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“Langston In Harlem” Lights Up The Night

by Karen Tortora-Lee on April 22, 2010

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Langston In Harlem - photo by Melinda Hall

Langston In Harlem – photo by Melinda Hall

by Langston Hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

Right now, for just a few weeks more, you can treat yourself to the vibrant poetry of Langston Hughes, the lush music of Walter Marks, and the talented voices of the ensemble cast of Langston in Harlem because this musical is going on at Urban Stages until May 2nd. (Play by Langston Hughes, Walter Marks and Kent Gash, music by Walter Marks, lyrics by Langston Hughes music production by Barry Levitt, choreography by Byron Easley and directed by Kent Gash).

Langston in Harlem is Mr. Hughes’ autobiographical journey told in his own unique voice and tempered with the talent of Marks and Gash who co-wrote the book with him.  Together these three men create more than just a retelling of a life story; they do more than recount a history; together they create a magical odyssey and give the audience a gift in form of poetry, music and dance.

Langston in Harlem starts off softly, dreamily, with the words of Harlem projecting around the room.  But this dream soon explodes into a musical number so powerful it almost can’t be contained in the little 70-person theatre.

Forceful and fiery, the energy only continues from there as we meet the young Langston (Josh Towers) and those who are close to him including his friends Zora (Kenita Miller – a ten thousand watt voice shining from a compact vessel; so powerful it’s like all five feet of her is comprised of lungs – she can shake the paint from the walls with that amazingly strong gift of a voice) and Countee (Jordan Barbour), his mother Mrs. Hughes (Gayle Turner) and the other people of Harlem who know and inspire him.   Told in vignettes each scene allows the audience to experience the Harlem, and the world for that matter, that Hughes was experiencing.  We see the seeds which grew into the poetry we know (or are perhaps hearing for the first time here) and we are able to watch as a life unfolds with all its joys, sorrows, glory, hardships, praise, criticism, and even damnation.

Whether you know the story of Langston Hughes well, or whether you’re being told his story through this musical, this is a show that will teach you his lessons with captivating song.  This is the kind of a show where every musical number is a winner, a gorgeous melding of strong,  rich voices, evocative lyrics and intricate melodies all backed up by an orchestra (orchestrated by Steve Cohen and under the direction of John DiPinto) which is at once joyful, lively, raucous, smoky and seductive. Each number was so powerful that it was punctuated by a “whoooo” from the audience – sure sign that the arrow had hit its mark.

Langston’s sexuality is explored with a sultry song (Havana Dreams), but the transition from a traditional boy-girl love song (Jukebox Love Song: “I could take the Harlem night // and wrap around you, // Take the neon lights and make a crown, [. . .] // Dance with you till day — Dance with you, my sweet brown Harlem girl”) to Langston then revealing his true orientation is a bit abrupt and doesn’t mesh with the pacing of the rest of the story.  However, as the entire story is told in vignettes it would probably take far too long to devote the proper amount of time in order to give this part of Hughes’ life a deeper note.

The scene of his mother’s reaction to his admission of being in love with a man is heartbreaking; when she sings “Lullaby”  so full of emotion and tenderness it was now layered with new meaning:

Oh, little dark baby
Night black baby
Stars, stars,
Night stars,
For your sleep-song lullaby!

The choreography by Byron Easley is explosive, each dance a showcase to the talent of the artist.  So many forms of dance are represented, a truly wonderful palette of Easley’s many flavors and colors, each one as different as the next from African dance to the Charleston  but never so beautiful as the sad dance of a drug addict throwing himself against the walls, dizzy with addiction.

Highly charged moves and unabashed joy were elemental during the Charleston number where the cast were flying so furiously that it was impossible to believe that there were only a dozen dancers, and not hundreds; their excitement and ebullience brought the house down.

My one disappointment overall is that the story through-line at times can devolve into a showcase, rather than an exploration of who Langston Hughes, the man, truly is.  Langston In Harlem is a wonderful musical, and for those looking for a great night of song and dance, this one is not to be missed.   However, it left me with more questions about the poet than I had going in, which makes me wonder exactly how ready Mr. Hughes was to put his own life under the microscope?  We come away awed by his work and bowed by his words, but the person (even with some  of the scenes as revealing as they are) still remains a mystery.

It does make the show more abstract than most, however, and the gaps of information may leave a Hughes purist wanting more. However, with the amount of talented performers speaking such raw, emotional words, and singing songs of complexity, there’s more than enough entertainment.  It’s clear that Hughes’ words were meant to be put to music and who could want it any other way?


Langston in Harlem
Book by Langston Hughes, Walter Marks and Kent Gash
Music by Walter Marks, lyrics by Langston Hughes
Directed by Kent Gash
Thursday, April 15 through May 2, 2010
Tuesday – Friday at 8PM; Saturday at 2PM & 8PM – Sunday at 5PM
(Wednesday, April 14 performance at 7PM; No Saturday Matinee April 10)
Tickets are $40
Tickets available at or call 212.868.4444
For more information about Urban Stages please visit
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TomPierNo Gravatar May 4, 2010 at 7:13 am

great post as usual!

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