HARLEM SONG. Written and directed by George C. Wolfe, with new music and
musical supervision by Zane Mark and Daryl Waters, choreography by Ken
Roberson. Sets by Riccardo Hernandez, costumes by Paul Tazewell, lights by
Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer. Saturdays at 2, 5 and 8 p.m., Sundays at 3
and 7, Mondays at noon and 7 p.m. Apollo Theater, 253 W. 125th Street. Seen at
Sunday afternoon's preview.
If you ask George C. Wolfe to create a show about Harlem at the legendary
Apollo Theater, you know better than to expect whitewashed history or a
theme-park happy meal. And so it is with "Harlem Song," the exuberant yet
bittersweet, lean if overstuffed 90-minute revue that opened last night as the
first permanent, Broadway-designed production on the thrilling and forlorn
street where Bill Clinton works.
Wolfe - the cross-cultural electric current between the Public Theater and
Broadway - is an inspired choice to lure midtown to uptown with a downtown
edge, a showman's high style and a deep streak of cultural history. The man who
was merciless with black cliches in his brilliant satire, "The Colored
Museum," and distilled an American tragedy in tap with "Bring in Da'
Noise/Bring in Da' Funk" may seem an unlikely cheerleader for community renewal
and Gray Line destinations.
Yes, "Harlem Song" aims to bring in da' tour buses. The $4-million show has
an offbeat schedule - three times on Saturdays, two on Sundays, two on Mondays
- and production values that can be quickly packed away for the week's other
Apollo attractions. Given the proscribed definition of the project and complex
neighborhood and artistic sensitivities, however, the results are both
enjoyable and provocative.
Besides, one can almost feel the stomp of music's ancestral footsteps in
the long-troubled, longer-treasured, shabby but rehabilitating landmarked hall.
The big cast is first rate. At least as welcome are the wonderful video
testimonials by forceful longtime residents, as is the old news footage
projected high above Riccardo Hernandez's starkly inventive, economical set. At
times, Wolfe seems torn between his entertainment needs and his desire to
weave all the textures of the history of Harlem and the African-American
diaspora. The sections about the community's post-war troubles seem a bit
diffuse and hurried, but we're relieved that nobody tried to pretend they don't
Then there is the music. The best includes spins on such classics as Duke
Ellington's "Drop Me Off in Harlem" and a Spanish-Harlem interpretation of
Billy Strayhorn's "Take the A Train," as in "Coje El A Train." Then there are
new numbers, with lyrics by Wolfe and music by Zane Mark, conductor of the
onstage orchestra, and Daryl Waters. Some cleverly move the story along. The
one about the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance, "Doin' the Niggerati Rag,"
highlights Wolfe's gifts for dancing on the irreverent edges of acceptability.
Other original songs, alas, make us too aware of the great music that isn't
being sung in a tribute to the place where so much of it was created. The
omissions make us wonder about budgets and royalties when we should be
marveling at wonders.
Still, it is ungracious to complain when B.J. Crosby applies her wha-wha
when Queen Esther plays Miss Nightingale, the neighborhood gossip, asking us
to "double my double-entendres" while people in Paul Tazewell's generous
abundance of costumes are strolling the brave new freedom land.
The style is elegant and raunchy. David St. Louis often leads the way - in
Cab Callaway's white suit and Little Richard's hair. Someone exclaims that,
finally, "Negroes have a boulevard broad enough for their attitudes." Even as
the boulevard narrows, Ken Roberson's sensuously leisure, perceptive
choreography keeps the attitude moving.
Wolfe squashes a lot into the brief experience. It's an oral history, a
travelogue of Harlem nightclubs and, perhaps straining too hard for a hopeful
conclusion, a metaphor about the rebirth of a famous local tree. We wish there
were better identifications of the community speakers, but we appreciate their
mixed feelings about gentrification.
The Apollo, in the first $14-million phase of a $54-million renovation,
still has paint peeling on the ceiling and a few sunken chairs. A $1
"restoration fee" is added onto the ticket price but, unlike Broadway's greedy
add-on charges, this one is deserved.