Corrections or additions?
This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the June 13, 2001
edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
New York: `King Hedley II’ & `Bells’
Fraught with melodramatic situations, metaphysical
implications, and mystical intimations August Wilson’s new play
Hedley II" is a frustrating mix of symbolism and realism. It is,
at the same time, a powerful and memorable theatrical experience.
The play is set in the mid-1980s in the economically anemic black
ghetto Hill District, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Here in the backyard
of his family’s home, ex-convict (seven years for murder two) King
Hedley (a shaven-headed Brian Stokes Mitchell) is hatching up a
scheme. This time to sell stolen refrigerators (he didn’t steal them,
just selling them) with Mister (Monte Russell), his brother-in-law
and partner. King’s desperation to get cash is partly motivated by
his need to provide for his unhappy and pregnant wife Tonya (Viola
Davis), but more by his gnawing need to elevate himself out of the
hopelessness of his despairing environment. Convincing themselves
that a little armed-robbery of a local jewelry store on the side will
not hurt, King and Mister hope to use the money to open their own
small business, a video store.
Casting another shadow upon King’s real agonies and unrealistic
is his ex-singer mother Ruby (Leslie Uggams), a survivor of unstable
and unscrupulous men whose current, or rather recurrent, old flame
and professional swindler Elmore (Charles Brown), is back to cause
chaos in her life. That he also, in a fit of pique, is pressed to
expose some ugly truths about Ruby’s past and King’s legitimacy adds
more tension and grounds for violence into the lives of this
family. Thrown into the sordid reality is the nut-case of a neighbor
Stool Pigeon (Stephen McKinley Henderson), a hallucinating,
old gent who, as the plot churns toward its tragic end, recites
of the Old Testament to explain the plight and the turbulent legacy
of the black race.
The play, however, under Marion McClinton’s overly pedantic direction,
spirals downward and somewhat tediously over three hours. An
and hard-to-swallow conclusion doesn’t help. If the resolution of
the play seems unworthy of its writer and, indeed, of the vibrant
characters who kept us in their thrall, the dialogue always resonates
with persuasive expressive lyricism. It reaches a climax in Tonya’s
soliloquy (which helped win Davis the Tony Award) in which she
decries the future and the fate of children giving birth to children.
Mitchell gives a towering and mesmerizing performance as the raging,
confounded and ultimately helpless King Hedley. Leslie Uggams is
moving as the mother whose secrets are as guarded as her affections.
Both Brown, as the manipulative and conniving Elmore, and Henderson
as the ranting neighbor, offer unforgettable portraits of the
archetypal schemer and dreamer. As part of Wilson’s canon
"Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom," "Fences," "Joe
Come and Gone," "The Piano Lesson," "Two Trains
"Seven Guitars") that explores the heritage and experience
of African American decade by decade over the 20th century, "King
Hedley II," set in the 1980s, may be the most disheartening. But
it also resonates with the force and the focus of a master dramatist.
Three stars: You won’t be disappointed.
— Simon Saltzman
York. Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200.
It was 1956 when Judy Holliday became the toast of
in "Bells are Ringing," the silly and sweet musical
of Jule Styne (music) and Betty Comden and Adolph Green (book and
lyrics). Forty-five years later, Broadway has a worthy successor to
Holliday in Faith Prince, a performer whose musical comedy skills
provide the star-generating sparkle that this show sorely needs. Not
to unkindly discredit the once quaint but now irretrievably creaky
vehicle, there is good reason to have waited so long to find the right
performer who could blow some of the cobwebs off the inane plot. As
Ella Peterson, the nosy but nice telephone service operator at
who feels it is her calling to meddle in the lives of clients she
never sees, carrot-topped Prince is totally right and totally
She careens fearlessly through the plot’s holes and occasional highs
with a bravura energy and beguiling charm not seen since Lucille
"I Love Lucy" days.
Ella falls sight unseen for Jeff Moss (Marc Kudisch), a handsome
playwright who is suffering with writer’s block, and less so from
the bevy of pretty girls who party through his playboy penthouse.
She then breaks the number one rule of her boss Sue (Beth Fowler)
when, without disclosing her identity, she makes it her mission to
get Jeff back to writing. Although her mission is as motherly as it
is romantic, Ella doesn’t let it distract her from helping other needy
clients toward their life’s goals: there’s mumbling actor (Darren
Ritchie) fixated with Marlon Brando, and a dentist (Martin Moran)
with a drill and a song to go with it. Just as Ella is exposed in
time for the finale, so is Susan’s love interest, Sandor (David
a bookie posing as a continental record producer. None of this matters
as much as our response to director Tina Landau’s ultra light touch,
Jeff Calhoun’s period choreography (fearlessly outre), the brightness
of David C. Wollard’s ’50s costuming, and the early TV studio look
of the settings (with wonderful vintage films projected during the
overture) designed by Riccardo Hernandez.
But how can one complain when one gets to hear Prince bring her own
persuasive style to the forever marvelous ballads "The Party’s
Over," the "Long Before I knew You," and bring a deft
comedic touch to "Is it a Crime," "Drop That Name,"
and the show-stopping finale, "I’m Going Back to the Bonjour
Brassiere Factory." Baritone Kudisch (who was robbed of a
Tony nomination) delivers the show’s most popular song, "Just
in Time," in full throttle. "Bells are Ringing" may not
be a great American musical, but song for song and joke for joke and
Prince for Kudisch it should, at least, bring a smile to your face.
That could be enough to make bells ring for you. Two stars: Maybe you should have come.
— Simon Saltzman
Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200. $50 to $85.
at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200 .
For current information on Broadway and Off-Broadway shows, music,
and dance call NYC/On Stage at 212-768-1818, a 24-hour performing
arts hotline operated by the Theater Development Fund. The TKTS
half-price ticket booth at Times Square (Broadway & 47) is open daily,
3 p.m. to 8 p.m. for evening performances; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. for
and Saturday matinees; and 11 a.m. to closing for Sunday matinees.
The lower Manhattan booth, on the Mezzanine at 2 World Trade Center,
is open Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday from 11
a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Matinee tickets are sold at this location on the
day prior to performance. Cash or travelers’ checks only; no credit
cards. Visit TKTS at: www.tdf.org.
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