Too Much Will Be Plenty in Charlotte Ballet’s Rite of Spring Revival

Preview: Charlotte Ballet’s 50th Anniversary Celebration

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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Nothing about North Carolina Dance Theatre’s 50th anniversary was predictable when the company was founded in 1970 at the North Carolina School of the Arts in 1970. Economics transplanted the headquarters of the troupe to Charlotte in 1990, and their marketing department changed the name to Charlotte Ballet in 2014. Due to COVID, even the year of the jubilee celebration had to be reset to 2021 – and then, because the pandemic lingered, that celebration, scheduled for April, had to be pushed back again to October.

So why should the celebration itself be predictable – all champagne, fluff, fizz, and thanksgiving? This week’s program will be capped with a reprise of Salvatore Aiello’s The Rite of Spring, a savage, primal spectacle set to Igor Stravinsky’s notorious groundbreaking score. Appropriate for April, no doubt, but bold and pagan now that we’ve endured into October.

“We are not easing back into it,” says Kati Hanlon Mayo, who danced the part of The Chosen One – the one who is sacrificed – when The Rite premiered in 1993. “We are not daintily coming back to the theater and doing something light and fluffy. We are back, and we are powerful.”

Known as Kati Hanlon back in those NCDT days, Mayo had only recently joined the company when Aiello chose her to be The Chosen One. Now an associate director at the Charlotte Ballet Academy, Mayo is coaching her successors, Amelia Sturt-Dilley and Sarah Lapointe, both of whom are beginning their seventh seasons with the company.

Asserting the power of dance was as much on Aiello’s mind in 1993 as reminding the community is now. Famously, the premiere Stavinsky’s incendiary score with Vaslav Nijinsky’s outré choreography provoked a sensation at its 1913 Paris premiere, nearly a riot. So the Aiello premiere 80 years later in Charlotte was not presented with some trepidation.

“We were fairly new to Charlotte,” Mayo recalls, “and we were doing some really wonderful rep, but I think he really wanted to show the limits of what he could do, like test the waters with the audiences here in Charlotte and see how that would pan out. I remember being a little bit anxious, nervous about the audience reaction even when we premiered it in Asheville. I didn’t know if it would be just too much – you know, too different from what they would expect, like a ballet with tutus.”

To create music and choreography that will consume audiences with their power, it is almost axiomatic that both the composer and the choreographer themselves must be consumed. Then it’s the dancers’ turn.

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“We all knew that Sal really wanted to do his version of The Rite of Spring,” Mayo says. “He had spoken to us about it. He was almost obsessive about the score and his research and the work that he was doing. Sometimes you would see him on lunch breaks, just working out choreography, working on counts. So when it came to us, for me personally, I was not used to contemporary work like that, and such tribal – like bombastic – music and dance, but for some reason, between Sal and myself and the rest of the company, it just clicked.”

Jerri Kumery, currently the ballet master at Richmond Ballet, was Aiello’s associate artistic director when his masterwork was in development, taking every choreographic note, passing along every correction, and giving out “The Bible” – notations on Stravinsky’s entire score – to all the dancers. Curator of The Salvatore Aiello Trust, it is Kumery who now brings the spirit of choreographer to rehearsals at the Patricia McBride & Jean Pierre Bonnefoux Center for Dance, while Mayo brings the authentic essence of The Chosen One.

Along with “The Bible.”

“Very thick,” says Lapointe, describing this holy writ. “All counts of every single section. And it’s very helpful, very detailed. It’s amazing.”

Amazing enough that it was performed again and again in Charlotte in 1993, 1996, 1997, 2000, and lastly in 2003, more than seven years after Aiello’s untimely death in 1995 at the age of 51. If the success of NCDT’s Rite of Spring paved the way for the audacity of Angels in America in 1996, the resulting furor of the Angels controversy sent shockwaves back to the dancers: Mayo vividly remembers “being very frightened that we would be asked not to perform” in 1997.

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The spectacle has a visceral impact. Taken back to pagan ritual, tribal warring, intoxicating dance, and human sacrifice – while witnessing the combustible power of the dances and the rituals – we may ruefully note how little humanity has changed over the eons. Although Lapointe assures us that the dancers will not be attired like the infamous rioters in DC on January 6, the point will resonate.

As we experience the incantatory derangement of Stravinsky’s music and watch an entire tribe go haywire, both Mayo and Lapointe hint that there’s more than a little voodoo magic in being out there, centerstage, and knowing that you have been chosen to bring the sensational role of The Chosen One to life – and death.

“We have to come up to the music,” Mayo says, “and we have to go beyond what the music is delivering to the audience. And that’s the challenge. And that’s what I think we find so beautiful in his choreography is that it’s not hard to get there with the movement he’s given us. It’s easy to match that music, which is a tall order.”

You will have to wait for this climax, of course. Lapointe and Sturt-Dilley won’t be appearing until about halfway into Aiello’s 40-minute ballet, entering with a bevy of young maidens. Then there’s the drama of being chosen for the ultimate sacrifice before we go hurtling into it. And yes, The Chosen One gets swept away as surely as the audience does.

“There’s parts where I feel like a wild animal,” Lapointe exclaims, “and I just feel so rambunctious, so wild, so free and natural. It’s a feeling like no other, really. Yeah, the music, the costumes, everyone around you banging on the floor, it all comes together – just how it’s supposed to. It’s kind of surreal. I don’t think I’ve ever done a piece that just makes it come out of you like that.”

The Rite of Spring will be the longest piece in Charlotte Ballet’s 50th anniversary celebration, its obvious pièce de resistance, and the rousing finale. Lapointe dances The Chosen One at the Thursday and Saturday night performances and Sturt-Dilley takes over the lead on Friday. Both are appearing in the other three pieces as well. First in the running order will be a premiere choreographed by Charlotte Ballet II program director Christopher Stuart, set to a Philip Glass score to be played by the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra. A longer piece, Crystal Pite’s A Picture of You, comes next, followed by Val Caniparoli’s even longer Ibsen’s House.

The human sacrifice at the end of the evening shouldn’t be dismaying. More than a couple of religions celebrate the mysteries of death and rebirth, and The One Who Dies is at the heart their power. You can be sure the ancient mojo of Aiello’s Rite hasn’t been lost on the women who have danced in its vortex. The Chosen One’s nobility and her awesome dignity come through her acceptance of her fate.

In our ZOOM interview, Mayo and Lapointe intertwined to describe the experience.

“There are many points within the choreography,” Mayo began, “where you’ve found that you’re the Chosen One… It’s a conflict, but you feel this…”

“…power,” Lapointe interjected.

“…power,” Mayo continued. “If you can think of it as something you’ve been reaching towards, you’re honored by it. But yet… It’s part of the ritual, and you’re not going to end in the best manner… However, it’s an honor to be chosen! It’s an honor to be that force.”

“And to be that,” added Lapointe, “for the tribe and for everyone else.”

My Wonderful Birthday Suit Is a Rainbow-Bright Celebration of Diversity With Impressive Depth

Review: My Wonderful Birthday Suit @ ImaginOn

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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Racism and xenophobia: pretty heavy subjects for a children’s play aimed at ages four-and-up, you might say. Yet if you recall “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” the racist’s confession from South Pacific sung by a U.S. Army lieutenant, the haters don’t wait to school their children in bigotry until they’re six, seven, or eight. In that grim light, Gloria Bond Clunie’s My Wonderful Birthday Suit, now in live performances at ImaginOn in an eye-popping Children’s Theatre of Charlotte production, comes right on time in teaching love and acceptance. Clunie’s play, directed by the playwright herself, is a rainbow-bright celebration of diversity.

Or perhaps a magical mystery tour, since the friends we first encounter in this magical place called Moonbeam are Oobladee and Oobladah. Clunie likes to keep things vague, so kids can decide for themselves whether Moonbeam is a city, country, hemisphere, or a lavishly developed rainbow. Oobladee is our hostess, greeting us before her best friend Oobladah arrives. Dee, like Clunie, relishes surprises – and maybe confounding expectations along the way. Rising above the balcony level, where Oobladee has her front door, there’s an 18-foot-tall Thinking Tree, a great place for contemplation and attitude adjustment that will summon you with a deep hum, decorated with lights and inhabited by a huge yellow bird named Bobo. Logically enough, Bobo will most often peep out of his knothole to dispense… bows.

With gift-wrapped presents strewn all across the McColl Family Theatre stage, bows are a handy commodity for Oobladee, for as she explains to us – and Oobladah when he arrives – she is planning a surprise birthday party for her best friend on the other side of the rainbow, city, country, or solar system. Her longtime friend Shebopshebe will be visiting Oobladee for the first time on this side, and there will be lights, music, presents, more presents, and cake!! A big cake. The wary, less upbeat Oobladah is not a big fan of surprises or waiting or sharing. He is uncomfortable with all of this.

