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Friday, November 22, 2013

REVIEW: After Midnight

Review of the Saturday, November 16 evening performance at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre in New York City.  Starring Dule Hill, Adriane Lenox and Special Guest Star Fantasia Barrino.  Featuring  The Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Stars.  Direction and choreography by Warren Carlyle.  90 minutes, no intermission. Adult language.

Grade: A+

Going into the musical revue After Midnight, I really hoped to just get through it.  I am not generally a fan of such shows, nor am I a big fan of jazz in big doses.  Add to it that I really couldn't have cared less about the advertised main attraction, Fantasia Barrino, one of those American Idols that I have an admitted bias against.  I was mildly interested in seeing Dule Hill, who I first saw as a small boy wonder in the National Tour of The Tap Dance Kid. (Man, do I feel old!)  Ultimately, I am loathe to admit that it was 90 minutes I was actually dreading.  By the time it was over, though, I was wishing there was another hour to the whole affair.  I went in expecting nothing, and came away with the best musical experience of the season to date!


Framed with a narrative thread made up of Langston Hughes poetry, recited with feeling by Hill, the evening is more an approximation of the Harlem Renaissance era shows at the Cotton Club and the like, rather than a point by point recreation of events.  This allows a modern sensibility and energy to coexist with the historic, a nice way to make the show feel more urgent.  Thus, it makes perfect sense to have modern dancers Julius "iGlide" Chisolm and Virgil "Lil'O" Gadson do their 21st century thing to throbbing beat of early 20th century tunes by Fields and McHugh (below).  Jack Viertel's conception also includes novelty numbers, pulsating rhythms of a red hot jazz band, smoking hot dance numbers (tap, jazz and some amazing partnering), and scorching torch songs sung by a "Special Guest Star."


Each and every one of these elements have been formed into a seamless, riveting evening of song and dance by director and choreographer Warren Carlyle, and the jaw-dropping style of the Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Stars.  Special notice should also go to the brilliant musical direction of Wynton Marsalis and the arrangements of Daryl Waters.  Has the music of Duke Ellington and his contemporaries ever sounded so great?  Staged on John Lee Beatty's simple band box set, and sensually lit by Howell Binkley, the show never flags - in fact, it nearly does, in fact, raise the roof between the rapturous applause, and the explosive energy of the cast and musicians.   Adding to the visual is the dazzling cavalcade of costumes created by Isabel Toledo - a sure Tony nod if there ever was one.

Carlyle's always pleasing, often thrilling and frequently astonishing numbers are a corps of dancers currently unequaled on the Broadway stage.  The ensemble really shines in the energetic "The Skrontch," "Cotton Club Stomp," and the show-stopping finale, "Freeze and Melt."  Chisolm and Gadson have the audience eating out of their hands with their "Hottentot," and the terrific Karine Plantadit (of Come Fly Away fame, below) turns up the heat when she's featured in "East St. Louis Toodle-oo," and as a soloist in "Black and Tan Fantasy."  But, as far as the dancing goes, the real shock and awe of the show, comes from the six guys who do the number "Peckin'" in which they dance in vertical, then horizontal, then vertical lines again, tapping and bounding around the stage in complete sync.  To say that they move as one is somehow not even close to giving what they do full credit.  The screams of delight from the adoring crowd said it all when they were finished.



Some of the greatest numbers from the American Songbook are also represented here, sung to perfection by several amazing vocalists.  Tony winner Adriane Lenox literally stops the show with her two jazzy story numbers, "Women Be Wise" and "Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night."  Too bad there wasn't just a little more of her! Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards leads a couple of numbers as well, with her gritty, earthy stylings, and the trio of Carmen Ruby Floyd, Rosena M. Hill Jackson and Bryonha Marie Parham are a delight of harmony and glamour in every number they perform.

Finally, I can admit when I am wrong.  I was wrong about being able to stand an evening of just jazz music.  The band is spectacular from start to finish - and what a finish!  No one made a move for the doors during their closing, "Rockin' in Rhythm."  And I was wrong to dismiss Fantasia Barrino who dazzled me more and more as each of her four featured numbers built upon the others.  She has been given the opportunity to put her considerable skills and spin on such classics as "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," "Stormy Weather," and "On the Sunny Side of the Street."  But for my money - a repeat trip to the show is a definite possibility - Ms. Barrino really knocks it out of the park with her unbelievable jazz-scat skills in "Zaz Zuh Zaz."

You'd think that after hundreds of Broadway shows over three decades, that I'd learn not to be as completely jaded as I was before hearing one note of After Midnight.  In this case, I learned a little something, and got to witness some of the best singers, dancers and musicians assembled on the same stage in years.  I can't recommend seeing this show enough.  GO!

Jeff
5.057

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