And so, just 34 months after it was first announced, Aaron Sorkin’s exciting stage adaptation, starring Richard Thomas as Atticus Finch To Kill a Mockingbird finally opened at Shea’s Buffalo Theater.
Even before the global pandemic shut down theaters, it was a legendary work, with behind-the-scenes legal dramas sometimes overshadowing those on stage. Bad feelings towards original producer Scott Rudin likely cost Sorkin the Tony nomination for his excellent script.
That was it then. This is now. The new record producer is one of Broadway’s most respected producers, Orin Wolfe. After a month of rehearsals in New York City and a week in Buffalo to break Broadway box office records, the highly anticipated show was greeted with enthusiasm here. It stars one of America’s most popular actors, playing one of the most popular characters in American literature.
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Has the show lived up to all the hype? It does.
Richard Thomas, who has waited a long time to hit the stage at Shea’s Buffalo Theater, will be on stage this Sunday to open a tour of Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird” show.
Bartlett Scheer’s director maintains the momentum of the storytelling, exuding the wit, humor and even pain of Sorkin’s script, seemingly effortlessly. Sorkin skips the details of everyday life in Maycomb, Alabama, during the Great Depression in the first half of the novel and goes straight to the story of how an African-American named Tom Robinson was falsely accused of raping a white woman, and How a country attorney named Atticus Finch came forward to defend him.
The novel is told through the perspective of 6-year-old Scooter, Atticus’ daughter, and the play uses three adult child narrators: Scooter, played by Melanie Moore; her brother Jem , played by Justin Mark; and their friend Dill Harris, played by Steven Lee Johnson. All three bring humor, charisma, and sometimes a tinge of nostalgia to their characters as they simultaneously act out childhood as a moment and memory of the present.
One of Moore’s daunting tasks was to follow Celia Keenan-Bolger’s Tony Award-winning performance in the role (and onstage with the terrific Mary Badham) (he was nominated for an Oscar for playing the Boy Scouts in the 1962 film, and happily plays the pesky neighbor here). Moore has her own, attractive, as a bright and lively little girl. Mark endearingly plays a coming-of-age boy who is just beginning to understand the depths of his father’s character. Johnson is a perfectly misfit friend, his kind foolishness belies extraordinary grit and tenacity.
African-American characters are more fully developed in Sorkin’s script than in the novel or film. Jacqueline Williams as Calpurnia, the Finch’s housekeeper and cook, is excellent. I first saw Williams in “From the Mississippi Delta” in the early 1990s and clearly remember her professional comic timing and wonderful characterization. She’s just as good here, serving as both a comedic foil to Atticus and his hottest critic.
Yaegel T. Welch brings dignity and intensity to Tom Robinson, but also finds moments that energize a man’s personality, with a touch of dry humor.
Welch first played the role of Tom Robinson on Broadway and did so on the Broadway tour “To Kill a Mockingbird”, which opened in Buffalo on Sunday.
Joey Collins condoned all the abhorrent filth of racists, drunks, abusive Bob Ewell, giving us full permission to renounce any sympathy for his well-deserved downfall. Arianna Gayle Stucki plays Mayella, Ewell’s daughter, a poor and tragic woman who brutally tries to alleviate the pain in her life by sending an innocent man to death.
Richard Poe intriguingly adds another lively judge to his repertoire. Anthony Natale gave a witty and memorable performance while drunk in town, and he played the role primarily in American Sign Language.
Miriam Buether’s handsome, flowing landscapes, along with Ann Roth’s costumes, Jennifer Tipton’s lighting, Scott Lehrer’s voice, and Adam Guettel’s excellent soundtrack, all contribute to the storytelling. This is a Broadway A+ team.
Yes, everyone knows Richard Thomas as John Boy Walton on TV. He is also a famous stage actor. I see he is Peer Gynt. I used to think of him as Richard II. I’ve seen him perform in plays by Edward Albee, Lillian Hellman and even Pete Gurney. He may be more advanced for his age than the character he plays, but few actors are as honest and decent as Thomas, neither in the public imagination nor in this role, and certainly no one can surpass his acting talent. He easily meets the requirements of embodying an American literary icon with a performance that is both modestly human and divinely heroic. Richard Thomas All got up.
The show is long, but immerses us in a wholehearted story of prejudice, empathy, courage and anger that is sadly as relevant today as it was in 1960.
“Harper Lee To Kill A Mockingbird”
Play at the Shea Buffalo Theater until April 2nd. Performances are March 30-April 1 at 7:30 pm; April 2 at 2 and 8 pm. Shea’s box office starts at $37 online at sheas.org or 847-0850. Masks are recommended, but not required.