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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at the Signature Theatre, New York

By Stuart Miller

  Seven Guitars at the Signature Theatre, New York

August Wilson lives.  The bluesman of a playwright died fairly suddenly last year but as "Seven Guitars," the inaugural production of the Signature Theatre's season of Wilson works shows, his voice still resonates loud and true.

"Seven Guitars," the story of a musician who simultaneously sees his one big opportunity and all the obstacles in his way, was a wise choice to kick off the season-it's less well-known than, say, "Fences" or "Piano Lesson," but more dynamic and dramatic than other plays in Wilson's renowned 10-play cycle like "Jitney" or "King Hedley II." 

But then, everything about this production seems smart, starting with having Ruben Santiago-Hudson direct-he won a Tony as Canewell in the show's original Broadway incarnation in 1996 and in his acting, his writing ("Lackawanna Blues"), and even standing outside the theater chatting, Santiago-Hudson seems to embody the rhythms and passions of Wilson's wondrous language.

The director has made sure everything else was done right-from his longtime musical collaborator Bill Sims' scene-changing blues to Karen Perry's dapper period costumes (this is Wilson's 1940s play) to Richard Hoover's meticulously detailed yet deliciously homey set to a stellar ensemble that radiates intimacy and intensity. The result is a play that mixes gritty realism with soaring poetry; it's like blues at its best, moving from melancholy to raucous, mournful to cathartic, with Santiago-Hudson and his cast modulating their pitch and tone perfectly the entire way.

The seven "guitars" of the title are seven neighbors in Pittsburgh's Hill District, who sing and sob and flirt and dream in their backyards, living fully even as white society's bigotry robs them of the chance to fulfill those dreams. The play begins with five of the characters mourning Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton (Lance Reddick), who had just been murdered. The play then recounts the last week of Barton's life-- his shot at a record deal in Chicago; his effort to win back Vera (Roslyn Ruff), the woman he'd previously betrayed; his desperate need for money for his mother's tombstone and to get his guitar out of hock.

But while Floyd is the catalyst, Wilson creates a full world here, with beautiful riffs and powerful solos for virtually everyone, from Louise (a brilliant Brenda Pressley), the guarded gossip next door to Vera to Canewell (Kevin Carroll), Floyd's harmonica-playing sidekick who longs for Vera. There is not one particular showstopper here, as virtually every scene bursts to life:

Floyd's womanizing drummer Red (the delightfully sly Stephen McKinley Henderson) inspires Vera-who has been burdened first by Floyd's departure and now by his return and his new overtures-to briefly break free with some soul-shimmying dance moves (Ruff's performance is revelatory both in her heartbreak and when she shows us the woman still left inside);

Canewell delivers a manic monologue on the different personalities of roosters hailing from different states (Carroll's performance lacks the swagger that Santiago-Hudson brought to the role originally yet he, like his co-stars, gives a nuanced, yet full-throated performance);

Floyd, usually filled with braggadocio and a hint of menace, sings "The Lord's Prayer" softly, so softly, as he remembers his mother. (Reddick, best known as the perpetually smoldering Lieutenant Daniels on HBO's "The Wire," makes the most of this role, both as a charmer and in giving vent to Floyd's rage and frustration.)

Santiago-Hudson's deft staging of those quieter scenes is essential, especially in contrast to the rantings and ravings of Hedley (Charles Weldon), Louise's tubercular boarder, who is a generation older than the other<


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