Carol Dennis’ brilliant interpretation of Lena Younger in “Raisin” is on par with Virginia Capers’ magnificent 1973 Tony-winning portrayal. Dennis, of Broadway’s “Big River” and “The Wiz,” replaced Nell Carter, who died just before the scheduled opening, and despite only two weeks of rehearsal time, she inhabits the role with every look and gesture, creating a portrait of indomitable will, dignity and courage.
The pleasure of this new production is discovering how timely and relevant the show remains. Dennis plays Mama Younger, an aging woman who receives a $10,000 inheritance from her late husband and decides to spend it on a new home for her family. Her son, Walter Lee (Michael A. Shepperd) wants a share of the money to start a liquor business, an idea his religious mother vigorously opposes. Walter Lee’s security-minded wife, Ruth (Kecia Lewis), also dismisses his dream, and the story concentrates on Walter’s fight for the financial backing he believes will insure his independence. Their conflicts result in tragic disappointment, self-pity and finally pride in their heritage.
Under the joint direction of Shashin Desai and Caryn Desai, “Raisin” opens with a pulsating musical street prologue that expresses Chicago tenement life in song and dance, then finds its soul in “Man Say,” a number in which Walter Lee berates Ruth for ignoring his pain and focusing on mundane morning chores. His plight gains poignancy with Paul Fabre’s subway sounds and Don Llewellyn’s one-room set. “A Whole Lotta Sunlight,” Mama’s intimate ode to her favorite plant, is warmly wistful and moving, a vivid contrast to Walter Lee’s angry “You Done Right.”
There’s an early awareness that Judd Woldin’s music sacrifices some authentic ethnicity for a big Broadway sound. But these reservations are swept away at the top of act two, when Dennis and her pastor (Reggie Burrell) get rousingly gospel with “He Come Down This Morning,” aided by Brian Paul Mendoza’s infectious choreography. Brittan hits the bull’s-eye on “Not Anymore,” in which Shepperd, Dennis and Anne Thomas, as Walter Lee’s sister, humorously compare overt racism to subtle, hidden prejudice. Dennis has an enthralling solo with “Measure the Valleys,” hammering home her message of love and compassion by skating past sentimentality in favor of soaringly honest emotion.
Don DeForest Paul makes a major impression as the unctuous head of the “improvement association.” Paul perfectly highlights a history of civilized evil with his smilingly smarmy representation of a man hired by bigoted tenants to drive Mama’s family from their white neighborhood. As Walter Lee’s anxious wife, Lewis is appealingly direct and truthful. Micah Williams is charmingly believable as her young son and performs a showstopping dance. Shepperd often overwhelms scenes with his relentless intensity, but his climactic realization of lost hopes and money is superbly played.
Thomas demonstrates formidable acting skill in a shattering mother-daughter confrontation, and Terron Brooks is convincing as her idealistic suitor.
But for all the fine talents involved, this is Dennis’ show from start to finish.