Much of the Ambiance Is Trimmed from “A Time to Kill,” but the Mississippi Murder Trial Still Sizzles

Review:  A Time to Kill

By Perry Tannenbaum

Rupert Holmes has built a distinguished theatre career – and carved out his own special niche – by crafting mysteries for the Broadway stage. His Accomplice won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America when it played on Broadway in 1990, and after his Thumbs premiered successfully in Charlotte, it seemed Broadway-bound in 2001. Holmes’ most unique accomplishments are his two mystery musicals, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, adapted from Charles Dickens’ unfinished novel, and Curtains, a Holmes original. So it’s not at all surprising that Holmes would be the first playwright to adapt a John Grisham bestseller for the stage when he brought A Time to Kill to the Great White Way in 2013. As the current Theatre Charlotte production demonstrates, adapting Grisham’s first novel for the stage was a tall order.

Admitting that film would be a more comfortable medium for this story, director Dave Blamy conspires with set and lighting designer Chis Timmons to wedge in some clips, prefacing the action with evocations of a horrific rape of a 10-year-old girl and, deep in the story, flashing the handiwork of the Ku Klux Klan on the darkened upstage wall. From the outset, you can presume that Timmons’ design for Judge Edwin Noose’s Mississippi courtroom isn’t going anywhere. It is so sturdy and stately that you may be tempted to rise when the judge enters to launch Act 1. But Timmons manages to swivel the entire courtroom 90° during intermission, adding a sidecar to the judge’s bench that serves – somewhat shakily – as a witness box. When we adjourned to the judge’s chamber, other parts of the courthouse, or defense attorney Jake Brigance’s home, there were discreet furniture shifts while the lights were dimmed. They worked well enough.

Unfortunately, Grisham’s canvas is larger. Though we watch Billy Ray Cobb and Pete Willard confess to the rape and attempted murder of little Tonya in vivid Mississippi detail, we never see her father, Carl Lee Hailey, taking vengeance upon these perverts. Thanks to Christy Edney Lancaster’s sound design, we can hear the chants of protesters outside the courthouse when Carl Lee goes on trial for murder, but we cannot see the mob’s fury. When hostilities break out between black supporters of the defendant and KKK racists, we’re shielded from the riot, and when the National Guard moved in… I wasn’t sure that was even mentioned in the script.

Clocking in at a hefty 2:17, plus a 20-minute intermission, the production won’t seem skimpy at all. Instead of any prolonged attention to the KKK, Holmes takes us more intently into Jake’s defense efforts behind the scenes, bringing extra emphasis to whip-smart legal assistant Ellen Roark, disbarred attorney Lucien Wilbanks, and the pillar of the defense’s case, Dr. W.T. Bass. The psychiatrist is recruited for the purpose of confirming that Carl Lee committed the double murder while suffering from temporary insanity, but it quickly became apparent that Wilbanks had made Bass’s acquaintance in a barroom during one of his frequent sprees. For better and worse, suspense and thrills now rest on the outcome of the trial, not on the survival of Carl and Jake in the face of KKK mob mentality. We’re also called upon to hate district attorney Rufus Buckley a little bit more, for his smarmy courtroom confidence and his undisguised political ambitions.

A slick, relatively bloodless package like this would have worked better if it were performed more slickly. Blamy pushes in that direction, but Grisham’s main characters are defined by their back-stories, and their development is further hampered by the formality that legal proceedings – arraignments, pleadings, motions, and trials – impose on dialogue. All combined, the length, formality, and pervasive legalese of A Time to Kill may account for the fact that actors were stumbling over their lines more frequently on this opening night than at any show I can remember at Theatre Charlotte.

Best at handling it was Jim Greenwood, who managed to add a bumbling element to Judge Noose’s crusty old persona. The opposing attorneys, both superbly cast, didn’t break character when struggling for their next phrases, but I could detect definite cracks. Tasked with sustaining a villainous patina, Conrad Harvey was more afflicted by these lapses as the DA, but all was well when he hopped back onto the rails and he flashed his Trumpian smile to the jury. Wonderfully loathsome. Costume designer Chelsea Retalic probably had Atticus Finch in mind when she drew up Jake’s courtroom attire for Tim Hager and the analogy was often apt when Hager grew simply eloquent. But he’d be better off drawing upon Jake’s fallibility when he falters.

Hager was at his best when Jake in maneuvering behind the scenes. Wheeling and dealing are not his style. Steadfast in his beliefs, Hager seemed to get that Jake wasn’t as comfortable in his skin as those surrounding him. As the brainy, beautiful, and ambitious Roark, Jennifer Barnette knew exactly what the legal assistant wants from her gig with Jake and why she finds him attractive. Both Tom Schrachta as Lucien and Rick Taylor as Dr. Bass projected their dissoluteness without too much exaggeration – but more than enough to merit Jake’s alarm – and both of them get tasty opportunities to sober up. Neither of them missed the comical lagniappe that came with their changes.

With so much of the Mississippi ambiance trimmed away like so much gristle, it was a godsend that the black players were all so right. Ronald Jenkins registered Sheriff Ozzie Walls’ conflicted loyalties beautifully, as committed to protecting Carl Lee and seeing that justice is done as he was to keeping his prisoner in custody. As a vengeful father, thoughtless husband, and a somewhat immature man, Jonathan Caldwell had a lot of different feelings to navigate as Carl Lee, from savage rage to sheepish regret, but he wisely stayed steadfast in his belief that murdering those two bragging racists was the right thing. Yet there was deep understanding in Tracie Frank’s portrayal of Gwen Hailey, Carl’s wife. Carl defies her when he chooses Jake to defend him instead of the NAACP, who are willing to come in and do it without a fee. Frank was out there alone to give Carl Lee’s defiance substantial weight. Without Frank’s steely strength, Jake’s victory – and Carl Lee’s vindication for choosing him – wouldn’t have been as sweet. Her quiet acknowledgement seals the verdict.

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Actor’s Theatre Brings The Mountaintop Down to Earth – So It Can Soar

Review:  The Mountaintop

By Perry Tannenbaum

Barely a minute before the end of his final speech at the Masonic Temple in Memphis, supporting striking sanitation workers and hurling defiance at injunctions against their protest marches, Rev. Martin Luther King grew famously prophetic. He told his people, hours before he would be assassinated that, like Moses, he had climbed to “the mountaintop” where he could see the Promised Land, and – like Moses – he might not get there with them when they arrived.

In her 2009 drama, , playwright Katori Hall follows King beyond that pinnacle to Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel where the civil rights champion spent his final night on April 3, 1968. She goes to great lengths to show the iconic Nobel Prize winner as a mundane human being. He’s not above fretting about the size of his audience, frolicking in a pillow fight, bumming smokes from a hotel maid and flirting with her, lying to his wife, and failing to wash his hands after he pees. His socks need darning, and his feet are smelly.

There are things to be admired about this approach when you watch the current Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte production directed by April Jones at Hadley Theater on the Queens College campus. Unlike the Blumenthal Performing Arts production at Booth Playhouse in 2014, which pushed back a little against the notion that King was humdrum, Gerard Hazelton is more comfortable with Hall’s irreverence toward the Reverend, letting us see that King had some personal charm and self-awareness to go along with his oratorical magnificence.

