Across the Grape Divide

The Black Rep gives St. Louis a Raisin to believe

Jun 2, 2004 at 4:00 am
Forget the historical fact that Raisin won the 1974 Tony Award as Best Musical and ran on Broadway for more than two years. In the abstract, the idea of a musical adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun makes about as much sense as a musical version of Death of a Salesman. Why tamper with a definitive piece of writing?

A Raisin in the Sun is an authentic classic, a seminal American drama that for nearly a half-century has sought to open minds and neighborhoods. When the play debuted on Broadway in 1959, most white theater audiences found it a revelation. Rather than preach a cause or bear a grudge, it instead told the straightforward story of Lena Younger, a weary black matriarch determined to provide her fragmented family with a better life -- even if that meant running the incendiary risk of moving into a segregated white suburb. The $10,000 from her deceased husband's life-insurance policy is the conduit through which Lena can transform her dream into reality.

But how do you transform a one-set kitchen-sink drama into a satisfying musical? For much of the evening, the creators of Raisin do all the expected things. For starters, they open up the story. The evening begins with an exciting street ballet peopled by pimps, prostitutes and pushers.

After bringing the audience into the Youngers' rat-infested ghetto apartment, the show's creators set huge hunks of Hansberry's dialogue to melody. The minute Eddie Webb as Lena's discontented son Walter Lee begins to sing "Man Say" in a soaring baritone, viewers are reassured that once again the St. Louis Black Repertory Company has mounted a superbly polished production.

But merely adding locales and transforming dialogue to song are not reasons enough to justify a musical adaptation. That imperative arrives late in Act One.

In the original play, an inebriated Walter Lee returns home to find his sister dancing to an African tribal rhythm. He joins her in wild abandon. Raisin's creators build on that highly theatrical sequence to allow the viewer entry into Walter Lee's head. As drums drown out reality and frenzied African dancers fill the stage, pulsating rhythms give shape to emotions that not even Hansberry's crisp prose could articulate. This is musical theater taken to the ultimate. Why tamper with a definitive piece of writing? Because ever so infrequently -- and this is one of those rare occasions -- music is able to enthrall and transport an audience to a realm beyond speech.

The production also benefits from Sandra Reaves-Phillips' titanic performance as Lena. Many years ago the actress played this role on national tour. Perhaps that's why some of her line readings are a little too cute, a little too sure of their expected laughs. But when she settles her tired old bones into a stuffed chair and croons to a scraggly potted plant, her clarion pipe-organ voice instills shivers. To hear her elevate the show's much-too-obvious final number, "Measure the Valleys," into a haunting blues dirge is to find oneself in the presence of a commanding artist. (It doesn't hurt that she knows how to clearly enunciate every single syllable.) Other memorable musical moments: The obligatory gospel choir number gives the Grandel a good shaking, and "Alaiyo," a tender elegy to Africa, is lovingly sung by Brandon J. Price and Rheaume Crenshaw.

But ironically, it's the music that ultimately comes close to doing Raisin in. Just as the original title has been truncated from five words to one, so too has the original plot been thinned down, to make room for all the songs. The dialogue scenes now play like a Reader's Digest abridged version; they're arbitrary rather than germane. A classic moment like Lena's stern admonition, "In my mother's house there is still God," loses its power when it merely serves as transitional dialogue between songs.

But if there's ultimately a disconnect between Raisin and its source material, that's not the Black Rep's fault. From Keith Tyrone's electrifying choreography to Felix Cochran's stylized scenic design to Ron Himes' direction, this is an evening of heroes. That disconnect might help to account for why Raisin is so infrequently revived. Yet the very fact that the Black Rep has taken on the challenge, and with such exhilarating results, is a telling reminder of why this Spartan theater company is one of St. Louis' most unpredictable and important cultural assets.