Upstairs/Downstairs in a Haunted House

Preview: The Great Beyond and The Ghost of Splinter Cove

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

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

Review:  Peter Pan

By Perry Tannenbaum

Peter Pan 2

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

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

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

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

Nah, I shouldn’t give it away.

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

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

Jean Pierre Bonnefoux's Peter Pan_Elizabeth Truell and Peter Mazurowski_Photo by Taylor Jones_7936-2

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

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

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

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

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

A Jamaican Fantasy With a Reggae Beat

Review: Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

DSC01522

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

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

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

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

DSC00925

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

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

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

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

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

DSC01151

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

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

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

Cherokee Anguish Upstages “Sleeping Beauty” in Symphony Concert

Review:  Sleeping Beauty

By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Traveling Light, Pan Harmonia Brings Resounding Lyricism and Beauty to Abbey Basilica

Review: Pan Harmonia

By Perry Tannenbaum

2019~Pan Harmonia-07

Based in Asheville, Pan Harmonia can muster a wide variety of chamber music combos, listing 18 performing musicians at their website on their roster for the current season. For their most recent outing, they traveled light to Belmont College, where Pan Harmonia founder, flutist Kate Steinbeck teamed with harpist Jacquelyn Bartlett in an Arts at the Abbey concert. Although there is relatively scant repertoire written for flute and harp, a simple Spotify search will confirm that recordings abound.

My search didn’t uncover any notable music that paired the instruments together before Mozart’s Concerto in C for Flute and Harp in 1778. Nor did I find a flute and harp recording for the two solo instruments that pre-dated the 1964 collection by flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal and harpist Lily Laskine, where pieces by Rossini, Fauré, Ibert, Damase, and J.B. Krumpholz were programmed – one of my earliest LPs and still a favorite. The two sounds complement each other ideally, the harp providing a watery or ethereal medium where the flute can glide and soar.

Atmosphere at the Abbey Basilica was a little more polished and formal than usual. Nobody was still onstage rehearsing when we took our seats, and when Karen Hite Jacob stepped up to a marble lectern to offer her customary introduction, her microphone worked so we could hear her. Anyone unfamiliar with the works recorded by flute-and-harp would have found the entire Pan Harmonia program fresh and new, with works by Jacques Ibert, Camille Saint-Saëns, Dana Wilson, Joseph Jongen, Osvaldo Lacerda, Alan Hovhaness, and Witold Lutoslawski. Starting off with Ibert and Saint-Saëns, the affable duo was actually leading off with two of the most recorded pieces in the repertoire.

2019~Pan Harmonia-15

Ibert’s “Entr’acte” may be the most-often covered of all, appearing in the landmark Rampal-Laskine collection just 10 years after it was written, according to the liner notes. It was a particularly tough test for Steinbeck, for Ibert begins with a challenging run, fairly up in the instrument’s range, that’s hard enough for a flutist to play cleanly even when the Basilica’s warm acoustic isn’t punctuating the run with echoes. The first iteration of that run was a bit shrill and sloppy, mainly because Steinbeck was too vigorous – keyed up, perhaps – in her attack. But Ibert provided numerous reprises of his catchy run, and the ones that ensued were calmer and more controlled. After Bartlett plucked the exquisite harmonics midway through, Steinbeck’s grace notes were more graceful.

Saint-Saëns’s Op. 37 “Romance” was written for flute or violin, but as Bartlett explained, the accompaniment was originally for piano and subsequently adapted to harp. The adaptation proved to be very challenging, varied, and delightful in Bartlett’s hands, ideally suited for harp, while Steinbeck’s playing was also more appealing at a slower tempo, as she nestled into her instrument’s luxurious midrange, and dialed in her dynamics more felicitously. After these two flute-and-harp chestnuts, Dana Wilson’s “And longing to be the singing master of my soul” was the rarest work of the evening, commissioned for Steinbeck by her husband in 2011.

2019~Pan Harmonia-16

Taking his title from Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium,” a goldmine of quotes beginning with “no country for old men” in the opening line, Wilson emphatically shone the spotlight on the flutist in this duet, not only giving Steinbeck some attractive blue notes at the start of the piece but also clearing the way later on for a cadenza with impressive virtuosic sparkle.

Jongen’s “Danse Lente” was as beautifully balanced between the two players as the Saint-Saëns piece. Perhaps buoyed by her conquest of the Wilson cadenza, Steinbeck reached loftier levels of confidence and joy, her soaring highs as attuned to the Basilica’s acoustics as her luscious midrange, while Bartlett reasserted herself as a full partner in the musicmaking. Bartlett was a prime factor in establishing the Brazilian ambiance of “Balada” with her pellucid harp intro, but there was plenty of idiomatic writing for the flute as well, even a couple of opportunities for Steinbeck to impart a samba sway to her performance.

