George C. Wolfe’s love letter to Harlem at the fabled Apollo Theater on 125th Street is part of the longed-for cultural rebirth of the neighborhood. It’s a good thing, then-and who wouldn’t wish it well? I have my doubts about what another Starbucks, Disney store or Foot Locker will do for Harlem. I’m unsure how President Clinton or gentrification and tour buses have benefited the place. But the idea that a 90-minute show can save the day is a new one. It’s quixotic and possibly nuts.
Harlem Song isn’t an act of civic philanthropy, however. It’s a commercially produced show “in association with” Sony Music, Whoopi Goldberg and Herb Alpert, among others. Perhaps they were hoping Mr. Wolfe would produce another Bring in da Noise/Bring in da Funk -a great, innovative musical that indelibly told the history of Black America as Harlem Song attempts to tell the fabulous and tragic story of Harlem. Mr. Wolfe, the new show’s writer and director, has used Noise/Funk’s gifted creative team: Riccardo Hernández’s scenic design, the costumes of Paul Tazewill, the lighting of Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, and the music of Zane Mark and Darryl Waters. But, alas, what Mr. Wolfe has produced (or re-produced) this time round is a formula, and it’s one of the troubling reasons why I couldn’t connect to a show that demands our emotional engagement.
The visceral excitement and imaginative pulse that Mr. Wolfe’s best work creates are among his most effective weapons. But here the Wolfe trademark style cuts us off from the emotion he surely wants to elicit. He’s borrowed too much from himself. The “magic man” described pretentiously as “The Barefoot Prophet” who introduces the proceedings, for example, reminds us of a similar spirit who watched over Mr. Wolfe’s 1992 Jelly’s Last Jam . The use of photos and filmed interviews onstage goes back as far as his work with Anna Deavere Smith and the 1992 docudrama Fires in the Mirror . The episodic style belongs to Mr. Wolfe’s 1986 The Colored Museum . But the content of all these original pieces had real muscle compared to the choppy, feel-good Harlem Song .
Whereas the riot scene in Noise/Funk rose to a shattering crescendo in a brilliant chemistry of music, dance and raw feeling, the riot scene in Harlem Song is more obviously-and fuzzily-juxtaposed with Sam Cooke’s “Shake.” Noise/Funk dared something I would have thought shudderingly unimaginable on a Broadway stage: a choreographed hanging. It was a tragic memory play as well as a celebration of black history and endurance. But in Harlem Song, even the civil-rights section appears as a dutiful interlude (with grainy photo montages and the traditional spiritual, “Time Is Winding Up”). It’s as if authentic history would intrude too much on the party.
Mr. Wolfe sees Harlem as a home of mythic legend-from strutting fashion to silky Duke Ellington, from the Harlem Renaissance to Joe Louis knocking Hitler’s Great White Hope, Max Schmeling, senseless. But he had no need to skitter and skate over the so-called downbeat in the cause of selling Harlem. That sublime blues singer, B.J. Crosby, touches all hearts with “Hungry Blues” by Langston Hughes and James P. Johnson. It’s a rare moment of stillness and poetry. But the way Mr. Wolfe goes on to convey the Depression era is via the marathon exuberance of rent parties -the phenomenon of all-night dance parties that paid the rent of the impoverished.
The splashy, wild party therefore goes on, regardless. At times, it’s arch -as in Ken Roberson’s over-stylized choreography for the opening fashion parade and Harlem stroll, which makes the ‘hood look like something out of My Fair Lady . It’s occasionally witty-”Take the A Train” sung in Spanish, in fleeting tribute to Harlem’s Latino residents. It’s raunchy-Ms. Crosby’s showstopping embrace of Clarence Williams’ down-and-dirty tribute to a donkey, “For Sale.” And it’s Cotton Club sultry-Ellington’s “Drop Me Off in Harlem,” sung by a fabulously beautiful apparition named Rosa Curry-but Mr. Wolfe unforgivably cuts her off mid-song, and Ms. Curry is given little else to do.
The show’s pulse is jazzy, of course, and the terrific nine-piece band is the best you could hear in any theater. Other cast members shine, Queen Esther and David St. Louis among them. But there are no individuals in Harlem Song , only types and performers. Why doesn’t Mr. Wolfe let his onstage musicians have their moment? He puts the spotlight on the manic Cab Calloway impersonator instead, or he loses energy in the segment entitled “Uptown Jazzmen” by using the tired device of a close-harmony group in an imaginary recording studio with his great band lost in the background.
Another serious lapse has the writers of the Harlem Renaissance in a dopey chorus line dancing to a poor number, “Doin’ the Niggerati Rag,” with dinky little typewriters and inkwells on trays as they preen and pose like impostors at the Algonquin Round Table. Words- their words-are more important than that. ( Harlem Song doesn’t use dialogue.) If you didn’t know what the Harlem Renaissance was about before going into the show, you won’t have much of a clue coming out. You might vaguely sense that certain great artists counted for something, as did Tillie’s Chicken Shack, Count Basie and Adam Clayton Powell. But in the end, you won’t really know how Harlem became Harlem-or how on earth it will recover from brutal times.
Perhaps because I admire Mr. Wolfe’s work so much, I expected much more. But relying on his own tried-and-true formula, he’s stitched together little more than a clichéd revue that’s so celebratory it verges on showbiz propaganda. Only the elders (not the youth) of Harlem are interviewed on film during the show. The village elders, sweet or eccentric mostly, remember the good old days. But their nostalgia also reminds us of what’s missing onstage. Call it the real Harlem. But this is the Apollo, where the hook hovers like oblivion in the wings and, for once, George Wolfe has played it safe.