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May 10, 2013

TT: Sing along with Cicely

In today's Wall Street Journal "Sightings" column I talk about how audiences respond differently to different art forms--and how the unexpected response to the Broadway revival of The Trip to Bountiful enhances the effect of the show. Here's an excerpt.

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Carrie Watts, the character played by Cicely Tyson in the Broadway revival of Horton Foote's "The Trip to Bountiful," is an old woman from a small Texas town who likes to sing hymns to herself. When Ms. Tyson did so at the preview performance that I saw a couple of weeks ago, a fair number of people in the theater sang along with her. It didn't look to me as though she was trying to encourage them, either: They just joined in.

Theater%20Review%20The%20Trip%20to%20Bountiful.JPEG-04c04.jpgI wondered whether the same thing was happening at other performances. Then I got this e-mail from a friend who had seen the play the preceding week: "Did the audience sing along with the hymns on the night you saw 'Bountiful'? Three women sitting next to me started singing along, softly at first, and by the second hymn a good part of the audience was joyously singing with them. The theatre was everyone's church that night, not just mine. To describe it sounds hokey, but it was anything but." I couldn't agree more, and it reminded me anew that the unpredictability of the audience can be one of the most thrilling aspects of a live performance....

I wonder whether the fact that Michael Wilson's revival of Mr. Foote's play features a mostly black cast might have something to do with the way in which audiences are reacting to it. In my experience, a theater audience that contains a significant number of blacks is prone to be more vocal in its response to a show. When an actor speaks a line that strikes a chord with black theatergoers, many of them will say "Uh-HUH!" or "That's right!" out loud. Black churchgoers, of course, often do the same thing at Sunday-morning services, and I suspect that the amen-like responses of black theatergoers are a not-so-distant echo of that old-time religion....

I'll never forget seeing George Balanchine's "Prodigal Son" performed by Dance Theatre of Harlem for a mostly black audience. At one point in the ballet, the dancers unexpectedly form a human merry-go-round. I'd seen it happen a half-dozen times without incident in the past, but that night the audience let out a huge whoop of delight at the sheer cheekiness of Balanchine's choreography. And did I join in? You bet....

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Read the whole thing here.

An excerpt from George Balanchine's Prodigal Son, performed by Mikhail Baryshnikov, Karin von Aroldingen, and New York City Ballet. The score is by Sergei Prokofiev:

Posted May 10, 2013 12:00 AM

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