March 29, 2008

My Belated Roses for "Gypsy"

Every theater lover dreams of seeing a once-in-a- lifetime performance that people will talk about for years to come. And I think I may have just seen one. For Patti LuPone is giving a legendary performance as Mama Rose in the new revival of Gypsy that opened at the St. James Theatre this week.

I confess that’s not the way I felt when LuPone performed in the three week-run for the Encores! series production of Gypsy that played at City Center last summer. “Maybe it’s the heat,” I wrote then, trying to explain why “the hair never stood up on the back up my neck.” Well, this time around, I could give a porcupine a run for its money.

As I did last summer, I still enjoyed Boyd Gaines’ moving portrayal of Herbie, Rose's long-suffering boyfriend; and Laura Benanti’s winning performance as her gawky daughter Louise who blossoms into the swank stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. But it is LuPone who thrilled me. She has slimmed down, both her weight and her trademark Patti ticks, burrowed into the role and come out with a performance that captures all the complexities that make Rose’s archetypal stage mother indomitable and lovable, unbearable and sensual, and ultimately wrenchingly poignant.

Because my husband K is playing in the orchestra, I got to go to the opening night. It wasn’t the fanciest opening I’ve ever been to but it may have been the most emotional. The applause for LuPone was so long and loud when she made her through-the-audience entrance that it threatened to throw off the pace of the scene. By the end of the first act, the cheers were almost ferocious.

LuPone lobbied long and hard to bring her Mama Rose to Broadway. A feud between her and Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book, which originally opened 50 years ago, and who directs this production, famously thwarted her dream for years. But the two finally made up and I felt as though I were witnessing a bit of Broadway lore-in-the-making when LuPone went into the wings during the tumultuous curtain call to bring out Laurents and Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the show’s lyrics to the late Jule Styne’s gloriously brassy score (just listening to the marvelous overture is almost worth the price of your ticket).

After a brief speech, Laurents seemed unsure what to do next. LuPone stuck out her hand, “Arthur, come take a bow with your company,” she told him. And he did. The two of them kept holding hands and after all the bows had been taken, and everyone else had drifted off the stage, they remained, whispering into one another’s ears. Finally they put their arms around one another and strolled off. They’d come through the production together brilliantly. Patti has signed to play for a full year. Laurents, although 90, is making plans for a new revival of West Side Story. And I’m now prepared to follow them wherever they go.

March 26, 2008

Joyfully Back "In The Heights"

If you love theater the way I do, then you really want to love the shows you see. So it’s been tough for me these last few weeks because as excited as I was walking into the theater to see each of the shows I’ve recently written about and as much as I wanted to like them, not one left me with a smile on my face. And that alone would have been reason enough for me to have stood and cheered along with everyone else at the performance of In the Heights I attended. It’s not a great show but it’s a really great feel-good show and if you get the chance to see it, you’ll be grinning too.

Now, I confess that In the Heights holds a special place in my heart because it was the very first show I wrote about in this blog. But others in the audience the night my sister Joanne, my niece Jennifer and I attended clearly had to be won over. Forgive me for stereotyping but they didn’t look like the kind of people who had planned to see a hip-hop/salsa musical about the PG-rated goings on in a Dominican neighborhood in upper Manhattan. In fact, many of them looked as though they had gotten to the TKTS discount booth after their first choices had been taken and were already having second thoughts about whether this show would be as much fun as the folks behind the counter had assured them it would be. But
by the end of the title song opening number, you could already sense them beginning to thaw. And by intermission, some people were almost high-fiving another for having chosen such a winner. At the curtain call, they were cheering and pumping their arms with delight.

