Broadway Reviews

After Midnight

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 3, 2013

After Midnight Conceived by Jack Viertel. Directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle. Music supervisor/additional arranger/conductor Daryl Waters. Selected text by Langston Hughes. Scenic design by John Lee Beatty. Costume design by Isabel Toledo. Lighting design by Howell Binkley. Sound design by Peter Hylenski. Hair design by Charles G. LaPointe. Cast: Special guest star Fantasia Barrino, featuring Dulé Hill, with Adriane Lenox, Karine Plantadit, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, Julius “iGlide” Chisolm, Virgil “Lil’o” Gadson, Jared Grimes, Marija Abney, Phillip Attmore, Everett Bradley, Christopher Broughton, Taeler Elyse Cyrus, C.K. Edwards, Carmen Ruby Floyd, Danielle Berbert, Bahiyah Hibah, Rosena M. Hill Jackson, David Jennings, Monroe Kent III, Erin N. Moore, Cedric Neal, Bryonha Marie Parham, Justin Prescott, T. Oliver Reid, Desmond Richardson, Allysa Shorte, Monique Smith, Daniel J.Watts, Kurt Bacher, Art Baron, Adam Birnbaum, Dan Block, James Burton III, James Chirillo, Andy Farber, Alvester Garnett, Gregory Gisbert, Wayne Goodman, Mark Gross, Bruce Harris, Alphonso Horne, Godwin Louis, Jennifer Vincent, James Zollar.
Theatre: Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th Street
Running time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Schedule: Tues 7:30 pm, Wed 2 pm, Wed 7:30 pm, Th 7:30 pm, Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 pm, Sat 8 pm, Sun 3 pm
Tickets: Ticketmaster

After Midnight
Dulé Hill and the cast
Photo by Matthew Murphy

Fluff doesn’t get flashier than After Midnight, the swank jazz revue that just opened at the Brooks Atkinson. Across nearly 90 minutes, some two dozen performers, backed by a cooking 16-piece band heavy on the horns, sings, dances, and undulates through an impeccable collection of Duke Ellington swing standards that strive to drop-kick you back to the heyday of the Cotton Club — and very nearly succeed. That it’s completely meaningless and utterly emotion-free strangely doesn’t matter; the top-flight talent of every person involved, both onstage and off, ensures that this evening delights despite not raising the temperature beyond a bare simmer.

The true headliners of the evening — at least as far as I’m concerned — are the Jazz at Lincoln Center All Stars, who under the artistic direction of Wynton Marsalis and the conducting of Daryl Waters, turn out the wildest woodwinds and the brashest brass this side of the 1930s. The group onstage may not be any bigger (sigh) than the larger (sigh) groups you’ll find in most Broadway pits these days (sigh), but as far as sheer, spine-tingling energy and period precision, they’re unmatched: Whether they’re playing backup or taking center stage themselves, they weave a miraculous musical texture that reminds you what dance music can, should, and even must be.

After Midnight
Adriane Lenox
Photo by Matthew Murphy

But all this is not to take away from the myriad other pleasures the show offers. Conceived by Jack Viertel and originally presented at City Center two years ago as Cotton Club Parade, it cares about the songs — standards and otherwise — in any and every form. Its goal may technically be to resuscitate and rekindle interest in that long-vanished-but-not-forgotten Harlem nightclub, but nothing either the performers, director-choreographer Warren Carlyle, or Langston Hughes (from whose writings were drawn the “continuity” narration that Dulé Hill, with an over-developed sense of occasion, intones throughout) seriously pushes that intention forward. After Midnight truly wants only to showcase its musicians and their interpreters, and it does that expertly and unpredictably.

“Happy as the Day Is Long,” by Ted Koehler and Harold Arlen, is transformed into a charmingly masculine tap duet for Daniel J. Watts and Phillip Attmore. In “Peckin’,” those men are joined by Christopher Broughton, C.K. Edwards, and Desmond Richardson in an elegant “close-harmony” quintet (punctuated by Everett Bradley). Carmen Ruby Floyd, on the other hand, stands stock still center stage to deliver the haunting and lyric-free “Creole Love Call”; Karine Plantadit and Jared Grimes forego words in “Black and Tan Fantasy” and the rollicking “Tap Mathematician,” respectively. In each of these cases and more, you’re enveloped in stunning artistry that really does summon a place and attitude that don’t exist any more than does their late-20s/early-30s home.

After Midnight
Fantasia Barrino
Photo by Matthew Murphy

Still, though your shoulders sway and your foot taps constantly, you don’t become deeply involved in the traditional sense. With no plot, no characters, and no significant through line, there’s no way for the proceedings to move or genuinely excite you. Carlyle, set designer John Lee Beatty, costume designer Isabel Toledo, and lighting designer Howell Binkley may well have authentically recreated the external experience, but they haven’t injected the context, the influence, or the innovation that truly made the Cotton Club legendary. For lovers of real musicals, or who have a fascination with that era, most of what they’ve done won’t be satisfying enough.

The biggest exceptions occur when every barrier is broken down between stage and audience. This most notably happens with Adriane Lenox, who has never been better in a musical than she is here: With “Women Be Wise” and “Go Back to Where You Stayed Last Night” she assumes full control over the audience, imbuing every syllable with a sly wink and a saucy grin that command your undivided intention. In “Hottentot,” Julius “iGlide” Chisolm and Virgil “Lil’ O” Gadsen rip up the joint with a stellar slinky-meets-strutting dance-off. And though I’m not sure that “special guest star” Fantasia Barrino screams 1930s, her way with a song is undisputed, and in “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” “Stormy Weather,” “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” and especially “Zaz Zuh Zaz” she demonstrates that she’s every bit as able to connect with an audience in this context as she was in her explosive debut in The Color Purple six years ago.

After Midnight
Julius "iGlide" Chisolm and Virgil "Lil' O" Gadson
Photo by Matthew Murphy

One probably shouldn’t get too attached to the likes of Barrino or Hill (who’s completely ingratiating in “I’ve Got the World on a String” and “Ain’t it De Truth”), however. Other guest stars are slated to eventually come in to keep the onstage antics — and audience anticipation — fresh; K.D. Lang has already been announced to replace Barrino in February, for example. Whether any of these will supply the needed spice, or just come across as stunt casting, remains to be seen and heard. But as long as the band and Carlyle continue to adhere to their exacting, sky-high standards and keep the brass bursting the way it is now, there’s no reason that After Midnight, one-dimensional though it so often feels, can’t — and shouldn’t — run forever.


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