This Week in New York Insider's Guide to Arts & Culture in New York City Since 2001

IN PERPETUAL FLIGHT: THE MIGRATION OF THE BLACK BODY

(photo by Steve Vaccariello)

Alvin Ailey dancer and choreographer Hope Boykin will perform at “In Perpetual Flight: The Migration of the Black Body” presentation at Schomburg Center (photo by Steve Vaccariello)

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
Langston Hughes Auditorium
515 Malcolm X Blvd.
Tuesday, April 16, free with advance registration, 6:30
www.nypl.org

Carnegie Hall’s wide-ranging, multidisciplinary Migrations: The Making of America festival comes to the Langston Hughes Auditorium at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture on April 16 for “In Perpetual Flight: The Migration of the Black Body.” Through dance, music, and theater, the program traces the journey toward liberation of the black body across time in the US, from the slave trade and the Great Migration to the Civil War and the Back to Africa movement, exploring its impact on contemporary American culture. The evening, held in conjunction with the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. Barbara Ann Teer’s National Black Theatre and its current NBT Beyond Walls initiative, features four live performances and presentations by Alvin Ailey dancer and choreographer Hope Boykin, screenwriter, playwright, and director Keith Josef Adkins, Obie-winning actress and singer Kenita R. Miller, composer and sound designer Justin Hicks, NBT CEO Sade Lythcott, and NBT artistic director Jonathan McCrory, utilizing works from the Schomburg Center archives from such seminal figures as James Baldwin, Harriet Powers, Marcus Garvey, Harriet Tubman, and Jacob Lawrence. “This event is allowing us to acknowledge the consistent flight, movement, and navigation black people have been engaged in within this country ever since the black body was ripped from the shores of Africa — human bodies stripped from home and forced into slavery,” McCrory said in a statement. “That perpetual flight has produced four hundred years of migration that have generated moments of agitation, acceleration, acclimation, and aspiration.” Admission is free; advance registration is strongly recommended.

THE LEHMAN TRILOGY

(photo by Stephanie Berger)

Henry Lehman (Simon Russell Beale) is the first Lehman brother to arrive in America in epic play at Park Ave. Armory (photo by Stephanie Berger)

Park Ave. Armory, Wade Thompson Drill Hall
643 Park Ave. at 67th St.
Tuesday - Sunday through April 20
212-933-5812
www.armoryonpark.org

The prospect of sitting through a nearly three-and-a-half-hour play about the history of Lehman Brothers performed by a mere three actors might not necessarily be your idea of fun, but the US premiere of Ben Power’s adaptation of Stefano Massini’s Italian original is an epic masterpiece, must-see theater at its finest. Running in the massive Wade Thompson Drill Hall at the Park Ave. Armory through April 20 — advance tickets are sold out but a limited number of $45 rush tickets are available day of show — The Lehman Trilogy begins with a prologue in 2008 as a man packs boxes following the Black Thursday stock market crash on Es Devlin’s breathtaking set, a large, revolving transparent cube with several office-like rooms. Video designer Luke Halls projects geographic scenes onto the huge semicircle at the back of the stage and onto the floor around the cube, from the vast sea and plantation estates to cotton fields and the New York City skyline.

The first act, “Three Brothers,” quickly shifts to the past, to September 1844, with the arrival of twenty-one-year-old Henry Lehman (Simon Russell Beale) from his native Rimpar in Bavaria. He opens a small fabric store in Montgomery, Alabama, amid the plantations and is determined to live the American dream. “He left with an idea of America in his head / and got off the boat with America before him: / no longer in his mind but there in front of his eyes. / AMERICA. / Baruch HaShem,” Henry says about himself. Much of the play is related in poetic language spoken in the third person, interwoven with dialogue. Through it all, Candida Caldicot plays the piano just offstage, adding atmosphere and playful humor.

