Greek Gods Rock a Comeback

Review: The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Take it from a very hairy satyr – or a prancing centaur: “The gods are real!” That’s the emphatic message Rick Riordan delivered to Percy Jackson, the hero of his young adult novel, The Lightning Thief, in 2005. Five years later, the best-selling saga became a blockbuster movie, and now – after a modest off-Broadway run in 2017 – Riordan’s demigod is on tour in The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical, and Knight Theater is one of his first stops.

Joe Tracz’ adaptation of Riordan’s story leans more towards the book than the movie, and Rob Rokicki’s songs add a rocking dimension to Lightning, pushing Percy’s youthful voltage decisively into defiant adolescence – and away from the 12-year-olds who were the original protagonists. But that boost doesn’t compare with the jumpstart this new musical delivers for the Greek gods.

Photo: Jeremy Daniel

You need to remember that these mighty Olympians were already fairly passé in the days of the Roman Empire when Zeus’s name was changed to Jove and Odysseus became Ulysses. Revivals of the Greek gods by 20th century novelists and poets were about the potency of myth rather than the truth of religion – and Homer’s heroes were more likely to be the focus than the immortals on Olympus.

We hear some definite rumblings from Olympus before the action begins at Knight Theater. Before we learn that Zeus’s lightning has been stolen and that Percy is a prime suspect, the lad’s field trip to the Metropolitan Museum – yes, in New York – is punctuated by attacks from a harpy and a minotaur.

 

Yeah, a very mighty somebody is angry with Percy, and the kid really has a lot to learn. After he gets expelled from school, the long-overdue lessons begin. Mom breaks the news that Dad, if not a great parent, was and is unquestionably great. But before Sally can specify Percy’s divine lineage, his implacable pursuers strike again. Now in hindsight, I could second-guess Zeus and politely assert that it would have been more sensible for him to send a more articulate messenger than a minotaur to ask Percy where he’d hidden the damn lightning.

Photo: Jeremy Daniel

So be advised, action comic book logic often prevails here – which is not very much out of step with the illogic of Greek mythology. When Percy awakens from a coma three days later, he finds himself motherless and enrolled at Camp Half-Blood up in Long Island, together with other kids whose divine parents are equally neglectful. Needless to say, the animus bred among these teenage demigods by their absentee parents chimes well with the Rokicki rock score.

Percy is doubly different from the rest. Until deep into Act 1, he doesn’t know whose son he is. On a dark night, the revelation from Dad will be truly spectacular as Percy and his fellow campers look up in the sky and – amid the obligatory earthshaking tremors – see the god’s signature trident blazoned among the stars. Heavenly signs are the stuff you hear heroes speak about in plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, a dramatic effect that Shakespeare shrewdly revived.

Photo: Jeremy Daniel

The other distinction that separates Percy is his getting selected to go on the quest to somehow retrieve the stolen lightning and prevent all-out warfare from breaking out among the gods. It’s here that Riordan takes us all the way back to the heroes of Homer’s epics. Just as there was tension and moodiness on the fields of Troy where Achilles, Ajax, Agamemnon, Hector, and Paris trod, there are rivalries and animosities among the half-blood campers. Annabeth, neglected by Mama Athena, wants to join Percy and prove herself. Others channel their jealousy, resentment, and antagonism into undermining him.

Up above, the unseen gods are supporting their neglected children, using them as instruments against one another, very much like Homer described them behind the scenes of the Trojan War. Mars and Mercury, the gods with Roman names, are sponsoring kids at camp who are going to make it tough on the offspring of Zeus and Poseidon. Singing rock songs with amped-up intensity and sincerity amid flashing lights and minimal scenery, these relentlessly energetic teens do occasionally seem like avatars in a video game.

I guess that’s because so much of the energy is channeled into the music.

Kristen Stokes as Annabeth sported the best vocal chops among our protagonists, but the role of Athena’s daughter isn’t nearly as meaty as the lead. Chris McCarrell is your fairly generic rock ‘n’ roll lead, not quite as iconoclastic as the Footloose outsider at his core, but he’s marvelously awed and illuminated by his magic sword and his mission. Somehow his determined edge never grows stale.

Photo: Jeremy Daniel

 

But as often happens with pure heroes and superheroes, Percy and Annabeth are often upstaged by the more outré characters they pal around with or confront. Three of the five supporting players have multiple roles to feast on, and I still find myself torn about which scene stealer I liked most. Perhaps because he rocked the most costumes, I’m giving the nod to Ryan Knowles as Chiron, Hades, and Poseidon. Knowles starts out as Percy’s teacher and principal before he reveals himself as a centaur – not an unreasonable stretch, since the original Chiron tutored such adventurers as Achilles and Jason.

Likewise, Percy’s classmate Grover reveals himself as a satyr when our hero comes out of his coma, the pagan equivalent of a guardian angel. Yet somehow, he moonlights as Mr. D, the godly camp director who presides over admissions in a manner that suggests a Hawaiian bartender. Jalynn Steele spends the largest chunk of her stage time as Percy’s mom, warmly nurturing and humdrum, but she gets the most startling cameo as Mrs. Dodd, the substitute teacher who turns into a very shrill harpy. Given a couple of chances to sing, Steele proves to have ample reserves of voltage and sizzle.

Okay, so maybe the gods aren’t real. At Knight Theater, in The Lightning Thief, they’re still a lot of fun.

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Bourne Again in the London Blitz

Review: Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Enemy aircraft buzzes across the London skies at all hours, bomb blasts shake the earth and light up the night, and tall buildings you have known your whole life are in flames or rubble. So who are the people you hate most in life? If you’re the protagonist in Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella, it isn’t Hitler or Nazi Germany. No, you’re likely still bedeviled by that nasty stepmom of yours and those dang stepsisters who are constantly lording over you. Sir Matthew – who has brought us Sleeping Beauty, The Red Shoes and Edward Scissorhands during the new millennium – has transported dear Cindy into the frenetic heart of the London Blitz. With projection design by Duncan McLean, lighting by Neil Austin, and surround sound by Paul Groothuis, he has plenty of brilliant accomplices in the heist.

Setting his scenario to Prokofiev’s Cinderella ballet score, the famed choreographer only seems to be going off the rails in adapting mankind’s most universal tale to his own purposes. So many variants of Cinderella have been told around the world that Children’s Theatre of Charlotte had no hesitation about staging their own little anthology, Cinderellas of the World, in 1995 – or presenting no less than three more Cinderellas since, a commedia, a salsa, and most recently, a Jazz Age Cinderella riff in 2015.

