Three Nights of Resounding Sermons Hit Spirit Square

Preview:  God’s Trombones

By Perry Tannenbaum

OnQ doesn’t usually perform at McGlohon Theater in Spirit Square, but when it does, it’s big, big, big. So shall it be, brothers and sisters, when God’s Trombonessounds big, doesn’t it? – comes wailing, praising, shouting, and testifying into town next week for a three-night run, beginning next Tuesday. Capping OnQ’s “Redemption Song” season 11, the cast is among the company’s biggest ever, with around 25 actors, singers, dancers, and musicians performing onstage.

And if you’ve ever attended an event at McGlohon, or you know its recent history as the home of Pastor Stephen Furtick’s Elevation Church – or Spirit Square’s origins as the First Baptist Church – you’ll realize that OnQ has chosen the right place for James Weldon Johnson’s “Seven Negro Sermons in Verse.” McGlohon retains its stained glass, Sunday church vibe to this day.

Johnson was a seminal figure in African-American literature as a poet, novelist, essayist, critic, anthologist, songwriter, and collector of spirituals. Oh yeah, he also served as US consul in Venezuela and Nicaragua under Teddy Roosevelt and as executive secretary of the NAACP. He is best remembered for writing the lyrics to “Lift Ev’ry Voice,” for The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, his novel, and for his most anthologized poem, “The Creation,” from God’s Trombones, first published in 1927.

OnQ artistic director Quentin Talley hasn’t wanted to present this classic for quite that long, but he has loved the piece since he was around 12 years old. That’s when his youth choir participated in a production presented by an association of black Baptist churches in his hometown of Greenwood, SC. It was one of Talley’s formative theatre experiences, and by the time he reached college age, it was foundational.

“I even ended up doing the ‘The Crucifixion’ as my dramatic monologue audition piece for Winthrop [University] and received a First Night Scholarship.”

In his original preface, Johnson said that he’d prefer his verse sermons to be spoken aloud – or “intoned” – so it’s natural that singing and dancing should be added to the package. Costuming will remind us where we are, a mix of pastoral robes, choir robes, and Sunday best.

“We begin like we are in a church service,” says Talley, “and once the sermons build, we take on various locations and time periods. Our choir is absolutely amazing, and the audience will probably want to stand up, sit down and say amen. All are encouraged to do so, but it’s not mandatory.”

Leading the choir in his first stint with OnQ is Dennis Reed Jr., whose GAP singers have worked with such notables as Fantasia, Bebe Winans, New Kids on the Block, and Shania Twain. On this gig, Reed is also auditioning the singers, picking the songs, and penning the arrangements. So does Reed fire up his newly-formed choir with righteous gospel music played on a hallowed Hammond B3 organ?

“Hahahahaha!” Reed responds. “That’s correct! You’ll hear the B3, piano, bass, and live drums. Much of the black church tradition is rooted in live music. What’s really cool is that we are taking a little liberty with song choice. We will fuse traditional hymns, Negro spirituals, and even new elements of music such as hiphop loops! As far as choreography goes, we’ll see a lot of it come together in practice and much of it happens organically.”

Though he’s never worked with Talley before, Reed is a fan of his work. A proud grad of NW School of the Arts, Reed has numerous musician and singer friends who have collaborated with Talley and OnQ – and his ties to Charlotte are not at all tenuous. He founded Inspire the Fire here more than 15 years ago, when he was 17, to bring the arts to young people between the ages of 10 and 21, earning Community Leader of the Year honors at the 2015 Queen City Awards.

GAP stands for God’s Appointed People, so gospel music and God’s Trombones should as much up Reed’s alley as Talley’s.

Johnson pieced his sermon suite together using “vague memories” of sermons he had heard or collected, and their subjects are familiar church staples. The typical old-time Negro preacher, Johnson recalled, “preached a personal and anthropomorphic God, a sure-enough heaven and a red-hot hell. His imagination was bold and unfettered. He had the power to sweep his hearers before him; and so himself was often swept away.”

Aside from “The Creation,” the poet hearkens back to the Old Testament in sermons on Noah and Moses. Christian themes include the Prodigal Son, the Crucifixion, Judgment Day, and a non-scriptural funeral sermon.

“Each sermon will have a different approach,” Talley promises. “Most are recited, some acted out or sung, some are poetry slam form, but all have down-home preaching undertones.”

A mix of OnQ ensemble regulars – and authentic preachers – will deliver the sermons. Familiar OnQ faces will include Omar El-Amin for the Prodigal and Ron McClelland for the Crucifixion. Slam poet extraordinaire Bluz leads us aboard Noah’s Ark and Q himself orates “The Creation.” Preacher Yolanda Bynum launches the show with Johnson’s “Listen Lord” prayer, and Rev. Madeline Salder leans into “Let My People Go.”

Johnson intended us to hear trombones when his verse was read aloud – if they authentically replicated the preachers he heard in his youth. Listening to the trombone, Johnson heard expressive capabilities beyond any other instrument, approximating “the varied range of emotions encompassed by the human voice – and with greater amplitude.”

Of course, it’s fascinating that Talley, in reviving this Johnson gem, is hearkening back to his own youth, positioning himself to capture some extra flavors of its spirit.

“This show has been on our list for years,” Talley affirms, “but never really fitted with themes we’ve had in the past couple of years. With this season’s theme being ‘Redemption Song,’ it fit perfectly. As artistic director after 11 years of producing ups and downs, this show is a reminder to keep the faith. Running an arts org is taxing physically, emotionally, financially and spiritually, and sometimes you need a reason from a higher power to keep going, especially at the end of a season.”

Sometimes we also need to check out a worthy writer like Johnson who has unjustly fallen from his loftiest esteem, perhaps because he led the NAACP or perhaps because of the folksy, down-home flavor of God’s Trombones. Or perhaps because we prefer to say black or African-American instead of Negro. All these trivial reasons evaporate when you delve into Johnson with any depth.

You could start with The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, or you might begin with Johnson’s actual autobiography, Along This Way. Here is something trenchant that he observes there:

“On occasions, I have been amazed and amused watching white people dancing to a Negro band in a Harlem cabaret; attempting to throw off the crusts and layers of inhibitions laid on by sophisticated civilization; striving to yield to the feel and experience of abandon; seeking to recapture a taste of primitive joy in life and living; trying to work their way back into that jungle which was the original Garden of Eden; in a word, doing their best to pass as colored.”

Now that’s not folksy at all, but it is the keen intelligence embedded in God’s Trombones. More than 20 years ahead of Norman Mailer’s The White Negro and Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock.”

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A Bach Big Bang Hits the QC

Preview:  Charlotte Bach Festival

By Perry Tannenbaum

Bach celebrations aren’t totally alien to the Queen City. Charlotte Symphony played with the idea for a few years at Knight Theater with Bachtoberfest, pairing Bach and beer, preferably bock. BachFests have bloomed annually – if only for a day – at St. Alban’s Episcopal in nearby Davidson; and last March, the North Carolina Bach Festival landed modestly for one evening at the Steinway Piano Gallery on the outskirts of town.

None of these foretold the Bach Big Bang that begins this Saturday. The first annual Charlotte Bach Festival splashes down with eight concerts in nine days – predominantly in the QC but in churches ranging from Gastonia to Winston-Salem. Unlike the Bachtoberfest brew, which might mix in some Mozart and Wagner, Charlotte Bach kicks off with an all-Johann Sebastian lineup.

And unlike the chamber offerings at St. Alban’s and Steinway, Charlotte Bach is mostly big Bach: multiple cantatas, a trumpeting Orchestral Suite, a motet, and the mighty B Minor Mass. Ambitions are not at all small at Bach Akademie Charlotte, the non-profit producing company that sprouted up last October – at St. Alban’s with two cantatas and a motet – with no word about the Big Bang to come.

Plans are not only firmly in place to stage Charlotte Bach annually but also to possibly grow the festival to a third weekend. That would put a fully-bloomed QC festival in the same elite class as the Oregon Bach Festival, the Big Kahuna among Bach fests in America.

Seeds for this astonishing phenomenon were first planted late in 2013, when Charlotte Symphony presented Bach’s St. Matthew Passion under the direction of Scott Allen Jarrett. Singing tenor with the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte at these sacred concerts, Mike Trammell had an epiphany: this was what he wanted to do in life.

