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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the August 21, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

New York Review: `Harlem Song’

It’s uptown, way uptown for downtown Public Theater’s

artistic director George C. Wolfe. As conceived and directed by Wolfe,

"Harlem Song," a bright, well-intentioned and smartly produced

$4 million revue that celebrates Harlem’s musical heritage and social

history, has opened at the recently restored (the restoration of the

marquee is still going on) Apollo Theater on 125th Street. That this

song and dance show has the unmistakable look and resonance of a live

commercial for the fabled neighborhood now undergoing a resurgence

of interest and growth is not necessarily a bad thing. It is potentially

a very good thing for Harlem and for Wolfe, who, after a string of

bad luck with two Broadway failures ("The Wild Party," "On

The Town"), hit it big this past season on Broadway with "Elaine

Stritch at Liberty" and "Topdog/Underdog."

Along with his musical collaborators Daryl Waters and Zane Mark from

the memorable "Bring in ‘Da Noise/Bring in ‘Da Funk," plus

set designer Riccardo Hernandez, costumer Paul Taxewell, and lighting

dazzlers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer (superb work by them),

Wolfe has devised a winning entertainment. He has also wisely kept

the show’s propelling instructive and educational resonance to a minimum.

For maximum effect, he has interpolated some terrific new music to

spark a old and new rich score that also takes delight in the resurrection

of some risque rarities.

Setting the tone and the action is a "Barefoot Prophet" (David

St. Louis) and "The Clarion Caller" (B.J. Crosby), who, with

rap and song, stir up a century of history of people of color from

many lands. Spanish Harlem will have its chance with Billy Strayhorn’s

"Take the A Train," as in "Coje El A Train." An opening

tableau, depicted in silhouette, of a turn-of-the-century couple doing

the cakewalk makes a beautiful first impression.

A lot of ground has to be covered in 90-minutes (no intermission)

and before you know it, it is the 1920s and Queen Esther, in the role

of know-it-all gossip Miss Nightingale, is strutting and sashaying

down the Boulevard ("broad enough for our attitudes") giving

the low-down — "Well Alright Then" — on who’s who

and who’s with who. It was the era of the Harlem renaissance. But

a subsequent scene showing a rigid line of literati — "Doin’

The Niggerati Rag" — misses the mark as a lampoon, particularly

if you don’t have prior knowledge of the names being dropped.

As my own musical preferences favor the golden age of Jazz as opposed

to the now more popular "soul" and "rap," the show

is smartly weighted to suit my taste. Given the opportunity to spotlight

the famed nightclubs that dotted Harlem from the ’20s to the ’40s,

Duke Ellington’s "Drop Me Off in Harlem" serves as the theme

for a fast and furious tour of the various hot spots.

A spectacularly costumed "Tarzan of Harlem" recalls the Cotton

Club in its most flamboyant Ziegfeldian mode. The dancing male waiters

at Small’s Paradise offer up an unabashedly sexy dance "Shakin’

The Africann." While some rousing gospel music is included and

invites audience response, it is the sexy singing that is definitely

the meat in this show and B.J. Crosby, as the house blues singer,

positively seers it with "For Sale."

Amidst the plentiful songs and robust dances, are filmed

interviews with long-time Harlem residents, who provide personal memories

and heart-felt insights about Harlem from its beginnings, its short-lived

renaissance, its deterioration during the Depression, and the present

denoting a highly motivated pride. The show intent is strengthened,

as it progresses from the Roaring ’20s to the Depression, World War

II years, by the sustained vision of a community struggling for civil

rights and persevering through horrendous social and economical struggles.

Sam Cooke’s "Shake" is used for a dramatically danced sequence,

that is charged with film clips of the assassinations of Martin Luther

King, Jr. and Malcolm X. On a more inspiring note is the scenes of

Joe Louis and his match with Max Schmeling in 1938. "Harlem Song"

identifies the turbulent 1960s with Langston Hughes’ "Montage

of a Dream Deferred" and builds quickly to its hopeful and heartfelt

finale.

The 14 dynamic performers give the impression of being 28, and the

excellent nine-piece band sound like 18. Not bad for a show that isn’t

technically on Broadway but moves, sounds and swings like one that

is.

The show has an unorthodox performance schedule. It plays Saturday

and Sunday matinees and evenings plus a Monday matinee and evening.

This allows concerts and other events to be scheduled into the theater.

Worth noting is the concierge service offered by the theater, including

help with public transportation, limo service, restaurants, and parking.

Three Stars. You won’t feel cheated.

— Simon Saltzman


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