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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
Street, New York. $50 to $80. Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200.
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
New York. $25 to $95. Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-620
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