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Review | Norm Lewis commands the stage in ‘A Soldier’s Play’ at Kennedy Center

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From the second Norm Lewis marches onstage on the Kennedy Middle, the star of “A Soldier’s Play” exudes self-discipline and dignity.

As Capt. Richard Davenport, the Military officer investigating the homicide of an all-Black unit’s sergeant in 1944 Louisiana, the velvet-voiced Broadway staple instructions the stage with assurance. When his character’s cool confidence finally melts away within the warmth of indignation, Charles Fuller’s 1981 play — a Pulitzer Prize-winning interrogation of service, segregation and internalized racism — simmers anew.

Thus Lewis’s gravitas elevates the tour of director Kenny Leon’s impressed Broadway staging, which claimed the Tony for finest revival of a play for the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. After a short run this month in New Haven, Conn., Roundabout Theatre Firm’s touring manufacturing formally opened Thursday evening on the Eisenhower Theater.

It’s one thing of a big gamble for the Kennedy Middle to position a difficult play in such prime actual property throughout a vacation season dominated by musicals and different family-friendly fare (even when “Depraved” is only a fast broomstick flight away, subsequent door within the Opera Home). So it helps that Leon livens the proceedings with a kinetic musicality, juxtaposing the boot-stomping rigidity of troopers marching in line with the loose-limbed exuberance of hymnal intonations. Having a veteran of Broadway’s “Phantom of the Opera” and “Miss Saigon” exhibiting off his clean baritone, as Lewis does in a solemn music shortly after intermission, additionally makes for fairly the ace within the gap — even when this tidy play would run smoother as a one-act manufacturing.

Leon elegantly handles the flashback-heavy narrative with the assistance of savvy lighting from Allen Lee Hughes, who fixes a heat glow on characters within the current day and a pale hue on occasions from the previous. These flashbacks are the muse of Fuller’s exact script, during which Davenport probes the homicide of Sgt. Vernon C. Waters (Eugene Lee) by questioning troopers from his unit about their temperamental superior. With an endearing grin one second and a sadistic snarl the following, Lee — a member of “A Soldier’s Play’s” unique off-Broadway solid 4 a long time in the past — masters the duality of his tough-loving character.

Though Lewis and Lee loom giant, the actors whose characters populate the remainder of the barracks (Sheldon D. Brown, Tarik Lowe, Howard Overshown, Will Adams, Branden Davon Lindsay and Malik Esoj Childs) additionally earn their stripes. Brown brings hypnotic vocals and a delicate soul to C.J. Memphis, the guitar-playing non-public who stars in middle area for the unit’s baseball staff. Lowe performs the hotheaded Pfc. Melvin Peterson with deep-seated resentment. Overshown ably portrays one non-public’s responsible conscience, and Childs imbues one other with palpable grief. As Capt. Charles Taylor, the White officer impeding Davenport’s investigation, William Connell provides depth to a personality whose empathy doesn’t cease him from casually spewing racism and condescension.

Derek McLane’s rustic set, that includes two tiers of picket scaffolding, makes an imposing backdrop to the insular story. However contemplating that Fuller imbues his simple procedural with large concepts concerning the cascading penalties of oppression, the grandiose setting feels apt. It’s no surprise an actor of Lewis’s caliber enlisted for this tour — all these years later, Fuller’s potent phrases are nonetheless price combating for.

A Soldier’s Play, by Charles Fuller. Directed by Kenny Leon. Units, Derek McLane; costumes, Dede Ayite; lighting, Allen Lee Hughes; sound, Dan Moses Schreier. With Matthew Goodrich, Alex Michael Givens and Chattan Mayes Johnson. About 1 hour 50 minutes. $45-$135. By Jan. 8 at John F. Kennedy Middle for the Performing Arts. 202-467-4600. kennedy-center.org.


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