31 Days of Arkansas Rep: Charles Portis’ DELRAY’S NEW MOON in 1996

When you’ve written one of the great American novels of the second half of the 20th Century and seen it turned into an Oscar winning movie, what do you do next?  You continue writing.

And if you are Charles Portis, you decide in the 1990s to try your hand at a play.  So in 1996, the Arkansas Rep offered a staged reading of Portis’ play Delray’s New Moon. 

Directed by Rep Artistic Director Cliff Baker, it was set in a honky tonk hotel halfway between Little Rock and Texarkana. Most of the people there are senior citizens awaiting their next location whether it be a nursing home or a relative’s house.

The cast featured Scott Edmonds played a father being shuffled each month between his daughters played by Judy Trice and Natalie Canerday.  Others in the cast included Danielle Rosenthal, Jean Lind, John Stiritz, Michael Davis, Graham Gordy, Stacy Breeding, Angel Bailey, Rhonda Atwood and Tom Kagy.

The production ran from April 18 to 28.  The normally reclusive Portis participated in talkback sessions following performances.

31 Days of Arkansas Rep: 1985 World Premiere of THE GOOD WOMAN OF SETZUAN

The Arkansas Repertory Theatre set the American regional theatre world abuzz with its world premiere of a musical version of Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Woman of Setzuan.

Director Cliff Fannin Baker received many telephone calls from his colleagues who were surprised that the Brecht estate had given its authorization for a musicalization to a small professional theatre in Little Rock.

The songs were written by Arkansas native Michael Rice using as a libretto the Eric Bentley translation of the original Brecht work. Rice also served as music director, leading a seven member orchestra as it played the nineteen songs he wrote.

As director, Baker used many Brechtian techniques to stay true to the story. These included music, neon signs, and non-traditional costuming for some of the characters.  Speaking of costumes, Little Rock fashion designer Connie Fails designed the clothing for the production.

Others on the creative team included Michael R. Smith (a set that was described as “dazzling, trashily opulent”) and Kathy Gray.

The title character was played by Vivian Morrison (now Vivian Norman). Other leading roles were played by Mark Johnson, Terry Sneed, Dianne Tack, and Mychael McMillan (in drag).  Playing a trio of gods were Ronald J. Aulgur, Scott Edmonds, and Candyce Hinkle. Others in the cast included Jean Lind, Ruth Shepherd, Kathryn Pryor, Judy Trice, Carol Ann Connor (now McAdams), Ginny Pace, and Jeff Bailey.

The production took place at the Arkansas Arts Center Theatre instead of the Rep’s facility on 11th Street.  With a cast of twenty and extensive set changes, the production needed more space than the Rep’s home could accommodate.

The Good Woman of Setzuan opened on June 13 and ran through June 22.

Pulitzers play Little Rock – DRIVING MISS DAISY

TWT DMDWith minimal set needs and only three actors, Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy has been popular with theatres of all levels since it premiered in 1987.  There have been numerous Little Rock productions over the past thirty years.

Actress and director Judy Trice starred in the Weekend Theater’s production in 2016.  Her costars were Jermaine McClure and Jay Clark.  The play was directed by Andy Hall (who is currently directing Assassins for the Weekend Theater).  The three actors obviously relished the chance to age several decades over the course of the play and mine Uhry’s script for its humor and humanity.

While many plays may fall out of favor over time, it is likely that Driving Miss Daisy will continue to be performed repeatedly.

2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the first Pulitzer Prize for Drama being given. To pay tribute to 100 years of the Pulitzer for Drama, each day this month a different Little Rock production of a Pulitzer Prize winning play will be highlighted.  Many of these titles have been produced numerous times.  This look will veer from high school to national tours in an attempt to give a glimpse into Little Rock’s breadth and depth of theatrical history.

Central to Creativity – Kathryn Pryor

While she may be a successful attorney by day, Kathryn Pryor, is also an accomplished singer and actor.

Having grown up appearing on stage (including starring in productions while a student at Central High School), it is no surprise she continues to appear in productions throughout Central Arkansas.

In 2016, she reprised her role of Hillary Clinton in the biennial political spoof Gridiron.   Earlier this year, she appeared in Arkansas Rep’s production of SISTER ACT.   Over the years she has also played leading roles on various Little Rock stages in GYPSY, CABARET, SWEENEY TODD, COMPANY, VICTOR/VICTORIA, SOUTH PACIFIC, and MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG.  

In addition, she has appeared in New York in a cabaret act with her brother Will Trice. For the 2015 edition of the Arkansas Arts Center’s Tabriz, she and Will reprised their act.

