Review: Driving Miss Daisy

By Larry Laneer
August 27, 2019

Pollard Theatre Company has opened the new season with a revival of the popular Driving Miss Daisy by Alfred Uhry. More than anything, the production raises the questions why this play and why now.

The play begins in 1948 and takes place over the next 30 years. Daisy Werthan was born poor but married into what became an upper-middle-class Jewish family in Atlanta. She is now 72 years old and needs help with driving. Her son, Boolie, hires Hoke Coleburn, a black working-class man, to be her chauffeur. Daisy hates having a personal driver. People might think she’s putting on airs.

Uhry’s script reflects in vivid detail the language, attitudes, customs, and atmosphere of the period. In some ways, Jews, even those of the Atlanta business and professional class, had much in common with blacks. But not everything. At one point, Boolie just can’t bring himself to attend a United Jewish Appeal dinner in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. It may be bad for business, he claims.

Directed by W. Jerome Stevenson, this production features a reassembled cast. The wonderful Brenda Williams plays Daisy, and she captures perfectly the character’s sense of propriety and history. Daisy never lets anyone forget she grew up poor. Albert Bostick makes an animated Hoke at first and reflects later with perspicacity the character’s burdens of old age. Hughes’s well-done Boolie tends to his increasingly high-maintenance mother and holds on to a driver he’s lucky to have for her, while trying to run the family’s successful printing business.

This same cast first did this play for PTC in 1991. Williams and Hughes did it again for PTC in 2001, with Earle Hyman, who played Cosby’s father on The Bill Cosby Show, as Hoke. That production was part of the Stage Center Presents series, in which different theater companies staged shows in the Tolbert, the now-razed Stage Center’s larger, thrust-stage theater. Boy, those were the days.

The production features a quiet, jazzy, often poignant original score by Louise Goldberg, recorded, not played live. When was the last time you saw a play around here with original incidental music? Goldberg’s music acts as a subtle fourth character in the play. It brings the production up a notch.

It’s hard to say for sure why PTC and Stevenson, who is the company’s artistic director, decided to revive this play now. He hasn’t freshened it up, but that may not be possible with this script. Yes, the actors have aged gracefully into their roles. But, today, the play appears in a quite different atmosphere than it did when first staged in 1987 or even in 1991 or 2001. Now, an overt racist is President of the United States, and white nationalists have come out into the open. The characters in this play display decency, respect for others, selflessness, and kindness. In other words, qualities sadly lacking in much of today’s discourse. Very well. That’s reason enough to do the play.

Driving Miss Daisy by Alfred Uhry
Pollard Theatre Company
8:00 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, through September 7, 8:00 p.m. Thursday, September 5,
2:00 p.m. Sunday, September 1

Pollard Theatre
120 W. Harrison Ave., Guthrie

Review: The Book of Will

Tyler Woods, Shawn Churchman, and Kate Kemmet (l-r) in The Book of Will
Photo by April Porterfield

By Larry Laneer
August 12, 2019

Oklahoma Shakespeare (they dropped “in the Park” earlier this year) has returned to its Paseo space with the 2017 play The Book of Will by Lauren Gunderson. She is the author of The Revolutionists, which OS did here last summer. Book of Will is a speculative play, promising more than it delivers.

The play continues OS’s exemplary practice in recent years of doing a modern play, usually set in a classical period. It jibes with the company’s mission and gives audiences a chance to see plays we probably wouldn’t get from other theater companies.

The play is based on true events and some of the characters were real people. Shakespeare died in 1616, and survival of his work could be thanks to actors Henry Condell and John Heminges, who edited 36 plays for a collection known as the First Folio, published in 1623 (OS has a reproduction on display in the lobby). They even drafted Ben Jonson (1572-1637), considered by scholars to be the finest Elizabethan playwright after Shakespeare, to write a preface. The play also includes Richard Burbage (c. 1567-1619), generally known as the greatest actor of his time. He was the first actor to play Richard III, Hamlet, Lear, and Othello (what an epitaph!).

Gunderson reflects on the struggles birthing the First Folio. She has taken on a tough job, because everyone knows how the story ends. Yes, the First Folio gets published. So, Gunderson creates tragedies and triumphs for the real and fictional characters. Although the action takes place between 1619 and 1623, the dialog is mainly 21st century.

The director Rex Daugherty has assembled a fine cast. It would be nice to see them doing a better play, although The Book of Will is worthy of production, I guess. Chris Rodgers as Condell and Shawn Churchman as Heminges lead the ensemble cast. In their effort to produce the First Folio, the determined Condell and the reluctant Heminges are similar to the dramatic opposites of comedy and tragedy. It’s good to see Rodgers and Churchman in these roles. Then you have the boffo Tyler Woods as both the railing Burbage and imperious Jonson. If I’m not mistaken, when changing from Burbage to Jonson, Woods alters the color of his beard. Behind both beards, he gives an impressive performance.

