Friday, March 07, 2008

Did Cat Get Critics' Tongues Wagging?

Did Cat Get Critics' Tongues Wagging?

Last evening, the fifth Broadway production ever for Tennessee Williams' Cat On A Hot Tin Roof opened at the Broadhurst Theatre in a limited run under the direction of Debbie Allen.

Allen is directing a cast that includes her sister Phylicia Rashad along with Terrence Howard, Anika Noni Rose, and James Earl Jones. The show has received mixed reviews with Allen taking the brunt of the criticism.

Proclaiming the show as "thrilling," Newsday 's Linda Winer offers up what is perhaps the most favorable review: "Without the reverse casting, however, we would never have seen James Earl Jones as a shattering Big Daddy, tenderly holding and kissing the sensitive head of Terrence Howard, stunning as son Brick, in an attempt to transfer his own power into the beautiful young man's broken soul. Without daring to re-imagine Tennessee Williams' Mississippi plantation owners as nouveau-riche blacks in 1955, we would have been denied the sight of Phylicia Rashad squeezing her formidable self into a rare and heartbreaking interpretation of that silly dim bulb of a woman, Big Mama. And without the bold casting of the gifted, but hardly brand-name, Anika Noni Rose instead of the usual world-class sex bomb, we might still have never seen a Maggie who could say 'like a cat on a hot tin roof' a hundred different ways without sounding deranged.... How remarkable, then, that this cast finds such earthy conversational ease in the emotional humidity of Williams' Southern gothic milieu."

While lamenting that "it's too bad there's not a fully developed visual imagination at the creative helm to match the intuitive skills of its actors," David Rooney of Variety nevertheless mostly purrs: "While Debbie Allen's inexperience as a director shows in pedestrian physical staging with a tendency toward heavy-handedness, she lucks out where it most matters -- with her powerhouse cast.... [T]he design choices of Allen's production fudge the period just enough to make anachronism a non-issue.... Casting an untried stage actor as Brick was a risk, but Terrence Howard delivers. It's an understated performance that taps all the quiet, sleepy-eyed charisma of his screen work while also accessing the lacerating wounds of a man forced to confront emotional questions he'd rather ignore.... With James Earl Jones giving magnificent life to the cruelty, the ribald earthiness and the unexpected tenderness of this blustery self-made man, the production achieves the rare distinction of an entirely credible and deeply felt father-son bond at its center."

Deeming this Cat "well-worth seeing," New York Post's Clive Barnes offers a three-star review: "Director Debbie Allen and her producers have assembled a stellar cast, notably James Earl Jones as the cancer-wracked patriarch, Big Daddy, in a portrayal of bluster and subtlety that will surely leave a permanent mark on a role he both inhabits and embodies. And Jones is simply the first among an exceptional cast.... Rose's sexy yet poignant Maggie beautifully delineates love and desire against a pragmatic awareness of poverty.... Howard's low-key, high-tension Brick, waiting for the click of drunkenness to get him through another day of denial, and Rashad's broken yet defiant Big Mama -- her face a barometer of a family's pain -- fuse into one picture."

Declaring this a "flabby revival" that's "too often it’s without focus," Ben Brantley of The New York Times demurs: "The irresistible part of the equation is embodied most persuasively by Anika Noni Rose as that determined Southern seductress Maggie the Cat.... As it turns out, Ms. Rose more than holds her own. She pretty much runs the show whenever she’s onstage, and when she’s not, the show misses her management. Mr. Howard and Mr. Jones have moments that suggest what they might have made (and possibly still could make) of their roles. And Ms. Rashad presents a creditable, if arguably misconceived, Big Mama.... Ms. Rashad...seems to grow in supportive strength and mother-knows-best wisdom. The production acquires a haze of sentimentality that makes it soft when it should be sharp."

Weighing in on "Ms. Allen's fascinating-despite-itself revival," Eric Grode of The New York Sun takes note of the mendacity of the play's supposed color-blind casting: "With a production as lopsided and often wrongheaded as this, one has time to notice this sort of thing.... Mr. Howard, whose restless intelligence has enlivened even Hollywood piffle like "August Rush," overthinks a role that requires as much body as soul. His intensely internalized Brick barely has bones anymore, let alone the muscles on top of them. And so Ms. Allen overcompensates by having Ms. Rose curl herself around their four-poster bed like a stripper's pole.... This cheapening of Maggie is hardly Ms. Allen's only or most egregious error. She has a particularly tough time weaving in the offstage dialogue that frequently interrupts the central drama, and she routinely bungles the arrival of these characters when they do finally appear."

Concluding that this "hit and miss" production "mostly just simmers," JoeDziemianowicz of New York's Daily News mostly pans, with one notable exception: "[T]he one true thing that's fully alive in the uneven Broadway revival of the Tennessee Williams classic is the always dynamic James Earl Jones, who gives such a thundering and throbbing performance as dying Big Daddy that you feel it in your bones.... If only more of this Cat" had so much bite. You first get the sense that director Debbie Allen's production isn't one for the ages when you lay eyes on the stage of the Broadhurst: The set has the neutered charm of a hotel suite. Allen does the production no favors by having a sax man blow a bluesy tune before each act (an idea better suited to a different Williams play), or by fiddling with the lights during key monologues. The young stars have their ups and downs."

Whatever they have to say about this Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, it certainly sounds intriguing, even with the worst of the criticisms. The show had already extended (although Terrence Howard won't be with the production from April 15 to May 4 when Boris Kodjoe will perform the role of Brick). I'll be taking in a performance a little later this month and will let you know what I think in an upcoming SOB Review.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets.
Related Stories:
Opening Night: Cat Begins Fifth Life On Broadway (March 6, 2008)
The Onion: Ask The Stage Directions To Tennessee Williams' Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (February 11, 2008)
Black Cat Has More Than One Life (April 11, 2008)

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