Bourne’s is different enough – and of course, non-verbal enough – to present some difficulties for youngsters and oldsters expecting the usual castle, fairy godmother, and pumpkin coach. Or a dashing eligible prince at an elegant evening ball. After flashing the title on a scrim, specifying the time and place, and running a quaint British newsreel on what to do during an aerial assault, this production leaves you on your own to figure things out. It’s helpful to peep into your playbill before the lights go down.

Keeping his New Adventures troupe busy, Bourne adds a trio of stepbrothers to Cindy’s domestic tormentors – and an invalid father, the only family member truly worthy of our heroine’s suffering toil. Stepmom Sybil and stepsisters Irene and Vivian are marginally less cruel than you might remember them, substantially more urban and well-to-do. Costumer and designer Lez Brotherston is not to be constrained by the presence of working-class drones, that’s for sure.

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Dressed in a matching hat and dress long before it’s time to depart, Mom is more likely to take a swig of her favorite alcoholic beverage than worry about her daughters’ matrimonial prospects or fawn over a young prince. There are Blanche DuBois elements for Madelaine Brennan ((alternating with Anjali Mehra in this double-cast production) to offer us in this role, but she might also bob her like a duck leading her gaggle of children. Or she might wink at a budding homosexual relationship between two young military men. She’s full or surprises, our most rounded character.

Invitations do arrive for a posh social event. None of them, of course, gets handed out by the evil Stepmom to Cinderella, who is chiefly beset by a stepbrother who is hyperactive, another who fetishizes her beloved sparkly shoes, and her father’s frailty. Cherishing those dazzling shoes already in her possession does not preclude an outbreak of magic, though you shouldn’t expect mice or gourds. A sleek silvery vision, Paris Fitzpatrick descends on the family drawing room long before Mom, the sibs, and their escorts vacate the stage.

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The Angel begins his ministrations by bringing Cinderella her true love through the front door. He is not a prince. Instead, he is Harry, The Pilot – literally heaven-sent if you take the notion that, staggering into the hall in a bomber’s jacket, he has been shot out of the sky during an aerial battle. Whether shot out of a plane or injured on the ground by an exploding bomb, Harry’s head bandage – and his dance moves – clearly announce that he’s been seriously wounded. With Cindy’s true love already in view, there must be a major adjustment to the family’s antagonism. They throw the unwanted visitor out onto the street before gaily departing for their soiree.

There is a bit of sleepy fantasy before Cinderella follows his sibs, enough for Bourne to skip over The Angel’s more magical exploits. No spells or fairy dust are cast before we have adjourned to the Café de Paris. Yet all can admire her there as she makes her climactic entrance midway during Act 2 to the music Prokofiev composed for this breathtaking moment, descending a winding staircase against the backdrop of the Club’s midnight-blue curtains. Not only have Cinderella’s gray cardigan and drab skirt been tossed aside, her hair is so newly gilded that we can readily forgive Harry for not recognizing her. Later, when she reverts to mousiness, the split-up pair of slippers credibly affirms her identity.

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Ashley Shaw is every bit as luminous now as Cinderella as she was when we first saw her in 2013 as Sleeping Beauty – and a little more poignant. The scenario is darker here in some ways, for this heroine isn’t assailed at the very awakening of her womanhood. Amid the cinders of a grimy London under attack, time is beginning to pass Cinderella by. Bourne feels that the gravity of wartime infuses Prokofiev’s score, which premiered in 1946, and it certainly suffuses the chemistry that the choreographer/director creates between Cindy and Harry.

Here there is a romantic postlude after the soiree scene and, unlike elegant princes who have courted Cinderella before, Andrew Monoghan bares his chest as Harry on their first night. Amusingly enough, Prokofiev’s music demands unmistakably, insistently and loudly that midnight has arrived, even if Bourne’s storyline hasn’t imposed any previous restrictions or curfews. It’s during Cinderella’s frantic return through the streets of London, as a relentless bombardment crescendos, that Brotherston reminds us most spectacularly of his presence.

This is where we can say that Bourne really does improve upon the chaste fairytale we all know. Both the separation and the reunion of his lovebirds prove to be freshly emotional and moving.

Turning “Nutcracker” on Its Head

Review: The Hip Hop Nutcracker

By Perry Tannenbaum

Hip Hop Nutcracker - Dolby Theatre - November 17, 2017

When Mike Fitelson’s holiday riff on ballet and Tchaikovsky, The Hip Hop Nutcracker, first invaded Charlotte three years ago, it wasn’t quite where it needed to be artistically. The brash pre-show at Booth Playhouse presented by DJ Boo somewhat upstaged the pallid pre-recorded Peter Ilyich score that backed Fitelson’s updated scenario and Jennifer Weber’s choreography. Nocturnal settings by video designer Moe Shahrooz recalled the Washington Heights portrayed in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights – moody and occasionally surreal but drained of the Miranda musical’s inner-city vitality and color.

The Fitelson scenario definitely perks up the traditionally moribund Act 2. Instead of sitting his Clara and her Nutcracker down for the better part of an hour to watch a series of decorative dances, Fitelson sends his Maria-Clara voyaging back 30 years where, in Back to the Future style, she encounters her perennially bickering parents back on the night when they first met at the Land of Sweets nightclub – getting to see them freshly at the moment romantic love first sparked between them.

Very promising, but the show needed some extra spark itself.

Produced by the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, the show has returned to the Queen City every year since its forgettable 2015 debut. Yeah, when I booked this year’s reprise at Knight Theater, I’d actually forgotten that we had seen it before. Thankfully, I review stuff. And thankfully, the Knight is exactly where this Nut needs to be.

Memories did not come rushing back when the show began. Kurtis Blow, a founding father of hip hop, hadn’t been part of the Booth Playhouse production, but at the Knight, he rules the pre-show for just over 18 minutes. He’s not the first performer I’ve ever seen who has asked an audience to get up on their feet or to raise their arms and sway back and forth nonsensically, but I’m sure he’s the first who has ever asked me and the rest of the crowd to SCREAM. Over and over.

So audience participation at the Knight has increased exponentially over what I experienced at the Booth. The Knight also has more than twice the Booth’s seating capacity. And since word-of-mouth and repetition have solidified Hip Hop Nutcracker as a holiday tradition, the Knight was sold-out on opening night and enthusiasm stretched to the back row of the balcony.

There is even a subtle tie-in between Blow’s aggressive patter and the dance that follows. Signed in 1979 as the first rapper to land a major-label recording contract, Blow presents his music as unabashedly “old school” and invites his audience to immerse itself in his original vibe, prefiguring the time traveling that Maria-Clara will do before she mends her parents’ dysfunctional relationship.