(photo by Stephanie Berger)

Henry (Simon Russell Beale), Emanuel (Ben Miles), and Mayer Lehman (Adam Godley) change the face of American capitalism in The Lehman Trilogy (photo by Stephanie Berger)

Henry is joined three years later by middle brother Emanuel (Ben Miles), who was twenty at the time, and then by nineteen-year-old Mayer Lehman (Adam Godley) in 1850; Henry is considered the head, Emanuel the arm, and Mayer the potato, an unequal partner sent to mediate any disputes between his older siblings. Henry has a brilliant mind for adapting to evolving market conditions, including inventing them in order to help the company flourish as it goes from selling fabrics to raw cotton, coffee, and coal to, ultimately, trading money itself once they move to New York City, setting up shop at 119 Liberty St. With each advance, they change their business sign, represented by writing the company’s new name on the glass wall. In the second act, “Fathers & Sons,” the next generation grows up and enters the organization: Emanuel’s son, Philip (Beale), and Mayer’s son, Herbert (Miles), who continue to expand the family’s holdings while getting further away from their heritage. “He was born in New York: / in his blood, not even a drop / of Germany or Alabama. / New Herbert. / Very new Herbert. / Son of New York, Herbert,” Mayer says. Act three, “The Immortal,” starts with a harrowing depiction of the suicides that came with the crash of 1929 as the more flashy Robert “Bobby” Lehman (Godley), Philip’s son, becomes the face of the company. Eventually, the firm runs out of Lehmans, instead being led by Pete Peterson (Beale) and Lewis Glucksman (Miles) as the 2008 mortgage crisis awaits.

(photo by Stephanie Berger)

Es Devlin’s set is another character in The Lehman Trilogy at Park Ave. Armory (photo by Stephanie Berger)

Power (Husbands and Sons, Medea) and Oscar-, Tony-, and Olivier Award–winning director Sam Mendes (The Ferryman, American Beauty) have streamlined Stefano Massini’s five-hour Italian original, which featured a much larger cast. Beale (Candide, Uncle Vanya), Miles (The Norman Conquests, Coupling), and Godley (Rain Man, Anything Goes) are a sight to behold, each onstage for nearly the entire play; they remain in Katrina Lindsay’s business-suit costumes, but it’s clear which of the many characters they are portraying at any given moment. Devlin’s cube is its own star, especially when, late in the show, it starts whipping around faster and faster, at speeds that will make you dizzy, never mind the three remarkable actors, who take it all in stride and as if they are one entity. The script doesn’t judge the Lehmans’ morality; it doesn’t mention that the Lehmans owned slaves in Alabama, and it avoids focusing on the ethical issues inherent in their rise to the heights of the financial world. “I don’t think I’m hated,” Bobby says, concerned about what his employees think of him. “No slave likes his master,” his wife, Ruth (Beale), says. “Am I the master?” Bobby asks.

The Lehman Trilogy also doesn’t turn the siblings into heroes or villains; each family member has his or her flaws and proclivities, and they become evident throughout the show, as does their genius when it comes to making money. It’s a riveting story of immigration and assimilation, with a particularly Jewish flavor as the Lehmans pave a path to fortune and wealth from a Bavarian shtetl to the cotton fields of the South and the golden streets of New York City. Henry touches the mezuzah and kisses his hand every time he enters and leaves his shop/office and often punctuates his desires by saying, “Baruch HaShem” (“Thank G-d”) — it’s as if his place of business is sacred ground, a holy temple — and the brothers sit shiva (a mourning ritual) whenever a family member passes. Although you know how it all ends in 2008, The Lehman Trilogy shines an absorbing light on just who the Lehman brothers were and how they made the most of their American dream.

AIN’T TOO PROUD — THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE TEMPTATIONS

(photo by Matthew Murphy)

The story of the Temptations comes to Broadway in jukebox musical (photo by Matthew Murphy)

Imperial Theatre
249 West 45th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through November 24, $49-$189
www.ainttooproudmusical.com

Ain’t Too Proud — The Life and Times of the Temptations purports to tell the story behind the famed R&B group that recorded many of Motown’s most popular and successful songs. But director Des McAnuff, a veteran of such other Broadway jukebox bio-musicals as the misbegotten Summer: The Donna Summer Musical and the runaway hit Jersey Boys (as well as Jesus Christ Superstar and The Who’s Tommy), and book writer Dominique Morisseau, a rising playwright who has written the Detroit Trilogy (Detroit ’67, Skeleton Crew, Paradise Blue), never approach cloud nine in this standard show that goes by the numbers. The story is based on the memoir of Temptations founder Otis Williams (Derrick Baskin), who narrates the chronological tale, from his childhood to the present day. After serving a stint in prison, he is determined to go straight, making his way in the music world.

