Guest contributor Lindsay B. Davis takes a time trip back to Harlem and discovers the joy and blues of a bygone era.
New York City is alive with the sounds of Harlem: the Duke Ellington-inspired song and dance revue, After Midnight, and the Billie Holiday concert musical Lady Day, have hit the boards as part of New York’s fall theater season. While both shows honor the artistry of legendary jazz giants, the two are vastly different theatrical vehicles, each their own meditation on singing the blues away.
After Midnight is an evocation and celebration of the love, connection and liberation that jazz fostered in the era considered to be Harlem’s Golden Age (1920s-1930s). I felt rocketed to the heavens by this show, 26 songs by Duke Ellington and Jazz Age greats such as Cab Calloway, Dorothy Fields, Ted Koehler and others, performed by a brilliant cast of more than 20 triple-threat performers and a stunning 16-piece Jazz at Lincoln Center All Stars band (conducted by Daryl Waters). Add to that a singing, tap dancing, Langston Hughes-spouting Dulé Hill (Psych, The West Wing) and glamorous Fantasia Barrino (American Idol, The Color Purple), who handles her vocal selections with authenticity and passionate command, and you have a show that does justice to the musical geniuses of the era. Every single moment of the show’s 90 minutes tingles with boundless joy and bright revelry.
Barrino’s interpretations of “Stormy Weather,” “Zaz Zuh Zaz” and “Sunny Side of the Street” are at once raw and polished while stage and film veteran Adriane Lenox (Caroline or Change and Doubt, for which she won a Tony) flexes her musical comedy muscles in “Women Be Wise” and “Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night.” Another vocalist standout is Carmen Ruby Floyd (Porgy and Bess, Avenue Q, and The Lion King) whose captivating “Creole Love Call” could put an end to any debate over whether females are the more powerful sex.
Choreographer Warren Berger, who also directs, draws inspiration from the period without being bound by it and the result is downright innovative. Dancer Karine Plantadit (Tony-nominated for Come Fly Away) leaves lasting, powerful visual and emotional imprints, particularly in Duke Ellington and Bubber Miley’s “Black and Tan Fantasy.” Contemporary dancers Julius “iGlide” Chisolm and Virgin “Lil’O” Gadson, who can do everything from break dance to ballroom, bridge the gap between the old and the new. After Midnight uses dance as if to say the boundaries between eras can be softened but let us not forget it all began in Harlem.
After Midnight’s design team accentuates the production’s lush feel. Costumer Isabel Toledo creates a dapper display of formal wear, but also takes liberties by adding neon and contemporary accents to the more casual outfits for “The Skrontch.” John Lee Beatty’s scenic design creates the perfect atmosphere to fall in love and escape whatever problems you may have, just like those days at The Cotton Club when performers went on at midnight and 2 a.m.
After Midnight is full of surprises and moves gracefully like a perfect suitor courting his new beloved, encouraging us all to leave the darkness and blues behind to spend what precious time we have “on the sunny side of the street.”
Brooks Atkinson Theatre
256 West 47th Street
TAKE THE JUMP FOR OUR REVIEW OF LADY DAY…
A different sentiment dominates Lady Day. The year is 1954, the place is rainy London, and Billie Holiday (Dee Dee Bridgewater, the Grammy- and Tony Award-winning jazz vocalist) is in town to perform. After much early success, Holiday rarely works in the States anymore (a drug arrest led to the revocation of her cabaret license, thus eliminating any opportunity to perform in venues serving liquor) and when she bursts through the stage door for rehearsal, late and frazzled, her band (Bill Jolly, James Cammack, Jerome Jennings, and Neil Johnson) and manager (David Ayers) show their disdain. “I’ve lost my nerve,” she admits in a fragile state. In more ways than one, Holiday is a stranger in a strange land, deeply isolated and alone. Will Holiday get her groove back in time for this London performance?
This is the central question of writer/director Stephen Stahl’s thin narrative, which Act One seeks to answer by way of Holiday’s journey through rehearsal. She moves through selections such as “A Foggy Day,” “Swing, Brother, Swing” and “Miss Brown To You” under a cloud of stress, delivering anxious asides about the impending unfamiliar British crowd, the imposing large concert hall and her powerful urges to drink.
From this emotional state, Holiday drifts into memories of her early childhood rape, forced prostitution and her mother’s abandonment. Holiday’s embattlements of the body, soul and spirit may have fed her inspired music but in Lady Day, they are brought to life with storytelling that veers into melodramatic, Behind the Music territory. The bar is set high for Bridgewater, who performs song after song with Holiday’s trademark vocal styling, her only break to deliver the traumatic events in Holiday’s life in one-woman show fashion, complete with imagined characters and mimed reenactments.
Holiday’s inner demons and memories externalized as soliloquy at times open a greater point of access to the music, such as when the iconic song “Strange Fruit” flows directly out of a monologue about being a victim of racism in the South. At other times, these imaginings add a level of weight and even bleakness to the show from which it struggles to recover.
Act Two takes place on the night of the concert itself but Holiday has been drinking, so she performs the selections “I’m Pulling Through,” “God Bless the Child,” “Good Morning Heartache” and “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone” through inebriation. Only after sobering up is the audience treated to Holiday’s music relatively unfettered. “Billie’s Blues,” “You’ve Changed” and “Violets for Your Furs” deeply satisfy.
Lady Day begs the question—how much do we want to know about the pain our favorite artists feel? Would we rather let the music speak for itself and leave the biography for another day? Bridgewater captures the way Holiday’s suffering morphed into melody and beauty. She does a tremendous job with the material but is stronger performing the songs than diving into Holiday’s psyche. Fewer songs and the addition of actors to embody the characters from Holiday’s past may have relieved some of the burden placed on Bridgewater.
“Travelin’ All Alone” is not performed in Lady Day but its lyric conveys the essence of this show: “Bout this load that I must bear. Travelin’, travelin’ all alone.” One gets the sense from Lady Day that Holiday spent most of her all-to-short-life feeling alone and burdened.
Little Shubert Theatre
422 West 42nd Street
Lindsay B. Davis is an arts/culture journalist and theater artist living in New York City.