BOTTOM LINE: A megatalented cast burns up the stage in this gutsy, glorious musical celebration of the poet Langston Hughes.
Langston in Harlem is not so much a musical as it is a barely controlled explosion of creative talent. The raw material for this potent reaction is the genius of the poet Langton Hughes. The fiery combustion taking place at the tiny Urban Stages Theatre is the result of 12 wildly gifted performers united in the visceral joy of celebrating the man and his work.
Langston Hughes was the dominant voice of the Harlem Renaissance and hence of the American "Negro" of the early/mid-20th century. Using jazz and the blues as inspiration, he fashioned an aesthetic of simplicity born out of the speech, music, and actual social conditions of his people. His poems document a communal life of ecstasy and misery, laughter and despair. He also influenced successive generations of artists of all races; the titles Black Like Me, Crumbs from the Table of Joy and Raisin in the Sun are all taken from his poems.
The book of the show (by Hughes, composer Walter Marks and director Kent Gash) is less a factual history than an artistic and emotional collage. The audience gets to meet actual Hughes contemporaries Zora Neal Hurston and Countee Cullen as well as fictional figures Mrs. Pointdexter (a white patron) and a down-and-out song and dance man named Simple. Hughes's own indelible, indomitable creation Madam Alberta K. Johnson brings her raucous spirit into the fray. (Remember Wayland Flowers' potty-mouthed puppet "Madame"? No doubt influenced by Hughes.) As history it is necessarily simplified and incomplete. But as an artful evocation of the man and his world it is powerfully truthful.
The music, by Walter Marks (of "I've Gotta Be Me" fame), is lush and exhilarating. And it is sung with awe-inspiring virtuosity by the extraordinary cast. Every member of the ensemble has his or her blazing moment(s). Josh Tower is a virile and vulnerable Langston. C. Kelly Wright brings salty humor as well as touching pathos to Alberta. Kenita Miller fills Zora with passionate humanity. Jordan Barbour is memorable as both the prim Cullen and a sexy sailor. Francesca Harper follows her slyly sincere Mrs. Pointdexter with an exquisite ballet solo. Jonathan Burke is heartrending as a junky in the throes of a fatal overdose. Gayle Turner, as Hughes's mother, conveys worlds of emotion and experience in every word and note; her rendition of Marks's haunting "Mother to Son" gave me chills. As the sardonic and ultimately tragic Simple, the sublime Glenn Turner takes the show to an even higher level.
Did I mention the incredible choreography by Byron Easley? The red hot orchestra under the flawless musical direction of John DiPinto? The simple and effective design, which includes gorgeous projections by Alex Koch? The masterful direction of Kent Gash? I hate to resort to the usual clichés ("compelling", "breathtaking", "tour de force") to describe a show that so assiduously avoids cliché at every moment. But the show deserves every hyperbole I can muster and more; it is important, timely and deserves to be seen by all.
In a larger theater uptown, a very different musical tribute is currently being given to another creative giant, Stephen Sondheim. I was fortunate to see both shows in one week. Comparisons are fruitless but I will say this: Both shows made me think, laugh and cry. Langston also made me clap, holler and stomp. If there's any justice in this world, a lot more people will be doing just that when Langston in Harlem becomes Langston on Broadway.
(Langston in Harlem has been extended through May 9 at Urban Stages Theatre, 259 West 30th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm and Sundays at 5pm. Tickets are $40 and are available at SmartTix.com or by calling 212-868-4444. For more information visit www.urbanstages.org.)