Hazelton’s charm combats the threat of King being upstaged by the housemaid. Certainly an attention grabber, Camae is energetic, nervous, somewhat alluring, and very much in the mold of Clarence in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life: sent – and incentivized – from above. Hall is no less irreverent toward divinity and Christianity than she is toward MLK, allowing the Almighty to take a break from Her busy day to take a phone call from Room 306.

Perhaps afflicted with some real nerves on opening night, Erica Truesdale unintentionally shielded Hazelton further from being upstaged when she first entered, rushing her lines past the point of intelligibility. If you clock the show, you might be shocked to see that runtime is 85 minutes instead of the 105 minutes promised in the playbill, but that is only a minute or two quicker than timings clocked at Booth Playhouse and the 2011 Broadway production. So the big problem isn’t pacing, although repeated rehearsals could have convinced Jones that her players needed to make a beeline through the mundane section of the script to reach the divine and visionary sections as quickly as possible.

You’ll find that set designer Chip Decker and lighting designer Hallie Gray might also be chafing against the drabness of an entire show set in a motel room devoid of luxury. Decker adds a cheesy marquee to simulate a chunk of the motel’s exterior, and Gray brings up the lights way beyond what we’d expect from a couple of lamps, adding some cheer. Toward the end, Decker dons his video designer hat and, working with Andrew Sargent, explodes the action in a manner that still reminds me of Picasso at the Lapin Agile.

By that time, Truesdale had settled in and had long since been operating near the top of her game. We only find out what that is when Hall’s script belatedly reaches lift-off. At that point, it’s quite exciting to see Hazelton and Truesdale hitting on all cylinders. The teamwork pays off from the moment that Martin sees through Camae’s disguise, a moment that came through more clearly for me than it had at Booth Playhouse four years ago.

Hall never plumbs the true depths of King’s character. Nor – as August Wilson might have done – does she contemplate his significance within the totality of the African American diaspora. Yet despite her apparent irreverence toward MLK and accepted gospel, Hall winds up mythologizing her protagonist in very apt fashion.

Everybody doesn’t get an envoy to prepare him or her for the afterlife. King draws a rookie, so the initiation becomes a little slipshod – until the end, when we can see a biblical design. Like Moses, MLK is granted a vision of his people’s progress that his final speech affirmed so confidently and defiantly. He beholds it with us from a vantage point that confirms that he belongs on mountaintops. Like, say, Rushmore.

After a Disconcerting Alarm, Charlotte Ballet’s “Most Incredible Thing” Runs Like Clockwork

Review:  The Most Incredible Thing

By  Perry Tannenbaum

After watching the YouTube video of choreographer Javier de Frutos’ adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Most Incredible Thing in its original 2011 Sadler’s Wells production, I had to wonder how much of this dazzling spectacle Charlotte Ballet artistic director Hope Muir could deliver at Knight Theater. Although villainous Karl the Destroyer was danced by Ivan Putrov in London with devastating panache, and Clemmie Sveaas as the Princess – offered along with half the kingdom by her father, The King, to the creator of the most incredible thing – was a marvel of spasmodic anguish, I had little doubt that their American counterparts, Anson Zwingelberg and Chelsea Dumas, would shine as brightly. My doubts centered on Knight Theater itself.

Incorporating so many movable set pieces by Katrina Lindsay (who also designed costumes), studded with challenging video installations to accommodate film and animation by Tal Rosner, The Most Incredible Thing would test the Knight’s capabilities beyond anything I’d witnessed there since the facility opened in 2009, including The Aluminum Show, Momix, Avenue Q, and Peter and the Starcatcher. To be honest, The Most Incredible Thing is more collaborative and ambitious than most full-length ballets or even new operas, for it has so much more baked into it than the de Frutos choreography and an original score by the Pet Shop Boys, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe. Film and animation have to be delivered – onto screens and scrims – with even more pinpoint accuracy than the dancing.

Ominously, the opening night performance and the ensuing Saturday matinee were canceled “due to mechanical failure.” Announcements appeared at the Charlotte Ballet website, on the company’s Twitter account, and on their Facebook page – the latter time-stamped at 5:07pm on the evening of the performance. So until I took my seat at the Saturday evening performance, I really hadn’t known that I was attending the opening night of the American premiere of The Most Incredible Thing. An usher delivered the news instead of Charlotte Ballet’s PR rep. There was a bit more tension and drama to this performance than I had anticipated!

As it turned out, the most significant modifications that I noticed in Act One appeared to result from deliberate changes by de Frutos to his choreography and Zwingelberg’s approach to Karl. In contrast with Putrov’s charismatic take on Karl, reminding me of vintage Baryshnikov and Lucas Steele’s recent Broadway portrayal of Prince Anatol in Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, Zwingelberg was more angular and Machiavellian, his eyes blackened to emphasize his menace. Yet perhaps nodding to the fact that his piece now occupies a slot in Charlotte Ballet’s season normally filled by such fairy fluff as Cinderella and Peter Pan, de Frutos has softened Karl somewhat so that he no longer brutalizes his henchmen before his abortive attempt to seduce The Princess.

Instead of a talking TV emcee entering with a hand-held microphone, the Charlotte Ballet version has Sarah Lapointe mutely dancing the role in sync with the Emcee’s prerecorded patter. The entire staging of The King’s contest is radically altered, with silhouetted contestants projected on a centerstage scrim and new video supplanting some of the original views of the judges (carried over from the Sadler’s Wells version in its quaint silent film black-and-white). Instead of hundreds of hopefuls vying for The Princess’s hand, the cosmic number of contestants rises well past 10 billion as the video fades out.

All of these alterations work remarkably well, but what brought us more grandly to intermission was the decision to delay the break until after Leo the Creator, already backed and beloved by The Princess, demonstrates his miraculous watch. As the watchmaker, Josh Hall abandons the tortured artist mien of the London protagonist in favor of a more wholesome interpretation – the miraculous watch springs to life from his hands as a phenomenal wonder even to himself rather than as an agonizing pang of giving birth. And the Rosner video, interspersed with live dancing, is an undeniable wonder.

Rising and falling while constantly displaying the steady flow of animations, the huge clock proves to be an electronic video screen rather than a cloth projection screen, maybe the largest circular TV that I’ve ever seen, including the movie version of The Wizard of Oz. Blowing away at least half of Andersen’s concept of what each digit on the clock represents, de Frutos and Rosner make it a retrospective of all human history, beginning with Adam as 1 and Eve as 2. Lindsay gets into the act here with skimpier costumes for Adam and Eve that paradoxically supply their full names instead of their initials, and when we reach 4 o’clock, she abets de Frutos’s altered choreography by labeling the dancers’ slacks with the names of the four seasons, adding clarity to the previously abstract episode.

Even as de Frutos contrives to make this Charlotte Ballet version more family-friendly, the watchmaker’s demo grows majestically in power during its second half. Echoing the “Big Spender” number from Sweet Charity, the depiction of the Seven Deadly Sins, also newly labeled, featured seven sultry female dancers – some of whom were actually men in red wigs – with white-gloved “Fosse hands.” Eight was a play on the musical octave that not everyone will catch onto, and 9 o’clock signaled the presentation of prenatal video, referencing the months of pregnancy.

Ten was the last borrowing from Andersen, presenting the Ten Commandments, with ten dancers splayed around Moses shifting their formations as an overhead view of them flashed on the clockface. From there, we blasted off to video of Apollo 11 and man’s first walk on the moon. With a Zarathustra-like swell in the musical score, 12 climaxed Leo’s demonstration by summing it all up – with some 300 names of great artists flashing onto the screen to underscore the overall theme of creation.

