The Cotton Club Roars Back to Life





11-21-11

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News.

Cotton Club Parade
City Center
130 W. 56th Street
New York, N.Y.

Harlem’s Cotton Club, which gained its everlasting fame during Prohibition in the 1920s and ‘30s, has to be the most glittering night club in entertainment history.  It has appeared in story and song, novels, documentaries and Broadway shows.  There was even a movie about it in 1984 (that, ironically, I saw on television on the morning I saw the show).  It gained its luster because of its sensational floor show, its legendary musical conductor Duke Ellington, celebrity guests and its odd mix of all black entertainers and an all white audience.

Now, well downtown at City Center, the glory days of the Harlem nightspot are back again in Cotton Club Parade, a quasi-musical that recreates the floorshow at the club and gives audiences a rousing night uptown at what was the glitzy emporium at Lenox Avenue and W. 142nd Street.

What makes the Cotton Club Parade so good is the remarkable polish of the singers and dancers and the sensational orchestra, directed by jazz great Wynton Marsalis.  Everyone’s timing and synchronization is so good that you would think this show had been running for a year already.

There is enough style and panache to fill twenty Broadway theaters.  Director Warren Carlyle wanted to recreate the best night of Cotton Club history in his show, mixing all the singers and dancers together in slow and fast numbers, with the music supplied by Marsalis and his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.  He has succeeded magnificently.  The performers are immaculately dressed in 1920s clothing and go through their routines not a millisecond too slow or too fast. They look terrific.

The music is glorious, even if some of the more famous Cotton Club songs were not used.  There are a few very funny numbers.  One of the best is the bawdy Women Be Wise, a “watch out for the men” anthem sung by Adriane Lenox as she cavorts across the stage, wagging her finger at all the ladies in the audience.  She also brings the house down with a scalding song called Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night, another disparaging warning about men.

There are pretty famous numbers, such as I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, performed by Carla Cook; Diga Diga Doo, which originated at the Club in the ‘20s and performed by an ensemble of singers at City Center; and the world famous Stormy Weather, sung here by Ms. Cook and of course made famous long ago by singer Lena Horne.

There are nice touches, such as the wonderful idea of having performers work with huge bright red balloons attached to their fingers with strings in I’ve Got the World on s String.

Carlyle’s talents as a director are exceeded only by his skills as a choreographer.  He uses a deft touch in staging impressive dance routines that are as good as any you can find at a Broadway show.  There are routines that make you chuckle, too, such as one in which a line of men continually dance, chest to back, all over the stage.  His larger, sweeping numbers take up the whole theater and are dazzling.

You can close your eyes and be back at the Cotton Club in the 1920s, near midnight, when the electric floor show is at full throttle, the house is jammed with gangsters, movie stars and sports figures and, in the middle of it all, the magical Duke Ellington leads his orchestra.

The only drawback to the ninety minute show is the lack of sets.  There are drapes and chandeliers whisked on to the stage to give the club a ballroom effect during the last fifteen minutes of the show, but the set for the rest of the musical are quite sparse, usually a table or chairs or a stone bridge.

One of the best things about the staging of Cotton Club Parade is that the man who conceived it, Jack Vertiel, wrote a history of the Cotton Club that appears in the program.  The show itself tells you little about the Harlem club’s story, but the program does a good job.

The club was opened in 1924 and was owned by New York gangster Owney Madden, who later did time at Sing Sing Prison.  Mob friends of his, such as Dutch Schultz, were regulars at the club, as were show business stars and athletes.  It was a very public front for Madden’s bootlegging empire, which covered much of New York as well as Harlem.  He made it a racist club, for years refusing black customers until Duke Ellington talked him into integrating the nightspot.  Black women in the floor show wore skimpy attire and worked in ‘jungle’ numbers.

Ellington opened there in 1927 and was the King of the Cotton Club for four years.  The club made him famous and he, in turn, made the club famous.  It was there that he fine tuned his big band, that became so renowned after he left the club with it in the early 1930s.  The singers and dancers at the club were a who’s who of show business:  Bessie Smith, the dancing Nicholas Brothers, sixteen-year-old songstress Lena Horne,  Ethel Waters, Peg Leg Bates.

The club closed after the Harlem Riots of 1935 and re-opened in midtown Manhattan a year later.  It had a different look and feel and, well out of Harlem, did not do well.  The new owners (by then Madden was choreographing numbers at Club Sing Sing) could not replicate the earlier heyday of the club and the crippling Depression cut into its finances.  Business floundered and the fabled Cotton Club ended its floor show and closed its doors for good in 1940.

The cast of Cotton Club Parade includes Alexandria Bradley, Everett Bradley, Andrew Carter, Carla Cook, Nicolette DePass, Brandon Victor Dixon, DeWitt Fleming Jr., Carmen Ruby Floyd, Jared Grimes, Jeremiah Haynes, Rosina Jackson, Rachael Hollingsworth, Kendrick Jones, Monroe Kent III, Adriane Lenox, T. Oliver Reid, Christian Dante White

The show is part of the Encore! Series at City Center (newly refurbished and looking spectacular) and the year-long jazz series at Lincoln Center.  It is only running through Tuesday, so jazz lovers and history buffs should make plans to catch it.
This show is one long night of fast music, lively tap dancing and magnificent choreography. Between the performers, if you look carefully, you can make out the ghosts of the real Cotton Club, dancing and singing once again in 1927, a long way and a long time from home.

PRODUCTION: Producers: City Center and Lincoln Center. Sets: John Lee Beatty, Costumes: Toni-Leslie James, Lighting: Peter Kaczorowski, Sound: Scott Lehrer.

Bruce Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.


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