Let me say it again, In the Heights isn’t a perfect show. Nearly everyone agrees that Quiara Alegria Hudes’ book is overly sentimental and while several critics and many of my fellow bloggers were knocked out by Andy Blankenbuehler’s high-spirited, streetwise choreography, I would have liked a little more variety from number to number. But what has enchanted everyone—me included—is the new energy this shows brings to the Broadway musical. Its creator, and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, grew up in Washington Heights when rap music was bursting onto the scene but he was also weaned on his parents’ Broadway cast albums. Miranda wrote the music and lyrics for his first version of In the Heights when he was just a sophomore at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. And, refusing to choose between the two styles of his childhood, he created an old-fashioned musical (there are romantic duets and character numbers, power ballads and even dance ballets) but he set it to the rhythms of music that kids play on their iPods. It’s a musical both your 80 year-old demure grandmother and your 18 year-old macho son can enjoy.

Miranda is only 28 and I can hardly wait to see what he does next. In the meantime, I’m hoping that there’s a Korean-American boy in the Flushing section of Queens who saw the movie "Sweeney Todd" and dreams of resetting it to a K-pop score, the contemporary Korean musical style that incorporates rap, rock, and techno; or a Pakistani-American girl in the midtown Manhattan neighborhood known as Curry Hill, who got Wicked tickets for her birthday, now alternates its cast album with her recordings of Bhangra, Punjabi sounds with western beats, and fantasizes about mixing the two. Because from its beginning, the American musical has been the true melting pot, in which the child of Irish newcomers like George M. Cohan, the sons of Jewish émigrés like Irving Berlin and the Gershwin brothers and the children of recently-freed blacks like Eubie Blake, Noble Sissle and Fats Waller all poured in their experiences and energy, idioms and rhythms, transforming the American musical into an art form that everyone can love.

March 22, 2008

The Misdirected Flight of "The Seagull"

The folks who go to see plays at the Classic Stage Company tend to see themselves as different from the average theatergoer. “You get a better class of people here,” the woman sitting in front of me smugly told her friend as they settled into their seats before the performance of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull that we all attended. I don’t know about that but what you do get is the pleasure of seeing classics from the theatrical canon— Chekhov, Shakespeare, the Greeks—performed by some of the very best actors in New York, who not only love acting but love doing it before a live audience.

My friend Ellie, the former actress, and I had a great time when we saw Michael Cumpsty in the CSC's production of Richard III last year, so we were both quite happy to go back to see Dianne Wiest and Alan Cumming in The Seagull. We were even more eager to see the production because its director is Viacheslav Dolgachev, who worked for 10 years as the leading director at the Moscow Art Theatre, the company co-founded by Constantin Stanislavski and that is so identified with Chekhov’s plays that its emblem is a seagull.

The Seagull centers around the family and friends of the successful middle-aged actress Irina Arkadina who gather at her ailing brother’s country home when she and her lover, an equally successful but somewhat younger writer named Trigorin, come for a visit. Most of the play takes place during their stay. Then, there is a coda that is set about five years later. The action starts with Arakadina’s grown son, Konstantin, putting on a play, starring the young neighbor he desperately loves named Nina. I don’t know if it was Paul Schmidt's overly Americanized translation or Dolgachev’s heavily Russianized direction (click here to read a New York Times article in which he talks about his style) but I started getting restless before Nina had finished her big play-within-a-play speech.

The actors are all quite good but they act as though they are in several different shows, with some (like David Rasche as the family doctor) performing in a straight ahead style, others (like Ryan O’Nan as Konstantin) seemingly going for a method approach and a couple (most notably Annette O’Toole as the housekeeper Paulina) performing as though Chekhov’s Russian clan had somehow stumbled onto the TV sitcom “Seinfeld.” Dolgachev not only fails to blend their styles but keeps them all racing around the stage, as though in a marathon. Which, I suppose in some aspects this production is since the first act runs for nearly two hours, breaking for intermission only when Arakadina’s visit has ended.

The moment the house lights came up, audience members, who had clearly expected a more conventionally paced evening, raced for the exit and the rest rooms like kindergartners let loose in the school yard after too long a morning inside. Some, including the critic for a major publication (and no, I won’t say which one) took their coats and never came back. But Ellie and I (and the smug ladies sitting in front of us) stuck it out.

