By ROB LESTER****I’m so glad I landed in Oz with the delightful Harlem Rep’s reputable version of a beloved tale. It’s easy to get to this terrific stage show: just follow the yellow brick road. Oh, your starting point should be Kansas: first travel through the air (just stay in your house). Or, take the subway to the street numbered East 123 Street, which is as easy as 1-2-3. The immersive multi-media experience brings the cast right into the audience many times so that wide-eyed kids and adults alike feel addressed and involved. Loyal to the dialogue and events in the classic 1939 film, the canny cast and director add joy and jiving and spunk and sass without ever disrespecting or straying far from the respected original tone and treatment. Nothing is condescending or ho-hum or on automatic pilot that would have indicated they can coast, wink, or skim because we all know the plot and the words (some of in minute detail, dialogue and lyrics still firmly set in our brain for decades).
Speaking of words, this production is super-special because it is being overseen/produced by the son and daughter-in-law of the lyricist/co-screenwriter of the original film. Ernie Harburg and Deena Rosenberg (also dramaturge) have been the heart and soul of the Yip Harburg Foundation. And speaking of “heart,” you all remember the character of the Tin Man who a heartless fellow (in the literal cardiology crisis sense), this production of The Wizard of Oz features an additional lovely historic connection. Playing the Tin Man is none other than the grandson the legendary wordsmith— Ben Harburg. His performance is endearing and certain real-life qualities work for the character and his affection for it are palpable.
For me, the standout in the ensemble cast is Derrick Montalvo as the lively, cheery Scarecrow. Consistently watchable, he’s charismatic and engaging as his ever-alert eyes light up and he lights up the stage. He listens, reacts, leaps and spins (the dance training is evident and its resulting skills are well employed). He’s a live wire and sweet presence, with no guile but acres of smile. Ervin Vazquez manages to to become the Cowardly Lion without making us miss the iconic performance of vaudevillian Bert Lahr from the motion picture. This likable actor’s Lion eschews the effete show-offy antics and finds his own characterization that still gets the basic trepidation and underlying kindness.
Of course, Dorothy from Kansas begins the journey that lets them all meet each other. And Taylor-Rey Rivera is a graceful actress and splendid singer whose performance is decidedly committed; there’s no sense of awkwardness or trying too hard to appear like the t(w)een-ager or child she’s supposed to be. But the wonder and worry and wistfulness are all there. Check, check, check.
Barbyly Noel brings a glowing magic and maternal tenderness to her role as Glinda the good witch and appropriate sternness when she she doubles as no-nonsense Auntie Em. The ensemble cast takes on the familiar roles and gamely play admittedly over-sized Munchkins and all the other essential folks.
With projections as suitable substitution for some scenery, and inventive bits that highlight the needed flavor (but on a smaller scale and small budget, one assumes), they don’t stint on energy, warmth, or costuming (Daniel Fergus Tamulonis is designer and must be a Most Valuable Player). Director-choreographer Keith Lee Grant keeps everyone on track and on target and keeps the tenderness and turns up the happy quotient. It’s all so familiar and yet so full of freshness. Go! And definitely bring the kids— they will have a ball and be mesmerized; the ones in my audience certainly were!
www.harlemrepertorytheatre.com for info and dates. Photos: Jonathan Slaff