“Bach always makes you look beyond the page,” says Trammell, “and I was captivated by the context of the piece – the history, the texts chosen, and its structure of arias, recits, and chorales. I finally found some classical music that I could connect with beyond the way it sounded to my ear.”

But to live by singing Bach in Charlotte – the land of Speedweeks, tailgate parties, and b-ball?? Of course, not. So he went off and sang Bach in Stuttgart and then Weimar with Helmuth Rilling, the revered conductor and choirmaster who founded Oregon Bach in 1971.

Eventually, Trammell got to thinking, why not Charlotte? With other like-minded locals, he founded the Bach Akademie Charlotte, and then he reached out to Jarrett to become its first artistic director.

“You have to hear Scott speak on Bach,” says Trammell, “and you have to hear what he does with the music for me to tell you why he’s the best. He’s recognized by his peers as a leading Bach scholar in the country. He knows our city, he knows our people – he speaks our language and the language of Bach.”

Trammell flew up to Boston to make his Bach Akademie pitch to Jarrett. Getting Jarrett to sign on was the key to bringing what Trammell calls a “rockstar” staff aboard, including Adam Romey, the Festival’s managing director. Romey’s mom is Rilling’s longtime assistant, and his grandfather helped Helmut in founding Oregon Bach.

No doubt Jarrett helped in selling Romey on Charlotte. A native of Virginia who went to college at Furman University, Jarrett was already at home in the region when he served as assistant conductor at Charlotte Symphony from 2004 to 2015 and music director for the Oratorio Singers.

“So it was a real happy 11 years working for the Oratorio and the Symphony, coming weekly to Charlotte for more than a decade,” says Jarrett. “I find the spirit behind people wanting to do this music is really thrilling, and I think it’s brilliant for [the Bach festival] to be in Charlotte. Charlotte is a perfect place for it!”

It’s doubtful that anything less than a Bach festival aspiring to national prominence could have lured Jarrett back.

Down in Miami, Jarrett was the first guest conductor to lead the Seraphic Fire ensemble, contributing to their Grammy-nominated recording of Brahms’ Requiem in 2012. Up in Boston, he is resident conductor of the Handel + Haydn Society, and music director of the Back Bay Chorale. At Boston University, he is director of music at Marsh Chapel, where weekly Sunday services are broadcast live. He has also piloted a Bach cantata series at the University for the past 12 years.

More importantly, Jarrett brings more precious DNA to our budding festival from the Oregon Bach Festival, where he has been a fixture since 2010. Last year, he kicked off the season conducting the Matthew Passion, making him the only person besides Rilling ever entrusted with that masterwork. This season at Oregon, he presides over another Rilling preserve, the Discovery Series, a unique set of lecture-demonstration concerts that take listeners inside the craftsmanship and the theology of the music.

Here in Charlotte, it will be called The Bach Experience – as it has been on Jarrett’s home turf at Boston U. The two themed concerts, “Summer in Leipzig,” will be offered at Myers Park United Methodist Church next Tuesday and Thursday at 12:30pm. Jarrett has chosen Cantata 75, “Die Elenden sollen essen” (“The Hungry Shall Eat”), and Cantata 76, “Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes” (“The Heavens Are Telling the Glory of God”), to take us back to 1723 and Bach’s first two weeks of work as cantor of the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig.

Jarrett, the Akademie | Charlotte Cantata Choir, the North Carolina Baroque Orchestra, singers from the Akademie’s Emerging Artist program, and special guests will all be upfront performing – and demonstrating. Besides the quality of the singers and musicians, who hail from as far away as California and Canada, Jarrett is enthused about the caliber of the QC’s audience.

“One of the things that always inspired me about Charlotte is that people here go to Sunday school, they are interested in learning,” Jarrett declares. “It’s not like they go to a concert to get their card punched. They want to know why the music matters. They want to know what the music has to say. And basically, they are curious people, and this is the perfect music for them!”

Festivities are bookended by two blockbuster concerts, leading off with the Festival Opening Celebration on Saturday evening at Christ Church Charlotte on Providence Road. Ordinarily, you don’t expect the trumpeting of Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 1 to be upstaged. This time, the brassy suite might be less dominant than usual, flanked by the “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied” (“Sing to the Lord a New Song”) motet, which Jarrett describes as the “Brandenburg Concerto for voices,” and the Cantata 147, which includes the beloved “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” – twice.

“That cantata is very dear to me,” Jarrett confides. “It’s one of the first cantatas I ever heard and learned, and Bach has a wonderful concertante opening movement with voices and trumpet, a real brilliant feature for voices and players.”

The closing concert in Charlotte on the following Saturday, June 16 at Myers Park Presbyterian, is simply called The Masterwork – because Jarrett can find no words to overpraise the monumental B Minor Mass. Both the opening and closing concerts get Sunday afternoon encores that will expand the Charlotte Bach Festival’s reach. The Opening Celebration travels to First United Methodist in Gastonia this coming Sunday, and The Masterwork journeys to Centenary United Methodist in Winston-Salem on June 17.

At the other end of the Bach spectrum, the Leipzig cantor is the unchallenged master of solo works written for violin, cello, and organ. The Visiting Artist Recital Series at the Charlotte festival checks that Bach box as well. Highlighting the series, Bálint Karosi reigns at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church on Friday, June 16, when he will give the new Fisk organ a workout – with pieces inspired by Bach’s name, written by Schumann, Liszt, and others.

Two kings collide as Karosi, a Hungaraton recording artist and winner of the 2008 International J.S. Bach Competition, displays his skills on the king of instruments.

But don’t skip Guy Fishman, principal cellist of the Handel + Haydn Society, who comes to Christ Church Charlotte next Monday evening to play selected Bach Cello Suites. There won’t be many quiet moments when the Bach Big Bang hits Charlotte, but this will be among the most beautiful.

“He is an Israeli-American musician,” Jarrett points out, “and just one of the most extraordinary cellists that I’ve ever met, and I’m so grateful to be able to work with him often.”

For tickets and full details, go to bachcharlotte.com.

 

Bach Fests Bloom in the Carolinas

Review: North Carolina Bach Festival

By Perry Tannenbaum

Bach festivals are singing a new song in the Carolinas. After a three-year hiatus, a new Bach Society of Charleston formed in 2015 and revived the Holy City’s annual festival in South Carolina. Reprising the Bach Festival of Charleston for a third consecutive year, the Society expanded the event from three days to four in February.

Just a couple of years ago, the North Carolina Bach Festival had shriveled to a single guest artist performance and one youth concert. Under new leadership in 2017, NC Bach presented four featured artist concerts. Instead of remaining huddled in Raleigh, the Festival expanded its reach to include Greensboro and Charlotte. Expansion continued at the 2018 NC Bach Festival, and confidence is running high for next year, when the Festival celebrates its 40th anniversary.

More spectacular yet is the meteoric rise of Bach Akademie Charlotte, which did not even exist one year ago. Two concerts, one in October and another in January, began their first season, with hardly a word about the Big Bang to come. Starting this Saturday, Akademie presents its first annual Charlotte Bach Festival, eight major events in nine days at churches ranging from Gastonia to Winston-Salem.

None of the artistic directors at these three festivals was ready to proclaim a new wave of Bach enthusiasm sweeping the region. In the Charlotte area, though, there is definitely something different in the air. Up in Davidson, less than two miles from St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, where the Akademie staged its first concert, WDAV has grown to be the No. 1 classical public radio station in the country – partly by dropping news roundups at the top of the hour and partly by adding more Bach.

“Even before we launched our popular Sunday morning program Biscuits and Bach in 2009, audience research and anecdotal feedback made it clear that Baroque music was popular with our listeners, so it’s been a large part of the daily music mix, as well,” says WDAV’s general manager and content director Frank Dominguez. “Bach clearly represents the pinnacle of musical achievement in that era.”

While Bach hadn’t gained a firm foothold in Charlotte before the Akademie’s oncoming Festival, there were other traces of a footprint besides WDAV. An annual BachFest bloomed at St. Alban’s, if only for a few hours, and Charlotte Symphony had run a string of Bachtoberfests from 2013-15, lightweight snippets from the Bach family mixed with Wagner, Mozart, Brahms, and – of course – beer.

More significantly, Symphony had programmed Bach’s B Minor Mass in 2002 and 2009 in its flagship classics series, and the St. Matthew Passion in 2013. Conducted by Scott Allen Jarrett, then music director at the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte and an assistant conductor at Symphony, this performance of the Passion planted the seed that eventually grew into the Akademie and its Charlotte Bach Festival.