Oobladah has never had a surprise party nor anywhere near this number of gifts for his birthday. He has never heard of Shebopshebe, and he cannot wrap his head around the idea that somebody else can be Oobladee’s best friend when he is. He wants to eat the cake and see what the presents are now. The monochromatic giftwraps in a wide spectrum of shiny hues are actually upstaged by the rainbow colors of Sydney Lynne Thomas’s set design and Kahei Shum McRae’s rainbow-crazed costumes for both Ooblas. Yet when Clunie wishes to rivet our attention on the gifts, she knows the way, for the smallest gift of all is the heaviest – and Oobladah actually groans when the director has him carry it over to stage right. Further confounding expectations, the biggest of the presents by far, gleaming in sparkly blue, is the lightest, and Clunie conspires with lighting designer Robyn Warfield and sound designer G. Clausen to make this huge cube (topped by a Bobo bow) an irresistible object of wonder for Oobladee and Oobladah. This teasing no doubt also enflamed the curiosities of the kiddies in the theater.

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To divert Oobladah – and educate both him and the anklebiters in the audience on what a surprise party actually is – Oobladee oversees a rehearsal of the triggering and greeting routine, cuing her lights with handclaps. Lights are dimmed as Shebopshebe appears silhouetted behind the rainbow doorway, and the surprise comes off perfectly as she enters and leans over the balcony. But the path toward opening the presents and sharing the humongous cake isn’t smooth. Shebopshebe was dressed in a coordinated outfit of light and dark purples, Oobladah’s favorite color, rather than the rainbow splendor of both Ooblas. No, that wasn’t the big problem, and it was heartwarming that the kids and parents in the house were as surprised as I was.

It went further – and deeper – than the two-besties thing. “You’re brown!” Oobladah said, pointing at Shebopshebe. Each time he repeated it, the simple description became meaner, nastier, angrier, and uglier. Really cringeworthy, as kids can be when they’re candid, and unmistakably hurtful. Obviously, the previous “respect” lesson up in the Thinking Tree hasn’t stuck with Oobladah, and one or two more climbs up its limbs would be necessary before we were done. As Clunie reached the didactic section of her hour-long drama, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the playwright found a way to teach lessons to all three players – and to briefly explore the roots of Oobladah’s racism – all with admirable tact.

You see, Oobladah has been told that brown people, people from there, people like Shebopshebe are… The sentence is never completed. Children and their parents can fill in the blanks with their imaginations, but Clunie refuses to poison the air with misinformation. We’re simply reminded that the haters, knowingly or unknowingly, really do start teaching hate to kids at a very tender age. Somewhat predictably, after the hurt he has inflicted, Oobladah must learn that he was wrong, and he must learn to apologize. Nor does Clunie gloss over the need for Shebopshebe to learn how to forgive.

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That is no small challenge for Renee Welsh-Noel as Shebopshebe after Will Burton-Edwards has been so forceful in delivering Oobladah’s odious mix of racism and xenophobia. Last to arrive on the scene, Welsh-Noel emerged as the strongest character onstage, for she also gave the sunshiney, conciliating Oobladee an earful. No, Shebopshebe isn’t a great fan of the blithe “I don’t see color” crowd. She not only knows she’s brown, she revels in being brown. She wants people to see her color, and she rejects the misguided charity of those who are willing to ignore it. If you have found Courtney Reasoner just a little spacey and peace-loving as Oobladee, you will find your qualms and her intentions validated when she draws Shebopshebe’s rebuke. Or you might see yourself fingered as an antique Flower Power peacenik and go “Ouch!”

Yet as Clunie begins to wrap up, we realize that she isn’t merely about how we shouldn’t act and feel. Turns out that it’s not at all accidental that each of the giftwraps is a single distinct color as she fancifully ties her positive message together. My Wonderful Birthday Suit is more than a title. It’s part and parcel of Clunie’s meaningful and rewarding outlook.

Spacious Setting at Halton Theater Creates Fresh Perspective for You Can’t Take It With You By Perry Tannenbaum

Review: You Can’t Take It With You

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Picking up our tickets for You Can’t Take It With You in the Overcash lobby outside Halton Theater, I was asked how many times I had seen this comedy by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart before. Reflexively, I answered four or five times – discovering, to my surprise, that I was replying without a groan. My later researches proved my estimate to be correct, for I have now seen local productions on at least five occasions dating back to 1990, including presentations by Charlotte Shakespeare, Old Courthouse Theatre (1991), and two at Theatre Charlotte (2001 and 2016), along with the current Central Piedmont Theatre effort. Over the years, I’ve gradually warmed to the script, perhaps because it’s better-respected now than when the 1937 Pulitzer Prize winner was turned into a star-studded screwball extravaganza in the 1938 Oscar-winning film.

Each time I’ve beaten back my resistance to reviewing You Can’t Take It on recent occasions, I’ve found myself taking away something new. The last time I saw the comedy, just days after the 2016 election, I found myself imagining how in tune with public sentiment the Kaufman-Hart concoction must have seemed when it first premiered – after the 1936 election. Hardly shocked or even surprised anymore by the cavalcade of eccentricity in the Sycamore family and their outré circle, I found myself newly fascinated by patriarch Martin Vanderhof’s anti-government stance and the playwrights’ decidedly anti-Wall Street sentiments. Of course, I had no idea at that time how much I could come to loathe a President who boasted about not paying his income taxes.

Nearly five years later, the similarities – and dissimilarities – between Martin and The Donald have popped into sharper focus, creating a provocative tension. What struck me most forcefully this time around was how much You Can’t Take It With You is about the classic clash of New York values, the free-thinking Bohemian chaos at the Vanderhof home, around the corner from Columbia University, and the stuffy, moneyed callousness of Wall Street, the planet’s financial capital, still wobbling after the crash. Maybe the other thing that struck me with new force was also a result of the Trump Effect. This play is absolutely crawling with Russian influences: emigres, ballet, socialism, Stalinism, Trotskyism, and blintzes. No wonder at all why the place gets raided by G-Men.

Kaufman and Hart would have no doubt delighted in Jennifer O’Kelly’s vast set design, for they described this expanse as an “every-man-for-himself room,” where every member of the household has the freedom – and space – to do whatever he or she pleases. “For here,” they added, “meals are eaten, plays are written, snakes collected, ballet steps practiced, xylophones played, printing presses operated – if there were room enough there would probably be ice skating.” With admirable restraint, there is no Zamboni in sight under Paula Baldwin’s deft direction, and the wide vista of the O’Kelly’s set encourages players to move quickly to answer the front door at stage left, to step lively in reaching centerstage, and to speak loudly so that all might hear. Baldwin was also spied at the back of Halton Theater on a couple of occasions, perhaps after hovering near the soundboard, for the sound from body mics onstage was exceptionally problem-free. Sound design by Ismail Out, including cuts of Johnny Mercer’s “Goody Goody” from 1936, was also on-target.

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The plot revolves around the possible nuptials between Alice Sycamore, Martin’s granddaughter, and her Wall Street boss, Tony Kirby. As Alice sees it, the multitudinous eccentricities of the Vanderhof household are an insuperable barrier between her and the ultra-respectable Kirbys. Obviously, Alice is conflicted about her family, loving them all while seeing them with the clarity of the only household member in daily contact with the outside world. Tony, as it turns out, is no less attuned to the shortcomings of his own family, so he pushes for a meeting with Alice’s family and then for the inevitably explosive rendezvous between his folks and hers. Did we mention that Alice’s dad, Paul, fashions fireworks with his faithful assistant, Mr. De Pinna? No, because all of those chemical reactions happen down in the cellar, out of view.

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Having to move so quickly across O’Kelly’s arena seems to endow all the residents of the Vanderhof home with an enthusiastic complacency, so engrossed are they all in their eccentricities. Pam Coble Newcomer is the restless artist of the family as Martin’s daughter, Penny Sycamore, working on a couple of her 11 unfinished playscripts as we watch, until she decides it’s time to resume work on painting a portrait of Mr. De Pinna posing in a Grecian tunic that she abandoned years ago. Abigail Adams is Penny’s eldest daughter, Essie, the perennial ballet student who also makes candies, and Braden Asbury is her husband, who mostly splits his time between the xylophone and the printing press in his nook. He also likes to make masks and serves as Essie’s candy seller and the family pamphleteer. Busy fella. So you’ll notice that Kaufman and Hart enjoy piling multiple enthusiasms on their characters.

