Review: RAISIN Brings Heart & Soul to Milwaukee's Skylight Music Theatre

Based on the 1959 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, the heart of "Raisin" remains relevant as ever

By: Apr. 14, 2022
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Review: RAISIN Brings Heart & Soul to Milwaukee's Skylight Music Theatre

"What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?" These are lines from the Langston Hughes poem "Harlem," which inspired playwright Lorraine Hansberry's play Raisin in the Sun. The play made its debut on Broadway in 1959 and also won the Pulitzer Prize. A musical based on the play, Raisin, debuted in 1973 and went on to win a Tony Award for Best Musical in 1974. Now, Raisin is on stage at Milwaukee's Skylight Music Theatre.

The story is set in Chicago, 1951. It follows the successes and struggles of the Youngers -- a Black family poised to be the first to move into the all-white Clybourne Park neighborhood. Everyone in the family has hopes, ambitions, and moments of heartbreak and triumph. In short, Raisin is the tale of one family's American Dream.

This Skylight production is directed and choreographed by Kenneth L. Roberson, who speaks from experience about redlining in the show's Audience Guide: "I lived in Harlem for years. It was hard to get a loan. I remember when Harlem became gentrified. When white people were moving in, banks showed up on every corner whereas before, there were maybe one or two. There were no resources; we didn't have bootstraps to pull ourselves up from."

It's stories like these that make Raisin so important, even today. The musical shares the story of the Younger family by blending styles of a??a??jazz, gospel, and 70's pop, bringing lots of texture to the show. The wonderful cast is backed by a live orchestra, brass section and all.

The Younger family matriarch is Lena/Mama, played by Wydetta Carter. Her sincerity shines in the sweet ballad "A Whole Lotta Sun," while her fire ignites in the soulful "Measure the Valleys." Mama's two grown children, Walter Lee (J. Daughtry) and Beneatha (Camara Stampley) couldn't be more different.

Walter Lee is a chauffeur for a white man, but he dreams of owning his own liquor store. Beneatha is in college with plans to become a doctor. As Beneatha, Stampley is part feisty and self-assured, part charming in her innocence -- a perfect blend with perfectly sweet vocals, too. Walter Lee is eager in his ambitions, so much so that he ends up behaving recklessly. As a son and husband, Walter Lee is not always likable, but Daughtry's earnest, passionate portrayal helps make the character a sympathetic one.

Daughtry also brings strong vocals, which are nicely matched by Melanie Loren as Walter Lee's wife, Ruth Younger. Loren is mighty delightful throughout. But as can happen with such strong vocalists, their mics betray them at times -- likely because voices this big don't necessarily need to be further amplified. Still, even in sharp moments of volume, there's no question this cast has serious vocal chops.

Even the ensemble brings the power, with Erica Cherie, Raven Dockery, and Shawn Holmes showing off particular charisma and impressive vocal range. As Beneatha's beau Joseph Asagai, Denzel Taylor lights his scenes with optimism and warmth. And as Travis, the youngest member of the Younger clan, Josiah A. Jacobs is every inch endearing in his performance -- particularly in the sweet tune "Sidewalk Tree."

Lastly, a favorite throughout the show is dance captain Ella Lakey. At various moments -- in the bustling city, at church, during an African dance interlude -- Lakey lends powerful, graceful movement to the scene. The dimension she brings to Raisin is a true highlight.

To sum up, for a moving musical portrait of 1950s Black American life, Raisin is certainly one to see. It's a story of how dreams spur us all, even in the face of reality. And while sometimes you have to compromise on those dreams, there's hope in powering through and making the best of what life hands you. In doing so, maybe we make life that much better for the next generation of dreamers.


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