There are few things that bring smiles to even the most jaded faces — balloons, blaring trumpets and tap dancers. A new Broadway revue has two — no, make that all three — so no wonder it leaves you feeling lighter than air.
"After Midnight," a candy sampler of some two dozen musical numbers that showcase dance, jazz or singing, opened Sunday at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre led by musical genius Wynton Marsalis, an endearing Dule Hill as its host and a thrilling guest singer in Fantasia Barrino.
The show, which first surfaced in 2011 off-Broadway, tries to re-create the energy and fun of Harlem's famous Cotton Club nightclub in the 1920s and 30s, when Duke Ellington and his band made everything cool. It does so with panache but avoids sounding old-fashioned: There's even room for some breakdancing and popping.
As 17 musicians from Jazz at Lincoln Center play, the night includes Fantasia belting out a super "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," a subdued "Stormy Weather" and an infectious "Zaz Zuh Zaz." Adriane Lenox plays a hysterical boozy hellcat in two numbers, "Women Be Wise" and "Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night."
Carmen Ruby Floyd never sings a word in her song — "Creole Love Call" — but her flirty eyes and heavenly voice will make you melt. Jared Grimes's tapping is astounding, muscular yet graceful. There are musical interludes, dance sketches and more obscure songs like "Diga Diga Doo." There's also a dance battle between popper Julius "Iglide" Chisolm and hip hop dancer Virgil J. Gadson.
Hill, known from "Psych" and "The West Wing," pops up from time to time with a knowing smile and some lines by the great Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes. Hill dives into his tap dancing roots in one number that has him leap into the split; he also sings a tender "I've Got the World on a String" while holding a balloon.
"American Idol" winner Fantasia is only in the role until February, when she is followed by k.d. lang and then the duo of Toni Braxton and Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds. She's set the bar high.
Directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, the high-energy show never lags, making for an excellently paced 90 minutes. It makes no attempt to make a statement other than just to celebrate some remarkable performers.
The orchestra, housed on a riser, sometimes glides downstage for songs or a featured musician will stand in a spotlight. With four trumpets and three trombones, the orchestra veers toward a cup-muddled, filthy sound. It's far from Harlem, but the Broadway venue seems intimate. You can almost taste the martini going down as you watch a top-notch revue.
Isabel Toledo's costumes are sexy and fun on the ladies, with feathers and shiny embellishments, and formal wear for the gentlemen, leaning on spats, fedoras and zoot suits. They all emerge at the end in dazzling white and huge grins. You'll share the grins.
The title “After Midnight” is all-purpose enough to leave you totally in the dark. An Eric Clapton musical? A vampire thriller? The latest talkathon with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy droning into the wee hours? No, no and no. Broadway’s new arrival is a dazzling musical revue that jets audiences back to Harlem’s jazzy 1930s heyday. It’s an exhilarating joyride all the way.
If you saw “Cotton Club Parade” in 2011 or ’12, that’s no shocker. That production, the first partnership between City Center and Jazz at Lincoln Center, is the basis for “Midnight.”
The leap to Broadway has brought changes: There’s the new name (due to licensing issues), gorgeous costumes by designer Isabel Toledo, plus a rotating cadre of new performers, including Fantasia Barrino (who headlines through Feb. 9.)
But the structure and song list remain intact. Returning director and choreographer Warren Carlyle knows a good thing when he’s staged it. Duke Ellington’s music, including “Daybreak Express” and “Creole Love Call,” forms the spine.
Tasty classics by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields (“I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”) and Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler (“I’ve Got the World on a String”) add spice.
Numbers have been assembled with loving care and smarts by music director Wynton Marsalis. In the ensemble of 25 vocalists and dancers, it’s easy to pick a favorite: It’s whoever is on stage at any given moment. But the silky moves of Julius (iGlide) Chisolm and Virgil (Lil’ O) Gadson — alums of “So You Think You Can Dance” — are especially fun and memorable.
The show’s not-so-secret weapon is the amazing Adriane Lenox, whose sass and brass on “Women Be Wise” and “Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night” send the show to dizzying heights.
