By Walter Rutledge
Apollo Club Harlem returned to the Apollo Theater for four performances Thursday, February 20 through Sunday, February 23, 2014. The evening consisted of a pre-show musical interlude by pianist Isaac Ben Ayala, a lively revue and post show dancing on stage for orchestra patrons. The stylish evening was a true up-scale date night combining entertainment, dining and dancing while celebrating the history of Harlem’s most venerable performance venue.
The cabaret style revue transformed the three-tiered proscenium theater into a main floor nightclub with two upper level viewing sections. The transformation was stunning; the orchestra seats were removed and replaced by cocktail tables with seating for four. The orchestra level seating featured drinks and an after dinner menu served by a courteous and attentive waitstaff.
The elegant atmosphere recalled a bygone era, when nightclubs such as the Top Hat, Baby Grand, Celebrity Club and New Yorker studded 125 Street like jewels in an uptown tiara. The sixteen-member Apollo Club Harlem Orchestra led by David Berger opened the revue with Ellington’s Dimimuendo in Blue, and conjured images of Harlem’s big band heyday. The fast-paced 60-minute revue wasted no time as The Apollo Theater’s Gorgeous Hot Steppers (cleverly named for the dancers featured in the first Apollo Theater production Jazz à la Carte, which opened January 26, 1934) entertained the audience with 30’s showmanship and 21st century technical execution. The eight-member ensemble of seasoned professionals featuring Aqura Lacey, Jennifer Locke, Slim Mello, Major Nesby, Tera-Lee Pollin, Alvon Reed, Jacque Andre Sims, and Hollie E. Wright knew how to pull out the razzle-dazzle.
The host, director and choreographer Maurice Hines officially opened the evening with a song and dance rendition of Drop Me Off in Harlem. The self-proclaimed septuagenarian’s inviting and witty persona immediately captured the audience. Throughout the production Hines shared comedic anecdote while performing up-tempo songs and impressive tap dancing. One of the highlights was Hines homage to Cab Calloway’s Minnie the Moocher complete with white zoot suit, long gold watch chain and ultra wide brim chapeau.
The evening’s chanteuse Margot B performed a sultry set of yesteryear classics. Margot’s interpretation channeled Apollo legends Lena Horne (Stormy Weather) Dinah Washington (I’ve Got A Feeling) and Bessie Smith (Empty Bed Blues). Bessie Smith holds a special place in Apollo history, Smith performed at the first Apollo New Year’s Eve celebration in 1935.
The revue also featured two pairs of dancing siblings. The Manzari Brothers were a tap dance duo that made you think what it must have been like to see the Hines brothers grace the Apollo stage. And the Wondertwins combination of isolations and character dance reminisced performers such as John Bubbles and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson.
Kevin Mahogany lulled the audience with his rich baritone voice. His duet with Margot B to Baby It’s Cold Outside warmed the Apollo with a melodious glow. The evening culminated with on-stage dancing with entertainment by the Apollo Club Harlem Orchestra and Swing dance couples Lana Turner and Friends.
Apollo Club Harlem is one of the new Apollo produced events that is revitalizing the historical theater. A bold approach that harkens back to what made the Apollo the “place where stars are born and legend are made”. This new direction is a fitting tribute to the eightieth anniversary of this Harlem/American treasure.
In Photo: 1) David Berger and the Apollo Club Harlem 16 Piece Orchestra 2) Maurice Hines 3) Margot B 4) Manzari Brothers 5) Wondertwins 6) Kevin Mahogany and Margot B
Photo Credit: Shahar Azran