Clearly the chief work of the evening was The Garden of Adonis by Hovhaness, inspired by Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene. If you’re already familiar with Hovhaness, it’s likely because of the sterling advocacy by Gerard Schwarz, director of the annual Eastern Music Festival in Greensboro. Schwarz hasn’t recorded all of this American’s 70+ symphonies, but he has certainly led stirring versions of the mighty orchestral titles we associate with Hovhaness, including “And God Created Great Whales” and “Mount St. Helens.” So it might be surprising to discover that there’s a whole Telarc album in the Hovhaness discography of various compositions for harp with a 73-minute playing time.

As promised by Bartlett, the music had a definite Eastern flavor, but the surprise – especially if you weren’t aware of the composer’s deep affection for the harp – came after the opening Largo ended with a lovely diminuendo from both players. Bartlett didn’t merely set the tone for the ensuing Allegro, she soloed extensively – at a dramatically louder volume than anything she had played before. The sound filled the Basilica with ravishing beauty. Another transcendent solo from Bartlett started off the “Adagio, Like a Solemn Dance” section, but Steinbeck was not to be outdone, taking us into the open air we’re accustomed to from Hovhaness with a floating melody that transitioned to birdlike cadenzas later in the same “Dance” and in the “Allegro” that followed, executing swift runs and wide intervals with aplomb. Loveliness and loneliness were intertwined.

A dark and somber ostinato from Bartlett set up the Allegretto after a rather sylvan Grave movement, but although this was listed as the final movement in the Arts at the Abbey program, I believe that the duo played the concluding Andante molto espressivo as well. Wherever she finished, Steinbeck seemed to have reached a special plateau of intimacy with the hall, playing with the echoes that the Basilica blandished on her flute instead of battling them.

The concert concluded with “Three Fragments” by Lutoslaski, pretty much obviating the need for encores after Hovhaness’s lush and lyrical tribute to Spenser. Both Steinbeck and Bartlett seemed to be visibly relaxed, though that didn’t mean they were slowing down. The opening “Magie” snippet was swift and slightly anxious, and the closing “Presto” was fleet, agile, and merry. In between, Steinbeck and her distinctive modern flute, crafted with black wood, were able to infuse sweetness and lyricism into the “Ulysse en Itaque” section, and Bartlett was able to wrap her partner’s melody in delicate embroidery. For those among the large crowd who had been drawn to the Abbey Basilica by an intuition telling them that flute and harp would make an exquisite combination, Pan Harmonia had rewarded their instincts.

Resettling in the Rubble

Review:   By the Water

By Perry Tannenbaum

IMG_3340

Compared with Cape Hatteras, Wilmington, or Charleston here in the Carolinas, the borough of Staten Island up in New York City hasn’t historically been known as a punching bag for hurricanes. Until late 2012, when Hurricane Sandy battered three NYC boroughs, Staten Island was hardly in the conversation when compared even with nearby Long Island. Zeroing in on the impact of Sandy on a Staten Island family and community, Sharyn Rothstein’s By the Water not only changes the conversation, it also fiddles with history.

Taking in Ryan Maloney’s storm-ravaged set design at Duke Power Theater, with its waist-high waterline, you would likely expect Rothstein’s drama to be about the folly of resettling near a hurricane-prone shore. Or we might assume we’ll encounter the innocent victims of unscrupulous real estate developers, or come face-to-face with the new New York calculus of climate change. None of the working-class folk in this Three Bone Theatre production, smartly directed by Ron Law, seems capable – or sufficiently woke – to address any of these subjects.IMG_3234

As a result, the topicality of By the Water becomes rather shrouded in a mist of Murphy family grudges and disputes, further distanced from pressing issues that might concern us by the neighboring Carter family’s involvement. The Murphys seem as broken, fallible, and struggling as the Lomans were in Death of a Salesman, and the heads of this devastated household, Marty and Mary, have a fairly similar relationship.

For Marty, it’s axiomatic that he should rebuild and restart. To his eldest son, Sal, it’s obvious that his dad should move to higher, safer ground – and way past time that his mom stop blindly supporting whatever Dad says, especially after all his past misjudgments and misdeeds. Philip and Andrea Carter, the Murphys’ longtime friends and neighbors, have decided that they wish to accept a government buyout and move to Montclair, New Jersey.

But this isn’t a laissez-faire situation, where the Murphys and the Carters are free to do whatever they wish, no harm done. The government’s offer to the Carters and other survivors in the neighborhood will be withdrawn unless 80% of the community decides to sign on. Marty is fervid enough about his cause to go out picketing against the buyout.

A stretch at a hotel and returning to a home that boasts a few sticks of furniture, a hardy fridge, and the better part of one wall is starting to fray Mary’s unquestioning loyalty to her husband. The younger son, Brian, is returning home after a stretch of own – in prison as a result of his past drug addiction. He sides with his dad, seemingly to keep his favor, but his endorsement is tainted by his rap sheet, and he’s actually more intent on regaining the affections of the Carters’ daughter, Emily. Her parents, of course, know all about him, so they don’t approve.

