Harlem Repertory’s The Wizard of Oz is a theatrical romp accompanied by a lively jazz trio. Directed and choreographed by Keith Lee Grant, themes of self-discovery, connection to family and facing one’s fears are well tackled and performed by a wonderful multicultural cast. They bring to life the events that propel the Kansas schoolgirl, Dorothy, on a magical mystery tour as she follows the yellow brick road.
The story is prompted when Myra Gulch (Emily Ramirez), an unforgiving landowner, threatens to give Dorothy (the lovely Taylor-Rey Rivera), her Aunt Em (Zuheila Jason) and Uncle Henry (Daniel Fergus Tamulonis), the boot for not keeping up payments on their farm. When Toto, Dorothy’s dog, bites Gulch, they are shooed away. Dorothy runs away from home and is caught in a tornado which sweeps her house up and lands in Oz, right on a wicked witch, and kills her. The Munchkins, inhabitants of Oz, hail Dorothy as a hero. The cast is doubled and Glinda the Good Witch is also played by Jason (Aunt Em) who sports several tattoos; giving the role an unusual hipster accent. In the story, Glinda plucks a pair of sparkling ruby slippers from the dead witch’s feet which has special powers. When she puts them on Dorothy’s feet, she doesn’t tell her—Dorothy has to discover it for herself. But all Dorothy wants is to get back home. How? Down the yellow brick road!
First, Dorothy meets a Scarecrow (Derrick Montalvo, a talented dancer, and natural comic), who is stuffed with straw and unable to scare even a scarecrow. All he desires is brains and when he sings “If I Only Had a Brain,” Dorothy asks, “If you don’t have a brain, how are you talking?”
Scarecrow: “I don’t know, but a lot of people without a brain do plenty of talking.”
They meet others along the way: The Tin Man (Ben Harburg, grandson of the musical’s lyricist, E.Y. “Yip” Harburg), who wants a heart, and the Lion (Isaac Chavarria) who wants courage. Together they go in search of brains, heart, courage, and a way back home. When they arrive at the Emerald City, they are given an audience with the Wizard (Tamulonis, a well seasoned actor) who tells them they must kill the Wicked Witch of the West (Ramirez). This leads them back onto the yellow brick road, where the real self-discovery begins.
The theater, a large, somewhat cavernous space, offers good acoustics and enough space for the actors to move and dance around on their journey. Projections (Maggie Allen) are used to move the story from one place to another, and set pieces and costumes (Tamulonis) are simple and effective. The musical accompaniment is performed by a jazz trio made up of Dan Aran (music director and percussionist), Martha Kato (pianist) and Yoshi Waki (bassist). There are three musical renderings of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” the first of which Dorothy sings in the classic vein of the 1939 movie and is done very well by Rivera. The second is a lively jazz version, and the last, the version made famous by Israel Kamakawiwoʻole, the Hawaiian musician, is a wistful, tearjerker. Yet, sung as an ensemble, it conveys hopefulness.
With a story written in 1900 by L. Frank Baum, and lyrics by E.Y. Harburg and music by Harold Arlen from the 1939 film with Judy Garland, much of the show still seems poignant. Gulch, an evil landowner, on the verge of taking away precious farmland needed to sustain Dorothy’s family, can easily be translated to the greedy developers displacing tenants to build condos. In addition, the journey down the yellow brick road, which leads to self-discovery and thus, resilience, is a popular theme in education today.
For young or old, this production is both entertaining and thought-provoking. Adults will notice the parallels between the current climate of greed in the housing market and that of the story. And children will delight in the rendering of beloved characters. In the end, Dorothy doesn’t just return home, she rebuilds relationships with her family. Her journey through Oz has taught her that home isn’t just a place, it is the loving space you create with other people, and with that love, you can accomplish anything.
The Wizard of Oz plays through Jan. 11 at the Tato Laviera Theatre & Black Box Theatre (240 East 123rd St. at Second Avenue). Shows will be at 3 p.m. Aug. 24, Sept. 7 and 21, Oct. 5 and 19, Nov. 9 and 23, Dec. 7 and Jan. 11. Tickets are $10 (general) and $20 (Premium) and can be purchased online at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-wizard-of-oz-tickets-63525956847?ref=elink.