Everett Bradley, backed by Desmond Richardson, far right, and other ensemble members in "Peckin'"
When Desmond Richardson was attending New York’s High School of Performing Arts, his mother would sometimes take him to the nearby Howard Johnson’s restaurant for a bite. “We would sit there,” he says, “and I remember her saying to me, ‘Look. Look at where you are, look at what’s around you.”
What was around in those days, before Times Square became a haven for tourists toting shopping bags from the M&M’s store, was a down-at-the-heels neighborhood of working dancers, actors, singers and musicians. “She’d say, ‘There’s so much for you here, and if this is what you want to do, you’re going to have to give it 110 percent, because the people here are doing it at that level.’”
So young Desmond looked around and decided, “Let me be a sponge and soak it up. I’d love to see my name on a theater marquee.”
Everyone knows where that decision took him: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Ballet Frankfurt, American Ballet Theatre, Complexions Contemporary Ballet; television, movies, opera, pop music. These days, now in his mid-40s, he’s back in the neighborhood where he began soaking it up, dancing and singing at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre in his fourth Broadway show, After Midnight.
Originally presented at City Center as a collaboration between Jazz at Lincoln Center and the Encores! series under the title Cotton Club Parade, the show was ecstatically received and then spiffed up even further for Broadway. Warren Carlyle directed and choreographed what is essentially a revue of songs from the 1930s staged with the elegance, if not the actual routines, of a Harlem nightclub of the period. And its roster of stellar dancers includes not just Richardson but another Ailey alum, Bahiyah Hibah, the boneless Julius “iGlide” Chisolm, the acrobatic Virgil “Lil’ O” Gadson, tap specialists Jared Grimes and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards and Come Fly Away star Karine Plantadit.
During rehearsals, Richardson says, “We’d come in each day and be pretty mesmerized by the talent in that room.” Needless to say, since the show opened in November, audiences have been pretty mesmerized, too, with singers Fantasia Barrino, Adriane Lenox and Dulé Hill adding their talents as well in featured roles. “It’s an ensemble cast of pretty phenomenal people,” Richardson says, “and everybody has their moments to pop out.” His comes in “The Mooche,” the languidly seductive Duke Ellington number that finds Richardson in sinuous legato mode, his tight street-punk outfit displaying his sculpted body and impeccable placement.
Concert dance fans have seen all that before, of course, and they might be more tickled watching “Peckin’,” in which the gorgeously intense ballet star of ABT’s Othello, decked out in top hat and tails, white gloves and spats, with rhinestone buttons on his white vest, dances a debonair, unison tap number alongside four similarly attired performers. It’s not the first time Richardson has tapped on stage—“I tapped in Fosse,” he says—but only a few people saw him. “It was when the show was three hours long, trying out in Canada.”
That Richardson slips as easily into a time step as into a chaîné will surprise no one who has followed his diverse career. As a leading dancer with Ailey, he was barefoot and modern; he donned slippers for classical roles with ABT; and in Complexions, the company he founded with Dwight Rhoden 20 years ago, it was all contemporary all the time. “It all goes back to my mentors,” he says, people like Alvin Ailey and Carmen de Lavallade, who encouraged him to enlarge his movement repertoire. “Alvin, who came from theater dance, was telling me, ‘Your career won’t just be here with me. You’re going to have such a wide, varied career—you have to learn how to change your hat.’”
From de Lavallade, he says, he learned that he has to change hats “for real.” She told him, “If you’re doing a monologue, you have to commit to it. If you’re doing a song, you’ve got to commit to it. Just like the dance.”
In After Midnight, he’s changing hats literally and figuratively, and each time, he says, “What I try to do is just be real and be honest and be in the moment of those different genres.” As for the singing, Richardson says that back when he was a kid, he thought he was destined for a musical career. Then he was waylaid by dance. Now he’s doing some of each in eight numbers in the show. “I do love both,” he says.
Dance Captain: Justin Prescott, who has danced in Fela! and the national company of Memphis
Assistant Dance Captain: Bahiyah Hibah, whose Broadway credits include The Color Purple, The Little Mermaid, Rock of Ages
Dance specialties: tap, soft shoe, Charleston, lindy hop, modern, jazz, swing
Solo dancers: 5
Ensemble dancers: 17
Total musical numbers: 27