Harlem Song' Invokes Black Culture

NEW YORK (AP) — Enter the Apollo Theater, that rich repository of black culture located on Harlem's 125th Street, and you get a greeting from its eager-to-please ushering staff: ``Welcome to the Apollo, where stars are born and legends made.''
They all played there — from Louis to the Duke to Billie to Ella to Sarah and beyond. Now a celebration of Harlem and black history — as well as the famous theater's musical heritage — has come home in a new revue called ``Harlem Song'' that tries to balance entertainment and educational enlightenment.

Not an easy task, especially in 90 minutes, but creator and director George C. Wolfe has managed to pack a lot into his lively musical retelling, from ragtime to hip-hop. At times, things feel a bit breathless as if Wolfe were afraid of leaving anything out of this cursory overview which mixes old songs, new songs, grainy newsreel footage and filmed interviews with longtime residents or admirers of Harlem.

Those interviews are sweet, rather charming and sometimes funny. They provide a humanizing touch to the aggressive show-biz razzle-dazzle that Wolfe and choreographer Ken Roberson employ to keep the evening moving at top speed.

The 14-member cast isn't large by Broadway musical standards, but there are some choice performers on view, most notably singer B.J. Crosby and dancers DanaShavonne Rainey and Gabriel A. Croom.

Crosby has one of those blowtorch voices, an instrument capable of dealing with just about any kind of song, particularly the bawdy and the blessed. Listen to her sashay through ``For Sale,'' a raunchy blues song, and follow that with the uplifting hymn ``Tree of Life.'' Both pretty much stop the show.

Rainey and Croom are showcased in some of Roberson's more spirited dances. They swivel and snake, jive and jump, turning an elaborate production number called ``Miss Linda Brown'' into a raucous battle of sexual one-upmanship.

Wolfe bookends ``Harlem Song'' with an odd character called the Barefoot Prophet, a messenger whose function isn't entirely clear. This murky presence opens the show and then disappears until the end.

Major historical events, from the Depression to World War II to even the burgeoning civil rights movement and the riots of the late 1960s, are mostly confined to a few film clips. They serve as a backdrop to the music, which serves as an effective antidote to what was going on in real life.

Duke Ellington. Billy Strayhorn. Jimmie Lunceford. William ``Count'' Basie. Sam Cooke. Even a few new songs by Wolfe, Zane Mark and Daryl Waters. Their music tells the real story of ``Harlem Song.''

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