PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: After Midnight — Cotton in a Forest of Evergreens
By Harry Haun
Playbill.com offers a behind-the-scenes look at opening night of the new Broadway musical After Midnight.
Despite E.S.T. having just fallen back an hour, After Midnight still arrived way ahead of schedule Nov. 3 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre — clocking in at 6:45 PM and out at 8:15 PM.
During those nifty 90 intermission-less minutes, a long-gone era of sumptuous song-and-dance was lushly and lovingly recalled: The heyday of Harlem's great show palace, The Cotton Club, where, between 1923 and 1940, the illustrious likes of Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, Bessie Smith, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Fletcher Henderson, Billie Holiday, Ethel Waters, et al paraded their precious wares.
All have gone to their well-deserved rests, but their spirits linger on pungently and pugnaciously at the Atkinson, resuscitated by music mostly from Duke Ellington. As record-stacked songathons go, After Midnight gives every impression of mowing down Motown, the still-standing Goliath of latter-day R&B — plus you don't have that "This Is Your Life, Berry Gordy" gab-fest between songs. The only spoken words in After Midnight are poetic ones from Langston Hughes, and they're delivered by narrator Dule Hill, who occasionally swipes a song or two for himself.
The man-of-the-hour-and-a-half, an English Caucasian director-choreographer named Warren Carlyle, who staged two brilliant but painfully brief runs of this show at City Center under the title of Cotton Club Parade and always predicted that there would be an open-ended run on Broadway, rushed through the press gauntlet early and was nowhere to be seen. I'm fond of the idea that, his work now done here — like Julian Marsh at the end of 42nd Street, he simply vaporized or else took off on the Wings of Man to Disney World to hone his magic and learn new tricks.
Considerable magic is conspicuously on view on stage. Scenic designer John Lee Beatty has solved the problem of a potentially monotonous single-set — a very large bandstand in front of which performers cut their respective rugs doing two dozen golden-oldies — with individual music stands that pick up all the colors of the rainbow that lighting designer Howell Binkley throws out to transform the look of scenes. And Isabel Toledo has stitched together some eye-popping vintage duds for the cast to cut loose in, from finely feathered showgirls to an all-white dressy finale.
"Even the orchestra is beautiful," as the Cabaret emcee likes to say. The 16 musicians that form the Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Stars are expert worthies hand-picked by Wynton Marsalis himself. When the show first appeared in the City Center gigs, the only question was how could Broadway afford such quality musicianship. Their presence on this stage is proof positive of Marsalis' powers of persuasion.
Jack Viertel, who conceived the project for City Center and let Scott Sanders, Candy Spelling and two dozen other producers do the heavy-lifting to Broadway, believes After Midnight sitting so pretty at the Atkinson is something of a Marsalis miracle. "Wynton is a very persuasive leader," Viertel remarked, "and people really want to play for him and make him happy so they were all very happy to have this gig."
A typically modest Marsalis was plainly pleased at what he had wrought but deflected his considerable achievement — i.e., "We're dealing with Duke Ellington's music mostly so I think the quality of the music is so high everybody's happy and excited about being on board. We really do have a great, great band here."
Steven Van Zandt, no slouch in the music department himself (he played mandolin for Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band), recognized the importance of the occasion. "The Cotton Club represented a very exciting era — an important era that needs to be remembered and celebrated. Sometimes, we forget and get hung up on these modern-day mediocrities. It's good to go back and visit the greatness, y'know."
The after-party and press-grilling was held — right next door to the theatre at the Copacabana, and revelers quickly filled all three floors and the rooftop penthouse. Fantasia Barrino, who won a Theatre World Award for The Color Purple (unprecedented for a replacement performer, by the way), admitted she was surprised to be back on Broadway and hadn't planned on it, but was a sucker for Marsalis' insistence. "And you are surrounded by people who love jazz. You can't pass it up."
She star-powered her four big numbers — "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," "Stormy Weather," "On the Sunny Side of The Street" and "Zaz Zuh Zaz" — and will continue until Feb. 11, 2014, when her track will be taken over by k.d. lang, who will continue until March 9. After that, it's anybody's guess, but Shirley Bassey is rumored to be warming up.
Lang's (52nd) birthday present to herself was to attend the opening night blowout. Producer Spelling admitted the Cotton Club was way before her time, "but I've been to Harlem many times. I used to make dolls for the Madame Alexander company."
This is her fourth Broadway musical in a row, following Nice Work If You Can Get It, How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and Promises, Promises. "But I'm a jazz lover. I wanted to tap and dance like Fred Astaire when I was little. Still do."
Tommy Tune also missed the Cotton Club prime. "I went to a thing that was called the Cotton Club, but it didn't feel like the Cotton Club. After Midnight felt like the Cotton Club. It spoke to me directly — right to my heart, my soul and my feet."
Adriane Lenox, who has Tony-winning chops for acting (in Doubt), makes a triumphant return to musical-comedy here. "Ain't Misbehavin' was my first Broadway show. It's full circle for me. I'm coming back to this sort of thing."
As a kind of Cotton Club version of Fanny Brice, she scores two bullseyes — "Women Be Wise" and "Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night" — playing it with the indifferent resignation of Albert Hunter singing "Handyman."
"It's that whole school," she said, "Alberta Hunter, Ethel Waters, Pearl Bailey, all those great singers who did a lot of talking and ad-libbing in between. That's what it's all about. Absolutely!"
Desmond Richardson, a Tony nominee for Fosse, and Karine Plantadit, a Tony nominee for Come Fly Away, are dancing show-stoppers. Her big moment comes as a lively life force who climbs out of her coffin on the way to be buried ("Black and Tan Fantasy"). "I adore doing this show," she gushed. "I want to do it every day, eight times a week. I really do." Richardson's highlight is "The Mouche," which he found "sexy and mysterious and all those good things. I'm having a good time with it."
