Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Great Less-White Way

Last week I had the opportunity to see Come Back, Little Sheba, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Passing Strange back to back. Which means that the vagaries of chance made me see the three shows that make the Great White Way a lot less white in a row. (I was also supposed to see the Latino-flavored In the Heights but got sick; the upshot was that spending three days home allowed me to catch up with The Wire.)

The revival of William Inge's 1950s "issue play" Come Back, Little Sheba qualifies by virtue of its blind casting, as S. Epatha Merkerson plays the part created by Shirley Booth in 1950 (and which she also did in the movie adaptation). Now, I've somehow managed to avoid seeing a single episode of Law & Order in all the centuries it's been on, so I wasn't familiar with Merkerson, who has a big recurring role on that series. But she really blew me away on stage: She managed to create a subtle characterization that still resonated all the way to the last row. When her husband comes back to their house in the second act, perhaps clean after a drunken binge and hospitalization, her hesitation, her fear at meeting him at the door are just heartbreaking. I also thought the production made a good case for the play as a rather harsh indictment of a pathetic marital trajectory typical of the 1950s. (As a side note: the curse of the Biltmore Theatre, home to the stodgiest productions of the stodgy Manhattan Theatre Club, is finally broken.)

Debbie Allen's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, however, is too often misguided. Early on, Allen makes the mistake of setting up a broad comedic tone and after that it's impossible to reel the audience members back in—they react to everything as if they were watching a sitcom (down to going Awwwww when Big Daddy acts semi-affectionate toward his wife) and nothing can stop them. The reviews have been all over the map, which may have a lot to do with the audience: The critics sometimes think of its reactions instead of the director's actual intent, and those reactions are mostly completely off.

Not crazy about Anika Noni Rose, who never quite shows the cracks coursing through Maggie the Cat and sounds rather muddled in the first act. Unlike most critics I enjoyed Terrence Howard's performance as Brick, especially in the crucial second set with Big Daddy (James Earl Jones, who unfortunately sat on a wet spot the night I saw the show—probably a remnant from one of Brick's spilled drinks—and sported a gigantic stain on the back of his pants, prompting us to wonder if Debbie Allen had planned it as some reference to Big Daddy's "spactic colon"). Oh yes: The set and lighting are mindboggling eyesores that look downright amateurish.

Best of the bunch: Stew's Passing Strange. I'd really loved the show when I saw it at the Public last year, and it looks and sounds great on Broadway. Formally and thematically, Passing Strange defies the usual, tired Broadway paradigms; it tackles in a very smart (and very funny) way the issue of forming one's identity, and it does so in a context rarely (or even never) explored on stage—that of a middle-class African-American who likes pop and rock music, and who also confronts Europeans' ideas of blackness.

I'd never really enjoyed Stew's records, either solo or with the Negro Problem, and in retrospect I realize why: He was writing musical-theater songs without a musical around them. His score for Passing Strange is superb from beginning to end—much superior to Duncan Sheik's much-praised score for Spring Awakening, for instance. Add to that the best ensemble on Broadway right now, and you have a rare show. I see on Playbill that it's playing to half-full (I'm an optimist!) houses, so you should catch it before it meets an untimely demise. Or perhaps word of mouth will do its job and get some bodies in. Basically if you like well-crafted pop and rock music but despise musicals because they're "cheesy," this is the one show you can—nay, should see.

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