Emerging from Knight Theater for the single intermission (three acts have been reconfigured into two), I had no doubt that what I’d already seen far eclipsed the technical sophistication of any show previously presented at that venue. In fact, Matthew Bourne’s ballyhooed adaptation of The Red Shoes, which toured Charlotte back in October at Belk Theater, seemed puny in its technical ambitions by comparison and clumsy in its storytelling. Everything ran with nearly absolute precision at Knight Theater, so it was reasonable to assume that all “mechanical failure” had been conquered. Nor were there any indications that last-minute alterations were necessitated anywhere in Act Two, when Leo’s happily-ever-after victory in the contest was dramatically detoured – but not ultimately destroyed – by Karl the Destroyer. Karl ambushes the lovebirds backstage, seizes and destroys Leo’s miraculous watch, and the contest judges, consulting their rules, have to declare that destroying the most incredible thing is more prizeworthy than creating it.

When the kingdom falls into a desperate gloom after this twist of events, the lighting motif by designer Lucy Carter is still a lurid red, but most of the bloody elements of the video depicting the devastation have been discreetly muted or removed. On the other hand, when the Three Muses who helped inspire the marvelous clock return to rebuild it, they now have supersized scissors to cut the villain into bits and spring Leo from prison. All of this magic and good fortune – with encore video on the big clock – is crowned with a joyous wedding celebration. The regimented citizens who had previously danced robotically back and forth to their places at a long table now tossed confetti with equal precision at the wedding. On Saturday, that was the only hazardous scene in the entire show, for Hall nearly slipped on the confetti afterwards when he trotted out to take his bows.

The battle between divine creativity and brute force plays out beautifully in this edgy extravaganza, the Tennant-Lowe score nearly as nuanced as the de Frutos choreography. In her starring role, Dumas mostly dances hostile pas de deuxs with Karl or her father, relaxing and showing her potential for joy only intermittently with Leo. Her black wedding with Karl is the deepest thing in the piece, for it is here that de Frutos taps into the heart of his scenario, linking the robotic citizens of the despotic kingdom with the incredible watch that might ultimately liberate them. In this black wedding, there are moments when the women circle around the men like arms of a clock, Karl towering above them all, and there’s a sequence when we see couples dancing in place, moving around each other like wooden brides and grooms on a medieval town clock tolling the hour. We were not only seeing a somber variant on the townspeople’s precision movement but a foreshadowing of the miraculous return of Leo’s clock.

The supporting roles were all superbly danced, including Sarah Lapointe as Emcee, Drew Grant as Adam, and Raven Barkley as Eve. Anyone seeing Charlotte Ballet for the first time will not be surprised to learn that each of the Three Muses – Amelia Sturt-Dilley as Concentration, Sarah Hayes Harkins as Love, and Alessandra Ball James as Courage – has danced leading roles for the company in the past. As the kingdom’s drones, Karl’s henchmen, and numerous other cameos, 18 other members of Charlotte Ballet and Charlotte Ballet II also populate the stage. Almost as impressive in this complex collaboration, they frequently act as stagehands, setting up, disassembling, or merely reconfiguring scenery pieces and scrims so that this sensory assault never drifts out of sync with the Pet Shop Boys’ prerecorded soundtrack. The Most Incredible Thing may be the most hyped title you’ll ever encounter, but this Charlotte Ballet production often made it seem like a casual description. Despite the alarm of its sudden opening night cancellation, it was running like clockwork the following evening, far more vivid and moving in live performance than on YouTube.

©2018 – CVNC.org

“Waitress” Frequently Betrays Its Southern Heart With Loudness and Silliness

Review:  Waitress

Waitress the Musical

By Perry Tannenbaum

Like the gentle raindrop patter of its opening song, “Sugar… butter…water,” the musical adaptation of Waitress promises a delicious, delicate, and transient chemistry that sensitively parallels the formation and breakup of romantic relationships. As the motif repeats in the music and lyrics of Sara Bareilles’s score, we get some extras from its troubled protagonist. Jenna not only waits tables at Joe’s Pie Shop, she also bakes the pies. And she not only falls in and out of love, she also experiences personal growth through the alchemy of motherhood.

Unfortunately, delicacy and sensitivity pretty much run dry in Jessie Nelson’s adaptation of Adrienne Shelly’s screenplay after they’ve been lavishly applied to Jenna. Earl, Jenna’s husband, is about as toxic a redneck as you could imagine, a brutal grungy sponge who gets one song to match his one dimension. Jenna’s two waitress cronies are sunnier, to be sure, but hardly more rounded: Dawn is kooky, mousy, and shy, contrasting with the swaggering and smart-ass Becky.

Waitress the Musical

All three waitresses have man problems, and all three will wind up with new men. Along the way, Jenna and Becky can commiserate on the folly of having sex with your husband while Dawn is hooking up with Ogie, who is even weirder than she is, presumably because she has cured his shyness in five minutes or less. As Ogie, Jeremy Morse draws the liveliest song of the evening, “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me.” But as if to punish Morse for this goofball showstopper, Bareilles later saddles him with “I Love You Like a Table,” which is every bit as silly as its title.

The folly of having sex with her husband sends a ready-to-puke Jenny to the ladies’ room, where she and her co-workers await the results of a store-bought pregnancy test. Gloomy with the news that she’s having Earl’s child, Jenna soon appears at her gynecologist’s office bearing one of her most special pies as a gift – only to learn that the woman has retired, replaced by Dr. Pomatter, an agreeably awkward new man in town. We know what will happen between the two of them before they do, and Maiesha McQueen, in a comical cameo as his Nurse Norma, gets to swipe a couple of Jenna’s subsequent gift pies.

Waitress the Musical

Although Earl berates her pie-making, Jenna schemes to escape him and his bullying, tucking away some of her tip money so she can take the train to a statewide baking contest where her pies could win her a $20,000 prize and a new life. Dr. P and Nurse Norma seem to be the biggest fans of Jenna’s daily specials, yet she also gets encouragement from her best customer back at the shop, Joe himself. But the backbone she needs to finally stand up to Earl must come from within.

Desi Oakley manages to keep Waitress grounded even when Bareilles’s songs and Nelson’s outré characters take us away from the story’s countrified Southern heart. After extended absences, an irresistible country twang enriches Oakley’s voice and we’re back home. Maybe she’s a tad too beautiful for this pie-making savant, but when Oakley sings “She Used to Be Mine” deep in Act 2, Jenna’s journey is laid bare and she sounds genuinely fed up with her recurring mistakes.

Among the other characters, only Joe sounds capable of comparable introspection, and Larry Marshall makes the pie fancier’s “Take It from an Old Man” another highlight. Dr. Pomatter reaches maximum depth when he urges Jenna to teach him the rudiments of making pies. More often, Bryan Fenkart is called upon to emphasize the furtive and fun-filled regions of romance, light on the comedy because he’s a physician and light on the intimacy because he’s married.

Bryan Fenkart and Desi Oakley in the National Tour of WAITRESS 1 Credit Joan Marcus 0054r.jpg

The first of Fenkart’s three duets with Oakley, “It Only Takes a Taste,” is undoubtedly the best, but none of them match the country flavor of the three waitresses when they harmonize. “Opening Up” is the yummiest of these trios, but Lenne Klingaman as Dawn and Charity Angel Dawson as Becky each gets a chance to shine alone. Nervous before first date – in approximately forever – Klingaman has a better vehicle in Dawn’s “When He Sees Me” than Dawson’s defiant “I Didn’t Plan It” when she slips into an extramarital romance.

