Archive for "Broadway"

Review: ‘Lady Day’ on Broadway

Published by Clay Cane on Tuesday, April 22, 2014 at 12:00 am.

(Photo: Joseph Marzullo/

(Photo: Joseph Marzullo/

When an actor portrays a well-known figure in American history, usually there are similarities. Dorothy Dandridge and Halle Berry had uncanny similarities, both physically and as Black women who broke barriers at the Academy Awards. Mary Bridget Davies as Janis Joplin in A Night With Janis Joplin is a blues singer and resembled the late, great rocker. But there are no such commonalities between Audra McDonald and Billie Holiday, which is why McDonald’s performance is 90 minutes of the most transformative work you will see on Broadway this year.

Audra McDonald is a mezzo-soprano, Julliard-trained Broadway singer. Billie Holiday had a thin voice with a small range, and her training was the do-or-die School of Hard Knocks.

McDonald was born in Berlin and raised in sunny Fresno, California. Holiday was born in Baltimore and lived much of her life in the rough streets of New York City.

Audra McDonald is one of the greatest successes in the history of Broadway — she’s won a record five Tonys. Billie Holiday is one of the greatest tragedies in American music.

It’s no secret the 43-year-old is an acting and singing beast, but when it was announced McDonald would play Holiday, many critics and fans of Broadway thought the casting was a stretch — even for Audra’s great range.  They should have known better than to doubt Miss Audra. She delivered yet another performance of a lifetime. But this is what Miss Audra does… she gave a performance of a lifetime in 2012’s Porgy and Bess, another performance of a lifetime in 1996’s Master Class and even the meanest of critics praised Audra McDonald’s performance in the panned, live version of the Sound of Music. The woman is a freak of performance nature.

From the first note (for a moment I thought she was lip-synching to Billie as a tribute of some sort), McDonald snatched up ever fiber of Billie’s being. The tone, the grit and the specific vocal distinction of Holiday was astounding to hear from another human being that wasn’t Billie Holiday.  Give Audra her sixth Tony.

Beautifully written by Lanie Robertson and directed by Lonny Price, Lady Day takes place at Emerson’s Bar and Grill in 1959 Philadelphia. Staged as a small venue concert and backed by a three-piece band, McDonald opens the show by stumbling to the stage in all her Billie glory, ironically dressed in a white gown and gloves. It’s the last four months of Holiday’s life, fresh out of jail for drug possession and singing in a town that she hates — Philly.  McDonald owns every piece of the stage and strolls through the audience to smoke cigarettes and refresh her drinks with straight gin — no chaser.

Less is more in Lady Day: the show is fittingly set with a small stage and tables for the audience privileged enough to land floor seats. The lighting is an eerie, almost smoky mist, channeling the beat-up Philly bar. Between each song, there are hilarious, disturbing and raunchy stories of Holiday’s epic life. Everything from how she fell in love with music to enduring racism in the Deep South to her tragic family to becoming an addict. With a drink and cigarette, the monologues are filled with n-words, f-bombs, b—–s and other obscenities that surprisingly save the show from the morbid. As sad as Holiday’s life story was, the superb storytelling in Lady Day found a way — like so many people — to present the laughter through the tears. You make do with what you got and don’t worry about what you don’t got.

Lady Day conquers great musical numbers, showcases the brilliance of Audra McDonald and accessibly tells the story of Holiday. Most importantly, the production recaptures the truth of Billie Holiday, who was born Eleanora Fagan. This is not the glamorous Diana Ross version from 1972. Billie was a boozing, chain-smoking, foul-mouthed, uniquely politically-charged broad who believed in telling the truth with no shame. Lady Day is as close to the real Billie as we will get.

The 15 songs included jazz and blues classics like “Crazy He Calls Me,” “Pig Foot (And a Bottle of Beer)” and “T’aint’ Nobody’s Business If I Do.” Audra woke Billie up from the grave when she poured her soul in “God Bless the Child” and “Strange Fruit.” However, it was a shock to not hear Billie’s other signature songs like “Good Morning Heartache” and, of course, “Lady Sings the Blues,” which could’ve easily been swapped out for the lesser known numbers.