Things started looking familiar when violinist Jarvis L. Benson took his spot under the neighborhood lamppost and began playing Tchaikovsky’s antique melody line over Boo’s contemporary backbeat and platter scratching. You might say that, as the melody wafts upwards, it infuses the pair of red sneakers slung over the lamppost with magical powers. Our hero, The Nutcracker, sells his namesake merchandise from a ramshackle cart. He’s obviously attracted to Maria-Clara but painfully shy, and when he gallantly steps forward to save her from the unwanted attentions of a local gang, Nutcracker gets his ass kicked.

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Big difference when those sneakers improbably fall to the ground and Nutcracker puts them on. What vanquishes the gang is even more improbable: Josue “Beastmode” Figueroa as Nutcracker executes a bodacious spin on his head that lasts longer than you might think humanly possible. Literally turning The Nutcracker on its head during its climactic Act 1 battle.

While there are some dolorous and becalmed moments elsewhere in Act 1 in the ensemble choreography, the Knight Theater sound system is noticeably superior, punchier. So as the Nutcracker soundtrack plays, we never get the sense that the Jerseyites are dancing to elevator music. Although Ann-Sylvia Clark is a holdover from the 2015 edition as Maria-Clara, everyone else besides Boo was new to me and eager to strut their stuff. Weber’s choreography leaves plenty of room for exuberant freestyling.

Beastmode, with his appealing rough edges, was the most impressive newcomer for me, but I also like the pixie exuberance and stealth of Lisa “LBoogie” Bauford as Drosselmeyer. Forget the “Herr.” The Hip Hop Drosselmeyer has been a woman each time I’ve seen Fitelson’s version, symptomatic of the diversity in Weber’s casting. Yes, she choreographs and directs.

Sad to say, Nubian Nene is less seductive and more proper as Mom, draining all the comedy from her strife with Dad, though Micah “Just Jamz” Abbrey is every bit as crotchety as his predecessor. New charm and whimsy are injected into the evening by Dustin Payne, whose solo as Flute deservedly received the most audience approval among the Act 2 set pieces on opening night.

Shahrooz’s animations become livelier after intermission, responding to Drosselmeyer’s conjurations and transporting us back to 1988. The backwards time traveling is done like a subway ride, the years spelt out in the tiling on walls surrounding the track – with an increased amount of graffiti as we reach our destination. Perhaps a nod to Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his unparalleled success in “cleaning up” New York? The trip back to the present day takes us skyward as an elevated train reels in the years across the nighttime cityscape.

Wondering whether Kurtis returns? You can bet on it. Loquaciousness undimmed, he presides over the most elaborate curtain calls you will ever behold at a ballet. Many people left before it became apparent that we would have a full-fledged post-show over eight minutes long. Many more stayed – and obliged the special guest MC by screaming on cue. Not quite 60 years old, Blow even busted some moves.

Seasonal Cheer Prevails Over Weather Woes at Belmont Abbey’s Holiday Concert

Review:  Belmont Abbey’s Holiday Concert

By Perry Tannenbaum

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The Abbey Basilica, a signature building on the Belmont Abbey College campus, is an admirable place for a community gathering during the Yuletide season, so it was a little disappointing that dire forecasts of foul winter weather kept so many locals away from this year’s Arts at the Abbey Holiday Concert. Rain wasn’t expected to turn to snow and sleet for another five hours, so I had no qualms about hitting the highway for the 25-mile trip – after making sure the show would go on. Beginning with Abbey organist, chorus leader and voice class instructor 2018~Belmont Abbey Holiday_0001

Karen Hite Jacob’s inaudible welcome over an underpowered PA system, the concert didn’t launch with the celebratory spirit I had expected. After witnessing the debut of the 86-member Charlotte Master Chorale the previous evening, I presumed that the Abbey Chorus would be smaller but at least the size of Chanticleer, a 12-man outfit when I last reviewed them a decade ago.

Abbey Chorus had nine members, not all of them students. Also on hand were a quintet from the Voice Class and three young instrumentalists. Grouped on the steps leading up towards the altar, the Abbey Chorus began in a manner was studious and a bit nervous. It would be unfair to say they were informally dressed, but they were neither gaily attired in holiday fashion nor uniformly dressed as you might find when Chanticleer or the Charlotte Symphony Chorus perform in town or when Westminster Choir annually visits Spoleto Festival USA. When they began singing “Bright the Holly Berries” and then “Angel’s Lullaby,” it was evident that the rudiments of performing weren’t a part of their curriculum. Year after year, when the Westminster Choir travels to Charleston from their classes at Rider University, it’s obvious that every member of that ensemble has been schooled in the importance of smiling, relaxing, and enjoying yourself if you’re expecting to deliver joy to your audience.

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Justifications for the Abbey Chorus’s nervousness began to fade when they reached “Bring a Torch,” where the singers, three women and six men, began to harmonize more smoothly and veer toward confidence. “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen” was even better, and I detected a smile on one of the ladies’ faces. Interspersed with appearances by the Voice Class and the instrumentalists, the Chorus sang two more sets before joining with the Voice Class – and the audience – for a parting bouquet of songs. Each new Chorus set was better than the last. The unfamiliar songs, John Rutter’s “Donkey Song” and his setting for Shakespeare’s “Blow, Thou Winter Wind” (As You Like It) outshone Loonis McGlohon’s arrangement of the traditional “Silent Night” by Franz Xaver Gruber. While the song brought little cheer to the singers’ faces, I’m sure the act of singing to a donkey carrying Mary, watching over the newborn Jesus, and sleeping in his manger stall before encouraging him to skip for joy as he went on his way brought many a smile throughout the hall.

I thought the Abbey Chorus were at their best when they were most challenged in their final set, particularly in Antonio Lotti’s setting of “Regina Coeli,” where the ensemble’s harmonizing rose to the stratospheric level the composer invokes. With “While Shepherds Watched,” it was good to see that Nahum Tate had survived the ancient drubbing he took from Alexander Pope in The Dunciad with this fine setting by Lowell Mason. “All Is Calm. All Is Bright” was the most fascinating selection of the evening, redeeming the earlier inclusion of “Silent Night” with a new musical setting of the same Joseph Mohr lyric by John Michael Trotta.

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Of the three movements that Margaret Mauney played on viola from Bach’s Suite 1 in G, I most enjoyed the lilt of her playing on the Courante. Paired with harpist Ashleigh Jones on “Greensleeves” and this time playing her violin, Mauney was more relaxed with comparable results. Jones ranked for me as the revelation of the evening, for the sound of her beautiful harp filled the hall more fully than I would have imagined as she opened with Marilyn Marzuki’s arrangement of “As Lately We Watched.” Even when I was accustomed to the opulent sound, the effect was still beatific when Jones concluded her soloing with Marzuki’s arrangement of Adolphe Adam’s “O Holy Night.” Part of the wonder of the sound emanating from Jones’s harp was that it immediately followed – and measured up to – Caleb Kualii’s performance at the Abbey’s baby grand. Kualii was no slouch, either, playing Charles Grobe’s “Adeste Fidelis With Variations.” At least one of the movements was in 3/4 time, and Kualii didn’t shrink from the infectious sway of it.