“I liked parts of it,” Ellie insisted as we headed up Third Avenue from the CSC’s Union Square theater to a wine bar on 17th Street called The House. It was late, the place is small but we found a nice table in a corner, serviced by a cute and garrulous young waiter. “Just coming from seeing something?” he asked when he brought us our wine. We told him we were. When we told him what it was, he told us he was a director and writer himself and launched into his theory on how Chekhov should be played. As he talked, I found myself wishing I’d seen that show instead.

March 19, 2008

Tedious "Conversations in Tusculum"

Expectations can sometimes play as big a role in how you feel about a show as what you actually see. I had big expectations for Conversations in Tusculum, the new play that opened at The Public Theater last week. It’s written by Richard Nelson, one of this country’s smartest and most versatile playwrights—his works include adaptations like James Joyce’s The Dead, books for musicals like Chess, and original plays like Franny’s Way and Two Shakespearean Actors. The show’s premise—a kind of prequel to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that focuses on the plotters who would assassinate him—sounded as though it could be the sort of fun that Tom Stoppard once had with Hamlet’s school pals Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. And its cast—Brian Dennehy, Aidan Quinn, Joe Grifasi, Gloria Reuben, David Strathairn, and Maria Tucci—is a Mount Olympus of stage acting talent.

But my oh-no antenna began to buzz the minute the show started and Quinn and Strathairn, playing Brutus and Cassius, came on stage wearing outfits that looked less like those of Roman noblemen than hand-me-downs from the Russian gentry in The Coast of Utopia. (I don’t know what it is that costume designers suddenly seem to have against period dress—the Medieval thanes in the production of Macbeth that recently played at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and is now transferring to Broadway wear Stalin-era military uniforms; and the lord and ladies in the Mark Morris production of King Arthur that closed at New York City Opera over the weekend wore 21st century yoga outfits.) Still, I’m enough of a theatergoing veteran to know that sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith and follow the director’s vision.

In this case, though, the director was Nelson himself. And as both writer and director, he seem to have taken the show’s title seriously. Conversations in Tusculum is literally a series of conversations. All of the action—encounters with Caesar, battles, suicides, love affairs—take place off stage. And then the characters just sit around and talk about what happened. The play is clearly intended as an analogue to the current political situation (if you miss that, the Public’s artistic director Oskar Eustis helpfully points it out in his program notes) but I felt as though I were stuck at a party where all everyone did was sit around whining about their boss.

Jane Smiley did something similarly last year in her novel “Ten Days in the Hills,” an updating of Boccaccio's “Decameron” in which a group of family and friends literally head for the hills to avoid a catastrophe—a plague in Boccaccio; the start of the Iraq war in Smiley—that threatens their way of life. But Smiley spiced up her conversations with liberal dollops of sex talk and showbiz gossip from the Hollywood insiders she has standing in for Boccaccio’s Roman aristocracy, and with a sense of humor—all without compromising her trenchant observations about art, politics and relationships. Nelson’s characters include an actor, amiably played by Grifasi, but there’s no levity to leaven the endless colloquies. Watching the play, my mind occasionally drifted off to the book and how much better a time I’d had with it. And sometimes, it just drifted.

I did the whining in the cab ride home with my theatergoing buddy Bill. He agreed that it wasn’t the most exciting show he’d seen. But he said he liked it better than I had. Unlike me, he had read the reviews that described the show as talky and had gone in with different expectations.

March 15, 2008

The Dethroning of "King Arthur"

You almost never hear any theater lover cry out boo at the end of a show. But opera fans are different. They regularly cheer on their favorites with shouts of “Bravo!” and “Brava!” and they just as passionately cry down performances they don’t like with boos, hisses and whistles. Still, it seemed to take the audience back a bit this past week when an audience member, sitting in one of the upper rings, booed loudly when the curtain came down on the first act of the performance I attended of King Arthur, which opened on March 5 at New York City Opera and has its final performance tonight.