Of the two brutes in the story, Ryan G. Dunkin was by far the most benign as Cal, the pie shop manager. After fuming about his crew’s tardiness and threatening to fire Becky, the biker beast turns out to have a soft side. Though Earl begs Jenna not to leave him at one point, it’s an inexplicable lapse in his customary physical intimidation and verbal abuse, so I quickly found myself dreading every scene where Nick Bailey showed up as Jenna’s noxious husband.

The heavy-handedness of this touring production doesn’t altogether vanish when Bailey exits, for the soundbooth, more often not, overmikes the singers onstage, especially the women. When there was actual exposition involved, as when Jenna reminisced about her upbringing in “What Baking Can Do,” I couldn’t get the gist live and needed to catch up at home with Spotify. On the other hand, the six-piece band led onstage by John Miller was very tight, and while the lighting by Ken Billington could have benefitted from more variety, set designs by Scott Pask whisked us smartly from one smalltown location to another.

Before curtain-rise, a huge cherry pie with crisscrossed dough on top filled the stage at Belk Theater all the way up to the proscenium, and the near-capacity crowd on opening night was inclined to eat it all up. Waitress will hit your tastebuds with down-home delight if you downsize your expectations.

Lucia Stetson Brings a Regal, Enigmatic “Evita” to CP

Review: Evita

By Perry Tannenbaum

There isn’t a superabundance of melody in Evita, but when composer Andrew Lloyd Webber’s supply begins to run low, he deftly puts his few song lines, riffs, and strands of recitative into a spin cycle, zigzagging through Spanish, Latin, and jazz idioms. Or he might shift tempos for a reprise, shift the context for a song’s reprise that gives it new meaning, or simply drop in a replay.

More conspicuous is the lack of action complementing Tim Rice’s lyrics for a musical purporting to bring us the life and legend of Eva Perón, Argentina’s first lady during the presidency of Juan Perón. Much of this story is told through the cynical-yet-captivated eyes of fellow Argentinian Ché Guevara, beginning his narrative at Evita’s phenomenal state funeral. What Ché attempts to explain is how an obscure commoner from the boonies could become so beloved and venerated in the space of 33 years.

Less dramatic muscle, bone, and spectacle were baked into this 1976 opus than the sturdier Phantom of the Opera, which would be minted 10 years later. In previous Charlotte productions by Queen City Theatre Company (2010) and Theatre Charlotte (2003), small-scale design concepts reminded us that Evita is closer in Sir Andrew’s chronological development to the episodic Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat than his signature guignol. After all, only four major characters create the whole Argentine tapestry.

CPCC Theatre shoves Evita toward grandiosity at spacious Halton Theater, largely through the design wizardry of Robert Croghan. There is classic splendor to the iconic balcony scene at the Casa Rosada, and when Peronistas demonstrate in the streets for a “New Argentina,” Croghan drapes his set design with massive flags and banners scribbled with slogans that drop down from the Halton’s high flyloft.

Plenty of Croghan’s costume designs are of the peasant variety, but when it comes time for Evita to be dressed to the nines – or for the strongman Perón to luxuriate in the opulence of his bedroom – we can see what South American excess and corruption look like. Actors and audiences love this musical beyond its deserts, so director Tom Hollis could be expected to find a fine Evita to glitter in this excellent Halton setting. In Lucia Stetson, he has struck gold.

Or should we say silver, since that’s what Argentina is known and named for?

Along with her wardrobe, Stetson becomes more and more refined as she exploits one man after another in her climb to the top. The sassy arriviste of “Buenos Aires – Big Apple” turns imperious as Evita supplants Perón’s previous mistress, but we don’t see the first rays of sublimity until after intermission when she appears on the balcony of the presidential palace – aglow in Jeff Child’ lighting design – and sings the iconic “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.” Stetson does majestic even better than she does sass.

From that moment on, it’s up for grabs whether Evita is a saintly benefactor of the poor, Argentina’s beauteous ambassador to the world, or a corrupt, self-indulgent template for Imelda Marcos. Not only is there a tension between Che’s cynical jabs and the Peróns’ official line, there’s also an inscrutable quality to Stetson’s performance that blossoms naturally out of her majesty. Crowning that regality is Stetson’s star-quality singing, which makes everything believable – Evita’s vanity, her savvy, her belief in her own beneficence, and her physical frailty.

Sadly, Stetson was the only singer onstage at the Halton last Saturday night who was consistently intelligible. Whether it was their diction, their mics, or settings at the Halton’s notorious soundboard, Ron T. Diaz as Che and Robert Nipper as Perón struggled to be understood. Diaz started off well enough in the opening funeral scene, but when the orchestra grew loud behind him, the words and the narrative thread got lost, though Diaz’s voice and Che’s gadfly intensity still pierced through. He restores the rock intonations that Ricky Martin rejected in the most recent Broadway revival of 2012, and I recognized them like an old frenemy in all their original gusto.

Thuggish, conceited, and physically imposing, Nipper helps the “I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You” duet to sizzle with restrained sensuality and menace, as good a Perón as I’ve ever seen, with a robusto voice. If they’d fix the audio, his performance would likely join Stetson’s in the not-to-be-missed stratosphere.

Joel King as the crooner Magaldi, Evita’s small-town ticket to Buenos Aires, and Leana Guzman as Perón’s Mistress both satisfy in their respectively comical and pathetic cameos, and music director Drina Keen leads a fine 13-piece band in the pit. We don’t quite hear the volcanic eruption at the end of the symphonic “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” that would give us the lift of a true coronation, but the ensemble is sleek in the Latin-flavored sections of the score, and drummer Kyle Merck makes the military interludes a delight.

At the café where Evita enchants Magaldi and when Evita begins to move to the same music with Perón, choreographer Ron Chisholm makes the company and his principals look good. When the choruses of aristocrats and army soldiers join in berating “Perón’s Latest Flame,” one of numerous spots where we might perceive a disconnect between the music and the intended mood, Chisholm goes with the comical flow. So Argentina’s military struts like a regimented bunch of banana republic bumpkins.

Hardly a minute later, Perón considers running away from these buffoons to Paraguay. Guess he didn’t see them the same way. In that crucial moment, Evita becomes Lady Macbeth to keep him on track.

Landing the Next LeBron Is Just Step One in “King Liz”

Review: King Liz

By Perry Tannenbaum

Wheeling and dealing, trading on her feminine wiles, sports agent Liz Rico is a dynamic dynamo in Fernanda Coppel’s King Liz. To keep her edge, Liz has to lie and cheat, sweet-talk and scold, soothing some mighty male egos while knowing her shit better than any of them. She must fight tooth-and-claw for every client and every dollar while keeping her calculating cool.

In the heat of an NBA draft session, Liz hopes to land her hotshot high school point guard, Freddie Luna, with the New York Knicks. Playing all the contingencies, Liz makes promises to the New York Nets that she doesn’t intend keep, works the phone further to keep the Knicks interested, and fervently prays that some other team doesn’t mess up her schemes by snatching up her player – and ruining her cred with everybody she’s been dealing with.

Including her boss, Mr. Candy, who has been dangling the prospect of letting Liz take over the company when he retires.

