Ladies First

Michael Musto

Cate Blanchett takes on Chekhov while Mary J. Blige has a second act

The Tony Awards telecast on CBS on June 10 will highlight Broadway’s best of the season, after which there’s a slight lull when everyone regroups and recoups. And then a classic playwright and a great star will charge up the theater world again.

The writer is Russian ennui-meister Anton Chekhov, who did simultaneous joy and pain better than anyone. But that might not be enough of a draw for tourists accustomed to jukebox musicals and Neil Simon revivals, so they’ve added a celebrity to the mix. A gigantic one who could sell tickets even if she read the Russian phone book with her Australian accent. And it turns out she’s a brilliant actress, too, so that should please the aesthetes (not that they need extra inducement to see Chekhov plays, thank you).

I’m talking about Cate Blanchett, who is bravely coming to New York’s City Center on July 18 for a limited run of Uncle Vanya, in the Sydney Theatre Company production directed by Tamas Ascher. In the classic play, the title character—who’s valiantly trying to maintain his decaying estate—is visited by an old professor and his missus (Blanchett), described by The New York Times as “a chipped trophy wife” whose beauty can drop jaws and sink ships. What follows are pratfalls, laughs, admissions and emotional horror—all updated, of course, to the mid-20th century. (Aesthetes like that kind of thing as well.)

Blanchett scored when this production swung by the Kennedy Center last year, and I’m not surprised, considering she’s ably played everything from Kate Hepburn to Bob Dylan onscreen, not to mention Hedda Gabler and Blanche DuBois onstage. She seems pretty cool as a human, too. In fact, she’s downright stupendous for not thinking she can only bother with titular roles. She’d be perfectly fine in Auntie Mame, mind you, but it wouldn’t have quite the gravitas.

The queen of hip-hop, Mary J. Blige, tried to put pain behind her when she sang “No More Drama” in 2001. But Blige is not putting sequels behind her. Last November, My Life II … The Journey Continues (Act 1) was her follow-up to the acclaimed 1994 CD My Life, her best-selling exercise in pain and self-flagellation. And now Act 1 has inevitably begat a second half, with the sequel to the sequel, called My Life II … The Journey Continues (Act 2).

Will it go to No. 1? Any new Blige blasts hold pop-chart promise. While a hurt-purveyor like Adele would probably suffer a career collapse if she ever found true contentment, Blige shows that smiles don’t equal smashups, especially since she still has a taste for the struggle … as long as she can strain to rise above it with some willful wails. The Bronx-born multi-Grammy winner has become a specialist in redemption, and with producers and guest stars like Swizz Beatz, Drake and Jermaine Dupri, it looks as if she’ll have another reason to beam.

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