Jacob remained busy at three different keyboards during the evening, starting out at a cunning little portable when she led and accompanied the Abbey Chorus, moving over to the piano for Voice Class’s selections, and concluding at the house organ, where she startled me a little, suddenly bringing the mighty pipes at the rear of the hall to life. There was a quaint family feeling as the five members of the Vocal Class, two men and three women, huddled up behind Jacob at the keyboard for their segment and sang “Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild” followed by “Winter Wonderland.” From this wee sampler, I preferred the students’ style in the sacred piece to their seasonal effort.

With hymnals nestled conveniently in the backs of the benches in front of us, it was easy for the audience to stand and join the combined Abbey Chorus and Vocal Class in a community singing of “Angels from the Realms” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The sudden blast from the organ loft added to this special moment. If you knew the tunes or could readily sight read, there was no difficulty at all in keeping up with the performers through multiple stanzas, and a celebratory vibe finally swept the hall. Between these lovely hymns, there was a satisfying union of the Chorus and Vocal Class on “Alleluia, Gelobet sei Gott.” Aside from Francis Browne’s translation of Erdmann Neumeister’s original lyric, Jacob’s handy program notes pointed out that this song, taken from Bach’s Cantata 142 for Christmas Day is now widely considered to be by Johann Kuhnau, Bach’s predecessor as Thomaskantor in Leipzig.

Newly-Minted Charlotte Master Chorale Couples with NC Baroque for Wonderful “Messiah”

Review: Handel’s Messiah

By Perry Tannenbaum

Backed by the Charlotte Symphony Chorus, formerly the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte, performances of Handel’s Messiah by the Symphony have been a fairly consistent holiday staple over the years. Since 2002, the only gaps on my calendar have occurred in 2009, 2011, 2012, and 2016. Until this year, when Symphony passed on performing the Handel masterwork, Symphony Chorus would also sit out. But with the new Charlotte Bach Festival spreading its wings here, in Gastonia, and in Winston-Salem over a full week in June, piloted by former Oratorio Singers music director Scott Allen Jarrett, there’s a new Baroque fervor in the air – and evidently new connections for the Charlotte Symphony Chorus and current Symphony director of choruses Kenney Potter to explore. As a result, Symphony Chorus, newly rebranded for the holidays as the Charlotte Master Chorale (with a PO box in Matthews, so stay tuned), is giving three Messiah performances under Potter’s direction. Joining them for two of the performances at First United Methodist Church – and the third in Gastonia – is the North Carolina Baroque Orchestra, which certainly enhanced its stature at the June festival.

The concerts mark the return of the Chorale to First United, performing Messiah there for the first time since they were still the Oratorio Singers in 2004, but it obviously represents a departure as well, for the 24-member NC Baroque performs on authentic period instruments, including two valveless trumpets and a double-necked theorbo, and its musicians adhere to Baroque performance practices. Though originally presented in a concert hall, I couldn’t help feeling that the church, the authentic instruments, and the reduced orchestra brought us closer to the Messiah that Handel originally imagined – and what amazed Dubliners actually heard in 1742. Compared to Belk Theater, which flings the sound of the Chorus at us, First United seemed to cuddle, warm, and slightly mute Master Chorale’s sound before it wafted over the musicians’ heads. From beginning to end, they were ideal, exactly what you would hope for in a city known for its churches.

Perhaps the best example of the Baroque Orchestra’s mettle was in its effortlessly fleet introduction to Master Chorale’s “For Unto Us a Child Is Born” and in the gritty churning of the strings that underpinned the climaxes at “Wonderful! Counselor!” The ensemble’s jubilation was thrilling and infectious, but they also showed their affinity for sacred music when they dug into the intro and accompaniment for “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth.” Individually, I would single out the work of first trumpeter Doug Wilson in the triumphant “The Trumpet Shall Sound.”

Of course, the biggest variables at annual iterations of Messiah are the solo vocalists. How would Potter fare on recruitment? Here we had the best news of all, for all four of the guest performers were eager, strong, confident, and at ease. Soprano Awet Andemichael and countertenor Timothy Parsons were seated on the audience left side of the stage, with tenor David Vanderwal and bass baritone Jesse Blumberg at our right. Evaluating their performances is largely a matter of cataloguing what each of them sang and lauding the pure tone, genuine feeling, and impeccable breath control they brought to each piece, with the possible exception of Vanderwal, who only had one extended chance to shine and hit his home run on “Thou Shalt Break Them” late in the evening, making his mark with the rigor of his attack on the verbs, break and dash.

Andemichael was the most facially expressive and theatrical of the soloists, showcasing her soothing declamatory capabilities in the “I bring you good tidings” recitative and the suppleness of her coloratura in “Rejoice, Greatly.” Listening to Parsons on “Thou That Tellest Good Tidings,” I admired his ability to reach the low note of “Judah” without scooping, as many contraltos do, but I worried whether he would be able to attack the “He Was Despised and Rejected” air with the necessary forcefulness. Not only did he render “He gave His back to the smiters” with true grit, he also managed to negotiate “spitting” without sounding pompous or silly.

Here it should probably be mentioned that the vocalists were refreshingly uncommitted to authenticity, adding the extra syllable at the end of past-tense verbs only when the melody compelled it. Blumberg especially gratified me when he didn’t add the extra syllable to “The People That Walked in Darkness” every time he repeated the verb. A relaxed, America manner is not amiss here. From the moment we began to hear Blumberg’s well-rounded low notes, I knew that he could rank among the best basses I’ve heard live in Messiah since I first became enamored of it in the late ‘60s up in New York at Queens College. While I might have liked to hear the conspiratorial decrescendos some more theatrical singers employ to add a little twinkle to “all nations” – after a mighty “shake the heavens” – the range, authority, and sheer beauty of Blumberg’s singing were nonpareil. Coupled with Wilson’s virtuosity, Blumberg’s was the best “Trumpet Shall Sound” I’ve heard anytime, anywhere.

 

A Catchphrase Becomes a Mantra in “A Christmas Story”

Review: A Christmas Story, The Musical

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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Long before it became New York’s AM haven for Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, WOR was the late night hangout of Jean Shepherd, the place where he became something of a cult hero – or maybe a folk hero if you take his roguish, Bohemian homespun manner into account. His holiday idyll, A Christmas Story, recalling his boyhood in an obscure Indiana town, is the chief reason why we remember Shepherd. It’s likely also the reason why 1938 Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Guns are still available at Walmart, Bass Pro Shops, and Dick’s Sporting Goods more than 50 years after the last Red Ryder comic strip appeared in print.

