By: David Sheward
June 9, 2022: The premise sounds like a SNL sketch: Hamlet updated and set at a contentious African-American family’s barbecue. But James Ijames’ scintillating rift on Shakespeare’s greatest play doesn’t settle for easy laughs and obvious spoof. Fat Ham used the template of the Melancholy Dane’s tragedy as a jumping-off place for a bizarre, inventive, and complex portrait of parental expectations, youthful angst, toxic masculinity, the legacy of violence, and the quest for true identity. It’s easy to see why this meaty repast of a play won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Drama after a streamed production from the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia where Ijames is co-artistic director. It’s now enjoying a live Off-Broadway premiere at the Public Theater in a co-production with the National Black Theatre, and man, is it live!
Directed with zest by Saheem Ali and performed by a vital company of seven, Fat Ham sizzles on the grill like a rich roast of ideas. The Hamlet figure is Juicy, a black, queer, plus-sized loner, desperate to find his place after the death of his abusive father Pap and the marriage of his equally nasty uncle Rev to his explosive but loving mother Tedra. Instead of the castle in Elsinore, the kingdom is a barbecue restaurant. Rather than an education at Wittenberg, Juicy is studying for his degree in Human Resources online from Phoenix University. The play-within-a-play where the king’s treachery is revealed is replaced by a game of charades.
As you can guess, there are additional parallels to the original, but Ijames doesn’t follow the Bard slavishly. Ophelia is now Opal, a teenage lesbian straining against her mother’s ideas of what a woman should be. Laertes is Larry, a Marine secretly in love with Juicy who sheds his uniform in spectacular fashion. Instead of a father figure like Polonius, we have Rabby, the mother of Opal and Larry, a religious and proper woman with a scarlet past. Horatio becomes Tio, a seemingly air headed dope smoker and porn addict with surprising sage advice for all.
Ijames goes far beyond parody, shattering the fourth wall and brining the entire audience into this meta-world where class and sexuality merge and melt. Ali’s staging simultaneously acknowledges the play as a theatrical metaphor (Maruti Evans’ clever set reinforces this double vision of reality and two-dimensional illusion) and creates a believable family conflict. Juicy, Larry, Opal and Tio are rebelling against their elders’ idea of who they should be, even reaching out the audience for answers.
The stellar cast also plays this dual perspective, existing in a theatrical construct and relating to each other truthfully. Marcel Spears captures Juicy’s roiling inner turmoil, balancing his need to be “soft” with his rage at the injustice dealt him. He’s also very funny, hitting Ijames’ jibes sharply and keeping melancholy from overwhelming the character. In the dual roles of Rev and Pap, Billy Eugene Jones is a double dynamo of evil. Nikki Crawford’s Tedra is irresistibly sexy and needy. Chris Herbie Holland’s Tio at first seems like a stereotypical goof-off, but gathers strength in a weird monologue about finding ecstasy in a surrealistic video game. Benja Kay Thomas is a delightfully buoyant Rabby, bringing out the spice behind her strictness. Adrianna Mitchell provides Opal with a steely backbone and a hilariously deadpan sarcasm. As Larry, Calvin Leon Smith soulfully embodies Larry’s struggle between his hard military shell and the delicate butterfly within.
Without revealing too much of director Ali’s stunning finale, Evans’ set, Dominique Fawn Hill’s costumes, Stacey Derosier’s lighting, and Mikaal Sulaiman’s sound all come together for a spectacular celebration of theater and acceptance.
While the spirit of Shakespeare hovers over but does not smother Fat Ham, the specter of Barbra Streisand haunts and suffocates the new Funny Girl. I was finally able to take in the first revival of the 1964 bio-tuner of legendary comic Fanny Brice after many delays due to COVID outbreaks among the cast. Despite some tweaks by Harvey Fierstein to Isobel Lennart’s by-the-numbers, original book and a few fresh ideas from director Michael Mayer, Funny Girl remains a star vehicle requiring an outsized talent to drive it. Streisand was that kind of talent, surpassing the subject Brice in brilliance and versatility and she became a supernova in film and music as a result, never returning to Broadway.
Beanie Feldstein is a fun, joyful young performer who rates an A for effort, but she is not a once-in-a-century talent like Streisand. Her voice is serviceable but not strong enough to ride the bucking bronco of an Act One closer like “Don’t Rain on My Parade” or extract all the emotion of “People.” Most of the comic bits feel forced and the connection between her and Ramin Karimloo’s warm and virile Nick Arnstein is not strong enough to sustain the main plot arc of Fanny and Nick’s obsessive but ultimately doomed romance.
As noted, there are a few moments when the director and performers trust their own gifts and the show briefly shines. When Feldstein as a comically fake pregnant Brice in an elaborate Ziegfeld sequence, pushes a leggy chorine aside with “Get out of my way, Christine” there are genuine laughs because it seems like a spontaneous quip. “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat” with Fannie as a cliched Jewish soldier festooned with bagels rather than bullets, is the only production number that entirely works. Feldstein cuts loose and actually has natural fun, the choreography by Ayodele Casel (tap) and Ellenore Scott is perfectly and effortlessly executed, and the schtick is hoary, but hilairous. Also any time Jared Grimes as Eddie Ryan dances, he stops the show. But Eddie should not be the center of attention in Funny Girl. Jane Lynch adds deadpan drollness as Fanny’s mother, Peter Francis James has dignity as Florenz Ziegfeld, and Beanie Feldstein deserves to headline a show where she is not expected to fill such gigantic shoes.
Fat Ham: May 26—July 3. Public Theater and the National Black Theater at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., NYC. Tue—Fri 8pm; Sat—-Sun 2pm & 8pm. Running time: 95 minutes with no intermission. $60. www.publictheater.org.
Photography: Joan Marcus
Funny Girl: Opened April 24 for an open run. August Wilson Theatre, 245 W. 52nd St., NYC. Tue 7pm; Wed 2pm & 8pm; Thu 7pm; Fri 8pm; Sat 2pm & 8pm; Sun 3pm. Running time: two hours and 50 mins. including intermission. $67—$149. www.seatgeek.com
Photography: Mathew Murphy