Nov 3, 2013
Jukebox musicals have had a horrible reputation lately, and with reason: For every “Jersey Boys,” there are twice as many cheeseballs muddling the material they’re meant to honor — R.I.P. “Lennon” “Good Vibrations” and “Baby It’s You!”
At last comes “After Midnight,” a sleek, elegant tribute to Duke Ellington and the glory days of the Cotton Club that brings class back to Broadway.
The marquee name here is “Idol” winner Fantasia Barrino, who’s featured in four numbers. (In a nod to the Harlem nightclub’s rotating “celebrity nights,” she’ll be succeeded by k.d. lang in February and Toni Braxton and Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds in March.)
But the show’s true star is the 17-piece Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Stars orchestra, handpicked by Wynton Marsalis. It sits in plain view onstage, pumping out pulsating takes of Ellington’s big-band classics, popularized by the likes of Ethel Waters and Cab Calloway. If the joint is jumping — and boy, is it! — it’s thanks to those guys.
Directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, “After Midnight” hasn’t changed much from its earlier incarnation as “The Cotton Club Parade,” which played short runs in 2011 and ’12. Happily, nobody tried to add a plot for the Broadway transfer, so the show is still a string of pearls — much like the 1981 Ellington musical “Sophisticated Ladies.”
Dulé Hill (“The West Wing”) provides a wispy thread by introducing some scenes with Langston Hughes poetry. He also performs several numbers, though he pales alongside his electric co-stars.
Guest canary Barrino doesn’t face the enormous pressure she had in carrying “The Color Purple,” and she’s remarkably at ease here. Swathed in Isabel Toledo’s sensational gowns, she displays impressive control on the smoldering “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and confident swing on “Zaz Zuh Zaz.”
Just as good is Adriane Lenox, a Tony-winning dramatic actress (“Doubt”) who, in two blues songs, reveals a gift for comic mugging and saucy
As in old-school revues, “After Midnight” highlights a range of specialty performers. While Carlyle isn’t the most imaginative choreographer, you can’t help but thrill as his dancers triumph in wildly different styles. So we effortlessly move from Alvin Ailey alums Karine Plantadit and Desmond Richardson (late of Twyla Tharp’s “Come Fly Away” and “Movin’ Out,” respectively) to hip-hop master Virgil “Lil’ O” Gadson, who engages in a spirited battle with the rubber-limbed Julius “iGlide” Chisolm.
Of course, there’s plenty of tap, too. And that, like Duke Ellington’s music, never gets old.