T. Oliver Reid
“Drop Me Off in Harlem”
Feinstein’s at Loews Regency – November 28, December 2, 3, and 9.
In his new show at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency, T. Oliver Reid takes the audience on a whirlwind tour of 1930s Harlem nightlife. His stops include such hot spots as the storied Cotton Club, where blacks performed for white audiences; the down-and-dirty Sugar Cane, catering to a working-class, racially mixed crowd; and the boisterously homosexual Clam House. Final stop is the Radium Club, where exhausted partygoers breakfasted and faced a new day (and/or church, if that new day happened to be Sunday). The variety of musical styles required as the barhopping night proceeds gives this talented singer and actor plenty to work with, and he rises to the occasion—decidedly so.
Reid first appears wearing top hat, taking on a dramatic Master of Ceremonies persona. He uses this stentorian, show-bizzy characterization throughout much of the narration of the show—sometimes, unfortunately, racing his words to the point of indecipherability. He opens with “(That’s) What Harlem Is to Me” (Andy Razaf, Russell Wooding, Paul Denniker), his baritone notes enriched with the throbbing, humming vibrato that will carry him through the evening. He follows up with two other “this must be the place” numbers, “Take the ‘A’ Train” (Billy Strayhorn, Joya Sherrill) and “Drop Me Off in Harlem” (Duke Ellington, Nick Kenny). This makes for a long-ish thematic introduction, featuring songs all in the same rousing Big Band vein, and I worried for a moment that a kind of sameness was setting in. Fortunately, Reid changes moods with a tender and gently rollicking selection from Razaf and Denniker, “Lovely Liza Lee.” On the phrase “I idolize ya,” his voice swoops up to a sweet, steady, lovely falsetto.
In the next few selections, Reid provides further variety. He salutes Harlan Lattimore (known as the “Colored Bing Crosby”) with Razaf and Denniker’s appealing “S’posin’.” He swivels his hips, shimmies, and chicken-dances to great effect on Ellington and Irving Mills’s “Doin’ the Crazy Walk.” Slowing things way down, Reid delivers a pensive “Sophisticated Lady” (Ellington, Mills, Mitchell Parish), harnessing his acting skills to stress the disillusionment and sense of loss in the song. Perhaps my favorite selection of the evening was his buoyant take on “As Long As I Live” (Harold Arlen, Ted Koehler).
The evening grows serious as Reid sings a group of songs about being “blue,” before which he turns from the audience to don white gloves and draw large white lips on his face. This approximation of a corked-up minstrel show performer brought a few uncomfortable murmurs from the audience the night I saw the show. Reid plays the sequence straightforwardly, without unnecessary commentary. He leaves in all the “cain’ts” and other dialect expressions, striking a theatrically mournful expression and stretching hands out, palms up, in the familiar Al Jolson attitude.
This sequence gives way to an even darker segment—on lynching. The songs Reid uses to explore this theme are harrowingly ironic. The string in Arlen and Koehler’s “I’ve Got the World on a String” and the muslin tree in a slowed-down “It’s Only a Paper Moon” (Arlen, E.Y. Harburg, Billy Rose) take on sinister connotations. During this portion of the show, the singer drops his snazzy Emcee persona and speaks as himself. It is a welcome change. For the first time, I felt connected not just to the songs but to the singer as well. I wondered whether Reid might do well to consider dropping the emcee character from the show altogether.
In the final stretches of the evening—in visits to the campy Clam House and lowdown Sugar Cane—Reid pulls out the stops. He unbuttons his shirt for the fiery “Satan’s Little Lamb” (Arlen, Harburg, Johnny Mercer). Then he goes into reverie mode for the Radium Club’s morning spiritual “The Gospel Train,” singing the first part of the song a cappella.
Part of the success of “Drop Me Off in Harlem,” can be attributed to the excellent musicians who back him: musical director and pianist Lawrence Yurman, bassist Ray Kilday, Damien Bassman on drums, and Trevor Neumann on trumpet. But Reid’s flexibility, stamina and good taste make the night his. I look forward to hearing him again, in a show in which he explores material beyond upper Manhattan in the early 20th century.
About the Author
Mark Dundas Wood is an arts/entertainment journalist and dramaturg. He began writing reviews for BistroAwards.com in 2011. More recently he has contributed "Cabaret Setlist" articles about cabaret repertoire. Other reviews and articles have appeared in theaterscene.net and clydefitchreport.com, as well as in American Theatre and Back Stage. As a dramaturg, he has worked with New Professional Theatre and the New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is currently literary manager for Broad Horizons Theatre Company.