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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and Fiddler on the Roof

Also see Tim's reviews of Leaving and The Don

In 1984, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom was the first of August Wilson's plays to open on Broadway and achieve widespread acclaim. There's still a lot of power in the play, even if his theme of how African Americans are bound to, and are trapped by, their history would be more forcefully told in later works like The Piano Lesson and Gem of the Ocean. Director Irene Lewis' production at Philadelphia Theatre Company drags too much, but works best when it lets some talented performers do some terrific work.

It's 1927, and in a Chicago recording studio, some black musicians and their white bosses are waiting for Ma Rainey, the real-life "Mother of the Blues," to show up for a recording session. When she finally does arrive, she turns out to be a lively, demanding character, but Wilson focuses mostly on the musicians in her band. Much of act one is concerned with petty arguments and jealousies between the musicians. Lewis' pacing is so slack that it's easy to get bored with the long, repetitive speeches. It also makes the contrivances in Wilson's script (as he looks for excuses to get characters into, or out of, the recording studio) more glaring. The seams start to show, and that damages the play.

Fortunately, things perk up near the end of act one, when the trumpeter Levee, whose arrogant manner has earned him the scorn of his fellow musicians, reveals what has made him that way. It's a chilling moment, and Maurice McRae's performance as Levee is hypnotic; you'll keep watching him, never quite knowing what he'll do next. His battle of wills with Ma in act two is marvelous.

Thomas Jefferson Byrd is also excellent as the dignified and cultured pianist Toledo (a role he also handled in the play's 2003 Broadway revival). David Fonteno and Ernest Perry, Jr. have lots of warmth as a pair of musicians who act as peacemakers. E. Faye Butler is perfectly cast as Ma Rainey; even before she starts singing, she proves that she's a great blues shouter, because she'll shout at anyone to get her way. Ma brings along an entourage—her lesbian lover (Toccarra Cash) and her stuttering nephew (Ro Boddie)—and when she insists that the nephew provide a spoken introduction on the record, everyone rolls their eyes but gives the temperamental diva what she wants. They know that in the end, they depend on Ma to make a living. Ma's role provides a needed balance to the concerns of the musicians.

Riccardo Hernandez' set design consists mostly of some imposing grey walls covered with, in large lettering, the titles of some of Ma Rainey's best-known songs. It doesn't give us the period ambience we need; for that we have to depend on Candice Donnelly's costumes. The net result is an odd mixture of the natural and the artificial—and for Wilson's work to succeed, it all has to seem natural.

Wilson's words remain potent, poetic and haunting. And his observations about race are timeless. Yet in this production, they don't always come across with all the force they deserve.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom runs through June 13, 2010, at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 South Broad Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $46 to $59, with discounts available for students, seniors and groups, and are available by calling the box office at 215-985-0420, online at www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org, or by visiting the box office.

Fiddler on the Roof
Mark Jacoby

The Walnut Street Theatre does a nice job with one of the most venerable of American musicals, Fiddler on the Roof. Director Bruce Lumpkin's production doesn't offer many surprises, but there's nothing to be ashamed of here either. Nothing seems rote here—everyone is giving it their all. The result is a respectable production of a show that is still both charming and moving.

John Farrell's uncluttered set design consists mostly of roofs that fly in and out from the wings; the fiddler (Alexander Sovronsky) sits on one of them. One interesting element in this version is that the fiddler acts as a sort of sidekick to Tevye. When Tevye delivers comic monologues like "If I Were a Rich Man," the fiddler sits nearby and observes them. The result is that Tevye delivers the monologues as much to the fiddler as to the audience. It's a sweet touch that makes Tevye seem less isolated. (The final scene also finds the fiddler in a different place than usual; it's another interesting interpretation.) Michelle Gaudette's choreography faithfully reproduces Jerome Robbins' legendary staging; the dancing chorus on the famous bottle dance number is faultless.

Mark Jacoby plays Tevye, the milkman wrestling with social change in Czarist Russia. Jacoby's steely eyes convey all the suffering that Tevye is going through, and his tenor voice is perfect for the score. He hasn't quite mastered the wry, bemused humor that is Tevye's trademark, but he's still very good. (His performance here is certainly much better that the sleepwalking performance that Topol, who played Tevye in the 1971 film, gave on his "farewell tour" when it played last year in Newark.)

Jacoby has good comic chemistry with Mary Martello, who plays his wife Golde; in addition, their voices blend beautifully on "Sunrise, Sunset." Rita Markova and Gianna Yanelli are affecting as the couple's two oldest daughters, and Nick Dalton is charismatic as the rebellious teacher Perchik. There are also fine comic turns by Denise Whelan as the matchmaker, Bill Van Horn as the butcher, and Lee Golden as the rabbi. And even though they don't have much to do, it's good to see the stage dotted with some of the area's finest musical performers, such as Ben Dibble, Fran Prisco and Jennie Eisenhower.

The score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick holds up well, but it's the book by Joseph Stein that is most impressive. Switching from light comedy to tragedy at just the right moments, the book touches on eternal truths and gives Fiddler its enduring power. And it's in good hands at the Walnut.

Fiddler on the Roof runs through July 18, 2010 at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street. Ticket prices range from $10 to $75, and are available by calling the box office at 215-574-3550, online at www.walnutstreettheatre.org or www.ticketmaster.com, or by visiting the box office.

Photo: Mark Garvin


-- Tim Dunleavy



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