He puts together a talented group of singers he initially calls Otis Williams and the Distants, then the Elgins, and finally, following an “accidental” meeting with Berry Gordy (Jahi Kearse) in a men’s room, the Temptations: Williams, the deep-voiced Melvin Franklin (Jawan M. Jackson), band choreographer Paul Williams (James Harkness), and up-and-coming superstars Eddie Kendricks (Jeremy Pope) and David Ruffin (Ephraim Sykes). Gordy teams them first with songwriter Smokey Robinson (Christian Thompson) and later Norman Whitfield (Jarvis B. Manning Jr.) as they eventually tear up the charts. But success also brings a clash of egos, drugs and alcohol, womanizing, domestic abuse, and the inability to maintain family relationships because of the constant touring, resulting in a revolving door of Temptations except for Otis, who remains throughout.

(photo by Matthew Murphy)

The Temptations are ready to take the music world by storm in Ain’t Too Proud (photo by Matthew Murphy)

Sergio Trujillo’s choreography captures the Temptations’ skillful movements, with Sykes eliciting shrieks of excitement from the audience for his spectacular moves, and Harold Wheeler’s orchestrations do justice to the Motown originals, from “My Girl,” “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” to “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me),” “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today),” and “I Can’t Get Next to You,” although some are condensed for time or broken up in the narrative. There are also hits from the Supremes, the Cadillacs, the Five Satins, and others that sometimes feel out of place as McAnuff and Morisseau try to provide musical context. The main group’s backup vocals are excellent, but the lead singers often fall short; it’s impossible to expect that the Broadway actors will reach the heights achieved by, for example, Kendricks and Ruffin, but several songs suffer for it. The story addresses the civil rights movement and the dire socioeconomic situation in Detroit in a bumpy manner, almost as if an afterthought, and the projections by Peter Nigrini are often repetitive and hard to figure out as they are shown on Robert Brill’s ever-changing set, which boasts a conveyor belt to help props and characters enter and exit.

Baskin (Memphis, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) is amiable and warm as Otis, a charming, principled man who chooses fame over family — Baskin is so comfortable in the role that he sweetly replied a few times to a woman in the audience who called out like she was at a church service — with a superb Rashidra Scott (Beautiful, Sister Act) as his wife, Josephine, and Shawn Bowers as his son, Lamont. Jackson (Motown: The Musical) is lovable as Franklin, a big man whose impossibly deep voice resonates through the theater and rattles in your bones. Also in the cast are Saint Aubyn and E. Clayton Cornelious as replacement Temptations Dennis Edwards and Richard Street, respectively; Nasia Thomas as Motown star Tammi Terrell, Florence Ballard of the Supremes, and Franklin’s stern mother; Joshua Morgan as the Temptations’ longtime manager, the white and Jewish Shelly Berger; Candice Marie Woods as Diana Ross; and Taylor Symone Jackson as Mary Wilson and Otis’s first manager. Paul Tazewell’s costumes and Charles G. LaPointe’s hair and wig design are right-on. Ain’t Too Proud looks and sounds good, but it fails to dig deep enough under the surface of one of R&B’s most beloved and seminal groups.

COLOR BRAVE: SOUTHERN PROMISES

(photo by Joan Marcus)

A plantation facade threatens to crush slaves and slave owners alike in Flea reboot of Thomas Bradshaw’s Southern Promises (photo by Joan Marcus)

Flea Theater, the Sam
20 Thomas St. between Broadway & Church St.
Thursday - Monday through April 18, $15-$50
theflea.org

The Flea’s 2018-19 “Color Brave” season, comprising plays examining race by Todd Solondz, Geraldine Inoa, Idris Goodwin, Kristiana Rae Colón, and Nick Gandiello, comes to an incendiary close with a reboot of Thomas Bradshaw’s Southern Promises, which premiered in 2008 at the IRT in Greenwich Village. Bradshaw has updated the show, including changing the ending, for this run, which continues at the Sam through April 18. The cast consists of twelve nonwhite members of the Bats, the Flea’s resident company. “People of color in America don’t really have a tradition where we confront and investigate the legacy of slavery on our own terms. This legacy is the root of all societal racism in this country, and we as a society are just starting to dig our way out,” one actor explains in a prologue in which several of the Bats share an aspect of personal history involving race. Another says, “I’m just as much slave owner as I am slave. Both the oppressor and the oppressed. This contradiction is an essential part of who I am, and I choose to embrace it all. Every character in this show is me. Every one of these characters are my ancestors.”

