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October 17, 2006

Raisin sags like a heavy load at Court Theatre

Coco. The Rothschilds. Sugar. Purlie. Shenandoah. If you recognize more than three of these names as Tony award–nominated musicals, you’re almost guaranteed to be a musical theater scholar. Broadway in the 1970s was undergoing a metamorphosis, because it wasn’t certain what it was supposed to be anymore. This was the atmosphere in which Raisin was first released. Is it any surprise that hardly anyone remembers this show won Best Musical in 1974?

Court Theatre’s decision to revive the show is certainly well founded, since it was right here in Chicago’s South Side that Lorraine Hansberry’s father tried to move into Washington Park only to be shut out due to a Woodlawn Property Owners’ Association policy barring occupation “by any person of the colored race.” And I certainly admire Court’s decision to do it through an almost unheard-of musical version. That having been said, their production left some things to be desired.

The musical itself, with music by Judd Woldin—whose next greatest achievement seems to be having written another musical called The King of Schnorrers—and lyrics by Robert Brittan, is solidly bookended and anchored with inspirational ballads, and Doug Peck’s pit with new orchestrations by Adam DeGroot certainly does its best with so little. The score is replete with the vogue ’70s backup chorus, who here are enjoyably employed in more than just sitting onstage and scatting, and a few songs are certainly trying their best to break out of the traditional song form to better suit the action. But I would like to thank God that Hansberry’s well crafted play was still allowed to shine through in all its glorious honesty.

When entering the theater, one first notices five lights shining down onto the stage (a three-quarters thrust which could pass for the main room of any student apartment) through a thin haze of smoke, immediately summoning up a sense of history, but the drama that begins as the lights come up is as alive as it ever was. After we are first forced to sit through an awkward pop setting of a Langston Hughes poem, we are introduced to the Lee family, with whom we stay for the rest of the evening.

I soon found myself questioning some of director Charles Newell’s staging, which has never been as striking and dazzling for me as it was in the ’04–’05 production Travesties. While the decision to have offstage actors watch from in front of the pit was daring, I found much of the resulting backwards blocking to be inorganic. It was far better when the more talented actors were just allowed to do what they wanted to.

Now to the family. Harriet Nzinga Plumpp’s Ruth Younger was unconvincing; at her best, she sounded like a weaker Audra MacDonald—at her worst, she didn’t. I certainly enjoyed the winning Malkia Stampley as Beneatha Younger and Travis Turner as her Nigerian suitor, Joseph Asagai, and Joslyn Jones’s Mrs. Johnson was a hoot, but David St. Louis’s Walter Lee Younger left me hanging. Walter Lee Younger is a part that a man must grow into, with such profound humanity and a brightness that no amount of darkness can extinguish, but St. Louis simply couldn’t summon the spark or the intensity, making Walter Lee just look rather sad. Although I generally enjoyed Adero Neeley as the youngest Younger, I had to reconsider when he had trouble singing an early-Michael Jackson–esque pop song (which the authors chose to have him sing over the most tense scene in the show).

By far, the best part of the show was Ernestine Jackson as Lena Younger, or Mama. Jackson starred in the original production as Ruth, Walter’s wife, and was nominated for a Tony, and here we can certainly see that she deserved it. As Mama, Jackson summons up a dignity and breadth of emotion in a show of acting prowess that proved she could make you stay with her even as she sang a song to a plant.

The bottom line: Go see Raisin if you’re an aficionado of obscure musicals (like me) or if you simply want to see an incredible actress inhabit a part like no one else could. Otherwise, save your money. There are just too many other great plays to see in Chicago right now.