Sunday, April 18, 2010
☞ SEE: Langston in Harlem
The beautiful and searing words of one of America's finest poets take new flight when set to the period-conscious music of Walter Marks in Langston in Harlem, playing at United Stages in midtown until May 2. Whether it's Langston's mother reminding her down-on-his-luck son that "Life Is Not A Crystal Stair," or Hughes attempting to deny his sexuality in "Jukebox Love Song," Hughes' works are weaved into a mostly-coherent plot that allows us to get to know the brilliant, ever-soul-searching artist and the world he sought to share with his readers.
In a small space, it takes a talented cast, strong costumes and lighting to pull off a tour-de-force. Check, check and check. Under the direction of Urban Stages' Kent Gash, this lively group of performers achieves gorgeous harmonics, as well as seamless and versatile choreography (by Byron Easley), dressed in well-chosen Harlem Renaissance-era looks (by Austin K. Sanderson) with the inventive backdrop of Hughes' words gracing the theater's walls electronically (by Alex Koch). We also appreciated the rousing live music, led by John DiPinto.
While the title is Langston in Harlem, the real sensation of this world premiere musical are the women of the poet's life: spirited friend Zora (the exceptional Kenita Miller, whose powerful voice has a portrayal to match), comedic neighbor Madam Alberta K. Johnson (the delightfully spot-on C. Kelly Wright), and conflicted mother back in Joplin, Missouri (Gayle Turner, whose stunning vocals reminded us of Barbara Cook). The men of the cast were solid -- dance numbers by Jonathan Burke and Glenn Turner were particularly special moments, and Langston himself (vocal powerhouse Josh Tower) perked up theatrically by the end of the show -- but it is ladies' night in this Urban Stages production.
Our only quibble was that this show is being presented in midtown, not uptown. Why not use the Apollo (hey, like Langston, we can dream), the Faison Firehouse Theater, or one of the many other area stages? While this production is "between the two rivers" that the poet once celebrated, Langston in Harlem would be even more meaningful if it were true to its title.
United Stages is at 259 West 30th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues with the A,C,E or the 1,2,3 at 34th Street as the closest train stations. Get $40 tickets by phone: 212-868-4444. For more information, check out Theater Mania site: LINK. Photos by Ben Hider.