When Duke Ellington and his orchestra played the Cotton Club, the swells donned their white tie and tails and went uptown to Harlem in limousines. Everyone else took the A train. “After Midnight,” a musical revue that Jack Viertel and Warren Carlyle steered through Encores! to this snazzy Broadway production, salutes that fabled era without attempting to re-create it. This stylized treatment of a midnight floorshow at a 1930s jazz club is gorgeously designed to showcase roof-raising performances from top-flight talent — backed up by a 17-piece swing band loaded with brass and holding down the stage.
John Lee Beatty’s sophisticated set of an elegant nightclub recalls legendary hot spots like the Cotton Club, the Savoy Ballroom and the Sugar Cane Club during an era when swing was king in Harlem. Dule Hill, the amiable star of “Psych,” makes an agreeable tour guide and wisely refrains from overdoing the song-and-dance chores better left to the pros.
Those bankable stars are toplined by Fantasia Barrino, the “American Idol” phenom and Grammy-holding singer who earns her bread and butter here with torrid interpretations of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” “Stormy Weather,” “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” and a raunchy version of Cab Calloway’s scatty “Zaz Zuh Zaz” that has four dirty old men (well-cast company ringers) falling out of their front-row box seats.
Costumer Isabel Toledo clearly adores Fantasia’s zaftig body, at one point pouring her into a brief, form-fitting, electric-blue number with a lampshade skirt. Toledo, whose clothes can be found in Michelle Obama’s closet, seems to love every one of the 30-plus beautiful bodies in this company, draping them as she does in eye-catching ensembles that fit like second skins and reflect both fashion flair and imaginative wit. (The geometric black-and-white dresses and feathered fascinators in one number earned audible gasps from the uptown fashionistas at one preview performance.)
The dance pants alone must have posed a design challenge, having to accommodate all the athletic splits and leaps and somersaults that helmer Carlyle has choreographed for the sensational dancers in the company. The tap dancers among them include traffic-stopping talents like Jared Grimes, who performs an awesome precision routine to “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” and Julius “iGlide” Chisolm and Virgil “Lil’O” Gadson, whose dancing duel in “Hottentot” is downright dazzling. But even the novelty numbers, like Karine Plantadit’s acrobatic feats in Ellington’s “Black and Tan Fantasy” and the synchronized routine to “Peckin’,” executed by a six-man ensemble of dancing fools in white tie and tails, are works of art.
With more than two dozen jazz compositions on the bill — many by Ellington, but with composers like Harold Arlen and Jimmy McHugh well represented — you can bet there’s a lot of singing in this show. Fantasia is clearly the star of this revue, but Carmen Ruby Floyd, Rosena M. Hill Jackson and Bryonha Marie Parham, who keep showing up in funny, flirtatious incarnations of backup singers, are the show’s backbone.
It falls to Adriane Lenox, though, to bring a little historical accuracy to this idealized fantasy of Harlem in its heyday. Looking like she’s been there and done that, but was never actually convicted for it, Lenox rocks the house with two vulgar blues solos — “Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night” (by Sidney Easton and Ethel Waters) and “Women Be Wise” (by Sippie Wallace, better known, perhaps, for “I’m a Mighty Tight Woman”) — that offer a hint of gritty reality.
Sanitized though it may be, “After Midnight” is great entertainment. And by the time the Jazz at Lincoln Center All Stars close the show with one last, glorious blast of brass, the whole house is “Rockin’ In Rhythm” and nobody wants to go home.