'After Midnight' review. Hot jazz, no story
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The orchestra onstage in "After Midnight" is identified as the Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Stars. The name may be a clunky way of saying that these guys (and a woman) are amazing, but the all-stars part is no hype.
Jazz master Wynton Marsalis put together the ace 16-piece band, first for the '30s Harlem revue, "Cotton Club Parade" that twice ran briefly in 2011 and 2012 as an offshoot of City Center Encores! That 90-minute song-and-dance entertainment has been renamed for Broadway, spiffed up and gorgeously costumed by fashion designer Isabel Toledo. The backbone, however, remains the integrity of that intoxicating band.
The plotless classic-jazz revue has been conceived by Jack Viertel and staged by director/choreographer Warren Carlyle with more personality than consistent polish. Although the big cast overflows with talent, individuality and winning attitude, one senses a battle between a desire for slickness and an endearing, clubby casualness. When that push for slickness goes into overdrive, the ensemble can feel ragged.
Dulé Hill is the likable host, singing a little, dancing a little, mostly reciting moody bits of Langston Hughes poetry about the Harlem that came alive at Duke Ellington's Cotton Club at night. As an innovative bonus, the producers plan to freshen the run with limited visits by offbeat guest stars. The first, Fantasia Barrino, is here for 16 weeks, reportedly to be followed by k.d. lang, then Toni Braxton.
To everyone's credit, Barrino is not cordoned off from the company like a traveling VIP. The singer, who catapulted from "American Idol" popularity to Broadway respect in "The Color Purple," primarily does greatest-hits songs -- "Stormy Weather." She has a tangy baby/woman voice, a slow and clear scat and the ability to say a lot with stillness and a pout.
Many songs were written or arranged by Ellington, though Dorothy Fields, Harold Arlen and others are pivotal parts of the ingratiating mix. Adriane Lenox is marvelous in such sardonic, been-around revelations as "Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night."
The dancers, led by former Twyla Tharp star Karine Plantadit, are strong. But this is as much a dance-driven show as it is a vocal concert, and Carlyle's choreography falls back on flash and acrobatics when the music demands more complex inspiration.
The dancers, all stylishly dressed up, are all wound up with nowhere to go.
WHAT "After Midnight"
WHERE Atkinson Theatre, 256 W. 47th St.
INFO $60-$152; 877-250-2929; aftermidnightbroadway.com
BOTTOM LINE Wondrous jazz, friendly but ragged show