Butchering a Tearjerker

Review: Terms of Endearment

By Perry Tannenbaum 

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In spite of its Academy Awards and critical acclaim, I’ve never much wanted to see Terms of Endearment. Reading the old Roger Ebert review of the film does a far better job of changing my mind than the current stage adaptation at Theatre Charlotte, I can say that. My working theory on tearjerkers is that I already know it’s sad when good people die young, sad that people allow petty differences to stand in the way of enjoying one another, and that sorrows and pointless conflicts are redeemed by moments – too few moments – of sweetness and laughter. Watching the 129-minute Hollywood version of these self-evident truths still doesn’t entice me.

The stage adaptation by Dan Gordon trims James L. Brooks’ 1983 screenplay, based on the novel by Larry McMurtry, to a mere 108 minutes at the Queens Road barn. No doubt some butchery was involved, for I can’t find serious fault with Chris Timmons’ cheery and versatile scenic design, Mitzi Corrigan’s direction, or the efforts of her cast. Can’t find the characters played by John Lithgow or Danny DeVito, either. Maybe McMurtry and Brooks were better judges of their worth.

Gordon starts with a scene so cinematically short that I couldn’t see its connection with the rest of the story. It’s useful for you to notice that the newborn Aurora Greenway is screaming at in the cradle is Emma. The next time we see Emma onstage, she’s being played by Gabriela Celecia and she’s at least 20 years older. Cynthia Farbman Harris as Aurora cannot age so radically so quickly, helping me to miss the passage of two decades. What Harris can do very well is retain Aurora’s imperious prissiness, her total self-absorption, and her industrial-strength vanity.

These are wonderful traits for Celecia to play against as the normal wife and mother of three who hopscotches from one Midwestern locale to another with Flap, her college teaching husband. Suffering the slings and arrows of Aurora’s patrician superiority, Maxwell Greger makes good on his scant chances to fire back. He’s also an effective Middle America edition of Don Juan. If James Dean ever became so humdrum that his utmost rebellion against propriety were sneaking kisses with one of his students, that Dean would look very much like Greger’s Flap.

But the juiciest pushback against Aurora’s dominion comes from Garrett Breedlove, a former astronaut whose ego outstrips his fading celebrity. He’s as open about his profligate ways as Flap is furtive and delights in offending Aurora’s elegance with his vulgarity. Why not? He still has the goods in the sack. Kicking, screaming, and sputtering, Aurora is putty in his hands.

In an auspicious Theatre Charlotte debut, Vince Raye mixes charisma and conceit into this aging moonwalker – with a chunk of tenderness that took me by surprise. At his most impressive, Raye took up Garrett’s revelation that he still boasted friends in high places. If not, he certainly showed he could bluff a weak poker hand at a championship level.

By the time this happened, the drama had seemingly dragged on for seven hours, Emma had been diagnosed with Stage 7 cancer, and the only chance she had at survival was to be admitted to a special clinical trial that was already closed to new applicants. Only Dr. Maise, the head of the hospital could make that happen, and Maise had no intention of being cowed by a mere astronaut with VIP connections.

To guard the gates against Emma’s last chance, Corrigan chose the formidable Tim Huffman, who has chewed and spit out scenery as Capt. Slank in Peter and the Starcatcher and as the thunderous Deputy Governor Danforth in The Crucible. This was quite a heavyweight confrontation, Raye’s celebrity cool as Breedlove pitted against Huffman’s towering dignity as Maise. I’m not sure which delighted me more, watching Raye coolly assailing Dr. Maise with Breedlove’s vicious threats or Huffman’s trembling capitulation.

Ah, but after that clash, the very sweet and likable Celecia had miles to go before Emma slept. Farbman had to absorb additional rebuffs and regrets as Aurora and learn additional lessons before she grieved. Let it be noted that costume designer Chelsea Retalic dresses Farbman beautifully during all her changes. When Breedlove leers at her, it is not for naught. There are also lighter moments between Aurora and Emma that allow Farbman respites from her hauteur and Celecia respites from her wholesome bland forbearance. Maybe three of them.

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Facing Your Fears in a Haunted Basement

Review: The Ghost of Splinter Cove

By  Perry Tannenbaum

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There’s a glint of magic as the adventure begins in Children’s Theatre of Charlotte’s production of The Ghost of Splinter Cove that you’ll only appreciate if you’ve already seen playwright Steven Dietz’s companion piece, The Great Beyond, in the world premiere Actor’s Theatre production at Queens University. What’s going down? Make that who, for Nate Banks and his sister Cora, on their first night at their late grandfather’s house, have been sent downstairs into the basement to spend the night.

Yet their parents are far from callous. With the camping gear that their dad bought Nate for his birthday, they will break in his new tent – with a dome! – while their parents get their “adult time” upstairs. Nor has Rex, their dad, been lazy. To liven up their adventure, and to make up for canceling an outdoor expedition, Dad has downloaded a nifty smartphone app that will help simulate a true wilderness experience. Rex has troubled to hook the app up to loudspeakers, lights, and even a fan, so a starry night and stormy weather are both on the horizon after sundown.

But wait, there’s a holdup during the setup. Sydney, the daughter of Aunt Emily’s partner, Rene, asks Nate if he has chosen the destination for their wilderness adventure. Nate is dumbfounded until Sydney explains that she has the latest version of the same wilderness-simulating app, and it offers that cool option. Nate will need to take the time to download the update.

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Now here’s where the magic happens. Once the Sim-Camp app is downloaded to Sydney’s phone and all the necessary Bluetooth connections are made, the most advanced Deep Wilderness option it presents – past the “Peppermint” and “Sunset Trail” baby options – is Splinter Cove. None of the kids has ever heard of the place, but if you’ve already seen what unfolds upstairs in Great Beyond, you will not have forgotten how important Splinter Cove is in the family history. It’s the place where Dad wants to bury Granddad’s ashes, for one thing.

Pure coincidence? “Hey, it’s selected already,” Nate observes as soon as he sees the most advanced options. When we hear him saying “Splinter Cove” for the first time, it triggers the loudspeakers.

Long before this, however, a foreboding sense of dread hovers over the overnight adventure. There’s a fourth person in the basement, J, that both Nate and Cora imagine they can see. This imaginary friend doesn’t look anything like what the siblings imagine, he’s always in a different spot from where they point, and he’d rather talk to us than either of them.

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There’s a comical aspect to the kids’ misperceptions, of course, but J is not the clownish comedian that Nate imagines. So who and what is he? Why has he been in the kids’ lives for as long as they can remember, and what are his intentions now?

Finding out will be part of the adventure, to be sure, and you can bet that Dietz has built plenty of suspense into the action leading up to that revelation. Among the works I’ve seen over the past 32 years of covering Children’s Theatre productions, only The Wizard of Oz, The Hobbit, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe were scarier, which makes Splinter Cove the scariest original children’s play I’ve ever read or seen.