“Psych” star Dulé Hill shows off his tap talents and threads Langston Hughes’ verse throughout the show. The poetry adds heft and gravity to a revue that might just float untethered. Fantasia shades her numbers with something special: baby softness for “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” bluesy pain for “Stormy Weather” and, best of all, a playful randiness for Cab Calloway’s “Zaz Zuh Zaz.”
The Jazz at Lincoln Center All Stars orchestra cooks hot. Fittingly, it gets the last showcase to send the audience out on a high note.
Jukebox musicals have had a horrible reputation lately, and with reason: For every “Jersey Boys,” there are twice as many cheeseballs muddling the material they’re meant to honor — R.I.P. “Lennon” “Good Vibrations” and “Baby It’s You!”
At last comes “After Midnight,” a sleek, elegant tribute to Duke Ellington and the glory days of the Cotton Club that brings class back to Broadway.
The marquee name here is “Idol” winner Fantasia Barrino, who’s featured in four numbers. (In a nod to the Harlem nightclub’s rotating “celebrity nights,” she’ll be succeeded by k.d. lang in February and Toni Braxton and Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds in March.)
But the show’s true star is the 17-piece Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Stars orchestra, handpicked by Wynton Marsalis. It sits in plain view onstage, pumping out pulsating takes of Ellington’s big-band classics, popularized by the likes of Ethel Waters and Cab Calloway. If the joint is jumping — and boy, is it! — it’s thanks to those guys.
Directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, “After Midnight” hasn’t changed much from its earlier incarnation as “The Cotton Club Parade,” which played short runs in 2011 and ’12. Happily, nobody tried to add a plot for the Broadway transfer, so the show is still a string of pearls — much like the 1981 Ellington musical “Sophisticated Ladies.”
Dulé Hill (“The West Wing”) provides a wispy thread by introducing some scenes with Langston Hughes poetry. He also performs several numbers, though he pales alongside his electric co-stars.
Guest canary Barrino doesn’t face the enormous pressure she had in carrying “The Color Purple,” and she’s remarkably at ease here. Swathed in Isabel Toledo’s sensational gowns, she displays impressive control on the smoldering “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and confident swing on “Zaz Zuh Zaz.”
Just as good is Adriane Lenox, a Tony-winning dramatic actress (“Doubt”) who, in two blues songs, reveals a gift for comic mugging and saucy assertion.
As in old-school revues, “After Midnight” highlights a range of specialty performers. While Carlyle isn’t the most imaginative choreographer, you can’t help but thrill as his dancers triumph in wildly different styles. So we effortlessly move from Alvin Ailey alums Karine Plantadit and Desmond Richardson (late of Twyla Tharp’s “Come Fly Away” and “Movin’ Out,” respectively) to hip-hop master Virgil “Lil’ O” Gadson, who engages in a spirited battle with the rubber-limbed Julius “iGlide” Chisolm.
Of course, there’s plenty of tap, too. And that, like Duke Ellington’s music, never gets old.
The band takes the last bow in “After Midnight,” the sparkling new jazz revue that opened at the Brooks Atkinson Theater on Sunday night. This may be unusual for Broadway, where the players are normally in the pit — and the music often sounds as if it could have been piped in from Hong Kong — but it’s entirely as it should be.
I mean no disrespect to the superabundance of talented performers in this jubilant show when I say that they are all playing second fiddle, if you will, to the main attraction. This would be the 16 musicians called the Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Stars, stacked in a bandstand at the back of the stage for much of the evening, rollicking through the music of Duke Ellington and Harold Arlen and others with a verve that almost captivates the eye as much as it does the ear. It will be a long time before Broadway hosts music making this hot, sweet and altogether glorious again.
A souped-up version of a production originally presented (twice) by City Center Encores!, “After Midnight” moves sleekly through more than 25 songs from the height of the jazz era. Ostensibly we are time-traveling back to the heyday of the Cotton Club, the Harlem nightclub (with a Broadway spinoff) where Ellington was the bandleader for a heady spell, and where many of the black jazz greats of the 1920s and 1930s performed, before whites-only audiences, alas.
