Club Harlem existed on “the wrong side of the tracks” on Kentucky Avenue, in north Atlantic City, New Jersey from the mid 1930s to the early 1990s. Taken over by Pops and Cliff Williams, its name changed to Clifton’s going into the 1940s. The hot spot was a premier nightclub on “the Chittlin’ Circuit,” hosting such as Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr., Nancy Wilson, Moms Mabley, Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan, and The Temptations. When artists like Frank Sinatra and Milton Berle finished at ‘white venues’, they’d stop by for Club Harlem’s 5 a.m. show.
On Kentucky Avenue originated with actress/singer/producer Jeree Wade who was raised in Atlantic City by her grandmother, commuting to her parents in Manhattan’s Harlem on weekends. It’s a fictional salute to a real place and time inspired by some of the original denizens – and a revelation to most of us.
Evoking period, place, and attitude, the entertainment presents a long forgotten variety format: parading/posing showgirls, spot-lit vocalists with back-up boys or girls, a comedian, a tap dancer, and a performing host. The audience is ostensibly present at a dress rehearsal of the iconic club. This allows for the tiny bit of book, a triangle involving the club’s host, Ivan (Ty Stephens), his past love, Betty Jo (Renee Ternier) who left for Las Vegas, but has now returned, and his new squeeze, Pauline (Andricka Hall). Story line is so thinly sketched, it appears an afterthought.
The show’s title number, “On Kentucky Avenue,” has sassy, scene-setting lyrics and tight, tableau vivant (pose) direction. “Please Sign In,” the stage manager’s entreaty, adds jazz shading to the proceedings. (Musical Director Frank Owens does a bang-up job throughout.) The company interacts just enough for us to get the feel of backstage relations.
“The World Is Mine,” performed by Ivan, is also a successful number. Stephens delivers a smooth, appealing vocal with deep throat vibrato, sympathetic expression, and graceful gestures. The actor’s musical turns are consistently good. At this point, for no discernible reason other than, perhaps, costume change, we get an instrumental by the band which stops narrative momentum cold.
Mindy Haywood, Donna Clark, Renee Ternier, Ty Stephens, Cassandra Palacio
“The Prettiest Girl in the World” (performed by posturing Sepia Sweethearts) is a generic showgirl turn with Ivan at the center. It works. Ivan then announces the return of Betty Jo Stanton who sings, not something from the show they’re rehearsing, but “Am I The Same Girl?” meant to further the plot. (This happens more than once.) Ternier has a bright pop voice. A high spirited, chorus jitterbug is fun, but disappointing, reflecting little of the athleticism familiar to the dance craze.
Comedian Slappy Black is next, delivering vaudeville ba-dump-dump jokes. Lee Summers is very good in the role. Timing, obvious stage ease in the line of fire (all comedians face this), and wry resilience when something falls flat are skillfully manifest. (There are some laughs.) Slappy is, however, over used. A second appearance is believable, but the third, in tandem with Clifton’s singer Damita Jo (Jeree Wade), feels excessive. Damita also sings “You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You” with even-handed pith. (The show incorporates some songs not original to it.)
Andricka Hall; Renee Ternier
Odell Craft (Wilber Bascomb) wrote and performs the coolest number of the evening, “The Hat,” with insouciant style and great phrasing. Success with women, it seems, is all in the fedora. Guest Tap Dancer DeWitt Fleming Jr. (as Jimmy Cole) moves with agility, precision, and energy.
Ivan’s “current” sweetheart, Pauline (Andricka Hall), doesn’t get to strut her stuff till a medley of recognizable 1960s songs including such as “It’s In His Kiss (The Shoop Shoop Song)” “Rescue Me,” and “Respect” with ‘the girls.’ Hall has the original tone down. Glimpses of the mashed potato, the twist, the frug, and the pony (dances) are nostalgic. By the time the medley gets to a lengthy rendition of “The Name Game,” however, attention wavers.
Andricka Hall, Tiffany Webb, Donna Clark, Cassandra Palacio
Pauline understands that Ivan and Betty Jo will get back together. After a solo, she takes off the necklace he gave her and lays it on the stage. In a trio with Ivan and Betty Jo, she then declares she’s not giving him up only to to pack and leave. None of these emotional shifts are explained by anything we, or more importantly, she, sees. (Nor do the three leads relate to one another in any visually credible way.)
As the show goes on, songs become increasingly generic. While this is ok on Clifton’s stage in context, more is expected of those furthering the musical. Just when we think everything will fall into place, Ivan sings “That Old Black Magic” which relates to-what? A cute Rio Samba number which would fare better earlier also follows. We’re chafing at the bit for resolution.
Garrett Turner, Robert Fowler, Gregory Hanks
The idea for On Kentucky Avenue strikes me as an opportunity not just for entertainment, but illumination. Though its heart and mind are in the right place, execution unfortunately clouds this. Some of the piece is great fun, some seems like padding. Songs, authored by a great many different people, range in quality from really good to bland. As a co-op effort this may be valid, with an aspiring musical, it cries for better cohesion.
The Company: Donna Clark, Cassandra Palacio, Mindy Haywood, Tiffany Webb, Gregory J. Hanks, Garrett Turner, Robert H. Fowler.
In its latter days, both creator Jeree Wade and her husband performed at Club Harlem, though ten years apart. The venue was to have been integrated into a casino building, but got caught in crosshairs and was, instead, demolished. Jeree told me that these days the neighborhood “looks like a war zone.”
Performance Photos 1 & 2 Mojo Visuals; all others by Kenya Lamonte Smith- Universal Concepts Photography
Opening: The Company
City College Center for The Arts and Byron & Sylvia Lewis present
On Kentucky Avenue-A Celebration of Atlantic City’s Historic Club Harlem
Coinciding with Black History Month.
Created by Jeree Wade
Directed by Adam Wade
Musical Director- Frank Owens
Original Music & Lyrics by Ty Stephens, Frank Owens, Wilbur Bascomb, Branice McKenzie, Adam Wade, Jeree Wade
City College’s Aaron Davis Hall
February 19, 2016