Aside from the fabled Red Ryder air rifle – and the extra trimmings our hero Ralphie never fails to mention – there’s another familiar earmark in A Christmas Story. Whether he expresses his yearning obliquely through a magazine ad strategically placed in his living room, excitedly in front of a store display, panegyrically in a school essay, or confidentially in Santa’s lap, the barrier to Ralphie’s Holy Grail is always the same: “You’ll shoot your eye out!”

As your might fear, for the phrase is already sufficiently repeated, A Christmas Story, The Musical turns the catchphrase into a pervasive mantra – a phantasmagorical one partway into Act 2 after Miss Shields, Ralphie’s teacher, reacts to his essay. Transported to a fantasy speakeasy, even Ralphie’s classmates pronounce the fatal slogan in mocking singsong, fiendishly relishing our hero’s failure to get what he so dearly cherishes.

We’d be fine if this expansion were the worst of Joseph Robinette’s mistakes in adapting the 1983 Turner Entertainment film for the stage. Years after Oliver and Annie had proven a pre-teen’s ability to carry his or her weight in a Broadway musical – and less than two years before Matilda would prove it again – Robinette looks to narrator Jean, Ralphie’s parents, and Miss Shields for avenues to expand his book or let composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul plump up the songlist.

You might retch at all the geniality that Chris Carsten lavishes on Jean, but it’s an enthusiastic heartland geniality, and he isn’t singing much. We can also allow that the epic stress that Lauren Kent as Miss Shields puts on the “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out” prohibition siphons away some the ogre aspect that might taint Ralphie’s mom. But that strands Briana Gantsweg as Mother in the deadly realm of being almost entirely understanding and nurturing, toward her husband and her sons – in two of Pasek & Paul’s most sweetly innocuous songs. They stop the show in ways that aren’t helpful.

Most of the true joy that beams out at us at Ovens Auditorium in this show comes from Ian Shaw as the ever-embattled, ever-tenacious Ralphie (alternating with Michael Norman) and Paul Nobrega as The Old Man, a similarly-assailed eccentric who barely takes notice of his pint size buckaroo’s numerous tribulations. Largely ignoring Ralphie, The Old Man’s Herculean challenges include taming the furnace, eluding the next-neighborhoods dogs, and winning recognition in a very silly crossword puzzle contest.

With Pasek & Paul rising to the occasion, perhaps the best musical moments in the show are songs inspired by The Old Man, “The Genius on Cleveland Street” and “A Major Award.” Nobrega’s struggles with the crossword puzzle also give Gantswag her best moments, striving to feed the answers to her intensely dimwitted husband without defiling his self-esteem.

Starting out with Shepherd taking us to his WOR studio A Christmas Story, The Musical takes its time before reaching cruising gear. But times were slower in 1940, when Robinette sets the story, and set designer Walt Spangler and costume designer Elizabeth Hope Clancy create a folksy, slightly cartoonist charm that chimes well with this familiar yarn, which will warm your holiday a little if you’re patient. Playing time, 1:54, is 21 minutes more than the movie, so nobody’s in a rush.

 

Pairing Whitacre’s “Deep Field” Tone Poem With New “Deep Field” Film, Symphony Presents a Semi-World Premiere

Review:  The Planets and Deep Field 

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

Charlotte Symphony hasfared well with Gustav Holst’s The Planets in the past, programming itno fewer than five times over the last 13 seasons in the orchestra’s Classics, KnightSounds, and LolliPops series. But it didn’t become a hot ticket until Christopher Warren-Green took over the reins as Symphony’s musical director. Back in the fall of 2010, Warren-Green inaugurated the KnightSounds Series with a “Planets!” extravaganza that included NASA animations projected over the musicians at Knight Theater as they played and narrative from a local TV meteorologist between movements. A mini planetarium was set up at the Bechtler Museum next door before the concert, and telescopes stationed outdoors, focused on Jupiter and other wonders in the sky, awaited concertgoers’ gazes afterwards. Every available seat was sold for that performance, so it was hardly a surprise that the next time Symphony offered Holst’s signature work in 2013, it led off the season.

At Belk Theater, Warren-Green could field the large orchestra prescribed in the composer’s subtitle, and the fortified corps benefited from enhanced acoustics – since the maiden concert at Knight Theater predated the installation there of a sorely needed acoustic shell. If the Knight Theater performance was distinguished by superior showmanship, the Belk Theater sequence excelled in authenticity and sonic brilliance. For the 2018 encore, the showmanship has returned! Most of it was lavished upon the first piece in the program, Eric Whitacre’s Deep Field.The Nevada native’s work premiered in 2015 but it was presented for the first time with a new film, Deep Field: The Impossible Magnitude of Our Universe,and a dedicated Deep Field smartphone app, to be activated by audience members when maestro Warren-Green gave his cue. Contributors to the film include scientists and visualizers from the Space Telescope Science Institute and Virtual Choir 5, which includes more than 8,000 voices, aged 4-87, from 120 countries around the globe. Source material for the film – and inspiration for the music – was the landmark “deep field” image produced by NASA’s  Hubble Telescope in 1995, when it was trained on a seemingly blank and minuscule area of space for an epic 10 days and 342 time-exposures, revealing more than 1,500 galaxies that had never been seen before.

Extra lagniappe was added to the showmanship when trombonist Thomas Burge, who moonlighted for eight years as a WDAV weekend host until this past summer, came out to deliver the evening’s introductory remarks dressed up in a NASA spacesuit. Many if not most of the audience members with smartphones hadn’t acted on emails sent by Symphony earlier in the week urging them to download the Deep Field app, so that and logging in to the Blumenthal Performing Arts’ wi-fi network further ballooned the prefatory segment of the program. Adding to the fun, Warren-Green not only showed us what his silent cue would look like but also pantomimed what his reaction would be if we messed up.

Facing away from us until he gave us his cue, Warren-Green was the only musician onstage with a view of the screen. Synchronizing the ensemble with the film seemed to be a very complex task for him, looking down at his score and directing his players while sneaking peeks at the film. The film adds a whole new layer onto Whitacre’s composition. It was amazing how precise the synchronization appeared to be. Imprecision seemed permissible at the start, when Whitacre’s score merely proved how apt the use of a soft minimalist style was for simulating a journey through space. The power of the Deep Field film asserted itself as soon as it began, transforming Whitacre’s music into an unobtrusive film score. Yet the film ultimately proved to be a potent accompaniment for the film, for the entrance of the French horns was pivotal as the brass section and the first violins joined in the orchestral swell while the density of stars increased onscreen and colorful galaxies blossomed.