After the draft, Liz’s trials have barely begun. Coach Jones isn’t on the same page as the Knicks’ GM on Freddie’s readiness for the NBA, so the rookie’s place in the starting lineup and his actual playing time are both unknowns. Further threatening Freddie’s marketability are the kid’s impoverished, violent past, his hair-trigger temper, his déclassé friends, and his inexperience in the media spotlight.

The current Three Bone Theatre production at Spirit Square has a couple of extra déclassé elements that don’t chime well with Coppel’s script. The first is Three Bone’s budget, which doesn’t allow set designer Ryan Maloney to come anywhere close to simulating the office at a high-powered sports agency that boasts such big-name clients as James Harden, Kevin Love, and Carmelo Anthony.

Though she undoubtedly has the power and charisma for the full range of King Liz, I sometimes felt that Shar Marlin needed to be more of a smooth operator to completely define her. Having directed Marlin’s stunning performance last year in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, director Corlis Hayes had to be supremely confident that this force of nature was equal to tackling Liz. But Hayes doesn’t altogether curb Marlin’s inclination to carry elements of the blues divas she has played – Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey – over to a more modern powerhouse who has the finesse to wow a boardroom.

I’m not sure that a big wheel like Liz needs to do quite so much yelling working the phones and bossing her assistant. Less would have counted more.

Granted, the streets and the projects loom large in Liz’s background, allowing her to empathize with Freddie, but if Marlin were finding them in Liz rather than Rainey, her manner would be more consistently elegant. Yet we need to acknowledge that Marlin nearly makes Liz a cohesive person despite the fact that Coppel makes her excessively chameleonic. Coppel does have that tendency. If you think Liz flits from persona to persona in the blink of an eye, wait to till you hear about her board of directors’ flipflops in the final scenes.

The script only takes us back to 2015, when Phil Jackson was GM at the Knicks, but Hayes manages to accent the #MeToo elements of the story, encouraging Tim Huffman to remain a blowhard as Mr. Candy while adding a sprinkling of Harvey Weinstein sleaziness. Costume designer Ramsey Lyric puts an exclamation point on Mariana Bracciale’s transformation as Gabby Fuentes, Liz’s ambitious assistant, making sure we see how much more willing she is to play ball with Candy.

Marlin fares better outside the office, strategically captivating Coach Jones without giving in or quashing his desires. Hooking Freddie and keeping him in line requires even more virtuosic hairpin turns from Liz, so Marlin gets to show the agent’s wiliness until Freddie breaks loose from her control, exposing her doubts and insecurities. He can’t control himself, so how can she?

Although Sultan Omar El-Amin doesn’t boast the physicality of a point guard sporting the stats of a latter-day LeBron James, he has proven himself to be a master of youthful roles that require resentfulness and volatility. Once we get past his lack of size, muscles, and tattoos, El-Amin grows on us, sparking empathy and frustration with equal force. Jermaine A. Gamble has played his share of brooding youths recently, so it’s gratifying to see how convincingly he ages here as Coach Jones, adding a hint of a limp to give his mellow pursuit of Liz extra poignancy. His put-downs of Freddie hardly qualify as tough love – kindness is an unaffordable luxury when your job with a perennial losing team is on the line.

The wildcard in Coppel’s scenario is Barbara Flowers, a TV host that Liz is counting on to help her repair Freddie’s damaged image after he goes off the rails at a postgame interview. Disdaining the obvious prompt to do a Barbara Walters imitation, Susan Ballard initially does give us the impression that Flowers will toss Freddie one softball question after another on her show as Liz and Coach Jones sit beside him, holding his hand. But when Flowers discards Liz’s playbook and goes rogue, Ballard makes her a hard-nosed journalist asking tough hardball questions, way beyond Walters cordiality and a fair distance beyond civility.

It’s in these interview scenes that Coppel’s penchant for abrupt surprises works best. Freddie has definite rough edges, but the media can grow cruel fangs when they smell blood. In a stressful stew of crisis and tantalizing ambitions, Liz must reassess the consequences of her goals and who she wants to be.

A Black Female Jerry Maguire Shows Up at a Perfect Moment

Preview: King Liz

By Perry Tannenbaum

Every couple of years, we flip our TV’s to the Olympics and bask in the illusion that women are vital, equal members of the sports world, ascending to the medals podiums and brightening our winters with their exploits in skiing, luge, and figure skating. Then the bubble bursts, the clock strikes midnight, and we exit Fantasyland into the drabness of real life where sports is a man’s world – until the summer games briefly rekindle the torch two years later.

Between Olympiads, women athletes are regarded as unmarketable, except for tennis players, soccer stars, figure skaters, and the elite basketballers of the marginalized WNBA. Couldn’t support a WNBA team here, could we? There are women broadcasting and reporting local sports all around the country, along with the occasional sideline TV reporter on national feeds, but no woman has ever sat behind the desk with the jocks and coaches for a halftime or postgame NFL broadcast – and networks broadcasting NBA games are also exclusive man caves when a game is in progress.

So triple bravas to Three Bone Theatre for opening Fernanda Coppel’s King Liz at precisely the right moment, during the Winter Games when a battery of TV networks is reminding us what women really can do in sports.

Coppel takes us off the NBA court, away from the broadcast booths and studios, behind the scenes and into the sphere of high-powered sports agents vying to represent topnotch b-ball prospects and squeeze team owners for top-dollar contracts. It’s an arena that requires smarts, guile, charisma, quick thinking, and bargaining grit if you want to reach the top.

This is where Liz Rico is making her mark. Coppel, a lesbian Latina, has said that Liz can be portrayed by either a black or Latina actor. After reading the script several times, director Corlis Hayes saw definite similarities between Liz and the strong women at the heart of August Wilson’s cycle of ten dramas chronicling African American life in the 20th century.

“Both playwrights’ women are very complex and independent,” says Hayes. “Liz Rico has a similar feminine power, like Bernice in The Piano Lesson, Rose in Fences, and Molly in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. These women know what they want and get it. All of them are willing to pay a price.”

Only one of them knows hoops.

“Being a NBA fan for years really paid off for [Coppel] because the language and dialogue through the script are realistic and well researched,” Hayes reveals. “When she was a little girl, she was obsessed with the Bulls.”

Although she says that the jury is still out on whether King Liz is a lesbian, Hayes tells us there is no doubt that she’s a feminist and a former athlete – one who had a mean crossover dribble during her playing days at Yale. Liz competes in the Jerry Maguire stratosphere of kingpin agents like Scott Boras and Tom Condon. Her superstar client list puts her in that rarefied air.

“Just as these kings know how to make deals lying, cheating and stealing for their clients so does Liz Rico……. Maybe more??” Hayes says. “She can hold her own against any man in the business and has the tenacity to go toe to toe with her toughest male counterpart to get the NBA deal signed.”

In this drama, Liz has her sights set on Freddie Luna, a high school point guard touted as the next LeBron, with all the stats that make such a claim credible. He’s got the skillset that would make perennial losers like the New York Knicks salivate at the chance of signing him to a multi-year zillion dollar contract. But Freddie has a downside. Keeping him marketable will be as challenging for Liz as landing him.

“He is a young hothead from the Bronx projects with a criminal record,” Hayes says. “Freddie lacks the maturity to handle his quick fame and wealth. Still, in Freddie she sees herself… a young ambitious novice looking for a break in a world that has rarely forgiven those with a tragic past coming out of the projects of urban communities.”

