Friday, February 11, 2011

Driving Miss Daisy @ John Golden Theatre

Taking to the streets of Atlanta, Georgia in the 1950s and 1960s, Driving Miss Daisy tackles the powerful topics of civil rights, parenthood, and friendship. Currently extended through April 9th at the Golden Theatre, Driving Miss Daisy tells a heartwarming tale that boasts movie and theatre greats James Earl Jones, Vanessa Redgrave, and Boyd Gaines. However, even with outstanding performances by these great actors, this is one car that seems to have a flat tire. Unfortunately, Driving Miss Daisy does not ride into one of the great pieces of American theatre.

Driving Miss Daisy tells the story of Daisy Werthan (played by Vanessa Redgrave), an elderly Jewish woman who recently hit the age where it is no longer safe for her to drive her car. Against her will, Boolie Werthan, her son (played by Boyd Gaines), takes it upon himself to hire her a driver. Boolie hires a down on his luck African American man named Hoke Coleburn (played by James Earl Jones). As the seasons and year change, Daisy and Hoke slowly become friends crossing the lines of segregation. As the relationship grows between these two unlikely friends, however, Daisy’s health ultimately begins to fade. This wonderful crafted script from Alfred Uhry (author of other works such as Parade and The Last Night of Ballyhoo) shows the true power of friendship – it knows no race, religion, or gender.
Outstanding performances shine each night as three of the “greatest” actors of our time bring Uhry’s words to life with style and grace. James Earl Jones (whose distinct voice is known for work in the Star Wars trilogy and The Lion King) plays the witty driver to Daisy, Hoke Coleburn. Jones delivers a light hearted but powerful performance. He represents the true heartaches that faced African Americans during this time – segregation, prejudices, and discrimination. Jones captures these pains and brings them to life through this truly loveable character. Vanessa Redgrave (most recently seen in the film Letters to Juliet) stars as the uptight, but ultimately changed Daisy Werthan. While Redgrave started out a little too stiff and stern, she quickly loosened up and filled the role perfectly. She represents the voice of change in an uptight society. Redgrave shows the struggles of doing what is right versus sticking to the status quo. Playing the part of Daisy’s son, Boolie Werthan, is Boyd Gains (multiple Tony Award winner for roles in such plays as Gypsy and Contact). Gains shines in this role bringing the 1950s and 1960s working business man to life. He brings humor into his role while still showing the ultimate struggle of keeping a business up and running in times of great change and controversy. These three dynamic actors come together to deliver a spectacular performance.
It is in the technical direction that Driving Miss Daisy hits a speed bump. Director David Esbjornson (who previously directed The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?) fails to bring the proper style this dramatic piece truly needs. With long awkward pauses that interrupt scenes, actors that are sometimes out of focus, and sloppy scene changes, Esbjornson does not give this play the justice that it truly deserves. Also, poorly designed projections by Wendall K. Harrington (whose credits include Grey Gardens and Ragtime) also made the production awkward to watch. These projections were usually large and extremely hard to see, taking focus away from the actors while the audience struggled to see what was on the back wall. However, these weaknesses in the technical direction were matched with two stunning designs in the set and lighting. The scenic design by John Lee Beatty (who is currently represented on Broadway with Chicago) was minimalistic and original. With only a staircase, a stove, some chairs, and a desk, the locations of each scene left some room for imagination. It truly added a unique element to this production. The lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski (seen on Broadway with Curtains and The Producers) is a truly stunning site. With more lights ththat shows the heart, joy, pain, and laughter of Driving Miss Daisy. These two elements truly save that technical side of this production.

Bringing Driving Miss Daisy to the first time is a remarkable cast, a slightly flawed technical crew, but a truly brilliant script. These elements combine to form an alright night at the theatre. While it may not be the best thing currently playing on Broadway, buying a ticket to see James Earl Jones, Vanessa Redgrave, and Boyd Gains would not be the worst an most musicals, Kaczorowski uses every single one effortlessly to deliver a design decision a person could make.