King Arthur was originally a 17th century dramatic-opera, a kind of early musical in which much of the text is actually spoken, written by the British baroque master Henry Purcell, with a libretto by the Restoration-era poet and playwright John Dryden. But now the eccentric choreographer Mark Morris has turned it into what he calls a “pageant” by adding dance numbers and humorous tableaux, while still cutting the four-hour piece in half by throwing out all of the spoken text and, according to notes in the Playbill, even getting rid of the character of King Arthur who is now represented solely by a crown. I say according to the Playbill because, to be honest, I don’t know what the hell was going on in Morris’ production. And I say this as a Mark Morris fan.

Back in 1991, I got to spend a week in Brussels hanging out with Morris’ company when he was preparing to end its tenure as the resident company at the Théâtre de La Monnaie and move back to New York. Right before he left Brussels, the company premiered The Hard Nut, his delightfully campy version of The Nutcracker and it still makes me giggle when I see it. At the same time, I think his L'Allegro, Il Penseroso, ed Il Moderato and Dido and Aeneas are incredibly beautiful and moving works. I’m also a Purcell fan and a sucker for stories about knights in armor, so it was a no-brainer for me when I got a flyer in the mail about King Arthur.

The production has a lot going for it. Fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi did the costumes, scenic designer Adrianne Lobel created fanciful images, the singers perform their arias with aplomb, the dancers are lovely to watch (although I do miss the unconventionally-shaped dancers that Morris used to favor—one of his former stars was a fat-man-sized dancer who was incredibly light on his feet) and Purcell’s music is gorgeous and played superbly by the City Opera orchestra. But from the moment the dancers came on stage in A Chorus Line-style sweats, I knew the show was going in a very different direction than I’d imagined. I’m usually willing to follow artists when they venture off the beaten path. In fact, I think leading the way into new artistic and intellectual territory is part of their job description. But I confess I couldn’t keep up this time.

I was as startled as everyone else in the audience when the guy in the balcony shouted out his unhappiness but I empathized with him too. The woman sitting on my right was horrified by the outburst. “I don’t know why he came,” she said to her companion. “Some people just don’t know how to appreciate the avant garde.” This time, alas, I was among their number.

March 12, 2008

A New Rite of Passage for "Passing Strange"

There are few things more annoying than having someone tell you how great something—a restaurant, a country, a show—was before you got to it. So, I’m going to ask your forgiveness right now because I have to say that I enjoyed Passing Strange, the vibrant rock musical that opened on Broadway last week, more when I saw it downtown at the Public Theater last year and put it in on my list of the best shows I’d seen in all of 2007 (click here to read my original response to the show).

Passing Strange is a semi-autobiographical portrait of the artist as a young black man coming of age in the 1970s and struggling to find his identity. It’s set against music that runs the gamut from punk and gospel to blues and show tunes. Its creator, narrator and chief onstage musician who goes by the one-handled moniker Stew is as engaging a presence as you’re likely to find anywhere on Broadway this year. “It’s O.K., you can talk back. I’m not a character,” he told the audience at the beginning of the performance my niece Jennifer and I attended. But no one talked back. In fact, no one did much of anything. I found myself moving in my seat to the music but I felt self-conscious because although they seemed to be enjoying the show, everyone else in the audience—the usual Broadway crowd of pale skins and grey heads—just sat there, applauding at the end of songs, standing at the end of the show.

That’s not the way it was at the Public. The audiences there were young and multi-hued. And they were into the show, rocked out to its music. Maybe that’s why I liked it better down there. Or it might be because the setting at the Public was more intimate, with the audience surrounding the stage. Or because the show seems to have cut or tightened some scenes for its transfer uptown. But it’s probably because it is hard to repeat the excitement of experiencing something so unique with the same intensity that you had when you first discovered it.