It could be scarier at the Wells Fargo Playhouse if director Courtney Sale had put the pedal to the metal on all the jolts of surprise and terror that Dietz has sprinkled into his exemplary script. And it could be more spectacular if all the technical capabilities of ImaginOn’s larger theater, the McColl Family Theater, were marshaled to the cause.

While I felt Sale had been too cautious about crossing the fright threshold, my mom wondered if this show might be too intense for 8-year-olds after viewing Cove with me. So this is far from a punchless production, though our friend Carol opined that she also was disappointed in the fright factor after seeing Great Beyond earlier in the week.

Dietz’s craftsmanship certainly shines through, all the more brightly if you see both plays in this unprecedented Second Story Project. You don’t simply have adults upstairs and kids downstairs. Dietz makes sure we see a family at both ends of the staircase, with traits that align across the generations.

Like her mom, who resists the idea of holding a séance upstairs, Cora is anything but gung-ho about the camping trip, letting out a stream of sarcasm that parallels Mom’s resistance. Nate not only embraces his dad’s camping idea, he expands upon his resourcefulness, adding a campfire and a moon to the experience.

You’ll readily recognize moments that must occur in both plays, when Rex calls down from the top of the stairs and the kids respond, but I’ve discovered another one that isn’t so obvious. When Sydney asks the time, Nate responds, “Dad would say: ‘Straight-up six o’clock’” – while Dad is saying those exact words to Aunt Emily.

There are amusing misalignments as well. Cora is contemptuous of the prospect of joining hands and saying something enthusiastic before embarking on their wilderness adventure, yet her mom, Monica, does a little pinky-square ceremony with Rene, Sydney’s mom, shortly after they meet for the first time. Upstairs, with Rene presiding, they will dim the lights and light candles for a spooky séance, so it’s apt – if not particularly healthy – that her daughter is afraid of the dark.

Telling you what happens on the Splinter Cove camping adventure would be spewing spoilers for two Dietz dramas at once. It’s more prudent to point out that the playwright follows a tried-and-true storytelling formula by having Sydney face and overcome her fear in the heat of her adventure. Following the Wizard of Oz template, Dietz does this in triplicate, for Nate is afraid of deep water despite his swimming lessons and, again like her mom, Cora has serious trust issues.

Sale’s all-adult cast is marvelous, even if she doesn’t allow them to be as frightening as they could be. Chester Shepherd, whose electrifying high-strung performance in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time will be long remembered, is hamstrung as Nate by Sale’s trepidations, scurrying around in terror as if he were doing one of the comical minor roles in Disney’s The Lion King. Notwithstanding how excellently it is done, that shtick dampens a moment when the fear factor should be dialed way up. You always believe Shepherd is a child, though, and his eagerness for the adventure fuels momentum from the start. Thrown by the adventure into the deep water, his terror is more human but still homogenized.

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Carman Myrick seems to enjoy freer rein conveying Cora’s doubts and fears, for Dietz is demonstrating in both of his plays how much more readily we believe when our heroes face strong and nasty skepticism. Cora is the heavy, no doubt, but only intermittently like her mom, and I loved how thoroughly the magic of “Splinter Cove” worked on Myrick from the first time it was said out loud. On a relatively spare Anita Tripathi set design, Myrick makes her climactic climb and discovery compelling, and her achievement of trust becomes a dramatic watershed moment in more ways than one.

Coming off her stint, just last month at ImaginOn, as the pesky would-be girlfriend in Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, Kayla Simone Ferguson doesn’t get to be cute or obnoxious this time around. The physical resemblance between Ferguson and Tania Kelly, the actor playing Sydney’s mom, is pronounced, but the personality parallels aren’t as obvious as the Banks kids’ with their parents. You could say that Rene is the spiritual guide and her daughter is the phone app guru, but the more lasting kinship is their calm and impartiality reacting to the sibling squabbles going on upstairs and downstairs.

Ferguson understands that she’s to be the sounding board for Nate and Cora to tell her (and us) all the important things they already know about each other. Meeting strangers in a strange house – “Wait – I’m spending the night?” – gives her license to be a little forlorn and pathetic. Most importantly perhaps, in confessing her fear of the dark, Sydney brings the squabbling sibs together in sympathy and starts the conversation going about each one’s greatest fear. Facing and overcoming these are the core of the adventure from a classic theatre-for-young-audiences perspective.

Bemused detachment typifies J as he slinks unseen among the children, along with a light sprinkling of menace – a bit heavier when he steals a smartphone from one of the kids’ backpacks. Sooooo shrewd of Sale to cast Arjun Pande in this intriguing role. He doesn’t immediately tell us he’s an adult, but with his low voice, he contrasts with Shepherd, whose sound and energy mark him as a kid. Pande also towers over all his castmates, so even those 8-year-olds in the audience who are braving this thriller will likely realize he’s the adult in the basement before he actually lets on.

If Pande isn’t quite as sardonic as he could be ridiculing the siblings’ basic misperceptions, he has the strong quiet confidence of an enigma waiting to be discovered, presciently knowing that this is the night when he will be. It’s a magical, magisterial role that Pande inhabits almost nonchalantly. Quiet confidence is more than justified, for even after everyone has vanished, J will remain a dizzying enigma.

One last wonder is how Dietz packs so much into the 53 minutes of Splinter Cove, only slightly slowed down by the two mind-blowing set changes. For that matter, what Dietz packs into less than 80 minutes in The Great Beyond is an equal marvel. Perhaps one day, a single theatre company will produce both Beyond and Cove on the same stage on the same night, and perhaps that’s what Dietz had in mind when he put the finishing touches on his Second Story Project.

Maybe then Dietz will decide which play should be seen first! He wrote Splinter Cove first, but my vote goes to seeing it last. And last it definitely will.

A Séance With 200% Certainty

Review: The Great Beyond

By:  Perry Tannenbaum

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When you walk into Hadley Theater on the Queens University campus for the world premiere of Steven Dietz’s The Great Beyond, you’ll be treated to a rare “don’t-think-about-elephants” experience. Even if you haven’t read the prepublicity around town, seen the spots on local TV and the web, or thoroughly perused your playbill, your emissary from Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, artistic director Chip Decker, will call your attention to the elephant in the hall. While Dietz’s spooky new drama can stand on its own, it was written with an interconnected companion piece, The Ghost of Splinter Cove, that is now premiering at ImaginOn in a taut 53-minute Children’s Theatre of Charlotte production.

So once you’ve heard that, can you really be satisfied seeing The Great Beyond without going to see Dietz’s companion piece? Probably not.

If you’ve somehow failed to pay attention to the prepublicity, the playbill, and the curtain speech, all of them telling you that the action of Splinter Cove is happening downstairs in the basement of the same house at the same time in the same family as the action we’re seeing upstairs, the parents upstairs will remind you frequently enough of the strange adventure their kids are having below.

