Skylight Stages 1970s Musical ‘Raisin’

But the musical version often loses power of watershed play ‘Raisin in the Sun.’

By - Apr 13th, 2022 01:25 pm
(l. to r.) J. Daughtry (Walter Lee Younger), Camara Stampley (Beneatha Younger), Melanie Loren (Ruth Younger) and Wydetta Carter (Lena Younger (Mama)) in Skylight Music Theatre’s production of Raisin running April 8-24, 2022. Photo by Ross Zentner.

(l. to r.) J. Daughtry (Walter Lee Younger), Camara Stampley (Beneatha Younger), Melanie Loren (Ruth Younger) and Wydetta Carter (Lena Younger (Mama)) in Skylight Music Theatre’s production of Raisin running April 8-24, 2022. Photo by Ross Zentner.

Lorraine Hansberry’s classic A Raisin in the Sun has been a touchstone for me in both film and stage versions, including seeing the original Mama Younger, Claudia McNeil, in Milwaukee more than a half century ago.

But I had never seen the musical version Raisin, which won a Tony in the 1970s and has now been re-created with Broadway stage flourishes by the Skylight Music Theatre through April 24 at the Cabot Theatre.

Knowing the book was done by the late Hansberry’s husband, with music and lyrics much heralded in its era though lacking any tunes that lasted beyond the seventies, I thought it would at least be a noble attempt to expand the Younger family in song and personal issues beyond their jolting finale, famous in the play, to move into redlined Clybourne Park in Chicago. (Hansberry’s concept, inspired by an actual court case, has since inspired follow-up dramas on Broadway and around the world.)

An extension into song of this memorable family – angry greedy chauffer Walter, his tolerant wife Ruth, his sister Beneatha who wants to be a doctor, the Nigerian who courts her, and the force-of-life Mama, whose late husband has left her the money the family is counting on — seemed on the surface a normal expansion of the good vibes from this proud Black family as it takes on injuries to self-worth and the bigotry that, dare we say, still surrounds them. Hansberry had made a considerable effort to make us feel for this family before their racial troubles inserted itself into the story.

It could even be argued that it was a firm commercial decision to use the smooth jazz vibes and budding funky sounds of the 1970s to tell the original tale. Certainly, instrumental musical skills are well realized by music director Christie Chiles Twillie and her hidden tight band, but the fact that the singers must frontally assault the drawn-out words and strident emotional edge required of their voices cannot be hidden. Many of the attempts to draw out the feelings in music were not satisfactory.

The words and inspiring speeches of the Hansberry original still carry the weight and the audience involvement. The music is often an intrusion that slows down or delays the realizations coming over the audience.

There are exceptions, notably in the second half when J. Daughtry as Walter breaks out of his self-absorbed stance to deliver the well-done braggadocio of “It’s a Deal,” the moment when he thinks Mama is finally accepting his liquor deal. Or Mama’s moment, smooth singing as well as strong acting from Wydetta Carter, building out of Hansberry’s words to caution her daughter Benethea to “Measure the Valleys.” There is also fun when the three children – Walter, his wife Ruth (Melanie Loren) and sister Beneatha (Camara Stampley) sing “Not Anymore,” mocking the hidden meanings of the white representative of Clybourne Park explaining that race has nothing to do with the community’s desire to exclude them.

Director Kenneth L. Roberson has a tendency to over-choreograph and drag in dance support from the wings, but the actors do bring this number off. Problem is, I am plucking three out of 19 numbers that work, plus an old-fashioned revival stomp to open Act 2, “He Come Down This Morning.” Most of the music turns out to be intrusive rather than expansive.

Loren’s Ruth is most effective the closer to the original play she stays, since she is too often pushing a pleasant singing voice (just as Daughtry’s extensive vocal experience dominates his acting portrayal). Stampley looks and acts Beneatha well and sings pleasantly, though she and the personable Denzel Taylor as love interest Asagai have to reach to find a loving harmony in their duets. Carter is a powerful presence but the extensive music she has tends to get in the way of the human power.

The technical elements deserve a salute. Christopher Rhoton’s set, mixing Chicago skyline silhouette, hanging laundry and doors that turn into crosses, certainly occupy the eye while Steve Tonar’s lighting suitably anticipates hovering gloom. The problem is too few opportunities to lighten the mood and like these people, though in acting terms Carter, Loren and Stampley have moments. An excellent singer much used by the Skylight, Raven Dockery enjoys her comic turn as the holier-than-thou Mrs. Johnson. But the production goes out of the way to drag in comic relief.

To emphasize its musical credentials, Raisin rushes through those moments of self-discovery that make the Hansberry original so successful, but it is not establishing its own reasons for existing despite a smooth but unremarkable musical overlay.

Raisin Gallery

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You’ll find his blog here and here.

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