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Contrasts can be extreme, sometimes with a zany logic. As Boris Kolenkhov, Essie’s ballet teacher, John Sexton can beat a taskmaster’s cane on the floor in perpetual frustration, since Essie shows no promise whatsoever, and then, at the most inopportune moment, reveal his zest for wrestling. It’s a lot for the Kirbys to digest all at once, but other weirdos like Mr. De Pinna are likely to show up on the Vanderhof doorstep and never leave. Weirdest of these may be Corlis Hayes as Gay Wellington, a flamboyant actress who would steal every scene if she weren’t spending so much time passed out on the settee from excess drink. Of course, cameos from those government raiders and an overnight stay in jail didn’t improve the Kirbys’ first impressions of Alice’s family. Nor do the fireworks down in the cellar remain inert. As the elder Kirbys, Rick Taylor and Pamela Thorson were as starchy as can be, but Thorson was especially regal in taking affront.

THEA2021-DLV-0923-4325In the face of such humiliating catastrophe, Alice wished to exile herself to the Adirondacks, but Charlie Grass managed even here not to be overly annoying in her shame and mortification as the one “normal” member of her family. Love and practicality are nicely mixed in this Alice. Serene and optimistic as ever, Martin, Penny, and Paul are able to laugh off the misadventures of the previous night. Newcomer as Penny, Jeremy Cartee as Paul, and Dennis Delamar as Martin became especially endearing from this moment forward, maintaining their equanimity after this buffeting of adversity. Galumphing and awkward in the early going, in and out of his mad scientist coveralls, Cartee showed some touching solicitude toward the wife and daughter when crisis struck. Delamar, in his second go-round as Martin, has thoroughly mastered his dignity and glow, aided by Emily McCurdy’s costume design and James Duke’s lighting.

Whether or not Baldwin was looking for a James Stewart type in replicating the onscreen chemistry between Alice and Tony (judge for yourself when you see Grass’s hair), Timothy Hager brings some of the same height and charming gawkiness to the role. Although O’Kelly does her best to clutter up her set, there is never the sense that Tony is slumming because the space is so expansive. That spaciousness also tends to dilute whatever humble, homespun quality you might have associated with Vanderhof and his clan in past viewings.

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With Baldwin’s staging, you’ll likely find that the wide-open space enhances Delamar’s eloquence when he delivers Martin’s signature monologue in the final act. If you can tear your eyes away from Delamar, you’ll notice that Newcomer has been deployed far to stage right, leaning forward on the sofa in rapt attention, beaming and proud of her daddy. Most other family members have been spread out around a stage that has more than a couple of times been teeming with tumult. All eyes are Grandpa, all the family are respectfully still, radiating pride and content. It gives a special moment an extra aura.

Lupanu and Friends Feed off Audience Energy in Return to Live Performance

Review: Connor Chamber Series at Tate Hall

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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While orchestral performances have sadly languished during the COVID pandemic, recently reviving in Charlotte and elsewhere in prudent baby steps, chamber music has flourished in online productions. Back on Memorial Day weekend, while the youth choir and orchestra remained sidelined for a second consecutive season at Spoleto Festival USA, chamber music restarted at Dock Street Theatre in Charleston, running a full slate of programming and replaying edited versions on YouTube. Not surprisingly, it has been principals of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, cellist Alan Black and concertmaster Calin Lupanu, who have most dramatically stepped forward to fill the void, each of them spearheading a series of chamber music concerts while the larger ensemble remained mute or muted. More encouraging, then, for those of us who love the intimacy and verve of chamber music, is that neither of these initiatives is in retreat now that audiences are vaccinated.

Thanks to the Connor Chamber Series, Lupanu could be seen at Tate Hall on the Central Piedmont Community campus while Symphony is returning to full strength, its mainstage classics series slated to launch at Knight Theater on October 15. Lupanu hosted the concert of works by Brahms and Anton Arensky, starting off together with Phillip Bush at the piano playing the Brahms Scherzo movement from the F-A-E Sonata, which was originally premiered by pianist Clara Schumann and violinist Joseph Joachim, for whom the piece was written in 1853. After this lively opening, Lupanu yielded the violin part for the Arensky Piano Trio No. 1, replaced by fellow Symphony musicians Monica Boboc and cellist Marlene Ballena. Lupanu returned after intermission – inserted to give Bush a rest, he jested – for the finale, the Brahms Piano Trio No. 1, written just a year after his Scherzo.

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The Tate immediately proved hospitable to Lupanu’s violin in the Brahms Scherzo, which also drew movements by Robert Schumann and his pupil, Albert Dietrich. On the other hand, the treble breathed more freely from the Steinway than the bass end of its keyboard, perhaps because of its nearness to the upstage wall. The music, Lupanu’s placement downstage, and the excitement of playing chamber music for a live audience after 18 months of performing for mics and cameras (if at all) were all good reasons for the violinist to excel more than usual. Coming out and masking up, seeing the masked musicians onstage taking up their share of the pandemic risk and responsibility, the audience was also primed to be exceptionally receptive. Lupanu may have seen the enthusiasm in the audience’s eyes as he looked out on us, but he couldn’t help feeling the free, propulsive spirit of Bush behind him, very much inside the music, spurring him on to be better and better.

Arensky’s trio has been on my radar ever since pianist Yefim Bronfman headlined a Sony recording of the piece over 25 years ago (paired with an even more electrifying Tchaikovsky trio), so it was not surprising to see Bush assert more leadership. Yet both of the string players acquitted themselves admirably in each of the D minor’s four movements. A beautiful violin melody from Boboc at the top of the opening Allegro moderato was echoed in more abbreviated form by Ballena’s cello, yet it was likely that hearing Ballena’s cello so much more clearly in live performance put me in mind of Dvorak’s chamber pieces. Boboc captured the lightness of the ensuing Scherzo, but it was Ballena who became the prime advocate when that movement slowed to its more luxuriant Meno mosso tempo.

 

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Bush’s sound, at times downright impressionistic, was the most distinctive element in the elegiac Adagio. Yet Boboc was also disarming, playing low enough on her violin to be mistaken for a cello if you weren’t watching. Not to be outdone, Ballena played even lower when we arrived at her spot. It was in the Allegro finale that Arensky finally matched the turbulence we had heard from Brahms. Bush assaulted the Steinway with a barrage of three-chord phrases while the strings stirred up the heat. Then he turned down the volume and the tempo in a poignant passage of four-note phases. Now it was the strings’ turn to dominate, Boboc and Ballena vying in eloquence as they demonstrated how lyrical and affecting those same phrases could be that Bush had played so feverishly.

Looking at the attentiveness of Bush and Ballena throughout the Brahms B Major trio, we could assume that Lupanu held the reins, yet there was admirable parity between the parts. Ballena’s cello sang out introducing the theme of the opening Allegro brio, and she had a transporting spot in the penultimate Adagio. Bush was pre-eminent in setting the tone, restless amid the shifting tempos of the opening movement, dreamy in his intro to the Adagio before the strings interceded with their sacramental harmonies, but most mischievous in the even-numbered movements. The second-movement Scherzo suddenly pivoted from a beguiling waltz tempo to a manic chromatic outburst that presaged Shostakovich, up in the treble where the Steinway fared best, and the grandeur he imparted to the Allegro con brio finale was star-spangled American. For Lupanu to dominate amid these exploits from his partners, projecting the joy of the Scherzo and the triumph of the Finale, was quite impressive.

Reboot of I Dream Reminds Us How True Heroes Fight for the Right

Review: I Dream 3.0 from Opera Carolina

 By Perry Tannenbaum

I Dream.

After repeated efforts to capture the essence of Martin Luther King in his twice-revised I Dream, opera composer and librettist Douglas Tappin must keenly appreciate the biblical frustration of Moses on Mount Nebo – and of MLK behind a Memphis lectern on his final night. He has seen the Promised Land, but he cannot get there. For the life of this civil rights hero/icon/martyr is inextricably intertwined with his words, unforgettably spoken in Washington, in Memphis, from his Atlanta pulpit, and written from a Birmingham jail, yet hardly a trace of them can be found in Tappin’s script.

Opera Carolina’s latest remount of I Dream, which premiered in 2010 in Atlanta and reappeared in Toledo and Charlotte in 2018, newly revised for the 50th anniversary of MLK’s assassination, is a more strategically refined and focused dance around the rhetoric with new stage direction – and considerable dramaturgical input – by Tom Diamond. James Meena, now entering his twentieth season as Opera Carolina’s artistic director, once again directed the orchestra, arguably with more ardor than ever for Tappin’s score.