Review By: James Russo & Ryan Oliveti

Thursday, February 10, 2011

INTERVIEW: Montego Glover from Memphis

1) What or who initially inspired you to be an actress?

*Acting classes when I was 12 twelve years old.

2) What is the best advice you have ever received and that you would pass along to other actors trying to make it into the business?   

*Go to college and get your acting degree.  Tell the truth onstage and off.  Keep your word.  Handle your money.

3) How difficult was it for you to get into the character of Felicia? Do you find that you two have more similarities than differences or the other way around?

*Not hard at all. Felicia and I are both Tennesseans, young, African Americans, we’ve both experienced falling in love with someone, have a love of music, and are aspiring artists.  There’s only one big difference, Felicia and I are women from different times in the history of this country, so the experience of overt and oppressive racism is what divides us.

4) How does this part compare to others that you have done in the past?

*Felicia Farrell is my first original role in a Broadway show.  That is an enormous gift and a real privilege.  Other than that it’s the same as any of the other heavy hitting roles I’ve played.  And I’ve played them.  They all require relentless attention to detail, athleticism, and an advanced skill set.

5) Is there a dream role that you want to play and if so what is that role?

*Felicia Farrell.  And I’d love to play her if MEMPHIS is made into a feature film.

6) Do you feel that your life has changed since this role? If so how?

*Six years of development on MEMPHIS allowed to me to grow as a woman and an artist so I’ve changed as the piece evolved, and that’s good.  Aside from that the biggest change is being recognized by people because they’re familiar with the show.

7) What was your first reaction when you won both the Drama Desk Award and the Outer Critics Circle?
*Complete and utter surprise.
8) What was it like working with the cast?
*Awesome.  Everyone is so ridiculously talented, giving, supportive, and crazily funny…every single one of them.

9) Being with Memphis since the beginning, you got to experience all of the changes that the production went through. Were there any changes that you wish they kept? Where there any that you were happy they left out?
*Every change we’ve made to the show has been for the best.  All the changes have helped us do the best storytelling through music, dance, and text that we can.  As for anything I wish we’d kept, the soloist in the song “Everybody Wants to Be Black On Saturday Night”.

10) What are your plans after Memphis? Do you plan on staying in this role till the bitter end or has temptation of creating a new character been calling you?
*There is no such thing as a bitter end for me when it comes to MEMPHIS.  I love this show and my role, and I plan to work on them as long as I respond to them as an artist.  I’ve had such an amazing journey with MEMPHIS, I know I’ll leave the show when I’m ready.  Till then enjoy, enjoy, enjoy! 

11) When we saw Memphis, Huey was played by Bryan Fenkart. How is working with Bryan compared to working with Chad? Do you find yourself approaching Felicia differently depending on which leading man you are working with that night? What is the difference in energy/give-and-take between the two?
*Chad and Brian work distinctly differently as actors, in addition to being very different physical types, energies, and presences onstage.  My Felicia isn’t different with each of them, just adjusted in how she receives them and interprets their information

12) Is there any person that you took your inspiration from for the role of Felicia? If so than who and why?
*There was no person who inspired Felicia Farrell for me.  I really dug into the text for Felicia.  And because I’d been with the show from the beginning I got to assert certain qualities based on what I found in the text, the time period, the location, the music, and me, my own experiences.

13) Is performing six days a week every tiring physically or emotionally? How do you train yourself as an actor to keep up with the pace?
*Yes, it is demanding emotionally and physically, but a degree in Music Theatre is a big help!  I’m in voice lessons regularly, the rest is treating my body well, and ordering the other projects in my days so that MEMPHIS has my full attention once I walk through the stage door every night.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Memphis @ Sam S. Shubert Theatre

