Sunday, December 06, 2009

Southern UnComfortAble - A Streetcar Named Desire & Parade - Theatre Reviews

A Streetcar Named Desire - Sydney Theatre Company at the Eisenhower Theatre in The Kennedy Centre - Washington, D.C. - *** (out of 5)
Written By Tennessee Williams, Directed By Liv Ullmann
Ran from Oct. 27 - Nov. 21 2009. Running at
BAM in Brooklyn from Nov. 27th to Dec. 20th 2009

Parade - Donmar Warehouse at the Mark Taper Forum - Los Angeles, CA - ***** (out of 5)
Music and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, Book by Alfred Uhry, Directed and Choreographed by Rob Ashford
Ran from Sep. 24 - Nov. 15 2009.

Two highly lauded foreign productions (about America's "South" no less) have recently transferred to America, with the London's Donmar Warehouse's luscious and intimate revival of the haunting musical Parade recently playing in Los Angeles (with a hope to move to Broadway once the Circle in the Square Theatre opens up), and Australia's Sydney Theatre Company on tour with the American classic A Streetcar Named Desire starring Cate Blanchett in the leading iconic role of Blanche Dubois.

Unfortunately for this Sydney Theatre Co. production of A Streetcar Named Desire, it comes after having just seen the Donmar Warehouse's summer production of Tennessee Williams' classic starring another Oscar winner, Rachel Weisz. Donmar's was truly a remarkable production that had all the elements in perfect balance. Where you felt the heat and humidity of New Orleans from a set by Christopher Oram that truly evoked a New Orleans of yesteryear, with the emotions seeping through the pores of the sweaty actors that for once, I finally found myself truly understanding the play for the first time ever. And if it weren't for the slightly wavering accents, it would be a perfect production.

So while I had huge expectations for Cate Blanchett and company, I sadly felt underwhelmed and slightly confused again. Liv Ullmann's production is cold and stark, with a set that easily portrays the poor living conditions that Stella and Stanley live in, but there's little to distinguish itself from any place, let alone New Orleans. It could have been Thunder Bay, Ontario for all that matters.

Director Liv Ullmann takes an intellectual approach to the proceedings and thus not all the emotions seem to coalesce properly. The entire production seems to attempt for a unified balanced approached, but in the end, it weighs heavily toward a star turning performance for Cate Blanchett who easily steals the show.

Robin McLeavy's Stella disappears from the play, and only Joel Edgerton (Kinky Boots, below) manages to stay within sight (and what a lovely sight those muscles are!) but in the end, the chemistry between the three leads are so inbalanced that the downfall of Blanche Dubois lacks the slow horrifying power punch that the play can give.

Mitch, Blanche's suitor, barely even registers here with Cate's Blanche overtaking the stage with her luminosity, and while Cate's performance attempts everything it can to portray Blanche's slow unravelling, like the rest of the production, it almost seems like she's too smart for the character story she's trying to play. There isn't quite the frailty beneath the face of pride that Blanche always displays, that while I hate to compare, I found Rachel Weisz's Blanche Dubois managed better to portray, becoming a more heartbreaking and powerful performance.

Now, I'm probably sounding quite harsh on the Sydney Theatre Co. production but I'm just being nitpicky comparing the two recent (Oscar-winner-starring) productions I just saw, but I want to point out that it's still a good production, one that I probably would have been blown away by if I hadn't already seen the Donmar production. It's still wonderful to see Cate Blanchett on stage, and she's just stunning (but again, maybe a bit TOO stunning). Ullmann and Blanchett just take this production to an intellectual interpretation that didn't grab me as emotionally as it could have, and thus it's a production I respect more than I loved.

Now without sounding like an employee of the Donmar Warehouse or Set Designer Christopher Oram's lover (although with a set like the one he did for Streetcar, I would consider it), or a publicist for Director Rob Ashford, I cannot express my love for both his productions at Donmar. He first astounded me with his directorial debut in a revival of Parade at the Donmar (my original review here), and then pounded my heart with the above mentioned A Streetcar Named Desire.

This fall, Ashford's Parade got an American transfer! While the transfer of Parade loses a bit of the Donmar Warehouse intimacy by moving to the slightly larger Mark Taper Forum, it gains a cast of Broadway veterans and TV star T.R. Knight (Grey's Anatomy) in the leading role. Only Lara Pulver takes the flight over from the British cast to reprise her role as Lucille Frank, wife to Leo Frank who was accused of killing white girl Mary Phagan in Atlanta in the 1910's. Based on the real trials of Leo Frank, a Jew living in Atlanta in the early 1900's, the musical doesn't shy away from the grit and doom of the story, and creates a haunting story guided by a beautiful and luscious score by Jason Robert Brown (13, The Last Five Years).