If the music brings Porgy and Bess to mind, your concept likely chimes with Meena’s, for two of his principals, Alyson Cambridge as Coretta Scott King and Victor Ryan Robertson as Hosea, figured prominently in the storied revival of George Gershwin’s opera at Spoleto Festival USA in 2016. Kenneth Overton as Ralph Abernathy and Lucia Bradford as MLK’s Grandma are also steeped in that Gershwin masterwork. Yet it’s equally apt to note the influence of Broadway-style musicals on Tappin, whether it’s the revolutionary fervor of Les Miz or Andrew Lloyd Weber’s notion of opera in his Phantom. Certainly, Tappin’s music disarms any fear of being assaulted by discordant recitative and parched in a desert where no melody or aria is to be heard. On the contrary, ticket holders should brace themselves for a superabundance of power ballads.

The musical climax of the show, in the Birmingham jail, is a duel of power ballads. Robertson challenges the whole non-violent ethos of King’s movement with a spirited, militant “No Victory by Love,” and Derrick Davis as MLK answers – still triumphantly, if audience reaction was any indication – with the anthemic title song. Davis and Tappin are at their best in showing us the visionary MLK and the staunch courage of his non-violent philosophy, but the libretto needlessly attempts to deepen our impression of King as a prophet. Repeatedly, Davis must dwell on a foreboding dream in which he sees the balcony of the Memphis motel where he will be shot.

We must assume that Tappin believes this device cements King’s credentials as a prophet, though it actually undercuts them, for Davis must keep puzzling about the meaning of this dream – which is emphatically not the dream we associate with King – and Overton as Abernathy, instead of all the substantial issues and concerns he might be discussing, must waste his time (and ours) by counseling his leader to confide Tappin’s invention to his dear wife Coretta.

One might quibble over whether MLK really dedicated his career to his Grandma, but Bradford’s rendition of “Sunday Is the Day” was certainly powerful enough to inspire dedication. If Coretta is also a formative presence in MLK’s career, there’s a place for Cambridge to be singing “I Have Love to Give,” since it dovetails with her husband’s story and core beliefs, but “Midnight Moon” merely detains us in generic romance. While repeating a song with new meaning is a traditional Broadway device, it’s a bit problematical in Tappin’s hands. Late in the show when Cambridge sings “Queen Without a King,” she memorably expresses a steely determination to continue her martyred Martin’s work and assume a leadership role, a wisp of Evita that should take firmer root in Tappin’s score. Earlier, the song simply types Coretta as a weepy wife wishing her husband would stay home with family instead of pursuing a noble cause.

Sounding like a swaggering song that Crown might sing in Porgy, “No One’s Gonna Keep Us Down” took us deepest into Gershwin’s bluesy groove, and “Count to 10” worked surprisingly well in espousing MLK’s turn-the-other-cheek credo. “Top of the World,” a song of risqué celebration like “Masquerade” in Phantom, hinted at the danger of celebrity for King that could have made him vulnerable to the scheming of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who gets a sadly superficial airing that is also symptomatic of Broadway. He’s not an implacable Javert, that’s for sure.

If Martin’s womanizing or Hoover’s scandal mongering could have been shown as jeopardizing MLK’s greatest enterprises – the March on Washington, the march on Selma, or the Voting Rights Act – they would have rewarded deeper exploration. But in circling King’s greatest speeches, Tappin barely grazes what Memphis meant and almost completely ignores the March on Washington. That’s nothing short of astonishing vis-à-vis the expectations of an audience coming to see I Dream – until we consider that Tappin is skirting the actual quote, “I have a dream.” Gaping hole there as well.

To be fair, Tappin’s last two revisions were pre-pandemic, when the freshest take on King’s legacy was the Oscar-nominated Selma. No doubt about it, the march on Selma and its aftermath, in a presidential address by Lyndon B. Johnson, are the dramatic high points in Tappin’s revision, in Diamond’s staging, and Michael Baumgarten’s lighting and video design, climbing majestically on the shoulders of the Birmingham sequence. Meena was strong throughout the evening, all through the two hours and 18 minutes that Tappin’s music flowed through him, perhaps strongest when he was needed most, after Davis climbed the ramp to the Memphis motel balcony for the last time.

Before the pandemic, George Floyd, the 2020 landslide election, and January 6, I Dream was more on target than it is today. If he had rewritten his opera after last November, Tappin would likely have sharpened his libretto’s emphasis on the importance of voting rights. A revision after January 6 might have further prompted a reawakening to the significance of the August 28, 1963, March on Washington. For we do need reminding now what peaceful protest really is, how powerful and transformative non-violence can be, and how much more civil “I have a dream” and “We shall overcome” are as rallying cries than “fight like hell or you won’t have a country anymore.”

Sadly, we also need to be reminded that Martin Luther King hoped to move us toward “that day when all God’s children, Black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing.” The “you” that Donald J. Trump was addressing on January 6, 2021, belonged to only one of those groups, preferably those willing to march into the Capitol with a Confederate flag.

Maria Howell Torches the Triumphant Return of Jazz at the Bechtler

Review: Maria Howell and the Ziad Jazz Quartet

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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Among music presenters in Charlotte, tenor saxophonist Ziad Rabie and his Jazz at the Bechtler series were among the first to swing back into action and move their concerts online, “virtually” intact, after the onset of the pandemic last March. Others, including Charlotte Symphony and JazzArts, have returned sooner to live performance, but the Bechtler has insouciantly kept chugging along, finishing its 2020-21 season of first Friday events back in May as they normally would – just before Symphony returned indoors and, like JazzArts, summered in the open air. Retaining his poise, Rabie has brought his quartet, along with popular guest artist Maria Howell, back to the Bechtler right on time for a new season. Ticketing was paperless, proofs of vaccination demanded outdoors before we entered the museum, and masks required unless you were eating or drinking. Lines to the bar, where assorted hors d’oeuvres were also offered, seemed longer than usual, clearly hinting that the audience knew an escape clause when they saw one.

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Starting off with a hot blues, with pianist Noel Freidline and bassist Ron Brendle soloing zestfully after him, Rabie hardly needed to tell us how happy he was to be performing for a live audience again after 18 months. Ripping aside a flame-red mask studded with glitter or rhinestones as she stepped onstage to join the quartet, Howell seemed simpatico with the quartet’s blazing opener, launching into Cole Porter’s “Too Darn Hot” over Rabie’s obbligato. Turning up the wickedness a couple of notches from the Kinsey Report referenced in Porter’s lyric, Howell and the Ziad Quartet went for the jugular with “Hard Hearted Hannah (The Vamp of Savannah),” a crowdpleaser since 1924, with Friedline and Rabie soloing between Howell’s ornery vocals.

After such a raunchy romp, the band must have figured that this was the best moment to ease down to a ballad tempo, and “My Ship” was the most luscious in the set, its wondrous Kurt Weill melody nearly matched by Ira Gershwin’s lyric. Friedline switched to a more precious electronic cocktail-hour sound at the keyboard, and Rabie contributed an eloquent half-chorus after Howell’s vocal, ferrying her back to the bridge. None of the songs that followed would be quite so slow, but Howell modulated deftly between mid and uptempo selections, increasing the pace for Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour” to a genial lope and leaving plenty of space for Freidline and Rabie to frolic. The pianist pranced around on the keys in a manner that recalled Erroll Garner in his intro and solo, and Rabie seemed to catch the same vibe as I had, slipping a few notes from “Misty” into his solo.

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With fair warning that we would need to be alert to keep up with the blur of lyrics (by Johnny Mercer, it turned out), Howell and the quartet went willfully against the grain by red-lining Jerome Kern’s “I’m Old Fashioned,” speeding through two choruses in quick order. Freidline and Rabie took two choruses apiece before Howell’s reprise, the pianist more mischievously by tossing in a snatch of “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top” to cement his old-fashioned credentials. Ably lurking behind and propelling the combo until this point, drummer Al Sergel asserted himself emphatically here, slowing the tempo for Howell’s winsome climax.

If you keep up with Howell’s discography, you know that Freidline is as much her collaborator as the Ziad Quartet’s, so it wasn’t shocking to see Rabie handing over the stage to Howell and the rhythm section for two or three songs. The first of these was customized by Freidline for Howell, a mashup of The Shirelles hit (by Carole King), “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” and Chicago’s considerably less-distinguished “Love Me Tomorrow,” which the singer mercifully devoted less time to. Freidline himself seemed to be more inspired by Harold Arlen’s “A Sleepin’ Bee” after Brendle triggered the groove on bass, and Howell did full justice to the Truman Capote lyric. The wit of Freidline’s quote from “Teach Me Tonight” was only faintly apropos four songs after Howell had referenced Nancy Wilson, but the connection between his snippet from “Honeysuckle Rose” and Howell’s “Bee” was plain enough.

