Public Theater impresario George C. Wolfe has not always been lucky in his sorties uptown. The Public is still smarting from some of its more expensive Broadway forays, although last’s season two transfers from the Public — “Elaine Stritch at Liberty” and “Topdog/Underdog” — were successful. Now Wolfe is venturing even further uptown for “Harlem Song,” a musical revue that celebrates the cultural and social history of the neighborhood from the stage of one of its fabled landmarks, the Apollo Theater on 125th Street.
On this occasion, Wolfe is traveling without the Public. The $4 million “Harlem Song” is funded by a broad mix of producers including Broadway regulars (Margo Lion, Daryl Roth), Whoopi Goldberg, Sony Music and Herb Alpert, and it’s being marketed as much as a tourist diversion as a legit production. That’s probably just as well, since as an evening of theater this sometimes lively but diffuse show is not terribly satisfying. A polished but scarcely ground-breaking black-music revue spliced with a Ken Burns-style documentary (videotaped talking-head testimonials included), it may not make enough of a splash to draw general Broadway audiences way up north in the necessary numbers. But hitched to a day or evening tour of the neighborhood’s various other attractions (promotions with the Gray Line tour company are under way), it’s a viable and potentially lucrative proposition.
Stylistically, the production is very much in the vein of Wolfe’s “Bring in Da Noise/Bring in Da Funk” — which is hardly surprising since many of Wolfe’s collaborators on that show, including composers Zane Mark and Daryl Waters, set designer Riccardo Hernandez, costumer Paul Tazewell, and lighting aces Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, are aboard here, too, contributing some fine work. (Hernandez’s talents don’t get much of a workout, however, since the sets must be simple enough to be removed after each weekend’s seven perfs to make way for other programming at the theater.) Here, too, music is used to explore the rich cultural heritage and sometimes troubled history of African-Americans.
But “Harlem Song” doesn’t have the powerful impact of “Noise/Funk.” This is due, in part, to the show’s natural focus on Harlem as an epicenter of influential music and nightlife in the decades of its prime, the 1920s to the 1940s. Harlem burns brightest here as a place to have a good time. More serious digressions focusing on the Depression, riots and the civil rights movement come across as, well, digressions, some more perfunctory than others. Overall the show has a made-to-order feel; there is little sense of a strong artistic impetus at work behind it. Wolfe is cruising on autopilot, albeit at his customary stylish and often intelligent level.
The striking first image is of a couple cakewalking in silhouette as light flickers against a square white backdrop. There follows an incantatory monologue by a hobo-like character (“the Barefoot Prophet,” he’s called) whose narration recalls Jeffrey Wright’s function in “Bring in Da Noise.” But this figure is not very successfully integrated into the proceedings — indeed, he disappears entirely before a sudden reappearance at the conclusion — and his mystic musings could be dropped.
A more appealing narrator is Miss Nightingale (Queen Esther), who leads snazzy opening number “Well Alright Then,” in which the streets of Harlem at the dawn of the Harlem renaissance (“Boulevards broad enough for our attitudes,” she quips) are depicted as a fertile parade of personalities and social types. Working downtown in menial jobs, the residents of the neighborhood became grandees of sorts on the weekend, parading their finest duds in unofficial competitions on the streets, and in the churches and nightclubs.
Famous examples of the latter are the focus of a large portion of the show. The Duke Ellington song “Drop Me off in Harlem” is used to showcase the varieties of entertainment available at Harlem hotspots, from cool — exemplified by Rosa Curry’s silky-smooth rendition — to white-hot, as in the frenzied gyrations of white-suited band leader Mop Head Sam (David St. Louis) to the tune of that name. A Cotton Club-style number, “Tarzan of Harlem,” replete with Ziegfeld-style showgirls in beads and elaborate headdresses, is followed by a slightly risque number for a male chorus of waiters at Small’s Paradise, “Shakin the Africann’.” Lewder still is the bluesy tale of “Linda Brown,” whose “big black ass is on the block for sale,” belted in bawdy, brassy style by B.J. Crosby.
These nightclub numbers, choreographed with skill and style, if no great originality, by Ken Roberson, and delivered with polish by show’s 14 performers and a terrific nine-piece band, are all entertaining on their own terms, but their like has been seen in any number of nostalgic revues on and Off Broadway in the past couple of decades. And without a strong dramatic context supporting them, eventually they blur together.
“Harlem Song” is disappointingly weak on delineating its themes and delivering the specifics of history. Wolfe’s staging is typically fluid, but the show feels underwritten, and videotaped interviews with longtime Harlem residents and historians providing background and personal comment are not enough to supply a strong through-line. Projected on video screens that slide on and off, these segments don’t so much knit the show together as interrupt it periodically. At other times, as in “Doin’ the Niggerati Rag,” a satiric riff on the literary scene, Wolfe mostly just names names, assuming prior knowledge on the part of the audience. History isn’t abstractly dramatized, as it often was in “Bring in Da Noise,” but passively described or depicted via standard-issue video montage.
As it is, the show’s key organizing principle is chronology — not the most dramatically potent binding agent — and even this is vague and sometimes confusing. Projections of Malcolm X during a gospel-flavored number seem to suggest the civil rights era has arrived, but the next segment focuses on the inspiring figure of Joe Louis and his 1938 rematch with Max Schmeling. It’s another 20 minutes before the 1960s arrive, in a segment that hits all the usual emotional notes through video montages and a musical setting of a portion of Langston Hughes’ “Montage of a Dream Deferred.”
After celebrating the Apollo itself in a James Brown-style romp through Sam Cooke’s “Shake” that also depicts the fermenting Black Power movement, “Harlem Song” climaxes on an expected note of energetic uplift that draws a rousing response from the audience. This sequence, like much of the show, probably will satisfy tourists content to stroll across the surface of this subject matter while tapping their toes, but the show’s failure to deeply engage us in its subject matter is surprising and disappointing.