For the Broadway run, the producers have added a couple of name performers, the “American Idol” winner Fantasia Barrino and the singer-dancer-actor Dulé Hill (currently of the television series “Psych”). Ms. Barrino will be performing only through Feb. 9, at which point a rotating roster of guest performers takes over. This model may sound like the latest in Broadway-producing cynicism, but it has historical bona fides: The original Cotton Club hosted “celebrity nights” when guest performers would take the stage. (K. D. Lang is next up, and she’s followed by the R&B names Toni Braxton and Kenny Edmonds, known as Babyface.)
Mr. Hill and Ms. Barrino are agreeable headliners, but they share the stage with an array of equally gifted performers, most notably the delectable Adriane Lenox, but also a half-dozen great dancers (of the tap, street and pseudo-balletic varieties), performing choreography (of the terrific and the not-so-terrific varieties) by Warren Carlyle, who also directs.
“After Midnight” does not make much of an attempt to impart any of the Cotton Club history. As the evening’s nominal host, Mr. Hill sprinkles the evening with a few snippets of Langston Hughes’s poetry, but it’s incidental. Instead the focus remains squarely on music and its interpretation, by those amazing musicians, under the snappy baton of the conductor Daryl Waters, and the performers who sing, slide, scat, cartwheel and generally raise a ruckus in front of them.
A review of a revue tends to resemble a laundry list, so here come highlights of the washing, in no particular order. Of her four solo spots Ms. Barrino shines brightest performing the standard “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love,” her tangy voice embracing the Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh classic with obvious affection. She’s also delightful when flirting with a quartet of catcalling guys in the lesser-known “Zaz Zuh Zaz” (by Cab Calloway and Harry White), creditably playing a vampy chanteuse with a naughty smile. (Her mouth seems to hold twice as many teeth as everybody else’s.) Although I admired Ms. Barrino’s heartfelt performance in “The Color Purple,” I was surprised at how smoothly and intuitively she slid into the vocal persona of a jazz singer.
Ellington’s lyric-free but gorgeous “Creole Love Call” is delivered by Carmen Ruby Floyd with a hypnotic simplicity, her voice taking flight in tandem with the swooning melody, which seems to glimmer visibly in the air before you. But for style, top marks go to Ms. Lenox, who seems to bring back the authentic spirit of the era with her sensationally funny performance of two lowdown numbers. In “Women Be Wise” (by Sippie Wallace), she glares meaningly into the audience and admonishes her fellow females to watch out for the man traps on the prowl. “Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night” (by Sidney Easton and Ethel Waters) is a disdainful holler at a no-good man knocking down a woman’s door.
Dancing is rarely showcased on Broadway these days, so the abundance on view here is a particular treat. Much of it is thrilling: Virgil Gadson is a sparkplug who seems to spend as much time flitting across the stage on his hands — or his back — as he does on his nimble feet. He’s joined on the number “Hottentot” (by Fields and McHugh) by another mesmerizing original, Julius Chisolm, a.k.a. “iGlide,” who lives up to his nickname by moving with the sinuous elegance of a human Slinky.
Tap-crazy? You’ll be in seventh heaven at “After Midnight.” There are several superb tap specialists in the company — the bright-eyed Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards has one of the zestier solo spots — but the most exciting is Jared Grimes, whose feet seem to give off sparks as he alternately punishes and caresses the floor in one of the evening’s climactic numbers, Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing.”
Mr. Carlyle’s watery ballet choreography for the elegant Karine Plantadit (“Come Fly Away”) doesn’t do full justice to this dancer’s pantherlike grace, but she nevertheless holds the stage confidently in her several solos. Blink and you’ll miss the contributions of Desmond Richardson, a noted ballet and modern dancer who flits through the show briefly but grabs the spotlight with authority when it finds him on “The Mooche.”
But it’s the authority of the musicians, handpicked by the Jazz at Lincoln Center artistic director Wynton Marsalis, that makes “After Midnight” a memorable night at the theater. Ellington was famed for his innovations in orchestrating and arranging music (his own and others), creating a distinctive sound that brought to jazz a symphonic richness while maintaining an improvisatory quality that allowed each musician to contribute to the whole.
The hallmarks of his style are recreated here beautifully. The sound of a trumpet puts a comic accent here, a bluesy one there. The trombones wail and moan in a manner that sounds almost human. The woodwind players are no less expressive. As played by these remarkable talents — space doesn’t permit me to start in on another laundry list, alas — the music gleams, shimmers, dances and sings with an eloquence that enthralls.