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Rabie’s return coincided with the most orgiastic arrangement so far, a mashup of two Bill Withers hits, “Lovely Day” and “Just the Two of Us.” Here the balance was quite exquisite, for Howell clearly relished “Lovely Day,” which framed the medley, while Rabie had far more to say on “Just the Two of Us,” with two fiery rants. From here, the concert moved to higher and highest ground for Howell’s final two selections. With Freidline switching to a more organ-like sound behind his Yamaha, Howells dug into “Unchain My Heart” as a tribute to Ray Charles, adding a little gospel tang to its rhythm-and-blues. Eager to take wing, Rabie and Freidline both played fills under Howell’s vocal, the saxophonist taking the first solo before the keyboardist sermonized. After Howell revisited the lyric, her entire congregation joined in a rousing concluding riff.

Famous as a James Bond theme song popularized by Carly Simon, Marvin Hamlisch’s “Nobody Does It Better” is so closely identified with Simon’s 1977 single that the power ballad, with lyric by Carol Bayer Sager, has scarcely spawned any jazz covers. Just by being markedly different from the chart-topping hit, Howell’s version was something of a revelation as she positively torched what is usually an aching anthem. Rabie’s solo also revealed the ripeness of this melody for jazz improvisation, and the incantatory ending tacked on by Howell, her quartet jamming behind her, brought her audience spontaneously to their feet. It was an auspicious evening at the Bechtler, a triumph we could joyously cheer.

Remembering in September – While Building Back Better

Review: The Fantasticks at the Palmer Building + Theatre Charlotte Update

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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You don’t need to try very hard to remember why Theatre Charlotte is beginning its 94th season at the Palmer Building. Built on East 7th Street in the late 1930s as part of FDR’s signature Works Progress Administration (WPA) initiative, the place itself gives you a hint. It was built and landscaped by firefighters to be the best training academy in the country and served that purpose for firemen who came after them for over 30 years.

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Late last December, on a slow news night, fire struck Theatre Charlotte’s beloved HQ, nicknamed “the Queens Road barn.” Ignited by the facility’s wayward HVAC system, the fire gouged a sizable trench into the right side of the auditorium. Slammed by COVID lockdowns, scrambling to reconfigure a full season without live performances and sustain their bond with actors and subscribers, Theatre Charlotte had the ground literally taken out from under them by the late-night fire.

One last indignity at the end of a grim 2020 that would already live on in infamy.

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When January dawned, it was clear that the initial damage estimates of $50,000 by fire officials – not trained at the Palmer Building – were far off the mark. Although the exterior at 501 Queens Road looks relatively unscathed from the street, a brief peep inside shows the full toll of the devastation.

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Walls that marked off the box office and administrative quarters from the lobby have been punched away, with only their wooden framework remaining. Looking across the lobby, into the auditorium, and backstage, you won’t find any ceilings, just more woodwork, metalwork and lighting fixtures that the fire’s flames and smoke failed to fry or destroy.

Cleanup took between three and four months, acting executive director Chris Timmons tells me. Not only was the HVAC toast, but so were all the theater’s precious electronics. That $50,000 estimate didn’t come close.

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“Our entire sound and lighting systems were lost, and those items alone total well over six figures,” Timmons reckons. “The latest number we tracked for complete restoration to the building ‘as it was pre-fire’ was in excess of $1 million. Because of some likely unknowns, such as damage not visible and county code requirements, we expect those numbers to change.”

So in recalibrating their 2021-22 season, Theatre Charlotte’s board and staff not only knew that they would need to take their productions on the road, they knew they had none of their old sound and lighting gear to bring with them.

That turns out to be okay when we see The Fantasticks, directed by the venerable Billy Ensley, at the Palmer Building. It’s a well-known title, famously the longest running show in American history. Perhaps more importantly, the show travels light.

Scenery has always been minimal since the musical, written by Tom Jones and composed by Harvey Schmidt, opened off-Broadway at the Sullivan Street Playhouse in May 1960. Instrumentation of the original score was positively gossamer, just a piano and a harp. Not the sort of thing that would work at Belk or Ovens.

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As Theatre Charlotte’s admirable digital playbill points out, startlingly more informative and colorful than their printed programs from past seasons, The Fantasticks started out with nine players, but the cast was winnowed to eight – when a Handyman was no longer needed to come onstage during intermission to fix the lights. Ensley restores the original count by doubling the role The Mute.

Two are arguably better than one when it’s time for The Mute to act as the wall between the homes of lovebirds Matt and Luisa (built by their wily, matchmaking dads, Hucklebee and Bellomy). It also doubles the number of women Ensley can present onstage.

Although I haven’t reviewed a show at the Palmer since 2007, when the now-extinct Pi Productions presented The Guys there, Ensley is likely familiar with the space, since Theatre Charlotte has staged numerous soirees and fundraisers there in the intervening years. What struck me most was the strength of the voices in Ensley’s cast – exactly what is needed if you’re presenting a musical at the Palmer without microphones. Despite the sparse orchestration, there were moments that sounded like we were at the opera.

So you think that’s outlandish? Opera Carolina produced The Fantasticks during the summer of 1994, and Queens University Opera Theatre followed suit in 2004.

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The score is front-loaded with its best music, two of its most familiar songs, “Try to Remember” and “Much More,” starting us off. It doesn’t take long for us to discover how fine and robust all these voices are. Matthew Howie and Jocelyn Cabaniss are the lovestruck teens, open and credulous, while Kevin Roberge and Phil Fowler handle the comedy as their manipulative dads, pretending to feud so that their kids will be all the more drawn together.

Ah, but how shall Hucklebee and Bellomy reconcile so that the two feuding households may live happily ever after? This is where that swashbuckling rogue, El Gallo, comes in. He will abduct Luisa and allow Matt, against all odds and reason, to rescue her. Actually, Mitchell Dudas as El Gallo has been there from the beginning, presiding over the action as our narrator, preening like a latter-day Fabio with flicks of his long hair when the dads hire him, and reminding us – almost exactly 19 years since CPCC brought The Fantasticks to Pease Auditorium – how perfectly suited to the season it is.

It’s El Gallo, after all, who repeatedly sings, “Try to remember the kind of September when life was slow and oh so mellow…” And it’s all the other players who chime in, “Then follow, follow, follow, follow, follow.”

Howie is likely the most familiar youngblood here, having proven his acting skills up in Davidson as the lead in The Curious Incident after an eye-opening turn at Theatre Charlotte as Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors. When Matt boasts of all his heroism in rescuing Luisa from the clutches of El Gallo and his bumbling henchmen, it isn’t nearly as irritating as Hucklebee finds it – so Howie has gauged it perfectly.

Dudas and Cabaniss have lurked more on the periphery in recent years, but Ensley directed Spring Awakening at the Queens Road barn in 2018, so he’s well aware of Cabaniss’s powers. They show out most memorably when she passionately sings “Much More.” Granted, there isn’t much special in watching a guy kiss a girl on the eyes. The magic that Jones tapped into when he wrote this song was Luisa’s aspiration to be that girl. Cabaniss also shines in her climactic duets with Howie, especially the beguiling “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” before intermission.

If Howie and Cabaniss aren’t always as carefully paced, audible, and intelligible when they speak as they are when they sing, rest assured that their elders always are. Roberge and Fowler make a nicely balanced comedy team as the dads – perfect if you conclude that a prime aim of Jones and Schmidt was to juxtapose flamboyance and bluster with simplicity and sincerity. This little stage seems far too small for Roberge and his leonine energy, yet Fowler, more physically imposing, seems perpetually inclined to shrink out of sight.

Reserve and restraint, on the other hand, seem totally alien to Geof Knight and Tim Huffman, both of whom are bluster personified as Henry and Mortimer, El Gallo’s Shakespearean thugs. Watching Huffman perform his multiple dyings, you will likely realize how much, along with Jones’s wall antics, this book leans on the mechanicals and the closing scene of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Yet there’s also Act 2, where all the fairytale “Happy Ending” that’s frozen at intermission is exploded – when lies, fantasies, and perfect bliss collide with the real world. Here we can see that The Fantasticks was not merely derivative but also, very likely, a prime inspiration for Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods.

After the rousing opening performance, Ensley consented to an email exchange where he shared his on-the-road experiences and views. Auditions and early rehearsals for The Fantasticks, he disclosed, had to be transplanted from Queens Road to Dilworth United Methodist Church. An empty Pier One store in Ballantyne subsequently became Theatre Charlotte’s “permanent” rehearsal space for the current season – which will see stops at Dilworth United, The Halton Theater at Central Piedmont, and The Great Aunt Stella Center before Love, Loss, and What I Wore hopscotches between four locations, including the Palmer, next spring.

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Cast and crew arrived at the Palmer for final tech and rehearsals on Sunday, just four days before The Fantasticks opened. Ensley had indeed accounted for the special challenges of the site.

