Lorraine Hansberry’s drama “A Raisin in the Sun” has been revived many times since it premiered in 1959. Relatively rare, though, is a production of “Raisin,” the musical that was inspired by “A Raisin in the Sun” and won the Best Musical Tony when it ran on Broadway from 1973 to 1975.
The Axelrod Performing Arts Center in Deal is currently presenting “Raisin,” and this production will make you wonder why the musical has been so overlooked. The book, by Robert Nemiroff and Charlotte Zaltzberg (Hansberry was not involved, having died in 1965), stays true the original story, and packs much of the same wallop. The songs (composed by Judd Woldin, with lyrics by Robert Brittan) have touches of blues, gospel and jazz, though also some complex orchestrations that may make you think of Burt Bacharach.
Evelyn Collins directed this production (with Phylicia Rashad credited as a consultant), which benefits from memorable performances by its four principal actors: Fredi-Walker Browne as Lena Younger, matriarch of the close-knit, hard-strapped Younger family; Eric R. Williams as her ambitious but not always sensible son, Walter Lee; Alexandria Reese as her smart and independent-minded daughter, Beneatha; and Gia Ware as Walter Lee’s loving, long-suffering wife, Ruth.
Walter Lee is a chauffeur; Lena and Ruth do cooking and cleaning for wealthy families. Most of the action takes place in the modest, roach-infested home they all live in, along with Walter Lee and Ruth’s young son Travis (Ethan Joseph).
The story, set in Chicago in 1951, begins with the news that a potentially life-changing $10,000 check — the payout from a life insurance policy taken out by Lena’s recently deceased husband — will soon arrive. Lena wants to use the money as a down payment on a new house, much nicer than the one they are now living in, in the white neighborhood of Clybourne Park. But Beneatha also needs money to pay for medical school, and Walter Lee wants to open a liquor store with two friends.
Lena is a church-going lady and not keen on Walter Lee making his money selling liquor. And if she does decide to give him some or all of the money … doesn’t a liquor store seem like a pretty risky proposition? But she also believes in family togetherness.
There are several other subplots, too. Beneatha is being courted by Joseph Asagai (Moziah), a Nigerian now going to school in Chicago, and she is developing an interest in African culture (the musical does not include the play’s character of George Murchison, another, more wealthy suitor). And the family is visited by Karl Lindner (Burt Conrad), from the Clybourne Park Improvement Association; the organization fights integration, and he tries to persuade them not to make the move.
There is tension, then resolution, and then tragedy, before a satisfying ending that doesn’t sugarcoat anything, but finds the family finding a way to persevere.
Musical highlights include:
• “Man Say”: Walter’s upbeat, starry-eyed opening statement of wanting more from his life than he is currently getting (though the song also belittles women in general, in a way that may not have seemed sexist in 1973, but sure does now).
• “Sweet Time”: A tender ballad in which Ruth and Walter Lee remember the “good old days” of their relationship.
• “He Come Down This Morning”: A high-energy, church-set gospel song to kick off Act 2.
• “Sidewalk Tree”: Travis doesn’t figure in the play’s plot very much, but the character does get one solo song to express his perspective, and Joseph nails it.
• “Not Anymore”: The show’s lightest — and paradoxically, most politically charged — moment, in which Walter Lee, Ruth and Beneatha poke fun at the racism that persists in the supposedly more enlightened times they’re living in, trading subtle racial insults over ironically cheerful music.
• “Measure the Valleys”: Lena’s biggest moment, and the show’s climactic number, featuring a solemnity and a sense of uplift reminiscent of Nina Simone.
Perhaps “Raisin” hasn’t been revived more frequently because the classic “A Raisin in the Sun” is so deeply embedded in people’s minds that people aren’t interested in seeing the story presented another way. But the resonance of that story is one of the main reasons that “Raisin” needs to be seen.
You never know when you’ll have another chance to see it. And so I would advise against missing it in Deal.
The Axelrod Performing Arts Center in Deal will present “Raisin” through March 12; visit axelrodartscenter.com. The theater is allowing attendees to choose what they pay, though the suggested ticket price is $32, and there is a $5 minimum.
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