A Tough Act to Follow

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

The expression &quota; tough act to follow" dates back to the vaudeville era, but it continues to haunt theaters today. Back then, it may have referred to a particularly crowd-pleasing juggler or comedian; but now, in our climate of revivals, it tends to describe an actor whose performance in a role is so memorable that it-s hard to imagine anyone else in it.

This was certainly the case with the musical Thoroughly Modern Millie. Sutton Foster, who landed the starring role, literally after being plucked from the chorus, became so identified with Millie, the unflappable flapper from Kansas, that the show seemed doomed without her. The touring production that rolled into town last week proves this suspicion wrong. While it may not be quite the same with a new leading lady, the Millie mold has not been broken forever.

But with some works, the same cannot be said. How do you stage A Streetcar Named Desire and escape the shadows of Marlon Brando and Jessica Tandy who so memorably created the roles of Stanley Kowalski and Blanche DuBois on stage (to say nothing of the film made only 4 years later with Brando and Vivian Leigh)?

A major revival in our nation-s capital offers some insight. Indie-film diva Patricia Clarkson delivers an intelligently underplayed Blanche, and proves that even with overheated lines like &quotbut; you-re the one who abandoned Belle Reve , not I!&quot-less; is still more.

There-s little southern gentility in Clarkson-s voice or gestures, so her toned-down Blanche does strip away context from Tennessee Williams- classic; but what is lost in the way of old Dixie vs. new south subtext, is gained in emotion and dignity as Clarkson keeps the play from ever descending into clich- or camp.

Sadly, Adam Rothenberg is far less successful with the role of Stanley. Finding a way to cry out &quotStella;" without imitating or parodying Brando is difficult for any actor, but Rothenberg doesn-t come close. He may be a fine actor in other material, but here he-s painfully miscast.

Rothenberg is well built and good looking, but his posture and overall presence are so fundamentally ill-suited to the role. Imagine Matthew Perry-or perhaps Chandler Bing-trying to play Stanley Kowalski, and that gives you some sense of how much this revival wilts when he-s on stage.

But even casting that seems right can sometimes go wrong in the face of legendary performances. Take for example the current REPRISE! production of Steven Sondheim-s Company. On paper, actress Judith Light seemed like a good choice to play the small-but pivotal-role of Joanne.

Light proved capable of following the tough act of Kathleen Chalfant in the acclaimed off-Broadway production of Wit, so why couldn-t she do the same with a part immortalized by Elaine Stritch?

Light acquits herself in the spoken dialogue-when she looks Bobby in the eye and asks him &quotWhen; are we going to make it?" she-s entirely convincing. But Company is a musical, and Light-s rendition of the classic song &quotThe; Ladies Who Lunch" can only be described as disastrous. Light tries hard, but she fails to emote any of the layers of loathing that the song describes. What-s more, Light sings the song as if she-s been sober for months, whereas Stritch-s famed interpretations always made it sound as if Joanne is hooked up to an IV filled with Smirnoff.

It-s an impossible predicament: actors can-t run from great roles, but they also know the inevitable comparisons. Perhaps Sondheim wasn-t just thinking of married couples when he wrote the lyrics: &quotSorry-grateful;, regretful happy."

Company runs at UCLA-s Freud Theater through June 6th, Thoroughly Modern Millie continues at the Ahmanson Theater until July 25, and A Streetcar Named Desire closes this weekend, part of the summer-long Exploring Tennessee Williams festival at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.