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Musical theater is an ever-evolving entity designed to express emotions with music and dance. Lately, the tendency has been to find a trendy, fresh new face of the American musical, and maybe this is why many new shows don’t catch on. To quote Peter Allen, “Dreams can come true again, when everything old is new again.” Audiences are hungry for something reliable and traditional. That hunger can be satiated by New York City Center’s Encores! production of Cotton Club Parade. Conceived by Jack Viertel, musically directed by Wynton Marsalis, and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, audiences are given a treat by this Encores! encore of last year’s Duke Ellington hit.

Amber Riley (Glee) Photo by Joan Marcus

There are not enough words to clearly paint a picture of the musical perfection that the artists of Jazz at Lincoln Center All Stars bring to this production. The first note transported me back to an era I’ve only seen in my dreams and movies, when jazz and big band reigned supreme.  Accompanying the music was an expertly assembled cast of triple threats, who delivered glorious high-octane performances throughout the ninety-minute journey. They sang, tapped, and “Skrontched” their way into the audience’s hearts, bringing Ellington’s timeless tunes back to the forefront of musical theater.

The commanding Joshua Henry opened the evening by setting the stage for time travel back to The Cotton Club, a jazz club in Harlem that operated from 1923-1940. “Early Blue Evening, light’s ain’t come on yet. Looky yonder! They comin’ on now!” And come on they did! The power emanating from the stage made it impossible to sit still.

Joshua Henry and ensemble Photo by Joan Marcus

Adriane Lenox brought down the house, and taught us a lesson, in her hilariously and playfully jaded interpretations of “Women be Wise,” and “Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night.” Jared Grimes’s prodigious tap dancing was showcased in “Tap Mathematician/It Don’t Mean A Thing.”In “Diga Diga Doo,” Christopher Jackson, Monroe Kent III, T. Oliver Reid, and Britton Smithbecame part of the orchestra by emulating the different instruments with their voices in tight harmonies. The young and talented Amber Riley, of Glee fame, showed that she is comfortable off camera as well as on, and I look forward to seeing her artistry mature in years to come. Carlyle’s choreography, shown throughout the evening in both large ensemble pieces and smaller numbers, was strong and proved musical theater dance was his element. My favorite was “Peckin,’” in which five men, sporting perfect dead-pan, moved chest to back in a tight line across the stage making hilarious formations and subtle yet difficult footwork. It evoked a “Rockettes” like precision.

There was not a weak moment on stage with the singers or the dancers, but the night truly belonged to the music. In “Braggin/ in Brass,” “The Mooche,” and “Rockin’ in Rhythm,” the orchestra was able to take the stage, and take it they did. The soulful beauty and excitement they were able to breathe into these masterpieces proved these were some of the most skillful musicians in the world.

The cast Photo by Joan Marcus

Cotton Club Parade is a much needed delight for the musical theater canon. I cannot praise the creators, directors, and performers enough. Together, they created a musical theater masterpiece.

Written by Matthew Donnell

Matthew Donnell

A graduate of North Carolina School of the arts, Matthew Donnell is a freelance dancer, actor, clown, instructor, and film maker residing in NYC. After a decade with the Kansas City Ballet, he turned his focus toward musical theater and teaching. He strives to bring the humor of his life into his art in order to promote artistic health for himself and those around him.