PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: After Midnight — Cotton in a Forest of Evergreens

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04 Nov 2013

Fantasia Barrino
Fantasia Barrino
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN 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.

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Dulé Hill
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

"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."


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