It's pretty hard to resist a show that, in just over two hours, celebrates the contributions of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, John Bubbles, Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, the Nicholas Brothers, Ella Fitzgerald, Chuck Berry, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, the Supremes, Tina Turner, Little Richard, Stevie Wonder and dozens of other great black performing artists.
Score one for "Uptown . . . It's Hot!," Maurice Hines' "fantasy dance musical," which opened Wednesday night at the Warner Theatre.
It's also pretty hard to take all that precious source material, place it in an original framework and make it your own. "Uptown" succeeds on that score as well. Thanks to Hines' keen senses of history and humor, and the versatility and punch of his 24 fellow cast members (plus a 20-piece band led by Thom Bridwell), "Uptown" revels in the old without wallowing in nostalgia. And though the show comes laden with tributes to the masters, there is no shortage of satire either.
"Uptown" opens, cornily enough, in the "entertainment division" of Heaven, where a band of angels in training are told that they will be doing a little time travel to complete their studies. "The Lord wanted to keep his music close by," intones their spiritual leader, "so He tucked it up in a corner of paradise called Harlem."
As quick as you can say "everything's copacetic," the swinging and hoofing and good times begin. Different musical eras are introduced by means of dazzling period film footage, which sets the audience into paroxysms of anticipation. And the live entertainment that follows is, for the most part, just as electric, if not more so.
The Cotton Club segment features all the right stuff: feisty chorus girls, a large swing orchestra, flash acts, comedy, torchy tunes and rhythm tap. Hines and powerhouse singer Alisa Gyse perform a gorgeous "Stormy Weather Medley" that sets them smoldering both vocally and visually. Three dancers in neon-blue suits -- Lawrence Hamilton, Christopher T. Moore and Robert Fowler -- light into a suave tap number that ends with their moving together like a human train. Tommi Johnson, in wig and baggy white suit, jumps and jives as Cab Calloway. Best of all is Hines' rendition of "Lady Be Good," followed by one of those virtuoso tap solos that make the listener work as hard as the dancer.
A tribute to the Apollo Theatre is a winner from start to finish. After a rousing gospel chorus led by Hamilton, Johnson and Gyse, followed by a rock 'n' roll medley done by cast members impersonating Fats Domino, Little Richard, Sam Cooke and Chuck Berry, the show reaches its comic apex with a spoof of girl groups. Dressed in day-glo outfits, hair teased and sprayed, each act croons its songs, until Diana Ross (Marion Ramsey, in a hilarious turn) upstages Martha Reeves (Yolanda Graves). And when Ramsey returns moments later, as a golden-maned, miniskirted Tina Turner, the audience goes berserk, howling at every groan and grimace she makes.
"Uptown" loses some steam toward the end. Hines wastes a Stevie Wonder medley on a trashy jazz number. And the finale, which features the entire cast in angels' garb, roller-skating and boogieing to Prince's "1999," is not exactly a blockbuster.
Throughout, each performer radiates vitality. Gyse makes any song she sings her own; Hamilton has a velvet voice and tap-dances like a dream; and Johnson can sing gospel like nobody's business. Jeffrey V. Thompson turns each stare and step into comedy. Only Ramsey, despite her fine impersonations, needs to tone down her mugging and screeching a bit.
As for Hines, what can you say about a man who can sing and dance, play a rogue or a fool, boogie with the best of them and end an opening-night performance by shushing the audience, bringing his tiny daughter on stage and chatting with the people in the packed house as if they were guests in his own living room?
"Uptown . . . It's Hot!" will be at the Warner through Dec. 8.