But if you haven’t yet had your first time and you love musicals and care about their future, you should see Passing Strange. After all, even if you didn’t eat at the trendsetting chef Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse when it was just a Berkeley hangout in the 1970s, it’s still a great place to dine. And if you didn’t go to China when everyone there was still wearing Mao jackets and riding bicycles, it’s still a fascinating country to visit. And if you didn’t see Passing Strange downtown, it’s still likely to be the most extraordinary experience you’ll have on Broadway this season.

March 8, 2008

A Skittish "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"

The choreography of a curtain call can tell you a lot about a show. The last bow traditionally goes to the starring role. But sometimes it just goes to a star, the biggest name in the show or the one whose face on the poster producers think will sell the most tickets. There are three Tony winners in the all black revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that opened at the Broadhurst Theatre this week. But neither Anika Noni Rose, who plays Maggie, the wife desperate to seduce a disinterested and possibly gay husband; nor Phylicia Rashad, who plays Big Mama, her chatterbox mother-in-law; nor James Earl Jones, who plays Big Daddy, the tyrannical and dying head of the clan, gets to walk on last. Instead, that honor goes to Terrence Howard, an actor making his stage debut in the role of Brick, the husband and son who tries to drown his unhappiness in alcohol.

Tennessee Williams’s Pulitzer Prize-winning tale of a wealthy but self-delusional southern family is sometimes played as Maggie’s story. And sometimes as Big Daddy’s. But, although he is the objective of their attention and actions, it is seldom Brick’s story. And it isn’t this time either. This is not to say that Howard embarrasses himself; he doesn’t. He turns in a performance that is obviously well t
hought out, perhaps a touch too much so. But that’s not why he’s getting top billing. It’s because two years ago, Howard won an Oscar nomination for his performance in the movie “Hustle & Flow” as a pimp who dreams of making it big as a rapper. The Cat producers clearly hope that his movie star looks and hip reputation will draw young audiences eager to see him in person even if they’ve never heard of Tennessee Williams. And Howard seems to have the kind of ego that probably made the billing a deal-breaker for his taking the part. Even though the show is a limited run, scheduled to end on June 15, Howard is planning to take off April 15 to May 22 to promote an upcoming movie (click here to read a revealing interview he gave New York magazine).

My sister, who r
ates Cat as her favorite Tennessee Williams play (I’m an A Streetcar Named Desire gal), really wanted to see the show but developed a bad case of the flu and so gave her ticket to my 28 year-old niece Jennifer, who’s the exact demographic— young, black and into pop culture—the producers were hoping to woo. And the audience the night we went was certainly more diverse—in age and color—than most Broadway audiences tend to be. Jennifer and I grabbed a quick dinner at the venerable theater eatery Sardi’s before the show. We went there because she got off from work late and it’s right across the street from the Broadhurst. We saw several young black couples at other tables whom we later spotted in the Cat audience. Although Jennifer, addicted to the mussels and the more casual ambience at Angus McIndoe, wasn’t all that impressed with eating at Sardi’s, not even when I tried to point out some of her favorite actors among the trademark caricatures that adorn the restaurant’s walls. But she liked the show so much that she actually went home and put the 1958 movie version, with Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie, Paul Newman as Brick and Burl Ives as Big Daddy, on her Netflix list of movies to rent.

I was a little less impressed. Ray Klausen’s cramped set didn’t really work, William H. Grant III’s lighting worked too hard and too many of Debbie Allen’s directorial choices didn’t quite make sense—I still don’t know why a saxophonist walked across the stage at the be
ginning of the show. But the biggest disappointment for me was Rose’s Maggie. The actress looks terrific in her skin-baring lingerie but her portrayal of this fascinating character is only skin deep. It's the old pros Rashad and Jones who save the day. She brings a poignancy to the role of Big Mama, making her less a fool and more a woman who is knowingly trying to fill any vacant silences before things are said that shouldn’t be. And he brings the age-defying sexiness of a self-made man who has clawed his way to power and revels in the pleasure of throwing it around. The fact that they are African-American isn't addressed head-on and nor should it be; but it does add extra texture and tension and that's a good thing.

