A LOOK BACK AT SOME FAVORITE 2014 BROADWAY SHOWS

Shari HedwigHedwig and the Angry Inch: This show has become a cult favorite, with many fans returning to see the show time after time, despite (or perhaps because of) the rotating cast of Hedwigs. I admit that I am somewhat obsessed with the show, a condition precipitated by Neil Patrick Harris’s memorably heart-breaking performance as the original Broadway Hedwig. (I called it “the performance of a lifetime”). I saw the show a second time, with the talented Andrew Rannells (Tony nominated for The Book of Mormon) who created an angrier, less vulnerable, Hedwig. And yes, I have my ticket for an upcoming third performance, when John Cameron Mitchell (who starred in the original off-Broadway and film versions of Hedwig and wrote the show’s book), will once again don gold platform boots and step into the role. (Stay tuned). Lena Hall, a Tony winner for her role as Hedwig’s husband Yitzhak, remains in the show.

Disgraced: This is probably the best new play I saw in 2014, and fortunately for theatre-goers, it still graces the stage of the Lyceum Theatre. Ayad Ahktar’s tale of an upwardly mobile Pakistani/American attorney’s rapid fall deservedly won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The 5-person cast that includes Hari Dhillon, Gretchen Mol, and “How I Met Your Mother’s” Josh Radnor, does a splendid job, but here, “the play’s the thing.” Ahktar’s daring and insightful writing creates moments that both illuminate and shock, providing much food for thought and post-performance discussion.

Side Show PlaybillSide Show: Critics adored this revamped production of the 1997 original. Yet somehow it just never found its audience (or enough of an audience to satisfy the Jujamcyn organization). Like its predecessor, Side Show closed too soon, giving its final performance on January 4, just 7 weeks after opening night. I thought it was brilliant, touching, and riveting, with amazing performances by Erin Davie and Emily Padgett as the Hilton sisters. I called it “the best show you’ve never seen,” and I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to see it.

A Raisin in the Sun: The 2014 Broadway revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s much-reprised and greatly admired play was as fine a staging as we’ll ever see. Although the cast member with the most star power was Denzel Washington (as Walter Lee Younger), it was the women (LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Sophie Okonedo, and Anika Noni Rose) who shined the brightest. All three were nominated for Tonys, and when I saw the play, my feeling was, “Give LaTanya the Tony right now!” (But who can compete with the genius Audra McDonald? (See below).

Lady DayLady Day at the Emerson Bar & Grill: While Lanie Robertson’s play depicts jazz legend Billie Holiday at a low point in her career, Audra McDonald’s performance in Lady Day shows us a great talent at the height of her powers. McDonald won a record-setting sixth Tony Award (for Best Actress in a Play) for her unforgettable performance in this show, where, in contrast to the performance she reenacts, she played to sold-out audiences night after night. It was painful to witness the portrayal of decline and despair of a singular talent like the Billie Holiday at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, but at the same time it was uplifting to witness the brilliance of the gifted performer Audra McDonald in remembering and honoring the late great Lady Day.

Also Memorable: All the Way, Casa Valentina, Cabaret, Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Love Letters, Rocky, Honeymoon in Vegas (Opens January 15)

Worst Shows of the Year: The Realistic Joneses, Bullets Over Broadway, Somewhere Fun (Off-Broadway)

See you on the Aisle in 2015!

Erin Davie

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A Raisin in the Sun

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Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th St.

In a Nutshell: If you grew up in the United States, chances are you read this play in school. The current Broadway production of Lorraine Hansberry’s much-reprised and greatly admired play is as fine a staging as you’re going to see. So don’t delay: the show closes on June 15.

5 Tony Nominations: Best Play Revival, Best Actress in a Play (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), Best Featured Actress in a Play (Sophie Okonedo, Anika Noni Rose), Best Director (Kenny Leon)

Lead Cast: Denzel Washington (Walter Lee Younger), LaTanya Richardson Jackson (Lena Younger), Sophie Okonedo (Ruth Younger), Anika Noni Rose (Beneatha Younger).

Background: A Raisin in the Sun is an “important” American play. It was the first play by an African-American woman to be produced on Broadway. At 29, Hansberry was also the youngest American playwright, the first black playwright, and only the fifth woman to receive the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play.

