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Director/Choreographer Rob Ashford Takes on 'Cat On A Hot Tin Roof' on Broadway: INTERVIEW

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

AshfordSince beginning his career as an acclaimed choreographer, a path which led to his Tony Award for Best Choreography for Thoroughly Modern Millie in 2002, Tony Award winner and eight-time nominee Rob Ashford has more often taken on the dual role of director/choreographer. His recent musical outings on Broadway include revivals of How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying (starring Daniel Radcliff) and Promises, Promises (starring Kristen Chenoweth and Sean Hayes). Ashford's choreography is currently on display in Evita, starring Ricky Martin.

Scarlett Johansson returns to Broadway as Maggie the Cat in Ashford's
production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, following her 2010 Tony Award
winning debut in Arthur Miller's A View From The Bridge. The
production, which opens on Thursday, also stars Ciarán Hinds, Benjamin Walker and Debra Monk.

This starry revival of Cat marks Ashford's first Broadway production of a non-musical. I talked to Rob about his approach as a director, and his experience working on both New York and London stages.

Naveen Kumar: In recent years you've directed a number of acclaimed productions of American classics, including Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie (with Jude Law) and Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire (with Rachel Weisz), both at the Donmar Warehouse in London. How would you characterize your approach to this sort of canonical material, with which artists and audiences are likely to be so familiar?

Cat1Rob Ashford: It's interesting trying to do a revival of a classic play. What I tried to do was go back to the original source material as much as I could, and also go back to the time when the play was written and try to get to what the writer was truly after. There's a lot of inspiration to be found by going back, and trying to figure out the original intention.

For example, with Streetcar there were five published scripts, and they changed so much over the years. Then the film happened, and the scripts adjusted to the film. So the main goal for these plays was to go back to the original source material and the original productions. Not being slavish to them, like 'Oh no, these are the first words he wrote, and these are the ones we're doing,' but just trying in a way to make it full circle, instead of stacking on other productions.

I didn't concentrate for any of these three shows—Streetcar or Cat or Anna Christie—on previous productions, I tried to ignore that. [On] the first day of rehearsal [for Cat], I said to the cast, 'I would love for us to take these characters off the pedestals where they've been placed and put them back into the play.' So, I didn't want to see anybody giving their 'Big Daddy' or giving their 'Maggie' or giving their 'Brick.' I just wanted to see these characters in the play, as if for the first time.

Read more, AFTER THE JUMP...

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James Franco Coming to Broadway in Tennessee Williams Play

Sweetbird

He'll be starring opposite Nicole Kidman in Sweet Bird of Youth, Deadline reports:

"James Franco has formalized his intention to star on Broadway next fall in Sweet Bird of Youth, the David Cromer-directed play that will be produced by Scott Rudin. Negotiations are underway, but both Franco and Kidman are fully committed, I'm told. ...In the revival of the Tennessee Williams play, Kidman will play Alexandra Del Lago, the aging voracious movie star, while Franco will play her gigolo paramour Chance Wayne. Just like that, Broadway has another hot ticket."

Franco and Kidman's roles were originated by Paul Newman and Geraldine Page in the 1959 production, and again in the 1962 film.


Will Tenn Be the Next Capote?

Tennessee

Director Taylor Hackford (Dolores Claiborne, Against All Odds, An Oficer and a Gentleman) is set to direct the Tennessee Williams bio-drama Tenn from a screenolay by Robin Shushan:

Hackford"Pic focuses on how Williams' tumultuous upbringing -- complete with a scornful father, depression, conflicts about sexuality and watching his beloved sister institutionalized and lobotomized -- fueled the conflict in such plays as 'The Glass Menagerie' and the Pulitzer Prize-winning 'A Streetcar Named Desire.' Ohoven said the script was a close parallel to 'Capote,' which turned the 'In Cold Blood' author's relationship with two murderers into a riveting drama. 'I had that same incredible feeling reading this script that I had on 'Capote,' and here again is an extremely dramatic story about how a torn and twisted life led Williams to write such great successes,' [producer Michael] Ohoven said."


Britney to Depend on the Kindness of Strangers on London Stage?

