The resplendently renovated City Center puts its best foot forward, with tap shoes, in “Cotton Club Parade.” Wynton Marsalis and his Jazz at Lincoln Center team merge with the folks at Encores! for this breezy revue celebrating the sounds and styles of the Prohibition-era nitery which reigned over Harlem from 1924-1936. (While Duke Ellington is top-billed, almost half the score comes from composers Harold Arlen and Jimmy McHugh.) Adriane Lenox and Brandon Victor Dixon commandingly lead the singers, the dance specialties astonish and the brass and reed players in Marsalis’ orchestra stomp and wail and rock the newly-restored rafters.
With no text to interrupt, this “Parade” features 24 musical spots in succession. Ninety-minute show is presented without an intermission, making it the briefest Encores! evening in memory. “Cotton Club Parade” is officially not part of that long-running subscription series, though, but what they call “An Encores! Special Event.” There is some inevitable slow going here and there, but it is always picked up and rejuvenated by those blaring trumpets.
Serving as something of a host is Dixon (an original cast member of “The Scottsboro Boys”). “I’ve Got the World on a String” sets the tone for the show, with Dixon charming us and seeming to be pulled aloft by a red helium balloon. Also on hand (with limited opportunities) is Everett Bradley, who leads a quartet in a fine rendition of “Digga Digga Doo.”
It is Lenox, a Tony winner for her dramatic turn opposite Cherry Jones in John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt,” who altogether steals the show with two comedy songs, Sippie Wallace’s “Women Be Wise” and Ethel Waters’ “Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night.” Lenox commands the stage like — well, like Ethel Waters, delivering each entendre be it double or triple. Highpoint other than Lenox is Jared Grimes, dancing his way through his self-choreographed “Goin’ Nuts.”
Evening’s slight miscalculation is to fill the card with seventeen soloists; nobody gets more than two or three spots. While this brings us a fair number of strong performers, especially in the dance area, it doesn’t allow anyone other than Lenox to standout. (Carla Cook, who sings three classics — “Stormy Weather,” “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” and “Ill Wind” — doesn’t quite land them, alas.)
Sometimes, as in the instrumental “Braggin’ in Brass,” it’s more than enough just to hear the band explode. Director-choreographer Warren Carlyle, an Encores! mainstay whose work is currently on view in “Hugh Jackman Back on Broadway” and “Follies,” includes some impressive group numbers, recreating what one must suppose is the feeling of a Cotton Club floorshow. Many of the featured dancers, though, seem to be contributing their own steps.
Sitting upstage center with his trumpet, Marsalis is one of the main attractions of the affair. “Cotton Club Parade” marks the first collaboration between Jazz at Lincoln Center and Encores!, which plan to give us a new show every two years. This one perfectly blends the strengths of the two orgs.
Renovated City Center looks like a million bucks, or rather, $56 million. The City Center board made the gutsy decision to solve the cramped seating and sight line problems by reconfiguring the house and reducing the former capacity of 2,750 by some five hundred seats. All new seating and newly-raked risers in the mezzanine and balcony make this one of the most comfortable houses in town. A non-scientific survey indicates that City Center now has considerably more restroom stalls than the larger Carnegie and Avery Fisher Halls. The ornate decoration of the house — originally Mecca Temple, built in 1923 by the Shriners — has been gloriously restored, too.