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A 'Rainbow' of songs, lovingly sung

Narrowsburg, NY — Edgar Yipsel "Yip" Harburg (1896-1981) might have failed with his appliance store business. But he was more than successful with his turn-of-phrase talent to help create a host of memorable songs with collaborators such as George Gershwin, Harold Arlen and Burton Lane.

It's with these composers that Harburg is remembered in "The Wizard of Verse," a Delaware Valley Opera creation and production. The double meaning in its title refers to the lyrics he wrote for "The Wizard of Oz," the 1939 movie containing his Academy-Award winning "Over the Rainbow." In all, he wrote lyrics for more than 600 songs, the most famous of which were written during the 1930s.

An interesting aside finds director-pianist Jim Blanton telling of an event in which producers of the movie considered eliminating the "Rainbow" song, but only reinstated it with pressure from the lyricist who had an established reputation by then with many songs represented in this revue.

In Friday night's opener at the Tusten Theatre, pianist Blanton, soprano Mary Jo Reid, mezzo-soprano Carol Diefenbach and bass Eric Barsness paid tribute to the wordsmith with 16 classic songs from Broadway shows and Hollywood films.

In introducing "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" the director-emcee said that lyrics for the Depression-era song might have been borne from Harburg's own experience of watching men panhandling from travelers at the Port Jervis train station. It's a song with a powerful message — well told by Barsness, whose commanding voice effectively captured the character's despair with "Hey, don't you remember me; I was your pal."

Among other songs by Barsness, his delivery of the wishful "If I Only Had a Brain" contrasted with the fickle nonsense of "When I'm Not Near the Girl I Love" as well as his share of the mocking in "When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich."

Diefenbach, in her musing of "April in Paris," combined a lyric voice with expressive face and hands to convey warmth and sentiment. Reflection found her also recalling "Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe." The dramatic and tragic "Hurry Sundown" provided her with a vehicle to express the forlornness of being old.

Pianist Blanton turned vocalist in the irreverent "Lydia, the Tatooed Lady" whose body memorialized historical events such as the Battle of Waterloo and the likeness of Picasso. But as the he explained prior to his frisky delivery, "pictures" of a more tawdry nature in the original song would not have been appropriate in a family venue.

While Reid, a last-minute replacement for an ill soprano, didn't miss a beat in songs such as the spirited "It's Only a Paper Moon," her firm and resonant voice lent itself well for the uplifting message in "Look to the Rainbow" and poignant for the ballad "Promise Me Not to Love Me."

As one of four current and ongoing productions by DVO, "Wizard" is being presented in repertory with the operas "Don Giovanni" by Mozart and "Don Pasquale" by Donizetti as well as the revue "Divas on the Delaware," each of which is scheduled through Aug. 17. For information on dates, times and locations, call 252-7272.

If you go ...

What: "The Wizard of Verse," songs with lyrics by E.Y. "Yip" Harburg

Where: Tusten Theatre, 210 Bridge St., Narrowsburg

When: 7:30 p.m. Aug. 1, 2008

Where: Seelig Theatre, Sullivan County Community College, Loch Sheldrake

When: 7:30 p.m. Aug. 16, 2008

Tickets: $20, $15 age 18 and younger