Billie Holiday was about the feeling.  Whether it was misery or happiness, no one finessed emotions like Lady Day.  She influenced every artist from Frank Sinatra to Aretha Franklin.  Therefore, what makes Lady Day soar is the feeling.  A feeling that stays with you long after you leave the Circle in the Square Theatre. Billie Holiday is surely raising a glass in jazz heaven.

Lady Day is currently playing at Circle in the Square on Broadway.

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Review: “After Midnight” on Broadway

Published by Clay Cane on Wednesday, November 6, 2013 at 12:00 am.

(Photo: Walter McBride/Getty Images)

Old school Harlem is revitalized in the elegant After Midnight, which opened at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on Sunday.

Director and choreographer Warren Carlyle smoothly transports audiences to the golden age of the Harlem Renaissance with over 25 stunning musical and dance numbers that include “Stormy Weather,” “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing.” Similar to FELA! and A Night With Janis Joplin, this is a non-traditional musical with the only narrative to entertain as if you are an  audience member in the legendary Cotton Club.

Fantasia Barrino stars until February 9 as one of the many vocalists belting out intricate jazz numbers. Barrino’s vocal performance is a departure from the wailing gospel and blues she mastered over the years. Here, the American Idol alum shows the beauty in the restraint of her voice, singing pitch-perfect, crystal clear notes proving she is always and forever a vocalist.  Soul, pop, R&B or Broadway — Tasia can sang.

Triple threat Dulé Hill (actor, dancer and seriously good singer) returns to Broadway as the host of the Harlem spectacle, holding his own among vets and fresh newcomers.  Hill’s suave style and nuanced voice is the perfect transition to Harlem.

Backed by the Jazz at Lincoln Center All Stars, every cast member transformed into the fever of old time Harlem from the soul in their feet to the jubilation in their eyes.  The jaw-dropping moves of Daniels J. Wattts, Phillip Attmore, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards (Michael Jackson’s former tap coach!) and many others were incredible to watch. Adriane Lenox was a welcomed left-turn from the prim and proper jazz — a bluesy broad cursing, drinking and singing songs like “Women Be Wise.”  Jared Grimes nearly cracked the stage open as he tap danced like it was his last second on earth during “It Don’t Mean a Thing.”  From Grimes to C.K. Edwards to So You Think You Can Dance’s Lil’ O After Midnight is the best choreography I have ever seen on the Broadway stage.

Infectiously joyful and beautiful, After Midnight is not just a celebration of Black rhythms and dances but a time capsule of American culture — jazz, blues and tap are the origins of pop music.  Conceived by Jack Viertel, the show never boxes itself into the constraints of race — refreshingly not a “Black” version of a white story, but a production that shines on its own originality.

After Midnight is currently playing at the Brooks Atkin Theatre on Broadway.

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Broadway Review: “A Night With Janis Joplin”

Published by Clay Cane on Thursday, October 10, 2013 at 9:00 pm.

(Photo: Walter McBride/Getty Images)

What do you think of when you hear the name Janis Joplin? Depending on your generation, you may not have heard of the Port Arthur, Texas native. You might think she was a hippie chick from the ’60s who sang rock and roll. You might think she was a casualty of the music industry, a member of the 27 club — artists who died tragically at 27 (Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse and many more).

Janis Joplin on Broadway is none of those stories. This isn’t a tragic tale of drug-addicted artist. A Night With Janis Joplin is a fiery celebration of soul music told through the eyes of one of the greatest blues singer ever — white or Black, male or female. Brilliantly written and flawlessly directed by Randy Johnson, this is one of the best Broadway shows I have ever witnessed. If I never see another Broadway show again, I am confident this production is enough to satisfy me for a lifetime. Janis Joplin on the Great White Way is soul that Broadway has never experienced.

Janis Joplin is magically brought to life by the ferocious Mary Bridget Davies — a Cleveland native with rip-roaring vocals. You would think God himself slipped Joplin’s vocal chords in Davies’ throat. One might say Broadway and Janis is a mismatch, but thanks to Johnson and Davies, nothing is watered down or made palatable for the sometimes-conservative Broadway crowd. Davies wails through classics like “Piece of My Heart,” the haunting “Summertime” and the heartbreaking “Ball and Chain.” Her uncanny ability to fully immerse every molecule of her being into Janis gave Davies a standing ovation after nearly every song. If not standing, mouths were dropped with people whispering to the person closest to them, “How is she doing this?”

