We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Don’t go to Harlem Rose: A Love Song to Langston Hughes expecting a biography. In this love song, the beloved’s identity is as anonymous as those of the folks who opened the 14-line valentines Shakespeare penned. You might guess that Harlem Rose is a love song to Harlem, via the words of Hughes and the sounds of jazz, blues, and African-American-oriented popular music—but there’s not a lot of Harlem in it, either. Giorgios Tsappas’ functional set design for the MetroStage production offers the five cast members a variety of surfaces from which to emote, and Adam Magazine’s lighting ably demarcates different moods and performers, but there’s no real sense of “the dark sash of Manhattan” in the setting. And the cast keeps things light—no chiaroscuro here, just a lively musical review. Really, Harlem Rose is a love song to love songs. The production includes some 25 musical numbers, mostly standards like “Take the A Train” and “Walking My Baby Back Home” but also some originals by musical director William Hubbard. Blended with the music, spoken-word passages (largely from Hughes’ writings), dance, and pantomime reveal couplings and uncouplings (all hetero, by the way, though Hughes’ history suggests other possible interpretations), with a smattering of landlord-bashing and churchgoing to vary the flavor. It would be a fine entertainment if it were audible, but too often the vastness of the theater swallows up the sound. The night I was there, it was hard to make out some of the poetry, and the female vocalists, in particular Beverly Cosham, were more overheard than heard. Hubbard seems more at ease with the songs than anyone else—which makes sense, given his authorship. His piano is the centerpiece of the stage, and his playing is the fulcrum of the action. He’s also a surprisingly engaging actor, more natural in his speech than any of his compatriots. And Scott Leonard Fortune’s lightfooted agility and comic facial expressions are big enough to fill the Capital Centre; he and Hubbard are the only performers who never seem in need of a volume boost. Desire DuBose has a Betty Boop pertness and a distracting tendency to show off her bodacious curves by running her hands all over them. Although her voice took a while to get warmed up, she delivered an accomplished version of “God Bless the Child” about three-quarters of the way through Friday’s show. Not much is demanded from Ron Oshima as an actor; he’s mostly in charge of sax punctuation, a task he performs with capable amiability. Cosham, though, is a real letdown, only because expectations for her run so high: Stone-faced and meek-voiced, she nonetheless hits the occasional musical high note or interpretive fillip—especially in “Come Rain or Come Shine”—that suggests that in other circumstances she could carry a whole production. —Pamela Murray Winters