You know you are in the presence of musicians of a supremely high caliber, but the virtuosity never feels prepackaged or mechanical. There’s too much joy in the playing, and that’s the feeling audiences will be floating out of the theater on when the last note has died out.
The orchestra onstage in "After Midnight" is identified as the Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Stars. The name may be a clunky way of saying that these guys (and a woman) are amazing, but the all-stars part is no hype.
Jazz master Wynton Marsalis put together the ace 16-piece band, first for the '30s Harlem revue, "Cotton Club Parade" that twice ran briefly in 2011 and 2012 as an offshoot of City Center Encores! That 90-minute song-and-dance entertainment has been renamed for Broadway, spiffed up and gorgeously costumed by fashion designer Isabel Toledo. The backbone, however, remains the integrity of that intoxicating band.
The plotless classic-jazz revue has been conceived by Jack Viertel and staged by director/choreographer Warren Carlyle with more personality than consistent polish. Although the big cast overflows with talent, individuality and winning attitude, one senses a battle between a desire for slickness and an endearing, clubby casualness. When that push for slickness goes into overdrive, the ensemble can feel ragged.
Dulé Hill is the likable host, singing a little, dancing a little, mostly reciting moody bits of Langston Hughes poetry about the Harlem that came alive at Duke Ellington's Cotton Club at night. As an innovative bonus, the producers plan to freshen the run with limited visits by offbeat guest stars. The first, Fantasia Barrino, is here for 16 weeks, reportedly to be followed by k.d. lang, then Toni Braxton.
To everyone's credit, Barrino is not cordoned off from the company like a traveling VIP. The singer, who catapulted from "American Idol" popularity to Broadway respect in "The Color Purple," primarily does greatest-hits songs -- "Stormy Weather." She has a tangy baby/woman voice, a slow and clear scat and the ability to say a lot with stillness and a pout.
Many songs were written or arranged by Ellington, though Dorothy Fields, Harold Arlen and others are pivotal parts of the ingratiating mix. Adriane Lenox is marvelous in such sardonic, been-around revelations as "Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night."
The dancers, led by former Twyla Tharp star Karine Plantadit, are strong. But this is as much a dance-driven show as it is a vocal concert, and Carlyle's choreography falls back on flash and acrobatics when the music demands more complex inspiration.
The dancers, all stylishly dressed up, are all wound up with nowhere to go.
It is a sight not seen that often on a Broadway stage: the face of a musician, savoring an instrumental solo or a moment of camaraderie with other orchestra members.
In the new Broadway production After Midnight (three and a half out of four stars), which opened Sunday at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, a big band shares the spotlight with the singers and dancers, moving front and center for several numbers. The Jazz At Lincoln Center All-Stars, as they're billed, were assembled by that group's artistic director, Wynton Marsalis; and you will be struck as much by their intensity, playfulness and sheer joy in making music as you are by their technical virtuosity.
An updated version of Cotton Club Parade, Jack Viertel's 2011 homage to Duke Ellington's years holding court at the Harlem nightspot in the 1920s and '30s, Midnight isn't a book musical. It does incorporate Langston Hughes' poetry, but chiefly to string together Ellington's compositions and other noted songs of the era, crafted by the likes of Harold Arlen and Dorothy Fields.
Thus while the show has a distinct air of social and cultural consciousness, there is no hagiographical account of an artist's life, no ludicrous plot tossed off to accommodate a catalog of tunes, as a jukebox musical might offer. Instead, you get 90 minutes of honest, vital entertainment, delivered with enough breezy wit to mitigate the flashes of pomp.
Dulé Hill sets the tone as our master of ceremonies, reciting Hughes' reflections on life, and death, with appropriate dignity while also locating their earthy, sometimes rueful humor. A tap-dancing prodigy long before he acted on TV's The West Wing and Psych, Hill joins several performers in meticulous, exhilarating routines choreographed by Warren Carlyle, who also directs.
Carlyle shows off both the particular strengths of his dancers -- among them the slippery-footed Julius "iGlide" Chisolm and the mighty Alvin Ailey alumna Karine Plantadit -- and their capacity for precision and reserve. Hill and the company present I've Got the World On A String as a study in subdued elation, while the trio showcased in a medley of Raisin' The Rent and Get Yourself A New Broom bursts with giddy energy.