Michael H. Trammell, president of Bach Akademie Charlotte, is now on the verge of changing the cultural life of his hometown. Then he was a tenor with the Oratorio Singers. In Bach, he found a composer he could connect with more deeply than any he had sung before, and in performing the Passion, he found what he wanted to do with his life.

“I remember finishing the concert cycle and wanting more, so I dove into Bach,” says Trammell. “My professional career as a vocalist continued to grow, and I started studying Bach in Germany through several young artist festivals under Helmuth Rilling, The music became very real and tangible as we performed in churches and cities where Bach lived and worked. In actuality, my hometown’s cultural life changed me and led me to a broader prospective of classical music and life in general.”

At Bach-centric concerts back home, Trammell found audiences that craved more – and a growing group of choral singers who could meet that demand at a high level. He performed several engagements with the North Carolina Baroque Orchestra. Co-founded by recorder player Frances Blaker and baroque cellist Barbara Blaker Krumdiek, NC Baroque was one of several early music ensembles in the region that could supply instrumental nectar to the grand idea that was flowering in Trammell’s mind.

NC Baroque and WDAV would both be willing to partner in the Akademie endeavor. So would select churches, universities, and concert series. But the Charlotte Bach Festival needed strong leadership if it expected to grow and flourish. Trammell flew up to Boston in an attempt to bring Jarrett, his original mentor, aboard.

Jarrett hadn’t languished since leaving Charlotte Symphony in 2015 after an 11-year stint. He is resident conductor of the Handel + Haydn Society in Boston and music director of the Back Bay Chorale. At Boston University, Jarrett has additional double duties, directing Sunday services at Marsh Chapel and helming a cantata series.

Nor is he a stranger to Bach festivals. At the Oregon Bach Festival, Jarrett is the director of the Vocal Fellows Program and the assistant chorus master. He also led off the 2017 season from the podium in a performance of the St. Matthew Passion, the only conductor besides OBF founder Rilling to have that distinction. This summer, Jarrett is entrusted with another Rilling domain, the Discovery Series, a unique lecture-concert experience that delves into the craft and theology of Bach’s music while presenting it.

For Trammell, Jarrett was not only a mentor but a clear first choice for Akademie’s artistic director. For the goal of spreading the musical and pedagogical DNA of Rilling and the Oregon Bach Festival to Charlotte, Jarrett is ideal. With Jarrett aboard, all the Bach boxes are checked at the inaugural nine-day Charlotte Bach Festival. Two blockbuster evening concerts – the Orchestral Suite No. 1, the “Singet die Herrn” motet, and Cantata 147 on opening night, and the B Minor Mass the following weekend – bookend the Festival.

In between, there are two daytime Bach Experience concerts modeled after Oregon’s Discovery Series, showcasing the first two cantatas, BWV 75 and 76, that Bach wrote in the summer of 1723 when he became cantor at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig. Topping off the Akademie’s first large-scale enterprise, there is an Emerging Artist Program and a Visiting Artist Recital Series, featuring Handel + Haydn principal cellist Guy Fishman and, four nights later, organist Bálint Karosi, winner of the 2008 International J.S. Bach Competition.

Even in its developmental stages, Jarrett has been blown away by the enthusiasm he has witnessed for the newborn Charlotte Bach – both near and far. Jarrett thought he would need to beg local universities to send him applicants for the Emerging Artist Program, but he received over 40 audition tapes from 17 states plus Canada. He was hard-pressed to pick a Final Four. Krumdieck has played a key role in assembling the Festival orchestra, with a trumpet duo who will fly in from New York and DC, and a principal oboist, Meg Olin, also from DC.

“Just this morning,” Jarrett revealed on the afternoon we spoke, “I got an email from a wonderful flute player who lives in Berkeley, California, whom I’ve known for a couple of years. He said, ‘I see you’re doing this thing in Charlotte. I’d love to come and play some time.’ So I’m getting emails from folks all across the country who are wanting to take part.”

All of the performers are professionals who will earn fees – plus travel expenses and accommodations if they’re coming from outside the Charlotte vicinity. Seventy-five percent of the Festival’s first-year budget, Jarrett says, will go to paying the musicians. No wonder he was prepping for a big fundraiser to be held a few days after our interview in mid-May.

While he doesn’t see a hot new Bach trend sweeping the Carolinas, Jarrett perceives a longer arc.

“Fifteen years ago, a performance of the St. John Passion was a rarity,” Jarrett recalls. “Now I check Facebook every March, and I can hardly find a post that doesn’t mention one of the Passions! It seems like people have discovered this repertoire, and they’re really doing it.”

Ricard Bordas, the artistic director at Bach Society of Charleston paints a similar picture – in more vivid detail. When he arrived in 2001, he found it odd that Charleston, a city 15 years older than Bach, where Spoleto Festival USA has flourished, had only a handful of early music instrumentalists – and just one baroque violinist.

“A city from the Baroque Period,” Bordas marveled, “with gorgeous historic churches – one of the most beautiful cities in the world – with very little Baroque Music.”

For years afterward, the dream of establishing a baroque music group that could offer major works on period instruments remained out of reach. The first incarnation of Charleston’s Bach Festival in 2009 mixed local musicians and choirs with specialists Bordas had met performing as a countertenor at the Boston Early Music Festival.

The Bach Society established a new Charleston Baroque Orchestra and reconfigured the 2016 Bach Festival of Charleston in an all-period-instrument mold. A new Youth Recital Concert was added in 2017, and the Charleston Baroque Voices were formed. The 2018 Festival added a fourth day and spread to four locations, including Kiawah Island.

Building on the improvements and expansions of the past two NC Bach Festivals, executive director Roman Placzek plans to dedicate its 40th anniversary to the future, fortifying NCBF’s excellent youth program. An accomplished cellist, Dr. Placzek doesn’t insist on period instruments, welcoming a new Yamaha CFX concert grand piano on the occasion of William Wolfram’s complete Goldberg Variations recital and offering two other 2017 concerts at Steinway Piano Galleries in Charlotte and Greensboro.

Nor does he completely scorn the Bachtoberfest concept. When Trophy Brewing Company hosted one of their 2018 special concerts in Raleigh, a new Fuguebier was born, brewed, Placzek says, according to a Bach fugue.

Placzek hadn’t heard of the Charlotte Bach Festival before we contacted him, but he was very pleased to learn about it.

“Our missions are different,” says Placzek, “but our passion is the same, the great J.S.B.. Knowing about this great society offers me a prospect of a possibility of some fabulous cooperation. I am looking forward to contacting their artistic director Scott Allen Jarrett.”

Although their territories will overlap, the Charlotte and the NC festivals are unlikely to collide. The elder Raleigh-based event historically ends on or before Bach’s birthday while the Charlotte fest is sprouting on June 9-17, close to the other side of spring.

“The NC Bach Festival is taking place in March,” Placzek rejoices. “That’s three months away from June. Who can live without Bach that long? Well, we can’t! And our wonderful and ever-increasing Charlotte audience clearly can’t either. I am convinced the community of Charlotte will get more and more informed, more excited, and seek to be entertained by this great music and ask for more.”

Down in Charleston, a countertenor is singing a similar tune.

“I am really excited about the new Charlotte Bach Festival,” says Bordas. “It gives a new opportunity for cooperation between the early music groups in the South. The new Festival also adds to the growing baroque music scene in the Southeast, including Georgia, where you also have the Atlanta Baroque Orchestra, which is already 20 years old. My hope is that this growth of organizations will be followed by even more musicians moving into the area, as well as more programs of early music in schools and universities in the South.”

The Queen City Has a Regal New Bach Festival to Call Its Own

Review: FESTIVAL OPENING CELEBRATION

By Perry Tannenbaum

Boasting unmistakable DNA from the Oregon Bach Festival, at the podium and in its administrative offices, the new Bach Akademie Charlotte has launched its first annual Charlotte Bach Festival in grand style, heralding national ambitions. The Festival Opening Celebration filled the chapel at Christ Church Charlotte with listeners eager to hear Bach’s vocal music performed by a professional choir and to see Johann Sebastian’s orchestral music played on authentic baroque instruments. Conducted by Scott Allen Jarrett, the combined forces of the Akademie’s Cantata Choir and the North Carolina Baroque Orchestra obliged, filling the room with robust, cleanly sculpted sound. All hands were on deck for Cantata 147, “Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben” including guest instrumentalists and vocalists. This centerpiece was preceded by the Orchestra Suite No. 1 in C Major, where we made the acquaintance of the fullest assembly of the NC Baroque Orchestra that I’ve ever seen. Concluding the concert, the “Singet demrrn ein neues Lied” motet showcased the Choir with light accompaniment from keyboardist Nicolas Haigh, violone player Sue Yelanjan, and NC Baroque executive director, cellist Barbara Krumdieck.

