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After Midnight: Boundless Entertainment in a Horrid Chapter of U.S. History


By Bruce Chadwick

originally published: 02/11/2024

After Midnight: Boundless Entertainment in a Horrid Chapter of U.S. History

Destinee Rea and Stanley Martin in After Midnight  © Evan Zimmerman for Murphy Made

(MILLBURN, NJ) -- The musical After Midnight opens slowly as a singer wails about long bread lines in Harlem, in New York City, everywhere in America. She sings on about the awful state of affairs in America, the Great Depression.

Then, with a big BOUNCE, the play about Harlem and its nightlife in the 1920s and 1930s opens.

After Midnight Is beautiful. It is titanic. It is lovable. A single word to describe the play, is WOW.

After Midnight is a real triumph for the Paper Mill Playhouse, in Millburn, where it just opened. What is it, anyway, though?

Is it the story of people in Harlem during the Depression? No.



 
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Is it the love story of a Harlem couple struggling through the Depression? No.

One single man, or woman, story of hope and survival?

No, not that either.

The musical that recently opened at the Paper Mill is not any of those. It is a charming (no  Devilish!) play about New York and its night life in the Depression with a lot of artistry, no, magic, The wonder of it is that it has no solid plot, but its several dozen songs and dance numbers tell  you all need to know about entertainment in that era, and its stars. It is not one big story, as so many musicals are, but several dozen little stories, each with its own stars and director, and music, music, music!

After Midnight: Boundless Entertainment in a Horrid Chapter of U.S. History

Aramie Payton, Angela Birchett, and Anthony Wayne in After Midnight  © Evan Zimmerman for Murphy Made

You will love this play for its marvelous songs, such as “Stormy Weather,” just as good now as when it was first recorded. You will love it for its actors and actresses who bring all of these historic figures to life. You will love the play, very neatly conceived by Jack Viertel and for its superb direction by the supremely gifted Dominique Kelley and Jen Bender, and for the sometimes smooth and sometimes soaring choreography by Ms. Kelley (these folks can dance!)

The play is a wonderful look back at both entertainment and history, all told with music on a small stage (the orchestra moves in and out according to the song).



 
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The songs (many by Duke Ellington), and performers tell the story of Harlem in that turbulent era, and New York, and the United State in a new and tantalizing way. You are hooked early and brought into the story of the folks of Harlem, and the city, back then.

The stories are all different, but all tied to the age-old boy meets girl saga, as powerful in old Athens as it is today. Will they fall in love? Will he leave her? Will she leave him? Will anybody care? Won’t everybody care?

After Midnight: Boundless Entertainment in a Horrid Chapter of U.S. History

Stanley Martin, Destinee Rea, Liv Symone, Sasha Hutchings, and Harris Matthew in After Midnight  © Jeremy Daniel

The play features many hit songs of that era, such as  “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,”  “I’ve Got the World on a  String,” “ I Can’t Gove You Anything but Love,””Stormy Weather, “On the Sunny Side of the Street,”” It Don’t Mean a Thing” and “The Cotton Club Stomp.” All of that and they even have that classic “Take the A Train.”

The co-directors develop each small story individually and then, with some magic dust, tie them all together as an American story. They do superb work and have created a simply terrific play.

What amazed me was how the co-directors managed to get all these stories on to a single stage, and with a full orchestra, with, oh, six million dancers, twirling about at the same time, and in those, dazzling, just smashing costumes. You sit there in the audience, constantly tapping your feet, and truly believe you are back at the rocking’ and poppin’ fabled Cotton Club with Duke Ellington, Harold Arlen, E.Y. Harburg and an army of singers and dancers strutting their stuff and doing so right in front of you.

After Midnight: Boundless Entertainment in a Horrid Chapter of U.S. History

Harris Matthew in After Midnight  © Evan Zimmerman for Murphy Made

Best part of the musical? Nowhere, nowhere, nowhere, is there a photo or mention of Taylor Swift. Thank God for that.

After Midnight is presented at Paper Mill Playhouse (22 Brookside Drive in Millburn, New Jersey) through February 25, 2024. Runtime is 90 minutes, no intermission.

For more information or to purchase tickets, click here.

After Midnight: Boundless Entertainment in a Horrid Chapter of U.S. History

Aramie Payton and Destinee Rea in After Midnight  © Jeremy Daniel



Bruce Chadwick worked for 23 years as an entertainment writer/critic for the New York Daily News. Later, he served as the arts and entertainment critic for the History News Network, a national online weekly magazine. Chadwick holds a Ph. D in History and Cultural Studies from Rutgers University. He has written 31 books on U.S. history and has lectured on history and culture around the world. He is a history professor at New Jersey City University.



 
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