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Sean Combs gets mixed reviews for ‘Raisin’

The rap star makes his Broadway debut in Lorraine Hanberry's  ‘A Raisin in the Sun.’
/ Source: The Associated Press

“Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down,” chants P. Diddy in one of his hit songs. Maybe not even a bag full of mixed reviews.

The hip-hop impresario, known on stage by his real name, Sean Combs, got a lukewarm reception from most New York critics for his portrayal of Walter Lee Younger, the angry, frustrated hero of “A Raisin in the Sun,” Lorraine Hanberry’s landmark drama now being revived on Broadway.

Combs is making his Broadway debut in the revival, which premiered Monday at the Royale Theatre. Also in the cast are Phylicia Rashad and Audra McDonald, who received better notices than their more-famous co-star. Set in the late 1950s in a rundown South Side Chicago apartment, “Raisin” deals with the hopes and disappointments of a black family trying to find a better life.

The show took in $133,000 Monday at the box office, according to spokesman Bob Fennell and expects to double that figure Tuesday, despite several unenthusiastic notices.

“People are really responding,” producer David Binder said Tuesday. Binder has been working since July 1999 to bring “A Raisin in the Sun” to Broadway. “It’s a testament to the play and it’s a testament to Sean Combs.

“This is all happening because of him,” he said, adding that Combs auditioned twice before he was hired. “Sean brings them in and that crosses a lot of different lines. So many different kinds of people can connect to him.”

“Our audience is not an audience that needs to be validated by reviews,” said Eric Schnall, marketing director for the show. “A lot of them don’t read them.”

Mixed reviewsWriting in The New York Times, the most influential paper in terms of theater reviews, Ben Brantley said the revival “lacks the fully developed central performance from Mr. Combs that would hold the show together. This Walter Lee never appears to change, in big ways or small. ... (Combs) comes across as smaller than you might expect, as Madonna did when she made her Broadway debut in ‘Speed the Plow.”’

While praising his “compelling physical presence,” The Associated Press said, “Combs is not a nuanced performer who can bring to life the enormity of Walter Lee’s resentment, much less his eventual redemption in the play’s final scene.”

In Variety, Charles Isherwood said Combs “is simply not up to the role’s considerable demands. ... (His) conservative performance may limit damage to the star’s reputation — it is by no means an embarrassment, and certainly his many fans aren’t likely to be disappointed — but it fails to do full justice to Hansberry’s play.”

Combs, who was not immediately available for comment, fared better with the New York tabloids. While saying that Combs does not measure up to Sidney Poitier (who played the role in the original 1959 production and reprised it in the 1961 movie version), Clive Barnes, in the New York Post, said Combs was, “believe it or not — pretty damn good.”

Writing in the Daily News, Howard Kissel said Combs “showed plenty of stage presence,” even if “he does not project the turmoil inside the character.” And in Newsday, Linda Winer wrote, “Combs is better than OK. He has presence playing someone besides his formidable self.”

Reaching a new demographic
“A Raisin in the Sun,” with a top ticket price of $91.25, has been doing respectable, if not sellout business. Last week, it grossed a solid $393,389, playing to 75 percent capacity, according to figures released Monday by the League of American Theatres and Producers.

“Raisin” is seeking to reach beyond the largely white middle-and upper-class audience that traditionally goes to Broadway shows, although it has not neglected such regular advertising outlets as daily newspapers and direct-mail campaigns.

The production has been advertising on hip-hop and rhythm ’n’ blues radio stations, in hip-hop and black women’s magazines and on New York subway platforms, according to Schnall. The production even has big posters at Amtrak stations in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New Haven, Conn., to greet travelers as they board trains to New York City.

“For ‘Raisin,’ we are targeting every age group,” Schnall said. “There really hasn’t been an attempt to just get the traditional theatergoer, just get the 20-year-old hip-hop fan or just get that 35-year-old African-American woman.”

As of Monday’s opening night, the production had a $2.5 million advance for its limited engagement, which is expected to end July 11.

“The miracle of our audience is that it encompasses every race and every age group,” Schnall said.