By Randy Gener
NEW YORK CITY | Harlem Repertory Theatre comes out swinging — and shimmying — with a bonafide winner. In cahoots with Yip Harburg Foundation, the ambitious company has twice or three times now extended the Off-Broadway run of its popular THE WIZARD OF OZ musical.
To boost the show’s enchantment for wider audiences, Harlem Rep has asked its multiracial cast to stay put and continue following the yellow- brick road through September 9, 2017 at Tato Laviera Theatre, 240 East 123rd Street (near 2nd Ave.) in Manhattan.
And why not? The show’s underscore is jazzy and the authoritative dramaturgy has been blessed by the representatives of the Yip Harburg Foundation. Director/choreographer is Keith Lee Grant, artistic director of Harlem Rep, who is in the midst of a four-year project of presenting four classic musicals that have lyrics by E.Y. “Yip” Harburg.
In short, Harlem Rep has gotten the all-important official imprimatur. Word on the street adds that Harlem Rep expects to continue the production into 2018.
THE WIZARD OF OZ clicks its musical heels with a timeless score and eternal allegories — a magical experience for young audiences and older aficionadoes. Based on MGM’s classic motion picture, the stage version mounted here follows John Kane’s adaptation for the Royal Shakespeare Company, which is based on the book by L. Frank Baum, with brilliant songs by lyricist E.Y. (“Yip”) Harburg and composer Harold Arlen.
Thanks to work of dramaturg Deena R. Harburg (she is artistic director of the Yip Harburg Foundation), tapped the talents of librettist Arthur Perlman so that New York audiences would have a chance to see the show sharpened to more of the original vision of E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, who was an unashamedly progressive thinker.
The cast teems with Latino, Black and Asian actors, fulfilling Yip’s vision of a multicultural universe. Dorothy, played by Taylor-Rey Rivera, is interpreted as a modern girl and future leader who is growing to realize the confidence she possesses. Her three Land-of-Oz friends — the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion — are envisioned as people of great potential who only need to actualize the heart, brains and courage they already have.
One of the story’s themes is how the weakness of adults forces children to seize their own destinies and, ironically, to grow up themselves. According to the Yip Harburg family, Yip wanted to address Dorothy finally going home as a leader. At Harlem Rep, Dorothy comes home to lead the rebuilding of her family’s farm. All the “refocusing” is accomplished through the acting of the characters, without changing the iconic dialogue of the script.
Deena Harburg reminds us that OZ actually is a women-centered creation. It is, among many things, also the story of three strong women — Dorothy and two witches — and “illustrates how we need more woman leaders,” to quote from the makers. She says:
Munchkinland and The Emerald City reflect Harburg’s utopian dreams of societies that are egalitarian, without dictatorship of monarchy or religion. Interestingly, “Over the Rainbow” actually expresses the dream of an immigrant — or a would-be immigrant — for a better life in a far away land, a theme of contemporary resonance.
This classic song, she says, is “under-appreciated for this original intent.” Underlying the song’s poignant message reflects the belief that callousness toward the immigrant is one of our leading socio-political concerns.
In the film and its theater adaptation, the song is only sung once. But in this production, it’s reprised several times, once with a syncopated feel that is reminiscent of the now-famous rendition that was broadcast a few years back on TV’s “Glee” and recorded by Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole.
Throughout the production, jazzy arrangements by percussionist Dan Aran entwine with the classic arrangements in the score. These accents compliment the singing of Taylor-Rey Rivera, who introduces jazz colorations to Dorothy’s solos with a soulful mezzo voice. The orchestra is an international jazz trio of Martha Kato (piano), Dan Aran (percussion) and Yoshi Waki (bass).
E.Y. “Yip” Harburg was known in his lifetime as the “social conscience of Broadway.” He was lyricist of the Depression anthem “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” and such classic Broadway musicals as the anti-racist, anti-capitalist FINIAN’S RAINBOW and the socially conscious JAMAICA, BLOOMER GIRL and FLAHOOLEY.
Much of what he wrote was charged with progressive social vision. Today, his most familiar achievements are the lyrics for the film The Wizard of Oz and its signature song, “Over the Rainbow.”
The Yip Harburg Foundation (www.yipharburg.com) was created after the lyricist’s death to carry on his legacy and to promote educational opportunity, social/economic justice and world peace. Its President is Yip’s son, Ernie Harburg, co-author of two books, Who Put The Rainbow In The Wizard of Oz? Yip Harburg, Lyricist” and The Broadway Musical: Collaboration in Commerce and Art.” Incidentally, Harburg, dramaturg of this production, is the founding chair of the unique NYU Tisch Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program, and the author of Fascinating Rhythm: The Collaboration of George and Ira Gershwin and The Music Makers.
How did she pull off this feat? Well, it helps that she is Yip’s daughter-in-law and Ernie’s wife.
The Harlem Repertory Theatre (www.harlemrepertorytheatre.com) is a non-profit theater committed to producing artistically and intellectually challenging productions that explore the experiences of a diverse range of ethnic, social and cultural communities. It stages new works and established classic musicals and plays from bold and innovative perspectives that challenge and/or reflect the Harlem community’s cultural and social values.
As noted above, the troupe, has been in an ongoing exploration of Yip Harburg’s work. It staged a critically-praised rendition of FLAHOOLEY for Harlem Rep and Theater for the New City during the 2009–10 season.
Contact: (718) 913-9559 or email@example.com. Running time: 1 hour. (no intermission)