It all looks so simple, the making of a hit musical, when the creators and cast have done it right. After Midnight is a suitable example of the kind of success about which one might ask: “All you have to do is choose great material and cast it well — and voilà! – you’ve got a winner.” In this instance, Jack Viertel who produces Encores! at New York’s City Center, added this revue to a list of summer tryouts, and now a couple of dozen enterprising entrepreneurs have brought it to the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, where it’s taken off like a rocket.
It presents material from the spectacular Cotton Club revues, which were featured during the Club’s successful life in the 1920s and early 1930s. By 1936 the fever had cooled, and the Cotton Club tried to make a go of it downtown but the bloom was off the rose and it all faded into oblivion — until now.
Using musical material by the staff writers Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh and their replacements Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler plus legendary orchestra leaders Duke Ellington (who remained from 1923 to 1930 when he left for a film in Hollywood) and Cab Calloway (who replaced him), the Cotton Club revues rivaled the best of Broadway in those years.
Opened in 1923 by the recent ex-con “Owney” Madden, it was impeccably run with a strictly segregated policy of all black entertainers performing for an all white audience of big spenders. It featured “tall, tan and teriffic” show girls, gorgeous sets and costumes and a guest star policy that offered the likes of Ethel Waters, Josephine Baker, the Nicholas Brothers, and a young Lena Horne in the ensemble.
Songs that have become standards were first heard in these revues, among them “Stormy Weather”, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby’ (a wow when first heard during the depression), “On The Sunny Side of the Street”, “Between The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” and such off beat gems as “Diga Diga Do”, “Zaz Zuh Zaz”, and the hauntingly beautiful “Creole Love Song” by the Duke himself.
One after another, these dazzling numbers come soaring out at you, performed here by a brilliant company. Guest Star (she’s in until February, then will be replaced) Fantasia Barrino (Special Guest Star thru February 9) makes clear why she won the American Idol contest. She was the first artist in Billboard history to hit the Hot 100 chart to debut at #1 with her first single on her album “Free Yourself”. Still early in her career, she’s already penned a memoir, “Life Is Not a Fairytale” and starred as herself in the Lifetime movie of the same name. Spread over the evening with four numbers, she knocks each varied one of them out of the park.
But she’s not alone up there. Dulé Hill starts the proceedings off nicely with some words by Langston Hughes, and then we are treated to “Daybreak Express” by Duke Ellington, as played by the Allstars and the Company of The Jazz at Lincoln Center, which is under the artistic direction of Wynton Marsalis. They don’t come finer than that, and the evening is off to a rousing start. But there is so much to follow, with not a moment lost in the 80 minutes that follow. Adriane Lenox sings a long forgotten “Women Be Wise” by Sippie Wallace, and another obscure piece of advice, “Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night” by Sidney Easton and Ethel Waters. Sassy and wild, she adds spice to the stew. Karine Plantadit stops the show (it is stopped several times during the evening) with the gorgeous Ellington melody to “Creole Love Song”. Them there eyes of hers reach right up to the upper balcony, and her voice is warm and tasty like butterscotch sauce on vanilla ice cream. There is so much more — five male dancers who move as one, two male dancers with bodies that allow them to slide, slip, run and skate, tapping all the way. Seriously, it’s all just one thrill after another.
So forget your troubles, get happy — which is about the only hit song of the era that isn’t in this energizing cocktail of a musical revue. You know how finicky I get about sound design — well, you’ll hear nothing but praise from me about Peter Hylenski’s design for this show. It’s everything I’ve begged for — implementation without distortion. Proof positive that it can be done. In its heyday, the Cotton Club opened early for dining and dancing. Then, just after midnight, it began the first of two late night performances of its revues. Warren Carlyle, who directed and choreographed the current Broadway production, has given us this chance to see what sort of things went on in the wee hours way back when.
After Midnight is onstage at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th St. (Between Broadway & 8th Ave.), NYC. Details and tickets
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.
Richard Seff is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.