Glee diva-in-training Amber Riley made an impressive New York stage debut last night in Cotton Club Parade, a Broadway-ready revue boasting a spirited selection of classic jazz and swing numbers, some eye-popping choreography, and Wynton Marsalis’ incomparable 16-member Jazz and Lincoln Center All Stars orchestra. The 26-year-old L.A. native best known as Mercedes Jones showed off her pipes and some fine footwork on two standards by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” (She also offered a note-perfect take on “Stormy Weather,” a tune that Lena Horne made famous with a soulful vibrato that Riley may be a few years shy of mastering.)
Dressed in a sequined full-length gown in black and white, Riley displayed no signs of nerves in her opening-night performance, one of only seven in the limited-run Encores! series at New York City Center. But the production, conceived by Jack Viertel with music direction by Marsalis, is truly an ensemble effort — with many competing claims for the title of show-stopper.
Tony-winner Adriane Lenox (Doubt) brings a sassy command to Sippie Wallace’s “Women Be Wise,” while Carmen Ruby Floyd initiates an ethereally operatic call-and-response with the orchestra on Duke Ellington’s “Creole Love Call.” And toward the end of the 90-minute show, Jared Grimes astonishes with a tap-tastic solo to Duke Ellington’s “Tap Mathematician” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing.”
Tony-nominee Joshua Henry (last seen in The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess) serves as a kind of m.c., popping up with lines from Langston Hughes about the charms of Harlem after midnight and singing tunes like “I’ve Got the World on a String”– which director-choreographer Warren Carlyle stages with a delightful routine featuring five couples dancing with red helium-filled balloons. (All of the dancing is first-rate, and performed in styles as varied as the music on the program.) But the real stars of Cotton Club Parade are the members of Marsalis’ orchestra, who make period jazz and blues standards spring to buoyant and joyful new life.
Follow Thom on Twitter: @ThomGeier