PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—New Magnolias

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—New Magnolias With an African-American now applying for residency in the White House, the notion of populating "Big Daddy" Pollitt's plantation in the Mississippi Delta entirely with African-Americans is an idea whose time has come, and it came March 6 to the Broadhurst.

Terrence Howard, Debbie Allen, James Earl Jones, Lisa Arrindell Anderson, Giancarlo Esposito, Lou Myers, Count Stovall, Marissa Chisolm and Boris Kodjoe.
Terrence Howard, Debbie Allen, James Earl Jones, Lisa Arrindell Anderson, Giancarlo Esposito, Lou Myers, Count Stovall, Marissa Chisolm and Boris Kodjoe. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

For the record, this is the fifth Broadway coming of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award in its day (1955-1956). It's such a succulent slice of Southern strife that color-blindness sets in almost immediately, and it becomes another round of Everyfamily dysfunction, if more creatively crafted than most.

James Earl Jones, surprise to nobody, thunders through the magnolias and mendacity infecting his festering nest with customary clomp and gusto—lording majestically over the manor, in point of fact. He comes down hatefully hard on the ever-lovin' he never loved (a Big Mama played with battered dignity by Phylicia Rashad), but what is surprising is the compassion he brings to the father-son confrontations he has with Terrence Howard.

Jones, 77, but here playing 65 (it's Big Daddy's birthday), certainly "gave at the office," so he can be excused early from the after-party at Strata. Field-marshaled by his Desdemona and wife (Cecilia Hart), he ran the press gauntlet at 90 mph like a hotbed of coals and made it to his waiting limo in record time. NY1 got particularly short shrift. He spent most of his on-air time talking about the party he wouldn't be attending. Mendacity, Big Daddy.

This left the director, Debbie Allen, to explain his new-found "Puff Daddy." She gamely sallied forth with: "I said at the beginning that I didn't want to follow all the stage directions. I wanted us to find the play. There are places where we changed the blocking. I said, 'Why don't we walk around? Walk behind Terrence, James, while you're talking,' and it turned into that tender moment. A father loves his son—that's what it's all about."

Allen, a Tony-nominated Sweet Charity when she last performed on Broadway, now comes in hyphenated form—director-choreographer—and this is her Broadway-directing debut. It's a dramatic (nonmusical) debut for her, but you wouldn't have guessed it, save for a "Happy Birthday" that comes with special choreography (she couldn't help herself). There is also an Allen-esque flourish that starts the play. A saxophone player (Gerald Hayes) enters stage left and wafts across the stage playing a haunting blues riff, never to be seen again but heard during nonverbal, emotional-recovery time. "Wasn't that wonderful?" the director beamed proudly. "I fought for that." And you know she did. Music wills out for her new projects. First up—right away (world-premiering in Baton Rouge on April 2) is The Bayou Legend. "It's an adaptation of Peer Gynt, which I've been working on with James Ingram for many years. The producer is Zev Bufman. I'll open it in Baton Rouge, then take it to Chicago. It looks like I'm going to be spending a lot of time in Chicago in the fall. I'm going to be doing two plays there. I'm also doing a show on Sammy Davis, Jr. Leslie Bricusse is the author, and I'm the director-choreographer. He wrote the book, and there are a lot of songs that he wrote along with Anthony Newley. These are songs that Sammy did, and then Leslie is writing some original songs as well."

Her daughter, Vivian Nixon, who Broadway-debuted in 2006's Hot Feet and recently played Mom's role in West Side Story (Anita) in Paris, is momentarily idling. "I'm here to support my mom," she said simply. After this, she'll support her more conspicuously and actively, starring in and setting the choreography of, the aforementioned Bayou Legend.

The curtain, advertised to go up at 6:30 PM on opening night, went up at 7:11 instead. The reason, now it can be told, was a backstage mini-drama in which the leading lady was taken ill by something stronger than Opening Night Nerves. "I had a migraine today, and it makes me extraordinarily nauseous," explained Anika Noni Rose when queried later. "It affects my stomach, and I was trying to handle that before I got on stage. I drank a lot of water and ate something, and I just had to let things settle. I've had migraines before on stage, and I have to tell you there's a lot going on when you're on stage like that."

Given that, her Maggie the Cat landed—heroically—on all fours. And the crisis seemed very much ancient history by the time she got to the party. She was, in fact, radiant.

She'll follow this Elizabeth Taylor role with another—Cleopatra—co-starring with Christopher Plummer in Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra at the Stratford Festival in August and September. Plummer harbors hopes of bringing the show to Broadway.

 

Morgan Freeman, Jeremy Piven, Lynn Whitfield and Charles Randolph-Wright, Harry Belafonte, Eartha Kitt, Miss America 2008 Kirsten Haglund, Elizabeth Withers-Mendes and Hank Aaron.
photo by Aubrey Reuben

The skeleton in the Pollitt family closet, which Williams rattles incessantly, is referred to only (but a lot) as Skipper. Maggie sees him as her romantic rival and goes to the extreme of seducing him so they both can be feel close to her husband, Brick Pollitt. When these best-laid plans go awry, Skipper drunkenly confesses the old love that dares not speak its name to Brick, who rejects him in disgust, sending Skipper into a suicidal spin. (Blanche DuBois' fiance had the same response to that kind of rejection.) By the time the audience is introduced to Brick, he's pickled in booze and grief, questing for that alcoholic click.

Most productions allow the hint of homosexuality to seep, creep or bleed into the story, but Howard stems the flow emphatically. He's The Brick of Bricks, unassailably male, and he's not above heaping a huge amount of guilt at Maggie. "Even though she was one of Tennessee's favorite characters, he recognized that she had the devil in her," contended Howard. "I've learned a lot from plays about just being honest—doing it and just staying truthful—and one of the things that this play says is 'I've never lied to you, Big Daddy.'