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Benjamin (Shakur Tolliver) and Charlotte (Yvonne Jessica Pruitt) think freedom is near in Southern Promises (photo by Joan Marcus)

Inspired by the book The Great Escapes: Four Slave Narratives, which tells the story of fugitive slaves Daphne Brooks, William W. Brown, Henry Box Brown, and William and Ellen Craft, Southern Promises is set on a Virginia plantation in 1848, where Isaiah (Darby Davis), the master, is on his deathbed and tells his slave Benjamin (Shakur Tolliver) that all the slaves will be emancipated when he passes. “You know, Ben, I’ve always thought of you as a brother. I want you to know that,” Isaiah says. “I’m honored, massa. I’ve always loved you,” Benjamin responds. But when Isaiah dies, his widow, Elizabeth (Brittany Zaken), whom he told about his plan to free the slaves, changes his will so that none of the slaves will be given their freedom. “It always seems to me such a cruel thing to turn ni--ers loose to fend for themselves, when there are so many good masters to take care of them,” she complains to Isaiah’s brother, David (Jahsiah Rivera), who was aware of Isaiah’s final wish. “I care nothing for the ni--ers, on my own account, for they are a great deal more trouble than they are worth; I sometimes wish that there was not one of them in the world, for the ungrateful wretches are always running away.” Also entering the fray is Elizabeth’s brother, John (Marcus Jones), a preacher who believes that the widow should now marry David. A toxic mix of greed and unholy desire ensues, and David becomes a vicious taskmaster, as both he and Elizabeth abuse Benjamin and his wife, Charlotte (Yvonne Jessica Pruitt), leading to a surprising, tragic finale.

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Thomas Bradshaw uses slavery to explore modern-day racism in Southern Promises (photo by Joan Marcus)

Jason Sherwood’s set is dominated by a mounted large-scale photograph of the front of the plantation estate, tilting forward as if it is about to fall over and crush everyone. Tables and chairs are moved on- and offstage as lighting designer Jorge Arroyo illuminates individual windows to indicate where a scene takes place. At moments his lighting casts shadows on the facade that resemble Kara Walker’s silhouettes of slave owners raping and torturing black men, women, and children. (The play’s marketing image, which includes the tagline “We’re Finally Free,” uses silhouetted art by Walker as well.) In between scenes, snippets of southern rock songs by such superstars as Bob Dylan, the Band, Janis Joplin, the Allman Brothers, Neil Young, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and others play. In such works as Intimacy, Mary, and Burning, Bradshaw makes audiences feel uncomfortable as he explores issues of race and sex, and Southern Promises is no exception.

It’s unsettling to watch the play, directed with a poignant immediacy by Flea artistic director Niegel Smith (Take Care, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music) and featuring Timothy Park as a doctor, Adrain Washington as Emmanuel and an imaginary slave, Selamawit Worku as Sarah, and Adam Coy as Atticus; the actors are all of African, Latin American, or Asian descent. This revised version of Southern Promises is like a mini-Roots, going beyond the systemic racism that has been America’s shame for four hundred years to reveal how the concept of race and its power corrupts even the seemingly most well meaning of people. The night I attended, an awkward, uneasy moment at the curtain call uncovered society’s continuing pain, as most of the people of color in the primarily white audience did not applaud at all while several white people gave a standing ovation. But as we know, from the daily news to plays such as Southern Promises, no matter how woke many of us white people may try to be, this country still has a lot of work to do.

