Last night I stepped into a magical way-back machine and found myself at The Cotton Club in the 1930s. The Duke Ellington’s Cotton Club Parade is a phenomenal collaboration of Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC) and City Center Encores. These two organizations, on their own, produce some of the finest arts experiences in New York City. Together, they have created an astounding evening.
The newly renovated N.Y. City Center was a packed house dotted with celebrities and what appeared to be audience members from the actual Cotton Club’s opening night. The crowd’s reaction was equal parts stunned silence and pounding ovation. Warren Carlyle directed the evening, with an old fashioned show biz sensibility. Two dozen numbers were performed by the Wynton Marsalis Orchestra and a powerhouse cast of singers and dancers. Lighting and one portable set of five steps were the only devices in play. The voices were pure and perfect and the dancing was simply not to be believed. I relished my fourth row view of tap dancing feet, which reinforced that yes, these men really were defying the laws of physics.
All the numbers had Mr. Ellington’s fingerprints on them (either through composition or arrangement) and some were recognizable classics. Even more enjoyable however, were the new (to my ears) numbers that rarely receive play anymore. The interplay between orchestra, singers and dancers was lovely and organic. I was at times reminded of the show Black and Blue (1989) a revue of the music of Paris in the 1930s. From the very first note, I longed to be seated at a cabaret table sipping champagne. My feet tapped the rhythm uncontrollably and my fingers drummed the melody as I itched to bound onto a dance floor.
Like all Encores productions, Cotton Club Parade has a very limited run. There is a bitter-sweetness about seeing this production. It is a jarring reminder that excellent theatrical experiences can be created, if people so chose. Shows with nary a gimmick, a video projection, an engineered voice or a television personality can sell out and be enthusiastically received. I do hope that this JALC and Encores collaboration is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.