More than that, thanks to Evan Kinsley’s scenic design, which offers us a smidge of the home’s exterior, we get glimpses of the basement action through translucent windows that peep above ground. So it isn’t just a matter of Rex, the dad, opening the door to the basement and checking up on how his kids are doing – with prerecorded replies. No, no, no. Beginning with camping gear that he bought for his son Nate’s birthday, Rex has sent them on a wilderness adventure, with a smartphone app hooked up to the home’s electronics simulating the sounds, the natural lights, and the weather of the great outdoors.

At unexpected moments, then, the handiwork of lighting designer Hallie Gray and sound designer Rob Witmer captures our attention – and whets the curiosity of the three women who have gathered with Rex for an adventure of their own. The historic collaboration between two theatre companies is called “The Second Story Project,” but it’s at Queens U that we see why.

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Dietz has said that The Great Beyond is a reunion play, and it certainly follows a template we’ve seen before, bringing far-flung and estranged kinfolk together, comically or dramatically uncomfortable with each other, after a death in the family. Here Rex has brought his two kids to the home of his former father-in-law, where his distraught ex, Monica, served as caretaker during Tobias’ last difficult days. Relations between Rex and Monica seem cordial enough, though she isn’t a big fan of his elaborate camping scheme for their children – since it brings unpleasant family history to mind.

It’s also obvious that Rex retains a genuine affection for Tobias, whom he calls The Captain like everybody else in the family. The real family strife will rev up when Monica’s wayward younger sister Emily arrives. Or actually, it begins before, because the rigid and judgmental Monica has labelled Emily as a chronic latecomer – on the basis of one past incident – so hostilities can begin as soon as Emily arrives. On time, of course.

Not that Emily is flawless. A recovering alcoholic who now limits herself to one full glass of wine at the same time every day, Emily has made Dad’s home the last stop on an epic apology tour, launched five years ago when she achieved sobriety, spanning 23 states and two foreign countries. A straight arrow and a black sheep, the bread-and-butter combatants of countless theatre clashes are poised to have it out! But unlike Sordid Lives or Appropriate, two of the funeral-triggered plays we’ve seen before in Charlotte, the dead Tobias will also be invited to the reunion.

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You see, Emily is bringing her bisexual partner Rene to this sad reunion, hoping to summon up the spirit of Tobias at a séance later in the evening. It’s Tobias, not Monica, that Emily has really earmarked for receiving her last apology, and she thinks that Rene, a spiritual medium, can make contact and make it happen.

As if the friction between Monica and Emily weren’t torrid enough already! Now they need the scornful, skeptical, and sarcastic Monica to complete the circle around the séance table. Outnumbered three to one in this tussle – and somewhat pre-empted by Dietz’s two play titles – you can guess how Monica’s opposition to the séance turns out. As for whether Tobias shows up, I can safely defer to Dietz himself, who was present at the post-performance powwow on opening night. He told us that one of chief pleasures he found in telling this story came in conveying his 100% positive conviction that the supernatural visitations at séances are absolutely bogus and his 100% certainty that those visitations are absolutely real.

Whatever you may think of the action around the table, you can’t deny that Dietz has made intensive efforts to sustain our ambivalence, giving us numerous reasons to believe that the house Tobias built with his own hands is in the grip of the supernatural – countered by an equal number of escape routes to disbelief. But to his credit, Dietz leaves us with a giddy sense of confusion rather than a rational set of alternatives as we attempt to arrive at the truth now – and the truth about the tragedy that has haunted the family for nearly 40 years – teasing us out of thought.

That giddy confusion will be compounded when you factor the climax of Splinter Cove into your calculations. If you go to Hadley with somebody – whether an adult or a child – you can expect that conversation on your way home will be peppered with lively clarifications and disputes.

Decker certainly holds up his end of Actor’s Theatre’s historic collaboration with Children’s Theatre. Rather than missing core elements of the script that I’d seen when I read it (a fundamental reason I customarily avoid reading scripts I’m scheduled to review unless I’m planning to interview a playwright before seeing the production), Decker and his superb cast managed to bring Dietz’s drama more intensely to life and reveal the power – and comedy – of a couple of moments that I’d overlooked. Didn’t hurt that Dietz was here in Charlotte, tweaking both of his scripts during the process.

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All of these roles are beautifully rounded, so it wasn’t surprising to see the keen relish that the players took in them. It would be hard to overpraise Tonya Bludsworth’s work as Monica, the meanie who has worked so devotedly and so selfishly to be The Captain’s favorite. Bludsworth brings out the humor and the sharpness of Monica’s mocking sarcasm, turns it off when she realizes she’s wrong, has moments of self-awareness, and is delightful in so many different ways during the séance she has so grudgingly agreed to. There’s a bit of swagger to her, for all of her starchiness.

Robin Tynes-Miller mixes Emily’s feelings of resentment and remorse to perfection and turns them up high. Her wrenching efforts toward reformation make Bludsworth’s cynicism and rejection all the meaner. Tynes also hones in on just how thin-skinned and childish Emily remains as the younger sib, allowing Bludsworth the delight of intentionally provoking her, elevating Monica’s wickedness at times to villainy. For all her weakness, it is Emily who powers the story forward when her determination is steeled, yet Tynes makes her lapses likable, so we’re still rooting for her when Rene and Rex must rally behind her cause.

Dietz has Rene doing a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to coaxing Monica to the table – and an even greater share of the calming and reassuring that Emily needs when her frustrations with her recalcitrant sister get the better of her. Tania Kelly does it all with a confident authority, belying Monica’s presumptions of what a medium should be. Not a dreamcatcher earring in sight, and no Whoopi Goldberg kookiness.

As patient and sure as she is at the séance table, unruffled by Monica’s taunts, Rene also takes it upon herself – without any desperate urgency – to rectify Monica’s obsolete assessment of Emily’s character. Rene is the mother of Sydney, the third child downstairs at play with Nate and Cora, and Kelly dials in the right amount of parental concern and trust in Rex. Most of all, when the doors and windows are unlocked, the candles lit, and the incantations begin, Kelly makes us believe that Rene is in earnest and something amazing could happen.

Rex is the glue that binds Dietz’s plays most firmly together, and Scott Tynes-Miller beautifully captures his strength, his self-deprecation, and his insouciance. For the most part, Rex’s role is as a peacemaker in the siblings’ brawls, the steadying force that Monica realizes she was foolish to discard. Miller not only gets the last of the play’s four monologues, addressed directly to us, he also demonstrates to closest bond to Tobias, briefly recalling how The Captain taught him to be a man. Turns out to be a surprisingly important plot point. There’s a nice through-line that Miller finds in Rex, for he has a firm and quiet purposefulness, and like Emily, arrives with a mission. That turns out to be yet another way that he binds Dietz’s magical plays together.

There’s much more to the story of The Great Beyond than I’ve disclosed here – with surprises stirred in that are calculated to startle and astound. Much of this story is expanded upon and illuminated in The Ghost of Splinter Cove. So your intuition to see the companion piece will not lead you astray.

