By Mark Dreisonstok
Signature Theatre’s “After Midnight” is a completely enthralling show with a brilliant cast. First performed off-Broadway, and later appearing as a hit 2013 Broadway musical, Arlington’s Signature is now streaming the show on demand. The show transports the viewer to a by-gone era — to a midnight in Harlem in 1932 when, as the show itself says, “Harlem’s heartbeat was a drumbeat,” according to the opening lines of the show. “With the drumbeat,” in echo of lines from poet Langston Hughes’ “Juke Box Love Song,” the show introduces the welcome presence of “Hamilton’s” Christopher Jackson. (Hughes’ poetry is heard throughout the show.) Rhythm is also seen by brilliant tap dancing in “Happy As the Day Is Long,” also in the arrangement of Duke Ellington (a native of Washington, D.C.).
The show, according to the playbill, seems to be “featuring 28 of the big band era’s most memorable songs, performed by a cast of 122 and a band of seven.” Yet some pieces would become standards, such as “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” sung engagingly by a female trio of Kanysha Williams, Jessica Bennet and Jennie Harney-Fleming in thirties period costumes. For another piece that would become a standard for many years, “I’ve Got the World on a String” features a blue balloon on a string, with fabulous blue lighting coordination lighting up the rear stage.
The production works especially well when the music is loyal to, yet a bit dissonant from, the 1930’s jazz sound, as in the Ellington stomp “Braggin’ in Brass” featuring Solomon Parker III and Sophia Adoum, the latter of whom slides down a slide as the trombone slides down in a number in which cacophony and visual acrobatics blend, a tribute to the choreographer and director. Likewise, the standard “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” boasts an impressive vocal by Nova Y. Payton with playful choreography, rendered with verisimilitude by the videographer (regrettably, the program does not make it clear which performer is performing which piece, and thus they are unnamed in this review.) “Stormy Weather,” associated with songstress Lena Horne, is stylized nicely here. While expressing her own style, she also keeps the essentials which make this such a memorable song. More Ellington pieces emerge with “The Mooche,” “Black and Tan Fantasy,” and “Rockin’ in Rhythm,” showing both the ecstatic and pensive sides of Ellington as composer and arranger and the jazz artist’s mastery in writing vocal and instrumental music.
This carries with it a bit of a risk, as these are specific performances still fondly remembered today. Yet the elegance and polish of performers lovingly recreates the time period by putting the audience before the big bands — those that weren’t a part of the mainstram nightlife scene back in their day.
The show has reserved some of its best pieces for last with “On the Sunny Side of the Street” associated with trombonist Tommy Dorsey (and here sung energetically by Nova Y. Peyton) and “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing” tap-danced brilliantly by Philip Attmore and “Take the ‘A’ Train” and “Cotton Club Stomp,” all immortalized by Duke Ellington and performed here by the full company.
The show reminds one of the Fats Waller tribute musical “Ain’t Misbehavin,’” but truly strikes out on its own with its Ellington emphasis and its ability to bring us back to an exciting, vibrant scene of long ago as no historic film or recording could. Yet the show succeeds beyond mere entertainment.
As the helpful Playbill notes: “’After Midnight’ is a celebration of the artists that came out of The Harlem Renaissance a century ago. It was a golden age of African American culture encompassing art. Poetry, literature, music, and so much more,” and this broad-spectrum which shows that it is not merely a musical cultural breakthrough is seen in photos of Poet Langston Hughes and writer and filmmaker Zora Neale Hurston as well as a reproduction of the painting The Judgment Day by Aaron Douglas.
In a subtle way, the show expresses the totality of this movement through music. Special praise is due the direction and choreography of Jared Grimes and especially the music direction and piano solos by Mark G. Meadows. The show is highly recommended for its window into the jazz age of the past and, indeed, a broad exposure to the art of the Harlem Renaissance.