Jarrett is not merely a guest conductor at Oregon Bach Festival. He directs the Vocal Fellows Program there, and he is slated to deliver the lecture concerts of their Discovery Series this summer. Adam Romey, the new managing director, is the son of Kathy Romey, longtime assistant of OBF founder Helmuth Rilling; and the Bach Akademie president, Michael H. Trammell, has sung with Rilling at festival in Europe. In welcoming the audience and in introducing the pieces, Jarrett reminded me of how Helmuth Rilling engaged his OBF audiences when he was artistic director there. He isn’t as sparing, concise, gnomic, or orotund as Charlotte Symphony’s Christopher Warren-Green in making his remarks. There is a more relaxed informality and a gentle pedagogical touch. Jarrett didn’t walk off into the wings between pieces and, since he had served as music director of the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte from 2004 to 2015, he could address us with a familiarity that must have taken Rilling years to achieve in Eugene, Oregon.

Intimacy between the audience and the musicians was sustained by the compact size of the ensembles, a mere 14 musicians taking the stage for the Orchestral Suite. Yet it did not take long for these members of NC Baroque to prove they could produce a roar in the opening Ouverture movement. Deceptively stately, for the oboes are doubling and quadrupling the pace with embellishments, the movement is far longer than any one of those that follow, with a slow-fast-slow-fast-slow structure that is most satisfying when the tempo contrasts are emphatic. Not only were the wind players on point – oboists Margaret Owens and Sung Lee backed by bassoonist Allen Hamrick – but the string players, led by concertmaster Martha Perry, were also up to the task, sounding effortless in the swift episodes. There was a nice balance later on in the Gavotte movements when strings and winds veered off in different directions and a delicious blend afterwards between the sections in the Menuets. The paired Bourées were also impressive, the strings showing their nimbleness in the fleet outer portions of this movement and, in the middle, Owens and Sung interweaving nicely over Hamrick’s continuo.

Glorious was a better description of the Cantata 147 performance than merely impressive, for all of the forces at Jarrett’s command were at their shining best – and the music includes the familiar “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” one of Bach’s greatest hits, played twice to conclude each of its two parts. Here Josh Cohen made his first appearance with his valveless natural trumpet, launching the cantata with some stunning flourishes. Most of the vocal soloists were drawn from the Charlotte Cantata Choir, underscoring the fact that Jarrett has chosen the crème de la crème of Charlotte’s plentiful choral talent. I was most delighted by Edmund Milly’s renditions of the bass recitative (“Stubbornness can blind the mighty”) and the bass aria in the penultimate song (“I shall sing of Jesus’ miracles”), both ringing with power and authority, yet there was also considerable power from soprano Margaret Carpenter Haigh in her aria (“Prepare now, O Jesus, the way”).

With native talent of that caliber, the imports figured to be outstanding, and they were. Countertenor Charles Humphries was definitely a highlight in the alto aria (“Be not ashamed, O soul”), with a lovely obbligato from Owens over Hamrick’s bassline. Tenor Patrick Muehleise had the earnest warmth that his aria demanded (“Help me, Jesus, to acknowledge Thee”), giving Krumdieck, who is so often relegated to continuo at local concerts, a chance to show her true mettle in the cello obbligato. Among the obbligatos, I don’t think any outshone the paired oboes of Owens and Sung behind alto Elizabeth Eschen’s sweet recitative (“The wondrous hand of God’s omnipotence”). For sheer luminosity, however, nothing could compare with the live performances of the “Jesu” movements, numbers 6 (“I am blest to have Jesus”) and 10 (“Jesus remains my joy”). The familiar melody is played by the orchestra, but it’s the stately choral singing that elevates the music heavenward. Which melody is accompanying the other? Part of what nearly brought me to tears, besides the sheer beauty of the performance, were the realizations of how rarely such music is heard in a live concert and the foretaste of how much this new festival could mean to this community. Jarrett delivered an additional foretaste in his introduction to this cantata, explaining its architecture, a glimpse of what he would be doing later in the Festival when will clone his work at OBF’s Discovery Series and bring it Charlotte as The Bach Experience, exploring and then performing Cantatas 75 and 76 at Myers Park United Methodist Church in separate midday concerts.

Concluding the Opening Celebration, the Cantata Choir sounded relaxed and celebratory in their motet after scaling to the pinnacle of this concert. Jarrett didn’t let up on the ensemble in the opening movement (“Sing a new song to the Lord”), calling for a slightly brisker tempo than I’ve usually heard, and I’ve certainly encountered more hushed and reverent accounts of the choruses in the middle movement. Yet there was still a definite éclat when the ensemble lit into the final “Lobet den Herrn in seinen Taten” (“Praise the Lord in His works”), similar to the opening movement in its ecumenical return to the mother of us all, the Psalms of the Old Testament. Once more, Jarrett and the Choir accelerated with effortless speed, producing satisfying layers of melody, rich textures and counterpoint, building to what many people would call a cathedral of sound. Less pretentious folk could simply – and rightly – call this concert a grand opening.

FLYING LOVERS Tops 2018 Theatre Offerings at Spoleto Festival USA

Review: The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk

By Perry Tannenbaum

Theatre has gotten a looser, more guerilla feel to it at Spoleto Festival USA now that Woolfe Street Playhouse has established itself as one of the festival’s main venues. Unlike the storied Dock Street Theatre, where a flagship production gets 17 performances each season – plus a preview night – Woolfe Street can be reconfigured to accommodate cabaret and theatre-in-the-round presentations. For one-person shows, like a Taylor Mac extravaganza, it’s a better fit than the Emmett Robinson Theatre at College of Charleston.

So it figured that National Theatre of Scotland’s The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart would transfer from its off-Broadway haunt at the McKittrick Hotel to Woolfe Street with ease. There’s even a bar at the rear of the Woolfe, so the audience could self-lubricate in the same casual manner they did on W. 27th Street.

But somehow, it didn’t quite work.

They did apply the cabaret treatment in Charleston, but in New York, the vibe had been more like an Irish pub with sturdy rough-cut tables for the audience. The cocktail tables were smaller, but the larger dimensions and the higher ceiling at the Woolfe conspired to make even Peter Hannah, who repeated his off-Broadway stint as Satan, less audible and intelligible. Worse yet, Melody Grove and her starchy, autumnal, spinsterish charms weren’t aboard for the reprise, replaced by the youthful Jessica Hardwick, who diluted all three of those dimensions.

Prudencia’s starchiness is rather complex because, in her musty academic field of folk ballad studies, she’s a retro romantic. David Grieg’s fanciful script, written substantially in retro rhymed couplets, compounds the complexity by portraying the trendy men who dominate the academic conference Prudencia attends, spouting all sorts of deconstructionist quibbles with the ballads’ sincerity and authenticity, as rather backward in their patronizing, lecherous attitudes toward women.

As a rebel against hidebound orthodoxy, Hardwick’s youth serves her well, but when a historic blizzard impacts the action, and the front door of an Airbnb turns out to be a gateway to Beelzebub and eternity, the poignant dimension that Grove brought to Prudencia – of a woman who has missed out on her life – gets buried. The snow, after all, is pieces of paper that the audience has shredded and tossed into the air, and the twilight zone where Pru departs overlooks a Costco parking lot. So comedy is muting the pathos of Prudencia’s strange undoing as well as the National Theatre’s spectacle – which includes a generous helping of bonny Scottish folksinging. At the critical moment that delivers her back to Costco, I missed the strong sense of Hardwick as a late-blooming flower in Hell.

For the second season in a row, I needed my wife Sue’s assistance in deciphering what Avital Lvova was saying onstage at Woolfe Street in a Henry Naylor drama. Last year, it was Angel, the story of the life and death of a Kurdish sharpshooter, where I was able to move closer to an empty seat near the stage and salvage some of Lvova’s performance. Lvova was back this year in Borders as another action hero, Nameless, a Syrian graffiti guerilla. No closer seats were available this time, so I struggled to comprehend even the basics of Nameless’s narrative as she lurked in a hoodie and thrashed on the floor in evasive actions.

