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Washington great in 'A Raisin in the Sun'

LaTanya Richardson, from left, Denzel Washington and Sophie Okonedo appear at the curtain call for the opening night of "A Raisin In The Sun" on Thursday, April 3, 2014 in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

NEW YORK: Talk leading up to opening night of the latest Broadway revival of "A Raisin in the Sun" hinted at flaws - it was coming back too soon, a lead actress had to be replaced late, and Denzel Washington is just too old for it.

Turns out none of that matters: The show that opened Thursday night at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre is blistering, beautifully acted and superbly touching.

Set in 1950s Chicago, Lorraine Hansberry's play centers on the struggling Younger family, who anxiously await a $10,000 insurance check - and the ensuing squabbles over how to spend it. So many meaty subjects are here: assimilation, manhood, racism, classism, sexism and honor.

Director Kenny Leon gets a second bite of the apple - he also helmed the last Broadway version starring Sean Combs in 2004 - and offers a throbbing, vibrant production that is a match for this 55-year-old American masterpiece. There's real humor here, too, both physical and scripted.

Washington is startlingly good as Walter Lee Younger, the frustrated chauffeur and dreamer. He has the cadences and the trapped physicality in his bones - warm and loose until he's cold and volatile. Even his mother says, "Something eating you up like a crazy man."

The script says Washington is supposed to be 35 - the actor is 59 - but all that matters is a brilliant performance, funny and poignant. Watching him dance on a table while drunk and then, moments later, cover his head in awful shame is a reminder that this movie star is simply natural onstage.

LaTanya Richardson Jackson replaced Diahann Carroll as the matriarch Lena Younger during rehearsals but there's no denying Richardson Jackson's gravitational pull - she is a fearsome, God-fearing woman not shy about a slap or two if respect isn't shown. Richardson Jackson brings everything to the part: majesty, disappointment, hope and love.

One revelation is Sophie Okonedo, making her Broadway debut as Ruth Younger, Walter's wife. Her bone-weariness is palpable as she opens the show - she even irons and cooks real eggs - and the audience will be inclined to hiss when she's treated poorly by her husband. Watching Okonedo flower in happiness when her family's fortunes take a turn for the better makes your heart soar, too. "Goodbye, misery," she says. And you hope it's true.

Anika Noni Rose makes a wonderfully feisty Beneatha Younger and Sean Patrick Thomas, as one of her suitors, the charming Joseph Asagai, allows the undercurrent of tension in their world views to bubble wonderfully. David Cromer has the unenviable task of playing the bureaucratic white villain, Karl Lindner, but never makes his character cartoony.

Mark Thompson has set it all in an appropriately grim set, complete with grime on the often-slammed front door, sofa pillows that sag with unhappiness, and horrible wallpaper. You can feel the roaches even if you never see them.

It's all the stuff of standing ovations, and richly deserved. A superb ensemble led by an accomplished director has illuminated this rich, thoughtful work. Only one regret after watching it - this playwright's voice was cut off too soon. Hansberry died of cancer in 1965 at age 34. At least she left us this play.

 

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Summary

Talk leading up to opening night of the latest Broadway revival of "A Raisin in the Sun" hinted at flaws -- it was coming back too soon, a lead actress had to be replaced late, and Denzel Washington is just too old for it.

Director Kenny Leon gets a second bite of the apple -- he also helmed the last Broadway version starring Sean Combs in 2004 -- and offers a throbbing, vibrant production that is a match for this 55-year-old American masterpiece.

Washington is startlingly good as Walter Lee Younger, the frustrated chauffeur and dreamer.

The script says Washington is supposed to be 35 -- the actor is 59 -- but all that matters is a brilliant performance, funny and poignant.

David Cromer has the unenviable task of playing the bureaucratic white villain, Karl Lindner, but never makes his character cartoony.


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