April 24 (Bloomberg) -- Great stars and great plays don’t always align on Broadway. So there’s good reason to make your way to the Stephen Sondheim Theater, where Cicely Tyson is finally getting the showcase she deserves in Horton Foote’s elegiac “The Trip to Bountiful.”
You may know the play from the fine 1985 film that starred Geraldine Page as Carrie Watts, an aging widow living in Houston with her solid son Ludie and his impatient wife Jessie Mae.
The time is the 1950s, and Carrie’s one desire before dying is to visit her hometown a few hours down the Texas Gulf coast.
Jessie Mae, more jealous than heartless, thwarts Carrie until one day she just ups and leaves.
On the bus to Bountiful, which has all but disappeared from the map, Carrie encounters Thelma, a hymn-loving, God-fearing, elder-respecting young woman.
She’s the daughter Carrie might have had and the daughter-in-law Jessie Mae can never be, a true heart.
Nothing and everything happens on Carrie’s trip to Bountiful. Tyson (whose website says she’s 79 but who is in fact 88) suffuses every scene in Michael Wilson’s meticulous production with feeling yet little sentimentalism, a deft achievement that keeps the show from going gooey.
The late playwright encouraged the idea of a black cast for “Bountiful.” The change adds a certain poignancy to the play’s public scenes. Carrie first encounters Thelma in the “Colored” section of a station and they make their journey in the back of the bus.
Wilson is a Foote specialist and with one exception surrounds Tyson with a formidable family. Cuba Gooding Jr. is mild and resilient as Ludie. Condola Rashad, already on the road to a brilliant career, shows a talent for the comic with one of the great wide-eyed double-takes you’ll ever see as Thelma contemplates Carrie’s quirky elderisms.
Arthur French makes the small role of a stationmaster almost saintly and Tom Wopat reeks of decency as a small-town sheriff. Only Vanessa Williams, as the striving Jessie Mae, seems to have flown in on a broomstick from another planet, unsettling the complex chemistry.
Not nearly enough, however, to dilute the play -- or Tyson’s -- enduring charms.
Through June 30 at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, 124 W. 43rd St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com. Rating: ****
The most engaging and provocative new musical of the season, David Byrne’s “Here Lies Love,” won’t be eligible for Tony nominations when they’re announced next week. That may be good news for the producers of “Matilda” and “Kinky Boots.”
The reason is that “Here Lies Love” is being presented at the Public Theater. Only Broadway shows get to take part in the country’s most prestigious theater awards, more’s the pity.
This show began as a song cycle conceived by the genius behind Talking Heads, collaborating with Norman Cook, aka Fatboy Slim, about the rise of Philippine First Lady and tabloid courtesan Imelda Marcos.
The parallels with “Evita” are pretty obvious: girl from the slums sets sights on political up-and-comer. She’s adored by the public while draining the state coffers to build monuments to herself and party with other political criminals.
In addition to an addictively listenable -- and danceable - - score, the merits of “Here Lies Love” include a transgressive idea: put on the show in a mini-Studio 54 (designed by David Korins), complete with mirror ball, Day-Glo-coifed DJ and moving platforms that continually discombobulate the standing audience.
So we have to stand for all 90 minutes of Alex Timbers’s nonstop dance-a-thon staging (with choreography by Annie-B Parson), while working up a healthy antipathy for Imelda and Ferdinand.
As Imelda, Ruthie Ann Miles is totally winning, but so is the whole show. Whether it can be successfully transferred to a proscenium theater for the uptown crowd, I can’t say. So catch it at the Public while there’s still time and tickets. And leave the Jimmy Choos at home.
Through June 2 at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., East Village. Information: +1-212-967-7555; http://www.publictheater.org. Rating: ****
What the Stars Mean: ***** Fantastic **** Excellent *** Good ** So-So * Poor (No stars) Avoid
(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Ryan Sutton on dining and Rich Jaroslovsky on tech.
To contact the writer of this column: Jeremy Gerard in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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