Imaginary Cyber Friends

Review: Dear Evan Hansen

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Playing to a Broadway house that barely packs in a thousand patrons, using no more than eight actors and eight musicians each night, with scant choreography and no glitz, Dear Evan Hansen isn’t going to fit most theatergoing definitions of a big Broadway musical, six Tony Awards or not. Yet big it is, for Steven Levenson’s book traverses multiple issues that absorb us these days, including bullying, the effects of social media, teen suicide, and single-mom parenting. Just as rare, music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul frequently rise to the level of the emotions roiling inside Levenson’s characters, actually enhancing the drama on a couple of occasions.

Evan is a mess when we first meet him at Belk Theater, where seating capacity for the touring production is extended beyond the usual 2100-seat capacity with the musicians perched up above the action. Mothered by an anxious single mom who holds down a day job and goes to school at night, Evan is an even tighter tangle of anxiety. He dreads returning for his senior year in high school, afraid of the daily interaction with other people, tongue-tied with nearly everybody – especially Zoe Murphy, the girl of his dreams.

Zoe’s big stoned brother, Connor, bullies Evan on at least two occasions. On their first day back at school, Connor knocks Evan to the ground when he thinks our hero is laughing at him. That paranoia carries over to their next encounter at the computer lab, where Connor retrieves the “Dear Evan Hansen” letter that Evan has written as an assignment from his therapist, supposedly a daily pep-talk to himself. Thinking this is more mockery from Evan, Connor refuses to return the letter, which contains suicidal thoughts and Evan’s desperate yearnings toward Zoe. In a further act of aggression, when Evan awkwardly asks him to sign the cast on his healing broken arm, Connor takes a Sharpie and scrawls his first name – in big capital letters – across the full length of the cast.

So a whole host of ironies and misconceptions will explode when Connor commits suicide, and his parents, finding Evan’s letter in one of his pockets, mistake it for their son’s suicide note – addressed to his best friend. The big black letters that Connor had signed onto Evan’s cast, originally a nasty symptom of bullying, become a testament to their friendship, writ large. Tongue-tied as usual, Evan can’t shoot down the Murphys’ delusion that he can provide them with insights into the son they never really knew. In yielding, he finds that he can provide some therapy to others.

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If he can keep a steady flow of palliating information to the Murphys, Evan feels that he can help them in their grieving process. And establish a closer connection with Zoe, whose memories of Connor are even more unsavory than his.

In varying ways, then, the Murphys have unwittingly conspired in giving Evan an imaginary friend. With the help of Jared, who keeps reminding him that he’s more a relative than a friend, Evan can spin a backdated email correspondence with Connor filled with new feelings and faux memories. With the help – and intrusion – of Alana, a pesky busybody who seems attracted to him, Evan can establish a “Connor Project” tribute, a memorial website, and after he surprises himself by addressing a school assembly, a viral #YouWillBeFound hashtag when video of the speech lands on YouTube.

Taking the old imaginary friend concept to a whole new cyber level, Evan and Alana, co-presidents of The Connor Project, launch a GoFundMe initiative to restore the apple orchard where Evan and Connor fictitiously met. Adding new dimensions to the idea of an imaginary friend piles on new challenges and stresses for Evan. Some of these, of course, help him to mature and develop self-confidence. He’s speaking to an entire student body after starting out the year cowering in fear of interacting with just one of them.

Alone in his room at moments of highest stress, Evan turns to… an imaginary friend. Ironically, it’s Connor, who did nothing but torment him in real life. Connor’s posthumous transformation is now complete – in his family’s eyes, for Evan, and for thousands of followers at school and online.

Chiefly, Evan is stressed over all the lies he’s been telling Zoe and her parents, but he’s also been deceiving his mom – while coping with the sudden celebrity the whole #YouWillBeFound phenomenon has brought him.

Here is where the chamber size of the Dear Evan Hansen fails the potential magnitude of Levenson’s vision. Where are all the high school peers that Evan feels himself lost in, fears talking to – peers who might adoringly add to Zoe’s unattainable aura and desirability? Where are the admiring classmates who ratify Evan’s newfound relevance and fortify Zoe’s inclinations to give him a serious second look?

Basically, they’re projected onto the scrims and screens of David Korins’ high-tech set design, perpetually scrolling as social media feeds behind Evan’s bedroom, multiple rooms at the Murphy home, and various locations at school. It’s a cool alternative to populating the stage with energetic dancing teens but sometimes a cold one, especially in a space as large as the Belk.

What sweeps us past these limitations is how intently we become involved with both the Hansens and the Murphys. Anxiety, social inadequacy, and teen suicide are big things to cope with up close, and Dear Evan Hansen brings us there. Ben Levi Ross captures all the awkwardness, insecurity, and fearful caution that Levenson has written into Evan’s outward self, and he has the star-quality voice for the Pasek/Paul songs that reveal the inner self wishing to break free.

Marrick Smith doesn’t play up the suicidal kindred spirit of Connor as much as the sullen, domineering loner. In his imaginary friend afterlife, he becomes the tough-love antithesis of the “Dear Evan” pep talks endorsed by Evan’s therapist, a longhaired renegade forever. By contrast, Connor’s parents are wholesomely flawed. Aaron Lazar as the dad appears to have detached from Connor’s upbringing and to have given up on him, but when Evan encounters him in his workshop – and afterward at a powwow between Hansen and Murphy families – we realize that he had plenty he wanted to give.

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As “Anybody Have a Map?” her opening crosstown duet with Evan’s mom makes clear, Christine Noll as Cynthia Murphy is as clueless about how to cope with a teenage boy as Heidi Hansen is. But as a full-time suburban housewife, she has more free time to flit from one New Age fad to another, salving if nor solving her problem. Cynthia has the deepest need – and gratitude – for Evan’s cyber fables and projects.

Comes with the territory, Levenson tells us. Mom’s credulity and stubborn belief in Connor has strained her relationship with Zoe when we first see them coping together. Maggie McKenna struggled to untangle the enigma of Zoe on opening night, more so because her vocal on “Requiem” was the least intelligible in her family. There was a nicely calibrated combo of empathy, skepticism, and need as her familiarity with Evan grew, and the climactic “Only Us” love duet had an honest and intimate sizzle.

Ultimately, Jessica Phillips as Evan’s overextended, trying-so-hard mom stole the show from everybody except Ross. There’s a wonderful one-two punch before things reach a final resting point, with a wrenching “Words Fail” confessional from Evan following shortly after the unexpectedly turbulent meeting between the Hansens and the Murphys. Heidi had already stirred things up at the Murphys, but it was in her “So Big/So Small” testimonial that Phillips was absolutely devastating – at first narrative, then apologetic, before finally arriving at a stunning affirmation.

As an actor, there are moments when you might dread having to weep onstage, on cue, night after night. With “So Big/So Small,” I’d imagine that the performer has the opposite worry: getting too deep into this mom in this song could lead you to an emotional corner where you’re sobbing uncontrollably. When she finishes, we’re fairly convinced that a chunk of this show has been about her.

