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June 19, 2009

TT: Improving on perfection

I review two shows in today's Wall Street Journal drama column, the Hartford Stage transfer of Dividing the Estate and the Encores! revival of The Wiz. Here's an excerpt.

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tn-500_foote_smith39121.jpgYou can't be sure how good a work of art is until you've seen it more than once. I saw Horton Foote's "Dividing the Estate" for the third time last week, and it looked better than ever--though I have no doubt that a good-sized chunk of the credit this time around goes to Lois Smith. Ms. Smith, whose performance in the Signature Theatre Company's unforgettable 2005 Off-Broadway revival of Foote's "The Trip to Bountiful" was a high-water mark in my playgoing life, has taken over Elizabeth Ashley's role in Hartford Stage's production of "Dividing the Estate," which is otherwise a straight transfer of the Lincoln Center Theatre staging seen on Broadway last winter. Ms. Ashley is, of course, a tough act to follow, but Ms. Smith does so triumphantly. In fact, she might just be better than her celebrated predecessor--and that's saying plenty....

It's been 13 years since Lois Smith last appeared on Broadway ("The Trip to Bountiful" was supposed to transfer there, but no theater was available at the time). That alone is reason enough to go to Hartford to see her. She seasons the role of Stella with a savory pinch of mischief--you can tell that she enjoys toying with her offspring--that heightens the pathos of her character's imminent rendezvous with death. Her Stella is neither Gothic nor grotesque, merely human, and the relish with which she clings to what remains of her long life is unutterably poignant.

The other members of the ensemble cast have been working together since this production first opened Off Broadway in 2007, yet they show no signs of ennui. If anything, they've managed to improve on what I previously thought couldn't be bettered....

The original Broadway production of "The Wiz," the 1975 all-black rewrite of "The Wizard of Oz," ran for 1,672 performances. The 1984 revival closed after two weeks. While I suspect that says all that needs to be said about the modest staying power of "The Wiz," anyone who cares to see for himself is more than welcome to drop a hundred bucks on Encores! Summer Stars' production. The singing is terrific, but the songs sound like bonus tracks from "Great TV Themes of the '70s," and Andy Blankenbuehler's busy but aimless dances never seem to go anywhere....

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Read the whole thing here.

Posted June 19, 2009 12:00 AM

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