`Man of La Mancha’

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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the April 2, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

On Broadway: `Ma Rainey’

During the almost 20 years that August Wilson has been

churning out dramatic experiences of African-Americans in the 20th

century, he has earned a place among America’s most important and

valued dramatists. Not unlike Eugene O’Neill, whose characters are

also given to long-winded expository speeches that may try our patience,

Wilson creates characters that tend to do the same. But sometimes

long-winded is better than no wind at all. And with "Ma Rainey’s

Black Bottom," the first of his 10-play cycle, Wilson unleashed

a gale of glorious speechifying for some wonderful and unforgettable


Don’t look for a more unforgettable character than the trumpeter Levee,

the angry, talented musician who challenges the successful imperious

Ma Rainey’s judgement and authority. In this first revival, Levee

is being played again by Charles S. Dutton, who essayed the role to

great acclaim in 1984. Although Dutton has done what we all do —

get older and a bit thicker around the edges — it is his terrific

performance that gives this production its primary focus and its principal

force. Although there are virtuoso performances from others in the

cast, Dutton loses no time in taking charge of the play’s dynamic.

In the title role, which interestingly is not the centerpiece of the

play, Whoopi Goldberg makes a valiant effort to embody the earthy,

no-nonsense Ma Rainey. A legend in her own time and informally crowned

Queen of the Blues, Rainey is seen as a force to contend with. A non-singer,

but an actress who knows her strengths and how to make a formidable

impression, Goldberg may not be the perfect choice to play Ma Rainey,

but does nothing to impair the character’s persona.

The action takes place in a seedy Chicago recording studio. Some of

the play’s tension arises from the unraveling relationship Ma Rainey

has with the cow-towing white owner of the recording studio (nicely

acted in various stages of anxiety and frustration by Louis Zorich).

Also eager to meet the diva’s demands is Irvin, Rainey’s agent (played

with carefully managed smarts by Jack Davidson). But most of the tension

comes from the artistic schism growing between Ma Rainey and Levee,

who is trying to impose his more jazzy arrangement of "Ma Rainey’s

Black Bottom" into the recording session. Levee particularly wants

to impress the owners with his ability as a composer and arranger.

Another splinter in Ma Rainey’s bottom is her suspicion that Levee

is making moves on her lesbian lover, Dussie Mae, who isn’t above

dreaming of her own stardom. Heather Alicia Simms plays her with an

overt sexuality and bold opportunism. Things go from bad to worse

as Ma Rainey insists on giving the spoken intro to "Black Bottom"

to her speech-impaired nephew, Sylvester. As played by Anthony Mackie,

the young man’s affliction is seen as both comical and poignant as

he flounders in take after take. But as the imperious Rainey’s demands

are met, they also tend to create disharmony among the four musicians

who spend their time between takes bantering and baiting each other

with increasing bitterness.

Carl Gordon is splendid as the trombonist and group’s leader who relentlessly

tries to hold the peace, not make waves and keep the focus on the

music. He gets a lot of sweet mileage out of his "one, two, you

know just what to do" introduction to each take. Stephen McKinley

Henderson gives a touching performance as Slow Drag, the easy-going,

somewhat dense bass-player. But it is Thomas Jefferson Byrd, who,

as the pseudo-intellectual pianist, touchingly provides the play with

its most ingratiating character and sadly the most tragically fated.

Under Marion McClinton’s direction, it is the incendiary

atmosphere that prevails among the musicians that take precedence

over the more laid-back contentiousness of Ma Rainey. It remains for

the men in the pick-up-band to sustain the play with digressive stories

that may seem indulgent, but in the end reveal both who they are and

what they had to do to survive in the music and recording industry.

Both David Gallo’s realistic studio setting and Toni-Leslie James

costumes, particularly Ma Rainey’s furs and frills, validate the time

and the temperaments.

As we await the coming of Wilson’s next play in the series — "Gem

of the Ocean" — this satisfying but not quite electrifying

(as was the original) "Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom" is a worthy

production. More importantly, it is a must for those who are still

discovering the incomparable Wilson and his world. Three stars. You won’t feel cheated.

— Simon Saltzman

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Royale Theater, 242 West 45

Street, New York. $50 to $80. Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200.

Top Of Page
`Man of La Mancha’

Okay, so you’ve seen "Man of La Mancha" a gazillion

times. The musical that, in its time, had a record-breaking run on

Broadway beginning in 1967 is once again upon us. For some of us

who have seen the show more times than we care to admit, this popular

musical has not exactly fostered prolonged reverence or any comparative

delight. But if one has to be thrown into a dark and gloomy dungeon

along with outcasts, heretics, and derelicts, you could not hope for

an experience filled with more invention or imagination than is delivered

by director Jonathan Kent. And with Brian Stokes Mitchell as the tottering

and senile knight-errant, the show is a worthwhile experience. Even

that tear-wrenching, "The Impossible Dream," seems resoundingly

renewed. To be sure, the production team has revitalized what had

become stale just as Mitchell has regained the lost glory of the central


Mitchell is splendid as Miguel d’Cervantes y Saavedra, the famed Spanish

author who, while awaiting trial before the inquisition, compressed

his interminable novel into a fragmented fantasy featuring himself

as his fictional Don Quixote de La Mancha. Without harping back to

those famous or otherwise who have interpreted the role, let it be

said that Mitchell attends to the impossible dreams and comic poses

of his near-tragic character with a wholly comprehensible countenance.

Within the quasi-zarzuela cum Tin Pan Alley collaborative contents

of the Dale Wasserman book, Mitch Leigh music and Joe Darion lyrics,

Mitchell succeeds in bringing the prerequisite solemnity, power, and

poignancy to this complex character. But even more to his credit,

he gives an endearing composite of Cervantes and Quixote. If he has

proven that he sings magnificently ("Ragtime," "Kiss Me

Kate") and easily takes command of the score’s demands, he also

easily conquers the windmills in Don Q’s mind. Even the most cynical

viewer should be impressed.

Virtually sharing the spotlight with Mitchell is Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio,

who does a reputable job of singing the trollop Aldonza a.k.a. Dulcinea’s

generally unsingable octave-vaulting songs. These she does fearlessly

and passionately, as well as throwing herself with ferocious abandon

into the arms of the male animals she shares the dung heap with in

the exactingly choreographed (by Luis Perez) rape scene.

Leigh’s quasi-ethnic score, with its misplaced (by 200 years) use

of the flamenco idiom, is no more or less facetious than are Wasserman’s

book and Darion’s lyrics, both making a silly, if spirited, mockery

of Cervantes’ prose. Unlike many productions, this one has much to

delight the eye, not the least of which is designer Paul Brown’s awesome,

quarry-like "common room for those who wait," a breathtaking

marvel of metal stairs and shifting walls that serve to frame various

episodes. Paul Gallo’s lighting brings as many varied and impressive

dramatic textures to the show as do the performers.

Another bravo is extended to Ernie Sabella, as Sancho Panza, who is

irresistible without resorting to the heretofore-tiresome flavorings

of the Lower East Side. All the multiple-assigned supporting roles

are performed excellently. For those who would rather dream the impossible

dream than read the impossible book, this is the "Man of La Mancha"

for them. Three stars. You won’t feel cheated.

— Simon Saltzman

Man of La Mancha, Martin Beck Theater, 302 West 45 Street,

New York. $25 to $95. Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-620

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