Abandoned by her father, raised by Mom, encouraged and deployed by a paint store patron, ambiguous relationship with boyfriend, unwanted pregnancy, and flight to safety. That was the gist I was able to catch unassisted.

Thankfully, Naylor provides a second narrative that alternates with the Syrian graffiti artist’s – and ultimately converges with it in a fraction-of-a-second shutter snap. If Lvova is showing us the desperate primitive lives of the noblest people enmeshed in the perpetual turmoil of the Middle East, then Graham O’Mara as celebrity photographer Sebastian Nightingale mirrors both the commercialization by the West of that endless strife and our smug indifference to it.

O’Mara, pretty tall and glamorous himself, gave a stunning account of this LA slickster who’s occasionally afflicted by conscience and remorse, maybe just enough to add the gravitas of a three-day beard to his image. Listening to Sebastian’s account, particularly his climactic confrontation with a burnt-out photog who had persisted in Syria, I had a taste of what Naylor’s dramas could be if they were adequately cast.

Directed by Emma Rice, The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk started out by bringing a wisp of nostalgic cabaret ambiance to Dock Street Theatre – eminently appropriate, because Rice had starred in the original production over 25 years ago when she and her newlywed husband, playwright Daniel Jamieson, portrayed over-the-moon lovers Marc and Bella Chagall. Marc Antonin as the beloved painter, entered the darkened theater from the rear serenading us and his bashert – Daisy Maywood, rapturously awaiting him as Bella.

The Kneehigh and Bristol Old Vic remount of what Jamieson originally titled Birthday sported an ultra-versatile band that included James Gow and composer James Gow. Cementing its kinship with Kneehigh’s Tristan & Yseult, directed by Rice at Spoleto in 2006 with bushel baskets of old music, Sophia Crist designed a severely raked set of weathered wood with scaffolding that didn’t look strong enough to hang either of the principals. Like the Chagalls’ love, its survival looked dubious in a storm-tossed world.

All that separates The Flying Lovers from ascending to the pinnacle of towering drama are length, conflict, complications, and plot. Instead, the blissful couple navigates upheavals that decimate their obscure hometown (ironically best known today as Chagall’s birthplace) and threaten to incinerate the Jewish people. Pogroms, the Russian Revolution, and the Holocaust toss the couple back and forth across Europe until they reach the safety of the US. More vividly than these obstacles, we remember the purity of the love that binds Marc and Bella together. This love helps them to soar above the troubles of our world – higher, they seem to levitate, because there are no plots or complications pulling them down.

Both Antonin and Maywood cavort like newlyweds, often replicating those endearing, impossible, gravity-defying poses that Chagall painted of his love. They also sing with that simple, intimate sincerity ushered in by microphones, radio, Crosby, early Sinatra, and Margaret Whiting. Then you realize what distinguishes Chagall’s best work. It’s not the invention of surrealism, which is disputable. It’s the way that joyful music is forever singing in the colors and the flowing design of his paintings.

Confused and Abused Teens – With Unmistakable Talent

Preview:  Spring Awakening

By Perry Tannenbaum

For over a century, playwright Frank Wedekind was best remembered as the creator of Lulu, the libertine protagonist in two of his erotically charged dramas, Earth Spirit (1895) and Pandora’s Box (1904). Alban Berg combined the two works into one Lulu (1937), an opera that stands as one of the sexiest of the 20th century.

Then came 2006.

Wedekind’s notoriety was refueled for a new millennium when Steven Sater adapted the German’s first script, Spring Awakening, for an off-Broadway production. If Lulu was risqué and amoral, Spring Awakening was angry, raw, and a bit shocking – teen chaos rather than salon decadence. The score, composed and orchestrated by Duncan Sheik, certainly wasn’t opera. It was a wicked mix of sensuous, anguished ballads like “Touch Me” and “The Word of Your Body” juxtaposed with raging frenetic rockers like “The Bitch of Living,” “My Junk,” and “Totally Fucked.”

Schoolkids standing up rebelliously on their desks, dancing and stomping catatonically. Vilifying parents and teachers. Ecstatically screwing just before intermission. Even liberal newspapers had to tiptoe around the song titles, lyrics, and actions.

The Atlantic Theatre Company production was an instant sensation, picking up an armful of awards before transferring to Broadway that same year. Eleven Tony nominations and eight Tony Awards were added to the haul, including Best Musical. Somehow the Victorian repression, the withholding of sex education, and the perils of unprotected sex, backstreet abortions, and teen suicide of Wedekind’s 1891 script had leapfrogged into the 21st century in a theatrical triumph – with no mealy-mouthed concessions whatsoever to the older generation.

Underscoring the generic, unsympathetic nature of Wedekind’s adults, all 14 of them were portrayed by one male and one female actor. This was not merely a tragedy of star-crossed lovers. It was an explosively presented nightmare scenario of what can go wrong when adults refuse to discuss sex with their children.

And now this scorching musical hits Charlotte this Friday, barreling into our community theatre for a three-week run – including three Sunday matinees and two Saturday performances on June 1 at 8:00 and 11:30pm. Somebody at the Queens Road barn believes they’re going to sell a whole bunch of tickets. Nobody seems worried that we’ll experience a repeat of the Angels in America uproar that rocked the city in 1996, with aftershocks that ultimately capsized Charlotte Repertory Theatre in 2003.

“We have no trepidation about Spring Awakening being a bridge too far,” says executive director Ron Law. “Many young performers and audience members have lobbied for it, and it has always performed strongly in our show selection survey.”

Touring versions of the show came here in 2010 and 2011, but of course, these weren’t shows with local artists funded by local dollars. The feeling was, even then, that the city had changed and audiences had matured since the Angels debacle. But there is likely another factor at work. Theatre Charlotte has better prepped its audience than Rep.

Oleanna, Falsettos, and Miss Evers’ Boys were as far as Rep pushed the envelope before fielding Tony Kushner’s gay fantasia. At 501 Queens Road they’ve pushed further with its more diverse audience, bringing us The Full Monty, Rent, Hair, and La Cage aux Folles in recent years. One way or another, the unholy trinity – nudity, foul language, and homosexuality – have all been addressed.

“All those shows were huge box office successes for Theatre Charlotte, with little pushback,” Law reports. “For this show, we even offered season ticket buyers the opportunity to buy a package that did not include Spring Awakening. A very small number took us up on this.”

Caution was not altogether thrown to the winds in scheduling this potential powder keg. Some niceties were also observed on the production end, beginning with auditions for the roles of the kids crossing the threshold of puberty. Nobody was allowed to audition unless he or she would be 18 on opening night.

“There were many disappointed 15 and 16 year olds who love the show and couldn’t audition,” Law confirms.

Most of the teens who did audition were savvy theatre students, according to Law. Some have participated in Theatre Charlotte’s youth-oriented summer stock productions, and others have been groomed in the robust theatre programs of our local high schools.

Nominated for the prestigious Blumey Awards for high school musicals across metro Charlotte, three of the major players in Spring Awakening are so accomplished that they put a major crimp in director Billy Ensley’s rehearsal schedule.

Seniors at NW School of the Arts, Renée Rapp (Best Actress), Liam Pearce (Best Actor), and Maya Sistruck (Best Supporting Actress) all earned Blumey Award nominations for their work in the school’s presentation of Big Fish, which is nominated for Best Musical honors. As finalists, all three were spirited away to Belk Theater, rehearsing for multiple segments of last Sunday night’s award ceremonies, where they performed individually and together.

Rapp first landed a role at Theatre Charlotte when she was 10 and transferred to Northwest in her junior year. “They are both truly such talented and good-hearted human beings,” she says of Pearce and Sistruck. “Working amongst them all these years has helped me grow as a performer watching the dedication they put into what they do. We have so much love amongst the three of us that even in this especially stressful time with the Blumeys, Spring Awakening and graduation, they make every day and every rehearsal feel like a celebration for me.”

As Wendla Bergmann, Rapp launches the horrific scenario of Spring Awakening when she asks her mom how babies are made and gets a bogus answer. The only teen around who seems to have the lowdown is Melchior Gabor, a voracious reader who quietly shares the news with his shy neurotic bestie, Moritz Steifel – with explicit illustrations and written descriptions. But the atheistic, amoral Melchior does not share the facts of life with Wendla before he deflowers and impregnates her.