But Janis wasn’t just about the vocals. She was a woman who deeply felt music. In her performance, Mary Bridget Davies, 35, cracks open the heartbreak, joy, pain, redemption and nuance of “The blues is just a good woman feeling bad.” If Davies doesn’t receive a Tony nomination for her earth-shattering performance, then the Great White Way is clearly out of touch with talent. Mary Bridget Davies is everything a performer should be — musical perfection.

Randy Johnson told the life story of the blues icon via women who made Janis want to sing: Bessie Smith (Taprena Michelle Augstine), Etta James (Nikki Kimbrough), Nina Simone (de’Adre Aziza) and even Aretha Franklin (Allison Blackwell). Where else are you going to see all of these soul divas brought to life on stage? The four women are astoundingly phenomenal, moving the crowd in the way Janis must’ve been moved. One notable performance was Taprena Michelle Augstine having her “And I Am Telling You” moment as she brazenly slayed the audience with “Today I Sing the Blues.” The audience nearly caught the Holy Ghost.

A Night With Janis Joplin tells an extraordinary story of woman who loved music and never forget her roots. We witness how music transforms, inspires and rejuvenates the human spirit. Davies’ vulnerability illuminates the stage, she can not only scream like Janis but she can make you feel like you are sitting with Janis in a bar, hearing the story of many women (and men) who want love, happiness and not to go home alone.

This is the must-see Broadway production of the season. Most importantly, the show doesn’t turn Janis into Broadway.  A Night With Janis Joplin turns Broadway into Janis.

A Night With Janis Joplin is playing at the Lyceum Theatre in New York City.

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Review: “FELA!” Returns to Broadway

Published by Clay Cane on Monday, July 16, 2012 at 10:00 am.

Adesola Osakalumi as Fela Kuti (Photo by Cory Schwartz/Getty Images)

Over two years ago, I said “FELA! is the greatest stage production I have ever experienced.” Some things never change.

When the bio-musical on the life of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti closed on January 2, 2011, Broadway lost some soul. Thankfully, FELA! is back on the Great White Way for 32 performances at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre (302 West 45th Street) in New York City.  If there is anything you do between now and August 4 (two days after the 15th anniversary of Fela Kuti’s death), go experience the three-time Tony Award-winning musical.

Spearheaded by the legendary Bill T. Jones, who is a Kennedy Centers honoree, FELA! takes us to the Shrine Auditorium in Lagos, Nigeria, for what might be Fela’s final performance. We see his incredible journey as a struggling musician to an artist who would eventually “set the world on fire.”  FELA! is not just a musical, it’s a celebration of life, passion and revolution.

For those who don’t know, Fela Kuti was to Nigeria what Bob Marley was to Jamaica. The singer-songwriter became famous for edgy, political songs like “Zombie,” “Everything Scatter” and “Black President.” Through art, he challenged a corrupt government and would suffer the consequences: Attacks on his compound and the murder of his mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti. Fela Kuti passed away of complications from HIV/AIDS on August 2, 1997; he was 58.

In previous productions, Kevin Mambo and Sahr Ngaujah spit fire into one of the most socially relevant artists of the 20th century. For Thursday’s opening night performance, Ngaujah introduced FELA! back to Broadway, which included a special treat of a 60-year-old Bill T. Jones gracing the stage for an impromptu dance, bringing the crowd to a frenzy.

A newcomer to playing Fela Kuti on Broadway is Adesola Osakalumi, who was once part of the ensemble cast. While I didn’t think it was humanly possible, Osakalumi was just as impactful and riveting as the other two leads. Fela is a grueling character to play for 2 hours and 40 minutes: high-energy monologues, big notes and serious emotional depth. The actor must add his own special sauce and gusto, which is what Osakalumi accomplished with a reverberating stage presence and a consistently haunting look in his eyes.