Drive (or walk or bike) to MISS DAISY

TWT DMDBecause of the success and awards of the movie version, and the way some of the lines have entered the vernacular especially as comic punch lines, it is easy to forget that Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy is a quiet, unassuming play. He did not set out to write a “great” play or a social screed, in fact it was quite a surprise when it won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The Weekend Theater brings Uhry’s episodic drive through the decades to life in its current offering. Under Andy Hall’s deft direction, it avoids the treacly trap that can often befall productions of this three-hander.

It is not that Hall’s production is without sentiment, but the emotions on stage are grounded in the moment. There is no mawkish lingering when the characters make an emotional connection. Considering that the script calls for cyclical closeness and distance among the trio, keeping emotions in check and in the moment serves the story and the playwright.

The plot, as if anyone needs a précis, involves a well-off (but don’t call her rich) Jewish widow, her businessman son, and the African American chauffer engaged by said son to transport said mother. Even if the audience was unfamiliar with the plot, it is pretty obvious that the titular matron and her driver will move from adversaries to unlikely friends. While the destination may be a formulaic and foregone conclusion, just like taking a trip, joy can be found in the journey.

Jermaine McClure plays the driver, Hoke. He avoids the stereotype of being the long-suffering, noble, simple-but-wise, African American. Though the part is not written that way, it has often been acted that way. His Hoke is kind, respectful, joyous, and a bit mischievous. McClure is obviously enjoying his part as much as Hoke enjoys interacting with both Daisy and her son. As he ages in the play, he doesn’t try to take on too much affectation—his character may move a bit slower—but he adds little touches such as prolonged squinting to show failing eyesight.

The role of the son, Boolie, is part instigator, part comic relief, and part time-filler so that the other two actors can be made to look older backstage. But Jay Clark imbues him with depth and pathos. He clearly enjoys the more comic moments (including wearing the most ridiculous Christmas outfit this side of Christmas Vacation), while also bringing heart and humanity to his quieter moments as well. Clark has a strong connection with each of his co-stars.

As good as the two gentlemen are, the evening clearly belongs to Judy Trice as Daisy Werthen. Her Daisy is a woman who has always been in control and is now grappling with the loss of that power. Her fussiness comes from frustration rather than from malice. Daisy is a complex woman who can see the biases in others without recognizing her own. Trice is not trying to be the lovable “little old lady” of heartwarming literature nor the stern battle-axe with a heart that needs to be awakened. Instead she presents a multi-faceted woman who is set in her ways but still has a desire to live a fulfilling life. With a sly smile and a drawn out word, she can be dangerous as she drops a veiled insult or commit theatrical larceny by stealing a scene through uttering a simple witticism.

Trice seems to get physically frailer as the play progresses, but that is not the most remarkable part of her transformation. Throughout the play her eyes sparkle with a vivacity that substantiates the sharp tongue and sharper mind of the heroine. Those eyes glimmer, that is, until the final scene. As she sits in near silence with a vacant, unfocused stare, it is hard to believe this is the same actress who has been so full of life throughout the rest of the play. Yet moments later the twinkle returns as she steps out to take her well-earned bow at the curtain call.

This production serves as a reminder that an enjoyable experience at the theatre does not need bells and whistles. It merely needs a strong story, adept actors, and a director who is able to meld the two.

Driving Miss Daisy continues at the Weekend Theater through April 17. Performances are at 7:30 on Fridays and Saturdays and Sunday matinees at 2:30.

Tony Awards Week – Will Trice

Trice at the 2014 Tony Awards

Trice at the 2014 Tony Awards

Though he has been referenced in every Tony Awards Week story this week, today’s entry is devoted to three time Tony winning producer Will Trice.

It is fitting he is a young, Tony winning Broadway producer.  When his mother, Little Rock actress and teacher Judy Trice, was pregnant with him, she was directing the Hall High production of The Pajama Game.  The original Broadway production of that title was produced by another young, Tony winner – Hal Prince.

Will Trice literally grew up on stage and backstage. In addition to his mother, his late father Bill Trice and his sister Kathryn Pryor have graced every conceivable stage in Central Arkansas.  Will, himself, has been an actor and entertainer.  Most recently, he and Kathryn performed their cabaret act for patrons at the Arkansas Arts Center’s Tabriz earlier this year.

Trice’s Tony Awards came for the 2014 Best Play All the Way, 2013 Best Play Revival Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the 2012 Best Musical Revival Porgy and Bess.  He also received a nomination for 2012 Best Play Revival for The Best Man.  At the 2014 Tonys, of the 26 awards presented, seven went to shows produced by Trice and his producing partner Jeffrey Richards.

