The Tony-nominated revival of A Raisin In The Sun, coming a decade after a production in which Sean Combs made his Broadway debut as Walter Lee Younger, had some people wondering whether it was too soon. But as it turns out, that’s a discussion for pedants. Great plays deserve to be mounted as often as the talent is there to breathe life into them, and with Denzel Washington as Walter for a new generation, A Raisin In The Sun breathes life aplenty. Washington proved he was as comfortable on the stage as on screen four years ago, in a revival of August Wilson’s Fences – when James Earl Jones’ titanic performance as sanitation man and ex-baseball player Troy Maxon still cast a long shadow. Washington had no trouble making the role of Troy his own, and that’s the case today, as well: This elegant actor balances the ebullience of a man who dreams, with the world-weariness of someone tired of seeing those dreams deferred, as Langston Hughes alluded to in the poem that gives the play its name.
Walter is as angry at the world as the Jimmy Porter of Look Back In Anger, as angry as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire: young men infuriated by a world in which the cards are eternally stacked against them and the house always wins. Washington makes you feel, deeply, that terrifying, sad, inspired, hopeless, crushing yet ultimately liberating admix of emotions through which Walter careers from one hour to the next, one day to the next.
Kenny Leon undoubtedly guided him through the rehearsal process but the result on stage is a performance of controlled exuberance. He exudes a special kind of star quality that manages to draw the light not only to himself but to his fellow players. It’s masterful, which makes the lack of a Tony nomination even more puzzling (he won the Tony for his performance in Fences). As it happens, Kenny Leon staged that earlier revival as well. Over breakfast the other day, I asked him about coming back to it. “Like all great plays, this is one that keeps giving and giving and giving,” he said. I replied that if the earlier production with a younger man had a boogie-woogie rhythm, this new one, with an actor who has a few more years under his belt, feels like the blues. Leon agreed, saying that’s in large part why the show is suffused with the playing of Miles Davis. “Denzel is a theater animal,” Leon said. “I told him `I want this to be an intimate production of a big play, so that people hear the music of it.’ Miles blowing that horn, trying to squeeze the life out of that horn, he was Walter too, searching. I wanted the production not to be eavesdropping on the ’50s, but to very clearly be seen through the lens of 2014. For Denzel as Walter, it’s the last dream, the one final shot he has to leave something to his boy. The killing of Trayvon Martin had just happened when we began discussing it, and we were thinking about Walter’s son. I wanted America to see a boy who is not a boy — he’s a man.”
Leon grew up in Florida — he was raised by his grandmother — and lives in Atlanta, though he spends most of his time in New York. Actually he spends a great deal of time in church, his grandmother’s influence, and a connection that has stood him in good stead though an expanding and varied career. “It’s all spiritual,” he told me. “That’s why you do theater, right? If you can’t feel something you didn’t feel before you came, why go?”
This Broadway season would have been considerably poorer had it not been for the indispensable concert series Encores! that’s now an embedded part of the city’s cultural landscape. Two key Tony-nominated shows — best musical contender After Midnight and best revival contender Violet — came through the series, and of course Chicago — our own true now and forever show — continues its run after an Encores! debut in the last century.
A similar fate does not await the current Encores! offering, a good-looking, earnestly sung but lifeless, not to say pointless, revival of the 1960 Irma La Douce. Hard to believe this piffle was originally staged by the legendary Peter Brook, with dances by Onna White. Rob McClure stars as a credulous law student who falls in love with a happy hooker, played by a charmless Jennifer Bowles (Shirley MacLaine played her in Billy Wilder’s 1963 film). This is the same era as Sweet Charity (MacLaine, again, in the 1969 movie). The score is a mediocre hache of French cliches and today the story just seems dumb at best, tasteless, given any thought.
More bad news is on view at the St. James, where I caught up with Bullets Over Broadway. Let’s talk about Susan Stroman, who directed and choreographed this adaptation of the 1994 Woody Allen comedy. Nobody but nobody packages long-stemmed beauties into tap pants and halter tops like Stroman. She has a direct line to heavenly hoofers and if all you did was look at Bullets (and the soignée clothes by William Ivey Long) you might swoon. But in addition to being not very funny — Bullets Over Broadway inevitably leads one to thoughts of similar, but much better shows like Guys and Dolls and Kiss Me, Kate — the thing about this one is: It’s ice cold. The dancers are sometimes frozen en tableau and the truth is, they often look like that even when they’re moving. Stroman came a cropper earlier this season with Big Fish (which I liked a lot more than Bullets) and I wonder what she’s lost with these big, soulless failures. It’s hard to grasp that the Stroman of these shows is the same inventive, inspired and powerfully human visionary who (speaking of intimate productions of big shows) gave us Contact and The Scottsboro Boys.