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A CurtainUp Review
As the earlier title suggests, this revue is a celebration of jazz, blues, poetry and dance that exemplified the aforementioned nightspot where white folk from downtown came uptown to see such celebrated black entertainers, musicians and dancers as Lena Horne, Count Basie, Bessie Smith, The Nicholas Brothers, and Billie Holiday (although you can see Dee Dee Bridgewater playing Holiday right now at the Little Shubert Theater).
Not surprising considering the commitment that one makes to an extended Broadway run, Jazz great Wynton Marsalis has relinquished the baton to Daryl Waters to front the on-stage big band The Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Stars. I would bet there is no diminishment in brilliance from the sound of those great musicians, as their bandstand glides back and forth for various numbers and completely takes over the spotlight after the finale (so don't leave your seat). The band is like nothing else that can be heard on Broadway.
Despite the size and the prominence of the band, there is plenty of room on stage for the bevy of showgirls that strut their stuff in black and white feathers and plumes and especially for the corps of male and female dancers, and the soloists who take command of the stage. The show's director and choreographer Warren Carlyle has done a masterful job in creating a fast-moving and often thrillingly varied entertainment package.
While snappy dance routines are at the fore, there is a narrative thread provided by the show's formally attired host Dulé Hill who not only parcels out bits of poetry by Langston Hughes, but also shares with the full company his talents as a singer and dancer. Hill may be best known for his role on TV's The West Wing, but it is his elegant contributions to "I've Got the World on a String," and "Ain't It De Truth? showcase his versatility as a musical entertainer.
You should know up front that, despite having the Cotton Club as a frame, you won't be seeing a lot of old hat routines, hearing dated arrangements, or subjected to stereotypical attitudes from a former time. You will, instead, be delighted by the dynamic re-energizing and revitalization of our musical heritage as interpreted by some of the most terrific entertainers and musicians in their field. No one who hears the poetry of Hughes can think of it as less than fresh as it serves as a bridge between music that is timeless.
Nostalgia may be playing its part, but so is the need for the artists involved to showcase the vocal styling and musical impressions that have respectfully emerged and also evolved out of the jazz age. This could not be better exemplified than with the extraordinary song styling of Tony award-winner Adriane Lenox, who has remained with the show since its inception. Playing a kind of tough-skinned sassy, funny blues singer, Lenox is hilarious — amid swigs of hooch, singing "Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night" and also a rarity that seems to have come out of the blue called "Women Be Wise," that should put it back on anyone's list of hits.
One clever gimmick that the producers have in mind is to keep changing the line-up of guest performers, supposedly in keeping with the Cotton Club's tradition of "Celebrity Sundays," (as I was learned from an article about the show in Playbill Magazine). Currently is Grammy and American Idolwinner Fantasia Barrino who made her Broadway debut in The Color Purple. She knows how to embrace a song as well as an audience and deserved the adoring response to her scat-enhanced "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," and a super sultry "Stormy Weather."
The sheer number of songs sung and danced is impressive, but I'd like to single out dancers Phllip Attmore, Christopher Broughton, C.K. Edwards, Daniel J. Watts and Everett Bradley who step in amazing precision in top hat and tails through "Peckin." And there is a bracing challenge of sorts between the slithery snakelike Julius "iglide" Chisolm and the breakdancing Virgil "Lil O" Gadson as well as some wonderfully eccentric dancing by Karine Plantadit.
Creating knock-out costumes for big Broadway musicals has always been an essential element and has helped to make careers for many of the most imaginative in this field. So it is with great enthusiasm that I can report that the Cuban-born fashion designer (a favorite of First Lady Michelle Obama) has designed a dazzling array of era-evoking costumes, all of which also showcase her contemporary sensibility. Set Designer John Lee Beatty has given the show some handsome backdrops with the obligatory chandelier in time for a dancing finale that will likely have you leaping to your feet right along with this great company. This is one show that could go on well after midnight without wearing out its welcome.