ONASSIS FESTIVAL 2019: DEMOCRACY IS COMING

Lena Kitsopoulou’s

Lena Kitsopoulou’s is part of Onassis Festival at Public Theater

Public Theater and other venues
425 Lafayette St.
April 10-28
212-539-8500
www.publictheater.org
www.onassisfestivalny.org

The English word “democracy,” and the concept of ruling by the common people, comes from Greek classical antiquity. The Public Theater, in partnership with Onassis USA, hearkens back to those origins in the 2019 Onassis Festival: Democracy Is Coming. From April 10 to 28, the Public and such other venues as La MaMa will present live performances, discussions, and more exploring the meaning and role of democracy from its early days to the present time, as fascism rears its ugly head in America and around the world. Below are only some of the many highlights.

Wednesday, April 10
through
Saturday, April 13

Relic, solo performance by Euripides Laskaridis, examining the current Greek crisis, Shiva Theater at the Public, $35, 8:00

Wednesday, April 10
through
Sunday, April 28

Socrates, new play by Tim Blake Nelson, directed by Doug Hughes, and starring Michael Stuhlbarg, Niall Cunningham, David Aaron Baker, Teagle F. Bougere, Peter Jay Fernandez, Robert Joy, Miriam A. Hyman, and others, Martinson Hall at the Public, $85

Saturday, April 13
Brunch, Tragedy & Us, book talk with Simon Critchley interviewed by Paul Holdengräber, the Library at the Public Theater, free with advance reservation, 11:30

Choir! Choir! Choir!, community singalong created by Daveed Goldman and Nobu Adilman, free with advance reservation, Public Theater lobby, 5:00

(photo by Miltos Athanasiou)

Euripides Laskaridis’s Relic runs April 18-20 at the Public Theater (photo by Miltos Athanasiou)

Sunday, April 14
Democracy Is the City, panel discussion with Alfredo Brillembourg, Karen Brooks Hopkins, and Kamau Ware and a live performance by Morley, Shiva Theater, 2:00

Monday, April 15
Public Forum: Of, by & for the People, featuring a conversation with Oskar Eustis, Suzan-Lori Parks, and Kwame Anthony Appiah and live performances by André Holland and Diana Oh, Shiva Theater, $25, 7:00

Thursday, April 18
through
Saturday, April 20

Antigone: Lonely Planet, Lena Kitsopoulou’s comic version of Sophocles’s tragedy, Shiva Theater, $35

Monday, April 22
Public Shakespeare Presents: What’s Hecuba to Him? Tragic Greek Women on Shakespeare’s Stage, commentary and readings from Euripides and Shakespeare with Professor Tanya Pollard, Isabel Arraiza, Tina Benko, Phylicia Rashad, and Ayana Workman, Martinson Hall, $35, 7:00

OKLAHOMA!

(© Little Fang Photo)

People might say Laurey Williams (Rebecca Naomi Jones) and Curly McLain (Damon Daunno) are in love in Oklahoma! (© Little Fang Photo)

Circle in the Square Theatre
1633 Broadway at 50th St.
Tuesday - Sunday through September 1, $69.50 - $169.50
oklahomabroadway.com

Daniel Fish’s extraordinary adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Oklahoma! has come sweepin’ down on Broadway following a much-lauded sold-out run at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, opening last night at Circle in the Square. It’s the best of a recent influx of tweaked golden age musicals that update their take on misogyny and inequality between men and women, including My Fair Lady, Carousel, and Kiss Me, Kate. Fish has created a masterful retelling of the 1943 original, immersing the audience in the optimism that came with the southern territory becoming a state in 1906 — but uncovering a deep layer of darkness in the rich farmland soil. The theater has been turned into a communal hoedown, with some audience members sitting at long wooden tables on the stage opposite the characters; on the tables are red crockpots as if everyone is about to have a picnic — and indeed, at intermission, the audience lines up for a bowl of vegetarian chili and cornbread. Laura Jellinek’s stage is otherwise bare, with a pit at one end where the small band performs, a mural of a prairie landscape at the other, and many well-stocked gun racks on the walls surrounding the audience, threatening violence at any moment. The house lights are on for much of the show, except for two key times when lighting designer Scott Zielinski switches them off, bathing the theater in near-total pitch-blackness, only the red Exit signs visible. The lights above the stage shine through colorful bunting running across the ceiling, signaling a celebration, but it is a muted one, as Fish has a lot to say about the American dream amid all of this hopefulness in a still-young country.

