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Studio Tenn's 'Frost/Nixon', perfect night of theatre, history buff or not

Studio Tenn's 'Frost/Nixon' closes its successful run with shows Thursday, February 27 thru Sunday, March 2.
Studio Tenn's 'Frost/Nixon' closes its successful run with shows Thursday, February 27 thru Sunday, March 2.
All Photos by Anthony Matula, courtesy of Studio Tenn

Frost/Nixon, Studio Tenn


Once again, Studio Tenn steps up the local theatre game with their latest production, 'Frost/Nixon', a Tony-nominated political drama that offers a unique insider look at the genesis and fruition of the now legendary television interview sessions between chatfest host David Frost and former President Richard Nixon. Halfway through its two-week run, 'Frost/Nixon' continues this week with shows Thursday, February 27 thru Sunday, March 2.

David Frost (Brent Maddox) prepares to ask 'the question' of disgraced former President Richard Nixon (Robert Kiefer) in Studio Tenn's 'Frost/Nixon'
All Photos by Anthony Matula, courtesy of Studio Tenn

Having never been remotely interested in history, and being just young enough to only vaguely remember President Nixon as somehow involved in some kind of scandal that cost him the presidency, attending a two-hour political drama, upon first thought, honestly didn't appeal to me. Having seen several of Studio Tenn's current season, however, was all the convincing I needed.

Time after time the dynamic duo of Managing Director Jake Speck and Artistic Director Matt Logan have proven they've got what it takes to bring true Broadway quality theatrical experiences to eager Tennessee audiences. 'Frost/Nixon' is no exeption.

Even before the action begins, theatre-goers are transported back forty years by way of Logan and co-set designer Mitch White's beautifully simple set that initially consists of a very 70s paneled wall, matching wood desk with the presidential seal below a larger than life screen framed to look like the fisheye picture tube televisions of the day. A clever bit of self-promotion by way of 'credits' on the television, coupled with iconic media images of the day and the show begins.

Even the subtlety of this multi-media opening sets the tone for the story, the story of a president who never fared well in still 'new media' of television, whose sole source of redemption showcases him, not only in that particular media outlet, but pits him against a journalist who, until that point, was best known for fluff interviews with the latest model, TV or movie star. While many view Kennedy's first televised debate as the moment that forever married TV and politics, it's the Frost/Nixon interviews that would further cross two previously divergent entities, politics and entertainment forever. Thankfully, Studio Tenn's current production of 'Frost/Nixon' does so to perfection.

Brent Maddox as David Frost is spot on--to borrow a phrase from Frost's homeland across the pond. Maddox approaches the roll with the carefully balanced combination of cheeky appeal and determination to prove himself more than a talk show host.

Not to take anything away from Maddox' performance, it's Robert Kiefer as Richard Nixon, who truly commands the stage. While the actor himself does indeed cast a looming presence, outside this role, one might not think he resembles the former president physically. The moment Kiefer first enters the stage, whether it's that booming vocal tone, the loose jowl way of speaking or the staunch mannerisms, Kiefer brilliantly channels the disgraced president. I can't say enough about Kiefer's portrayal. He is simply spectacular.

Playwright Peter Morgan's script is peppered with enough humor and jabs to keep even the least history-loving audience member (yours truly) totally engrossed.

There isn't a misstep in the supporting cast either. Mike Baum's Jack Brennan, a close confidant to Nixon is played with a reverence and conviction to Nixon that is key to the underlying theme that regardless of the wrongdoings, Nixon was, at his core, just like everyone else, doing what he felt he had to do to keep himself, and the country afloat after such a tumultuous time.

Thanks in part to wardrobe stylist Terrah Trimble's keen eye for style that pays homage, rather than presents fashions of the 70s as kitsch, the rest of the cast looks like they stepped right off the set of 'WKRP in Cincinnati'. Speaking of...Ross Bolen, as Jim Reston is a dead-ringer for WKRP's Gary Sandy. If there's ever a WKRP musical, he's in. Reston, a political writer, who joined the Frost team with the seemly sole goal of dragging a confession out of Nixon for his involvement in the Watergate scandal, as played by Bolen, while decidedly anti-Nixon, comes across much like most Americans of the day, just wanting the truth. As narrator, Reston's character is a nice transition between scenes, while also offering insider tidbits to further allow the audience to feel a part of this particular version of history.

Nate McIntyre's John Birt, a BBC television executive, drives home the whole business of television theme, urging Frost to stay on task and go for the jugular.

Kudos to Cory Caldwell who's cast in dual roles, and if you didn't know, you likely wouldn't, as he is featured as polar opposites, Bob Zelnick, a journalist who's helping Frost with researching the interviews and legendary entertainment agent, Swifty Lazar. It does seem an interesting choice that Caldwell's Swifty sports a full head of grey, perfectly styled hair, (courtesy of while the real Swifty was bald as a cue ball. Nevertheless, Lazar's trademark Mr. Magoo glasses are there, as is Caldwell has Lazar's New York jew-meets Hollywood mover and shaker down pat. Think Charles Nelson Riley meets Thurston Howell.

Also featured are Evelyn O'Neal Brush and Matthew Rosenbaum who each play various roles throughout the show. O'Neal Brush's Evonne Goolagong is particularly entertaining.

Emily Tello Speck shines as Caroline Cushing, the British socialite Frost was dating, although the play suggests they met while Frost was en route to meet with Nixon to discuss the possibility of the interviews. (Listen carefully for Studio Tenn's Jake Speck as the voice of the Trans Atlantic pilot in this particular scene). Tello Speck's Caroline allows the audience to see yet another side of Frost, and Nixon for that matter, as she represents, to a degree, their lives outside the realm of politics and the world of entertainment.

'Frost/Nixon' finishes its two-week run on stage at the Franklin Theatre (with 7 p.m. shows Thursday and Friday, February 27 & 28, a 2 p.m. matinee and 7 p.m. evening performance on Saturday, March 1 and a final matinee at 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 2. To purchase tickets, call the Franklin Theatre box office at 615.538.2076 or CLICK HERE. Up next for Studio Tenn, a limited two-night-only engagement of 'Les Miserables', which will be performed at Nashville's Schermerhorn Symphony Center. For tickets and information about 'Les Miserables', CLICK HERE.

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