Whitacre had a bigger musical build to follow with snare drums and timpani, and the onset of our smartphones was yet to come, with the Charlotte Symphony Chorus standing by-behind the instrumentalists. Techies among our readers will be glad to hear that the Deep Field app was designed to play even when your smartphone is set on mute, thus preventing the interference of other alerts and the sounds you’ve chosen to signal email and message arrivals. No rude surprises there, and the differing reaction times to Warren-Green’s cue only enhanced the floating, white-noise, Star Trek flavor of the app’s sound. The video also had a surprise or two at this juncture, superimposing photos of people onto the galactic panorama. At first, the gallery of portraits evoked a choir for me, but perhaps because the filmmakers wished to avoid a sharp contrast with the black void of space, the black-and-white photos ultimately reminded me of the anteroom of the Holocaust Museum in DC, surely not the intended effect. More colorful, less ghostly images would help.

Three performances of Deep Field and The Planets are scheduled, an obvious indication that Symphony is aware of how hot this ticket is. Looking around the hall on Friday night, I didn’t see any patches of unsold seats, a testament to Charlotte’s undimmed affection for Holst’s astrological explorations. If you’re worried that repetition has dulled Warren-Green’s zest for the planetary suite, that concern was dispelled in the opening movement, “Mars, the Bringer of War,” where the musical director was as animated as I’ve seen him this season, prodding the orchestra to a full roar. It was interesting to see how Holst leaned as heavily on the celesta to depict outer space as Whitacre would lean on minimalism, using its distinctive timbre to sprinkle serenity on the “Venus, the Bringer of Peace” movement and to augment the Tinkerbell playfulness of the ensuing “Mercury, the Winged Messenger.”

“Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” seemed to be the most British of the movements with Warren-Green wielding the baton, a countryman of the composer, and his account of “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age” had as much gravitas as ever. The lugubrious opening built to an anguish tinged with timpani and tubular bells before twin harps emerged over a haze of double basses. “Uranus, the Magician” retained the Sorcerer’s Apprentice flavoring that I’d noted in previous Symphony renditions and, with the Symphony Chorus softly chiming in from offstage, “Neptune, the Mystic” had a heavenliness that can only be experienced in live performance.

While I might have pointed to the thinness cruelly exposed in the opening of Deep Field, I was at a loss to point out any flaws in Symphony’s presentation until a concertgoer sitting nearby piped up. He thought a larger screen in a darkened hall would have made Deep Field a more immersive experience. I’ve been informed that Symphony actually uses three different screens at Belk Theater, and the one deployed for Deep Field was larger than the one it uses when it presents an overhead view of guest pianists’ hands traversing the keyboard. But it wasn’t the largest screen in the arsenal, the one that hovers over Movie in Concert performances, such as the just-concluded Home Alone showings, where Symphony plays the film scores live and in-sync with the films. Maybe the midsize screen wasn’t the best choice for the Whitacre semi-premiere.

 

Actor’s Gym Unearths a Gem in “Fallen Angels”

Review: Fallen Angels

By Perry Tannenbaum

When a playwright puts the finishing touches on his or her latest comedy, it’s without any knowledge about how prevailing attitudes and expectations might change out in the audience over the next 93 years. No playwright has ever had the chance to look back that far, and that includes Noël Coward, whose Fallen Angels is playing at Duke Energy Theater in an Actor’s Gym production directed by Tony Wright.

Knowing Noël, I’d say he’d either gasp or laugh out loud. Opportunity knocks for Coward’s protagonists, Julia Sterroll and Jane Banbury, when their husbands head off on a golfing weekend just when an old flame of both ladies, Maurice Duclos, sends them billet-doux saying that he’ll be arriving back in London after an absence of many years –so many years that the husbands, Fred and Willy, have no idea of who Maurice is nor any knowledge of his torrid affairs with their wives.

After Fred’s departure, Julia is momentarily left alone with her new smarty-pants maid, Saunders. That’s when Jane arrives at the Sterrolls’, all aflutter with the news. Julia, who was just a few minutes earlier discussing with Fred exactly how much fire was left in their mellowing marriage, hadn’t yet read her note from Maurice. It quickly becomes evident, as the women discuss Maurice, that those flames still burn brightly, perhaps more brightly than ever. They’re a little scared.What will they do when he arrives?

Their first impulse is exactly what an audience would expect – in 1925: to flee as quickly as they can to protect their honor, which presumably cannot withstand Maurice’s irresistible charms. A mere 35 years after Oscar Wilde had declared, “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it,” such an outlook was still wicked, irresponsible, and risqué.

Nowadays, coaxed by Madison Avenue, amoral leaders, social media, and longstanding American traditions of fierce individuality, we find ourselves – regardless of gender – inwardly urging Julia and Jane, Go for it! Whereas we’re taken aback in 2018 by the ladies’ knee-jerk-prissiness, their eventual decision to stay and face Maurice was immoral enough to give London’s censors pause before allowing Fallen Angels to be performed.

Once Julia and Jane have opted for what we perceive as the road-more-taken, you might expect that attitude adjustment becomes far less necessary. Yet in more subtle ways, the presumption of wickedness works its way deeply to the bones of Coward’s comedy. Instead of building his comedy upon Julia and Jane’s rekindled romances – and their wacky or delicious maneuverings to keep their husbands in the dark – we find an unexpected amount of time devoted to maintaining their wicked resolve. Here our complications arise from the women’s resorting to martinis and champagne to sustain their courage during their excited vigil.

So it’s helpful that Tony Wright and his design team keep reminding us that the people onstage are living indifferent times. While Tim Baxter-Ferguson’s set design isn’t the ultimate in elegance, the requirements of a British drawing room are met, including a baby grand where Saunders will upstage Julia. Davita Galloway’s costumes, particularly the flapper-flavored outfits for the partying ladies as they sip their martinis, stamp the era most decisively.

The women must dominate this comedy,and Wright has found a marvelously varied trio. Originally played by Tallulah Bankhead, Julia is the formidable serenity that is serially agitated by Saunders, Jane, and Maurice to comical effect. Jennifer Barnette takes that serenity to a loftier, more angelic plane, slightly muting her discomfiture and giving more space for the eccentricities of Saunders and Jane to shine. Karina Caporino pounces on her opportunity as Jane with frenetic energy, more brittle and midlife than we’ve ever seen her, which easily makes Jane the most screwball of her trademark neurotics.

Erin Darcy as Saunders is possibly the most vivid period trimming in this whole confection, a servant who is more knowledgeable, widely traveled, and skilled than the mistress she serves, aware of her superiority and maybe a little bit haughty about it. Saunders’ sophistication lays bare the delusion that the Sterrolls or the Banburys are living lives of consequence. Perhaps it’s Darcy’s aplomb at the piano that gives Barnette her best episode of humiliation.