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For all its intense intimacy, the Pasek/Paul score also boasts some concentrated magnitude, since the musical tandem packages two anthems that get reprised. Climaxing Act 1, “You Will Be Found” seizes our attention, with the whole company joining Evan as his assembly speech goes viral, augmented by pointedly anonymous prerecorded spoken blather as the YouTube sensation takes hold. Even the relentlessly scrolling background projections suddenly crystallize into relevancy.

But don’t overlook Evan’s “For Forever” fantasy as you settle in to the story. This dreamy “two friends on a perfect day” idyll gradually ascends and soars, prefiguring the apple orchard fable Evan will devise to placate the Murphys – and echoing the lie he’s been telling about how he broke his arm. We don’t hear the backup voices for this anthem until it reprises briefly in the “Finale,” when all Evan’s hidden truths have been revealed. You may not immediately see all the reasons why the final scene is set where it is, but there’s a little bit of technical derring-do to announce that we’ve arrived.

There’s as much craftsmanship in Dear Evan Hansen as there is honesty, and that’s saying a lot.

Christopher Warren-Green Expands Symphony’s “Titan” Concert to Rousing Effect

Review: Charlotte Symphony’s Mahler 1

By Perry Tannenbaum

When Charlotte Symphony’s season announcements and brochures were issued last July, Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 “The Titan” stood alone on the program for their concert coinciding with semifinals of the ACC basketball tournament at the nearby Spectrum Center. Whether there were second thoughts on the length of that program or worries about automobile traffic inconveniencing concertgoers, two additional works – and an intermission – were added to the evening. Mahler’s Symphonic Movement: Blumine seemed a natural add-on, since it was part of an earlier draft of the symphony, which premiered in 1889 as a five-movement piece titled “Symphonic Poem in Two Parts.”

Adding a piece by Strauss wouldn’t appear much less apt – if it were Richard Strauss, not quite four years younger than Mahler and very much his contemporary. But Johann Strauss, Jr., the renowned “Waltz King”? Picking up a microphone as soon as he appeared onstage at Belk Theater, music director Christopher Warren-Green immediately cleared things up. Far from a grotesque contrast, parts of Strauss II’s Emperor Waltzes were actually echoed in the second movement of “The Titan.” And since Blumine was the second movement in the original “Symphonic Poem” before Mahler excised it, the whole grouping had an elegant logic to it.

Implicit in Warren-Green’s intro were dual assignments – with dual effects. We were subtly being asked to catalogue the musical and melodic content of the Emperor Waltzes and retain our findings until after intermission. Then we were to identify an undisclosed fragment of what we had heard when it was echoed in “The Titan.” Listeners were thus encouraged to take Strauss’s work a little more seriously in searching for enduring substance and to realize that Mahler’s music, with its fun-loving Viennese influences, wasn’t as ponderous and forbidding as they might have believed. Whether such attitude adjustments actually factored into the audience’s enthusiasm for the performances, they certainly sounded like fruitful approaches for the musicians to take as they played.

Unburdened of the worry that they were tossing off light fare, the orchestra played the Emperor Waltzes with infectious zest. Principal percussionist Brice Burton’s snare drum caught my attention first, before the woodwinds announced the idiomatic Strauss sound. Principal cellist Alan Black and principal timpanist Ariel Zaviezo kindled our anticipation as the most familiar of the melodies drew near. Weighted toward the trombones, the brass episode was impressive, and as the piece climaxed, four percussionists were on their feet, as cymbals and a bass drum joined the fray.

Logical choice or not, Blumine was a fairly odd piece to send us off to intermission with, for it conformed to the relative quietude we expect of second movements in large orchestral works. Surprisingly, this andante sounded nothing like the sort of derivative apprentice work you might expect a major composer to discard upon mature reflection. As performed by Warren-Green and his players, Blumine had some of the ethereal flavor we might associate with Mahler’s middle symphonies, especially at the end of the piece, where the playing of the strings, lightly tinged with Andrea Mumm Trammell’s harp, was quite exquisite. Yet it was principal trumpeter Alex Wilborn who made the deepest imprint on the performance, playing his serenading episodes with a mellow and magnificent softness. Principals Victor Wang on flute and Taylor Marino on clarinet had gleaming moments of their own, but principal Hollis Ulaky drew the best solo wind passages and played them flawlessly on her oboe.

None of the recordings of “The Titan” that I looked up reach the length of a full hour except for that of Seiji Ozawa with the Boston Symphony, who just ekes past the 60-minute mark after restoring Blumine as his second movement. So I heartily endorse Warren-Green’s decision to fortify and vary the originally-announced program with judiciously selected appetizers, but you just needed to look at the Belk Theater stage to see that “The Titan” was the evening’s main dish. At the outset of the “Langsam” (Slow) portion of the opening movement, a phalanx of eight French hornists was seated in front of the battery of percussion, which included two sets of timpani drums.

More brass lurked offstage. After softly churning strings, reminiscent of Wagner’s famed evocation of the Rhine River, played under mournful woodwinds – with just a glint of piccolo – a trio of distant trumpets was heard, triggering a response from the horns. Then as the trumpeters entered from offstage, the cellos steered us toward echoes of Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony,” bringing us the springtime awakening of nature promised in Mahler’s 1893 program notes. When the winds reached their bright, full-throated twittering, the season burst into blossom. But with solo spots from Wang’s flute, Marino’s clarinet, a soft tattoo on the bass drum, and more fine section work from the French horns, there was ample space for reflection afterwards.

Echoes of Strauss II were readily apparent in the “Kräftig bewegt” (Forceful animated) movement that followed, not subtle at all once we had been alerted to them; and in the trio section that followed, the waltzing spirit of the orchestra became more contagious. After timpani and percussion had engaged, there was a nice simple spotlight for Byron Johns and his French horn. The other middle movement, “Feirlich und gemessen” (Solemn and measured), lost its power to intimidate as soon as the listener realized that the fugal figure was a slowed-down, macabre mutation of the familiar “Frère Jacques” nursery song. Initiating the round, principal Kurt Riecken had the rare opportunity to offer us a sampling of his solo handiwork on the double bass, with oboe and clarinet taking us to higher frequencies. Cellos and violas initiated another round before the clarinets lightened the gloom with a klezmer-like interlude.

Aside from the cresting of the opening movement, there was nothing titanic about “The Titan” until we reached the “Stürmisch bewegt” (Stormy animated) finale. Here is where the double-duty barrage of timpani was detonated, though there also was some finesse from the lyrical violins in the early stages. With the entrance of the trombones, the horns, the woodwinds, and the trumpets, the strings throbbed with more urgency. Increasing the final drama, Mahler circled back to the calm, the distant heraldry, and even some of the vernal twittering of the opening movement, and Warren-Green obviously reveled in quietly setting up his final explosion. The entire phalanx of eight French horns stood up, punctuating the majesty and the showmanship of the climax. Programming Mahler yielded some vacant patches down in the orchestra seats – and a totally empty upper balcony – but the Belk Theater audience responded to “The Titan” with a lusty standing ovation that was as enthusiastic as any I’ve seen there. Ultimately, they bought into the whole “Mahler Lite” concept as completely as the musicians.

