Saturday, April 17, 2010

Langston In Harlem

photo: Ben Hider

When I saw a workshop of this vibrant, original musical two years ago at The Public, it was clear that the show was special and that there would be a full production sooner rather than later. A loosely-shaped biography of Langston Hughes (Josh Tower) that sets his writings to a rich, original jazz-heavy score (by Walter Marks), the musical is formally unconventional and often spellbinding. It's a portrait of the poet etched mostly by his own words, with sophisticated, evocative music that honors rather than disturbs the rhythms of his poems. The book scenes (by Marks, along with director Kent Gash) are kept at a bare minimum - there's just enough dialogue to set the backdrop of the Harlem Renaissance (shout out to Kenita Miller, memorable as Zora Neale Hurston) and to move us through some of the events in Hughes' life that inspired his writings. If the book scenes and musicalized poems - among them "The Negro Mother", "Genius Child", and "Troubled Water" - form a biography of Hughes' artistic life more than his personal one, it's a small price to pay for the musical's multitude of pleasures.

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