By April Stamm
It is obvious that engaging and inspiring young audiences is the goal of Harlem Repertory Theatre’s production of The Wizard of Oz, co-produced by the Yip Harburg Foundation. From the three-piece band on stage playing a light, jazzy version of “Only Make Believe” as the kids with their grown-ups in tow pile in, to the munchkins decked out in technicolor costumes, to the warm and interactive performances, this production truly speaks to the grammar school set.
Starring Taylor-Rey Rivera (Oliver! The Musical at El Museo Del Barrio) as Dorothy, Derrick Montalvo (The Wiz at Harlem Repertory Theatre) as Scarecrow/Hunk, and an energetic and multi-racial ensemble, this reimagining of the 1939 film, crafted by dramaturg Deena R. Harburg (executive director and artistic director of the Yip Harburg Foundation) in association with librettist Arthur Perlman takes the film classic and hones it for 21st century young audiences.
Yip Harburg (the lyricist of the original film) songs live on in abundance in this version. His iconic “Somewhere over the Rainbow” is reprised not once, but several times in this production including a rendition reminiscent of the popular Israel Kamakawiwo’ole ukulele take on the time-honored song.
Directed and choreographed by Keith Lee Grant (Dreamgirls and The Wiz for Harlem Repertory Theatre), the production shines mostly in its focus and attention to kids. Utilizing the openness of the space at the Tato Laviera Theatre at Harlem Prep Elementary School, characters get up close and personal with the children, engaging them as the cast runs the aisles and comes right up to the first row of seats, involving the enthusiastic crowd in songs that most children already know by heart.
Rivera as Dorothy plays the iconic character as caring but strong. Montalvo as Scarecrow is the true diamond in this performance. He keeps the little ones literally on the edge of their seats with his endearing blend of genuine sweetness and playful movement, which blends modern dance and thrilling gymnastics. The cast delivers solid vocals, giving the familiar tunes a more modern spin. Rivera belts the show-stopping “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” with confidence, throwing in a little soulful personality. The ensemble plays to the little ones with large interpretations and big energy.
Sets are minimal to spark a young mind’s imagination. The twister that sets the whole tale spinning plays out through the use of a large projection screen on the back wall of the stage, but even more effectively through ensemble members using ballet and modern dance to give life to the fateful storm.
Accompanying me to this performance was my five-year-old daughter. While I could go on about details of a missed moment here, a pacing issue there, etc., I think her repeated squeals of joy and this quote from her say it best, “Mom, can we go see it again next week?”
The Harlem Rep’s Young Audiences production of The Wizard of Oz is exactly that: a dear and energetic production that serves its young audience well.
The Wizard of Oz
Harlem Repertory Theatre for Young Audiences
Tato Laviera Theatre at Harlem Prep Elementary School
240 East 123 Street, NYC
Through December 13