In this context, Emmanuel Barbe is a perfect choice as Maurice. He is suave and self-assured, with a savoir-fair that is unmistakably French, yet he doesn’t quite have the polish and youth that would make knees buckle in high society. Barbe’s down-market elegance is still more than enough to make David Hensley as Fred and Michael Anderson as Willy seem gullible, dimwitted, and humdrum. Hensley as Fred seems to be the sort who feels like he’s fulfilling his destiny by opening a newspaper at the breakfast table, while Anderson, once he reconciles with Fred and Jane, gives Willy exactly the smiling insouciance that Wright wants for his ending.

I have to go back to 2005 and The Tempest to find the last Actor’s Gym production I reviewed. It’s great to have Wright and his Gym back on the scene, especially when the Gym unearths a gem like this.

 

Opera Carolina Takes Aim at the Funny Bone With Donizetti’s “Daughter of the Regiment”

Review: The Daughter of the Regiment

By Perry Tannenbaum

Late in his prolific career, including nearly 30 operas composed between 1822 and 1830, Gaetano Donizetti did something he had never attempted before. After briefly becoming the pride of Naples – until the King censored his Poliuto in 1838 – Donizetti moved to Paris, premiered his banned opera in a translated revision, and set out to write a new work, La Fille du Régiment, to a French libretto by Jules-Henry Vernoy de Saint-George and Jean-François Bayard. Disdaining the subsequent La Figlia version in Italian, Opera Carolina amply justified changing the title to The Daughter of the Regiment, bringing in American soprano Sarah Coburn to sing the lead in her Charlotte debut and translating all spoken dialogue into English. Directed by Alain Gauthier, the new production sported scenery by Brian Perchaluk that was quite conventional and Tyrolean, but the flavor of the comedy was a bit saltier and bawdier than others I’ve seen, both at the Met in HD performance in 2008 and at the previous Belk Theater staging of Donizetti’s Daughter in 1996.

Somber and forlorn, the opening bars of the overture didn’t seem to be heralding any comedy at all until the score took a hairpin alpine turn and became quite bubbly and Rossinian, no challenge at all for the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Stephano Romani in his Opera Carolina debut. We then turned back to mournfulness as the chorus of hapless Tyroleans hoped and prayed that the invading French would be repelled. Marie, a foundling who has been brought up by the triumphant 21st Regiment since she was a babe in her cradle, entered with her surrogate father, Sergeant Sulpice – in a decidedly sunnier mood. Yet amid her conquering exhilaration, Marie was mooning over her shy, newfound Tyrolean love, whom she hadn’t seen since he heroically risked his life to save hers.

Almost on cue, Marie’s dreamboat arrived, clad in unmistakably Tyrolean overalls, a prisoner captured by the rest of the regiment. Of course, the ostensibly civilized Frenchmen want to execute Tonio instantly as a spy. Otherwise, how could Donizetti have his Marie pleading lyrically for her beloved’s life? Tonio’s impending doom was one of three readily apparent obstacles to the lovebirds’ bliss. Marie and Tonio haven’t actually declared their love for one another yet, and Sulpice reminds her that she is duty-bound to marry one of the grenadiers from the 21st. Sweeping the first complication aside drew forth Sulpice’s paternal love and his soldiers’ soft-heartedness, leaving Marie and Tonio alone to make their declarations in a rather adorable duet.

Tonio seemed to have solved the final complication before intermission, enlisting in the regiment and qualifying for Marie’s hand. But his timing was disastrous. The Marquise of Berkenfeld, in seeking safe passage to her chalet from the Napoleonic conquerors, has discovered that Marie is actually her daughter – although she tells Sulpice that she’s her niece when he discloses the proof, a letter he has saved from Marie’s long-discarded cradle. Just as he makes his first entrance in his new uniform, proud of his ingenuity, Tonio finds out that Marie is nobility, to be whisked away to her hereditary chalet. This time, Tonio couldn’t follow his beloved. Nope, he has just taken on the obligations of enlisted man, occasioning Marie’s heartbroken aria of farewell, crying out “Il faut partir!” so many times that I lost count.

In Marie’s staunch and unquestioning devotion to duty, I couldn’t help seeing a parallel to Frederic, the long-indentured “Slave of Duty” in Gilbert & Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance. There were also times when Sulpice and his invading soldiers reminded me of the Pirate King and his unexpectedly patriotic marauders. Although Coburn didn’t march across the stage with drumsticks, a facet of the infectious “Rataplan, Rataplan” regimental song in many early productions, she was definitely primed for Gauthier’s comical garnishments. There was a Shirley Temple flavor to Coburn’s military bearing in Act I when she was in uniform, and a nicely calibrated awkwardness in Act II when Marie must dress up like a lady. Coburn pouted and moped as winningly as she flirted and exulted. If she didn’t quite hit all of her notes with the same authority and effortlessness, there was almost always a beautifully pure quality to her voice and admirable control of her trills and vibrato. Coburn warbled rather than wobbled and possessed impressive power when she tapped into it.

As Tonio, tenor David Walton had the opportunity to upstage his leading lady. Although conspicuously of peasant stock, in the reprise of his famed “Ah, mes amis, quel jour de fête” aria, Tonio must scale no less than nine high C’s in the space of just over a minute, entitling the fortunate few tenors who can reach those heights to be called “King of the High C’s,” as Luciano Pavarotti was. Walton did reach that summit more effortlessly than Coburn in her most stratospheric flights, and his “Ah, mes amis” came off as an aria rather than an athletic feat. But this Tonio was never nearly as characterful as his beloved, and he couldn’t match the thrilling power of her voice. Until he can muscle up vocally and develop some acting chops, I’d rank Walton as a duke, perhaps a prince.

There’s no villainy in Daughter, and hardly as much greed, pretension, and pettifoggery as we find in The Barber of Seville. Thus it’s hardly surprising that bass-baritone Matthew Burns as Sulpice and mezzo Maariana Vikse as the Marquise came off as rather pallid in barring our protagonists’ road to happiness. Burns was able to show some avuncular charm toward Marie, and Vikse had the opportunity to sashay across the stage in A.T. Jones’ most splendiferous costume designs. Small wonder that Gauthier has added more color to them both at the end by inserting some mutual attraction.

Even more comical delights emanated from cast members who sang less. On the strength of last fall’s fopperies in Cyrano de Bergerac, bass-baritone Carl DuPont certainly deserved an Opera Carolina encore as Hortensius, the Marquise’s officious manservant, and he did not disappoint. After her Charlotte debut in The Marriage of Figaro last spring, soprano Diane Schoff returned to comedy on the Belk stage even more speedily, making a splash each time she entered as The Duchess of Krakenthorp, decked out in a black-and-gold Jones creation that evoked the Chrysler Building.