“The Palmer Building only affected casting in that we cast the strongest singers possible, which we would do as a matter of course anyway,” Ensley observes. “The primary thing was to project and enunciate. Also, to adhere to their blocking very closely for lighting purposes as we had limited equipment and flexibility. I feel our lighting designer J.P. Woodey did a great job in a very short amount of time with limited equipment.”

Kudos should likewise go out to Christine VanArsdale at the harp and musical director John Smith at the keyboard. To my great relief, we found staff and audience to be pandemic-diligent. Proof of vaccination or recent COVID testing was required outside the site before we were admitted, touchless electronic ticketing was in place, and your program is a single piece of paper with a QR Code you scan with your smartphone to access the digital playbill. Everyone in the hall (except the performers, of course) wore masks from beginning to end.

“We impressed upon the cast from the very beginning how important the success of this show was and how much Theatre Charlotte valued their talent and their personal commitment to bringing the community live theatre,” Ensley says. “Chris has been wearing a lot of hats and I have been impressed with how well he and the TC staff have been keeping everything going and in a positive and determined way.”

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Topping the company’s priorities are returning to Queens Road for the 2022-23 season and, ultimately building back better. The timetable is only beginning to narrow, for Timmons estimates that, once the reconstruction actually commences, it will take 6-8 months. While Timmons and his wife Jackie Timmons, who serves as director of marketing and development for Theatre Charlotte, are hoping that insurance will cover everything, donations have spontaneously poured in from across the country and through a special Save My Seat Theatre Relief Fund.

Many of the contributors who checked in from far and wide had formative, life-changing experiences at the Queens Road barn.

“Knowing how so many people in the industry were struggling because of the pandemic and receiving support from them at the time of the fire was humbling,” Chris says. Yet the disaster struck at a time when the arts were not only reeling from COVID but also undergoing a Black Lives Matter, We-See-You-White-American-Theatre reckoning.

Timmons doesn’t plan for Theatre Charlotte to be behind the curve in reacting.

“We are taking time to plan for the long-term future of the building,” he says, “how it operates and can better serve our community, and we are looking at enhanced safety and accessibility improvements that may be phased in over the next several years. We don’t want to simply put a fresh coat of paint on the walls and new carpet on the floor and call it a day. We want our facility to be better suited for community partnerships and engagement opportunities that we haven’t been able to accommodate in the past, and we want to showcase more of the creatives who need a voice in our community.”

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Standing about a yard from a partially broken window at 501 Queens Road, a pane framed by countless layers of cracked and gouged paint, Jackie focuses on the near-term, striking a more urgent tone. When I ask about a possible second season on the road beginning next September, she doesn’t hesitate.

“We have to open here next year,” she says. “Finding other venues is too exhausting!”

 

JazzArts Crowns Summer at Victoria Yards With an Epic Triple-Tiered Concert

Reviews: Robyn Springer and Dreamroot

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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As the second year of the pandemic lumbers past the halfway mark and cultural life begins to migrate back indoors – along with our sacrificial schoolchildren – we can only wonder whether outdoor venues like Rivers Green in Charleston and Victoria Yards in Charlotte, pressed by necessity into emergency use, will ever be utilized again on the other side of our global nightmare. At first blush, Rivers Green might have seemed to hold more promise, nestled on a picturesque site behind the College of Charleston library. But with more flexible seating, picnic tables, and provisions for food trucks and restrooms surrounding concertgoers, the more urban Victoria Yards offers a more casual and welcoming experience – and a more sophisticated sound system.

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All of these factors came into play as JazzArts presented a three-tiered event as its 2021 outdoor finale. The JazzArts Youth All-Stars warmed up for the Dreamroot quintet from Durham, who in turn made way for hometown vocalist Robyn Springer – with saxophonist Adrian Crutchfield leading a mini-set before her regal entrance. Nearly three hours long, with two generous intermissions, this robust program was in no hurry to send us home, as so many misguided live and online events have been over the past 17 months. Instead of cowering from COVID, JazzArts offered us extra helpings of escape and joy.

 

Covering such standards as “Someday My Prince Will Come” and “On Green Dolphin Street” while mixing in a couple of originals, Holland Majors was the dominant member of the Youth All-Stars trio – and its spokesman from the keyboard. Holland’s younger sister, Lois Majors, accompanied on the upright bass, making her most impactful contribution as composer of the first original. Upstage behind his drum kit, Samuel David shone brightest in the latter portion of the set, on “Green Dolphin Street” and the original blues that served as the closer. That as-yet-untitled tune was unexpectedly swift and hard-driving for a blues, climaxed by an extended exchange of four-bar volleys from the drummer and the keyboardist. Holland’s sound on the electronic piano was also more satisfying at this point, preferable to the saccharine timbre he often opted for in the early portions of the set.

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Beginning with woodwind player Serena Wiley, who also sings and composes the band’s spoken word segments, Dreamroot is a richly gifted quintet, weaving between commercial and artistic aspirations rather than exploring their trailblazing potential. With less time to stretch out on her flute and tenor saxophone solos, Wiley wasn’t as impressive or technically advanced in her improvisations as Lynn Grissett on his honey-toned trumpet solos. While Grissett delivered the most satisfying individual playing, keyboardist Joe MacPhail frustrated me the most – with the sparsity of his output. After erupting into a spacey, cosmic solo and setting the tone in “Habits,” the second piece of the set, MacPhail only surfaced intermittently afterwards in the soloing.

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Most of the tunes were unannounced, but I filled in gaps with Dreamroot’s 2020 recording, Phases, thanks to Spotify and Wiley’s poetry. Positive ID and spelling were obtained in this manner for three of the songs, “Momentum 7,” “Stridin’,” and “Good Morning Afternoon.” Among the instrumentals, Wiley announced “2AM” from the stage, a mellow ensemble akin to “Good Morning Afternoon” with its slow tempo and rich harmonies. The bopping penultimate tune was “Phase Is,” the closing piece on their similarly named album. Since that studio date, they’ve improved the arrangement and given drummer Theous Jones a much greater opportunity to shine.

With less of a footprint on the major streaming services, Springer was more of an enigma before she performed. Previous blips of her on our radar were both part of JazzArts presentations, a couple of songs as a guest artist in a Matt Lemmler tribute to Stevie Wonder in 2019 and a prerecorded “Santa Baby” (with notably less distinguished backup) in an online Holiday Edition last December. What Springer would program when she was the headliner seemed to be completely up for grabs, though the introductory set led by Crutchfield and a quartet that included two percussionists and an electric guitar presaged a smooth jazz flavor. Our host, Curtis Davenport, priming us to greet the headliner with a rousing ovation, conveyed to us that Ms. Springer intended to “sang,” which implied that there would be some heat involved.

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Among the most familiar songs Springer and her bandmates covered were “Give Me the Night,” “Moondance,” “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” “Lovely Day,” “I Can’t Help It,” and “I Believe in Love,” all of which are over 40 years old. So it may have seemed odd to those in the crowd who reached puberty in the current millennium when Springer archly asked if it would be okay to sing an “old” song before launching into the more ancient “Fever,” in the revised version introduced by Miss Peggy Lee back in 1958. At this inopportune time, since the cat was already out of the proverbial bag, Springer hilariously insisted that it was the song and not she who was old. Sade’s “Keep Looking” soon followed, perhaps the youngest song in the set, released in 1988.

 

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True to her word, Springer made each of these standards her own. Particularly savvy were the inclusions of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’” and “Fever,” each of which comes equipped with stanza breaks that provided Crutchfield and guitarist Joe Lindsay convenient spaces to blow. Part of an all-star Jazz at the Bechtler anniversary celebration just a couple of months before the pandemic struck, Crutchfield blazed most memorably in the interstices of “Moondance” and “Fever.” There was no shortage of voltage from the alto sax on “Knockin’,” but Lindsay, whom I’d never seen or heard of before, absolutely upstaged him on a searing solo that even left Springer gasping in wonderment when he was done. Both soloists excelled equally on “Lovely Day” and afterwards supplied the familiar backup vocals as Springer scatted and vamped to the finish.

Under the lights, everyone onstage was enjoying the show as much as the audience, though the temperature remained in the 80s well after the sun set. Crutchfield was particularly loose by the time we reached “Keep Looking.” As Springer’s vocal gradually built to a boil over Lindsay’s intensifying lines and the seething percussion of Shamon Scull and Corey Johnson, Crutchfield spiced the festivities with capricious snippets from Bizet’s Carmen.

 

Escape… to the East Side

Preview: Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte Rock the Barn

By Perry Tannenbaum

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After more than a year of lockdowns and social distancing, meat shortages and toilet paper shortages, wildfires and hurricanes, astonishing protests and insurrection – along with more Zoomed meetings and celebrations and religious services than anyone could ever have imagined – are we ready to ROCK? Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte and its intrepid executive director, Chip Decker, definitely think so.

