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Da' Right Man for the Job / Wolfe brings style, history to 'Harlem Song'

THEATER REVIEW

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

exist.

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

trumpet voice to the "Hungry Blues" of Langston Hughes and James P. Johnson. Or

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.

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