If the Pulitzer could be awarded to an Off-Broadway musical then certainly “Langston in Harlem” would be a mighty contender. Having just opened at Urban Stages on West 30th Street this wonderfully engaging, enlightening and inspiration musical should be on everyone’s must see list. But with all the openings on Broadway I sincerely hope that this mighty musical does not slip through the cracks and get lost among the bloated Broadway blockbusters. I forget to mention that it is incredibly entertaining as well.
Based on the life and writings of the black poet, Langston Hughes, Walter Marks and Kent Gash have brought his poetry to vivid musical life infusing his words with the rhythms of Africa, the Blues, Cuban sambas, gospel and jazz. The score happens to be one of the best of the season. It is sensational as played by the seven piece off stage band with its sexy sax and muted trumpet solos adding to the poetic words of Langston Hughes that cry out to be set to music.
Josh Tower is a commanding force in his strong but sensitive portrayal of Langston Hughes. Insecure, conflicted sexually and trying his best to fit in and attain his dream of being a successful poet. Trying to find his identity while creating memorable characters along the way that are woven into the script of his life. Specifically the sassy “Madam” (C. Kelly Wright) and “Simple” (Glenn Turner) who gets to perform a mean tap solo.
We travel along with Langston as he fitfully starts out on his career writing about what he lives, gets a patron – a Caucasian lady (here played by Afro-American Francesca Harper) which says a lot about the brave choices made by director Kent Gash, his early success with fellow writers Zora Neale Hurston (a powerful Kenita Miller) and Countee Cullen (Jordon Barbour – who also plays Langston’s short lived love interest “The Sailor”) Their scene in Havana is breathtaking – with the palm tree projections (Alex Koch) swaying on the walls of the small stage and where “Havana Dreams” and “Troubled Water” are sensually and tastefully presented.
Once learning that her son is gay his mother rejects him. She is played by the dynamic Gayle Turner who reminds one of Lena Horne. In their duet “Lullaby” she exudes a depth of character that is spellbinding while his counterpoint “Motherless Child” tears your heart out.
There are spoken passages, poetic passages and passages of unrestrained excitement as choreographer Byron Easley takes over the stage with his company of twelve super talented actors. The dances are some of the best staged this year that make the almost two hour show without intermission seem short. The finale will leave you wanting for more. The other members of this fine cast are: LaTrisa Harper, Dell Howlett, Krisha Marcano and Okieriete Onaodowan.
Langston is told – “Don’t defer love” and you would do good to follow this advice with a slight adjustment. Don’t defer going to see this fabulous new musical.
www.urbanstages.org Photo: Melinda Hall