Monday, February 18, 2008

Broadway on the box

Two outstanding revivals are coming around again, and the price of admission is free. This Wednesday, PBS' Great Performances is showcasing last season's superb production of Stephen Sondheim's Company, which won Tony and Drama Desk awards for Outstanding Revival. Cast in the difficult role of Bobby, whose singlehood is the envy of his married friends, is Raul Esparza, in a terrific performance climaxed by a soaring rendition of the Sondheim standard "Being Alive." (The Drama Desk got it right, awarding him Best Actor in a musical; he had to settle for a Tony nomination.) The device (pictured) of having the actors play their own instruments onstage, which director John Doyle repeated from the prior season's Sweeney Todd, works better in this modernist Manhattan context. (The time is the early Seventies; the emotions, and music, timeless.) I have some of the score on my iPod, and I was so transported by the silky "Barcelona" when it came up on shuffle I very nearly missed my subway stop. Check local listings and don't miss a minute of this great performance; there's no telling when PBS will repeat it.

(Speaking of Sondheim, I caught the Roundabout revival of Sunday in the Park with George at Studio 54 over the weekend. I had never seen the show, in its first Broadway revival since its original 1984 staging, and it confirmed what I always thought: I prefer the composer's work with other writers than with James Lapine. I enjoy the music from Sunday and Into the Woods but the shows themselves are chilly and overthought; with its artistic angst, precious stylization, and emphasis on doubling, it's practically Stoppardian. Conceptually, however, the revival, a British import from a company that will next tackle a personal Sondheim favorite, A Little Night Music, is dynamite; the animated projections are fantastically effective, and bring the show, with its 19th and 20th century overlap, right into the 21st. Leading lady Jenna Russell shines, too. Sondheim's openness to collaboration is commendable: Doyle, Sam Buntrock (the 32-year-old director of Sunday), and Tim Burton have all spotlit his work in new and compelling ways.)

I wasn't much looking forward to the 2004 revival of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. The never-revived show, dating to 1959, seemed like it had been in the civil rights-era sun too long. And its star, Sean Combs (then in his "P. Diddy" phase) was ill-equipped to follow in the shoes of Sidney Poitier, who played the role of Chicago Southside striver Walter Lee Younger on Broadway and in the faithful 1961 film version. On that score, I was right; Poitier was not equaled, much less eclipsed. Combs' hesitancy, however, made female leads Phylicia Rashad, Audra McDonald, and Sanaa Lathan all the more incandescent, and the production emerged as the unexpected highlight of its season. (Rashad and McDonald both won Tonys.) Director Kenny Leon has reassembled the cast for a TV version that will air next Monday, Feb. 25, on ABC at 8pm EST, and I expect Combs to be more in his element given greater experience in the part. Whatever, the women will be undiminished. It's part of Black History Month, but this moving piece of history will go over well with any audience.

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