NEW YORK – Broadway’s latest hit sweeps through the White Way like the tail of a comet, lighting up the stage of the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on West 47th Street. “After Midnight” is not your conventional show, but rather an old-is-new-again take on the musical revue, a sort of vaudeville, at Harlem’s Cotton Club, circa the late 1920s-1930s.
Brilliant period songs and exquisite dancing are all accompanied by that rarity, a full orchestra: the Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Stars, overseen by Wynton Marsalis, artistic director of jazz at Lincoln Center and one of the show’s producers.
If you can remember classic revues of this genre, such as “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Bubbling Brown Sugar,” “Sophisticated Ladies” and “Black and Blue,” you will get an idea of the galvanic excitement of “After Midnight.”
The show celebrates Harlem’s Cotton Club, which opened in 1923 and was a white-only venue, though it highlighted a galaxy of black stars and jazz musicians; but “After Midnight” is really a tribute to the Cotton Club’s resident composer and bandleader, Duke Ellington, whose dazzling songs and musical arrangements are prominently featured throughout the show.
Dulé Hill is the club venue’s interlocutor, and to start things off, he invokes the legendary writer Langston Hughes, an early jazz poet who wrote about this era as a time “when Harlem was in vogue.” The show begins with the song “Happy as the Day is Long,” with each member of the cast walking onstage in jaunty, dress-white costumes, singing and dancing, singly, in pairs or in full chorus. The practice of introducing all of the show’s 25 players is an ancient tradition, setting the stage for the whole evening’s follies, which, at 100 minutes with no intermission, fly by, thanks to the impeccable staging and choreography of Warren Carlyle, whose theatrical sense of fun never lets up.
Fantasia Barrino, whom you might remember from TV’s “American Idol,” is one of the show’s lead singers. She is slim and stylish in nightclub togs and has a wonderful voice for bluesy ballads like “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and “Stormy Weather.” She holds her own with the verbally difficult “Zaz, Zuh, Zaz” with a group of Cotton Club fellows, and tap dances to “On the Sunny Side of the Street” with C.K. Edwards and Christopher Broughton. Ms. Barrino emerges as a complete stage star in this production.
Adriane Lenox, a dramatic actress who won a Tony for “Doubt,” here plays a jocular and hilarious woman in two specialized “advice” songs: as a sassy instructress who advises “Women Be Wise,” and “Go Back Where You Started Last Night.” Ms. Lenox keeps the two songs’ flow starting and stopping to keep her nonsense and hilarity going on and on, which the audience loved.
There is a slew of excellent dancers in the show, but there are two iconic ones, Julius “iGlide” Chisolm and Virgil “Lil’O” Gadson. They are terrific individually, but when they team up for a dance-off to “Hottentot,” they are on fire. Julius’s “glide” and Virgil’s “break dancing” show off their very different footwork styles and turn out to be spellbinding.
I have only picked out a few of the talented ensemble that makes up “After Midnight,” but I must admit that everyone onstage at the Atkinson is a wonder. The elegant Cotton Club settings are by John Lee Beatty; the atmospheric lighting is by Howell Brinkley; and a special nod should be given to Isabel Toledo, a fashion designer who is making her debut as a theater costume designer, and who shows off a gifted sensibility for the fresh, funny, and sophisticated elements of Harlem’s 1920s and 1930s style.
“After Midnight” is a show that smiles; the cast smiles and the audience smiles back. That’s an amiable feeling you don’t see often in the theater these days.
Dividend: After the cast takes its final bows, don’t leave the theater.
The Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Stars gives the audience a heavenly bonus rendition of Duke Ellington, Irving Mills and Harry Carney’s “Rockin’ in Rhythm” to warm folks up for the chilly weather outside.
Critic Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.