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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
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
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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