Critics were split on the production. But, despite its faults, this is a crowd-pleaser of a show. And I don’t mean that in a condescending way. There really can be wisdom in crowds. The inevitable standing ovation began when Rashad, second from last, walked on the stage for her final bow. And the cheers for Jones actually greeted his entrance. When he walked on for his bow at the end, the audience roared with delight. By the time Howard came on, he seemed almost an afterthought.

March 5, 2008

Nostalgia for "Broadway Musicals of 1947"

Nostalgia plays a big role in contemporary theater. People (me included) are always talking about how great shows were back in the old days. Revivals have become the bread and butter of most Broadway seasons. And for the last 15 years, the folks behind the Encores! series have showcased musicals from the past with increasingly elaborate concert productions. But I’m not sure I’ve ever seen more passion for the past than I witnessed when I went to the first production of the new season of Broadway by the Year, the eight-year old series that presents songs from musicals that opened in a selected year.

The year in the spotlight on Monday night was 1947. And the shows featured in The Broadway Musicals of 1947 ran from big hits like Brigadoon and Finian’s Rainbow to arty failures like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro and Street Scene, with music by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Langston Hughes, to total obscurities like Louisiana Lady, which ran for just four performances. And while the Encores! orchestra has 30+ members, Broadway by the Year’s Ross Patterson Little Big Band has just five. There’s no set; costumes are improvised and the lighting is pretty basic. And yet the audience couldn’t get enough of the show. Each performer had to come back on stage for a second bow before the applause died down. Each song was greeted with audible sighs of contentment. Despite a few hostile glares, the woman sitting behind me couldn’t keep herself from signing along to at least half of the numbers—and not just the ballads that became standards but the novelty songs too.

As anyone who has read this blog will know, I consider myself a theater lover. I’ve sometimes called myself a theater geek. But I’m a piker compared to the folks who filled The Town Hall on Monday. During intermission, I overheard heated discussions about what Kurt Weill’s best period was and laments for '47 songs that hadn't been included. Across the aisle, a man greeted an old friend by humming songs to her. The souvenir shop in the lobby, which was mobbed, was a card table filled with CDs of hard-to-find cast albums and recordings of previous By the Year concerts. The series has clearly developed a cult following. “Is this your first time?” the woman on my left asked the man on her left. “Oh no,” he said, slightly offended. “I come all the time.” She nodded approvingly, “Me, too,” she said. I immediately put my head into my program, afraid that I’d be found out as a rookie.

But even a rookie can have a good time at Broadway by the Year. The series creator and producer Scott Siegel narrates the evenings, and he started off with a little social history to set the year’s musicals in context. He reminded the audience that 1947 was the year of the first UFO sightings in Roswell, New Mexico and the start of the Marshall Plan in Europe; that Jackie Robinson integrated baseball that year and the term Cold War was introduced; and that 1947 marked the debuts of the kiddie TV show “Howdy Doody” (Siegel lead a group sing-along of the show’s theme song) and the first Tony Awards ceremony. Then the music started. Broadway stalwarts like Marc Kudisch, Howard McGillin and Alexander Gemignani were among the 13 performers who sang and danced in nearly 30 numbers. Kendrick Jones, a teen tap dance whiz kid did a couple of specialty numbers that brought down the house. They’re all incredibly talented and some of the numbers were sung, wonderfully, without amplification, a reminder of how it was in, yes, the good old days.

But what I loved most was the Mickey-and-Judy-like let’s put on a show spirit of the whole thing. There’s no chance that anything from these concerts is going to transfer to Broadway the way that the Encores! productions of Chicago, Wonderful Town and The Apple Tree did. The production values suggest that the performers certainly aren’t in it for the money. They’re there because they love what they do and they love doing it for people. Their passion is contagious. I left with a grin on my face.

