“After Midnight” jumps and jives to the rhythms of the Harlem Renaissance

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Stanley Martin, Destinee Rea, Liv Symone, Sasha Hutchings, and Harris Matthew are dancing on stage in bright colored outfits
Stanley Martin, Destinee Rea, Liv Symone, Sasha Hutchings, and Harris Matthew in After Midnight at Paper Mill Playhouse © (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)
Aramie Payton is looking up to Destinee Rea who is standing on a platform.
Aramie Payton and Destinee Rea in After Midnight at Paper Mill Playhouse © (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)

Millburn’s Paper Mill Playhouse kicks off the year in high style and high energy with their production of After Midnight! This hotter than hot revue takes you back to the Harlem of the 1920s and 1930s, when jazz was king and Duke Ellington and Langston Hughes brought new voices to the artistic conversation.

The entire production, conceived by Jack Viertel and co-directed by Jen Bender and choreographer Dominique Kelley, is infused with energy from the start, never slacking until its glorious finale.

We are introduced to the time and place by James T. Lane, playing our host and guide into Jazz Age Harlem. It’s late at night and heading into the wee hours of the morning, when things were at their hottest at the Cotton Club and its neighbor, Smalls Paradise. We’re on the streets, watching men and women jiving and strutting as they party into the night. And we’re inside the Cotton Club watching the best singers and dancers backed by the house band. 

One older-but-wiser lady (Awa Sal Secka) advises a younger one (Sasha Hutchings) to keep an eye on her man in the song “Women Be Wise”. Two young men (Stanley Martin and Harris Matthew) challenge dance each other for spare change in “Happy as the Day Is Long.” Hutchings, Destinee Rea, and Liv Symone provide smooth harmonies in their rendition of the classic “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.”

Angela Birchett, a glittery-gowned queen, takes command of the stage with solos such as “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” and “Stormy Weather,” and also provides sassy comedy in Cab Calloway’s “Zaz Zuh Zaz,” with Martin, Aramie Payton, and Anthony Wayne, leading the audience in a call-and-response. Rea and Payton provide a erotic interpretation of Ellington’s “Creole Love Call”. And the entire cast sparkles in numbers such as “Cotton Club Stomp” and “Rockin’ in Rhythm”. This cast is not only made up of sensational individuals, it is a fluid and tightly-knit ensemble.

The eight-piece on-stage orchestra, led by conductor/keyboardist Sean Mayes, not only provides outstanding backup work for the singers and dancers, but also gets a chance to shine in numbers like “Braggin’ in Brass,” “East St. Louis Toodle-oo,” and the play-out music, Ellington’s “Take the A Train.”

The scenic and lighting designs of Adam Honoré seamlessly move us from the streets of Harlem to the interiors of its clubs. Azalea Fairley’s costumes range from street clothes to performance costumes — an extravaganza of color and style.

After Midnight does not pretend to be anything more than what it is — a rousing, toe-tapping revue recalling the glory days of the Harlem Renaissance, providing sheer enjoyment and entertainment for its audience. That it succeeds beyond one’s wildest expectations is a tribute to the talent of its cast, its directors and choreographer, and the design team of the Paper Mill Playhouse. It is sheer delight, and I cannot urge you more strongly to get tickets for this show before its limited engagement comes to an end. Get yourself to Millburn to go to swinging Harlem After Midnight!

After Midnight is presented by the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn through Feb. 25, 2024. For more information, or to purchase tickets, visit papermill.org or call 973-376-4343.

Allen Neuner
Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first Broadway play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. Allen has been accepted into the American Theatre Critics Association, a professional organization of theatre journalists. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.