Dire consequences all around.

“Melchior has many layers to him,” says Pearce of this charismatic troublemaker. “He clearly wants to experience all of these activities he has read about but may not necessarily be ready to deal with the aftermath of what they may lead to. While he is extremely intelligent, he is still a teenager who has not completely grasped all of the knowledge he needs to be a functioning adult in society.”

Pearce isn’t altogether sure why he landed this plum role, but he has worked with Ensley – and choreographer Lisa Blanton – before at Theatre Charlotte in Jesus Christ Superstar. Ensley saw Pearce as a clear choice at his auditions, both as a singer and as an actor.

“Melchior needed to be a double threat actor singer,” Ensley says, “who could understand the commanding ‘big man on campus’ ego and the broken-hearted lover.”

In love with the misfit Moritz and abused by her father, Martha Bessell takes us to other dark regions of Wedekind’s story. “I always thought that her character arc was one of the strongest and most complex of the girls in the show, and I thought it’d be a wonderful challenge for me to take on,” Suskind says of Martha. “As for being nominated for Blumeys, it was quite nice to be able to link up our busy schedules and have a little ‘buddy’ looking out for any missed rehearsals or information. We were always on the same page.”

All three are also on the same page about delving into their troubled teen characters. They all give props to Ensley. Rapp offers the most detailed insights.

“I have heard countless people tell me how amazing working with Billy is,” she begins, “but it wasn’t until I had a one-on-one with him that I truly understood the depth of what they meant. He puts his heart into this production 100%, and that is so evident and inspiring for me. We sat and talked about myself and my character, and he really helped me break down what this show will mean. His direction is unmatchable. He works and tweaks things with such a specific eye, and I absolutely love it.”

      

Update: Renée Rapp took honors for Best Actress at the Blumey Awards on Sunday night, winning a trip to Broadway with Ethan Holtzman from Charlotte Latin School for a chance the national Jimmy Award on June 25. So who else won? Check it out here. Ceremonies will be rebroadcast on WTVI on May 29 at 8:00pm.

https://www.blumenthalarts.org/about-us/news/detail/blumenthal-performing-arts-announces-the-7th-annual-blumey-awards-winners-presented-by-wells-fargo

 

 

Tappin Music Carries the Night – at the Knight – in Opera Carolina’s I Dream

Review:  I Dream

By Perry Tannenbaum

Douglas Tappin has composed approximately half of a very fine rhythm-and-blues opera, an extensively revamped I Dream that originally premiered in 2010, honoring Rev. Martin Luther King in his hometown of Atlanta. The two-act work has now been revived serendipitously to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, premiering in Toledo at 7:01pm on April 4, the exact minute of the crime a half century earlier, and getting a reprise in Charlotte in an Opera Carolina production at Knight Theater.

Showcasing Tappin’s music, Opera Carolina is presenting its first fully-staged production at Knight Theater, a venue they have only used previously for special concert events.

The unfortunate thing is that Tappin also wrote the lyrics and the libretto for I DREAM. We’re saddled with a script that slinks its way circuitously through MLK’s last 36 hours, guided by a dubious premise and punctuated by flashbacks that aren’t always dramatic. This civil rights icon doesn’t merely have a premonition that longevity isn’t to be his; he has recurring dreams about the balcony where he will be shot.

In a bizarre twist, these specious dreams become the dream of Tappin’s title, because all of King’s famed oratory – his “I Have a Dream” speech and his “Mountaintop” prophecy – are never spoken. You better know who Ralph and Hosea are, too, for in steering far away from any copyright recriminations from King’s heirs, Tappin omits their full names. Coretta and Martin aren’t blessed with their last names on the cast listings, either.

And who are Martin’s historic adversaries in his heroic struggle for civil rights? Never anyone more important than an anonymous cop wielding a billy club.

Instead of DC or Memphis, Tappin takes us to Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma. Prudent choices if we’re seeking action rather than copyrighted oratory, but Tappin’s libretto also takes us to Boston, where he met Coretta during his student days, and to a hospital bed, where a duet is sung over his recumbent form. Perhaps in a previous draft of the libretto, King was stabbed in the chest with a letter opener as he actually was at a 1958 book signing. Not anymore: here he simply collapses.

A better playwright would have tiptoed more skillfully through the copyright minefields and woven a more dramatic and compelling narrative. Tappin’s great strength is in his music. If Andrew Lloyd Webber learned profitably from the great operatic masters, I’d say that Tappin has learned profitably how to create a propulsive non-classical score from Lloyd Webber.

When we finally get to Birmingham and Selma in Act 2, the lunch counter arrest and the time in jail signal a melodic climb to King’s victory in Selma that is truly majestic and inspiring. Tappin sustains this momentum through the rendezvous with fate on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel and afterwards, when Coretta leads Martin’s people in mourning.

Although the steeply raked set design by Kevin Depinet, in placing the fatal balcony dead center, reminds me of a TV test pattern, stage director Daniel Goldstein keeps the action between scenes moving fluidly, and the singers have been more than sufficiently rehearsed to move surefootedly on the sloped surface. Musical director and orchestrator Carl Marsh seems to favor Broadway over the Metropolitan Opera in his instrumentation, including an electric guitar and electronic keyboards in the mix, but there is plenty classical heft in the 35-person ensemble with 13 musicians from Charlotte Symphony.

Opera Carolina’s frontline cast also straddles the realms of musical theatre and opera in their impressive résumés. Derrick Davis has sung an admirable range of baritone roles on Broadway and on tour, from Mufasa in Lion King to the title role in Phantom of the Opera, and his OC debut as MLK has moments of peacemaking mellowness and warrior ferocity.

Although the roles of Ralph Abernathy and Hosea Williams aren’t noteworthy for their historical accuracy or even their individuality, the voices we hear, both returning OC artists, bring the heat. Baritone Kenneth Overton as Ralph seems to be the voice of prudence and pragmatism, yet solid and formidable. As Hosea, Victor Ryan Robertson is the voice of passionate principle, his wild tenor bridling against the discipline of non-violence. The bi-play between Robertson and Davis in the jail scene is simply riveting.

Victimized by the static scenes in Boston and at the hospital, Laquita Mitchell is further disadvantaged by her divine soprano voice. I wouldn’t blame Jeremy J. Lee’s sound design or even Tappin’s libretto here, but to be understood, Mitchell needs supertitles more than anyone else onstage. As a result, mezzo Lucia Bradford upstages Coretta as Grandma in her Charlotte debut. Her maxim, movingly sung to Young Martin (Byas Yasan Monroe), ultimately becomes the most effective frame for King’s sequence of flashbacks.

With this powerhouse lineup of singers armed with Tappin’s consistently lively music, we easily weathered the lulls and inexplicable blind alleys of the composer’s script. The opening night audience for I Dream entered with plenty of enthusiasm for the legacy of Martin Luther King, the rhythm-and-blues idiom of Tappin’s opera, and Opera Carolina’s audacity in taking subscribers to new places – including Knight Theater for a refreshing change. From the buzz in the Knight lobby afterwards, I’d say the performance had clearly sustained the audience’s enthusiasm in all respects.

Homespun “Barbecue Apocalypse” Improves With Age

Reviews: Barbecue Apocalypse, The Sherlock Project, Life Is a Dream, and Madagascar

By Perry Tannenbaum

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In a year that included Lucas Hnath’s The Christians, Robert Schenkkan’s The Great Society and Rebecca Gilman’s Luna Gale among the top contenders, I could only give Matt Lyle’s Barbecue Apocalypse a lukewarm endorsement for best new play of 2015, ranking it #13 among 27 eligibles that I read for that year’s Steinberg Awards. Nor did colleagues from the American Theatre Critics Association strongly disagree with my verdict, since Lyle’s dystopian comedy didn’t make the cut for the second ballot, when we considered our consensus top 10.

But before Charlotte’s Off-Broadway decided to stage this show at The Warehouse PAC up in Cornelius, they did some reading and balloting of their own. From January through March, the company offered monthly “Page to Stage” readings presenting two different plays on each occasion. Then they asked ticketholders to vote on which of the six plays they would like to see in a fully staged production. Less than two months after the votes were counted, Barbecue is back for my reconsideration as the audience favorite.

And on further consideration, I must credit director Anne Lambert and her professional cast for convincing me that Barbecue Apocalypse is even better than I thought it would be – far more to my liking than real barbecue.

