big number together, “Hottentot”, and Gadson gets some entertaining byplay with Plantadit. Chisolm and Gadson’s snake-hipped “eccentric dancing” in “Hottentot” was simply stunning, albeit with a touch too much hip-hop-like popping and locking (but eccentric dancing is most certainly hip-hop dancing’s direct artistic grandad, so this is just a quibble). But it left me wanting more; I know that’s considered a virtue in some artistic corners, but, myself, I prefer satisfaction.
Dulé Hill provides a suave, sexy presence as a sort of “ringmaster” for the show. He introduces numbers with quotes from gay poet Langston Hughes’s hymns to the Harlem Renaissance, and joins in the singing and dancing from time to time.
All in all After Midnight is a great success as entertainment. It doesn’t provide any significant insights into, or reinterpretations of, Cotton Club classics, just renders them with a great deal of taste, energy and panache. And, you know what, that’s plenty.
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