"That's every single moment of his life. He refuses to tell a lie. And that's the thing that's so hard in Act I with Maggie. She thinks the thing to do is to perform—it's her nature to perform—and you watch her and wait for those few moments that are directed right to me. Even though I feel like I could lose the audience in those first 15 minutes, I hold the line."

Next month for six weeks, starting April 15, Howard will bolt to the other coast, not to make a movie but to promote one—he's Jim "Rhodey" Rhodes, sidekick to Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man, the Marvel Comics blockbuster that goes into release May 2.

In his absence, Brick will be played by Boris Kodjoe, best-known for the Showtime series "Soul Food." Five years ago, People Magazine voted him "One of the 50 Most Beautiful People in the World," and he's holding up rather well, looking forward to his Broadway debut. "I've seen two stage versions of Cat and the movie version," he said, "but this is a bit different. I love it. It's closest to what Tennessee Williams intended."

Until this temporary replacement is in place, Brick is being understudied by the servant who waits on him hand and foot on stage, Robert Christopher Riley. "On a day-to-day basis, I play Lacey, but I understudy Brick. I've had a couple of rehearsals, but I haven't gone on yet." The Pollitt's household staff is omnipresent with a lot of on-stage time and, usually, one line. Riley's one-line—he noted with relative glee—is "Yes sir, Mr. Pollitt."

In contrast to Brick's constant stupor is Gooper the sober, the forgotten firstborn plotting to take over the family empire for his own rapidly expanding dynasty. The part is played by the always-fine Giancarlo Esposito, and he's pleased to be on board. "I'm very blessed to be in a Tennessee Williams play," he admitted. "I feel like he's a master—very courageous, very prolific playwright who would tell you the whole story in the first ten minutes, then proceed to show it to you, and you're still riveted to the play and really interested in what he has to say. I find it really an honor to do this as an African-American human being—a mixed-race person—to be in this play in this short moment in time."

His badder half—the snide and snippy "Sister Woman," Mae—is solidly put over by Lisa Arrindell Anderson. "It's a wonderful role," she said. "I usually play the ingénue—the nice, beautiful, young girl—so the idea of playing the not-so-nice and nasty is a real treat." So is returning to the stage (this is her Broadway bow). "I usually just get to do film. In fact, I don't get to do theatre much. I'm from Brooklyn, but I live in John's Creek, GA. I met a guy there and didn't make him move to New York, so we're raising a family there."

Motherhood was something she can use in her work as the chronically child-bearing Mae. "They didn't tell me when I auditioned that James Earl Jones was doing it. I just auditioned for a great play, and, when they said, 'We want to make an offer, and James Earl Jones is starring, my right hand started shaking. I actually remember, when I was a student at Juilliard, going to the Lincoln Center Library and renting Fences just to see him, because I didn't get to see it on Broadway, but I remember sitting there and watching him and going, 'One day, I want to be on stage with him.' And it has actually happened!"

This is the fourth Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to be costumed by the great Jane Greenwood. "I guess I have five more Cat lives to go," she mused. "I did the first one with Elizabeth Ashley, and then the one with Ashley Judd and Ned Beatty, then with Mary Stuart Masterson and George Grizzard at the Kennedy Center when they did the Williams festival. And here I am again, No. 4." Her familiarity with the property hasn't created any designing shortcuts. She starts from scratch with each production and redesigns everything. "I come with an open mind and a clear page and serve the actors and the way they'll portray the characters. It's an incredibly attractive cast. Every one is a poem."

Obama and Oprah didn't make the opening, as promised by the Daily News' Ben Widdicombe. Nor did Will [Smith] and Bill [Cosby, Rashad's TV hubby]. Pauletta Pearson, who gave up the stage [Sweet Main Street, the Carol Hall-Shirley Kaplan musical at Playwrights Horizons] to marry Denzel Washington stood in for him ably.

But there was an African-American parade into the Broadhurst, led by that mighty swatter, Hank Aaron, hardly a familiar first-night face. What brought him there? "She did," he said, gesturing the direction of The Mrs. "She wanted to come to this tonight."

Harry Belafonte arrived limping a little, using a cane and disguising all infirmities with his million-dollar Star Smile. Morgan Freeman, returning to the Main Stem April 27 after 20 years in a Mike Nichols revival of The Country Girl, had a beautiful young lady on his arm—his granddaughter, Edena Hinds. Also glittering the red carpet: Eartha Kitt.

Spike Lee, looking exactly like Spike Lee, admitted he had no desire to remake a movie of Cat. "Why would you? You have the ultimate one with Paul Newman," reasoned Spike the wise. He was less certain about his stage remake of Stalag 17, waving that idea away with a rocky we'll-see hand gesture. Translation: it won't happen.

Others in attendance: George Faison, Motown's Berry Gordy, Tony winners Tonya Pinkins, Cady Huffman and Sarah Jones, 2008's Miss America Kirsten Haglund, Tex Allen, Hot Feet's Maurice Hines, Lieutenant Governor David Paterson, Derrick Baskin of Spelling Bee and The Little Mermaid, Jeremy Piven (sans "Entourage"), Ceci Jones, Sirak Sabahat, legendary Cicely Tyson, Brenda Braxton, Lynn Whitfield, The Color Purple's Elisabeth Withers and the man who dreamed and then produced this vision of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Stephen Byrd.

Phylicia Rashad arrived at the party unfashionably late and played to the one remaining TV crew, who was in the process of packing it in. Tsk tsk, Phylicia.

The cast of <i>Cat on a Hot Tin Roof</i> take their curtain call.
The cast of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof take their curtain call. Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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