A revue is reborn: A decade after Broadway run, ‘After Midnight’ opens at Paper Mill



Destinee Rea and Stanley Martin co-star in “After Midnight” at The Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn.

As cast members of “After Midnight,” the revue that is currently being presented at The Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, remind us, in song, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” And “After Midnight” itself — which was inspired by The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s, and features songs written by or associated with Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Ethel Waters and others — certainly has swing to spare.

But it doesn’t offer much more than that.

There is no story here, no character development, and not much of an attempt to create a sense of atmosphere or underscore shared themes in the songs. Ten cast members — five men and five women — and seven musicians demonstrate plenty of skill and energy, giving us a breezily enjoyable and occasionally rousing 90-minute (without an intermission) show. But the revue never becomes more than a sum of its parts — those parts being song-and-dance numbers built around pop-jazz standards (“I’ve Got the World on a String,” “On the Sunny Side of the Street”) and catchy novelty songs (“Diga Diga Doo,” “Peckin’,” “Skrontch”), balanced by the occasional torch song (“Stormy Weather”), forceful, fed-up-with-you ballad (“Go Back to Where You Stayed Last Night”) or elegant instrumental (“East St. Louis Toodle-oo”).

Excerpts from the writings of Langston Hughes are read, at times, by singer-dancer James T. Lane. But the spoken-word interludes are too rare to give the show much cohesion and, for the most part, too brief to add much to the evening. Still, an introductory speech, made before the opening song — Ellington’s hustling-and-bustling “Daybreak Express” (echoed, a little later, by Ellington’s even more riotous “Braggin’ in Brass”) — sets the stage well.


James T. Lane in “After Midnight.”

“Harlem’s heartbeat was a drumbeat, after midnight,” Lane says, paraphrasing Hughes. Soon he continues with Hughes’ “Juke Box Love Song”:

I could take the Harlem night
and wrap around you,
Take the neon lights and make a crown,
Take the Lenox Avenue buses,
Taxis, subways,
And for your love song tone their rumble down.

Conceived by Jack Viertel, who also was part of the team that came up with the concept for the popular “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” revue, “After Midnight” ran on Broadway in 2013 and 2014. That was a more lavish production, with a substantially larger cast and orchestra, music direction by Wynton Marsalis, and a series of guest stars including Fantasia Barrino, Patti LaBelle and Vanessa Williams. That “After Midnight” also featured more of Hughes’ writing.

According to a message in the program from Paper Mill’s producing artistic director Mark S. Hoebee and executive director Mike Stotts, Paper Mill is “the first major theater in the country to revive the title in a new, intimate format.”

Dominique Kelley, who choreographed Paper Mill Playhouse’s recent world premiere of “The Great Gatsby,” choreographs here and also co-directs (with Paper Mill Playhouse’s associate artistic director Jen Bender), with the orchestra’s keyboardist and conductor Sean Mayes serving as music director.


Awa Sal Secka in “After Midnight.”

While I was, frankly, underwhelmed, I should add that the crowd at the opening-night show I saw was far more enthusiastic, and quite a few of the numbers received thunderous applause. Some of these audience favorites included the sassy blues anthem “Women Be Wise,” sung with show-stopping power by Awa Sal Secka; “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love,” featuring impressive scatting by Angela Birchett; and a medley of “Raisin’ the Rent” and “Get Yourself a New Broom,” which included the show’s most elaborate tap-dancing routine.

And it seemed like every single person in the audience was singing along enthusiastically on the call-and-response segment of the Cab Calloway hit, “Zah Zuh Zaz.”

Despite its flaws, “After Midnight” is an undeniable crowd-pleaser. And I suspect we’ll see it — in its “new, intimate format,” and with its surfeit of timeless songs and instrumentals — make it to many more theaters, in the years to come.

The Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn will present “After Midnight” through Feb. 25. Visit papermill.org.


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