I saw Osakalumi with a tough crowd on Saturday afternoon, but the Bronx native blessed every molecule of the stage, insisting the audience get to their feet — he earned a well-deserved standing ovation. Most important, there were no residuals of Mambo and Ngaujah’s performances, Osakalumi made FELA! his own. Other newcomers were Melanie Marshall as Fela’s revolutionary mother and Paulette Ivory as Fela’s educated and passionate Black American girlfriend, Sandra. Both were simply phenomenal.

Written by Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones, FELA! shines at every angle: set design and costumes (Marina Draghici), music, and vibrant choreography. African dance is free-spirited and improvisational. When choreographed, the movements can easily look stiff and unnatural — but the superb Bill T. Jones gave cohesiveness and structure to African dance without losing its organic appeal. The gifted dancers gracefully manipulated their body into a praise-filled, sexy, Afro-beat frenzy, channeling the ancestors — I was waiting for it to thunder and lightening in the Al Hirschfeld Theatre!

A spectacular moment was “Originality/Yellow Fever,” which allowed the dancers to shine as Fela played the saxophone. Notables: Nicole Chantal de Weever, who gave new meaning to “I whip my hair back and forth!” and So You Think Can Dance’s Adé Chiké Torbert and Thierry Picaut, whose pelvic thrusts almost gave the first row a heart attack!

Side note: There must be a booty requirement to be part of the FELA! cast, while people of color are known to be blessed with extra backside, never have I seen so much booty-booty-booty.  The cast of FELA! made J.Lo and Beyoncé look like booty amateurs!

It was my  fourth time being transported to the Shrine Auditorium and it was equally as magnificent. If you will be in the New York City area this summer, make sure you see FELA! on Broadway, which runs until August 4 at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre.

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“Clybourne Park” on Broadway

Published by Clay Cane on Friday, May 11, 2012 at 12:00 am.

(Photo: Robin Marchant/Getty Images)

Film or stage, stories about race are always risky. Look at the heat The Help and Viola Davis received for telling the story of domestic servants. Halle Berry is still criticized for her edgy role in Monster’s Ball, which won her an Oscar in 2002. In 2010, The Scottsboro Boys on Broadway was protested and closed shortly after opening.  There are some topics that American audiences are not interested in re-visiting, Black or white.  Therefore, the production that takes the plunge to delve into a horrific time in American history better make sure it’s near perfection.  Thankfully, the four-time Tony nominated Clybourne Park gets it right.

The play is a unique spin-off of Lorraine Hansberry’s legendary 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun.  The first half is set at the same Chicago house into which the family from Hansberry’s play would later move.  Conflicts arise when the neighborhood discovers the Black family is moving in. The white family who is moving out is encouraged to stop their neighborhood from being integrated — their Black maid and her husband witness the drama.  The second half is set in 2009 in the same neighborhood, which suffered an economic downfall and is now going through gentrification.

Superbly written by Bruce Norris, Clybourne Park humanly grapples with race and class.  These topics are nothing new, but the conflicts spark fresh, thought-provoking dialogue, once again showing we are not post-racism and there are still residuals of our past that may always remain. In addition, there is a delicate line of entertainment and offensiveness that Clybourne Park masters.  The play goes to the edge, but never falls.

Directed by Obie Award winner Pam Mackinnon, the play presents how racism functions for each person.  Not everyone is an N-word spitting racist.  Not all the white characters are demonized and the Black characters aren’t a woe-as-me tragedy.  The journey is layered and emotive.

The cast, which includes two Black characters (Crystal A. Dickinson and Damon Gupton — remember their names!) and five white characters, are wildly talented, easily making you feel as if you are sitting in someone’s living room versus the Walter Kerr Theatre.  Clybourne Park is a Broadway home-run.

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Review: “Ghost the Musical” on Broadway

Published by Clay Cane on Friday, April 27, 2012 at 10:00 am.

(Photo: The Hartman Group via Getty Images)

Morphing hit films into musical theater is the latest rage on Broadway.  The most recent movie getting the Broadway remix is Ghost the Musical.  In case you don’t know, Ghost is the famous 1990 film staring the late Patrick Swayze as Sam, who is shot and killed but refuses to transition to the other-side in order to solve his murder.  His grief-stricken girlfriend, Molly, was played by Demi Moore.  The woman who connectz Molly and Sam, Oda Mae Brown, was portrayed by Whoopi Goldberg, a role which won her an Academy Award.

