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A revival in the spotlight

Times Staff Writer

Hip-Hip impresario Diddy has mined a winning formula in combining vintage songs with new groove-heavy beats. But his latest remix of an American classic is a chancy maneuver that also represents a high-stakes post-Academy Awards gamble for ABC.

Diddy, whose occasional forays into acting (“Monster’s Ball,” “Made”) have been overshadowed by his numerous other business ventures including his music empire, his clothing line and reality shows (“Making the Band”), is front and center as the lead of ABC’s “A Raisin in The Sun,” a new adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 award-winning play about a black Chicago family struggling to get by. Using his real name of Sean Combs instead of his more familiar aliases (Puff Daddy, P.Diddy), he’s also an executive producer of the three-hour film, airing Monday in a treasured slot of prime time real estate -- the evening after tonight’s Oscar ceremony.

In tackling the central role of Walter Lee Jr., a desperate chauffeur who feels an insurance payoff to his mother finally puts him within reach of realizing his dreams of success and independence -- if he can get his hands on the money -- Diddy follows in the footsteps of Sidney Poitier. The Oscar winner and groundbreaking African American actor originated the role on Broadway and in the acclaimed 1961 film considered one of his landmark achievements.

“Yes, it’s a risky role, one where the person playing it really has to show up,” Diddy said by phone.

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But despite his relative lack of acting experience, he feels he’s more than earned his stripes for the role -- he starred in the 2004 Broadway revival of “A Raisin in the Sun,” which scored with a diverse group of theatergoers and was the second-highest-grossing production in Broadway history.

The film, shot more than a year ago and held until producers would be assured of a high-profile slot, reunites him with his Broadway colleagues -- Phylicia Rashad, Audra McDonald and Sanaa Lathan.

Despite the revival’s success -- largely credited to young crowds who wanted to check out Puff Daddy onstage -- this “Raisin in the Sun” is more intimate in scope, exposing the performances more with close-ups while giving greater emphasis to the emotions and interactions of the characters. It’s also being targeted to a wider, more mainstream audience than the revival, raising the question of whether the casting of Diddy is more than just a stunt and whether the new version is a worthy successor to a classic film. Indeed, viewers who want to see Diddy in his comfort zone Monday night can flip to the latest episode of MTV’s “Making the Band 4.”

The rap mogul agrees with other cast members and award-winning producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan (“Chicago,” “Hairspray” and the Emmy-winning “Gypsy” and “Life With Judy Garland”) that their version will be judged against other renditions by baby boomers and others who cherish the earlier film.

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And it’s a challenge they welcome.

“Someone like myself who lives under a celebrity cloud attracts different expectations,” said Diddy. “With this, there will be many expectations, and there’s definitely the Sidney Poitier factor. But as long as I do service to the work, that’s fine. People may tune in to see how good or bad I am, but then they’ll get sucked into the story. And it’s such a legendary story. There is that risk, and that’s what excited me about the whole project.”

Meanwhile, Zadan said their version will have more relevance and bring new appreciation to an “American classic that has been badly neglected. It has not been given its proper due. The challenge was, how do you make it relevant to today’s audience? Sean makes it feel contemporary.”

Helen Verno, executive vice president of movies and miniseries for Sony Pictures Television, which is producing the film, added: “Plays are living objects. I do think if Lorraine were alive, she would bless a new interpretation.”

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ABC is banking that the revamped “Raisin” will catch some of the crowd-pleasing lightning it had on Broadway, thanks to Diddy and the honored cast (Rashad and McDonald both won Tonys, while Lathan was nominated).

Still, scheduling the movie in such a high-profile period is a bold move. Rarely does a broadcast network devote an entire evening to a dramatic work these days, much less one based on a decades-old play (One of the last instances was CBS’ 1985 production of “Death of a Saleman” with Dustin Hoffman).

‘It’s a gamble’

While Meron and Zadan scored a bull’s-eye with their Oscar-winning “Chicago” and the hit “Hairspray,” other recent Broadway adaptations, including “The Producers,” “The History Boys” and “Rent,” have stumbled. Though it does contain several humorous interludes, “A Raisin in the Sun” is dialogue-heavy and emotionally intense. And while the story is a universal tale that any race can relate to, its characters are distinctly African American, using outdated terms such as “cracker,” “colored” and “Negro.”

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“True, this is a timeless, award-winning piece, but the challenge is not making it seem like a history lesson,” said Quinn Taylor, senior vice president of movies and miniseries for ABC Entertainment. “It is a gamble. We would not have made it without this cast. We’re hoping it’s an event for the entire family.”

Zadan and Meron, who were so taken with the Broadway production that they instantly thought it would make a compelling new film, said they had no trouble convincing ABC Entertainment President Stephen McPherson that the network should be involved. Meron said, “We hadn’t even gotten the words out of our mouths before he stood up and said, ‘Absolutely. Go do it.’ ”

Meron and Zadan said the black-and-white 1961 film is rarely shown on television and is not exactly a huge hit on home video outside of students who are required to study it.

Said Meron: “It should be enshrined in a museum. There are those who will draw comparisons, and that’s an easy thing to do. But we ask that the audience takes this film on its own terms.”

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Lathan said she didn’t even go back and look at the movie in preparing for the role: “I made it a point not to watch it. I approached it 100% without having another actress influence me.”

In the 1961 version, Poitier plays Walter Lee as if he were a raw nerve, trapped in a life that has belittled him but seeing a ray of hope that could pull him out of the abyss. Combs’ portrayal is more subtle and less demonstrative, and his outbursts are less explosive.

Diddy said he contacted Poitier when he became involved with the Broadway revival: “I got his blessing and his support. We ride different places. He was obviously more seasoned as an actor. But it can be said that my interpretation will have more impact on this generation.”

The producers say they are encouraged by the response the film has received in several screenings around the country. It received a standing ovation at the recent Sundance Film Festival, the first made-for-television project to be shown at the event. The audience at the Los Angeles premiere gave the film a quieter, polite reception.

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Even though the filmmakers want their “Raisin” to be judged on its own terms, they also want to make sure they honor the 1961 version. Meron said, “If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t be doing ours.”

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greg.braxton@latimes.com


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