Britney

Apparently ten lines in a sitcom can get you an invitation to London's West End.

UK's Hello! reports: "In what sounds like a perfect role for the girl from Louisiana, Britney is believed to have been offered the role of Southern belle Blanche DuBois in a new production of A Streetcar Named Desire. An unnamed source revealed that Britney's acclaimed performance on the sitcom led to the chance for her to tread the boards. 'She had poise, timing and real flair,' they said. British hard men Ray Winstone and Jason Stratham (sic) are understood to be among the actors in line to play Blanche's brother-in-law, Stanley Kowlaski (sic), originally played by acting legend Marlon Brando."

And that sound you just heard was Tennessee Williams slamming his head against the inside of his coffin.


On the Stage: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Adding Machine, Parlour Song

Cat

GuestbloggerKevin Sessums last reviewed Crimes of the Heart,
Sunday in the Park with George, and November
for Towleroad. You can also catch up with Kevin online at his own blog at MississippiSissy.com
.

Mendacity is the word that Tennessee Williams — probably smiling to himself every time he typed that first syllable into his typewriter — strikes like a discordant bell at the height of his soap-opera-as-masterpiece, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. It’s the word that Brick, the closeted alchoholic heart of the play, throws at his father, Big Daddy, when trying to explain to him why he’s turned to the bottle. Indeed, mendacity is at the very heart of three wildly different productions I’ve seen lately.

Cat2Let’s start with Cat, director Debbie Allen’s African American production of the play. I went to a recent matinee with an open-mind regarding the rejiggering of Williams 1955 play in order to fit it into the black experience in America. And yet no rejiggering was really needed. Allen did seem to update it to a hazy idea of the 1970s with her costume choices and hair styles and the tacky nouveau-riche interiors. But the play works remarkably well with African American actors — or at least the African American actors she cast. This production is certainly on a higher level than the one that opened a few years ago on Broadway to disastrous reviews which starred Ashley Judd, Jason Patric, Ned Beatty, and Margo Martindale. Judd and Patric seemed lost in their roles but Beatty and Martindale as Big Daddy and Big Mama were magnificent.

I’ve seen my share of Cats. My first year living in New York in 1974 I saw Elizabeth Ashley give her now legendary portrayal of Maggie the Cat opposite the Brick of Keir Dullea. Fred Gwynne (yes, Herman of the TV show The Munsters) played Big Daddy and Kate Reid his wife. In 1990 I saw Kathleen Turner make her Broadway debut with a stunningly sexual Maggie opposite a boring Daniel Hugh Kelly (yes of the TV show Hardcastle and McCormick) as Brick. Charles Durning played Big Daddy and Polly Holiday (yes, kiss-my-grits Flo from the TV show Alice) played Big Mama. In 1976 Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner starred in a television version that, even with Sir Laurence Olivier as Big Daddy and Maureen Stapleton as Big Mama, was painful to watch. A later television version in 1985 with Jessica Lange and Tommy Lee Jones restored my faith in the play. Rip Torn played Big Daddy in that production and the great Kim Stanley tore my heart out as Big Mama.

Cat3I’m sure most of you have seen the 1958 film version starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman as their most beautiful selves. Dame Judith Anderson was oddly cast as Big Mama and Burl Ives, recreating his portrayal of Big Daddy in the Broadway production, won an Oscar for his portrayal of Big Daddy. The film itself lost out that year to Gigi as Best Picture. Others in the original Broadway production were Barbara Bel Geddes as Maggie (yes, Miss Ellie of the TV show Dallas) and Ben Gazarra as Brick. For you trivia buffs, Cliff Roberston was Gazzara’s understudy. Mildred Dunnick played Big Mama.

Cat5All of that is to say, I’m a bit of a Cat fanatic so I’m happy to report that Allen’s production at the Broadhurst Theatre is a good introduction if you’ve not been as lucky as I to have ever seen a stage production of the play, which concerns, in real time, the night of Big Daddy’s birthday party when he discovers he’s dying of cancer and all the forms of mendacity that surround him on that night. James Earl Jones as Big Daddy is gruff and touching; his bluster is heartbreakingly rendered in that incongruous way only a great actor can summon when an array of emotions are all put on display at the same time. The second act in which he confronts Brick is the highlight of this production. Terrence Howard, making his stage debut, is not only amazingly sexy in the role — just listen to the women and some of us men in the audience audibly swoon when he makes his entrance — but is able to to convey the real anger and confusion at his core in a role that is maddeningly passive the way that Williams wrote it as if Williams was uncertain himself of what he thought of the character and the character's choices in life because at that time in his own life the issues that Brick was dealing with were so close to to him.

