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Uptown...It's Hot! (01/29/1986 - 02/16/1986)


 

New York Daily News: "'Uptown': Hot It's Not"

If pure energy and a stageful of variously talented singers, dancers and cutups were enough to ensure success, then last night's "Uptown...It's Hot" would invite serious consideration.

But the relentlessly energetic black revue at the Lunt-Fontanne is a long, frantic, and finally wearing hodgepodge put together by the dancer Maurice Hines, who staged it and who also stars in it. Like the spirited and engaging "Bubbling Brown Sugar" of a decade ago, "Uptown...It's Hot" makes a stab at returning us to the Harlem of the 1930s and 1940s, and then skims through the following decades to close with a rapping ensemble number.

In doing so, it uses songs of the periods, just as its predecessor did, but not with marked authenticity as to time and place. For example, Hines' extended and intricate tap solo, the evening's high spot, is accomplished to the tune of Gershwin's "Oh, Lady, Be Good," whose lyrics Hines picks up at the close of his strenuous routine with not the least indication of shortness of breath.

And there are several other anomalies, the most glaring of them being the use of the Dorothy Fields-Jimmy McHigh Broadway revue song "Digga Digga Doo" for one of the show's big production numbers.

The band, a strong but characterless 17-piece outfit, is smack stage center, surmounted by steps and platforms for the performers when they are not lined up along the forestage with all 12 ladies and eight gentlemen of the ensemble hoofing like mad in conventional routines.

As for the principals - in addition to Hines, who also contributes narrative bits - there are a clownish pair, the balloon-like Jeffrey V. Thompson and the sassy Marion Ramsey, both involved in the two time-honored vaudeville sketches included; two fleet dancers and singers named Lawrence Hamilton and Tommi Johnson; and, most interesting of all, a newcomer named Alisa Gyse, an attractive and slender young woman with a lovely voice who suggests, in a phrase or two from "Ill Wind" and "Stormy Weather" and a chorus of "A-Tisket A-Tasket" that, given more scope, she might have made as vivid an impression as Vivian Reed did in "Bubbling Brown Sugar."

So, after flirting with Ellington, Calloway, Chick Webb and the succession of black stars whose pictures are projected onto a screen lowered at intervals, we get through he doo-woppers, gospel numbers, quick glimpses (in flashy costumes) of the various Motown groups, and a Stevie Wonder medley.

Yet with all the fancy costumes, wigs and other paraphernalia, true evocations of these past and present idols are hardly ever realized. Instead, we are given a high-stepping, fast-moving (Hines has really driven his grinning performers to the hilt) and monotonous black stage show that might, cut to a half hour or so, have kept the old Apollo crowd reasonably entertained, or, perhaps, as fitful as "Uptown...It's Hot" kept me.


New York Daily News
01/29/1986

New York Post: "'Uptown...It's Hot' But on B'Way Lukewarm"

Noisy, raucous and exuberant, Uptown...It's Hot! a celebration of half-a-century of black show-business, last night bounced unassumingly into the Lunt-Fontanne Theater. And the news is not all bad.

The hero of the piece is its star - and director, choreographer, conceiver and what the Elizabethans would have called "onlie begetter" - Maurice Hines. The villain is Father Time...or rather Father Time's inevitable chronology.

The idea of Uptown...It's Hot! was to present a panorama of the black contribution to the popular arts from the great days of Harlem in the '30s to the present day - from the Cotton Club to Prince.

Unfortunately, the idea is flawed. As a result the show turns out a great deal better in the first half than in the second - indeed the falling off is made to look as easy as cliff-jumping and just as dangerous.

The production concept is childish but harmless. It seems to have been influenced by dear old Marc Connelly's Green Pastures, that dramatization of the Old Testament as seen through the eyes of black kids in a Southern Sunday School.

Here Hines offers us a group of aspirant "entertainment angels" being quizzed before graduation through the Pearly Gates on music and dance traditions of Harlem.

The device is not stressed, but it does afford the show a chance to offer a few neatly selected silent film clips of the old Harlem, the Cotton Club and such luminaries as Cab Calloway.

So as the retrospective gets under way we are feeling pretty good. Who wouldn't in the company of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella and the rest of Harlem's assorted peerage?

Unfortunately, after the intermission Father Time has moved on and the show's basic flaw becomes a fault...we exchange the likes of Ellington and Fitzgerald for the sound of Motown, "Smokey" Robinson, Tina Turner and Stevie Wonder.

Now it is not simply that - at least in my opinion - the music is intrinsically less interesting, but, equally important, in more recent times the singer has become almost one with the song, and the performer united with what is performed.

The voices and personalities of Stevie Wonder and Prince are part of their music in a way that Ellington, or even Louis Armstrong, never were. And the show does not have that wonder of Wonders, or spring to Prince.

What is good - especially in that Harlem-stomping first half - are the production numbers and the dancing.

Hines is a terrific tap dancer - less eccentrically original than his elder brother Gregory, but more classically oriented in the great hoofer tradition.