(© Little Fang Photo)

Daniel Fish delivers a dark Oklahoma! at Circle in the Square (© Little Fang Photo)

A box social is coming up, in which the men of the town bid on “hamper” meals made by the women, followed by a square dance. Goofy cowboy Curly McLain (Damon Daunno) wants to go with the serious Laurey Williams (Rebecca Naomi Jones), a beauty considered the catch of the community, but she has already agreed to attend the dance with the creepy Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill), a hired hand working on her Aunt Eller’s (Mary Testa) farm; resembling Theon Greyjoy from Game of Thrones, he is an intense man who looks as if he’s going to explode at any second and do some very bad things. Meanwhile, the clueless Will Parker (James Davis) is courting the free-spirited Ado Annie (Ali Stroker), who has developed the hots for traveling peddler Ali Hakim (Will Brill), who doesn’t know what he’s getting into. The hoi polloi also includes federal marshal Cord Elam (Anthony Cason); Ado Annie’s father, judge Andrew Carnes (Mitch Tebo); Gertie Cummings (Mallory Portnoy), who is attracted to Curly and has a ridiculous laugh; and Mike (Will Mann), a big guy who spends a lot of time watching the proceedings.

Much of Agnes de Mille’s original choreography has been cut, as John Heginbotham has created new movement for several scenes, most importantly the second set opener, in which Gabrielle Hamilton performs a long, powerful modern-dance solo to a screeching instrumental medley. Wearing a white shirt that says, “Dream Baby Dream,” referencing a song by glam punk duo Suicide (and covered by Bruce Springsteen), she furiously runs, jumps, and twirls across the stage, stopping often to make direct eye contact with people in the audience, almost accusingly, raising issues of gender and race as she questions the promise of equal opportunity in America, her deep breaths echoing through the space.

(© Little Fang Photo)

Gabrielle Hamilton opens the second act with a thrilling solo about the American dream (© Little Fang Photo)

Fish (White Noise, The Source), well respected for his experimental works, primarily sticks to Oscar Hammerstein II’s book, although the ending is significantly altered to comment on the current state of one critical debate in the nation. Richard Rodgers’s score is gorgeously played by a country bluegrass band, expertly orchestrated by Daniel Kluger, with conductor and music director Nathan Koci on accordion and drums, Joe Brent on mandolin and electric guitar, Brett Parnell on pedal steel guitar, Hilary Hawke on banjo, Sarah Goldfeather on violin, Leah Coloff on cello, and Eleonore Oppenheim on bass. Joshua Thorson’s projections are not necessary, part of a trend of shows using large-scale live imagery that is all Ivo van Hove’s fault. Drew Lovey’s sound works well, particularly during the two scenes that take place in darkness.

But Fish doesn’t leave out the exhilarating joy that is Oklahoma!, which was based on the 1931 play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs, debuted on Broadway in 1943, won two Oscars for Fred Zinnemann’s 1955 film, and has previously been revived on the Great White Way in 1979 and 2002. Songs such as “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” and “People Will Say We’re in Love” don’t sound old-fashioned in the least, and Stroker (Spring Awakening, Glee), rolling around in her wheelchair with an infectious glee, blasts out “I Can’t Say No,” taking ownership of her decisions as a sexually aware woman. Daunno (The Lucky Ones, Hadestown) and Jones (Significant Other, Big Love) excel in a battle of wills, while Vaill (Macbeth, Peter Pan) is chilling in a role previously played by Howard Da Silva, Shuler Hensley, and Rod Steiger. The ever-reliable Testa (Wicked, Queen of the Mist) holds down the fort as the sensible Aunt Eller. Don’t be scared off by the doom and gloom; Fish will still have you leaving the theater with magical music filling your head, even as you reconsider certain elements of a familiar story and how it relates to America in 2019.