Could work in Brian’s favor, right? He and Emily are both City kids. Minds of their own.

IMG_3248

A corner of the stage is set aside for the wee wharf where Brian and Emily rendezvous, providing a respite from the family quarreling and the neighborhood politics, which grew a little repetitious during the 91-minute performance on opening night. More substance in the debate would have dispelled the tedium. It might have been worth pondering what government should and shouldn’t subsidize on these fragile wetlands. And a more eloquent Marty might voice the notion that, given the historical infrequency of tropical storms and hurricanes hitting Staten Island, it’s not such a stupid plan to live out the 20-30 remaining years of your life in the house your father built rather than transplanting to Montclair.

While Rothstein does disappoint me on topicality, and in giving us any sense that she’s intensively researched the Tri-State housing market or Marty’s prospects for homeowner’s insurance, there are times when she brings us vividly into the moment. Despite skirting the basic survivalist questions of home life without a roof, the playwright etches her characters with finely judged individuality and gives us a nuanced feel for the Murphys’ family dynamics.

Law and his cast are definitely on Rothstein’s wavelength, and the only major mistake they make is in overestimating the Duke’s acoustics. As the inimitable Tania Kelly demonstrated last year in Three Bone’s Every Brilliant Thing, it’s easy to convince yourself that you’re being heard up in the balcony when people are actually having problems in the second row.

While you might not catch the ends of all of Marty’s sentences, Thom Tonetti delivers all of the outsized personality and bossiness that fosters Mary’s adoration and submission. We are definitely dealing with a force that can sway community sentiment when we encounter Tonetti, and we are not surprised to learn that Marty is capable of taking audacious and catastrophic risks. Physically, Susan Stein projects the frailty that perfectly fits Mary but with a salty New York accent that constantly reminds us of the street savvy and toughness that lurk within. There’s a tenseness and pallor to Stein as well, hinting that Mary has reached the end of her tether.IMG_3301

Law would have been safer casting an older actor to get the right look for Sal, the elder son, but there’s no doubt that Tommy Prudenti captures his straight-arrow essence in his Charlotte debut. Sal is a living white-collar rebuke of his father’s values, yet at key moments, Prudenti convinces us that he still craves Dad’s love. Tim Hager’s portrait of Brian adds another black sheep to his gallery, and if you saw his Franz in Three Bone’s Appropriate last summer, you won’t be surprised that he’s as lovable a reprobate up in the New York City wetlands as he was down on the bayou.

The accent is different, but this bad boy remains a magnet for one unattached lady who may be ready to rekindle an old pre-prison flame. I think you’ll like the sassy flavor that Sonia J. Rosales brings to Emily in her Charlotte debut. She’s certainly more liberated than the two moms we see here.

It’s slightly surprising to see Law pairing Lillie Oden with Joe Copley as the Carters, but they work beautifully together. Opposed to the Murphys’ plans, there’s a clear gender difference in how their oppositions play out. Like Mary, Oden as Andrea is more apt to be conciliatory, and like Marty, Copley as Philip inevitably becomes enraged and bellicose. You get the idea that Rothstein believes that the world would be so much more peaceful and sensible if women were in charge. But where would her drama be without all her guys?

 

Messing Up Asia, American Style

Review: Miss Saigon

By Perry Tannenbaum

06.MISS_SAIGON_TOUR_9_21_18_5953 r photo by Matthew Murphy“Un bel di,” Cio-Cio-San famously warbled at the 1904 premiere of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, yearning for the return of American Lieutenant Pinkerton from across the Pacific to honor their marriage vows and his responsibilities toward their son. Four score and seven years later, the scene shifted from Japan to Vietnam for Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s Miss Saigon, where Kim sang, “I Still Believe,” yearning for the return of American Staff Sgt. Chris – for exactly the same reasons.

We haven’t seen a touring production of Miss Saigon at Belk Theater in over 15 years. In the meantime, a new production directed by Laurence Connor came to Broadway in the spring of 2017 and folded in less than 10 months. The two key players in the recent remount both had Charlotte connections. Eva Noblezada, who snagged a Tony Award nomination as Kim, won the 2013 Blumey Award at Belk Theater as the best actress in a high school musical. And playing The Engineer, the most electrifying of Boublil’s new characterizations, Jon Jon Briones reprised the role he had played in the low-budget, copter-less production that landed at the Belk in November 2003.

I had to wonder whether the Broadway revival of Miss Saigon had been so short-lived because of the changes Connor had made to the 1991 original or because of changes the show still needed.

08.MISS_SAIGON_TOUR_Thuy's death crop

In the heat of the Vietnam War and the fall of Saigon, both Kim and Chris had noticeably evolved compared with their operatic ancestors. Chris tried to take Kim with him as the Vietcong overran the capital. He sought to locate Kim after he returned safely to Atlanta, and he seemed honestly conflicted between his true love and his wife, Ellen. Kim had also evolved, no longer the shy, passive, pitiful flower Puccini immortalized. There was steel and ferocity in her: she’d murder the Commie who threatened the life of her son.

