Back in the '40s, the Latin Quarter was one of a string of Broadway night clubs that looked like movie sets. It served up the type of entertainment now available in Atlantic City and Las Vegas - glitter and girls.
Since then it has passed through several incarnations - porno movie house and legitimate theater among them - but now it has closed the circle. The new Latin Quarter just opened last night after extensive cosmetic surgery. It looks like a movie set. It has glitter and girls. There's one difference, however. These girls have talent - and plenty of it.
Debra Byrd, Ellia English and Freida Williams are singing in a show titled "Haarlem Nocturne," put together by the estimable Andre De Shields. De Shields played the title role in "The Wiz" on Broadway and was one of the five singers and dancers that made "Ain't Misbehavin'" such a rollicking evening in the theater. He is in snappy form here, too, but as good as he is, Byrd, English and Williams slip the show away from him.
Whether it's English pouring it on in "Waterfaucet Blues," Byrd curling around "Secret Love" or Williams' sexy contralto laying out "Say It Again," the singing is never less than joyous and is often inspired.
"Nocturne" rides along on a story line of sorts. De Shields portrays black progress from slavery days to success in the arts. Yet the narrative, such as it is, is strictly subordinate to the musical goings-on. A light, bantering note is struck at show's beginning by Marc Shaiman, who appears suddenly at a piano stationed in the audience to warm up the crowd. He asks for requests, which are speedily offered. He asks the customers to sing along. My companion said it sounded like summer camp on Broadway.
Then the lights, artfully designed by Marc B. Weiss, pick up De Shields, Byrd, English and Williams on the main stage and we're off on a musical odyssey interrupted only by a short intermission, during which the Latin Quarter staff hawks drinks. Caution here: What looked like about four ounces of white wine cost $4 - in a plastic glass!
De Shields has cleverly made this big club seem warmer, more intimate by taking the performance from stage via a runway through to the audience. English, in fact, pumped out one song from atop a table.
The show's one defect concerns the acoustics. When De Shields sngs from the stage, the lyrics occasionally were unintelligible. His voice was muffled by the small (and excellent) band that played behind him. A better balance between singer and music might have solved the problem.
Otherwise, "Nocturne" with its vibrant spirits seems a dandy way to resurrect a near-forgotten institution: the big, brassy New York night club.
Nowadays the dividing line between theater and cabaret is becoming dizzily blurred. Take Andre De Shields's Haarlem Nocturne, now at the refurbished Latin Quarter. Indeed, one is sorely tempted to echo Henny Youngman's classic, and murmur: "Take it - please!"
Presumably it is meant to be theater. And at these prices (the price on my ticket was $27.50, and note I said price, not value) it ought to be.
Yet it looks like cabaret. The tiny tables, with four chairs to the table, are closer together than at a Las Vegas niterie. Drinks are served. Smoking is permitted, except during showtime. The smoke, in fact, was so heavy that if you don't smoke you had better start - or wear a gas mask.
There are five performers - Mr. De Shields, three women he apparently calls his "black-up" singers, and a pianist/arranger, his "white hand."
The performers are placed in front of the scenic design by David Chapman, which consists of two steps, four poles, two side staircases, and a back-up band. Not all that theatrical. Not perhaps $27.50 worth of theatrical.
The show starts with a warm-up by its musical director Marc Shaiman, who resembles a pixie-like Liberace without the chandelier, and plays what he calls "teeny tunes" from old TV shows. Very old TV shows.
He wants the audience to sing along with Mary Tyler Moore - without Mary Tyler Moore. The audience loved him. They sang such classic theme songs as those from Green Acres, The Flintstones, Mr. Ed. How much of the $27.50 all this soul-warming participation is worth I leave your wallet to decide.
As we know from his past - particularly from the original Broadway cast of Ain't Misbehavin' - Mr. De Shields is a dynamite performer, but with this show, which he conceived, staged, and needs every ounce of TNT he can muster.
Nothing is disastrous about his cast. I found the musical director a shade too cute for my taste, but the three women - Debra Byrd, Ellia English, and Freida Williams - either solo or as an ensemble, are terrific. Talent fairly sparks out of these ladies.
But four talented thrushes, two staircases, three poles, and the theme song from Mr. Ed do not of necessity a $27.50 evening (say about an hour and a half, with intermission) in the theater make.
The show apparently has some kind of theme. At least Mr. De Shields leaves the stage with a valise and later returns with the same valise, only to be told: "Hit the road, Jack." And before this we didn't even know his name was Jack!
It is, nevertheless, a good number. Notably the old numbers were rather hotter than those lukewarm novelties specially written for the show - some by De Shields himself.
And all evening he didn't sing anything by Fats Waller. That was just one of many mistakes. However, Mr. De Shields is both a svelte and a vibrant performer, and we shall hear much more of him, and from him.
As for the Latin Quarter: why not turn it into a nightclub, with a band, dancing, entertainment, and a reasonable cover charge? It is not a theater - and should not have the nerve to suggest it is, or, more significantly, to market tickets as if it is.
''Haarlem Nocturne'' was conceived by Andre De Shields, who is also the co-author and co-director, wrote the music and lyrics for several of the evening's songs and is the most conspicuous performer on stage. This is not a cohesive anthology on the order of ''Sophisticated Ladies,'' but an eclectic collage primarily designed to show off Mr. De Shields. The musical opened last night at the newly restored Latin Quarter - formerly the Latin Quarter, but in recent years known as 22 Steps and the Princess Theater.
Though one enjoyed Mr. De Shields in his roles in ''The Wiz'' and ''Ain't Misbehavin','' he has not served himself well in ''Haarlem Nocturne.'' Garishly attired in costumes that range from a break-away pirate's suit to hot-red briefs, and preening in the spotlight, he delivers a performance that defines narcissism.
On the other hand, he has surrounded himself with melodic instrumentalists, led by his musical director, Marc Shaiman, at the piano, and by a dynamic back-up trio. Both Freida Williams and Debra Byrd are strong, sultry singers. The most appealing of the three is Ellia English, who has the sound of a blues belter. Miss English is forced to spend the first part of the evening very oddly garbed in a costume that makes her look like a Kliban cat with a bandanna and an apron. More gracefully clothed, she offers Mr. De Shields the musical advice ''Hit the Road Jack'' (which he, momentarily, takes) and then delivers a lusty rendition of ''Waterfaucet Blues,'' a love lament that would also have been made to order for Bessie Smith. The music and lyrics of this traditional blues were adapted by the gifted Micki Grant.
The three women blend in the title song (by Earl Hagen and Dick Rogers), which has the mellowness of Duke Ellington. Instead of ending on this high note, Mr. De Shields returns to cavort in two numbers of his own creation.
Inexplicably, the show is preceded by a warm-up, Mr. Shaiman playing a series of theme songs from old television series, with an enthusiastic audience joining in on a nostalgic singalong to such shows as ''The Beverly Hillbillies.'' While technically qualifying as a Broadway entertainment, ''Haarlem Nocturne'' is a nightclub act, and apparently to remind us of that fact, the Latin Quarter tables are clustered in such close proximity that a dancer could move from top to top without ever touching feet to floor.