Who could have dreamed up Harlem Song—a multimedia musical whose protagonist is a place, whose plot is history, where archetypal Harlemite Negroes stroll across the stage in their finery, gently guiding you on a virtual tour? Who conceived of this loose string of jazzy numbers, nearly free of dialogue, this Café without a Smokey Joe, this Last Jam with no Jelly, this Misbehavin’ without an Ain’t? The answer seems as plain as Broadway Svengali and Joseph Papp Public Theater artistic director George C. Wolfe, whose name appears above the title on Harlem Song‘s omnipresent advertising. To all appearances, it’s his baby.
But the show is obviously a work for hire, the brainchild of a community of real estate developers, theater producers, marketing executives, commercial interests, and politicians, including Sony Music, Whoopi Goldberg, Herb Alpert, Jay Furman, Daryl Roth, and a special “audience development task force”—a coalition so fabulously wealthy and powerful they ought to be onstage themselves. The Apollo Theater—or rather, the world-famous Apollo Theater, as its ushers are forced to drone—has never hosted a musical with a regular run before. With this show, the all-star team intends nothing less than to bolster the revitalization of the fabled neighborhood. And while Wolfe’s prominence as writer-director on the promotional materials lends credibility to the enterprise, it also provides a handy scapegoat should the whole thing collapse under its own weight.
It is very likely to do just that. Harlem Song has no artistic aspirations, it means to wring catharsis out of nostalgia, and its determination to entertain is quasi-military. It says nothing about Harlem that you couldn’t learn from a pamphlet produced by the chamber of commerce. In fact, if you’re too lazy to read a pamphlet from the chamber of commerce, or if you’re a non-English-speaking tourist, this is the show for you. After all, its main purpose, like ad copy in an in-flight magazine, is to get you excited about a place you’re already visiting. Should you have any qualms about getting there, Harlem Song partner Gray Line Tours’ shuttle bus will drop you safely at the Apollo’s front door.
Of course, given the synergy between Harlem Song‘s high-powered impresarios and its director, who is among the best at bringing a message home forcefully, there’s something both sublime and appalling about the conviction with which we’re encouraged to gobble up this seven-course meal of cake frosting. Harlem Song has the gloriously mind-numbing bombast of a Communist pageant circa 1977. (Imagine for a moment that the subject celebrated so ecstatically were Leonid Brezhnev, or China’s birth-control initiatives, and you’ll get the idea.)
Wolfe has divided Harlem’s history into 11 loose categories, each with a representative song-and-dance number or two. The majority of these scenes he sets in famed Harlem nightspots—the Cotton Club, Small’s Paradise, and Tillie’s Chicken Shack, nearly in alphabetical order. Costumes and smiles glittering alike, the 15-strong cast belts out various appropriately themed old tunes—”Drop Me Off in Harlem,” “Tarzan of Harlem”—as well as a few Wolfe-penned or -tailored ones. The song selection is perhaps the evening’s saving grace. The obvious “Take the A Train” gets recast in Spanish, in tribute to Harlem’s Latino residents. Later on in the show, to illustrate uptown’s lean years, Zane Mark beautifully sets Langston Hughes’s “raisin in the sun” poem to music, lending its gruesome images of festering sores and rotting meat a tone as somber as “Strange Fruit.”
But canny musical direction isn’t enough to stem the tide of singin’ and dancin’ stereotypes. The chorus of butt-wagging waiters “shakin’ their Africanns,” the rent-party full of pop-eyed guests, and the tasteless take on the Harlem Renaissance “Doin’ the Niggerati Rag” go far enough beyond the pale to suggest that Wolfe is luxuriating in self-parody. It might make you laugh nervously from time to time, but it’s a guilty pleasure with so much at stake. A few actors grab what dignity they can, especially Queen Esther, whose incredible voice and presence could rise above this fracas even if it were called Ground Zero Song. B.J. Crosby, too, with her rendition of “For Sale,” an innuendo ditty about a woman peddling a donkey—”selling her black ass,” if you will—garnishes her vulgarity with sophistication and brings the house down.
In order to counteract the degrading dance routines, the show is frequently interrupted by solemn invocations of Harlem’s social problems, sometimes awkwardly, like the creaky version of the spiritual “Time Is Winding Up” that provides a soundtrack to the Civil Rights Movement number. At other times Wolfe makes a wonderfully provocative choice like juxtaposing a swing marathon (set to Sam Cooke’s “Shake”) with a news report of a riot. Wolfe indulges his talent for flashy tableaux throughout, and Jules Fischer and Peggy Eisenhauer’s lighting enhances his gorgeous visuals.
The most jarring compensation for all the hootenanny, though, is the documentary video footage of real Harlem residents, old headlines, and news footage that appears periodically on the upper level of the stage, projected on moving screens. (Harlem Song has been engineered for a mixed audience, after all, and while some Caucasians might accept a steady diet of Pigmeat Markham, the church ladies will not have it.) The Harlem residents on video are old and quirky. Their speeches, spliced to name-check restaurants, nightclubs, jazz musicians, and anyone of note who ever stuck a toe above 125th Street, emphasize the myth of Harlem, sidestepping the issue of its rapidly changing reality. You get the sinking feeling that the producers have convinced these seniors to praise their home turf for an audience poised to evict the hell out of them.