Yet in some ways, the 1991 Broadway musical was more primitive and insensitive than the 1904 opera.

Schönberg and Boublil were less respectful toward the culture of the Vietnamese than Puccini was toward the culture of Japan in Butterfly or China in Turandot. Except for the costumes and a brief wedding ceremony, there was hardly any indigenous culture in Saigon – and not a whiff of Asian music. Even the piety that Puccini dramatized in his Asian operas has vanished. Bar Girls that we notice in Saigon are scantily clad whores, usually spreading their legs when they aren’t face to face with a GI’s crotch.02.MISS_SAIGON_TOUR_2549

 

Love as a romantic concept is strictly confined to Kim, and the two Asian men who want her don’t seem to be familiar with the word. Thuy, who returns to Ho Chi Minh City as a conqueror after defecting to the Vietcong, views Kim as his rightful possession – and her son as a repugnant atrocity. Her protector is The Engineer, a slimy pimp who initially installs Kim in his sex stable as a virgin delicacy and subsequently views her and Tam, Chris’s American citizen son, as his passport to the USA.

The most nuanced aspect of Boublil’s book was the opposition he set up between Thuy and The Engineer. Clad in his military uniform, Commissar Thuy was the embodiment of the Communism we were battling to keep at bay. Devoid of warmth, tenderness and humanity, he was a totalitarian gargoyle. The Engineer, on the other hand, was pure venal enterprise, emblematic of the insidious corruption that American capitalism always leaves in its wake.

It was horrifying – and strangely exhilarating – to see how totally The Engineer had absorbed our perverted values in his climactic showstopper, “The American Dream.” Part of the reason that Americans came home feeling that the Vietnamese hadn’t been worth fighting and dying for, after all, stemmed from the unsavory effects of our being there and spreading our influence.

Well, the new Miss Saigon didn’t show me any more empathy toward the Vietnamese than before, nor any more of their indigenous culture. If anything, The Engineer and his Bar Girls seemed raunchier, more mercenary, and more degraded than I had remembered. Downsized to more realistic proportions, Red Concepción’s portrayal of The Engineer is more quietly servile and less flamboyant than Joseph Anthony Foronda’s was in 1997, the first time a prop copter landed at the Belk. So when Concepción suddenly breaks into his “American Dream,” the fantasy isn’t just what The Engineer’s life will be on richer USA soil, it’s also a fantasy about who he will become.

05.MISS SAIGON. Company. Photo Matthew Murphy and Johan Persson (2)

Yes, the copter is back on the Belk stage during the fall of Saigon for the first time in over 21 years, and so is the shiny Cadillac where The Engineer, humping the hood, has an orgasm during his fantasy. The years haven’t been as kind to Kim. We expect more of our female heroes nowadays, so killing a Commie no longer earns Kim an exclamation mark.

Working within the traditional Cio-Cio-San constraints, Emily Bautista is more assertive and less decorous as Kim, getting two duets with the “other woman,” outshining Stacie Bono as Ellen on both occasions. A generic belter, Bono makes Bautista look better than Andreane Neofitou’s bland costumes do. Sprucing up his script, Boublil has added a Trump slogan to The Engineer’s spiel and a Mormon to the rascal’s clientele. Maybe the latter is the inspiration for Adrian Vaux’s design concept, which brings a Third World squalor to Saigon and to Bangkok that reminds me of the Africa where the missionaries of The Book of Mormon were deployed.

Bautista brings the most beauty to Kim when she sings her lovely “The Last Night of the World” duet with Anthony Festa as Chris. Festa gives Chris more texture than I would have thought possible, making me wish that Boublil hadn’t taken Pinkerton’s rehab quite so far. Kim begins as a $50 gift from his best bud John, Chris’s PTSD is all about Kim rather than battle fatigue or horrific warfare. The bravest action Festa gets to perform is filling Ellen in on all he has hidden from her about that last night before he climbed onto the US Marines helicopter – and all the news he has just learned about his son.

Getting the word from J. Daughtry as John certainly doesn’t boost the drama. Another generic belter, Daughtry sings his “Bui-Doi” (“dust of life”) appeal for the stigmatized mixed-race children of Saigon’s streets as if he were a competitor on The Voice rather than a contrite vet in a poignant Broadway show. True, Daughtry came to life nicely later in Act 2, showing what he was capable of dramatically when John, Chris, and Ellen tracked down Kim and The Engineer, now refugees in Bangkok. Before receding into the ensemble (perhaps not as inconspicuously as he should), Jinwoo Jung was a malign force to be reckoned with as Commissar Thuy, especially when Chris wasn’t around in Saigon to protect Kim.

In fairness to the cast, conditions at the Performing Arts Center weren’t ideal for performing – or reviewing – a big-budget Broadway musical. Because of travel and load-in delays, the curtain time was rescheduled from 7:30 pm to 8:00. But the first notes of the overture weren’t played until 8:37, long after we had finally been seated. Intermission lasted over 32 minutes, so when Act 2 started, it was nearly 10:25, past the time when the show would normally end . Maybe that’s why the production fell short of my hopes when the curtain fell an hour later.