So there’s a bit of a soft spot marinating in there with Liz’s toughness, just not enough to give Hayes any doubts about who she saw in the role. We were as impressed by Shar Marlin as Hayes was when the diva took her latest star turn in an August Wilson play last spring. That performance – directed by Hayes – drew our Best Actress accolades in our Best of Charlotte awards for 2017.

“After directing Shar in Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” Hayes confides, “I could not think of anyone else that could bring the passion, power and sensuality that I needed for Liz. Shar is a powerhouse, and she gets the character. She is not afraid of a challenge and willing to put in the work. And who else can deliver those juicy and nasty zingers throughout the play than Shar?”

Marlin has played two blues empresses in recent years, Bessie Smith for OnQ Productions in For the Love of Harlem and Ma Rainey at CPCC Theatre. Playing those roles enabled Marlin to see beyond their bold and brassy fronts – down to the vulnerabilities that afflicted and weakened all African Americans nearly a century ago.

“It’s a wide leap for me,” Marlin maintains. “Being a boss in a more modern day piece makes me feel empowered and stronger than my characters in past performances.”

But that bluesy toughness definitely comes in handy. And so does her sports-savvy family.

“The essence of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith has been carried over into this piece, especially when it comes to being respected for their gift and craft,” Marlin admits. “Their tough exterior and courage, to me, has been the true foundation for Liz Rico. Learning the ins and outs of basketball is definitely out of my comfort zone. I’m a girlie girl. Having a son and husband who know the sport truly has helped me connect to the industry as a whole.”

Freddie turns out to be quite a handful for even the ever-resourceful Liz. She has found how good it is to be the king after she has lied, cheated, gabbed, and called upon her sex appeal to reach that pinnacle. But in discovering a connection with Freddie, Liz reaches a turning point, realizing that she may not be as fulfilled as she thought.

“Her growth is very evident in this piece because you see in the beginning that she is solely about money, power and position,” says Marlin, careful about revealing too much. “Her goal in life is to be on top, but that top position will come with an ultimate price. In the end, a huge wake up call will turn her ideas of success into an unexpected revelation.”

Whatever that revelation is, you can expect Marlin to deliver it powerfully.

A Duke Has Fun, Safe from #MeToo Consequences, in Opera Carolina’s “Rigoletto”

Review: Rigoletto

By Perry Tannenbaum

When he wrote his 1832 play, La roi s’amuse, Victor Hugo lavished a good amount of research on 16th century French king François I and his illicit love for the daughter of his court jester, Triboulet. Giuseppe Verdi and librettist Francesco Maria Piave, who had previously teamed together in transforming Hugo’s Ernani into opera, plunged into La roi despite the fact that its depiction of depraved historical characters had run afoul of French censors. That was something of a miscalculation, for Italian censors were no more lenient.

Verdi and Piave were compelled to move their opera to nearby Mantua and demote Hugo’s king to a duke. Those shifts affect the interrelationships of all three main characters in Rigoletto. A duke’s womanizing is more presumptuous than a king’s, and a jester’s plot to strangle a duke is less of a high crime than assassinating a king. Most important, an Italian daughter’s desire to thwart her father’s vendetta against a duke who deflowered and betrayed her is far less comprehensible than a French daughter sacrificing herself for her king and protecting her family from the stain of regicide.

Adding to the discomfort that has always suffused Gilda’s sacrifice on behalf of the reprehensible Duke of Mantua is watching it in our current #MeToo climate. The notorious Metropolitan Opera production of 2010-11 made Gilda’s adulation toward the Duke more understandable by transporting the action to Las Vegas and turning Gilda’s seducer into a nightclub superstar crooner with ties to the mob. It would be interesting to see what Opera Carolina could do with a more traditional concept, a co-production by Boston Lyric Opera, Atlanta Opera, and Opera Omaha that has had its set design and costumes baked in since it premiered in Boston, under the direction of Tomer Zvulun, in 2014.

   

You couldn’t say that Opera Carolina was ignoring their #MeToo problem, because they brought Jordan Lee Braun aboard to stage direct the Charlotte edition of this production and hired Sara Jobin to prepare the Charlotte Symphony and conduct two of the three performances. It was the first such female tandem in the company’s history.

Most of the Rigoletto rehab was evident before intermission. Conducting the orchestra at the premiere performance, general director and principal conductor James Meena had the Charlotte Symphony attacking the first sforzandos of the prelude with more savagery than we usually hear foreshadowing the curse that falls on Rigoletto from the Count Monterone, leaving less ferocity for the orchestra to crescendo to afterwards. It’s bit more vulgar and in-your-face, which is what Raffaele Abete turns out to be in the opening scene as the Duke, throwing around Monterone’s daughter, his latest conquest, by the hair as if she were a ragdoll – cuing us that he has conquered this beauty with his power and privilege rather than his charm. The other “ladies” in this opening scene, many of them courtesans who entertain the Duke’s courtiers, have been excised from this production, concentrating all malice and decadence on the Duke – and his jester, Rigoletto. Our protagonist certainly earns the Count’s curse by suggesting to the Duke that he execute the nobleman to spare himself that dad’s righteous indignation.

As Rigoletto, baritone Anooshah Golesorkhi wasn’t the most malignant mocker I’ve seen, and though costume designer Victoria Tzykun outfits him with a sizable hump, Golesorkhi declined to stoop over and enlist himself among Hugo’s hunchbacks. So he wasn’t the most pitifully deformed of jesters, either. Humpbacked rather than hunchbacked, this Rigoletto struck me as a stronger, crueler father in his insistence on walling up Gilda against the outside world. We don’t get nearly as much to pity about Rigoletto’s possessiveness. It appears, then, that Braun has elected to make both Rigoletto and the Duke more cognizant of their abusive choices and more repellent. When Gilda hoped out loud that her secret love would be poor and simple, the Duke visibly overheard it, debunking any notion that he was romantically inspired when he masqueraded as the penniless Gualtier Maldè.

Yet after intermission, Abete pushed back against the notion that he was a purely vicious, self-gratifying rogue. In his fervent “Parmi veder le lagrime,” the tenor convinced me that the Duke was feeling the pangs of true love for the first time, and later, when his infidelity would soon be exposed to the worshipful Gilda, he sang the famous “La donna è mobile” with the joy of a world-class hedonist. Returning to Charlotte after a fine turn last fall as Roxane in David DiChiera’s Cyrano, soprano Magali Simard-Galdés wasn’t as impressive in Gilda’s signature aria. The notes of the beloved “Caro nome” were all there – including most of the trills – but the blushes and longing we could have heard, let alone the heavy aches that Maria Callas achieved, were nowhere to be found in a rendition that was hardly middling, and she earned no bravas from the audience.

Called upon to be more confessional and spirited in her subsequent arias, Simard-Galdés plumbed more deeply into Gilda’s soul. She was poignant after Gilda had been dismissed by the Duke at his palace. In the final act, after watching the Duke betray her love with nearly the exact sentiments he professed to her, Gilda is sent off to Verona where, disguised as a man, Rigoletto instructs her to wait for him while his hired assassin, Sparafucile, does his dirty work. This was where Simard-Galdés was at her best, reacting to the Duke’s betrayal as part of Verdi’s great quartet, and implausibly returning later on to take her beloved Duke’s place as Sparafucile’s victim. The soprano’s heartfelt little aria was heartbreaking – and like so many other moments in this opera, absolutely infuriating.

