Harlem Repertory Theatre Presents Wizard of Oz Adaptation for Audience of All Ages, October 8 – December 13
By: Ellis Nassour
If you only had a brain [and you do], you’ll be off to see the Wizard on the Yellow Brick Road uptown to Harlem Repertory Theatre. Their special “zippy one-hour” version of The Wizard of Oz “for young and young-at-heart audiences,” will play six matinees and one evening performance October 8 – December 13 at Tato Laviera Theatre at Harlem Prep Elementary School [240 East 123rd Street at Third Avenue/Manhattan].
Strap on your ruby slippers and join Scarecrow, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion, Dorothy, her little dog Toto, and those good-and-evil witches for this adaptation, based on John Kane’s for the Royal Shakespeare Company, co-produced by the Yip Harburg Foundation.
The story, which has survived in popularity for six decades [much longer if you include the 1902 adaptation for Broadway], is based on Baum’s Oz books. The film strays quite a bit from Baum’s storytelling. The plot we know today tells of a daydreaming farm the girl who gets caught in a massive tornado and wakes up awash in color in a strange land filled with the little people of Munchkland, mean-spirited monkey soldiers, a dangerous forest, and an all-powerful wizard.
Humming on her way to this land called Oz, with her dog Toto in tow, Dorothy befriends a cowardly lion seeking courage, a tin man without a heart, and a scarecrow with no brain. Once there, she finds the dastardly Wicked Witch of the West is in a quest for her magical red slippers. In her desire to return home, she meets the wizard, who proves anything but all-powerful. She’s finally Kansas-bound with advice from the Glinda, Good Witch of the East, and forever changed by her experience.
“The Wizard of Oz with its eternal allegories is a magical experience everyone loves,” says production dramaturge Deena Harburg, daughter-in-law of the late lyricist [married to son Ernie]. Yip’s classic ‘I wish’ song for Dorothy, ‘Over the Rainbow,’ ends with a question: ‘Why, oh why can’t I?’ The answer is implicit — ‘You can!’ The song launches Dorothy on her journey to the Land of Oz where she discovers she’s a confident leader. By the time she journeys back to Kansas, she’s empowered, as her final jazzy ‘Over the Rainbow’ demonstrates.”
Harburg and legendary composer Harold Arlen’s score includes “Over the Rainbow,” “If I Only Had a Brain,” “We’re Off to See the Wizard,” and “Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead.” [Hard to believe with the massive popularity of “Over the Rainbow,” but M-G-M almost cut it to shorten the film. How they must have hung their heads in shame when it won the Best Song Oscar!]
Ms. Harburg states “Over the Rainbow” “though classic is under-appreciated for its original intent. It’s a poignant message in our time, when callousness toward the immigrant is one of our leading socio-political concerns.” In this production, “Over the Rainbow” is reprised several times, once with a calypso beat.
The cast of HRT’s production is multi-racial and features Latino, African-American, Asian, and white, fulfilling, according to Ms. Harburg, “Yip’s vision of a multicultural universe.
Headlining the cast of 12 are Taylor-Rey Rivera (Dorothy), who trills the jazz colorations of her solos with a soulful mezzo voice; Derrick Montalvado (Scarecrow), Dexter Thomas-Payne (Cowardly Lion), Ben Harburg [Yip’s grandson ] (Tin Man), A.J. Acevedo (Professor/Wizard), Barbyly Noël (Aunt Em/Glinda), and Paula Galloway (Miss Gulch/Wicked Witch of the West).
There’re some not-too-subtle progressing thinking in the production,
especially in the feminist department – and all without changing the script. This isn’t surprising since Harburg was known as the “social conscience of Broadway” – his anti-racist, anti-capitalist songs in Finian’s Rainbow are blantanly progressive as is his socially conscious Jamaica, which introduced an interracial cast in lead roles to 1957 Broadway. [If you have the opportunity, listen to Savannah’s “Ain’t It the Truth,” sung by Lena Horne.] Less we forget, Harburg was lyricist of the Depression anthem “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?”
Ms. Harburg worked closely with her father-in-law. She’s the founding chair of the NYU Tisch Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program, and author of Fascinating Rhythm: The Collaboration of George and Ira Gershwin.
She 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 Yip’s utopian dreams of egalitarian societies. ‘Over the Rainbow’ expresses the dream for a better life in a far away land, a theme of contemporary resonance.
“One of the story’s themes,” she continues, “is how the weakness of adults forces children to seize their own destinies to grow up themselves. Dorothy is interpreted as a modern girl and future leader who grows to realize inner confidence. Her three Yellow Brick Road companions are envisioned as people of great potential who only need to actualize the courage, heart, and brains they already have.”
HRT A.D. Keith Lee Grant [CCNY Department of Theater and Speech professor], an AUDELCO [Audience Development Committee] Award-winner, is director/choreographer/set designer. Costumes are by Daniel Fergus Tamulonis with projections by Brian Blanco. Musical director is Dror Baitel, with jazz and classic arrangements by Dan Aran.
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. President Ernie Harburg co-authored Who Put the Rainbow in The Wizard of OZ? Yip Harburg, Lyrics.
Harlem Repertory (www.harlemrepertorytheatre.com) is a non-profit theater “committed to producing new and established productions that explore the experiences of a diverse range of ethnic, social, and cultural values.”
Grant is in the midst of a four-year project presenting four classic musicals with Harburg lyrics. This began in 2009 with Flahooley, and continues with The Wizard of Oz and, next year, Jamaica (music by Harold Arlen, book by Harburg and Fred Saidy), with Finian’s Rainbow (music by Burton Lane, book by Harburg and Saidy), and Bloomer Girl (book by Sig Herzig and Saidy) in 2018 and 2019.
Performances of The Wizard of Oz are Saturdays at 3 P.M.: October 8 and 29; November 5, 12, and 19; and December 10; and Sunday, December 11 at 7 P.M. Tickets are $10, general admission; $20, premium seating (plus $2 per ticket service charge). To purchase, call Smarttix at (212) 868-4444 or buy online at www.smarttix.com.
There’ll be six matinees for student groups (but not restricted to them): Tuesdays at 10:00 AM and 12:30 PM — November 22, December 6 and 13. Tickets are $9. To purchase, call (718) 913-9559 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.