Diane Schuur, She Is King, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and King Lear

Diane Schuur, Billie Jean King, Sheldon Best and Frank Langella all prove they’re long-distance runners!

Diane Schuur   (5 stars)
She Is King   (3 ½ stars)
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner   (4 stars)
King Lear   (4 stars)

Diane Schuur, one of the greatest jazz singer/pianists of our time dropped into Birdland Jan 13-18 to celebrate the upcoming release of a new disc in June.  Performing a handful of songs from I Remember You: With Love to Stan and Frank, Schuur paid homage to mentors Stan Getz and Frank Sinatra.  Playing Alan Broadbent’s arrangements and backed by Ben Wolfe on bass, Willie Jones on drums, Ron Blake on saxophone and Roni Ben-Hur on guitar, Schuur proved, even at 60 years of age, she was in dazzling voice, especially on the showstopper “Rainy Day,” by the great Jimmy van Heusen and Johnny Burke, and the heartbreaking ballad, “Didn’t We?,” by Jimmy Webb.

Tennis legend and gay advocate Billie Jean King is everywhere these days.  Not least of which is her recent on-stage presence in Laryssa Husiak’s She Is King, which played Jan 10-26 at the Incubator Arts Project as part of their ‘Other Forces 2014’ festival.  Husiak had the inspired idea of recreating three television interviews in which Husiak plays King.  The first is from 1973 at the height of King’s fame with Jim Day (a strong Joshua William Gelb) on CUNY TV.  The second is from 1980 just before King’s relationship with another woman was exposed with Toni Tennille (a hilarious Louisa Bradshaw).  And the third interview is from 1981 with King and her husband Larry (Gelb) being grilled by Barbara Walters (Bradshaw) after King’s press conference in which she acknowledged having a relationship with another woman.  Through all the interviews what is readily apparent is King’s calm demeanor, careful selection of her words and her refusal to be bullied or misinterpreted.  She is a model of class and dignity and Husiak’s instinct to pull together those moments in King’s life is illuminating.  What works less well is a section in which King gives a tennis lesson to a bunch of kids and an ending in which King recites Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.”  A better ending would have included the rededication of the USTA National Tennis Center as the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on August 28, 2006.

First published in 1959 by Alan Sillitoe and made into a film by Tony Richardson starring Tom Courtenay in 1962, the story and the characters in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner continue to haunt and inform writers and directors today.  Proof of this is on-stage at Atlantic Theatre Company’s Stage 2 where Roy Williams’ blistering adaptation of Runner, which toured the U.K. last fall in a production by the Pilot Theatre, is receiving a superb production directed by Leah C. Gardiner and starring Sheldon Best in a grueling and star-making performance.  As Colin, a black youth doing time for theft in a reform school who realizes he’s being used by ‘the establishment’ to win a race, Best ends up running for almost the entirety of the 80-minute play, despite not having the 25-ft long treadmill the British production employed.  Williams has reset Sillitoe’s story just after the 2011 Tottenham riots in London, and, in making Colin a black man, galvanizes the piece into a modern-day tragedy as fresh and as vibrant as anything you’re likely to see on-stage this season.

The great actor Frank Langella is serving up a poignant and forceful King Lear out at BAM, directed by Angus Jackson and courtesy of the Chichester Festival Theatre where it originated.  It’s a traditional Lear with atmospheric sets and costumes and a superb supporting cast, particularly Sebastian Armesto (Edgar), Max Bennett (Edmund), Denis Conway (Gloucester), Catherine McCormack (Goneril), Harry Melling (Fool), Lauren O’Neil (Regan) and Steven Pacey (Kent).  (Only the Cordelia of Isabella Laughland disappoints.)  After so many recent Lears that misfired (Kevin Kline, Sam Waterston, Derek Jacobi, say when…) what a pleasure to see Shakespeare’s great masterpiece restored to glory.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner plays through February 9 at Atlantic 2 (330 West 16th St, atlantictheater.org).  King Lear plays through February 9 at BAM (651 Fulton St, BAM.org).

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