If you are going to stage “Raisin” — the musical based on Lorraine Hansberry’s classic drama “A Raisin in the Sun” — during its 50th anniversary year, you need the right ingredients.
Start with Phylicia Rashad, who won a Tony in 2004 for her performance in a revival of “A Raisin in the Sun.” Incorporate Evelyn Collins, who has directed the musical twice and the play four times. Add in Fredi Walker-Browne, famous for originating the role of Joanne Jefferson in “Rent” on Broadway. Sprinkle in tap dance legend Dormeshia as choreographer, and you’re cooking with fire.
That’s the recipe the Axelrod Performing Arts Center in Deal followed when developing its production of “Raisin,” which will run from Feb. 24 to March 12. For tickets (use code “NJARTS” for $10 off), visit axelrodartscenter.com.
On Broadway, the musical ran for more than two years and won the 1974 Tony for Best Musical. Hansberry died in 1965, and the musical’s book was co-written by her ex-husband, Robert Nemiroff, and Charlotte Zaltzberg.
The musical “has a message for everybody about hope and the power of love and how families stand up for each other,” says Axelrod’s artistic director, Andrew DePrisco. “It’s such a universal story about a family’s struggle for a better life.”
Yet, adds DePrisco, “for some very strange reason it’s one of the Tony-winning musicals that simply has been left in the dust.”
The piece follows members of the Younger family, who live on the South Side of segregated Chicago in the 1950s and aspire for a better life. When the patriarch dies, a $10,000 life insurance check provides hope. However, mother and son don’t have the same vision for the funds. Walter Lee Younger Jr. wants to use the money to open a liquor store. For “Mama” Lena Younger, the money means the opportunity to move to the white neighborhood of Clybourne Park. The characters also have to navigate housing inequality, economic hardship and racism.
That both the musical and play remain relevant decades later is both disturbing and hopeful, says DePrisco. “It’s like we’re holding it up to say, ‘When will this damn musical or this damn play not resonate?’ When will we be able to look back and say, ‘Gee, can you believe that’s the way Americans treated each other?’ ” he says. “I feel like we’re holding it up now to say, ‘There’s still hope that we’re going to get past racial inequality and so much social injustice.’ ”
Production consultant Rashad, known for portraying Clair Huxtable on television’s “The Cosby Show,” and director Collins, founder and principal of the Denzel Washington School of the Arts in Mount Vernon, N.Y., as well as the school’s theater director, have worked closely to resurrect this piece. Together, they assisted DePrisco with casting decisions.
They were “basically comparing notes as two women who have lived with this piece for many years,” says DePrisco.
Collins and DePrisco have discussed the question: Whose musical is it, Walter’s or Lena’s?
Collins “really believes that it’s the mother’s musical, even though Walter has such a huge part,” says DePrisco. “Her thinking is that Lena has spent many years trying to set up her family. And when she’s buying this house, she says to her grandson, Travis, ‘This is going to be your house’ — that planning for the future. It’s just such an emotional moment.”
Starring as Lena is Fredi Walker-Browne, who has appeared in television shows and movies including HBO’s “Search Party,” Showtime’s Emmy-winning series “The Big C” and the film “Maggie’s Plan” (with Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke and Julianne Moore).
“Raisin” will mark something of a return to the stage for her.
“She brings such a quality to these songs and raises them to the rafters,” says DePrisco. “It’s just so exciting to see someone like her live onstage again.”
Among the others in the cast is Ethan Joseph (who has appeared on Broadway in “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical”) as Walter’s son, Travis.
“Ethan Joseph is a trip!” says DePrisco. “He’ll probably steal the show, as kids tend to do.” Joseph will perform a song titled “Sidewalk Tree,” which DePrisco compares to the 1972 Michael Jackson hit “Ben.”
Another memorable scene, says DePrisco, includes lines taken directly from “A Raisin in the Sun,” said by Lena: “There is always something left to love. And if you ain’t learned that, you ain’t learned nothing.” At this moment in the piece, tensions within the family are high and Beneatha, Walter’s sister, wants nothing to do with him.
“The mother says, ‘I taught you to love each other,’ ” says DePrisco. “Then, she goes into this gorgeous, beautiful song called ‘Measure the Valleys,’ which is that 11 o’clock number where she talks about the value of life and family.”
Throughout “Raisin,” moving moments are blended with a variety of music, from jazz to blues to gospel. Typically there is no tap dancing in “Raisin,” but Dormeshia is putting her stamp on the choreography for Axelrod’s production.
Dormeshia and Collins “have rethought some of the moments in the show, particularly the overture prologue, where they’re telling it more through dance,” says DePrisco.
Axelrod is especially honored to produce this musical during a milestone year for the piece, says DePrisco.
“I don’t know of any other production of (‘Raisin’) this year,” he says. “So this could be the 50th anniversary production of this musical.”
If audiences have never seen the play or musical, adds DePrisco, “they kind of owe it to themselves to come and experience this story.”
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