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Lyle would probably concur, since his patio hosts, Deb and Mike, are only grilling and basting because they want to avoid the embarrassment of having their friends – who are more trendy, stylish, and successful – see the interior of their home, decorated with lame movie posters. Deb succinctly describes her strategy as lowering expectations for the cuisine and the ambiance. Outdoors, she can point with pride to the fact that Mike has built the rear deck himself. Yet the barbecue event has obligated Mike to buy a propane grill off Craig’s List, and he’s afraid to light it.

He would also like Deb not to mention that he’s a professional writer, for his career earnings, after one published short story, now total 50 bucks.

All four of the guests feed the hosts’ sense of inadequacy. Deb is a decorator, foodie, and gourmet cook who makes sure to bring her own organic meat, and her husband Ash is a gadget freak, armed with the best new smartphone equipped with the most awesome apps. Win pretty much embodies his name, a former high school QB, now a successful businessman with Republican views. He lives to put Mike down and can seemingly get any woman he wants. Even his bimbo of choice, Glory with her Astrodome boobs, can claim formidable accomplishments, arriving late to the barbecue after nailing her Rockette audition.

What ultimately happens to this insulated suburban group reminds me of The Admirable Crichton, the excellent James M. Barrie tragicomedy I came across a couple of times during TV’s golden age, when colleges had core curriculums. A perfect butler to the Earl of Loam in Mayfair, London, Crichton and his betters were shipwrecked on a desert island in the Pacific, where his natural superiority emerged.

There are two basic differences between Barrie’s back-to-nature tale and Lyle’s. The shipwreck situation was reversible with rescue. Apocalypse isn’t. More to the point, Barrie was clearly targeting the blind rigidity of class distinctions. Here if we consider the implications of Barbecue Apocalypse, Lyle seems to have modernity in his crosshairs – how our world warps our aspirations and our self-worth, how it channels us into modes of living that are far from our authentic selves.

In the cramped storefront confines of the Warehouse, Lambert doesn’t attempt to design a deck that lives up to Mike’s pretensions, and Donavynn Sandusky’s costume designs are similarly déclassé, especially for the nerdy Ash. This robs Lyle’s concept of much of its slickness, which for me turned out to be a good thing. Aside from the Craig’s List mention, Lambert also dropped in a couple of local references that added to the overall homespun flavor.IMG_6440

Becca Worthington and Conrad Harvey were nearly ideal as our hosts, keenly aware of each other’s limitations and their own, yet visibly crazy for one another. Worthington with her status-conscious rigidity and stressing was clearly the closest actor onstage to Lyle’s vision, beautifully flipping her “We suck” persona after intermission and the apocalypse, when a full year of roughing it has elapsed. Harvey was more than sufficiently cuddly and self-deprecating – but credulity is stretched when a man of such size and stature is repeatedly dominated by his adversaries.

If you can accept that Greg Paroff was ever on a football field, let alone as a QB, you’ll be quite pleased with how he handles Win’s asshole antics. He is confident, he is arrogant, and if he’s possibly past 40, that only increases the disconnect between Win and his limber Rockette. Julia Benfield is absolutely adorable as Glory, and I absolutely adore how she’s still mincing around in high heels when she makes her disheveled entrance in Act 2. We totally believe that her familiarity with Tom Wopat doesn’t extend to The Dukes of Hazard in the ‘80s.

Probably not the best moment for Lambert when she cast Cole Pedigo and Jenn Grabenstetter as Ash and Lulu. They should remember the ‘80s, but I needed to stifle my doubts. Wardrobe and just the way he’s absorbed in his iPhone might help Pedigo out – and make him less wholesome, winsome, and juvenile before the apocalypse. Grabenstetter overcomes all objections when free-range Lulu gets snockered on generic canned beer, and both Pedigo and his scene partner truly click when adversity brings Ash and Lulu to a new lease on life in Act 2. I believe that’s an antler dance.

I won’t disclose what happens when Maxwell Greger walks on for his cameo deep in Act 2, but I do respect how Lyle makes him earn his paycheck with a sizable monologue. Greger does the denouement with a slight manic edge, and the technical aspects of his departure are impressively handled.

So it’s fair to say that apologies are in order for rating Barbecue Apocalypse in the middle of the pack when I first read it. Or excuses, since a rational man resided at the White House in 2015, and apocalypse seemed so fantastical.

But hold on. Charlotte’s Off-Broadway has already programmed two other plays from their “Page to Stage” readings for two fully-staged productions in the near future, Susan Lambert Hatem’s Confidence (and The Speech) for September and Lauren Gunderson’s Exit, Pursued by a Bear for next February. Maybe when these runner-ups get fleshed out, supporters of Lyle’s winning script might reconsider their votes!

A Catch-All Catch-Up

Our recent travels to Greece, Israel, and Jordan compelled us to miss a bunch of high-profile openings after we reviewed the reinvented Rite of Spring at Knight Theatre on April 6 and CP’s On Golden Pond the following evening. Even before we left, we had to pass on the Charlotte Dance Festival and CP’s Elixir of Love so we could adequately prepare for our trip. To see the birthplace of theatre, the Holy Land, and Petra, we had to miss out on the BOOM Festival, the reprise of Beautiful: The Carol King Musical, and the opportunity to host a pre-show preview of The Marriage of Figaro for Opera Carolina.

New openings when we returned were a must, so we hit the ground running with Charlotte Ballet’s Spring Works and Symphony’s Brahms-and-Bartok program. But our need to catch up with Carolina Shakespeare’s Life Is a Dream made us put off seeing PaperHouse Theatre’s Sherlock Project until it second week. It gets complicated. But I’ve tried to get up to speed while working on more reviews and features. File these under gone but not forgotten:

The Sherlock Project So a dozen actors and writers collaborated on PaperHouse Theatre’s mash-up of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story gems, producing a script that follows three guiding principles: keep it funny, keep it moving, and don’t, don’t, don’t ever explain how the great Sherlock Holmes arrives at his incredible deductions. Going back to their roots at the Frock Shop on Central Avenue, PaperHouse and director Nicia Carla found a frilly complement to the Victorian chronicles of Dr. John Watson.

But the frame of the story was wholly new, telling us that the deadeye detective in the deerstalker cap is a woman. Watson protects the woman who should be credited with all the purported exploits of Scotland Yard’s Inspector Lestrade because he knows that Sherlock is right: The general public is even less prepared to believe a female is capable of such brilliancies than Watson is.

Besides all of the Sherlockian brilliance and nonchalant arrogance, Andrea King reveled in all of the detective’s eccentricities, whether it was shooting up a 7% solution of cocaine, tuning up a violin, or lighting up a calabash pipe. Opposite King’s insouciant self-confidence, Chaz Pofahl wrung maximum comedy from Watson’s wonder and timidity – a phenomenon compounded by the gender factor as Pofahl switched from paternal protectiveness to awe or terror while King wryly twinkled and smiled.

The two main supporting players slipped into multiple roles, Angie C as a cavalcade of damsels in distress and Berry Newkirk in the plumiest cameos, ranging from the dull-witted Lestrade to the razor-sharp Professor Moriarty, mythically uncatchable. Apart from directing behind the scenes, Carla conspired in the action as Mrs. Hudson, Holmes’s discreet housemaid. Carla not only ushered in Sherlock’s distraught clientele or evil adversaries, she also presided over scene changes, when audience members had to exit the Frock Shop’s parlor to a murder scene in the adjoining room or out on the porch when Sherlock was pursuing… something. Had to do with fire.

Or when it was intermission, time for little cucumber sandwiches.

The whole show was a wonderful diversion. PaperHouse had to add another performance to their run, which we caught last Wednesday, and the remaining nights were already sold out. Like the PaperHouse faithful, I couldn’t get enough of The Sherlock Project. I wanted lots more – beginning with how did Sherlock deduce that Watson had just come from Afghanistan when they first met?

Life Is a Dream – Convinced it was a comedy rather than a political melodrama, Shakespeare Carolina and director S. Wilson Lee kidnapped Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s classic, written during Spain’s Golden Age, and transported it more than three centuries forward from a mythical Poland to a mythical Las Vegas. There in a seedy club on the strip, the two factions with their eyes on the throne were Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack and Marlon Brando’s Wild Bunch.