 

Upstairs/Downstairs in a Haunted House

Previews: The Great Beyond and The Ghost of Splinter Cove

By Perry Tannenbaum

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An old living room card table shaking uncontrollably during a candlelit séance… an unidentified ghost – or two – lurking in the dark basement, where kids are at play… and an 8-year-old child who has been missing for nearly 40 years.

These are some of the chilling elements in two new nail-biting plays hitting the QC. Upstairs with the adults at the séance, the Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte production of The Great Beyond begins previews this Thursday on the Queens University campus, officially premiering next Wednesday. Next Friday at ImaginOn, The Ghost of Splinter Cove takes us downstairs into the basement with three imperiled kids in a world premiere Children’s Theatre of Charlotte production.

Both spooktaculars are by renowned playwright Steven Dietz, who splits most of his time between Seattle and Austin, where he teaches his craft at the U of Texas. Dietz has written and adapted more than 40 plays, and a slew of them have been performed in various theaters across town, including God’s Country, Lonely Planet, Yankee Tavern, and Becky’s New Car (a “Show of the Year” winner in 2010).

But these two newbies would never have been written if Dietz hadn’t gotten on a plane and met with Adam Burke and Chip Decker here in Charlotte.

Burke, the artistic director at Children’s Theatre, and Decker, his counterpart at Actor’s Theatre, had cooked up their concept during a 2015 meetup. Cooperating was feasible between their two companies, but what kind of project would bring audiences together to see the kinship between Decker’s adult theatre and TYA – Burke’s theatre for young audiences?

Decker and Burke both have considerable experience in bringing new plays to their theaters, so it was obvious that their joint project would be a new script. But what if they commissioned two scripts, each one designed to funnel audience from their theater to the other theater while both shows were in production?!

Somehow the two plays and their stories would have to interlock. Yet to encourage rather than force audiences at one company’s theater to also see the other company’s play, each of the two plays would have to stand independently on its own. The concept that would be named The Second Story Project was born – in excited brainstorming interspersed with copious cups of coffee.

When Burke and Decker decided to move forward, there were no funds earmarked for the project, no playwright commissioned to create the scripts, and no parameters detailing how the two stories would interconnect. There was just one dynamite concept that had never been tried before.

“It’s always a leap of faith to do anything, especially something new,” Decker observes. “We just both hit on it, felt it was a good solid idea, and when you feel that way, you have to jump in with both feet and hope there’s a safety net at the bottom.”

Looking back on it, Dietz was a super-obvious choice. Multiple productions of his plays had been presented at Actor’s and Children’s, but Decker and Burke were thinking about advertising in trade publications or soliciting proposals – until the successful run of Dietz’s adaptation of Jackie and Me at ImaginOn turned on the lightbulb in Decker’s skull.

He sums up his realization: “We’re looking for a playwright who has a great voice for theatre for younger audiences and a playwright who has an experienced track record with adult audiences, we’ve both produced Steven Dietz plays, why should we look any further – especially the first time out?”

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Burke had sort of blocked out the idea of looking to an established adult playwright, calculating that the TYA piece would be the higher hurdle.

“I am more confident that someone who can write a great play for young people can write a great play for adults than I am of the reverse,” Burke explains. “So when Chip suggested Steven, I’m like, ‘Ah, yes, of course!’ There are only a handful of people that are moving between the two worlds successfully.”

Dietz was a little wary, wanting to make sure that there wasn’t some special issue or theme that his scripts were expected to address. Getting reassurances of his complete freedom, he warmed to the prospect of such an unprecedented challenge.

“What was so beautiful about the idea was that it was so simple,” Dietz recalls. “The core of the pitch to me was something shared. A shared story, a shared theme – something shared. And in one theater piece, we see it through young people’s eyes, and in the other, we see it through grownups’ eyes. That’s just like Post-it Note simple!”

The playwright was also on Burke’s wavelength with respect to the primacy of the TYA piece. It would be the more difficult piece to write and take more time. So it needed to be written first. Unlike other commissions that Dietz has fulfilled, neither The Ghost of Splinter Cove nor The Great Beyond turned out to be a play he would have written anyway. No barely-started scripts or scribbled scenarios were on his studio shelves waiting for these unique commissions.

Dietz suspected that he would make many false starts on his youth play – and he did. The upstairs/downstairs idea didn’t occur to him immediately, but when it did, it seemed like an elegantly simple way to make his plays interlock. But what kind of full-length play can be staged in a basement?

“I had this little tiny notion,” Dietz reveals. “I had a friend who had his kids try out his camping equipment in their basement once. And of course, that is what’s beautiful about writing for young people: where they go on that camping trip in their imagination is much more dynamic than getting out even on the San Juan Islands, which is near my house. Because it’s in their imaginations, so it can be anywhere.”

Especially when your brand-new camping gear is a birthday gift, you’re in a strange haunted house for the first time in your life… and there’s a smartphone app your dad bought you that makes your whole camping adventure come alive!

So that’s the downstairs core of the Second Story Project. From time to time, Dad calls down from upstairs, making sure the kids are settled in and sending down snacks. The two plays interconnect with those conversations – we only see Dad in The Great Beyond – and there are key props that will be common to both of Dietz’s eerie dramas.

Upstairs, where the séance happens, the parents are having a dinner reunion after a great family loss, and we learn why the kids have never visited this house before. For Dietz, there was a unique benefit in crafting his two new plays as a matched set.

“Writing [Splinter Cove] taught me about those kids’ parents,” Dietz remarks. “In any other play I’ve ever written, they would just be offstage characters. This process doesn’t have offstage characters, really. They have characters onstage at the other theater.”

And they’re not necessarily alive. Bwa-ha-ha!

Hook, Tink, and the Croc All Chomp Scenery in Bonnefoux’s Merry “Peter Pan”

Review:  Peter Pan

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Swordfights and kidnapping are still part of the action in Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux’s scenario for Peter Pan, and the choreographer hasn’t stinted on the services of Flying by Foy when Peter takes Wendy and her sibs back and forth from Neverland. If you thought the musical version of James M. Barrie’s beloved fantasy injected a little hambone into the villainous Captain Hook, you’ll marvel at how completely this Charlotte Ballet production slathers him in it – with extra dollops divvied out to Tinker Bell and Hook’s menacing nemesis, The Croc.

Bonnefoux first unveiled his choreography in 2004, celebrating the centennial of Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow, and the current run at Knight Theater marks the third time the comedy has been revived since then. With a score that is top-heavy with Rossini overtures, the mood never grows somber enough for Tink to nobly drink Peter’s poisoned milk – or for Wendy to take an arrow from the Lost Boys on her Neverland arrival.