Or maybe, just maybe, the clock has struck midnight on a sob story that first opened on Broadway in 1900 as a one-act play by David Belasco. Instead of Belasco, or Puccini’s librettists, or Boublil looking into the heart of a Japanese geisha or a Vietnamese bar girl, maybe it’s time that this story was retold from an Asian viewpoint by an Asian writer.

Charlotte Symphony Concertmaster Spearheads a Devastating “Scheherazade”

Review:  Scheherazade

By Perry Tannenbaum

Among over 100 versions of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade that you can find on Spotify, the name of the violinist who plays the title role, in rare instances, will appear on the album cover. Given the enduring popularity of this Arabian Nights suite and the challenges it presents for our narrator, you can probably assume that the part of Scheherazade would be a prime arrow for an aspiring concertmaster to have in his or her quiver. Charlotte Symphony’s ace violinist, Calin Ovidiu Lupanu, proved once again that he had it. Unlike his previous triumph at Belk Theater as the spellbinding Arabian in 2009, Lupanu didn’t upstage conductor Christopher Warren-Green, who was then auditioning for the music directorship he now holds. No, this triumph could be credited to the entire orchestra, a redemption that was lifted even higher with a sense of renewal as Symphony’s new principal clarinetist Taylor Marino and their new principal bassoonist Olivia Oh made auspicious Belk Theater debuts. The program was also more propitiously supplemented, with the prelude to Englebert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel launching the evening and Richard Strauss’s youthful Don Juan bringing us to intermission.

If you were expecting that lineup to be altogether spirited, lyrical, and upbeat, Humperdinck’s “Prelude” would have been a surprise. After Warren-Green dedicated the evening to the late Wolfgang Roth, Symphony’s former principal second violin, the soft and soothing choir of French horns set an appropriate tone and the sheen of the violins added soulfulness to the dedication. In the uptempo section that followed, Warren-Green banished all Wagnerian influences, so the piece became summery and bucolic. When the music crested and became rather grand for a children’s fairytale, the mood we arrived at was jubilation rather than conquest.

Maybe the Warren-Green dedication, assuring us that Herr Roth was listening, was the reason that everybody in the orchestra brought their A-game. Not only did Symphony eclipse their previous Scheherazade of 2009, they bettered their Don Juan performance of 2005 under the able baton Christof Perick. Lupanu gave us foretastes of things to come, sparkling in his early exchange with the glockenspiel and getting in on more of the storytelling late in Strauss’s tone poem with principal harpist Andrea Mumm Trammell, another harbinger of sweets to come. But it was the horn section and principal Frank Portone who atoned most mightily for the blemishes of yesteryear, announcing the Don’s heroic theme and keying a thrilling climax before the timpani and brass piled on. Warren-Green not only measured up to Perick’s Strauss expertise, he provided a useful explication, in his introductory remarks, of the full stop at the climax of the piece and drew our attention to the beautiful love song that principal oboist Hollis Ulaky would play. She did not disappoint.

All across Scheherazade, Lupanu and Trammell renewed their gorgeous partnership, stitching the narrative together, but it was Lupanu who reveled in the most virtuosic opportunities. In the opening “Sea and Sinbad” movement, Lupanu played so softly that Trammell’s harp actually sounded louder at times. He was commanding in one of the passages I most look forward to, the speed-up that cues the full orchestra’s build to the full epic, oceanic majesty of Rimsky’s symphony. Oh emerged impressively at the forefront for the bassoon’s graceful statement of the “Kalendar Prince” theme, and Marino was scintillating in the lyrical “Young Prince and the Young Prince” movement, first in the magical run after the gorgeous theme and later in the accelerated waltz section, dancing with the two flutes. Yet Lupanu reasserted his dominion with a narration that included some ricochet bowing before the orchestral repeat of the waltz and a delicate fadeout.

Lupanu’s double-bowed intro to the eventful finale – “Carnival,” “Sea,” shipwreck, “Bronze Warrior” – moodily contrasted with the busy tumult to come, beautifully dispelled by flutists Amy Orsinger Whitehead and principal Victor Wang as we arrived at the boisterousness of Baghdad. It had seemed that Warren-Green and Symphony couldn’t surpass the power and majesty of the opening movement, but they had not peaked too soon. There was a phantasmagorical speed and madness to the festival that broke dramatically into the “Sea” section with muscular brass and towering grandeur. Not an easy episode to follow, but Lupanu saved his most devastating eloquence for his final cadenza, sustaining a cluster of long high harmonics over the harp.

