Review of To Kill a Mockingbird, starring Jeff Daniels, on Broadway

  • Our critic's rating:
    Date:
    April 24, 2019
    Review by:

    A regrettably sour note has hung over this new Broadway adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird at the Shubert Theatre, when the theatrical rights for an adaptation of Harper Lee's historic novel were assigned to it by Lee and subsequently her estate (who then challenged the version produced by playwright and television writer Aaron Sorkin that led to litigation that was settled in court).

    But the producer Scott Rudin in turn threatened other planned productions of a previous long-established version with litigation to stop them. These included a UK national tour based on its last London production at the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park in 2013 that had been announced months earlier, and was summarily cancelled on the eve of its opening; and American regional stock and amateur productions that were similarly affected (but offered the rights by Rudin to re-rehearse and present his new version).

    Of course a producer wants to both protect and maximise his own investment in a property he's acquired, but it all got very messy as the other companies had all secured the rights in the previous version in good faith, and were innocent parties to a dispute between a David-and-Goliath battle of now rival versions.

    Given that the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel it is based on is about ensuring justice is done, there was a certain dramatic irony in the perceived injustices that resulted (heartbroken child actors were reported to have written to Rudin when the production they'd rehearsed was cancelled).

    Lee's Pulitzer prize-winning story revolves around an intensely moral lawyer Atticus Finch who takes on the defence of a black man falsely accused of raping a young white woman in rural 1930s racially divided Alabama. Sorkin -- who famously scripted "The West Wing" -- is certainly good at illuminating the behind-the-scenes machinations of the legal process here, both official and unofficial, including a quiet home visit from the presiding judge and a less quiet attempt by the woman's father to attack Finch (and also to take part in an attempted lynching of his client).

    Sorkin and his director Bartlett Sher stage it primarily as a scorching courtroom drama, folding it seamlessly with scenes from Finch's home life as his two worlds collide.

    Given the rise of white nationalism in Trump's America, a lot of this feels very current. But it also makes for gripping, seriously absorbing theatre. A top-flight Broadway cast, led by the grave but sympathetic Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch, also features solid support from Celia Keenan-Bolger and Will Pullen as his children, Gideon Glick as their best friend Dill, LaTanya Richardson Jackson as housemaid and confidant Calpurnia, Gbenga Akinnagbe as the defendant Tom Robertson and Frederick Weller as the victim's father.

    Two live musicians, seated on either side of designer Miriam Buether's atmospherically detailed stage, play Adam Guettel's alternately folksy and ominous score, to underscore and frame the action.

    Now carrying an advance ticket sale of over $20million, To Kill a Mockingbird is slaying Broadway -- and looks like it could be around for a long stay, not the usual 12-16 weeks that most plays get.

    (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)