Ghost the Musical stays true to the original story even down to the film’s signature song, which was “Unchained Melody” by the Righteous Brothers.  Directed by Matthew Warchus with music and lyrics by Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard (who famously co-produced Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Bad albums), the original songs aren’t standard musical theater.  There is a rock, pop or soul element in each number.  Richard Fleeshman, who plays Sam, has a voice made for rock radio, Caissie Levy as Molly delivers the pop vocals with a mix of musical theater and Da’Vine Joy Randolph is stone-cold soul.  Their three voices as the leads help make Ghost the Musical stand out from standard musical theater.

That said, Ghost does have its bumps in the reincarnation on the Great White Way.  Molly and Sam’s connection isn’t as impactful as it was on film, which is no fault of the leads, who clearly give their best.  Unfortunately, the legendary film haunts Ghost the Musical, a tearjerker of a movie that is nearly impossible to equate in musical theater — inevitably, the two will be compared. 

Ghost in 1990 was known for its fascinating yet subtle special effects.  The musical relies on lofty light projections and video montages (projections by Jon Driscoll and design by Rob Howell) that at times feel like Matrix the Musical, which might be a good sign if the production is appealing to a younger audience.  Visually, the show is eye-popping and is never a bore, but the elaborate sets weren’t matched with an emotionally satisfying storyline.

But let’s be clear, similar to the movie: Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Oda Mae Brown steals the show.  She was the comic relief, the big notes and made the crowd jump to their feet at the curtain call.  Da’Vine Joy Randolph, a Philly soul girl, has a heavy task.  The brilliance of Whoopi Goldberg was so powerful that her dialogue is retained nearly verbatim.  Therefore, Randolph has to avoid the criticism that she is simply copying Whoopi.  Fearlessly, Randolph soars in the music, like the gospel-inspired “Are You a Believer?” and the disco-infused “I’m Outta Here,” allowing her to make Oda Mae Brown her own.  The crowd pleaser of the night?  “Molly… you in danger, girl!”  I am hoping Ghost the Musical will get a spin-off: Oda Mae Brown the Musical: Molly, You in Danger, Girl!

Ghost the Musical is currently playing at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.

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Review: “A Streetcar Named Desire” on Broadway

Published by Clay Cane on Tuesday, April 24, 2012 at 10:15 am.

(Photo: Fernando Leon/Getty Images)

A multiracial production of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire opened on Broadway at the legendary Broadhurst Theatre on Sunday night.  Starring Blair Underwood in the iconic role of Stanley, which was made famous by Marlon Brando, Streetcar is directed by Emily Mann, who was behind Cat on a Hit Tin Roof on Broadway. In an interview with, Mann, who knew Mr. Williams, explained it was a dream of the legendary playwright to see a multiracial version of his work. Williams would certainly be proud of the remix given to his Pulitzer Prize-winning play.

Along with Underwood as Stanley, there is the consistently fabulous Daphne Rubin-Vega as Stella. Stella is devoted to her husband, Stanley, but struggling with the conflict he has with her sister, Blanche DuBois — passionately delivered by Nicole Ari ParkerWood Harris of The Wire is DuBois’s love interest, who shows his range as an actor. The polished cast breathed fresh life into Williams’s characters, smoothly relying on the cultural bearings of the African-American experience, but never resorting to stereotypes.

The entire cast had their shining moments, but it was Nicole Ari Parker who gave the most intense performance of her career. Blanche DuBois is no easy task and Boris Kodjoe’s significant other ripped fire into DuBois. Furthermore, Parker, who has an acting degree from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, is making her Broadway debut with Streetcar — her portrayal of Blanche looks like the work of a Broadway veteran. As I was leaving the theater, the main commentary was: “Nicole Ari Parker deserves a Tony nomination!”

A Streetcar Named Desire is another example of the needed diversity on Broadway. It can be an arduous journey to get people of color on the Broadway stage, and even when we see ourselves on the Great White Way, the production is often scrutinized with a microscope. Thankfully, Streetcar can handle the scrutiny.  From the superb direction of Emily Mann to the beautiful music from Terence Blanchard, if you are a fan of sophisticated, intellectual theater — with a strong helping of comic relief — you will not be disappointed.