Winner of Best Musical for 2010, Memphis turns the clock back to rock and roll in the 1950’s down in the Deep South where the lines were dangerously defined between white, black and the music that changed the world. Now playing at the Shubert Theater, this astonishing musical reminds us all of a time where equality was nothing more than a nice word given to some, but not all, and how music, as trite as it may sound, united us all.
The story revolves Huey Calhoun, a young while man who stumbles into an all black club when he hears the voice of an aspiring singer, Felicia Farrell. From there Calhoun, who was played by Bryan Fenkart at this particular performance, declares that he will get Felicia, Montego Glover, on the radio – an all white radio station. In doing so, Calhoun boosts his career as the first white male to launch “colored” music on the radio, as well as getting closer to Felicia romantically. As the two of them heat up, so do the other citizens of Memphis – those demanding integration and those demanding segregation.
Hands down, the most electric and astonishing performance was that of the lovely Montego Glover (see on Broadway in The Color Purple). Her charismatic and endearing performance as the strong and steady Felicia Farrell, charms the audience as her prickly shell melts into a darling demeanor by the end of act one. And what a set of pipes! Glover’s emotional performance of “Colored Women” rattles the rafters with such ferocity and vigor, only for it to be contradicted by her sensitivity and docile performance of “Someday,” showing off how just a phenomenal force her voice truly is. Even with the role of Huey being played by Bryan Fenkart (making his Broadway debut), understudy to Chad Kimball, Fenkart did not fail to disappoint. His smooth-talking; all-American; boyish flair, lights up the stage, sending the audience into fits of laughter with his precise comedic timing and his “awe-shucks” nature that just melted his way into our hearts. These characteristics were also brought into every song, particularly “Memphis Lives in Me,” as Fenkart nails this blues ballad, doing justice to the title song. These two powerhouses were not the only ones who memorized that night. J. Bernard Calloway (also making his Broadway debut), as Delray, was superb with his soulful delivery in both his acting and singing performance. “She’s my Sister,” overflowed with soul and a force so dynamic it gave this reviewer chills. Another performance that was also just delightful was that of Cass Morgan (seen on Broadway in Mary Poppins and Ring of Fire) as the role of Mama. Morgan’s performance in “Change Don’t Come Easy,” was spot on as she balanced the humor with the social commentary, making for a memorable performance. She serves as the arc in play, showing the differences in economic class during this time period. The audience watches as Mamma goes from low class rags to high class dress and attitude. She shows the true economic status of Memphis in the 1950’s.
With the music and lyrics, by David Bryan (lead keyboard player of the group Bon Jovi) and Joe DiPietro (whose work includes The Toxic Avenger), alongside the chorography of Sergio Trujillo (a Tony Award winner for Jersey Boys), the ensemble shows what it takes to make jazz hot and the blues cool as they artfully command the audience through the good times and the bad. From sultry, sexy swinging moves in the club, to young and innocent mashed potato, each number did not fail to thrill the younger audience members and even create nostalgic moments for others. Speaking of artfully done, David Gallo’s (a Tony Award winner for The Drowsy Chaperon) designs for the set, with the help of Shawn Sagady’s (making his Broadway debut) tasteful touches of projections, jived you right into the heart of Memphis, circa 1950. The scenic design has just the right blend of minimalistic and realistic, as each set piece was transformed seamlessly into the next scene. A real treat in the projections was watching Calhoun’s TV show as if it were being shot “Dick Clark,” style. This fine crafting was enhanced with Howell Binkley’s (whose work was seen on Broadway in Avenue Q and In the Heights) great lighting design. With a mix of traditional Broadway lighting and concert writing, for certain scenes, this design really brightened up and added life and color to such a poor community. Also, Memphis was brought into full realization with the stunning costume design by Paul Tazewell (whose work has been seen on Broadway in Guys and Dolls and A Raisin in the Sun). The costumes captured the full spectrum of this time period – the contrasts in both race and class. Memphis was a technical joy to watch!
As the cast sings one last reprise of “Steal Your Rock ‘N’ Roll” to a standing ovation, as each of the audience members clapped in time with the beat – people from all different backgrounds and ethnicities clapping out the “rhythm of their souls.” A rhythm that united our country. A rhythm that is not to be missed.

Review By: James Russo & Sarah Hogan-DePaul