The singers are showcased with equal savvy. The gifted Adriane Lenox overdoes the sass a bit romping through Women Be Wise and Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night, but guest star Fantasia Barrino's I Can't Give You Anything But Love and On the Sunny Side of the Street have a silvery charm that only an ogre could resist. (k.d. lang will begin a stint as guest Feb. 11, followed by Toni Braxton and Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds on March 18.)
Isabel Toledo's bright-hued costumes lend extra sparkle and whimsy. The jazz All-Stars are more conservatively attired, but no matter: You'll find a rainbow of colors and expressions in their playing, from bluesy to blissful. And you'll revel in all of them.
When Duke Ellington and his orchestra played the Cotton Club, the swells donned their white tie and tails and went uptown to Harlem in limousines. Everyone else took the A train. “After Midnight,” a musical revue that Jack Viertel and Warren Carlyle steered through Encores! to this snazzy Broadway production, salutes that fabled era without attempting to re-create it. This stylized treatment of a midnight floorshow at a 1930s jazz club is gorgeously designed to showcase roof-raising performances from top-flight talent — backed up by a 17-piece swing band loaded with brass and holding down the stage.
John Lee Beatty’s sophisticated set of an elegant nightclub recalls legendary hot spots like the Cotton Club, the Savoy Ballroom and the Sugar Cane Club during an era when swing was king in Harlem. Dule Hill, the amiable star of “Psych,” makes an agreeable tour guide and wisely refrains from overdoing the song-and-dance chores better left to the pros.
Those bankable stars are toplined by Fantasia Barrino, the “American Idol” phenom and Grammy-holding singer who earns her bread and butter here with torrid interpretations of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” “Stormy Weather,” “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” and a raunchy version of Cab Calloway’s scatty “Zaz Zuh Zaz” that has four dirty old men (well-cast company ringers) falling out of their front-row box seats.
Costumer Isabel Toledo clearly adores Fantasia’s zaftig body, at one point pouring her into a brief, form-fitting, electric-blue number with a lampshade skirt. Toledo, whose clothes can be found in Michelle Obama’s closet, seems to love every one of the 30-plus beautiful bodies in this company, draping them as she does in eye-catching ensembles that fit like second skins and reflect both fashion flair and imaginative wit. (The geometric black-and-white dresses and feathered fascinators in one number earned audible gasps from the uptown fashionistas at one preview performance.)
The dance pants alone must have posed a design challenge, having to accommodate all the athletic splits and leaps and somersaults that helmer Carlyle has choreographed for the sensational dancers in the company. The tap dancers among them include traffic-stopping talents like Jared Grimes, who performs an awesome precision routine to “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” and Julius “iGlide” Chisolm and Virgil “Lil’O” Gadson, whose dancing duel in “Hottentot” is downright dazzling. But even the novelty numbers, like Karine Plantadit’s acrobatic feats in Ellington’s “Black and Tan Fantasy” and the synchronized routine to “Peckin’,” executed by a six-man ensemble of dancing fools in white tie and tails, are works of art.
With more than two dozen jazz compositions on the bill — many by Ellington, but with composers like Harold Arlen and Jimmy McHugh well represented — you can bet there’s a lot of singing in this show. Fantasia is clearly the star of this revue, but Carmen Ruby Floyd, Rosena M. Hill Jackson and Bryonha Marie Parham, who keep showing up in funny, flirtatious incarnations of backup singers, are the show’s backbone.
It falls to Adriane Lenox, though, to bring a little historical accuracy to this idealized fantasy of Harlem in its heyday. Looking like she’s been there and done that, but was never actually convicted for it, Lenox rocks the house with two vulgar blues solos — ”Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night” (by Sidney Easton and Ethel Waters) and “Women Be Wise” (by Sippie Wallace, better known, perhaps, for “I’m a Mighty Tight Woman”) — that offer a hint of gritty reality.
Sanitized though it may be, “After Midnight” is great entertainment. And by the time the Jazz at Lincoln Center All Stars close the show with one last, glorious blast of brass, the whole house is “Rockin’ In Rhythm” and nobody wants to go home.