A Streetcar Named Desire is currently playing at the Broadhurst Theatre.

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Review: “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” on Broadway

Published by Clay Cane on Friday, January 13, 2012 at 2:15 pm.

(Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

Porgy and Bess debuted on Broadway in 1935. Some of the greatest songs to ever be recorded came from the once four-hour opera: “Summertime,” “I Loves You, Porgy” and “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York.” Based on the novel by DuBose Heyward, Porgy and Bess is considered one of the greats of American theater. 

The story: Bess is a wanton woman struggling with dope and a bad relationship; Porgy is a crippled, lonely man. The unlikely duo fall in love, but not without the drama that surrounds their home, the fictional Catfish Row in Charleston, South Carolina, which includes Bess’ abusive ex-lover, a hurricane, drug addiction, gambling and judgment from the God-loving church folk.

The 2012 revival is less of an opera and more of a musical, starring the impeccable soprano Audra McDonald as Bess and the ferocious Norm Lewis as Porgy. The cast is rounded out with Broadway favs like Joshua Henry from the Scottsboro Boys. Plus, two-time Tony nominee David Alan Grier as the comical Sportin’ Life.  In the ensemble, no one is miscast and with each note and movement, it’s clear the actors gave every molecule of their body for a musical that has already gotten the side-eye from African-American critics.

Shaved down from four hours to two and half hours, much of Porgy and Bess remains true to the original. Yes, there is updating, like dialogue, and it is not as operatic, but the heart of the story remains the same. That said, the storyline is what some critics are debating, which has been part of the Porgy and Bess dialogue from the beginning.

In 1935, Porgy and Bess caused controversy — Duke Ellington slammed the production and original cast members expressed concerns. In the 1960s, Harry Belafonte turned down playing the lead, feeling that it was offensive.  Actress Grace Bumbry, who appeared in the 1985 Metropolitan Opera production as Bess, said the role was beneath her and “we had come far too far to have to retrogress to 1935.” In 2012, does Bumbry’s statement ring true?  I would argue—no.

There is not a single flaw in the acting, set design (wonderfully executed by Riccardo Hernandez) or direction from Diane Paulus. On the content: 1935 was an atrocious time for African-Americans, especially for whites to tell the stories of Blacks—a known theme in African-American art then and, to some degree, now.  There is an undeniable gore of racism that is unconsciously and consciously woven into Porgy and Bess, which was recognized 77 years ago and it would be remiss of me to not acknowledge it today.  On the other hand, Black art cannot be judged on the scale of “representation.”  White Broadway productions are never chopped up for making whites look bad or good.  McDonald, Lewis, Grier—they are artists and should be allowed to create.  Porgy and Bess is a glowing tribute to a phenomenal stage production that transcends time and race: polished, respectful and packed with the creme de la creme of Broadway talent.

Similar to Viola Davis in The Help, Audra McDonald humanized a stereotypical character, fleshing out her wounds and elevating the production as high as it could go. No one else but Norm Lewis could have embodied the troubled-but-powerful Porgy. But, again, similar to The Help, many African-American performers carry the burden of representing Blackness.  Porgy and Bess cannot carry that burden, but it can handle the importance of telling an entertaining and thought-provoking story.

When Porgy and Bess debuted 77 years ago, I would’ve had to sit in the back of theater. I am sure the original company of Porgy and Bess would’ve never thought the production would be revived nearly eight decades later in a time of President Barack Obama, segregation being a thing of the past, and more than one Black show appearing on Broadway at a time.  I salute the hesitation the revival of Porgy and Bess.  As Nina Simone sang and Bob Dylan wrote, “The times they are a changin’…”

Porgy and Bess plays on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 W. 46th St.

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Review: “The Mountaintop” on Broadway

Published by Clay Cane on Thursday, October 13, 2011 at 10:00 am.

To tackle the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Broadway you need serious acting chops, a stellar script and a fresh angle to tell a tragic but inspiring story. Written by Katori Hall, The Mountaintop is a huge risk, but one that pays off during an exciting and diverse time on Broadway. The Great White Way has gotten some color in 2011.

