Under the street light, there’s somebody waiting — to tell you about Harlem, about its joy, its pain, its music, its dancing. As embodied by Dulé Hill, the man under the street light turns out to be the host of our evening’s entertainment, a heart-stopping revue entitled After Midnight.
Having begun its life at City Center last season as part of the Encores! series (where it was titled Cotton Club Parade), the newly-retitled After Midnight is a compendium of Jazz Age music, mostly by Duke Ellington, accompanied by the Jazz at Lincoln Center All Stars (a top-notch big band) and performed by a cast of twenty-five talented singers and dancers.
Harlem’s Cotton Club, which operated from the 1920s through to 1940, on Lenox Avenue and later in midtown, was a “whites-only” establishment that nonetheless hosted some of music’s finest talents (including Ellington, Lena Horne, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and Billie Holiday, to name just a few). Despite the club’s racial bias (the performers and patrons would rarely if ever mix), its musical traditions carried through the twentieth-century as part of America’s pop culture. In an attempt to revive the Club, if just for one night, After Midnight burns fabulously through more than twenty-five numbers in a mere ninety minutes without coming up for air.
Aside from the cast’s brassy pipes and fancy footwork, musicianship is at the forefront of the evening. John Lee Beatty’s simple set puts the All Stars front and center on big band risers that move forward or backward to suit the scale of the number at hand.
Taking front and center for four numbers is American Idol winner Fantasia Barrino, who shines here as the evening’s central chanteuse, her signature rasp wrapping around songs like “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and “Stormy Weather” with an aching sincerity that grounds the rest of the evening’s higher-energy zest.
Adriane Lenox, as the evening’s salty broad, is similarly a highlight, knocking “Women Be Wise” and “Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night” out of the park with acid-tongued tart and good humor.
Other highlights include Carmen Ruby Floyd’s “Creole Love Call,” a captivating wordless vocal piece and lively dance piece “Hottentot” (featuring Julius “iGlide” Chisolm, who lives up to his name, and Virgil “Lil’ O” Gadson), though there are no duds to be found amongst the lot of tunes here.
In a theatre piece without a traditional plot line, it’s important that each moment captivates and that the pace of the piece encompasses an even mix of high- and l0w-energy numbers, both elements that After Midnight gets exactly right. Despite not having followed a traditional story arc, audiences will likely still feel transported. After Midnight‘s primary aim is to entertain, and for those seeking a night of dance and music out on the town, it’s a show that can’t be beat by any other current Broadway offerings.