NEW YORK – New York’s famed Cotton Club may have closed over a half century ago, but its reputation as a showcase for black talent remains strong. The new Broadway musical “After Midnight” is an exuberant tribute to the Black dance and music performers who made the club legendary.
Conceived by a partnership between City Center and Lincoln Center Jazz, it ran off-Broadway as the Cotton Club revue. Lincoln Center’s Wynton Marsalis recreated the musical era with one of Broadway’s greatest ever-musical ensembles, the Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Stars, director Warren Carlyle brought the stellar choreography as well. Cuban designer Isabel Toledo was at the helm of the dazzling costumes.
“After Midnight” places “Psych” actor Dule Hill on the stage as the evening’s host. During an hour and half show, tap dancers, singers and musicians grace the stage, putting on an array of fantastic performances. Do the Jazz At Lincoln Center All-Stars who take center stage as modern stand-ins for the Cotton Club musicians deserve all their accolades for bringing the jazz music of the 30’s and 40’s back to glorious life? They sure do. Can a man dance on his hands? Yes, he can. Can a woman jump out of a casket to celebrate her life before being carried off to the grave? Yes, she can. Can singers you may have never heard of unless you’re a theater groupie have you slapping your knees and clapping your hands? Yes, it all happens on the “After Midnight” stage.
The show is set up as though it were truly a night at the Cotton Club – instead of a night at the theater, you are transported back in time to what was obviously thoroughly exciting evenings at the Harlem institution – minus the smoky atmosphere typical of the times. And the gangsters, although even at the swanky Brooks Atkinson theater, you can’t always tell if the nice older guy sitting next to you was a Prohibition-era kingpin reliving his past. But the show is all entertainment – don’t expect much in the way of plot or any social consciousness.
In it’s prime, from 1923-1940, the Cotton Club showcased the elite Black entertainers of the time, but also New York’s bigotry. The Cotton Club was a whites-only club, so its entertainers couldn’t even bring their friends or family. The club also featured a Sunday night “Celebrity Night” where a singer, comedian or leading actor or actress of the day had a featured spot. “After Midnight” keeps this tradition going.
It begins its “celebrity” nights with singer Fantasia, the first featured guest who in in the cast until February 9 when pop singer K.D. Lang will replace her. Then, Toni Braxton and Babyface join the cast from March 18-30. “After Midnight” is not Fantasia’s Broadway debut; the “American Idol” winner also starred as Celie in “The Color Purple.” In this production, she sings several songs, including a poignant version of “Stormy Weather” as well as a rollicking version of the Cab Calloway chestnut, “Zaz Zuh Zaz.”
Those who dislike the scratchier side to Fantasia’s voice will be amazed by her transformation into a jazz singer under the direction of Marsalis. He has toned down her R&B theatrics and brought out the tonal quality that makes her voice so uniquely beautiful. It’s a star turn for the once embattled singer and she makes the best of it.
Singer Adriane Lenox does a ribald turn in “Women Be Wise” and tap dancing is all but revived by the talents of folks like Christopher Broughton and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards. But it’s the varied and talented cast in its totality that make this Broadway show one you can’t miss. The Cotton Club lives again… and it’s wonderful.