Harlem Repertory Theatre’s production of “The Wizard of Oz,” co-produced by the Yip Harburg Foundation, has been extended through May 27, 2017 at Tato Laviera Theatre, 240 East 123rd Street (near 2nd Ave.), Manhattan.
Since performances began October 8, 2016, the classic musical has played to full audiences and enthusiastic reviews. The production is distinguished by a multi-racial cast, a jazzy underscore and authoritative dramaturgy by 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.
“The Wizard of Oz,” with its timeless score and eternal allegories, is a magical experience for young (and young-at-heart) audiences. 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, Artistic Director of the Yip Harburg Foundation, in association with acclaimed librettist Arthur Perlman, New York audiences will 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 is multi-racial and features Latino, Black and Asian actors, fulfilling Yip’s vision of a multicultural universe. Dorothy, played by Taylor-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 will come 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” is also the story of three strong women–Dorothy and two witches–and illustrates how we need more woman leaders. 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 is under-appreciated for this original intent, but is a poignant message in our time, when 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 are entwined 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 a jazz trio of Dan Aran on percussion, Martha Kato on piano and Yoshi Waki on bass.
The actors include Taylor-Rey Rivera as Dorothy, A.J. Acevedo as the Professor/Wizard, Derrick Montalvado as Scarecrow, Dexter Thomas-Payne as Lion, Ben Harburg as Tin Man, Barbyly Noël as Aunt Em and Glinda, Paula Galloway as Miss Gulch and Wicked Witch of the West, Jenna Vega as Guard and Keiko Tomita and Wilyuly Lopez as ensemble.
Lighting design is by Brian Aldous. Costume design is by Daniel Fergus Tamulonis. Projections are by Brian Blanco. Stage manager is Kyria Geneva.
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.” Deena R. 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.” She is Yip’s daughter-in-law and Ernie’s wife.
Director/choreographer Keith Lee Grant is Artistic Director of Harlem Repertory Theatre and a Professor in the Department of Theatre and Speech at CCNY. He holds an MFA from the Yale School of Drama, an MA from Penn State and a Certificate from the American Conservatory Theater’s Advanced Training Program. He has directed and/or choreographed over 100 professional and university productions from “As You Like It, Pinero’s “Short Eyes,” Inge’s “Picnic” to the musicals “Sweeney Todd,” “A Little Night Music” and “Mame.” He has performed on Broadway in “Marie Christine,” “Showboat” and “Ragtime.” He has worked Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons, York Theater, Jewish Repertory Theater, New Federal Theatre, AMAS Rep and New York Theater Workshop, among others. His regional credits include Yale Rep, Syracuse Stage, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. His Harlem Rep productions of “The Wiz” (2009) and “Dreamgirls” (2012) each won two AUDELCO awards (Best Director of a Musical and Best Choreography of a Musical).
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. The troupe, under the leadership of Keith Lee Grant, has been in an ongoing exploration of Yip Harburg’s work. It staged a critically-praised rendition of “Flahooley” at Harlem Rep and Theater for the New City in 2009-10. It is currently presenting a program of four more Yip Harburg musicals over four years: “The Wizard of Oz” (2016), “Jamaica” (2017), “Finian’s Rainbow” (2018) and “Bloomer Girl” (2019).