Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Conceived by Jack Viertel, and directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, it ran on Broadway for eight months. While the current production is clearly more than a bit underpowered, it certainly has some delightful highlights, and ultimately rises to the heights in its truly rousing dance finale. The current choreographer, Dominique Kelley, is credited as co-director with Jen Bender. Music direction is by Sean Mayes. The show includes short excerpts from the Renaissance poetry of Langston Hughes. Although not as much fun as his (Jessie B. Semple) "Simple" stories that I read as a child, they sensibly advocate pride in one's self and culture.
In broad terms, the revue celebrates the Harlem Renaissance. Beginning in the 1910s, American Blacks came to the North from the South in large numbers in order to escape unfair labor practices, such as sharecropping and tenant farming, and to obtain factory jobs. This continued through most of the 1920s and 1930s and became known as the First Great Migration. More particularly, After Midnight is dedicated to the period in the early 1930s when the great band leader Duke Ellington wrote the music for the Cotton Club reviews and reigned over the Club with great elegance.
This is the period when the Harlem Renaissance when 118,000 whites left the neighborhood and 87,000 blacks came in. It was also the era of a boom when great authors, poets, composers, lyricists, visual artists and fashion designers created an enriching, distinctive culture. It was the era of the Cotton Club and the Savoy Ballroom. Sadly, these artists had to enter such segregated spaces by back doors to present and enjoy their art. White audiences flooded these and their many venues to luxuriate in the rich and creative artistic achievement of these beloved artists.
The best-known Ellington song in this revue is, "It Don't Mean a Thing" ("if it ain't got that swing"), which is performed instrumentally during the exceptional, extended dance finale along with Ellington's (with Harry Carney and Johnny Hodges) "Cotton Club Stomp" and his (with Bubber Miley) "Black and Tan Fantasy," among other melodies. The music itself will be better served when drummer Steven Jackson Jr. loosens up and varies his playing from its relentlessly stiff and totally on the beat exactitude.
Particularly well represented, and arguably the best composer on board, is the great Harold Arlen. Fellow old timers, hold onto your hats for "Ain't It De Truth?", "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea", "I've Got the World on a String", and the incomparable "Stormy Weather". All with lyrics by Ted Koehler or E.Y. Harburg. It is notable, but not unusual, that this son of a cantor collaborated with and in the vernacular of the Renaissance.
It will do our hearts good to remember other Renaissance-era composers, lyricists, arrangers and musicians whose work is included here (including members of the Duke's entourage): Henry Nemo, Irving Mills, Harry A. White, Sippie Wallace, Bubber Miley, Harry Carney, Ethel Waters, Harry James and Ben Pollack, Dorothy Fields, and Jimmy McHugh.
The featured cast could use more Harlem style. Closest overall are four male dancers, who dance solo, with the ladies and in tandem. They are the elegant James T. Lane, Harris Matthew (who has some big solo moves), incipient lady's man Stanley Martin, and the smoothest, most casually elegant of the crew, Anthony Wayne.
The most stylish of the women's featured contingent are Awa Sal Secka and Angela Birchett. Secka's rendition of Ethel Waters and Sidney Easton's simultaneously plaintive and amusing, "Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night" is the most evocative of Harlem attitude. Birchett plays amusingly with us through Cab Callaway and Harry A. White's "Zaz Zuh Zaz." The other featured females, whose song and dance talents are in some instances excellent, are unfortunately most evocative of television's "Your Hit Parade."
The scenic and lighting design by Adam Honore is rather sparse. For much of the act, the stage is simply a curtain with a theatre marquee in various shades of brown, which appears to mirror an old photograph of the small Broadway theatre to which the Cotton Club moved in 1935. For the balance of the evening, the set is a stationary platform (sometimes embellished with curtains or such) across which the sparse band is thinly spread out. Some moving parts and the placement of the orchestra more in touch with both the audience and among themselves would seem to have been in order.
It would be nice if productions like this generated more interest by younger audiences in the great American music at hand.
After Midnight runs through Sunday, February 25, 2024, at Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn NJ. Evenings: Wednesday-Saturday 7:30 p.m.; Sunday 7 p.m./ Matinees: Thursday, Saturday and Sunday 1:30 p.m.. For tickets and information, please visit papermill.org or call the box office at 973-376-4343.
Cast: Angela Birchett/Sasha Hutchings/James T. Lane/Stanley Martin/Harris Matthew/Aramie Payton/Destinee Rea/Awa Sal Secka/Liv Symone/Anthony Wayne