And he has surrounded himself with a good band - the presentation of a big band backing the stage show will recall the Ellington-based musical Sophisticated Ladies, although musically that was more sophisticated - and talented performers.

Jeffrey V. Thompson, an impassive man-mountain of a comedian, is an asset although the inclusion on his behalf of two traditional burlesk sketches - which might have been acceptable in the different context of Sugar Babies - here stuck out like a sore big toe.

In any event the script of the show is at no time a plus, but such performers as a sprightly and versatile Marion Ramsey, a fine belting gospel singer Tommi Thompson, a suave dancer-singer Lawrence Hamilton and a sweet-and-sour-voiced Alisa Gyse, easily surmount such obstacles.

But the final result is by no means the celebrationary celebration of Harlem music that it could have been with a more attractive structure and perhaps some unique personalities as opposed to merely big talents.

Still, even if Uptown...It's Hot! is nowhere near as good as it might have been, it could still be good enough to nudge a little nostalgia and start a few feet tapping. The show isn't exactly torrid, but in today's cold climate even luke-warm to temperate might serve a turn.


New York Post
01/29/1986

New York Times: "'Uptown,' A Musical"

If you stay only until intermission, you may leave the Lunt-Fontanne with some pleasant feelings about its energetic, often preposterous and finally loony new musical occupant, ''Uptown . . . It's Hot!'' A two-hour survey of the history of black American pop music from early jazz to rap, the evening is the theatrical equivalent of a telephone-booth-stuffing contest: Songs and proper names, from the Cotton Club to Prince, are shoveled indiscriminately into the show in logic-defying volume. The pace is predictably frantic. A viewer who pauses to glance at his watch may miss the entire rise and fall of doo-wop, the birth and death of the blues or, at one cryptic point, a literary roll call of the Harlem Renaissance. But until hysteria reigns completely in Act II - at which point the audience is no longer taking the A train, but is being mowed down by it - there are rewards to be had. These are attributable to some talented performers, giving their all to songs worthy of the effort.

The principal performer - as well as the musical's director, choreographer and creator - is Maurice Hines, who delivers an encyclopedic tap tribute to John W. Bubbles to the accompaniment of the Gershwins' ''Lady Be Good.'' A dancer of dazzling technique and narcissistic personality, Mr. Hines would probably stop the show a bit more spontaneously if he didn't remind us every few minutes that he intended to stop it. In league with a powerful if somewhat overwrought young singer named Alisa Gyse, Mr. Hines also joins a ''Stormy Weather Medley'' that provides some of the heat of the show's title. Other Act I pleasures include the blaring Basie-isms of Frank Owens's onstage big band, the splay-limbed Nicholas Brothers' impersonations of Leon Evans and Darius Keith Williams, and the campy ''Cotton Club Stomp'' danced by the entire ensemble.

To savor even these turns, however, one must suffer through a 10-minute ''prologue'' in which ''Uptown'' is given a corny premise set in the ''entertainment division'' of a dry-ice-beclouded heaven, where, I kid you not, angels earn their wings by traveling back in time with the aid of a magical VCR. Like a Pigmeat Markham sketch revived at considerable length later on, this totally expendable stab at a book is a throwback to unreconstructed burlesque at its most mirthless. One must also put up with a threadbare set and routine costumes that strain to re-create the glow of ''Sophisticated Ladies,'' in which Mr. Hines succeeded his brother, Gregory. ''Uptown'' does look vaguely like that smashing Ellington revue - which also played the Lunt-Fontanne - but only through squinting eyes.

Yet better a modest facsimile of ''Sophisticated Ladies'' than what follows - which can only be described as a demented amalgam of ''Leader of the Pack,'' ''Dreamgirls'' and ''Night of the Living Dead.'' The trouble begins late in Act I, when performers don wigs to impersonate Cab Calloway and Ella Fitzgerald; by Act II, the wigs, in conjunction with the deafening amplification, are running the show. Reincarnations of Chuck Berry, Stevie Wonder and every male and female singing group of the 1960's belt out truncated rock hits in an orgy of grotesque and sometimes necrophiliac mimicry. A particular nuisance is the shrill singer and comedienne Marion Ramsey, whose evocations of Diana Ross and Tina Turner can leave one longing for the relative musicality of a fingernail gliding across a blackboard.

By then, ''Uptown . . . It's Hot!,'' which has already displayed some of the tourist mentality of Francis Coppola's ''Cotton Club'' (in which Mr. Hines also appeared), severs whatever roots it had in the soul of black music and embraces wholeheartedly the expediencies of Las Vegas. In one sequence, we must confront a proscenium-high replica of a boom box while the agreeable Jeffery V. Thompson is exploited, not for the first time, in gags made at the expense of his obesity. The gymnastic final dance number, though exuberantly executed by the corps, is as colorless as it is endless. Given the performing talent and material at its disposal, this musical should and could have hit a far more consistent stride. The joint is never really jumping in Broadway's facsimile of ''Uptown,'' although, for an hour or so, it does sort of hop.


New York Times
01/29/1986

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