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A CurtainUp Review
As compellingly told through a possibly over complicated narrative thread, this is, nevertheless, a remarkable new work that covers a shameful era in American history. Part I takes place in a nursing home in Broadbend, Arkansas in 1961 and Part II in the same city's cemetery in 1988. The almost sung-through score is in the hands of two gifted musical theater artists — Justin Cunningham and Danyel Fulton — who deftly portray the story's two fictional characters. Both get to narrate and inhabit two distinctly different but related stories that are separated by twenty seven years.
Cunningham plays Benny, a black orderly in a nursing home run by Julynne, a white woman who spends a lot of time arguing and being ornery with Bertha, a patient with whom she regularly plays Scrabble. Benny takes all the parts but with an ease that quickly dispels our questioning this narrative conceit. The plot thickens as we discover that Julynne is the second wife of the man who was once married to Bertha. You don't need to know more than that.
The complexity of the relationships is further developed as Benny becomes intrigued and inspired by news of the Freedom Riders. Benny's tragic end resulting from his almost involuntary involvement with the civil rights movement sets the stage for Part II. Here we learn what happened to Ruby, one of his twin daughters. It won't be too much of a spoiler to say that she and her sister are raised by Julynne. The stories of both Benny and Ruby unravel within a lot of both expositional and immediate narrative.
But the core of Part I is the depth of feeling that is expressed by Cunningham's Benny as he suddenly and unexpectedly finds his calling. Cunningham, who made his Broadway debut in King Lear opposite Glenda Jackson and has played a number of roles for the Public Theater, gives a terrific performance that adds considerable dramatic heft to his lengthy arias. He holds our attention and earns our affection through0ut Act I.
But as Al Jolsen used to say, "You ain't heard nothin' yet. " That's until you find out what happens when Ms. Fulton gets to preside over Part II as Benny's grown daughter.
Fulton, a Brooklyn-based actor is a find. Ruby's story grows incrementally out of her current crisis that resulted from her child being brutalized by a policeman. I can't recall any actor/singer sustaining for an entire act so much emotionally charged singing and recitative. Her singing is neither over-emoted nor over-sung. She is completely committed to expressing the deeply embedded truth of a young black woman who is suddenly empowered to sing "Unless we change, unless we endure."
, Under the expert direction of Jack Cummings III, the entire production is presented on an empty stage with just a couple of chairs, with two performers who know how to create credibly realized characters. The action is enhanced by Jen Schriever's excellent lighting design. A terrific six member orchestra (notable for its strings), plays the score at the rear of the stage.
Two-character musicals or operas of a serious nature seen both on and off Broadway are not that unusual. Some notable examples Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti, Menotti's The Telephone,Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years, Schmidt and Jones's I Do, I Do, Neil Simon/Carole Bayer Sager/Marvin Hamlisch's They're Playing Our Song.. Unlike the above musicals, the two characters in Broadbend, Arkansas do not interact but they fill the stage even as they exist in different times.
I wasn't sure what to expect when I arrived. But Broadbend, Arkansas was for me what I always hope from musical theater and only rarely is . . . thoroughly rewarding.
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Broadbend, Arkansas Music and Additional Lyrics by Ted Shen
Libretto by Ellen Fitzhugh and Harrison David Rivers Directed by Jack Cummings III
Cast: Justin Cunningham (Benny), Danyel Fulton (Ruby)
Lighting Design: Jen Schriever
Costume Design: Peiyi Wong
Sound Design: Walter Trarbach
Scenic Consultant: Dane Laffrey
Music Director Deborah Abramson
Orchestrations: Michael Starabin
Production Stage Manager: Jason Hindelang
Running Time: 100 minutes one intermission
Broadbend, Arkansas The Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42 Street.
For a complete playing schedule and more information, visit transportgroup.org.
Tickets, which are $55-$65, and season memberships may be purchased by visiting transportgroup.org or by phoning 866-811-4111.
From 10/25/19 Opened 11/10/19 Ends 11/23/19
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 11/06/19
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