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Superior cast drives 'Miss Daisy'

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 4, 2003

By now, most people have seen the charming little movie, Driving Miss Daisy (it was on Turner Classic Movies a week or so ago), so they might think it would be redundant to see a live stage version.

Think again.

The production of Driving Miss Daisy running through April 6 at Angel Cabaret Theatre is the same story; but -- because of excellent casting, lighting and sound -- it is an altogether different and, arguably, a much more enriching experience.

As in the movie, the story starts in 1948 in the Deep South, when the 72-year-old Miss Daisy Werthan wrecks yet another car and her son, Boolie, insists on hiring her a chauffeur, a black man of Miss Daisy's age named Hoke Coleburn. Miss Daisy doesn't want a chauffeur, but Hoke needs a job and is determined to keep this one.

Both Miss Daisy and Hoke have their prejudices: she with black people, he with Jewish people. They both stoutly deny they are prejudiced, but those feelings creep out despite what they say. When a 33-cent can of salmon disappears from Miss Daisy's cupboard -- oh, yes, she keeps count -- she declares that it has to be Hoke because "they all steal!"

When Boolie interviews Hoke for the job, Hoke is quick to assure him that he doesn't go along with the notion that all Jews are stingy. But he does think they're all rich.

Even so, during the next 25 years, Hoke and Miss Daisy grow to see each other as individuals and become good friends, even if they have lingering prejudices.

The movie has lush settings, detailed props and cheerily chirpy musical background.

The play has none of these -- the actors even pantomime telephones, newspapers and desktop clutter -- so the viewer can concentrate on the characters and the characterizations, which is all to the good. Most evocative are the simple cello and violin renditions of Robert Waldman's musical compositions, which set the tone as each scene unfolds, and Darlene Widner's lighting, which frames each scene with illumination that is sublimely in synch with the story and the portrayals.

Still, it is director Jimmy Ferraro's three superior cast members whose warm, genuine, superlative performances make this show so compelling.

LeRoy Mitchell Jr.'s Hoke Coleburn is as spirited and outspoken as Pamela Ann Wiley's Miss Daisy, though Hoke doesn't have -- and can't have -- Miss Daisy's imperious tone. Both of them have opinions about everything, and they speak their minds freely. Both are fiercely proud and not about to give an inch. Playwright Alfred Uhry puts these two on basically equal footing, despite their obvious different stations in life, and Mitchell and Ms. Wiley make sure this comes through.

Dan Bright is exceptional as the exasperated son, Boolie. Like Ms. Wiley and Mitchell, Bright has the Atlanta accent, Southern mannerisms and every word of the script down to perfection, which lets the audience relax and enjoy every moment. What a wonderful trio of gifted actors.

The Angel Cabaret's production reminds once again that live performers can have much more impact than shadows on a screen. There are no close-ups, so we get the benefit of seeing all the body language that fill out a story -- Hoke crossing his legs in agony when Miss Daisy insists he "hold his water" until they get to Birmingham, as she sits primly and comfortably in the back seat, oblivious to his pain; Boolie shaking his head in exasperation as Miss Daisy turns balky during a telephone conversation; Miss Daisy serenely closing her eyes and crossing her ankles when Boolie comes to call.

These are gifted performers, and this Driving Miss Daisy is a real gift for the audience.

On the down side, the Angel no longer has the excellent caterer that arrived shortly after the start of this year, and the new one is still struggling to get things right. This might be a good time to take advantage of the "show only" ticket option.

If you go

Driving Miss Daisy, through April 6 at Angel Cabaret Theatre, 5201 U.S. 19, New Port Richey. Shows at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 6 p.m. Sundays and 1:30 p.m. some weekdays. Doors open two hours before each show for buffet, and cash wine and beer bar. Dinner and show $34.50 -- show only, $21.95 -- plus tax and tip. Call (727) 847-0019.

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