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OFF-BROADWAY TAKES THE SPOTLIGHT

In the midst of a seemingly endless winter of snow, sleet, slush and anything else Mother Nature can think to throw our way, there is a warm, throbbing pool of brilliance coagulating in the world of off-Broadway theater. There are productions running right now to make you forget you can’t find your car and/or your street amidst all the white stuff; there are strong, beautifully etched performances from actors both familiar and not, there are beautifully directed productions from helmers known for their directorial talent, and those not so known. We are in the middle of a winter, as far as theater is concerned, that will leave you very, very content.

There is a new musical, indeed the very last musical you will see from the legendary songwriting team of Kander and Ebb, the gentlemen who gave the world “Chicago”, “Cabaret”, “Zorba”, “Curtains”, “Woman Of The Year”, “The Rink” and “Kiss Of The Spider Woman”, among others. When Fredd Ebb died a few years back, there were several projects he and his partner John Kander left in different stages of completion, and one of those, the last of those, is now running in the tiny space known as The Vineyard Theatre, which once upon a time gave us the new musical “Avenue Q”. Well, Vineyard has the next big musical in its bosom, right now, and where it goes from 15th Street in the coming weeks and months is anyone’s guess, but it will be traveling, because it is both strikingly original and timeless, simultaneously. And it will probably be around for years to come.

It is “The Scottsboro Boys”.
Based on the true story of 9 black men who were falsely accused of the rape and assault of two white women in Scottsboro, Alabama back in 1931, this elegantly crafted crowd-pleaser features a solid, talented cast of 13 who, in the space of two hours or so, mesmerize and entertain like nobody’s business. Director Susan Stroman is at the top of her game here, creating magical stage effects with a few chairs and a handful of tambourines, which she transforms into buses, trains, jail cells, courtrooms and the great outdoors. Amazingly, with practically no set to speak of, she creates an entire world audiences will not be able to forget or shake from their heads. Her conceit is to shape the entire event in the form of an old-time minstrel show, so that the actors double, triple and quadruple in dozens of roles, much of the time playing to the audience as if in a burlesque house. The cast is a marvel, led by soon-to-be major star Brandon Victor Dixon as Haywood Patterson, unofficial leader of the Boys. Dixon’s performance is heart-breaking and exhilarating, which pretty much describes the entire production. The score is a marvel, a compilation of blues, swing, gospel and ballads with one particular song, “Go Back Home”, destined to become a standard. This is an utterly original evening of theater, crafted with loving care, and sure to hold you in its thrall.

The subject of race relations also crops up in a knockout new play by Bruce Norris, ” Clybourne Park”, now playing on 42nd Street at PLaywrights Horizons. This is turning into a banner season for this wonderful company, first with “Circle, Mirror, Transformation”, and now this superb, disturbing play, which starts out in 1959, then jumps 50 years in the second act, then back again. There’s another wonderful conceit utilized in this play by playwright Norris-what he’s done is present us with the family who sells their house in 1959 to the Youngers, the black family from “A Raisin In The Sun”, and without recreating any of those characters(with one exception), shows us the other side of the coin-the unseen pain of the people who would give Lorraine Hansberry’s Younger family their new start in life, only to jump 50 years ahead in Act Two and present us the results of that earth-shaking move into the new neighborhood, and how the more things change, the more they stay the same. The cast here is also extraordinary-Jeremy Shamos as the racist Karl Lindner(remember the guy who tried to persuade the Youngers to not move into their new neighborhood?), who chills the bone in Act One and then returns as the new homeowner in the second act. Annie Parisse is also a wonder as Karl’s deaf wife in the first act, then later as the pregnant new homeowner. But the marvel in this touching, angry evening is actor Frank Wood. Mr. Wood, always a reliable actor in difficult material, gives a startling, multi-layered passionate performance here that I will always cherish. It is a characterization that just must be seen, in a play that is crafted to both anger and challenge.

Director Ethan Hawke has done such a great job of directing Sam Shepard’s play “Lie Of The Mind”, that you’d suspect Mr. Hawke has a new direction in a long career up his sleeve. His work here is seamless, and this is not an easy play. It is a play about severely disfunctional people-about madness, and loss, and death and rebirth-and he handles his cast with the greatest of ease. What he has done with a cast that includes Keith Carradine, Laurie Melcalf, Josh Hamilton, and the ethereal, astonishing Marin Ireland, is a small miracle. Let us hope the run will be indefintely extended so as many theatregoers as possible will be able to savor it.

At the Lucille Lortel Theatre, four performances must be mentioned in the MCC production of Alexi Kaye Campbell’s “The Pride”. These are wonderful British actors giving lovely, lovely performances in a play that is elegantly written, but at times stubbornly confounding as well. But hats off to Hugh Dancy, Ben Whishaw, Andrea Riseborough, and Adam James. They take extremely intense matter, and make it breathe. And in the case of Mr. Whishaw, let’s hope he travels across the pond to perform on a regular basis.

Oh, yes. One last note. The multi-talented song and dance man, Christopher Fitzgerald, late of “Finian’s Rainbow”, will be performing at Feinstein’s at The Regency for one night only, on Sunday, March 28th. Please make every effort to fill the room, so he’ll be encouraged to give us a longer engagement down the road. Break a leg, Chris.