Bound and Gagged in a Georgia Cabin

Review: Exit, Pursued by a Bear

By Perry Tannenbaum

IMG_9649

It’s been 28 years since I saw a murderous woman binding a man to a chair onstage, and I haven’t forgotten the spectacle of that near rape-victim turning the tables – and a spool of duct tape – on her would-be rapist. Maybe there were other instances after that stunning UNC Charlotte production of Extremities in 1991, one of the top five dramas I critiqued that year. If so, those action she-roes haven’t seared themselves in my memory the way that William Mastrosimone’s did.

A trail of empty honey bottles greeted us outside the Warehouse Performing Arts Center storefront in Cornelius as we entered upon a similar scene in Exit, Pursued by a Bear, the new Charlotte’s Off-Broadway production directed by Anne Lambert. Once again, three people are deliberating what to do with the captive – Kyle Carter, who has abused his wife Nan for the umpteenth time. Lauren Gunderson’s 2012 play, subtitled “A Southern-Fried Revenge Comedy,” isn’t quite as intent on ratcheting up the tension.

Like Gunderson’s title, derived from Shakespeare, it’s complicated. Often cited as the Bard’s most outré – or hilarious – or expensive – stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear” occurs in Act 3, Scene 3, of The Winter’s Tale. The fleeing nobleman is the otherwise forgettable Antigonus, whose mauling is vividly reported a moment later by the curiously named Clown, a shepherd’s son, while the bear is still devouring its kill offstage.

IMG_9912

Nan isn’t intending to give her husband even that sporting chance at survival. She plans to abandon her secluded cabin in the Georgia woods and leave the doors open for any bear in the vicinity to enter. To hurry the process, Nan and her friends Simon and Sweetheart are adding inducements to make Kyle more aromatic and inviting. Some honey, of course, but here’s some luck: Kyle just killed a deer, so they can cut up some fresh meat and strew that around, too. Cool condiments!

Since Conrad Harvey as Kyle is already bound and gagged as we walk by with our tickets and drinks – hey, go ahead and take selfies with Conrad if you like – Gunderson is taking on two conflicting objectives when the lights come up. She’s painstakingly justifying what Nan is doing to her husband, and she’s striving to preserve the murderous unraveling of the Carters’ marriage in a comedy mold. Nan’s accomplices come in handy for both of these objectives.

Sweetheart is a stripper at a local bar who aspires to be an actress – or at least a movie star – and Kyle is Nan’s lifelong best friend. Since he is a bit of a queen in his Georgia Bulldogs cheerleading outfit, the stripper-transvestite combo is inherently comical as soon as it forms, if you’re not going to be offended by stereotyped affronts to political correctness and feminism. Part of the action, you must remember, is Nan overcoming her submissiveness and moving towards feminism. It’s a liberating leap.

IMG_9965

With Kyle as her literally captive audience, Nan will express the anger, frustration, and humiliation she has kept bottled up inside by playing out the key scenes that have pushed her to this drastic homicidal response. Since Kyle is indisposed – and hasn’t learned his lines – Julia Benfield as Sweetheart will step into the role of Nan’s husband in these flashbacks. Lambert has made a cagey casting choice here. Benfield is not only dwarfed by Harvey, you’ll see that Julie Janorschke Gawle towers over her as well. More built-in comedy.

Benfield is trashy in her cinched flannel shirt impersonating Kyle, and a fair amount of that trashiness appears to come naturally, but the more we get to know her, the more clearly we see that she isn’t a slut or a bimbo. With all the two-handed scenes in the flashbacks, you might worry that Simon is simply superfluous. But he’s more than a cheerleader. When Nan wavers, Simon is there to help shore up her resolve.

Not always the subtlest of performers, Ryan Stamey calibrates and balances his bloodthirsty zeal, his genuine affection for Nan, and his flaming outrageousness in such a precise way that he emerges as genuinely human rather than as a cartoon provocateur. With this kind of quirky support, Gawle can explore the serious depths that Gunderson explores in the Carters’ abusive marriage. Nan’s waverings are based in a pathological dependency that develops between an abused spouse and her abuser, ground into the rubble of crushed self-esteem.

IMG_9812

Gunderson also wants us to be ambivalent about the payback Nan is meting out, no matter how many Hollywood revenge flicks we’ve seen. As if he were on trial rather than passively listening to his sentence, Kyle gets his chances to speak and defend himself. More than that, he gets Nan to allow him a temporary reprieve from his bondage, so that he can re-enact the good times they had together before things went sour.

Harvey doesn’t mitigate the fact that Kyle is a boorish hayseed, but he also doesn’t hold back on the sincerity of “getting it” and his intent to be a better man. We’re apt to be a little torn, as Nan is, on the option of giving Kyle a second chance. Gawle is visibly affected by Harvey’s pleas, his evocations of past Kyles, and perhaps his newfound respect for the doormat who has risen up against him. So with the prospect of Kyle suddenly reverting to violence, there’s not only dramatic tension in the air but also multiple layers of give-and-take between Nan and Kyle, Nan and Simon, between the men and inside Nan’s heart.

Feminists will appreciate how this deadlock is broken.

