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The 39 Steps

Langston in Harlem

This lively new musical nicely incorporates the words of celebrated writer Langston Hughes, but is less successful in illuminating the life of the man himself.

By New York City
Kenita Miller and Josh Tower in Langston in Harlem
(© Ben Hider)
Kenita Miller and Josh Tower in Langston in Harlem
(© Ben Hider)
The Blues permeates Langston in Harlem, now at Urban Stages, the lively new musical based upon and incorporating the words of celebrated African American writer Langston Hughes. But while the show brings to vivid life some of the characters he wrote about, for a work that seems structured as a bio-musical, it's not that successful in shedding light on the man himself.

Director Kent Gash and composer Walter Marks are credited along with Hughes for the show's book, which loosely follows the journey of Hughes (played by Josh Tower) from struggling poet, to Harlem Renaissance sensation, to angry and embittered writer, and eventually to a place of acceptance and celebration of both life and its inevitable passing.

Along the way, the musical introduces the audience to Hughes' friends and fellow authors Zora Neale Hurston (Kenita Miller) and Countee Cullen (Jordan Barbour), Hughes' mother (Gayle Turner), and a pair of characters featured prominently in Hughes' writings: Simple (Glenn Turner), whom Hughes wrote several books about, and Madam Alberta K. Johnson (C. Kelly Wright), the subject of the author's "Madam to You" poetry suite.

Curiously, the musical does not depict Hughes' real-life patron, Carl Van Vechten, but instead creates the fictional Mrs. Poindexter, a wealthy Caucasian woman (played by African American actress Francesca Harper), who fulfills that function. The show also creates the character of The Sailor (played by Barbour), who becomes Langston's lover within the show for a brief period, before leaving the writer with a broken heart. This latter move was obviously done to highlight Hughes' homosexuality, which is hinted at in his work, but not made explicit.

The musical is probably best appreciated not as a factual record of Hughes' life, but as an impression of the things he valued and the people he met. And, of course, his masterful verse which is nicely showcased by Marks' original compositions. "The Blues is my muse," declares Langston early on in the show, and Marks has taken that as his cue to deliver a wonderfully bluesy score that also displays the influence of jazz and gospel, as well as including a hard rocking anthem, a toe-tapping Charleston number, and even a lullaby.

Tower has a sweet sound and puts across his musical numbers well, but his Langston is something of a cipher not simply due to the writing, but also because Tower doesn't infuse enough passion into the part. An exception is his wonderful rendition of "The Weary Blues" a soulful and inspired song, full of syncopated rhythm. Instead, the cast's standouts are Miller and Wright, both of whom possess booming voices and the conviction to go along with them. Miller is particularly vibrant in the soaring "The Sweet Flypaper of Life," while Wright captures both the strength and humor of her character in a series of numbers labeled "The Gospel According to Madam."

Gash and choreographer Byron Easley have done a terrific job of maneuvering their rather large cast through several exuberant dance sequences on the rather small stage of the theater. The onstage orchestra, led by musical director John DiPinto, sounds fantastic, and is one of the main reasons why the nearly two hour intermissionless musical seems to fly by.


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