By Ruth Ross
I have visited the famed Apollo Theatre in Harlem, but never the legendary Cotton Club, that is, until I time traveled (the nightclub closed in 1940—before I was born) to the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn last evening to see—no, experience—After Midnight, the highly entertaining music and dance revue onstage until February 25.
Operating during the time of Prohibition and Jim Crow era racial discrimination, the Cotton Club featured such black entertainers as orchestra leaders Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Ethel Waters, tap dancer extraordinaire Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and singers Dorothy Dandridge and Lena Horne although, ironically, it was a “whites only” institution!
The Paper Mill’s diverse audience wildly cheered the ten very talented black performers, who took us on a 90-minute journey to Harlem “after midnight” by way of 26 musical numbers!
Because After Midnight is a revue, there is no plot line to comment on critique. However, some specific performances bear notice.
Agile, energetic tap dancing is performed by Stanley Martin and Harris Matthew in “Happy as The Day Is Long”; the two execute slinky, sinuous moves and fancy footwork with Aramie Payton and Anthony Wayne in a number called “Peckin,’” and Sasha Hutchings, Martin and Harris engage in some nifty tap dancing in “Raisin’ the Rent/Get Yourself a New Broom.”
The Cotton Club orchestra, led by Sean Mayes on the keyboard, features inspired trumpet playing by Jackie Coleman in several numbers (“Braggin’ in Brass,” “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” and “East St. Louis Toodle-oo”; Raymond Johnson also shows off his proficiency with the clarinet in the latter.
The ghost of Cab Calloway lurks in a lively rendition of his “Zaz Zuh Zaz,” which features lots of skat and some audience participation! Even a number called “Diga Diga Doo,” although not penned by Calloway, is reminiscent of his work.
One very unusual number, “Creole Love Call,” features Aramie Payton and Destinee Rea in a song comprised of just sounds (oooo), not words. And Awa Sal Secka shines in “Go Back to Where You Stayed Last Night” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” where she, in a white sequined gown, and James T. Lane, in white tails, engage in a skat battle!
After Midnight might not be your usual theatrical fare, but the spirited dancing and soaring voices transport us 90 years into the past, without our leaving New Jersey! It lifts our spirits in a gray February winter and allows us to experience the fantastic talent of Black entertainers. It’s a wonderful way to leave the fraught political news behind and luxuriate in fine performances of music and dance—for nothing more than pure entertainment and enjoyment!
After Midnight will be performed at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, through February 25. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.376.4343 or visit www.PaperMill.org.