IMG_0106

Gawle does everything right interacting with the other performers. She even gives herself moments when she ponders the enormity of what she’s planning – and to question whether she’s sufficiently calm to proceed after the suddenness and the adrenaline rush of what she has done and how it has changed her. One thing you might question is whether Gawle is as Southern or as trashy as Gunderson imagined her. Hang in there until Nan’s final scene, and you’ll likely see the rationale for the choice Gawle and Lambert have made in crafting her character.

Along with the cast’s work onstage, costume design by Ramsey Lyric, lighting by Sean Kimbro, and Jarvis Garvin’s fight choreography are all indicative of Charlotte Broadway’s professionalism. The only dodgy aspect of this production are the projections flashed on the upstage wall delivering stage directions when we reach Gunderson’s play-within-a-play segments. The lettering doesn’t exactly pop, and efforts to read them can draw attention away from the action. Maybe freezing the action might help solve the problem. Worth a try.

Otherwise, Exit, Pursued by a Bear is all-pro all the way. Consider yourself lucky if you can pursue and snag a ticket.

Two Iconic Singer-Songwriters Collide

Reviews: Nina Simone: Four Women and Ain’t Misbehavin’

By Perry Tannenbaum

With three new theater productions opening last week from Actor’s Theatre, Brand New Sheriff, and Theatre Charlotte – all sporting all-black casts – we have entered a Black History Month in Charlotte that is more about black history than ever before. Some of the African Americans who might be expected to show up for those auditions will be shining in the spotlight somewhere else this weekend as Children’s Theatre of Charlotte opens Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds at ImaginOn.

Unless you count university productions, we haven’t had more than one truly black theater production here in Charlotte during any Black History Month in the past 10 years.

So our Black History Month upgrade – and the stunning amount of local black talent necessary to make it happen – was definitely on my mind as I took in all of these shows. But a couple of times, in Actor’s Theatre’s tribute to Nina Simone and Theatre Charlotte’s Fat Waller revue, I found myself flashing back to January 2003.

That’s when a bi-racial Charlotte Rep production of Let Me Sing featured two black Broadway veterans, Gretha Boston and André de Shields, who boasted five Tony Award nominations and two wins between them.

Nina Simone: Four Women from Actor’s Theatre threw a new perspective on what are usually regarded as Rep’s declining years. The title role, calling for a passionate Black Power advocate and a charismatic singer-songwriter, would obviously benefit from the Broadway star power that Michael Bush, with his Manhattan Theatre Club connections, was able to lure down to our Booth Playhouse during Rep’s latter days.

De Shields was actually one of the original stars of Ain’t Misbehavin’ when it opened at Manhattan Theatre Club and took the Tony for Best Musical in 1978. So my thoughts naturally returned to De Shields, Rep, and Let Me Sing when Theatre Charlotte opened the Fats Waller musical revue two days after Actor’s opened their Simone musical. On this night at least, I had the satisfaction of recalling the Broadway star and feeling that our fair Queen City was getting along just fine without him.

A lot of the credit goes to Charlotte’s own Tony winner, educator extraordinaire Corey Mitchell, who directs this sassy 94-minute show at the Queens Road barn. The cast he culled from auditions is consistently spectacular, whether they’re singing or dancing, but we also need to slice off some accolades to the seven-piece jazz band led by trombonist Tyrone Jefferson, featuring Neal Davenport at the piano. Kudos to choreographer Ashlyn Sumner: with some formidable talents to work with, she has stretched them.

Conceived by Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby, Jr., Misbehavin’ goes about capturing Waller’s essence by culling the gems from his imposing oeuvre and preserving the pianist’s penchant for interpolating sly comments and wisecracks between his lyrics. Comical gems like “The Viper’s Drag,” “Find Out What They Like (and How They Like It),” and “Your Feet’s Too Big,” all score big. Adapting and orchestrating, Luther Handerson and Jeffrey Gutcheon usually go with the grain of Waller’s merry, mischievous recordings, but occasionally they go against it, slowing down “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Mean to Me” so they sound brand new.

Yet Waller also composed one solemn anthem that belongs in the same elite pantheon as Simone’s “Four Women” and Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” The introductory chords from the piano were all I needed to tell me that “Black and Blue” was on its way with lyricist Andy Razaf’s indelible refrain: What did I do to be so black and blue?

After delivering more than an hour of pure ebullient joy, it was a powerful question to ask. Lighting designer Chris Timmons dimmed his gels over Tim Parati’s funky nightclub set, Jefferson hushed the band, and Mitchell huddled his entire cast downstage where all five could look us coldly in the eye.

Never afflicted with obliquity. Waller and Razaf answered their own question: My only sin is in my skin.

Keston Steele has the most amazing voice in this cast, and it’s not just her range and volume. Steele may look small, but as “I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling” proves, this lady can g-g-growl! Best dancer is more of a toss-up. Look no further than Nonye Obichere kicking “How Ya Baby” if you’re looking for somebody startling and athletic. Tyler Smith is your man if your quest is for someone smooth and sensual.

