UPDATE, Friday P.M.: Adds ToasT review at top.
It’a been almost five years since the poet and performance artist Lemon Andersen performed County Of Kings, his breathtaking autobiographical solo show about growing up in pre-gentrified Brooklyn. (It was presented at the Public Theater with an assist from Spike Lee). An actor with the singular soul of a poet and the heavily-populated mind of a novelist, Andersen is back at the Public with ToasT, his first full-length play. While the poetry is intact, the canvas is much bigger even than Brooklyn, and so is the playwright’s ambition.
Set in a cellblock at the time of the 1971 uprising that made New York State’s Attica Correctional Facility the country’s best-known prison since Alcatraz, ToasT attempts to tell through metaphor and sometimes lofty imagery the backstory of a week-long confrontation that ended in an explosion of violence leaving 33 prisoners and 10 officers and civilians dead. Cellblock D is cushy compared with the rest of the notoriously brutal penitentiary. Within, an elite group of convicts lives in relative detente with the guards, who allow them a certain amount of self-rule as long as they keep the peace.
The group elder, Dolomite, speaks in a smooth resonant baritone that is mostly calm until strong words are necessary, just as his imposing physical presence can instantly be put to use when circumstance requires him to show who’s boss. As played by the great actor Keith David (Community), Dolomite is a formidable king of this jungle.
Into this mostly African-American cadre comes Jesse James, a Puerto Rican whose use of black street slang prompts derision from the others. There’s a strict rite of passage in Cellblock D that requires the “toast” of the title, a personal story told in pre-rap riffs that shows originality, humor, performance chops and chutzpah. In time, Jesse (Armando Riesco) will rise to the occasion.
But there’s a rising drumbeat of revolution in the air (in fact it followed the killing of George Jackson at San Quentin) as prisoners’ rights become a new civil rights’ cause. Such a setting demands a martyr (think One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest), and that role falls to the excitable Hard Rock (F. Hill Harper, in a powerful performance). And if the outcome of the roiling movement is as predestined as the fate of Hard Rock himself, Andersen infuses it with rhythmic passion as the men of Cellblock D spin off in mostly soaring soliloquies.
Some of the dramaturgy is unwieldy and an arcane patois of prison-and-street-speak. But Elise Thoron’s production (she also staged County Of Kings), with a stark poor-theater setting by Alexis Distler; purposefully grim lighting by Jen Schriever and exactly right clothes by Dede Ayite, is fantastic. Never less than compelling, a risky, generous work like ToasT says at least as much about the character of the Public as its more recent (deservedly) high-profile shows like Hamilton and Fun Home. I’m already eager to see what Lemon Andersen comes up with next.
It’s probably not the best moment in time for a show that soft-peddles an “honor” killing. And yet here is Zorba! — that manic-depressive musical that proved as incomparable a team as lyricist Fred Ebb and composer John Kander were capable of a turning out a klunker. Even at a tender 16, when I saw Hal Prince‘s original 1968 staging, I thought there was something tectonically amiss in the attempt to merge New Age sensibility with Old World cosmology.
Revived by the invaluable Encores! series at City Center, it stars a gruff, plucky John Turturro playing the title role created by Anthony Quinn in Michael Cacoyannis’ 1964 adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel. The beheading of a woman in a town square is depicted as just another item in the Power Point presentation of Zorba’s “that’s life” philosophy. (Echoing the mid-wedding pogrom of Fiddler On The Roof, which Prince produced, it’s not the only similarity Zorba! and its main character share with the earlier show.)
As in Cabaret (Kander & Ebb’s hit from two years before), Zorba! drops a vaguely innocent American into a foreign culture that is irresistibly intoxicating and stealthily dangerous. With his incomparable designer Boris Aronson, Prince, a brilliant foil for Kander & Ebb’s tendency to sentimentalize, made us feel the desperation of a world that could dissolve at any moment into chaos or poverty or the Aegean Sea.
The action begins with a big choral anthem “Life Is,” led by The Leader, (Marin Mazzie in glorious voice, seductive as a native siren). Niko (Frozen‘s Santino Fontana, quite likable) arrives in a Greek village to claim his inheritance, a nearby abandoned mine. He’s instantly approached by Zorba, a penniless philosophizing force of nature offering guidance on everything from women to irk-force management. In the mining town, Zorba takes up with an aging, dying courtesan (the heartbreaking Zoë Wanamaker). Niko walls in love with a smoldering young widow (lovely Elizabeth A. Davis), who pays for their night of passion with her life. The mine proves worthless. Zorba shrugs. Niko, like the writer Clifford in Cabaret after all the denizens of the Kit Kat Club have been sent to certain death, returns home sadder but wiser, oh la.
The production is exuberantly staged by Walter Bobbie, with dances by Josh Rhodes and musical direction by Rob Berman. The casting is excellent throughout, but Turturro, a crowd-pleaser with impeccable comic timing, is nonetheless all wrong for the role. Quinn (who played Zorba in a not-so-good 1983 Broadway revival) made up in charisma and musicality what he lacked in vocal range. Turturro has many qualities as an actor, but on the evidence here musicality and charisma are not among them.
Give this Encores! production credit, however for reminding us of how deeply John Kander and his late partner carved out a place atop the pantheon of musical-theater geniuses. Through the end of its run this weekend, Zorba! joins an extraordinary triad of their shows running simultaneously within a few blocks of each other: the now-and-forever revival of Chicago, and their valedictory, the Tony-nominated The Visit. I’ll drink to that.