It’s more about dancing and fun, so I’m hoping pickets and protests won’t be organized because Hook cut Wendy free and danced with her after she was abducted to his pirate ship. That was not the first nor the last of the bizarre pairings and tableaus occasioned by Bonnefoux’s mischievous reshaping of Barrie’s characters. While still quite diaphanous and elegant as Tinker Bell, Sarah Hayes Harkins expanded on her jealousy toward Wendy to the point of pugnacity, also targeting Tiger Lily for her adorable aggression. Over and over, the Wendy-Peter-Tiger Lily pas-de-trois was disrupted by Harkins’ interventions and comical assaults. Making Tink more flirtatious chimed well with that profile, though we the audience bore the brunt of Harkins’ simpering.

As Bonnefoux shows us again and again, crocs also want to have more fun. It’s not just terrorizing Hook that delighted Jared Sutton as Crocodile (along with a half dozen Baby Crocodiles, students from the Charlotte Ballet Academy), he barged into the celebratory dance of Peter, Wendy, Tink, and Tiger Lily, joining their merry reel. Having stolen that scene, Sutton chomped down another with a solo display capped by a moonwalk across the downstage. Most heretical – and inspired – of all Bonnefoux’s innovations, when the heraldic trumpets sounded in the mighty “William Tell Overture,” the Croc got a hold of…

Nah, I shouldn’t give it away.

New set designs by Howard Jones and costume makeovers by A. Christina Giannini were commissioned for the 2013 relaunch of the Bonnefoux choreography. Maybe city fire marshals confiscated the bridge for the Baby Crocs to cross the orchestra pit, but otherwise, the new Jones sets still look fresh and new. I’m not at all sure Giannini hasn’t fussed some more with the costumes, for I no longer see the Croc as a green major domo, and Peter looks sufficiently bland and sporty to have done his clothes shopping at J.C. Penney.

The traditional foppery has vanished from Hook’s attire, so the pirate king now seems modeled after the “fantastical” oddness we associate with Petruchio in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Dancing without outerwear as Hook, Drew Grant still stood apart from his pirate crew, not an easy achievement when some are S&M females, crossing over from foppery to outright effeminacy to get the job done. For brash hambone outrageousness, Grant far outdistanced Harkins, vying with Sutton for top honors. One of the many ankelbiters in the audience was laughing uncontrollably at some of Grant’s opening night antics, a sure sign that he was on to something.

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The dramatic characters, while shamelessly upstaged, were beautifully danced. Josh Hall sparkled with innocent arrogance as Peter Pan, smilingly sure he was the envy of all, and Alessandra Ball James gracefully straddled the borderline between girlishness and pubescence as Wendy, projecting genuine wonder and joy in taking flight for the first time – of course, there was no lingering tedium from doing it over and over in rehearsals!

There was no ambiguity at all about the womanhood of Raven Barkley as Tiger Lily, charmingly shedding her petals before she danced her tropical solo. Discreetly, Bonnefoux and Giannini have adhered to political correctness, so we now have 18 Incas in Tiger Lily’s train instead of Native Americans. Unlike the Crocs and the Butterflies, none of the Incas are cute little children, another instance of Bonnefoux’s taste and wisdom.

The Incas and Sutton as the Croc are the only dancers in the show who are single-cast. All four of the matinees – and one of the remaining four evening performances – will be performed by a second cast. Part of the spectacle spills over into the Knight Theater lobby, where there is plenty of Pan, Hook, and Wendy swag on sale. My mom and I were obliged to halt in the lobby upon our arrival until a line of kids and parents got to experience their photo op in front of the stylish Charlotte Ballet background. You could pose for a camera holding various printed placards with appropriate Neverland quips and slogans.

I only had to explain – confirm, really – one aspect of the show to Mom, which takes me to the remaining comical character, Ben Ingel as Shadow. Ingel cavorts with Harkins’ Tink in the Darling children’s bedroom before Hall arrives as Peter, emerging from under one of the little brothers’ beds to shadow Tink before Peter claims him. Obviously, there’s a pre-history that would need to be explained to any child who isn’t already familiar with the story. I’m glad that Bonnefoux left this episode in his scenario, because for once it allows Wendy and Peter to be a part of the comedy.

Ball, officiously sewing as Wendy, and Hall, squirming and feeling the needle as Peter, made a full three-course meal of the ceremony, and the audience caught up by the time Wendy’s needlework was done. A vanishing act by Ingel and a well-aimed spotlight by lighting designer Jennifer Propst underscored what it had all been about, and of course, Propst was also up to the dramatic moment we all remember from childhood: when the big windows of the Darlings’ bedroom magically spread open and Peter Pan flew into our imaginations for the first time, never to leave.

A Jamaican Fantasy With a Reggae Beat

Review: Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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Reggae lovers and mavens are flocking – I repeat, flocking! – to Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an eye-popping, shoulder-dipping new musical at ImaginOn. Studded with golden favorites from the Marley songbook and adapted by Michael J. Bobbitt from a story by the reggae king’s daughter, Cedella Marley, this Children’s Theatre of Charlotte production is all about spreading joy and living life zestfully.

Or it is when Bobbitt can squeeze story elements into the crevices of the 15-number reggaethon – some of which are medleys. Cedella turns up as a character in this story, but action revolves around her son Ziggy, an 11-year-old who spends his days huddled at the TV because he’s scared of hurricanes and an encounter with Duppy, a mischievous, malevolent spirit who preys on children’s hair.

Mixing sternness with genuine concern, Cedella shoos her pouting Ziggy out of the house and attempts to pair him with their next-door neighbor, Nansi, who obviously adores him. She urges him to enjoy life! On an errand to bring back water from the town, Ziggy discovers that there really isn’t a hurricane threat when the sun is shining brightly (or sticking its tongue out), that a kiss from Nansi ain’t so bad, and that he has the necessary courage and cunning to face up to his fears, Duppy in particular.

Along the way, three not-so-little birds offer friendship, guidance, and song to Ziggy – and additional solace to Cedella, since one of these creatures has been haunting Ziggy’s window sill and giving extra meaning to the phrase “dropping by.” Between the hiking, the singing, and the chattering, there are mangoes falling occasionally from a tree that overarches Tim Parati’s fantastical set, reminding us that Duppy and his conjuring powers are on the scene, eyeing Ziggy’s beautiful dreadlocks.

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I’d be able to go in somewhat greater detail were it not for the dad sitting next to me, singing along to nearly all the Marley golden oldies and answering all his adorable anklebiter’s questions, whether she asked them or not. Formality is not the vibe at McColl Family Theater at this show. Opening up interaction between the actors and the audience, director Shondrika Moss-Bouldin has closed off both entrances to the theater at the lobby level, obliging us to enter through the mezzanine.

Avenues between the stage are now so direct and level that a toddler can easily cross over to this Jamaican fantasyland without a challenging climb. One of the ensemble members, in fact, came out and plucked a toddler from the crowd and invited her to join in on the dancing onstage. Other kids in the audience were swept into the dancing spirit, and the thrust configuration of the stage turned a few who were grooving in the front rows into instant dancing-with-the-stars celebs.