This year Trice is nominated for producing Best Play nominee: Wolf Hall Parts One and Two and Best Play Revival nominee: You Can’t Take It with You.  Between those two productions and a revival of The Heidi Chronicles, Trice-produced projects earned fourteen Tony nominations this season.

Not ones to rest on their laurels, Richards and Trice have already announced revivals of Fiddler on the Roof and Sylvia for the 2015-2016 season.

It was fitting that Trice, a 1997 graduate of Central High, was a producer of the Tony-winning 50th anniversary revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 2012/2013.  Ben Piazza, a 1951 graduate of then-Little Rock High School, was involved in the development of the play in 1962 and performed in the original Broadway production over 500 performances.

Tony Awards Week – SOUTH PACIFIC – “How Far Away from Little Rock A-r-k”

southpacific_obcSeveral Tony Awards have been won by a show with a main character from Little Rock.

South Pacific opened at the Majestic Theatre on April 7, 1949 and settled in for a run of 1925 performances. Based on the James Michener Pulitzer Prize winning novel Tales of the South Pacific, it featured a book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan, songs by Richard Rodgers and Hammerstein and direction by Logan. It was produced by Rodgers, Hammerstein, Logan and Leland Hayward. Set in the titular islands, it concerned the relationships of sailors, nurses, island natives and other island inhabitants.

The musical starred recent Tony winner Mary Martin as Little Rock native Nellie Forbush, opera star Ezio Pinza, stage veterans Myron McCormick and Juanita Hall, and stage newcomers William Tabbert and Betta St. John. Cloris Leachman was Martin’s understudy and would later succeed her in the part of Little Rock native Nellie Forbush.

Like other Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, this show tackled tough themes – this one being prejudice. That did not set well with some theatergoers. Indeed, some potential investors did not put money into the show because of its stance. But Rodgers, Hammerstein, Logan and Hayward persisted. Their diligence paid off when the musical received the 1950 Pulitzer Prize in Drama, only the second musical to receive this designation. It is also the only Pulitzer Prize for Drama winner to be based on Pulitzer Prize winning source material. This was the first Rodgers & Hammerstein musical to not feature big dance numbers. In fact, there was no choreographer. The dance steps which existed were created by Martin, who had taught dance in her native Texas as a young mother.

Opening late in the season, South Pacific was named the 1949 New York Drama Critics Circle Best Musical, but was not part of the Tony Awards until 1950. (Though Jo Mielziner, who designed the set for South Pacific received a Tony for his set designs of shows during the 1948-49 season and South Pacific was one of the titles listed.) At the 1950 Tonys, it received six Tony Awards: Best Musical, Actor in a Musical (Pinza), Actress in a Musical (Martin), Featured Actor in a Musical (McCormick), Featured Actress in a Musical (Hall), and Director (Logan).

This is the only time that all four acting awards in the musical category went to performers in the same production. In fact, the other two acting trophies that year were incorrectly engraved as being from South Pacific out of habit. Logan’s win was also the first time that the Director Tony went for a musical, since at the time that award was not separated out among plays and musicals. Hall was the first African American to win a Tony Award for Acting.

In 1999 for the 50th anniversary and in 2008 for the opening of the first Broadway revival remaining cast members from the original production had reunions in New York City. At the 50th anniversary ceremony, a proclamation from Little Rock Mayor Jim Dailey was read declaring it South Pacific day in Little Rock and honoring the show. It is interesting to note that in 1949, there were two heroines on the Broadway stage from Little Rock: Nellie Forbush from South Pacific and Lorelei Lee from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

In 2008, Lincoln Center Theatre produced the first revival of South Pacific on Broadway. It opened on April 3, just four days shy of the musical’s 59th anniversary.  The cast was led by Paulo Szot, Kelli O’Hara (as Little Rock girl Nellie Forbush), Matthew Morrison (before “Glee”), Danny Burstein and Loretta Ables Sayre.  The production restored a song which had been written for the original Broadway production that had been dropped. “My Girl Back Home” was featured in the movie version and in this Broadway revival. In it O’Hara and Morrison sang of their hometowns of Little Rock and Philadelphia.  The production was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and won 7: Best Musical Revival, Actor in a Musical (Szot), Director of a Musical (Bartlett Sher), Scenic Design (Michael Yeargan), Costume Design (Catherine Zuber), Lighting Design (Donald Holder) and Sound Design (Scott Lehrer).

Sher, Yeargan, Zuber, Holder and Lehrer are all reuniting again next season to work on a revival of Fiddler on the Roof.  One of the producers of that is Little Rock native (and three time Tony winner) Will Trice.

While Trice has not starred in a production of South Pacific, his mother Judy Trice starred in a statewide tour in the 1970s. A few years later, his sister Kathryn Pryor, starred in the Central High production.