REVIEW: ‘Cotton Club Parade’ dances upon Duke Ellington’s musicality

Sunday, 20 November 2011 14:58

cottonclub112011_optJazz at Lincoln Center and Encores! join forces to celebrate a legendary Harlem hot spot


A sleek song-and-dance revue, “Cotton Club Parade” elegantly celebrates a fabled Harlem nightclub during its late 1920s-early 1930s heyday when Duke Ellington forged the hot spot’s jazzy musical style.

Opening on Friday and running only through Tuesday at New York City Center, the show represents a promising new partnership between the Encores! concert series and Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Conceived and structured by Jack Viertel, the 90-minute event offers vintage songs and plenty of high-flying dancing that provide a marvelous impression of the Cotton Club’s panache.

Expect no historical footnoting of the club’s rise and fall to impede the ceaseless entertainment; other than a few scraps of text by Langston Hughes, “Cotton Club Parade” is an all-singing, all-dancing treat driven by the fevered yet swank musicality typical of Ellington’s orchestra.

Composers like Harold Arlen and Jimmy McHugh delivered the Cotton Club’s biggest hits, so less than half of the songs here are composed by Ellington, but the majority was at least arranged by him. Music director Wynton Marsalis plays trumpet in the onstage 18-member Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra that deftly mixes 1920s-30s rhythmic madness with that trademark burnished quality of Ellington’s sound. The propulsive musical results often sound classy and crazy simultaneously.

Swiftly staged by director-choreographer Warren Carlyle, the show seamlessly segues from one song to the next. Drapes, chandeliers and other visual bits of provided by designer John Lee Beatty blends with Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting to create appropriate moods for the numbers. cotton2club112011_opt

Top-notch performances make the most of the delectable material. Bright-voiced Brandon Victor Dixon smoothly interprets “I’ve Got the World on a String” as the dancers do a cute boy-girl floorshow-type routine with red balloons. Carla Cook sweetly and easily swings across “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby.” Tony-winner Adriane Lenox wryly delivers a couple of sassy mama-style comedy songs regarding shiftless men. Carmen Ruby Floyd dramatically moans through “Creole Love Call.”

Dapperly dressed by Toni-Leslie James in clothes that reflect the Cotton Club’s era, the performers skim over a pleasurable variety of period dance styles. Rubber or robotic eccentric routines, a challenge number between two hoofers, an enthusiastic jitterbug party and a nifty homage to the Nicholas Brothers are among sharp segments devised by Carlyle with the dancers. Nicolette DePass leads the company through a slow, sinuous “Black and Tan Fantasy” choreographed by Garth Fagan.

This memorable celebration of Duke Ellington and Harlem night-life at its old-time best concludes with a festive mix of the “Cotton Club Stomp” and a Simon Says-style “Freeze and Melt” that merges music and dance into an exuberant finale. Gosh, it’s too bad that this fun, classy show can’t move into the Apollo or some other uptown venue for a longer engagement.

“Cotton Club Parade” continues through Tuesday at New York City Center, 131 W. 55th St., New York. Call (212) 581-1212 or visit


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