HARPER LEE’S TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD

(photo by Julieta Cervantes)

Atticus Finch (Jeff Daniels) addresses the court in Aaron Sorkin’s Broadway adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (photo by Julieta Cervantes)

Shubert Theatre
225 West 44th St. between Broadway & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through November 3, $89-$199
tokillamockingbirdbroadway.com

About a dozen years ago, friends of mine had a baby they named Atticus, after the lawyer in Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize–winning 1960 novel, To Kill a Mockingbird; Gregory Peck won his only Oscar for portraying the highly principled Atticus Finch in Robert Mulligan’s 1962 film. If my friends had seen Aaron Sorkin’s Broadway adaptation of Lee’s book before giving birth, they may have chosen a different name. Following a legal dispute with the estate, which claimed that Oscar and Emmy winner Sorkin — who has written such plays as A Few Good Men and The Farnsworth Invention, such films as Moneyball and The Social Network, and such series as The West Wing and The Newsroom, — had broken their contract by making too many changes to Lee’s original story, the play opened at the Shubert Theatre after an undisclosed settlement to mixed reviews, some celebrating Sorkin’s version, others vilifying it as a disgrace. I find myself somewhere in between; directed by Bartlett Sher, the production is outstanding, but too many of Sorkin’s alterations scream out, too patently obvious and political-minded.

(photo by Julieta Cervantes)

Dill (Gideon Glick) is lifted up by Scout (Celia Keenan-Bolger) and Jem (Will Pullen) in To Kill a Mockingbird (photo by Julieta Cervantes)

Set in sweltering Maycomb, Alabama (inspired by Lee’s hometown of Monroeville), in 1934, the poignant story about racial injustice is narrated by Atticus’s young daughter, Scout, played by forty-one-year-old actress Celia Keenan-Bolger, retelling what happened when a black man named Tom Robinson (Gbenga Akinnagbe) is accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell (Erin Wilhelmi), and is defended by the widowed Atticus Finch (Jeff Daniels). Scout spends the summer hanging out with her older brother, Jem (Will Pullen), and new neighbor Dill (Gideon Glick), goofing around, traipsing too close to the house where local weirdo Arthur “Boo” Radley (Danny Wolohan) resides, and watching the trial. The white townspeople are furious that Atticus is helping a black man, and they make sure to let him know it, threatening Finch and his family with violence. But Atticus is determined not to give up, believing that he has enough evidence on his side to convince the all-white jury of Tom’s innocence. But racism rules all in Maycomb.

(photo by Julieta Cervantes)

Atticus (Jeff Daniels) and daughter Scout (Celia Keenan-Bolger) take a break on the front porch in Aaron Sorkin adaptation of classic novel (photo by Julieta Cervantes)

Sorkin makes some critical adjustments to Lee’s novel and the film, focusing on different aspects and characters. Judge Taylor (the ever-reliable Dakin Matthews) becomes more involved in the trial, castigating prosecutor Horace Gilmer (Stark Sands) and such witnesses as Bob Ewell (Frederick Weller), Mayella’s father, for ignoring protocol. The Finches’ maid, Calpurnia (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), speaks with a decidedly twenty-first-century attitude, intent on getting Atticus woke. Atticus also is a modern-day figure, beset by a political correctness that makes him want to see the best in all people, even men who don white hoods in the middle of the night and lie on the stand. His determination to reserve judgment of those who so obviously deserve it feels oddly reminiscent of President Trump’s declaration that there are good people on both sides of the Charlottesville conflict, although nothing else about Atticus is Trumpian.

Miriam Beuther has crafted a homey southern set, complete with musicians on either side of the stage for added atmosphere, with Kimberly Grigsby on pump organ and Allen Tedder on guitar, playing original music by Adam Guettel. Two-time Tony nominee and Emmy and Obie winner Daniels (Blackbird, God of Carnage) is both tender and stalwart as Atticus, an understanding man who has too much faith in humankind, while three-time Tony nominee Keenan-Bolger (The Glass Menagerie, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) is terrific as the adventurous and curious Scout, a young girl wise beyond her years, without being overly precocious. The cast also features Danny McCarthy as Sheriff Heck Tate, Wolohan as Mr. Cunningham, Phyllis Somerville as Mrs. Henry Dubose, and Neal Huff as the mysterious Link Deas. Sorkin’s version of Lee’s classic Bildungsroman is not your mother’s To Kill a Mockingbird, nor your grandmother’s. It is built around the continuing legacy of America’s greatest shame, from the seventeenth century to now, when it’s sadly still relevant, even if it’s been fiddled with far too much and there are unlikely to be a glut of babies named Atticus in the near future.