The engrossing revival of “A Raisin in the Sun,” now on Broadway, gains much of its power from its quiet simplicity. Lorraine Hansberry’s classic 1959 play about a black family in Chicago seeking to escape the ghetto as they struggle to find their voice and dignity in a white-dominated world takes on new resonance in 2014. Under Kenny Leon’s sharp and poetic direction, the play is embellished with a metaphoric quality I haven’t seen in other productions. Leon never downplays its charged racial themes, but, in his hands, the struggle to overcome obstacles, reach for dreams, and find an identity in a complex and indifferent world feel contemporary and universal.
The director of a previous revival, in 2004, as well, Leon here broadens the focus to give balanced weight to the struggles of the lead character, Walter Lee Younger, and his wife, mother, and sister. The family share a small apartment on Chicago’s South Side. When an inheritance arrives from Walter Lee’s father, he wants to use it to open a liquor store, but his mother instead spends a portion of it on a down payment on a house in the largely white Clybourne Park neighborhood. Walter Lee loses the balance of the money in a scheme, and ultimately the family must decide between remaining stuck and risking the move Walter Lee’s mother wants.
Despite Denzel Washington’s name-above-the-title billing as Walter Lee, this is truly an ensemble effort. Washington gives a performance of quiet complexity that is revelatory, juxtaposing anger, hope, and self-doubt masterfully. Sophie Okonedo as Walter Lee’s wife, Ruth, is similarly conflicted but quiet. Anika Noni Rose adds depth to the often comic role of Beneatha, Walter Lee’s sister, who is struggling to find her identity as a black woman. LaTanya Richardson Jackson brings realness to the role of Lena the matriarch, who is as flawed and anxious as the others.
As in Terrence McNally’s “Mothers and Sons,” this production highlights inter-generational stresses faced by families with understanding and compassion. So much more than simply a revival of a classic, this “Raisin in the Sun” is a telling reflection of our own unsettled and changing times as well.
Is there anything Audra McDonald can’t do? Her sublime performance as Billie Holiday in “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” is a heart-stopping, 90-minute tour-de-force that showcases both McDonald’s incisive acting and the versatility of a voice that is a national treasure. Shaped around one of Holiday’s final performances, at a club in Philadelphia — in 1959, the same year as “Raisin in the Sun” debuted — Lanie Robertson’s play, directed by Lonny Price, chronicles the struggles of an artist with a driving need to sing but also a lethal addiction to heroin.
Robertson’s play is unrelenting in its intensity, as it integrates a dozen or so of Holiday’s most memorable numbers into the story. McDonald thoroughly inhabits the role, doing things with her voice and physical portrayal that might seem impossible were we not watching it. Hers is a portrait of Holiday on the brink of disaster that is beautifully rendered even in its ghastliness.
There isn’t a moment that isn’t fully realized, as McDonald disappears into an extraordinary portrayal not to be missed. One leaves heartbroken at Holiday’s story and in awe of McDonald’s immense talent in creating this coup-de theatre.
“Satire is what closes on Saturday night,” said George S. Kaufman after his musical “Strike Up the Band” bombed out of town. The new musical “Bullets Over Broadway” is neither bold enough to be satire nor broad enough to be a rollicking comedy. Instead, it limps along in glittery blandness, periodically enlivened by some energetic hoofing, unable to overcome its poor construction and lack of focus.
Woody Allen’s 1994 movie was a poisonous valentine to the amorality of show business. Set in the 1920s, the story is a twisted version of “Cyrano de Bergerac,” mixed with “Faust,” in which a pretentious playwright, David Shayne, is taught a lesson in speaking to the common man by a gangster.
To get his work produced, Shayne agrees to cast Olive, the talent-free girlfriend of a different gangster, who is fronting the money, in a lead role. Cheech, the bodyguard assigned to Olive, gets frustrated in rehearsals and starts giving notes to David. Suddenly the play is working. Meanwhile, David falls for his Norma Desmond-ish leading lady, Helen Sinclair. Complications ensue, replete with Tommy guns and tap shoes.
Allen, who wrote the book, turned to Tin Pan Alley for period music, but the problem is that the tone is never consistent. The razzle dazzle and the would-be satire don’t mix, and the numbers often feel forced into the plot. Director Susan Stroman, who made a musical hit of another classic showbiz movie, “The Producers,” is clearly trying to make lighting strike twice, but the result is forced and formulaic. There are some inspired Stroman bits — a tap chorus of gangsters doing “Taint Nobody’s Business If I Do” is the standout, but, like most of the songs, it’s not organic to the story and essentially stands outside the script.
Amidst this muddle, the actors do what they can. Zach Braff is largely credible as the morally challenged playwright in the Woody Allen stand-in role. Helene Yorke is charismatic as Olive the moll, but it’s inherently a one-note part. Marin Mazzie, who is usually divine, is miscast as the aging star Helen Sinclair. She is lost in the comedy, and her songs are set too low for her spectacular voice — a problem that plagues most of the actors.
Nick Cordero walks away with the show as Cheech, the gangster with an uncanny sense of what works on stage. Cheech’s solution — bumping off people who hurt the show — might in reality have a problem in its (if you’ll pardon me) execution, but it is just the sort of clear focus that might have saved “Bullets Over Broadway” from shooting itself in the foot.
A RAISIN IN THE SUN | Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St. | Tue., Thu. at 7 p.m.; Wed., Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $67-$149 at telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | 2 hr., 40 min., with intermission
LADY DAY AT EMERSON’S BAR AND GRILL | Circle in the Square, 1633 Broadway at 50th St. | Tue., Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m., Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $97-$250 at telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | 90 min., no intermission
BULLETS OVER BROADWAY | St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St. | Tue., Thu. at 7 p.m.; Wed., Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $52-$147 at telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | 2 hr., 35 min., with intermission