From my first review, you already know that the musical is sad, depressing, dark and gloomy and has some of the most beautiful music to make this very intimate and tragic story all the more intimate and tragic. There's a sense of mini-epicness in the story itself, about a Jew who is accused of a White girl's murder after it is deemed another Black suspect may not be the smartest political decision in the angry South.

Director Ashford and Book writer Uhry injects the tragic story with moments of brilliant satire and heartwarming moments, turning what should be a depressing play into a theatrical masterpiece. There's song, there's dance, and there's a lynching! And Christopher Oram's set (again) and Neil Austin's lighting design are deceptively simple but imaginatively evokes the heated story of Leo Frank, and it all works just as well in the half-circle theatre layout of the Mark Taper Forum with the cast continuing to run in an around the audience in subtle gestures that enhance the main action on the stage.

The new LA production is lead by T.R. Knight who manages to shift from his lovable George O'Malley TV image and turn into a very Jewish, somewhat annoying, emotionally frigid Leo Frank, a personality that makes the rape and murder accusations all the easier for the Atlantans. While his voice isn't the strongest, he manages to use the frailty in his voice to evoke his characters personality and situation and it works beautifully.

Lara Pulver's Lucille Frank has lost none of its raw power since the transfer and her voice has gained strength in the 2 years since the original revival production.

While Matthew Stuart Price (as Young Soldier and Frankie Epps) stole the show in London with his boyish demeanor and powerful voice (check the Parade Original Donmar Warehouse cast recording), another newcomer Curt Hansen (below) takes over the role. Hansen has a sharper voice than Price and doesn't quite nail the teenage feel to the role quite as well, thus his rage and accusations are less a 180 than before but Hansen has a charming and handsome quality that still makes a powerful Frankie Epps.

Rose Sezniak (above with Hansen) plays Hansen's counterpart, Lila and young Mary Phagan, the murdered girl, and as lovely as Sezniak is, London's Jayne Wisener left a bigger impression and who later starred as Johanna in the Sweeney Todd film.

While Shaun Esscoffery proved bold and deep in the multiple Black roles of Newt Lee, Jim Conley, and Riley, the American David St. Louis (above) made an even more affecting casting with a more threatening performance and a rougher voice.

Deidre Henry, Louis' Black characters counterpart, was equally glorious adding a sense of Southern Black Women power to her role, with a tinge of smarts behind her characters restrained situation.

There's a bit of a A Chorus Line reunion with the recent revival's "Don" (Andersen, above), "Cassie" and "Zach" reunited here in several roles, including as Governor and Wife (below).

Brad Andersen, Charlotte d'Amboise, and Michael Berresse appear in several roles with Anderson playing Leo Frank's lawyer, while d'Amboise is unrecognizable as Mary Phagan's mother (above), as well as wife to Berresse's Governor Slaton, while Berresse also plays Britt Craig (below), the reporter that plans to make a career from Frank's case.

The current re-imagined revival strips down the original epic Broadway mounting and uses actors playing multiple roles. While it seemed seamless in London because I didn't know any of the cast, having semi-recognizable Broadway actors doing dual roles may have both helped and hindered the initial confusion, but on the whole, aids in the theatricality of it all.

Christian Hoff (Jersey Boys, above with Berresse) redeems his Pal Joey "incident" with a wonderfully sung (yes, so apparently Joey was an anomaly) and power performance as Hugh Dorsey, the prosecutor who goes to far reaching lengths to indict Leo Frank.

I did however find David Gaines' Judge slightly less effective than his British counterpart, and his fishing song "The Glory" with Hoff didn't quite have the same grandfatherly effect as it did in London.

P.J. Griffith's (above) stands out as the preacher Tom Watson who stirs up the towns lynching sentiments. Pheobe Strole (Spring Awakening), Hayley Podschun (Roundabout's Sunday in the Park with George) and Lisa Livesay play the silly girls who accuse Leo Frank of sexual harassment that fuels the Atlantans rage for justice.

It's a powerful cautionary tale, one sadly based on the true life of Leo Frank. The musical retelling only enhances the themes of humanity and injustice and brings the real emotions of the involved out into the forefront, turning a tabloid tale into heartbreaking and touching theatrical drama.

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