Smith was the comedy showstopper – and the chief reason why De Shields can stay right where he is – delighting us with his stealth and style in “The Viper’s Drag,” but Marvin King was just as hilarious in the outright insulting “Your Feet’s Too Big.” Danielle Burke’s breakout moments were her mellow “Squeeze Me” solo and her bawdy “Find Out What They Like” duet with Steele.

The songlist is loaded with Fats faves that will get your toes tapping, including “Handful of Keys,” “The Joint Is Jumpin’,” “Fat and Greasy,” and “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now.” Or you might get into the sway of “Jitterbug Waltz” and “Lounging at the Waldorf.” All in all, another insane overachievement for Charlotte’s community theater. Pass the reefer and the champagne!

Production values at Hadley Theater looked like they would be up to the usual high Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte standard when we took our seats on opening night of Nina Simone: Four Women. Chip Decker’s set design for the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, is colorful and impressive. And shifty: when Decker detonates his sound design, simulating the bomb blast that killed four black girls on September 15, 1963, the walls twist acutely to register the racist atrocity.

But after Lizzie and American Idiot, two arrestingly loud shows at ATC’s new Queens University home, this Christina Ham drama was often too soft-spoken to be clearly heard – even though I spotted the actors wearing head mics late in the 86-minute performance. That was a major element that can improve as the run continues.

Shortcomings in Ham’s script and Chanel Blanchett’s stage direction are not so easily remedied. I’m sure the playwright didn’t intend to be insulting, but her scenario basically tells us that Simone went down to the 16th Street church, stationed herself defiantly behind the sanctuary keyboard with the intention of completing her livid protest song, “Mississippi Goddam.” While completing her response to the murder of Medgar Evers three months earlier in Mississippi, three of the women who would be immortalized in “Four Women” walked in off the street to take refuge from the violence still raging out on the streets of Birmingham.

Fate basically hands the songwriter one of her most revered compositions, if you take Ham literally.

I’m not sure that Blanchett wants us to take the story that way. Played with stormy intensity by Destiny Stone, Simone is already hostile and militant when she arrives in Birmingham. Nina’s urgent need to get her song finished only begins to catalog the reasons why she antagonizes each of the three women who walk in on her. Sarah is a humdrum housemaid who would rather pursue MLK non-violence than take Malcolm X action. Sephronia is a yellow-skinned socialite who doesn’t struggle at all financially like Sarah, drawing class hatred from the housekeeper for her money and scorn from Simone for her political aloofness.

Further stirring the pot is Sweet Thing, seething because she can’t have Sephronia’s fiancé though she can have his baby. This liquor-swigging streetwalker draws hatred and scorn from all quarters, for how she lives and for entering a holy place. Beware, though, she’s brandishing a knife.

Although the arguments are passionate, Blanchett blunts their sharpness, preferring to space her players rather than getting them in each other’s faces – until Arlethia Friday arrives as Sweet Thing. Stone, Erica Ja-Ki Truesdale as Sarah and Krystal Gardner as Sephronia often face us instead of the person they’re arguing with. Maybe Blanchett doesn’t really believe that Simone and the “intruders” are really there at the Baptist Church. Having these actors appear like they’re reliving the first play they ever performed in grade-school doesn’t solve the problem.

After all the verbal and physical combat, the title song breaks out. It’s surreal: all three women miraculously know their lyric and their order in the song. I’m guessing this dramatic flouting of logic will help distract us from the fundamental flip she burdens Stone with in portraying Simone. For 80 minutes, she has heaped hatred, anger, and scorn upon these women who are interfering with her creative process. Now she’s deeply empathetic toward them all, turning them into emblems of scarred, heroic black womanhood.

With 11 other songs along the way, there are sudden lurches as we move forward, cutting abruptly from argument to song. Stone’s singing, with pianist Judith Porter leading a driving quartet, is the show’s most human element as she channels Simone’s fire into “Sinnerman,” “Mississippi Goddam,” and the last of the “Four Women.” Stripped of the backup singers that sugarcoat Simone’s recordings of “Young, Gifted, and Black,” I liked the crispness of Stone’s even better.

Intensity was never Stone’s problem. What I was looking for was more arrogant self-assurance lifting her rage to a higher plane – a serene majesty that earns you the title of High Priestess of Soul. A few more leading roles, not to mention turning 30, will likely do the trick someday. Probably because she comes in toting a flask and a knife, getting the liberty to stagger around the stage rather than finding a mark and facing front, Friday’s Sweet Thing is the best acting we see. She isn’t Simone’s Sweet Thing until she sings her, but she’s closer to what Nina had in mind than Ham’s housemaid. Darting between the worlds of rock, jazz, blues, folk, and soul, Simone has eluded many who would find excitement and enjoyment in her music. Ham’s writing marshals key facts in this North Carolina native’s life into the dialogue but never really captures her soul. The songs in Four Women and Stone’s singing could be a gateway to that treasure trove.