"The Mouche" happens to be narrator Hill's favorite number. "I love that number so much — there are so many phenomenal numbers in the show, but that one I love."
He has a few terrific moments himself. "I'm really having a blast here," he admitted. "I get a chance to do a little bit of everything. During rehearsals, we didn't get to see all the different acts. Warren had it all separate. I'd work with Warren, and we'd go through the words, but not 'till he started piecing things together did I realize what I was really speaking about or how it leads into the next thing. When it all came together, it was really an eye-opener. I said, 'Wow! This is something special.'"
With Julius "iGlide" Chisolm, his nickname is the operative word. He glides through the air with the greatest of ease — as a snake. My blessings on his chiropractor! He's also paired with an equally limber and lively Virgil "Lil 'O' Gadson, a five-foot-two fireball who attributes his advanced comic timing to "listening to a lot of different music and speaking with my body. Warren helped me bring that out even more."
Jared Grimes, whose aggressive dancing is spotlighted with Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing," has been with the show since the City Center liftoff. "I had different music back then," he said. "Man, it's like a party on stage every time we do it."
Another who dates back from the initial production is Carmen Ruby Floyd, who undulates through a sultry Ellington melody, "Creole Love Song," without a discernible word of English. She does, however, seem to be having significant intercourse with somebody in the horn section. "The first year it was actually Wynton," she recalled, "but for this long a run he couldn't be a part of it, so Greg Gisbert took over. Before the show, it's, 'What are you going to give me? Make it saucy, make it sassy.' Or if I'm feeling sad, it's different. It depends on the day. Obviously, tonight I was feeling amazing, so that's what you got. Sometimes, when I'm having a bad day, you can feel it. No matter what, it's a haunting melody, so you can take it as sad or you can take it as rich and beautiful or very sensual. It changes nightly. The melody is obviously still the same, but if the audience is giving me something or if I'm feeling something — the message might be a little different."
Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, who has the distinction of having been Michael Jackson's tap-dance teacher, taps up a couple of major storms in the show. "I have two big numbers in the show — 'The Skrontch' and 'Raisin' the Rent' — and I think they are very different, and I have a ball doing both of them. Warren is a sweetheart. He just brings it out of you, and it's very secretive. It's all subliminal. 'How did he make that happen?' Before we know it, we're dancing on stairs, we're singing where we don't normally sing, we're doing walkovers. It's been an amazing experience."
The diminutive broadcasting giant, Barbara Walters, sashayed into the theatre for her first look-see at this idealized replica of Harlem's musically historic club. "The only club I went to into those days was The Latin Quarter. My father owned it!"
Clay Aiken sped by all the print people, professing he was late for his date. A tad more heartbreaking, Hugh Jackman bolted through like he was perfecting his now-you-see-him-now-you-don't disappearing act from his forthcoming musical Houdini.
Unsurprisingly, Andre De Shields was doing his wearing-of-the-red routine, which he has been doing since he did The Devil in Damn Yankees! at Long Island's John W. Engeman Theatre — "even longer," he insisted. He is currently contending for a Jeff Award in Chicago for his roof-raising show-stopping in The Jungle Book. "I got an opportunity to close Act I because one day in rehearsal Mary Zimmerman mused out loud, 'How can you close Act I?' And I said, 'Pick me, Mary, pick me.' She did. The show is in Disney storage in Rochester because they're busy opening Aladdin right now [March 20 at the New Amsterdam]. Then, we'll see what happens..."
Apparently, the defense was resting over the Golden because Tonya Pinkins and Patrick Page, both of A Time To Kill, showed up for the opening — she with her son, Miles Kelly, and he with Kissy Simmons. "We were in The Lion King together for almost five years," he explained. "She was the most spectacular Nala they ever had. She then played it in Las Vegas. When you see all the buses with the huge Lion King ads, that's her face."
Justin Guarini and Condola Rashad, of Broadway's Romeo and Juliet, also came over after their matinee. Janis Joplin and Berry Gordy were in attendance in the form of the actors now playing them on Broadway — Mary Bridget Davies in A Night With Janis Joplin and Brandon Victor Dixon in Motown. Joplin finally gets her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame Nov. 4, and Gordy is honored for his lifetime achievement by Ebony Magazine.
While his hubby, Terrence McNally, spent his 75th birthday hovering over a tech of his And Away We Go at the Pearl Theatre, After Midnight associate producer Tom Kirdahy escorted to the show the star of McNally's next Broadway opus, Tyne Daly.
Also present: Norm Lewis, busy rehearsing Sondheim's A Bed and a Chair for a City Center launch Nov. 13; Rosie Perez; darlin' Darlene Love; actress Mary-Louise Parker, a Snow Goose from across 47th Street; Tim Federle, Broadway dancer-turned-author of "Better Nate Than Ever" and "Tequila Mockingbird"; Susan L. Schulman, publicist-turned-author of "Backstage Pass to Broadway"; Kandi Burruss, sassy representative of "The Real Housewives of Atlanta"; Allison Blackwell, who plays a Joplinaire and the Aretha Franklin influence in Joplin's life; Jessie Mueller and Jake Epstein, back from their Frisco tryout of Beautiful, which will open Jan. 5 at the Sondheim with them as songwriters Carole King and Gerry Goffin; "Psych" series regulars James Roday and Timothy Omundson; Hair and Spring Awakening's Kyle Riabko, a singer from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan!; and soul singer Freddie Jackson.
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