The rest of the cast play multiple roles. Kate Kemmet, Aiesha Watley, and Renee Krapff (always good to see her onstage) are wives and other women. Unfortunately, the Elizabethan period is a man’s world, although Condell gives a speech at the end about how Shakespeare wrote often about daughters.

OS has kept the same set from last summer with a low stage at one end of its long rectangular space with two doors upstage left and right and a balcony center, the same configuration in miniature of the Globe playhouse, where Shakespeare’s plays were done in London. Daugherty has given the play an efficient staging in the flexible space. Emily Herrera did the sharp-looking costumes.

This play doesn’t have as much to it as you might think, considering the subject matter.  But Gunderson has written and Daugherty has staged a poignant, beautiful ending. In sound and on paper, we see and hear Shakespeare’s words rain down upon the world. It’s a nice moment.

The Book of Will by Lauren Gunderson
Oklahoma Shakespeare
8:00 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2:00 p.m. Sundays, through August 31
2920 Paseo

Review: Hamilton

Joseph Morales and Company in Hamilton            Photo by Joan Marcus

By Larry Laneer
August 2, 2019

That juggernaut of musical theater known as Hamilton has landed here. So, the question is does this critically acclaimed, lavishly awarded Midas of a show live up to the hype. Considering that the hype was over the top to the point of ridiculousness, I say it does.

Now at the Thelma Gaylord in the OKC Broadway series, the show depicts events around the founding of our country, focused on the story of a mixed-race immigrant, Alexander Hamilton. With book, music, and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda and directed by Thomas Kail, this is the touring version of the show that has been dominating Broadway and other areas of popular culture since 2015.

I can’t confirm all cast members are triple threats, because the lines of dialog in this sung-through musical wouldn’t fill one page of college-ruled notebook paper. But they’re sharp singers and dancers, even when some lyrics speed by at a mile a minute.

Joseph Morales plays the title role. The actors playing Aaron Burr and Thomas Jefferson are tall men who tower over Morales. That makes him more effective showing Hamilton’s bantam ambitiousness and self-confidence, which he had in excess and sometimes to his disadvantage. As Burr, Nik Walker makes a formidable rival of Hamilton. Kyle Scatliffe does a fine job as Jefferson, who’s mainly vexed by Hamilton. Marcus Choi’s President George Washington has to act like a referee in contentious cabinet meetings.

As the Schuyler sisters, one of whom becomes Hamilton’s wife, Erin Clemons, Ta’Rea Campbell, and Nyla Sostre first resemble a Motown girl group, and I mean that has a high compliment. Jon Patrick Walker is a droll King George in an oversized crown.

Andy Blankenbuehler did the detailed choreography, a study in constant motion. Every dance move, hip thrust, high step, and head turn appear refined to the finest degree.

David Korins’s towering scenic design in red brick and wood looks like the inside of an 18th-century warehouse. Lighting designer Howell Binkley bathes the stage in blood red, ice blue, and sunburst orange, among other effects. Paul Tazewell’s heightened, 18th-century-style costumes jibe with the contemporary music and staging.

So, why has Hamilton achieved such skyrocket success? First is Miranda’s score. He has an extraordinary ability to adapt contemporary vernacular musical styles to theater. The show has been labeled a hip-hop musical, and it contains plenty of the genre, but Miranda employs rock (both hard and soft), rhythm-and-blues, pop ballads, Motown, and even some gospel stylings to fine effect. At one point, a synthesizer in the orchestra pit imitates a harpsichord for a few Mozartian bars.

Next, Miranda is an adept storyteller. But we knew that from In the Heights. In Hamilton, he deals with a much larger story: the founding of our country and some of the founders. And he tells the story through the person of a mixed-race immigrant by humanizing Hamilton, albeit in a notably 21st-century way. Recent musical blockbusters, such as The Producers and The Book of Mormon, have been comedies. Hamilton deals with serious subject matter.

Finally, the show took advantage of a perfect storm of circumstances. New York critics heaped praise on the off-Broadway and Broadway productions. That buzz created news, leading to audience interest and ticket sales. The producers found they could charge exorbitant ticket prices for the show, which OKC Broadway is also doing here. As tickets got hard-to-get and expensive, it became prestigious to have them. Thus, the Hamilton snowball rolled downhill picking up speed and publicity. This is not to take away anything from Miranda’s work or the early productions. This phenomenon just happened.

A talented, professional, multi-racial cast performs this production of Hamilton, an unconventionally done story about the founding of our country. It is a pleasure to see their work at a time we have an inept, racist, despicable human being in Washington, D.C., as President. The show may give you some hope.

Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda (book, music, and lyrics)
OKC Broadway
7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8:00 p.m. Fridays, 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Saturdays,
1:30 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Sundays, through August 18
Thelma Gaylord Performing Arts Theatre
201 N. Walker Ave.