The Mountaintop opens tonight on Broadway at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. Directed by Kenny Leon (Fences, Raisin in the Sun) and starring Oscar nominees Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett, Mountaintop is a fictionalized account of the night before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Birmingham, Alabama. Taking place in a room at the Lorraine Motel, King is forced to face his epic past and inevitable destiny.

Any show that focuses on Dr. King is a challenge — one would think every angle has been squeezed dry out of the civil rights icon. Is there a new way any of us can see Dr. King? Well, Hall and Leon proved there is. Instead of witnessing Saint King, the audience gets to know King as the man: cussing, smoking, drinking and having a sense of humor. Edgy without being disrespectful and as if it was humanly possible, the production offers a deeper appreciation for Dr. King.

A 62-year-old Samuel L. Jackson has the lofty task of embodying a 39-year-old Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. With smart theatrical choices, he gave Dr. King a vulnerable layer of humanity. In addition, gone is the loud and brassy Samuel L. Jackson that we’ve seen in films.  In The Mountaintop he is restrained, using subtlety as his strength.

The only other character is Angela Bassett as Camay, a maid at the Lorraine Motel. As we all know, this is a role Bassett took over after Halle Berry dropped out. Bassett attacked this role with fire. Gone is the poised, regal, upstanding roles we’ve all grown to love in her films. Here, she is sassy, country, hollering and with a shocking secret. In addition, Bassett’s final monologue is one to remember. She built the audience up to an emotional arc, garnering cheers from a clearly riveted crowd.

The second half takes a questionable turn and will leave many to debate hours after leaving the theater, which is what the live stage should do — spark dialogue. Moreover, the beauty of The Mountaintop is not limited to the stage.  It was an honor to be in the presence of two great figures in Hollywood who are uniquely continuing the legacy of the great Dr. King.

Undoubtedly, some will be offended by a ballsy portrayal of King and the writer’s use of religion. If you are deeply conservative and seeking an all-American apple pie show, Mountaintop is not the production for you.  However, if you are a lover of creativity and don’t mind having some buttons pushed, you might just reach the theatrical mountaintop.

The Mountaintop opens tonight at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre in New York City.

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Review: Chris Rock’s “The Motherf**ker With the Hat” on Broadway

Published by Clay Cane on Thursday, April 14, 2011 at 10:45 pm.

The legendary Chris Rock is making his Broadway debut in The Motherf**ker With the Hat, which opens Monday, April 11, at the Schoenfeld Theatre. The dark comedy is written by Stephen Adly Guirgis and tells a wild yet sophisticated story of addiction. Directed by Tony-winner Anna D. Shapiro, the play focuses on Jackie (Bobby Cannavale), an ex-con who is trying to stay drug-free. He’s been in a tumultuous relationship with his girlfriend (Elizabeth Rodriguez) since the eighth grade. Jackie insists she is cheating after he finds a hat in her apartment that doesn’t belong to him. He becomes obsessed with “the motherf**ker with the hat.”

Chris Rock has a supporting role as Jackie’s sponsor and sketchy friend. Annabella Sciorra, who is best known for playing opposite Wesley Snipes in Jungle Fever, makes her Broadway debut as Rock’s wife.

While Chris Rock is the headliner on the playbill, this isn’t a play about Rock. The witty and verbally raunchy production focuses on Jackie and his girlfriend, played well by Cannavale and Rodriguez. The smart dialogue is heavy at times, but these two add enough soul that their characters bounce off the stage. Flawless comedic timing mixes with emotional sensibility to bring out memorable performances. Cannavale and Rodriguez gave it all they got. Yes, Rock is the draw, but once you are in your seat, the overall jourmey is worth the ride.

Considering there is profanity in the title, the audience gets tons of it in each scene, but it’s never gratuitous—these are characters struggling with addiction, so they go with their first emotion.

It’s no secret that Chris Rock hasn’t received the most favorable of reviews when it comes to acting.  However, this is a man who knows the stage and grew up coaxing the toughest of crowds as a stand-up comedian in New York City. That said, Rock’s performance shines better than any film role.  He seems more at home, and the Brooklyn native shows he has some acting chops. As he recently said to David Letterman, Broadway is “real acting.”

The Motherf**ker With the Hat exceeds expectations. It’s a theatrical experience that is refreshing next to the typical, over-the-top glam of Broadway.

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