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A CurtainUp Review
Langston in Harlem

Who am I?
It ain't too deep.
I'm a poet who writes
Of the dreams my people keep
—Langston Hughes
Langston in Harlem
Josh Tower as Langston Hughes
(Photo: Ben Hider)
Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes had a long and intimate relationship with music. He was an early proponent of jazz poetry, and his first collection was entitled The Weary Blues. He also wrote musicals, operas and cantatas. His plays often incorporated song and other musical elements, as in his three gospel plays, Black Nativity, Tambourines to Glory and The Prodigal Son. So it is altogether appropriate that his life story be told in music.

In Langston in Harlem book writers Walter Marks and Ken Gash and composer Walter Marks use Hughes's poetry as a basis for both dialogue and lyrics. With Byron Easley's supple and evocative choreography and an enthusiastic and talented cast, the musical becomes a true celebration of the unofficial poet laureate of Harlem.

The play follows Hughes' rise from an obscure versifier to a prominent poet, a committed activist and the voice of his people. Hughes (Josh Tower) has several notable neighbors in Harlem, including Countee Cullen (Jordan Barbour) and Zora Neale Hurston (Kenita Miller). But the people who influence his life most are the former hoofer, now homeless, Simple (Glenn Turner) and the struggling but sexy woman of many trades, Madame (C. Kelly Wright).

It is the police's mistreatment of Simple that makes Hughes turn activist, and it is Madame's showing his poems to her employer, Mrs. Pointdexter (Francesca Harper), that gets him published.

Hughes also learns to accept his homosexuality through the intersession of a sexy sailor and eventually tells his mother (Gayle Turner). She refuses to accept her son's sexuality, despite the advice of her African ancestors.

Langston in Harlem has a stirring score that covers the gamut of black music— from jazz, blues and gospel to recreations of African music and the rhythms of the street. If the music is somewhat derivative and all of Hughes' lines are not particularly suitable as lyrics, the score is no less enjoyable.

There are many remarkable voices in the cast. Miller and Wright are traditional and versatile belters. Glenn Turner gives a fine demonstration of the basic tap and soft shoe moves that can make even an old man look sexy. However, the purpose of this musical is not merely to tell the story of Hughes' life. The show also wants to convey a political message. To do this its creators have fudged a bit on the details and made him into a larger than life, iconic hero.

In Langston in Harlem, the poet is portrayed as someone who needs a conscious-raising experience to become an activist. In reality, his great uncle, John Mercer Langston was the first black man to be elected to the U.S. Congress from Virginia; his maternal grandmother, Mary Patterson, one of the first black women to enter Oberlin College, early on gave her grandson a sense of racial pride; and his mother, Caroline Mercer Langston, was not the wife of a poor southern sharecropper, as she appears to be in the musical, but rather the daughter of a voting rights activist and educator. In fact, although Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, he spent most of his childhood in the Midwest.

In Langston in Harlem, Mrs. Pointdexter, a patron of the arts (a white woman played by a black actress), gets Hughes' work published. In reality he was discovered by poet Vachel Lindsay. As for Hughes's homosexuality, most of his biographers suspect, but are not sure that he was an active gay man and most certainly believe he never came out to his mother or anyone else.

For those who are not too particular about historical accuracy, Langston in Harlem should be quite enjoyable, a zesty recreation of life in Harlem between the wars. Even those who take exception to some aspects of the story line should find much that is praiseworthy. But despite its many fine points, how much better this musical would have been if it had portrayed Langston Hughes as a man and not an icon!

Langston in Harlem
Book by Langston Hughes, Walter Marks and Kent Gash
Lyrics by Langston Hughes
Music by Walter Marks
Directed by Kent Gash
Cast: Josh Tower (Langston Hughes), Jordan Barbour (Countee Cullen), Jonathan Burke (Junior Addict), Francesca Harper (Mrs. Pointdexter), LaTrisa Harper (Miss Jefferson/Harlemite), Dell Howlett (Male Harlemite), Krisha Marcano (Mrs. Washington/Harlemite), Kenita Miller (Zora), Okieriete Onaodowan (Cuban Balladeer), Gayle Turner (Mrs. Hughes), Glenn Turner (Simple), C. Kelly Wright (Madame)
Musical Director: Barry Levitt
Orchestrations: Steve Cohen
Choreographer: Byron Easley
Scenic Designer: Emily Beck
Lighting Designer: William H. Grant, III
Costume Designer: Austin K. Sanderson
Sound Designer: Jason Fitzgerald
Projections Designer: Alex Koch
Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes with one intermission
Urban Stages 259 West 30th Street 212-421-1380
From 4/09/10; opening 4/15/10; closing 5/02/10 Tues-Fri, 8pm; Sat, 2pm (except 4/10) & 8pm; Sunday 5pm
Tickets: $40 / Previews: $25
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons April 11, 2010

Musical Numbers
Between Two Rivers
Beat Me Daddy, Seven to the Bar
Who Am I?
Crystal Stair
The Gospel According to Madam-Verse 1
The Weary Blues
Genius Child
You've Taken My Blues
Laughter/Social Dancing
Juke Box Love Song
The Sweet Flypaper of Life
Havana Dreams
Troubled Water
The Negro Mother
The Gospel According to Madame-Verse 2
Words Like Freedom
I Am a Negro
The Sweet Flypaper of Life (Reprise)
The Gospel According to Madame-Verse 3/Life Is Fine
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