The reason this musical version of Lorraine Hansberry’s masterpiece doesn’t get revived much becomes apparent as the show reaches its climax. The dramatic power and compression of “Raisin in the Sun” make pauses for songs increasingly irritating as the story of the Younger family draws to a close. (This is also why we have yet to see “Loman!” or “When a Gentleman Calls.”) John Dalton’s multilevel scenic design for Court Theatre’s production also works against the sense of confinement created by the original play’s restricted apartment setting. At least initially, the thrust stage on which the primary action takes place, surrounded by the seated cast and gospel choir, lends the proceedings the tone of a seventies variety show. But “Raisin” retains the sharp, at times almost overwhelming, kick of its inspiration. Above all, a blistering, authoritative performance by Ernestine Jackson as Lena, the family’s matriarch, gives the production a profound and compelling center. (Jackson originated the role of daughter-in-law Ruth in the 1973 Broadway production, for which she received a Tony nomination.) While none of the supporting cast quite rise to the level of her musical and dramatic sensitivity, David St. Louis’s growling, frenzied Walter and Malkia Stampley’s earnestly seeking Beneatha vividly realize the frustration and love that roils this South Side family. Executed with passion and deep intelligence, this “Raisin” offers a fresh, if occasionally awkward, look at an enduring classic of our theater. (John Beer)
“Raisin” plays at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis, (773)753-4472, through October 22.