Everybody was friendly to the crowd, even Jeremy DeCarlos, our scheming and stealthy Duppy. Considering his haggard bedraggled look – think the old crone in Disney’s Snow White – and his multitudinous dreads, ingratiating himself with the tots was no small feat. The Duppy rig conjured up for DeCarlos was barely the beginning of costume designer Jason Kyle Estrada’s exploits. Lead fowl Doctor Bird’s get-up features an upturned fluorescent green jacket and a complementary hipster cap.

Oh yeah, Doctor Bird also drops some knowledge. B’s erudition includes a narration of Jamaica’s colonial history, obliging all other birds on deck, DeCarlos, and Ericka Ross as Cedella to slip into varied frilly and conquistador outfits. Ross’s role nearly matches Duppy’s for pluminess. We find out as much about Cedella as we do about Ziggy, for she’s supporting the family by selling her tasty Jamaican jerk chicken to tourists – and she’s wise to the charm that can disarm Duppy of his power. Delivering all that flavor and lore, Ross also speaks with the heaviest accent.

Rahsheem Shabazz absolutely slays as Doctor Bird, and his accent is also competitive. While there are many studio and concert recordings of the Marley tunes on the Three Birds playlist, none that I’ve heard so far really match what I heard from Shabazz. Or DeCarlos. Or Ross. Led by music director Charlene Miranda Thomas at the keyboard, the Children’s Theatre versions are livelier and more colorful to my ears. By comparison, Bob’s tempos plod.

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Take that sacrilegious assessment as my assurance that you will not be disappointed with any of the Thomas-led covers. Musically, Garrick Vaughan as Ziggy is a late arrival to the party – demonstrating that, if you’re a central character who quails at the prospect of living, Bob Marley wasn’t the man to write your songs. Vaughan’s mopey role also means that he draws the short straw among Estrada’s splendiferous costumes.

These constraints on Vaughan aren’t because he is really 11 years old. When Bobbitt finally decrees that Ziggy sings, watch out. Vaughan may have the strongest voice in the cast. A lighter, folksier touch would land him more squarely in the reggae groove. As the would-be girlfriend Nansi, Kayla Simone Ferguson is kept busy enough, teasing Ziggy and moonlighting in other guises, but so far, I’m most impressed by her rapport with the kiddies.

Janeta Jackson is an established commodity at Children’s Theatre, having starred – and flown – in last season’s stunning Mary Poppins. She doesn’t get to go full throttle or reach such heights as Tacoomah, our second bird and British colonial, but she reinforces how deep and professional this dazzling production is. Apparently, word has spread swiftly among the Marley faithful. Boogie on!

Cherokee Anguish Upstages “Sleeping Beauty” in Symphony Concert

Review:  Sleeping Beauty

By Perry Tannenbaum

We’ve had a copious amount of Russian music from Charlotte Symphony this year. Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade headlined the first two classics concerts of 2019, and Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty suite is continuing the trend. Even after Symphony emerged from their annual retreat in the Belk Theater pit with Charlotte Ballet’s production of Nutcracker, subscribers do not seem to tire of this steady Russian diet.

The presumption may be that we’ll see better attendance if the featured piece is Russian rather than American, old-style rather than new. Sleeping Beauty wasn’t as long as Michael Daugherty’s Trail of Tears concerto or as new as Aaron Copland’s more familiar Billy the Kid suite, which kicked off the evening. Nor was it played with the same verve at Knight Theater under the baton of guest conductor Joseph Young, who actually has educational, vocational and family ties in the Carolinas.

Principal flutist Victor Wang stepped downstage to play the solos in Daugherty’s concerto, deftly flutter-tonguing, overblowing, and producing multiphonics and glissandos – upstaging the marquee ballet suite that followed after intermission. In the context of the forced Cherokee migration carried out by the U.S. Army in 1838-39, pursuant to Indian Removal Act of 1830, the chord-like multiphonics and glissandos sounded like laments or nostalgic reflections, the overblowing sounded somber and contemplative like a Japanese shakuhachi flute, and the flutter-tonguing had a range of emotional connotations, submission one moment and terror at other times.

There was so much more to admire in Wang’s playing beyond the special effects, particularly in the lyrical middle movement “incantation” that followed the longer, more turbulent “where the wind blew free” section. You might wonder why the concluding “sun dance,” starting off so lightly, becomes as turbulent as the opening movement. Daugherty gives us a moving explanation in his program notes, reminding us that the religious dance ceremony of the Plains Indians was banned for a full century by the U.S. government.

While Wang had a clear path, consistently giving voice to the soul and anguish of Native Americans, Young had a more jagged course steering the orchestra. The delicate early percussion at the start of the outer movements – xylophone, harp, and piano – was obviously consonant with the flute, but the drums sent different signals. In the opening “wind blew free” movement, the snares cued the Trail of Tears march, taking on the role of the Army tormentors, but in the closing “dance,” the timpani were unmistakably tom-toms. Strings could also be mellow or suddenly abrasive as Young navigated this fascinating, bumpy trail.

Notwithstanding the timings provided in Symphony’s program booklet, the Sleeping Beauty suite was actually the shortest piece on the program. But there’s nothing at all sleepy about the opening episode of its opening movement. It should sound like we’ve been improbably dropped into the raucous section of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet fantasy overture where the composer simulates the strife between the Montagues and the Capulets. Instead of medieval Verona or ancient fairyland, the orchestra sounded more like contemporary Vegas – or a carryover of Daugherty’s prairie.

When the music becalmed the brass bloomed, and the Tchaikovsky ballet style became recognizable, but rarely with the charm that Symphony radiates every December in Nutcracker. The grandeur of the Pas d’action didn’t quite wake up, and though I love the eerie foreboding sound of the Puss and Boots sketch, this performance didn’t deliver the predatory snap that should make it memorable. The shimmering magic of the “Panorama” section was mostly moribund until principal harpist Andrea Mumm Trammell gracefully soloed to close it out.

Symphony recovered its swagger to close the evening with the familiar Sleeping Beauty waltz, but this wasn’t the sort of piece that Peter Ilyich intended to climax an evening of ballet, let alone an evening of orchestral music. A lead-off spot would have been more appropriate. As it turned out, Copland’s Billy the Kid suite vied with Trail of Tears as the best performance on this night.

Amy Orsinger Whitehead ably took over the flute chair while Wang waited in the wings, leading a volley of wind solos sounding Copland’s recurring “Open Prairie” theme, followed by principal clarinet Taylor Marino, principal oboe Hollis Ulaky, and French hornist Byron Johns. Pounding the timpani, acting principal Ariel Zaviezo Arriagada signaled the onset of the “Gun Battle,” but this dark episode didn’t eclipse the sunny impression made by Erinn Frechette, merrily playing the piccolo solo when we reached Copland’s “Frontier Town.”

With players of this caliber – and the zest that Young brought to this repertoire – I daresay that even Symphony’s stodgy subscribers would have been better pleased by an All-American evening. Whether they would have attended is a different question.