Marvelous to relate, Ruth Bader Ginsburg made her operatic debut in Washington as the Duchess almost exactly two years before last Saturday evening’s performance in Charlotte. Obviously, Gauthier is telling quite a different story in his version, with plenty of comic style of his own. Comic detailing extended deep into the chorus of soldiers in Gauthier’s first directorial outing with Opera Carolina. Those guys were having as much fun onstage as the subscribers out in the audience, and when the word spreads, there just might be sell-outs to the final performances ahead.

“Daffodil Girls” Vie Viciously for Survival – and a Pony

Review: The Daffodil Girls

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

Down in Dallas, Fun House Theatre producer Bren Rapp and her co-founder, artistic director Jeff Swearingen, don’t do children’s theatre the usual way. The children at Fun House are the actors onstage and not necessarily the target audience. So when Rapp looked for an inspiration to challenge her students, David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross wasn’t too far of a stretch. To translate the Darwinian struggles of real estate salesmen embroiled in a monthly sales contest into terms her actors could identify with – an annual Girl Scout Cookie drive – Rapp leaned upon Swearingen’s play writing skills.

The result in 2013 was a Dallas-Fort Worth theatre legend: The Daffodil Girls. In a further mutation five years later, Three Bone Theatre is currently premiering the first all-adult production of Swearingen’s script at Spirit Square.

Make no mistake, this is thoroughly Swearingen’s play, not just a servile rechanneling of Mamet’s testosterone-driven, potty-mouthed arguments through the lips of innocent preteens. Plot and dialogue only faintly echo Glengarry most of the time, language is relatively cleansed, and beware: complete sentences lie ahead. Another way to view the difference is to note that Swearingen lets plenty of air into the relatively claustrophobic world of Glengarry. Mamet only gave us three two-handed scenes before intermission. Swearingen admits more characters – and more of the world outside of the Daffodils’ treehouse.

According to Willa, who parallels Mamet’s Williamson, the entire Daffodil chapter has been endangered by their slumping cookie sales, not just the low person on the totem pole. Even before Shelly’s quest for hotter leads, in a humiliating confrontation with the officious Willa, we find Swearingen modernizing the story and infusing fresh air into the competition. Shelly is outdoors as the lights go up, on her cellphone first with her mom and then her dad, pleading with them to help boost her numbers.

Opening up his story, Swearingen doesn’t ease up on the stress that Mamet plunged us into, but he does manage to instantly wrap that stress into a more juvenile mindset. Parents at the Duke Energy Theater can only sigh. The Daffodils’ cookie quotas merely weaponize our children’s pre-existing propensity toward clinging, dependent querulousness, and cellphones help it go nuclear.

When she isn’t consulting her rules and charts – or obsequiously receiving Blayne, the regional Daffodil emissary with the motivational charms of a drill sergeant – Willa seems to live next door to the troop’s treehouse. All we see at stage right is Willa’s housefront, enough for her to peep out of and defer to parents lurking within. Flanking the treehouse interior in Ryan Maloney’s set design, a Peanuts-gone-to-seed affair, is that pillar of preteen commerce, a lemonade stand (with a crayon rental side hustle). There we will find Raimi, the top-selling Daffodil, closing in on a high-gross sale to hapless, sickly Jenny Link, who may be allergic to every ingredient in those cookies.

Raimi is modeled on Mamet’s sales ace, Roma, who circles his prey, Lingk, ever so circumspectly in the last Chinese restaurant scene of Glengarry prior to intermission. The real bridge to Act 2 in both dramas is the discussion about ransacking the sales office, ostensibly for cash and receipts, but really so the desperate accomplices can get their hands on those hot sales leads that are guarded so closely. In Glengarry, the conspirators were Dave Moss and George Aaronow, with Moss as the intimidator. Here the crooked bullying malcontent is Dana, bullying a kindergarten neophyte, Georgina.

Casting the women who will regress into girlhood in daffodil-colored uniforms, Three Bone director Amanda Liles leans on size in her casting when we need to differentiate between their purported ages. Layla Sutton as Dana towers over Kitty Janvrin as Georgina, conjuring up a Trunchbull-Matilda contrast more readily than any relationship Mamet set down. You’ll notice a similar disparity between the imposing Iris DeWitt as Blayne, the regional enforcer, and the comparatively petite Iesha Nyree as the deferential Willa.

Rather than playing down these contrasts, Liles encourages her actresses to play them up. Among them, Nyree gets the best opportunity to surprise, for Willa may be a worm and a suck-up, but she’s a cunning one, and her moment will come. In proving that crime doesn’t pay, Nyree gets to unleash a volcano of pent-up emotion that is quite consonant with Willa’s customary sliminess, but she only briefly wrests our primary attention away from the girls at the opposite ends of sales totem pole.

Kerstin VanHuss as the pathetic Shelly and LeShea Nicole as the regal Raimi give the performances you’ll remember longest. If Shelly would sweeten up, stop acting so spoiled, and show a little more initiative, she might shape up as the sort of underdog you could root for, like the chubby Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray. Yet in her pluckier moments, Van Huss succeeds in making this mopey, self-pitying Shelly more appealing than any of Mamet’s predators, so I did find myself rooting for her late in the action despite my better judgment.

Raimi oozes all the self-confidence, superiority, and staunch entitlement that Shelly lacks, and Nicole makes her so very slick, patient, and condescending as she sets about fleecing poor Jenny for over 20+ boxes of toxic cookies. The fruits of Raimi’s finesse make her a victorious queen when she finally deigns to return to the ransacked treehouse. Nobody is taking away her damn pony party, the prize that goes to the troop’s top seller, and you can hear Nicole playing the race card as she proclaims this – slapping that card down on the table with gusto, absolutely shameless. As in previous Nicole stage exploits, she’s intensely eccentric and laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes without even saying a word.

Of course, Nicole’s imperious cruelty is greatly augmented by the immense frailty of Valerie Thames as Jenny – though it must be said those breathing tubes sprouting from her nostrils give her a head start. To a lesser extent than Nyree as Willa, Thames will acquire the beginnings of a backbone in the Act 2 denouement when Jenny finally gets a word in edgewise.

Similarly, it isn’t just Willa who nudges us toward empathizing with Shelly. After her cameo as Blayne, DeWitt returns to belittle Shelly, her cookies and her Daffodils uniform as Lisa, a preppy girl who acts like giving Shelly the time of day is more than sufficient charity. Rounding out the cast is Tiffany Bryant Jackson as Cora. Mostly quiet as she runs the lemonade stand before intermission, Cora turns out to have quite a bossy streak in the heat of the great burglary investigation.

Maybe the biggest surprise in Swearingen’s fun-filled riff on Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross was how much plot and action the Dallas playwright squeezed into a script whose running time didn’t quite reach 80 minutes. Amazing what you can do with short speeches and complete sentences.