Apollo's show offers a tuneful tour of Harlem

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

It's where stars have been born and legends made for more than 80 years.

Only now, the performances at the newly renovated Apollo Theatre are supported by a state-of-the-art sound system and lighting equipment. Theatergoers can also enjoy the performances in an air-conditioned, newly carpeted house.

Audiences are welcomed into a chandelier-lit lobby, lined with photos and collages of those who have made music history. The voices of Aretha Franklin and Josephine Baker, Diana Ross and The Supremes, and the Jackson Five echo through the wide, sloping auditorium, linking the new "Harlem Song" to almost a century of tradition. The revue is the first permanent installation in the legendary Apollo Theatre's 88-year history.

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When a team of producers and investors, including Herb Alpert and Whoopi Goldberg, decided to launch "Harlem Song," which chronicles the life and times of black America's spiritual and cultural mecca, they turned to George C. Wolfe.

Reflecting such diverse predecessors as Studs Terkel's "Working," Jerry Herman's "Hello Dolly!" and Wolfe's own "Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk," Wolfe has written and directed a sprawling, tuneful tour through Harlem's colorful, and sometimes painful, life and times.

His "Harlem Song" opens with a cakewalk silhouette that morphs into the introduction of the show's primary host character, a chatty, effervescent peacock named Miss Nightingale.

Throughout the intermissionless, 90-minute pastiche, musical numbers written especially for the show by Zane Mark and Daryl Waters compete well with songs from the last century, such as Duke Ellington and Nick Kenny's "Take the A Train," and Billy Strayhorn's "Drop Me Off in Harlem." The songs keep the story flowing seamlessly from decade to decade.

And the clever addition of taped interviews with longtime Harlem residents – interspersed with filmed news footage and period still photos, all projected on giant moving screens behind the actors – guarantees that history does not take a back seat to entertainment. But "Harlem Song" is first and foremost entertainment, and easily delivers on that promise.

Featuring a Broadway-quality cast of 16 singers and dancers, each number vibrates with energy. In the section titled "Slummin,' " Wolfe captures the allure of uptown Prohibition clubs such as Small's Paradise, Connie's Inn, Minton's, and the Cotton Club, where white audiences flocked to see and hear the rhythms of Harlem's best. In every dance number, Ken Roberson's peppy choreography accurately reflects the steps that had the whole world stepping to Harlem's beat.

Performer Queen Esther captures all the best impulses of Harlem's residents as the loquacious Miss Nightingale. And appearing in several roles, B.J. Crosby captivates every character she inhabits. Her fire-engine voice not only fills the Apollo, but possesses the power to spill onto 125th street and stir up the entire neighborhood.

"Harlem Song," with seven shows weekly, gives tourists a new attraction to savor. Along with the chance to see some of the best singing and dancing in New York, they can experience one of America's finest landmarks, where legends from Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong to Sammy Davis Jr. and Stevie Wonder, also created magic on its stage.

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