The Production: Before the curtain goes up, we see the following text projected on a scrim:

What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over—like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Those lines, from the poem Harlem (Dream Deferred) by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, serve as a wonderful introduction to the play. They give us a framework in which to place the action that will unfold over the next 2 and 3/4 hours. Hughes wrote the poem in 1951, 8 years before A Raisin in the Sun first opened on Broadway. Reading the poem before the actors take the stage helps us understand why Hansberry used one of its lines as the title of her play, because A Raisin in the Sun is all about dreams (mostly unfilled)—along with family ties and the enduring, redemptive power of love.

The Plot: Three generations of the Younger family live in cramped conditions in a South Chicago apartment, “sometime between World War II and 1960.” The youngest member of the family, Travis, sleeps on a pullout couch in the living room. The action revolves around the imminent arrival of a large insurance check payable to the family matriarch, Lena Younger. Her son Walter Lee has big plans for the money. Tired of working as a chauffeur for a rich white man, he dreams of investing the money in a liquor store and becoming rich. His younger sister Beneatha dreams of attending medical school. His wife Ruth, who discovers she is pregnant with their second child, just wants Walter to drink less and become a better husband and father. It’s up to Mama Lena to decide how to use the money in a way that will best serve her family. At the end of the play, Walter, whom Lena has entrusted with most of the money, loses it to a swindler. Mama takes what’s left and buys a home for the family in a white neighborhood. So some dreams are fulfilled, others are not.

The Performances: In addition to its grand pedigree, Raisin is a very fine and enjoyable theatrical experience. (These two characteristics don’t always come together in a single work).

Each member of the cast turns in a fine performance. Although Denzel Washington comes to the play with the most star power, it’s the women who shine the brightest. All three of the female leads are nominated for Tonys, while Mr. Washington, who gives a good ensemble performance devoid of “star” showboating, was overlooked.

LaTanya Richardson Jackson does an especially terrific job. When I saw the production my feeling was, “Give LaTanya the Tony right now!” (We’ll find out if the Tony voters agree on June 8). She commanded the stage and touched my heart with her moving portrayal of a strong woman who has survived injustice and the death of her husband and who is determined to give the next generations a shot at a better life. British actress Sophie Okonedo and Tony winner Anika Noni Rose (Caroline, or Change) also give affecting performances as Ruth and Beneatha Younger, respectively. You can feel the weariness in Okonedo’s movements, as she tends to housekeeping chores and tries to just get through another hard day. And Rose brings Beneatha’s youthful exuberance, ambition, and self-centeredness to life.

However, Mr. Washington, 59 years old, is a bit long in the tooth to play Walter (who is supposed to be in his mid-30’s). And at 41, Anika Noni Rose (18 years younger than Washington) is also a bit old for her role of a young student, although she pulls it off pretty credibly. I sometimes found myself thinking that she was Walter’s daughter instead of his younger sister. But theatre is above all, a suspension of disbelief: Keep in mind that Ms. Richardson Jackson (aged 64) is in real life only 5 years older than her theatrical “son!”

Trivia:

  • The original production of A Raisin in the Sun opened 55 years ago at the Barrymore, the same theatre as the current production.
  • Although Lorraine Hansberry did not win a Pulitzer Prize for her groundbreaking play, a 2010 play by Bruce Norris, Clybourne Park, did. That play imagines events before and 50 years after the Younger family’s move to the predominately white neighborhood of Clybourne Park.
  • A musical version of the play, Raisin, premiered on Broadway in 1973. The production won Tony Awards for Best Musical and Best Leading Actress in a Musical (Virginia Capers).
  • LaTanya Richardson Jackson is married to actor Samuel L. Jackson. She stepped into the role of Lena Younger when Tony Award-winning actress Diahann Carroll withdrew from the production.

Ticket Info: You probably won’t find discount tickets for this show. According to the TKTS website, the show “never” appears at its discount ticket booth. There is no current offer listed at Playbill.com and there is no rush policy for this show. I would suggest going to the Barrymore box office and seeing what’s available.  A Raisin in the Sun