They aren’t merely serving up one liberating escape to rock-and-roll heaven. They’re coming at us with a whole Rock the Barn outdoor mini-season. Three shows, hosted by Levine Properties and MoRA, at The Barn – beginning this week.

Head on out with your favorite lawn chair to 8300 Monroe Road, where Decker will direct a nine-person cast in Rock of Ages. Keyboardist Willis Hickerson, Jr., leads the five-man band that will help this motley crew of singers, dancers, slackers, and meanies to deliver more than 30 hits of the ‘80s, many of them calculated to melt our faces off with heavy metal intensity.

That shredding, mind-scrambling mix plays Wednesday through Sunday evenings for four weekends until it closes on August 21. Then the Charlotte premiere of Head Over Heels sashays over to The Barn before Labor Day weekend, an unlikely gender-bending mix of hit music by The Go-Go’s and Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, running from September 1-25.

Ever unconventional, the Actor’s Theatre version of a summer season extends until Halloween, with the Queen City’s dearest cult favorite, The Rocky Horror Show, dropping its special creepshow merriment on The Barn at MoRA’s greensward with an October 6-31 run. Hint: Rocky is like Scarowinds, except it’s for people who might enjoy content, righteously rockin’ music, and not sitting in an endless car caravan on I-77 South.

Glancing at his bottom line, Decker has a bit of an oldies bent himself, bringing back two hits that grossed well for ATC in the past decade, Rocky Horror in 2011 and Rock of Ages in 2015.

“We want to help folks rediscover a sense of normality, of fun, of camaraderie and friendship,” Decker stresses. “This summer, post-COVID, I felt like we all needed a break from everything, and a chance to mentally check out and leave a horrific year behind. Finances are always a concern for a non-profit, but it is almost immeasurable the devastation the pandemic has wreaked on the performing arts organizations around the country. Hundreds of companies have closed, some short-timers, some surprisingly long-established companies that could not, for whatever reason, weather the COVID storm. I am extremely proud of ATC and the fact that we are still here to offer three ‘oldies.’”

The third oldie, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, marks the transition between Act 1 of the company’s 33rd season to an Act 2 indoor season they’re calling An American Tale. The January 2022 production will be the company’s fifth Hedwig since 2003 and their first at Queens University, where ATC is a resident company. It’s been a long time away from Hadley Theater, where the lights last went down on Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill when it closed in February 2020. The beautiful new Sarah Belk Gambrell Center, an added jewel on the Queens campus, will likely wedge its way into ATC’s future plans.

For those who vividly remember ATC’s raunchy 2015 take on Rock of Ages, a burning question might be whether they can reprise the pole-dance choreography outdoors – and how that kind of edginess might play out there on the East Side. In neighboring Matthews, Bonnie & Clyde and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest are as outré and daring as it gets.

So it’s telling that Renee Welsh Noel takes over for Tod A. Kubo, the original Rock choreographer. Kubo slides gracefully over to the director’s slot in Head Over Heels, which is more of a fairy tale in style.

While heaping praise on the support ATC has received from MoRA and businesses along the Monroe Road corridor, Decker freely acknowledges that the reprised Rock won’t be as hard.

“Our aim is to allow a slightly younger teenage crowd, 13+, to enjoy the music their parents loved and see a little naughty shenanigans to boot,” Decker explains, “an experience that both theatregoers will love and have fun at and, at the same time, an event the Summer Rock Concert attendees would get into as well. A sort of Woodstock/Theatre-in-the-Park extravaganza. The shows are silly fun but with great music, and our singers are excellent and the band is kick-ass!”

Fronting the flimsy plot and driving the action are two longtime ATC vets, Ryan Stamey as Lonny Barnett and – one of two holdovers from the 2015 production – Jeremy DeCarlos as Dennis Dupree. Owner of a sleazy, rundown club in ‘80s LA, Dennis is facing financial ruin as greedy German developers are poised to take over, not above bribing the mayor to have their way.

DeCarlos triumphed over the schlocky Chris D’Arienzo script in 2015, “zigzagging between fine hash mellow and bad trip freak-out” as Dennis, according to this reviewer. With as much range and versatility as any performer we’ve seen at ATC, does DeCarlos mess with success?

Yes…and no. He thought he had a fresh brilliant motivation for Dennis…

“Until we got to the read-thru and I realized ‘Wait, this was the idea I had LAST time…!’” DeCarlos recalls. “Part of my process as a performer compels me to find new things and new discoveries in playing a familiar character. So, I’m hoping those that know Dennis will still see familiar shades of my previous version a few years back, but layered into something a little different. I like to think of ‘Old’ Dennis as a mixture of David Lee Roth and Shaggy from Scooby Doo. I’ve been having a lot of fun finding ‘New’ Dennis’s mixture while keeping true to some shades of the ‘Old.’”

If cooped-up audiences are eager to cut loose, DeCarlos reminds us that performers feel very much the same. The ace actor and singer also plays guitar, so – counting in ATC productions that had to scrapped or delayed during the pandemic – DeCarlos estimates that four or five gigs disappeared from his docket. The effect was visceral for him. Yet with all that has happened politically, racially, and pandemically over the past 16 months, DeCarlos feels that Dennis is the right way for him to roll, rather than with heavier fare.

“I do think coming back with something fun,” he says, “definitely works a little better to release any pent-up frustrations from the pandemic. The first few nights of coming back to rehearsals made it pretty clear that this cast was ready to cut-up and fool around. After such a serious year, it’s been amazing having an opportunity to let loose and make each other laugh!”

Stamey is also one of the most versatile guys in the ATC stable, sometimes toiling behind the scenes as a music director. Since 2007, however, when he introduced the role of the volatile, Sharpie-sniffing Duke in The Great American Trailer Park Musical, singing the showstopping “Road Kill,” Stamey is best known for his trashy wildman antics. Your basic ex-boyfriend-from-hell roles.

Yet he was too young to experience the highest decibels of the ‘80s as a teen.

“The 80s were actually my elementary school years,” Stamey confesses. “Funny enough, I went to a very strict Free Will Baptist Christian school back then. In 3rd grade, our teacher thought we were old enough to teach us about the evils of heavy-metal music. He explained to a bunch of 9-year-olds about pentagrams, and upside-down crosses, and deals with the devil, and backmasking, and heads of doves being bitten off by rock singers. I remember some kids crying as he played music backwards and told us the Satanic messages he thought he heard in the music, all while having a Satanic Bible at his lectern. Needless to say, I was pretty terrified of rock music, particularly heavy-metal music, at that age.”

Until the revelations of Napster during his college years, Stamey didn’t begin to appreciate, download, or catch up on all he had missed. Now he’s catching up with Rock of Ages as Lonny, the man with the plan, the story, and the persuasive powers. Working at the Bourbon Room as Dennis’s soundman, a side-hustle since he’s our narrator, Lonny persuades his boss to hire young rocker Drew, a hunk who aspires to superstardom but is currently content to sweep the floors. More importantly, he advises Dennis on a can-miss scheme to call in old favors and save the club.

If that isn’t enough, Lonny tells us what’s still missing from the story. Romance!

With masterworks by Bon Jovi, Pat Banatar, and REO Speedwagon in the abundant songlist of this jukeboxer, Stamey has a surprising favorite.

“One of my favorite songs was ‘High Enough’ by Damn Yankees,” he reveals. “It was just so epic and dramatic, and the harmonies you could sing with it! It’s one of the moments when the whole cast is getting a chance to just stand and sing their faces off, and it gives me chills every time.”

Kubo’s defection from Rock of Ages won’t rob ATC loyalists of seeing his choreography, for on top of his directing chores, he will be furnishing the dance moves in Head Over Heels. Like Hedwig and the 2022 premiere of Ghosts of Bogotá, this Go-Go’s/Sir Philip mashup was originally envisioned as part of the company’s lost Season 32. In terms of topicality, this James Magruder adaptation, premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015 and greatly altered for its 2018 Broadway run, is noticeably edgier – and newer – than ATC’s other outdoor shows.

Head Over Heels celebrates the LGBTQIAPK+ community unlike any Broadway musical of our time and puts a non-binary character at the center of our story!” says Kubo. “This old Elizabethan story of Arcadia, mixed with the high energy musical catalog of the Go Go’s, is very relatable to today’s audience and is easy to follow.”

So don’t be intimidated by the 1300-word synopsis of the action in Wikipedia.

“While our story will be told through a funky Elizabethanesque lens, with costumes [by Carrie Cranford] that will reflect elements of that era, the scenery [by Decker] provides an industrial, rock concert backdrop – with surprises of its own.”

