In every previous Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, a white Blanche DuBois has complained that her sister Stella’s white husband Stanley has “something downright bestial about him.” She refers to him as “sub-human” and “ape-like.” And depending on her co-star’s performance, audience members might have agreed with her to some extent.
But in director Emily Mann's new production, when a light-skinned black Blanche says such things about a darker-skinned black Stanley, describing him as, “like one of those pictures I've seen in anthropological studies,” the words, unchanged from the original, are likely to strike more sensitive nerves in audience members who have encountered such racism in the fifty-five years since they were first uttered on stage, and the classic play’s clashing of class and culture is no longer, as far as audience sentiment is concerned, a fair fight.
Blair Underwood’s Stanley (the surname Kowalski and all references to his being Polish have been dropped) absolutely has his brutish, violent streaks, but his clean-cut, well-chiseled appearance and casual physicality paints him as more of a jaunty bad boy, as outwardly pleasing as Terence Blanchard's lively New Orleans jazz score; music that emphasizes the more inviting side of the French Quarter.
In a production being advertised with the slogan, “The American classic never looked this good,” the sexier qualities of Mann’s cast steadily rise to the surface. Heck, this is a Streetcar where even the Mitch is good-looking.
Daphne Rubin-Vega, an actress who never seems to have any trouble with roles that require her to smolder, shares a dangerously dynamic chemistry with Underwood as Stella; making her an earthy woman who derives sexual excitement from her husband’s behavior, but who recognizes the need to protect her sister from him.
As played by Nicole Ari Parker, the southern Belle Blanche isn’t exactly a faded one. The significant moment when a bare light bulb shines in her face to reveal how she really appears exposes her as being pretty damn attractive. Fortunately, the actress credibly brings out Blanche’s delusional instincts as survival tools and, for a brief period, has an attentive ear in Wood Harris’ ambitious, but not quite comfortable in his skin, Mitch.
The individual parts glide smoothly in Mann’s smoky and stylish production. Instead of making a bold statement with racially inclusive casting, this Streetcar, by simply being sturdily played, allows certain nuances to strike differently; staying true to Williams’ text while feeling somewhat refreshed.
Photos by Ken Howard: Top: Blair Underwood; Bottom: Daphne Rubin-Vega and Blair Underwood.
If the notion of a kinder, gentler Evita seems a bit perplexing to those who associate the Tim Rice/Andrew Lloyd Webber popera with high tension, high belting and high theatrics, they can rest assured that director Michael Grandage hasn’t exactly turned the old gal into a Disney princess. But by casting the two leading roles with an actress who does not possess the traditional fiery belt and an actor whose charisma isn’t served with a side-order of revolution, this new production places more emphasis on the beauty and intricacies of the composer’s best work while, unfortunately, revealing the thinness of the libretto.
Much has been made of the fact that a full-fledged Argentinean, Elena Roger, now takes on the title role. Her accent does stick out from the rest of the company, a constant reminder of the fact. Roger has her fine acting moments and even better dancing ones (Rob Ashford’s dramatic choreography is one of the production’s best features.) but her airy singing voice fails to generate much excitement. She pushes her voice in forced declaration of Eva’s “star quality” and her “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” softly whimpers. By no fault of the actress, this just seems a case of a director’s interpretation placing the wrong person in the role.
Ricky Martin’s Che, now assigned to be an amused everyman instead of an incensed stand-in for Che Guevara, narrates the piece in an entertaining style that suggests Pippin’s Leading Player. Taking his cue from his entrance song, “Oh, What A Circus,” he invites us to indulge in the corrupt spectacle from the safe distance of time, a least once admitting that he himself finds the anti-heroine’s spell hard to resist.
Thus, without political tension thickening the air, Rice’s narrative gets boiled down to the uneventful sequence of Eva sleeping her way to the top, helping Juan Peron win a not quite legitimate presidential election (though the scenes of thuggishness have been eliminated), and have her ups and down as first lady before dying.
But Michael Cerveris digs deep into the relatively small role of Juan Peron, making him an elegant, loving husband who masterfully plays the caring leader to his constituents. Max von Essen livens up the proceedings with his comic take on Eva’s first romantic pawn, heartthrob balladeer Magaldi.
New interpretations of popular favorites are certainly welcome, but Grandage has softened Evita into a well-sung history lesson that frequently loses its pulse.
Photos by Richard Termine: Top: Michael Cerveris and Elena Roger; Bottom: Ricky Martin, Michael Cerveris and Elena Roger.
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