This is the work of George C. Wolfe, producer of the Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Theater downtown, making his uptown debut. He has written and directed "Harlem Song" with assists from musical arrangers Zane Mark and Daryl Waters and choreography by Ken Roberson, a team that has worked with Wolfe on his Broadway productions, "Bring in 'Da Noise/Bring in 'Da Funk" and "Jelly's Last Jam."
The show brings back to the 89-year-old Apollo, now undergoing a $13 million renovation, all the jazz-age glamour connected with its name and the main stem Harlem block on which it is located, now being rebuilt and remodeled. Although it is impossible to include all the tumultuous events affecting Manhattan's black community in the 20th century, Wolfe has done a splendid job in hitting the highlights in only 90 minutes.
Designed to draw in the tourist trade and their dollars to help in the revival of Harlem, "Harlem Song" rarely rises above superficial entertainment to probe deeply into any of the aspects of black culture that were nourished in this colorful neighborhood. But with a Saturday-Sunday-Monday schedule, leaving the Apollo stage free for other bookings and its famous amateur night the rest of the week, it is a show that could run forever.
In the opening number, "Genesis," David St. Louis as a dreadlocked, barefoot prophet and B.J. Crosby as a vocal shouter in the Bessie Smith tradition tell how Harlem, once a white neighborhood, became the home of black migrants. The rest of the story is told by St. Louis, Crosby, Queen Esther and a cast of eleven dancing singers performing to a wide range of music including ragtime, jazz, rhythm and blues, gospel, hip-hop, and rap.
The characters invoked by the cast with the help of newsreel photos projected on two huge movable screens include such political and religious movers as Marcus Garvey, Father Divine, Malcolm X, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. The Harlem Renaissance literati, referred to as The Niggerati without a blush, makes references to Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston.
Filmed interviews of Harlem's senior citizens recall the "rent parties" of the Great Depression, the accidental birth of the Afro hairstyle in a local barbershop, the rise of such famous nightclubs as the Cotton Club, Minton's, Small's Paradise, and Connie's Inn, the glory years of Joe Louis as the world's boxing idol, the torrent of Latino immigrants after World War II, and the street riots of the 1960s.
The more recent years marked by Harlem's depressed economy are glossed over to get to the final affirmative anthem that is guaranteed to send audiences out of the theater with its recurring "Harlem! Harlem! Harlem!" still ringing in their ears. But there is so much to remember that has been exciting and even educational that historical subject matter that has fallen through the cracks can be easily overlooked.
One of the wholesome things about "Harlem Song" is its ability to laugh at the foibles of black culture such as its pretensions to style and elegance in dress and even in a slow motion style of walking demonstrated in a highly amusing dance episode titled "Strollin'." Life could be a cakewalk at the bottom of the economic and social ladder if you can still strut up Lenox Avenue, this number seems to say.
Other strong material in the show includes Duke Ellington's "Drop Me Off in Harlem," sung by St. Louis and Rosa Curry playing the role of Goddess Noire. Curry also shines in a number titled "Miss Linda Brown." Queen Esther, generally referred to in the show as Miss Nightingale, is at her best singing "King Joe" and a bluesy "Dream Deferred." But nothing tops B. J. Crosby's "For Sale" and her brassy gospel belting in "Tree of Life" backed by a choir.
The three leads in the show are outstanding, especially the charismatic St. Louis whose versatility includes taking on a variety of characters with the help of costumes, wigs, and attitude. He simply takes over the show with an explosive imitation of a Cab Calloway-type bandleader coolly garbed in a white tie-and-tails costume and another galvanizing performance to the music of Sam Cooke's "Shake."
A nine-musician band plays at the rear of the stage under the direction of Zane Mark and occasionally interacts with the cast, but not often enough to give them a fair share of the spotlight. Roberson's choreography is spirited and stylish, two adjectives that also apply to Paul Tazewell's flapperish costumes designed to move exuberantly along with their wearers.
Riccardo Hernandez's set is simple and workable but lighting designed by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer make it the essence of glamour as when they bathe B.J. Crosby, singing the blues dressed in a blue velvet gown, in a velvety blue light that is magical, even sexual, in its tactility. And that is just one of the memorable moments in "Harlem Song," a wonderful addition to New York's world of entertainment.