I sympathized most with Golesorkhi in the final two acts, when Rigoletto told Monterone that he would make sure to see that his curse on the Duke was fulfilled and when he empathized with Gilda at those moments she was seeing the Duke’s true character clearly. Sadly, Golesorkhi’s moping return to the palace, after Gilda was stolen from him, was relatively lackluster. But the volcano of rage welling up in Rigoletto; telling the courtiers that Gilda was his daughter, not his lover, and then cursing the lot of them; was magnificent.

For anyone who has felt that the closing tableau of Rigoletto was dramatically overlong, as Gilda slowly reaches her final breath in Rigoletto’s arms, Golesorkhi and Simard-Galdés were both helped by Opera Carolina’s staging. A nifty sleight-of-hand took place before Rigoletto, alerted by the sound of the Duke’s signature aria, realized that Gilda had been murdered instead of her seducer. Golesorkhi seemed to discover the dying Gilda and to cradle her in his arms, but she was a body double. Simard-Galdés emerged from behind a scrim, radiantly lit in Michael Baumgarten’s lighting design, a soul already in heaven as she sang. The alteration made sense, but I was ambivalent about it.

Unlike Tzykun’s costume designs or Martha Ruskai’s wig and makeup designs, I didn’t find John Conklin’s set design particularly worth preserving, scanty for its palace, lacking a façade for Sparafucile’s tavern, and utterly illogical for the courtship and abduction episodes. Courtiers actually looked down on the garden scene as Gilda sang the final notes of her rapturous “Caro nome,” moments before they climbed up a ladder to abduct her! But it’s utterly fanciful to say that the courtiers climbed anything, for there was nothing substantial for Rigoletto to lean a ladder against, except an invisible fourth wall facing us. That ladder was ridiculously small, and needless to say, no climbing was done.

Overall, the Opera Carolina components of this production were stronger than their borrowings. Ashraf Sawailam reminded us what a plum cameo Count Monterone’s role is with his stern denunciations, and bass baritone Matthew Curran had nearly all of Sparafucile’s sneering machismo, including the long low note he must hold departing from his first conspiratorial parley with Rigoletto. Paradoxically, it was Leyla Martinucci as Sparafucile’s sister and accomplice Maddalena, who best affirmed Gilda’s crazed devotion toward the Duke.

Hired to help take the Duke off-guard, Martinucci simpers, flirts, and vamps with professional self-assurance, yet she also convinces us that Maddelena has fallen victim to his charms when she pleads with her cutthroat brother to save the rascal’s life. Martinucci is an apt subject for the Duke’s “Bella figlia dell’amore” aria, and the mezzo-soprano contributed beguilingly to the climactic quartet that blossomed from his endless appetite for self-gratification. Yes, the Duke was having fun as Hugo’s original title prescribed, but what remained horrifying was that woman after woman could mistake it for love.

Operatic Abuse Yields to #MeToo? Yeah, Right.

Preview: Rigoletto

By Perry Tannenbaum

Poor Gilda. In Giuseppe Verdi’s masterful Rigoletto, the teenager is so jealously guarded by her overprotective father that, except for churchgoing, she is totally isolated from the outside world. The evil Duke of Mantua, who poaches on other men’s wives, has noticed Gilda at Mass, finds out where she lives, and poses as an impoverished student to seduce her. Seeking to satisfy their ruler’s lusts and avenge themselves on Rigoletto, a hunchbacked jester in the Duke’s court, courtiers hoodwink Rigoletto and kidnap Gilda, the widowed hunchback’s precious daughter.

All these degradations merely take us through Act 1! After a night of lovemaking, the Duke tosses Gilda aside as if she were a common slut, spurring Rigoletto to murderous revenge. So what does Gilda do to thwart her father? When Rigoletto’s hired assassin comes calling, Gilda manages to take the Duke’s place as the murder victim.

 

While the Duke is bedding his third different woman in this opera, famously singing that women are fickle, Rigoletto is discovering that the ever-steadfast Gilda has thrown away her life for his boss.

Verdi borrowed his toxic misogynistic plot from Victor Hugo, knowing a hit when he saw one. Back in 1851, the only major change his librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, had to make to satisfy the censors was to change Hugo’s king to a duke.

Flash forward to this coming Sunday, when Opera Carolina presents Rigoletto for the seventh time since 1959. Is it still possible to shamelessly present this unsettling melodrama – this cavalcade of abuse, rape, and teen suicide – in the age of Harvey Weinstein, presidential pussy grabbing, and #MeToo?

Well, sorta. But times have changed, even within the lifetime of this oncoming Op Carolina production, which was conceived in 2011 as an Atlanta-Boston-Omaha co-production and premiered in Boston under the direction of Tomer Zvulun in 2014. Like mighty ocean liners, it takes awhile to turn a grand opera production around.

Yet it’s still significant that, for the Opera Carolina version, Jordan Lee Braun has taken over as stage director while Sara Jobin has been named to conduct – the first such female tandem in company history.

Neither of these women seemed to be particularly comfortable dwelling on this historic landmark, perhaps because neither was comfortable with Rigoletto and Gilda.

Jobin, whose experience of Rigoletto was compounded recently when she conducted a performance in Toledo on the day Dr. Larry Nassar was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for sexual abuse, doesn’t hold back.

“What went through my head as I watched the performances in Toledo,” she says, “including what is my life for, why am I here, what are we doing, a phrase came to me: ‘hospicing patriarchy.’ I am so sick of seeing women being abused, raped, and killed onstage. And yes, that is the tragic story of the last 5200 years. Traditional opera plots –and movies, sci-fi thrillers and everything else – are full of it.”

Jobin and Braun agree that the antidote to the cesspool of misogynistic old opera plots should lie in new contemporary operas that portray strong women who fight back and win. Braun, however, sees value in presenting the oldies unvarnished, despite their horrors.

“What is striking about Rigoletto is how much of the story is still relevant, uncomfortable as it is,” Braun says. “On the topic of [Rigoletto’s] own sexism, that too is pervasive today. How many politicians, Hollywood A-listers, and others have made us think ‘how can you have a daughter and still be so degrading to women?’ As artists, we have the opportunity to spark important discussions, causing audiences to ask questions of themselves and others. Opera is designed to bash you over the head with the emotion, drama, gorgeous visuals, and fantastic music. This production of Rigoletto certainly does that, and I believe that has value – today as much as ever.”

After a fine Charlotte debut this past fall as Roxane in David DiChiera’s Cyrano, soprano Magali Simard-Galdés will sing Gilda, making the transition from a woman who is serially worshipped to a woman who is serially degraded. She’s also fully on-board with presenting Gilda exactly as she has always been, even when she tosses her life away in the final act for the reprehensible Duke.

“If Act 3 doesn’t make you gnash your teeth,” she states, “I think I will have failed at my job.”

Braun cites Lori Laitman’s The Scarlet Letter and Hilary Blecher’s Frida as contemporary operas with “girl power,” and she points to As One, a chamber opera by Laura Kaminsky with a transgender woman protagonist, that was the 14th most produced opera in the US and Canada in the 2016-2017 season. Early in the evolution of Opera Carolina’s Rigoletto, the decision was made to eliminate the courtesans from the opening scene at the Duke’s palace. Enough with the mistreatment of women!

But not much else has been done to dilute the original, even in the age of The Donald and #MeToo.

