When On Q Performing Arts premiered For the Love of Harlem three years ago, the new musical had nearly everything. Start with the scintillating choreography by LaTanya Johnson and the rousing music by Tyrone Jefferson and his Sign of the Times Band, with lyrics by Jermaine Nakia Lee. They all came together spectacularly in the splashy title song, danced and sung by the entire ensemble to launch the show — with an energetic drive that evoked the anthemic splendor of "42nd Street."
Lee's book was crammed with a gallery of colorful characters: literary notables who sparked the Harlem Renaissance — including Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and Zora Neale Hurston — and a couple of divas, Bessie Smith and Alberta Hunter, who lit up the Jazz Age. Better yet, Lee delighted in dishing up their personal demons. We saw the alcoholism that threatened to wreck Smith's career, as well as Hurston bristling at criticism from the media and her jealousy toward painter Aaron Douglas when he discarded her for Alta Mae Sawyer. Best of all, Lee delved into the homoerotic escapades of Bessie and Alberta as well as Countee's heartfelt overtures toward Langston.
So instead of an endless glorification of the artistic circle that Hurston defiantly labeled the "Niggerati," Love of Harlem developed a fascinating tension and dialectic. At the same time that they are exploding racial stereotypes and pioneering a new music, a few of these pathfinding artists were hamstrung by their celebrity — facing the question of whether expressing themselves fully and advancing the cause of their people might be jeopardized by coming out of the closet.
But Lee's ability to engage us with these Harlem artists and to weave in issues that bristled with relevance wasn't matched by his ability to ratchet up dramatic tensions or build to satisfying climaxes. Confrontations between Countee and Langston sounded more like academic symposiums, Johnson's choreographic skills went on hiatus until the finale, and a few of the scenes in Act 2 amounted to little more than set-ups for yet another power ballad. Worst of all, the book wandered terribly off-course with an ending that really didn't conclude anything significant that had happened before.
Flash forward to the current second coming of Harlem to Duke Energy Theatre and not much has changed. Directing the show for the second time, Sidney Horton has not been able to prevail upon Lee to doctor the curable maladies of his script — if he even presumed to try. Horton and his artistic team have returned the Duke to its customary stadium configuration, perhaps to accommodate larger audiences, and the place was certainly filled to capacity on the preview night my wife Sue and I attended.
Actually, the audience was probably more altered than the staging, ignoring the pre-show proscriptions against cellphone use and filming. Yet the uncouth audience may have been a boon to Lee. After Langston Hughes walked out on Countee Cullen to cap their blow-up, poor Deven Ginyard sat down and sang Countee's dejected "What's Wrong?" all over again. If Lee didn't hear the scattered snickers from the crowd, including the guy seated next to me, maybe the cellphones flashing to life caught his eye and alerted him to what was really wrong.
The show remains potent when it is high-spirited, irreverent and defiant. Shar Marlin is as hilarious as ever delivering Bessie Smith's drunken orneriness, and her "Tain't Nobody's Business" is still a showstopper. If anything, LaShae Stukes may be even more deliciously loud, bug-eyed and affected than she was three years ago as arts patroness A'Lelia Walker, and her ode to her chi-chi salon, "The Dark Tower," brings the opening act to an effervescent finish. Switching from Alberta's paramour, Lottie, to Zora Neale Hurston, Ruby Edwards torches everything she touches, including her chunk of the title tune, the elegiac "On the Other Side" at the end, and "Niggeratti in You" in between.
Poets Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes aren't particularly warm-blooded on the page, but Ginyard and Brandon Wiley remove enough of the starch to allow glimmers of their humanity to peep through onstage. It's easier to like the work of the other guys, all of them reprising their previous triumphs. Always doling out a drink when he isn't downing one, Tim Bradley is the essence of convivial suavity as novelist Wallace Thurman. With his deep baritone, Tony Massey is flamboyantly gay as Richard Bruce Nugent without ever compromising his dignity. Vincent Robinson, on the other hand, hardly seems to give dignity a thought as Aaron Douglas, with an incendiary voice that produces as much heat as Edwards' when they square off in "There's Always Something."
When Jefferson strikes up his band, starts sliding his trombone, and the fine Jazz Age costumes by Davita Galloway and Anthony Ingram fill the Duke Energy stage, there's a lot to love in For the Love of Harlem. I just hate that On Q hasn't troubled to tighten and improve it later on when it drags or loses its way.
Anyone who has seen wee Nikki Adkins at ImaginOn, as the Velveteen Rabbit or the Littlest Angel in 2005, will be glad to know that she was back, if only briefly, to delight a new generation of ankle-biters. (If your memories extend back to the old Children's Theatre on Morehead Street, Adkins was even littler in the title role of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.) This time she wasn't onstage at ImaginOn's diminutive Wells Fargo Playhouse but the proud author of a new play, The Lion and the Little Red Bird, adapted from Elisa Kleven's diminutive children's book.
Nicia Carla wielded the Red Bird puppet, Devin Clark donned the Lion's gear, and Chaz Pofahl frequently upstaged them both in cameos as the sun, the grass, the flowers, or wielding various puppets like the grasshopper, the frog and the fishes. Under Mark Sutton's deft direction, all the critters were in good hands, and his puppet design for Red Bird could only have been more like Kleven's watercolors if he'd chosen to make it two-dimensional.
The spectacle replicated the high drama of the Amazon web page, where the 32-page book was pronounced tedious by Publisher's Weekly and proclaimed treasurable by nearly every parent who had read it to a child. Even the length was pint-sized, clocking in at under 35 minutes, and everyone was delighted when we found out why the lion's tail was a different color every morning.
Innate Productions offers its maiden production this weekend — and next — at UpStage in NoDa. It's Lee Blessing's Independence, a drama that hasn't popped up around here since 2004 after a 13-year absence. Catch it if you get a chance.