Each concert is just one night. So you’ve missed 1947. But there’s plenty of time to get a ticket for The Broadway Musicals of 1954 (with music from The Pajama Game, Peter Pan, The Boy Friend, Fanny, The Golden Apple, and House of Flowers) which is scheduled for April 7; The Broadway Musicals of 1965 (Man of La Mancha, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Do I Hear a Waltz? The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd, Flora, the Red Menace, and Skyscraper) will be on May 12; and The Broadway Musicals of 1979 (Evita, Sweeney Todd, They’re Playing Our Song, I Remember Mama, and Sarava) set for June 16. In fact, I might run into you at that last one.

March 1, 2008

Revisiting "A Raisin in the Sun"

When Lorraine Hansberry wrote A Raisin in the Sun, the classic 1959 play that was the first drama by a black playwright to open on Broadway, she intended the main character to be Walter Lee Younger, a frustrated Chicago chauffeur who shares a small tenement apartment with his wife, small son, widowed mother and college student sister. Having Sidney Poitier, who had just starred in the movie "The Defiant Ones," play the role only seemed to confirm that A Raisin in the Sun would be Walter Lee’s show. But Claudia McNeil, the actress who played the mother Lena, had different ideas about which character should be dominant and her compelling performance tilted the balance of power to the point that nearly a quarter century later, George C. Wolfe would parody A Raisin in the Sun as "The Last Mama-On-the-Couch Play" in his first big hit The Colored Museum, an audacious send-up of African-American culture.

I know all of this because I once spent a lovely morning with Philip Rose, the producer of the landmark 1959 production, as he reminisced about putting the show together. And I thought about all of it this week because in the most recent production of A Raisin in the Sun, which aired as a three-hour special on ABC earlier this week, the power is back in Walter Lee’s hands. Literally. In the original production, Lena, holding a beloved and symbolic plant, was the last person to leave the stage before the curtain fell. But in the TV movie, it’s Walter Lee who gets the plant and the last close-up. This Walter Lee is played by the
hip-hop impresario Sean Combs, who is also known as P. Diddy. Combs, shown above with Phylicia Rashad as Lena, also starred in the 2004 Broadway revival. He had never acted onstage before and had only done a few small roles in movies but he gave it his all, hiring a private acting coach and even building a copy of the set in his living room so that he could rehearse at home. His determination paid off: he didn’t embarrass himself, the 10-week run was sold-out, and both Rashad and Audra McDonald as Walter Lee’s wife Ruth won Tonys for their performances. They’re in the TV movie too, as is Sanaa Lathan who plays the sister, Beneatha.

The plot of A Raisin in the Sun pivots around a $10,000 insurance check from the estate of the recently deceased patriarch of the family and the dreams that each family member has for the money—Walter Lee wants to invest in a liquor store, Beneatha wants to go to medical school, Lena wants a more comfortable home for them all. But the play also deals with all the tensions—integration, feminism, African independence, racial pride—that were roiling in the black community as well as the wider society at the time. Hansberry was just 28 when her play opened and energized by the changes that were in the air (her own family had integrated a Chicago neighborhood and her father had waged a battle against efforts to keep other blacks out of the area that eventually resulted in a landmark Supreme Court decision) and she wanted to present an angrier work but toned it down to get the show produced on Broadway. She tried to restore the rawness in the script for the 1961 film version of the play but was only partly successful. It wasn’t until eight years after Hansberry’s premature death from pancreatic cancer at just 34, that Raisin, the 1973 musical based on the play, was able to express more of the militancy she wanted to show.

Strangely, the script for the new TV movie, written by Paris Qualles, has muted the anger again. Maybe Qualles and director Kenny Leon felt that such emotions are out of place at a time when it is looking more and more possible that a black man may move into the White House. The movie they’ve made is still affecting and, in case you missed it, the DVD is due out in May. But in the meantime, do yourself a real favor and get the 1961 movie (click here to see an excerpt). Hansberry named her play after the Langston Hughes poem that asks, "What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?" Or, the final line wonders, "does it explode?" This powerhouse production shows why the latter almost happened.