Cat4Phylicia Rashad (yes Claire Huxtable of the Bill Cosby Show) overacts a bit in her role as Big Mama but Big Mama herself, let’s face it, is a bit of an over-actor. It’s her way of coping. Anika Noni Rose who was so great in both the stage musical Caroline, or Change and the film version of Dreamgirls, acquits herself admirably as Maggie. She is a consummate actress but not yet a fully mature one so that Maggie’s hunger - sexual and material and emotional - seemed forced at times. But because of her musical background, she handles the first act aria of a soliloquy with remarkable aplomb.

Three quibbles. For some reason Allen has inserted a strolling saxophone player needlessly at the start of the play and between the three acts. Lisa Arrindell Anderson as Mae, Brick's sister-in-law, is giving one of the most archly awful performances I've ever witnessed. And Allen, who has failed to rein in Anderson, has pointed up the comedic moments of the play so that when Williams is at his most touching or his characters are at their most cruel, the audience has already been conditioned to laugh. It felt at times as if I were sitting in the audience of one of those many television shows I’ve mentioned.

T T T (out of 4 possible T's)

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Broadhurst Theatre, 235 West 44th Street, New York. Ticket information here.

***ADDING MACHINE

There’s nothing television-like about the musical adaptation of Elmer Rice’s expressionistic play, The Adding Machine, now at The Minetta Lane Theatre. Adding Machine (the The, like any semblance of sentimentality, has been jettisoned for this production) has transferred to New York from the Next Theatre Company in Chicago where it won a passel of Joseph Jefferson Awards, that city’s equivalent of the Tony. It’s caused a buzz in theatre circles here as well.

Continued AFTER THE JUMP...

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News: Barack Obama, Castro, Czech Masseur, Tennessee Williams

road.jpg Warsaw gay groups propose pink triangle monument to honor homosexuals killed in the Holocaust. Some city council leaders, like Marek Makuch of the Prawo i Sprawiedliwość party, are outraged: "It is a devastating idea and we shall not agree to this. I have not seen in Warsaw a monument for Catholic priests or disabled people. The triangle would be a promotion of homosexuality. We cannot compare Warsaw with Berlin – Berlin is the capitol of European homosexuality, and here we have our values."

Barackobamaroad.jpg Barack Obama takes first steps to enter 2008 Presidential race.

road.jpg Fidel Castro reportedly in "grave" condition.

road.jpg Judy Shepard and foundation are finalists for the Volvo for Life awards.

road.jpg Senate votes 87-0 to strip benefits from lawmakers convicted of bribery, perjury and fraud. John Kerry: "With this vote, we are preventing members of Congress who steal or cheat from receiving a lifelong pension that is paid for by the taxpayers." Amen.

road.jpg Rarely-produced Tennessee Williams one-act coming to London: "And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens is set in New Orleans' French Quarter, where Williams lived as a young man. When he moved there in 1939, the area's cheap rents and air of age and decay attracted artistic community and alongside them gays, transvestites and other people on the margins of society. The play concerns a gay transvestite who tries to mend a broken heart by taking up with a short-tempered younger sailor. "

road.jpg Log Cabin Republicans pressure Schwarzenegger to move on gay marriage. California LCR head: "When it comes to marriage, we believe in the fundamental fairness of the American people. There has never been a major civil rights movement that has failed in the United States."

Williamroad.jpg The Royals are ready for combat.

road.jpg Czech masseur comes out on top in discrimination case. Groundbreaking case is the first time a Czech court has awarded damages for discrimination based on sexual orientation: "Mr Sydor had been promised a job as a masseur at a health centre, but when the manager found out he is gay he refused to hire him. In court the centre's management said they had found a better qualified candidate for the job."


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