Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast

RaisinWestcoast Black Theatre Troupe
William S. Oser | Season Schedule

Also see Bill's review of Piano Grand III


Kiara Hines, Brian L. Boyd, JoAnna Ford
and Jannie Jones

Photo by Vutti Photography
When Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe announced Raisin to open its 2018-19 season, I was literally in tears with happiness. I saw the Broadway production three times, and on tour (still with Tony award winning Virginia Capers) I took my godson to see it. Right after the announcement I played the cast album, which I had not done in a long time to see if it still had as strong an impact on me. It did! But I began to wonder if the musical was really as good as I thought at age 23, and what would I think with a more seasoned eye. After seeing this totally glorious production, I am willing to put Raisin on my short list of greatest musicals of all times.

Raisin, music by Judd Woldin, lyrics by Robert Brittan and book by Robert Nemiroff (Lorraine Hansbury's husband) and Charlotte Zaltzberg, does what a great musicalization of a good play or movie needs to do—it changes the focus. The original, A Raisin in the Sun contains details that get lost in the musical, most noticeably around the purchase of the Clybourne Park home and the people from there who attempt to buy the home back. Raisin raises the emotional levels, taking us places that no play ever could. The play is a recognized classic, still often performed; the musical is every bit as good, but different. Sadly, even though it won the Tony for Best Musical of 1974, it is not performed often. Now would be a superb time to revive it in New York, a perfect vehicle for someone like Joshua Henry as Walter Lee Younger.

Raisin represents a great big step forward for WBTT. The show requires great voices, something the company has never had trouble with. I like to say that founder and Artistic Director Nate Jacobs takes a walk, kicks up a rock, and finds talent under it. In the past musical productions weren't always well acted, and Raisin has important, powerful book scenes. The company has risen to the challenge and the acting in this production is every bit as good as the singing. If they can sustain this level, it will be a significant advancement.

Every single member of the cast is doing the best work they have ever done on a WBTT stage, both singing and acting. Brian L. Boyd plays Walter Lee Younger, Joanna Ford is his wife, Ruth. Their chemistry is remarkable. Jannie Jones was a regular on area stages, most notably Florida Studio Theatre when I first came to Sarasota/Bradenton, and I saw her in a number of things. Then she was gone and now she is back as Lena Younger, mother of Walter Lee and his sister Beneatha. Her performance is an object lesson on how much has been missing. Please don't be so scarce on area stages going forward, Ms. Jones. Kiara Hines makes a fine WBTT debut as Beneatha, as does William Tipton as Joseph Asagai. Samuel Waite plays Travis and makes "Sidewalk Tree" as heartbreaking as can be. When he made his debut last summer as Jack (in the Beanstalk) in Rockin' Down Fairytale Lane, I was instantly charmed by the 10-year-old and knew right away he should be Travis. All the smaller roles and ensemble are on the same high level.

Nationally known director and choreographer Jim Weaver returns to WBTT after In the Heights last year. All the great performances talked about above don't come out of nowhere, so its time to repeat my mantra. Where there is a stage full of fine performances, there is a strong director lurking about. One example in this production is in the very first moments of act one. Mr. Weaver, with an ensemble full of WBTT regulars, makes the depiction of street life dangerous. It grabs the audience, and the rest of this brilliant musical, performed by a magnificent cast, never lets go.

Set design by Michael Newton-Brown is bare bones, which is effective in moving the story to different locations, but I do wish there had been some depiction of a kitchen, so Ruth and later Lena wouldn't have to pantomime their domestic routines. Angela Franklin-Mayo perfectly captures the 1950s era in her costume designs. Michael Pasquini's lighting design is one of the most effective he has done, and he is a revered artist in these parts. Wig designer Travis McCue has raised WBTT's bar. Ruth and Beneatha look like they have stepped right out of the period. Annette Breazeale's (property design) always exemplary work also scales new heights, depicting life on the financial edge for a family trying to hold on to each other. WBTT regulars Juanita Munford, (stage manager) and James "Jay" Dodge II (production manager) are aboard to ensure the level of quality we have come to expect at this company. Another regular, Michael Mendez, assumes a new (for him) role, assistant stage manager.

Music direction is in the hands of Brennan Stylez, new to WBTT, a decided asset. Raisin has a powerfully emotional score, complex by Broadway standards. The prologue is danced to prerecorded tracks, but then Mr. Stylez' band takes over to support the cast.

I have been suggesting to theater interested people around this area that Raisin would likely be one of the not to be missed events of the fall season in Sarasota. It sure is! My sympathies go out to all those who call the box office only to find that the entire run is sold out. I hope they add performances as they are able, even extend the run. Whatever my expectations and hopes for this show, they have been exceeded. Bravo to all.

Raisin, through November 11, 2018, at Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, 1646 Nate Jacobs Way, Sarasota FL. For more information, visit westcoastblacktheatre.org.

Cast:
People of the Southside/Ensemble: Todd Bellamy II, Donald Frison, Brentney J, Angela Pierre, Arthur WesleyRuth Younger: JoAnna Ford*
Travis Younger: Samuel Waite
Mrs. Johnson: Sieglinda Fox
Walter Lee Younger: Brian L. Boyd
Beneatha Younger: Kiara Hine
Mama Lena Younger: Jannie Jones*
Althea (Jazz Singer): : Ashley D. Brooks
Bobo Jones: Quinn Cason
Willie Harris: Patric Robinson
Joseph Asagai: William Tipton
Pastor: Earley Dean*
Karl Lindner: Tom Foley
Understudies: Derric Gobourne, Jr. l(ensemble), Kenyon Edwards and London Upshaw (Travis)
*=member of Actors' Equity Association

Musicians:
Music Director/Pianist: Brennan Stylez
Auxiliary Keys: Keith Carmen
Bass Guitar: Joe Bruno
Drums: John Walker
Woodwinds: Greg Amos, Bill O'Hara
John DeWitt and Greg Germany will play bass guitar at some performances


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