Aside from the title tune, expect the newly formed 14-member ensemble to exhume “We Got the Beat,” “Mad About You,” “Our Lips are Sealed,” and “Turn to You” from the all-female Go-Go’s golden vaults. Henri Freeman has won the coveted non-binary role of Pythio. After achieving fame in 2017 on RuPaul’s Drag Race, Peppermint became the first openly trans woman to play a principal role on Broadway as Pythio.

“There are many twists, turns and surprises we have in store and can’t wait to share Head Over Heels with the Queen City,” Kubo says. Rehearsals begin next month.

We haven’t seen yet how Decker & Co. are adapting The Barn at MoRA to outdoor theatre, but it sounds like plenty of cover will be provided for the musicians’ electronics and the actors’ mics, for Chip is telling us that shows will go on under most weather conditions. You can also expect that your tickets will provide you with a clearly delineated, socially-distanced spot on the well-maintained MoRA field.

“Everyone should bring a folding chair,” says Decker, “so while the ground may be wet, your chair won’t be. Be prepared for rain, heat, wind, snow, frost warnings, tornadoes, typhoons and other weather anomalies. Unless there are high winds, thunder and or lighting, all shows will go on.”

Comedy and sexiness were the ingredients that made ATC’s 2015 version of Rock of Ages, directed by Decker, so much better than the comparatively staid and respectful touring version that came to the Queen City in 2011. Eagerness and glee seem to be carryovers in the upcoming revival – largely because everyone involved feels the jubilation of emerging from our national hibernation and getting back to work.

“We’ve all been isolated for so long,” DeCarlos asserts, “that I think we’re dying to let loose the energy that’s been building up in us over the pandemic, and that’s making us try lots of stuff to generate some really silly stuff!”

Stamey is definitely getting a kick from the special circumstances as he conspires with his co-star.

“After years of doing shows at Actors Theatre, it’s like working with family now,” he says. “My favorite part of this experience has been getting to be the Lonny to Jeremy’s Dennis, and Chip just letting us be completely stupid and just play around and try new things, new gags, new ideas. There have been many moments where I can barely contain my laughter when we are working through a scene as I’m watching Jeremy’s Dennis do something completely ridiculous.”

Part of this escape – for us all – is remembering how to have fun.

Hitting the (Monroe) Road With a Slightly Toned-Down Rock of Ages

Review: Rock of Ages at The Barn @ MoRA

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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As the exit ramp from the pandemic keeps getting longer, summertime urges to break out of isolation, let loose, and rock out aren’t likely to back up now. In this confused and anxious moment, Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte has taken a nicely calculated route to satisfying these urges, moving from their established HQ at Queens University to the outdoors and presenting a three-show “Rock the Barn” mini-season of three rock musicals out on Monroe Road. The first of these, Rock of Ages, has begun a run that will play to fans of ‘80s heavy metal and power ballads through August 21.

Days are still long enough so that shows begin before dark, but when night falls, Biff Edge’s lighting design gradually becomes gaudier, smoke effects play better, and we’re immersed in a true arena rock vibe. Musicians and actors are covered by a massive pavilion while ticketholders bring lawn chairs and experience the musical on a gently sloping lawn. ATC executive director Chip Decker assured us that the grounds at The Barn at MoRA (Monroe Road Area or Monroe Road Advocates, take your pick) had been sprayed for bugs, and indeed, although one of the critters crashed into my face during the full-length show, none bit.

Decker had directed an indoor production of Rock of Ages back in 2015, finding far more humor in Chris D’Arienzo’s book than the touring production of 2011 had brought to us and adding far more energy with Tod Kubo’s raunchy choreography. This time around, Decker wanted to play to a younger crowd, sidestepping some of the previous sleaze that might affright locals on the east side of town. A portion of that R-rated content had been achieved with scanty costuming and zesty pole dancing, but only one of these can be readily exported to the great outdoors. Taking over for Kubo, Renee Welsh Noel is not at all timid with her choreography, lavishing plenty of bumps and grinds for our delectation when the action moves from the rockin’ Bourbon Room to the salacious Venus Club, and costume designer Carrie Cranford’s working gear for Sherrie Christian, our heroine, credibly delivers what her customers would desire.

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Sherrie and our hero, Drew Boley, converge in LA sometime in 1987 and are briefly co-workers at the Bourbon Room. Since D’Arienzo’s book is tasked with connecting about 30 songs filled with teen passion and suffering, Drew and Sherrie’s romance is predictably rocky, filled with misunderstandings, bitterness, regret, and compromising situations before we come anywhere near a first kiss. At times, the couple fades into the background because the main plot and its complications concern the imperiled Bourbon Room, owned and managed by beloved goofball Dennis Dupree with the assistance of Lonny Barnett, his soundman and our narrator.

This cherished Sunset Strip landmark is targeted by the greedy German real estate developer Hertz Klinemann and his submissive son Franz for liquidation. Funky neighborhood and cultural treasures yielding to real estate profiteers and gentrification? That only happens in real life – not in feel-good movies and musicals. City planner Regina Koontz, do-gooder and rabble-rouser, pushes back against the Klinemanns, hatching a couple of nifty plot twists and song assignments before the blissful finale.

As Decker foretold in his welcoming remarks, performing on the grounds of The Barn at MoRA is a bit of a leap into the unknown, and he hoped the top of the pavilion would hold fast after being blown away during rehearsals. A plucky last-minute soundcheck by Cranford, doubling as our production manager, provided further reason for us to keep our fingers crossed when the show began. Thankfully, she concentrated on Elizabeth Medlin and Grant Zavitkovsky, who play the temperamental Sherrie and Drew. Cliched as they may be as lovebirds, they needed to have the best mics for their songs.

When things were going badly, when Drew was hoodwinked by record producer Ja’Keith Gill into fronting a boy band while Sherrie had been recruited by Justice Charlier into the degradations of the Venus Club, their anguished duet on Damn Yankees’ “High Enough” came across like the climactic highlight it was intended to be. By that time, we could chuckle a bit as we noticed that Decker had placed Zavitkovsky and Medlin at opposite sides of the stage to belt out their harmonies. Close contact between even the best mics onstage almost invariably led to lethal feedback blasting through the loudspeakers. Mercifully, these blasts were on the low end of the audio spectrum rather than high squeals.

The chief roadblock to romantic bliss between Sherrie and Drew is the awesome rock icon, Stacee Jaxx, coerced by Dennis to help raise funds for the Bourbon Room and prevent the Klinemanns from taking over. We quickly see the rowdiness and lawlessness that has alienated Stacee from Arsenal, the hit band that made Jaxx a star. Decker has sprung a surprise here, for the role played onscreen by Tom Cruise switched genders and Stacee was now sung by Shea – not with the best of the mics – adding new twists to Sherrie’s sexuality and Drew’s jealousy.

Medlin didn’t get a shot at the pole dance Decker staged in 2015, nor can we pity her any longer as a rape victim, but she definitely turned up the heat on the lap dance she performed for Stacee at a less provocative Venus Club. Less obvious are the benefits of Decker’s rethinking of Drew, for Zavitkovsky has the steely larynx needed to wail this rockstar wannabe, but his looks, while wholesome enough, allow more readily for failure – and the direction where this plot is actually headed.

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Jeremy DeCarlos as Dennis got his mic working intermittently, a definite improvement after his inaudible soundchecks, partnering well with Ryan Stamey as Lonny, who wrestled ebulliently with similar variables in his signature wild-man style. Nevertheless, dialogue and plot grew as foggy as the two flawless fog machines facing the stage when Katy Shepherd stepped forward in rather butch fashion as Regina and we needed to rely on Ryan Stinnett’s mic as Hertz and Jamaas Britton’s as Franz to keep track of the plot. Yet the three of them collaborated more than effectively enough, aided by a couple of tearaway costumes, to deliver the high comedy voltage of Pat Banatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.”

With a more colorful costume, better lighting, and a better mic, Tony Mullins as Ja’Keith fared better on opening night than Shaniya Simmons as Justice. While lights and sound seemed to let Shea down and tamp down Stacee’s villainy – if a heavy-metal villain isn’t a sort of oxymoron – the setup for the five-piece band, including two guitars and led by Jessica Borgnis on keys, held rock-steady throughout the evening.

That was often bad news for the audience when we needed to hear the singers and discern the lyrics they sung over their relatively underpowered mics. As a result, the show remained more compelling for the older generation lounging on their lawn chairs, those spry folk already familiar with the oeuvre of Banatar, Yankees, Poison, Twisted Sister, Whitesnake, REO Speedwagon, Quiet Riot, Bon Jovi, and David Lee Roth. As for me, “Waiting for a Girl Like You” and “I Want to Know What Love Is” had me thinking that the collected works of Foreigner might be worth looking into.