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Review: "After Midnight" Brings Cotton Club to Broadway

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Matthew Murphy
    Fantasia Barrino is the first guest star in a rotating series of talents slated for "After Midnight"

    After two sold-out runs at City Center, "Cotton Club Parade" has shed its original name (licensing issues!) and transferred to Broadway. Now with the smokier, more evocative title “After Midnight,” the moody homage to Duke Ellington opened Sunday at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.

    With a 17-member big band hand-picked by Wynton Marsalis and a kaleidoscope of remarkable costumes by FLOTUS-favorite Isabel Toledo, the 90-minute jazz revue perks up the ears as much as it captivates the eyes.

    “After Midnight” celebrates Ellington’s years at the famous Harlem club using the bandleader’s original arrangements from the 1920s and '30s. Director-choreographer Warren Carlyle (the 2011 “Follies!” revival) has signed up a rotating cadre of guest stars, in the same way the original venue held its so-called Celebrity Nights. The result is hybrid of both a new Broadway musical and a concert performance.

    The opening guest is Fantasia Barrino, returning to Broadway for the first time since “The Color Purple.” With her raspy, measured voice, Barrino shines during four non-sequential solos -- with as many costume changes -- among them “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and “Stormy Weather,” both sultry. (Future guests include k.d. lang, then Toni Braxton with Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds.)

    The talent crammed onto this stage is beguiling. Dule Hill (TV’s “West Wing” and “Psych”) serves as master of ceremonies, introducing “After Midnight” alongside a dimly lit streetlamp. Hill’s first break came as understudy to Savion Glover in “The Tap Dance Kid,” and he revisits those talents here, though you’ll wish he danced more. His take on “I’ve Got the World on a String,” with a red balloon, is charming.

    Tony winner Adriane Lenox (“Doubt”) is a crowd-pleaser as well, reprising her Encores! role as a blues singer who’s seen it all. Lenox all but owns Sippie Wallace’s “Women Be Wise,” turning it into a command (“Don’t advertise your man!”), her only props a small bar table, a chair and a bottle of liquor.

    There are gymnastics aplenty, the most memorable coming from Julius “iGlide” Chisolm, of the dance crew RemoteKontrol, and hip-hop artist Virgil J. Gadson, who does handstands during “East St. Louis Toodle-oo.”

    Of the dancers, you’ll be particularly taken with Karine Plantadit (a Tony nominee for the Twyla Tharp musical “Come Fly Away”), who emerges from a coffin and later climbs back atop it during a number that includes the pieces “The Gal From Joe’s” and “Black and Tan Fantasy.”

    The polished members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Stars, perched here on a sliding platform, have worked with almost every jazz and pop talent in memory, from Benny Goodman and Harry Belafonte to Aretha Franklin, Jay-Z and Ellington himself -- Art Baron was the last trombone player hired by Ellington in 1973.

    For attention, the two-dozen-plus performers compete against the 100 costumes by fashion designer Toledo, who came to prominence with Michelle Obama’s 2009 lemongrass-hued inaugural ensemble. One piece that lingered in my mind was a peacock-like headdress worn by singer Carmen Ruby Floyd in her delightful solo “Creole Love Call.”

    Lighting designer Howell Binkley (“How to Succeed…,” “In the Heights”) is charged with the unenviable task of setting more than two-dozen distinct moods, and rises to the occasion throughout, particularly during “Stormy Weather,” which sees Barrino bathed in an almost religious glow from 10 individual spots.

    It’s tough to recreate the intimacy of a nightclub in a cavernous Broadway theater. The cast of “After Midnight” makes you feel as if you’re cozied up to a small table with your main squeeze and a gin fizz, feet away from Ellington and the band.

    “After Midnight,” with an open-ended run at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 W. 47th St. Tickets: $60-$142. Call 800-745-3000 or visit Ticketmaster.com.

    Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn