The lights turned down, and the play slammed to a start as the audience sat in their seats, waiting to quell their insatiable appetite to see this highly anticipated performance. After more than 30 years, the Broadway revival of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama The Piano Lesson made a great effort and leaves you wanting more.
As for the play itself, if you have been in a dust-up with family after a member dies about finances and belongings, then this August Wilson classic is relatable to you. A high standard has been set. However, the opening starts a bit sluggish, and the pacing seems slightly off. There were some great comedic moments to break up the tension, along with a great musical number by John David Washington, who played Boy Willie, Samuel L. Jackson as Doaker, Michael Potts as Wining Boy, and Ray Fisher as Lymon. Despite these great moments, the show leaves you with the feeling that there are still some discoveries that need to be made for it to feel like an elite Broadway show. The show starts to come alive after intermission, where it feels like the actors begin to find their stride.
Overall the acting was good. Stellar performances came from Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Potts, and Trai Byers, who played Avery. There was a flow with these acting veterans that the others seemed to miss. The charisma between Jackson and Potts alone could have you mesmerized for hours. Byers delivered as he came out, giving it his all as the recently turned preacher. His performance was both entertaining and quite captivating. Watching him in this role made me question if he was a preacher.
With it being his Broadway debut, John David Washington gave a pretty solid performance, but ultimately it felt as though he only knew how to play a role in one gear. His loud and intense tone worked in parts but wasn’t the best suited for the entirety of the play. There are clear discoveries he made with the character, but you can see a few more left to be found to make his character feel whole.
Danielle Brooks, playing the role of Berniece, also had an excellent overall performance but ultimately appeared to show slight variation in her character throughout the show. She wasn’t playing to the dynamic cast and the others. Ray Fisher did a tremendous job in the role of Lymon. The best thing about him playing this character, who is not supposed to be the brightest, is that it wasn’t over the top. It was done with taste and respect, making the character easy to follow. You see roles like this written and performed with exaggeration and excessive characterization. Excellent writing by August Wilson and Ray Fisher’s portrayal of the character highlights the play. April Mathis, Grace, was a breath of fresh air as she entered after intermission. She played off the other characters and situations within the play quickly, making her enjoyable to watch every time she joined on stage.
The stage design was amazing. It looked as though they stripped the boards and columns straight from an old house in the era, putting the audience right in the world August Wilson crafted with his writing. The crafting of the piano will have you staring at all the details within. The lighting was good but felt overly bright on the actors that were supposed to be in focus. Some of the effects at the end felt overdone and needed a little clean-up.
Although it seems like the play is still trying to find its way, the classic story is as relatable as any, and there is some true acting mastery on display. You won’t regret taking a night out and seeing the show.
The Piano Lesson is set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District in 1936, where a brother and sister are locked in a bitter feud about the fate of the family piano that features the carved faces of their ancestors. The show is scheduled for a limited 17-week run, so get your tickets before time runs out.