“Having said that,” Braun remarks, “I’ve definitely noticed that the behavior of both men and women in rehearsal rooms has changed since the #MeToo movement – we are more specific in our intention of looking after one another, regardless of gender. Perhaps having a woman at the helm does make the cast and crew think and talk about the piece in a different way than they might otherwise, and that’s a good thing. We talk about making sure everyone is comfortable with the physical action, which any director will do, but maybe it is different somehow with a female-led team?”

The problems of dealing with the Carmens, the Butterflys, and the Gildas in classic operas will linger well into the future, but there are contemporary directors who take a less passive approach to Piave’s libretto. At about the same time that Opera Carolina’s production was still in concept stage, the Metropolitan Opera in New York transported Rigoletto from 19th century Mantua to 21st century Las Vegas, changing the predatory Duke into a superstar nightclub singer with ties to the mob.

That actually made Gilda’s inextinguishable adulation for her promiscuous seducer more understandable. Returning to Verdi’s original idea – remember Hugo’s play was titled Le Roi s’amuse – might also help, for killing a king is a far more cosmic crime than merely offing a duke.

A new version that opened last month in London evidently restored all the buxom courtesans to the Duke’s court – and doubled down on the blood. It all had one London critic shaking his head and wondering how an opera dad can take his 14-year-old daughter to such a hedonistic, misogynistic bloodbath.

We posed a similar question to Braun, Simard-Galdés, and Jobin. What does an opera mom say to her daughter about Rigoletto and Gilda? Jobin probably had the most erudite answer:

“If I were a mom and my daughter was watching the opera with me, I would say, ‘Honey, this is a really old fashioned opera plot and illustrates the Italian word rapir which means to steal. They steal the woman, and the word rape actually originally meant to steal someone else’s property. We don’t think that way anymore . . . but some people still do. I hope that you will write an opera where the girl fights back because she has a black belt in judo, and puts everybody in the hospital, and then goes on to become President or whatever it is she wants to do, because it’s about time.’”

Yes, it is.

Celebrity Pistol-Packing Rogues Deliver Guilty Pleasures in “Bonnie & Clyde”

Review: Bonnie & Clyde

By Perry Tannenbaum

Since the days of his greatest successes, with Jekyll & Hyde (1997-2001) and The Scarlet Pimpernel (1997-2000), most of Frank Wildhorn’s Broadway musicals haven’t run more than a month. That includes a revival of Jekyll, Wildhorn’s longest-running show, in 2013 and Bonnie & Clyde, which somehow couldn’t make it through the end of December – the highest grossing month of the year – in 2011. Hearing that the short-lived Bonnie & Clyde was coming to Matthews Playhouse of the Performing Arts roused a morbid curiosity for me: how could a notorious story that won six Oscars in 1968, including Best Picture, flame out so spectacularly in a musical adaptation? Knowing that Billy Ensley, one of Charlotte’s best, would be directing sealed my resolve to investigate.

With the appearance Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow as children at the top of the show, it quickly became apparent that Ivan Menchell’s book was not an adaptation of the sensational film. Unlike the Bonnie portrayed by Faye Dunaway, Menchell’s is a ravishing redhead rather than a blond. There’s never really a Barrow Gang, and though this Clyde aspires to fancy clothes, his dream didn’t come true in Matthews. Most puzzling of all, we don’t see Bonnie and Clyde snapping photos of each other – their most modern trait! – although the authentic period projections go way beyond mugshots. So it’s plausible to me now that the Broadway version of this musical didn’t strictly flop on its merits. Boomers expecting to see the style and gore of the iconic film were disappointed, while it’s very likely that younger theatergoers had never even heard of Bonnie and Clyde.

Armed with a reported $6 million budget, there were presumably more costume changes up in New York than Matthews designer Lisa Altieri provides for Bonnie, but with 20 people in the cast, four of them in multiple roles, Altieri is far from idle and contributes some very fine work. What really made this community theatre effort look like a million bucks was the scenic team of designer John Bayless and scenic change artist Beth Aderhold. Weathered wooden slats span the Fullwood Theatre stage, trisected by two sturdy vertical beams. The columns of slats can be raised like window shades, keeping the flow of action going cinematically as the slats rise to reveal new scenes – or slide back downwards to serve as rustic screens for the old-timey projections, mostly of newspaper headlines, mugshots, and snapshots of our celebrity public enemies. At critical moments, a two-seat jalopy showed up in the middle of it all, no less realistic than the photos I’ve seen of the Broadway roadster.

Not only did Ensley brilliantly contrive to keep the action moving, he brought ace talent to the lead roles and beyond. Joe McCourt, who plays Clyde’s vacillating older brother, Buck Barrow, has starred in numerous musicals at Theatre Charlotte in recent years, including Memphis and Avenue Q. Embittering Buck’s every breath, Emily Witte is his very Christian wife Blanche, after playing a similar spoiler role as Amneris in the Disney Aïda at Theatre Charlotte last fall. This bickering pair would have upstaged the title players if Ensley hadn’t found such strong protagonists as Steven Buchanan and Lindsey Schroeder.

Buchanan was definitely in his comfort zone performing edgier fare, for he played prominent roles in Queen City Theatre Company’s The Pride and Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte’s American Idiot last year. Here he sported a hairdo that was halfway between Hitler and punk, looking lean, Brando mean – in a tank top undershirt – and dangerous. Scene work with Bonnie is a tasty mix of tender and raw, but Buchanan is somewhat monochromatic under arrest or during his larcenous, murderous rampage, barking his commands and forsaking the Warren Beatty charm offensive of the film. Ensley should have occasionally reined him in a bit and reminded him that he’s wearing a microphone as well as a pistol.

Opening in the ensemble of Evita at CPCC Theatre the weekend after her last performance as Bonnie Parker, Lindsey Schroeder is the one new find among the principals. She takes to every aspect of Parker, most especially to her thrill-seeking, her narcissism, and her lust for Hollywood and pinup fame. Schroeder can belt too, so watch out for “How ‘Bout a Dance” and “Dyin’ Ain’t So Bad.” Overall, Wildhorn’s score wasn’t nearly as bothersome as you’d expect from an epic Broadway flop, but there are noticeable stretch marks on its beauty. Witte does a fine job on behalf of homebodies with “That’s What You Call a Dream,” but Blanche’s Christianity opens up a whole new sector of Gospelized expression that I didn’t recall from the movie. Church scenes are essentially extraneous to the main storyline, but it gave Wildhorn an excuse to widen the variety of his score. Off my radar since 2009, Phil Fowler came to the rescue for a couple of doses of “God’s Arms Are Always Open.” Even if it was a narrative detour, it was a rousing showstopper in the positive sense of the word.

Holiday Grow and Donavan Abeshaus were both excellent in introducing us to the young Bonnie and Clyde. Carol Kelly and Scott C. Reynolds were winsome as Clyde’s rusticated parents, and Carol Weiner was prim yet warm as Bonnie’s mom, quietly urging her daughter to come to her senses – and choose the hometown sheriff who clearly adores her. Andrew Tarek plays that role beautifully, with seething jealous fury toward Clyde and tender hat-holding deference toward Bonnie. I found myself hating this Sheriff Hinton without a good reason why, and I surprised myself once again by rooting for Bonnie and Clyde here almost as fervently as I did in the 1967 film, despite the trail of crime and bloodshed they insouciantly left in their wake. Celebrity pistol-packing rogues are likely unique to America, more to our shame than our glory.