Lee’s wild conceit didn’t do nearly as much harm as I thought it would, mainly because ShakesCar didn’t have the budget to carry it too far at Duke Energy Theatre, and the strong cast mostly played their roles as the text, sensibly adapted by Jo Clifford, said they should. So much depended on the broad shoulders of David Hayes as Segismundo. Heir to the throne of Poland, Segismundo has been locked away Prometheus-like in a mountain dungeon for his whole life by his father, King Basilio, who is foolishly trying to ward off the dire destiny predicted by an astrologer.

A boiling rage seethes inside of Segismundo, and a less mightily built actor than Hayes might need to strain himself to encompass it. Hayes projected the mighty rage rather naturally, which made it easier for him to flow convincingly into Segismundo’s softer emotions when – before he has even suspected his royal lineage – he is handed the Polish throne and the power to act on his newly awakened sexual urges as he sees fit.

Called upon to give a far more nuanced performance as Basilio, Russell Rowe delivered. Yes, he was cruel, but also conflicted, with a lifelong dread deftly mixed into his forcefulness. Though I feared the convoluted plot might be abridged or simplified, the intrigue, the complexity, and the epic monologues were almost entirely intact. As the vengeful Rosaura, Teresa Abernethy brought forth the masculine-feminine blend that the transgendered Clifford was aiming for in her translation, and James Cartee, an actor who often keeps nothing in reserve, showed unusual probity and maturity as Clotaldo, even as he tried to figure out his long-lost child’s gender.

Nobody was more suavely dressed by costume designer Mandy Kendall than James Lee Walker II as Astolfo, the successor that Basilio wanted if the true heir didn’t pass his test. But if anybody was victimized by Lee’s Rat Pack concept, it was Walker. I have no idea why he persisted in speaking so rapidly and unintelligibly, unlike any work I’d seen from him before. Was he attempting a Sammy Davis Jr. imitation? Couldn’t figure out what accounted for this curious outing.

Betrothed to this strange hipster, Maggie Monahan beautifully brought out the agonies of queen-to-be Estrella. Maybe the most Shakespearean role in this ShakesCar production was Ted Patterson as Clarin, who tags after the disguised Rosaura from the opening scene, as either her companion or servant – but definitely our clown.

On the strength of this effort, theatergoers can be excited about ShakesCar’s next invasion of Spirit Square, The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus at Duke Energy from June 28 to July 7.

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Madagascar – Okay, so I’ll grant that the musical adaptation of the 2005 Dreamworks film didn’t have the gravitas of the greatest Children’s Theatre of Charlotte extravaganzas of the past like their Boundless Grace and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – or the bite of Ramona Quimby and Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing. But this confection was nearly perfection. Under the direction of Michelle Long, Madagascar hit a family-friendly sweet spot, straddling the realms of cartoon silliness, cinematic adventure, and theatrical slapstick and dance. I just didn’t like the deejay, everybody-get-up-and-act-stupid thing.

Scenic design by Jeffrey D. Kmiec never lost its freshness thanks to a slick stage crew and the eye-popping lighting by Gordon W. Olson, while the animal costumes by Magda Guichard probably made the strongest case for live theatre against multiplex animation. Choreography by Tod A. Kubo chimed well with Long’s direction, which used areas of McColl Family Theatre that rarely come into play.

Centering around four animals that break out of Central Park Zoo, Madagascar introduced us to Marty the zebra and his wanderlust. We moved swiftly from there. Following the lead of four penguins bound for Antarctica, Marty escaped the zoo, seeking a weekend in Connecticut. Not only are police, animal control, and TV bulletins on his trail, so were his pals Gloria the hippo, Alex the lion, and Melman the giraffe. Embarking underground in the Manhattan subway, Marty hardly stretched credulity much further by winding up off Africa.

Deon Releford-Lee was a spectacular triple-threat as Marty, but what dazzled most was the multitude of gems in this supporting cast, beginning with an intimidating Alex from leonine Traven Harrington and – on stilts, of course – a timorous Melman from Caleb Sigmon. Dominique Atwater disappointed me as Gloria, but only because we didn’t get enough of our hippo after her first big splash. Olivia Edge, Allison Snow-Rhinehart, and Rahsheem Shabazz fared better, drawing multiple roles.

While the book by Kevin Del Aguila shone more brightly than the musical score by George Noriega and Joel Someillan, I was amazed that so much story and song could be squeezed into barely more than 60 minutes. Combined with last October’s Mary Poppins, the exploits of Madagascar prove that musical production is an enduring strength at Children’s Theatre. I can’t think of a season at ImaginOn that had sturdier bookends than these musicals that began and concluded 2017-18. The crowd that turned out for the final performance affirmed that the 7th Street fantasy palace has perfected the craft of producing family fare.

Not only that, it showed me that Charlotte families have spread the word.

Charlotte’s Ace Comedienne Takes on a Touchy-Feely Challenge

Preview:  Every Brilliant Thing

By Perry Tannenbaum

Written by two Brits, Duncan Macmillan with Jonny Donahoe, Every Brilliant Thing began life in 2013 in a little English town and didn’t achieve any kind of renown until Donahoe brought the one-man show across the pond in an off-Broadway production the following year. An HBO movie in 2016, a coveted engagement at Spoleto Festival USA last season, and numerous productions across the country have spread the word.

To an uncommon degree, this one-man show relies on audience participation to tell the story. When a vet comes by to put down the young narrator’s dog, Sherlock Bones, a person from the audience is picked to play the vet. When Mum is taken “to hospital,” an audience member helps deliver the scene where Dad explains that the boy’s mother has made her first suicide attempt.

And when the boy draws up his list of “everything brilliant in the world. Everything worth living for,” in a lifelong effort to cheer Mum up and keep her alive, audience members who are given hand-written scraps of paper before the show call out items on the epic list. #1, Ice cream, #2, Water fights, and so on.

But Every Brilliant Thing doesn’t have to be a one-man show. Or British. At Spirit Square, where the Three Bone Theatre production opens next week, it won’t be.

“One of the exciting things about the script is that the playwright has specified that this story can be told by any actor, any gender identity, any race, any age,” says Three Bone artistic director Robin Tynes.

Rehearsals started back in December. There were no auditions. With so much emceeing, audience interaction, and stand-up comedy skill required, your garden-variety audition wouldn’t help a director to make her choice. Tynes just handed the script to Tania Kelly.

Tynes needed someone who could draw an audience to Duke Energy Theater, somebody with proven improv chops. “Tania was an obvious choice to me. She has extensive emcee experience, comedy experience through Robot Johnson and other shows, and people love watching her on stage. We worked with Tania in our production of Five Women Wearing the Same Dress, so I knew she had the dramatic chops for the piece. I think she’s an excellent actress who often times gets pigeonholed into solely comedic roles.”

Kelly offers a slightly different account of getting the script from Tynes. “I read it,” she recalls, “and then immediately sent her a message that said, ‘WHAT DO I NEED TO DO TO BE IN THIS?’ We had a meeting and then I got to do the best thing ever. I wanted to do this show so bad because I immediately related to the story. But then on top of that, the writer also gave a lot of freedom in the casting of the Narrator with all those really interesting footnotes. So, I don’t think anything super drastic needed to be changed.”

Recently named the recipient of A Seat at the Table’s inaugural “She Is Dope” Award, Kelly is best known for how smart, brainy, snarky, and caustic her performances have been. She was the worst psychiatrist ever in Beyond Therapy in 2011 and a prodigiously misinformed humanities professor last year in Women Playing Hamlet. But Kelly’s dopiest exploit remains her stint as both Dromios in the 2016 Chickspeare presentation of The Comedy of Errors.

Tynes plans to give Kelly a more intimate and clubby atmosphere to work in at Duke Energy Theater, reducing seating capacity to around 100 people and putting her star to work before the action begins, working and engaging the crowd. Kelly agrees that her unique résumé has been invaluable.

“Robot Johnson has definitely been a master class in ‘Just roll with it, trust your friends, and man these drunks are loud,’” Kelly quips. “Also I was a DJ/Emcee for tweens for Radio Disney for like five years, and I feel like that skill has really helped lately. But also yes, this is still, for real, absolutely terrifying.”

With all the unpredictable audience participation that Kelly is called upon to cope with, the rehearsal process had to be re-engineered. It wasn’t altogether private, one-on-one, or hush-hush.

“Danielle Melendez, our stage manager, and Robin have worked really hard to organize a series of test audiences for me to interact with for just those scenes. Which has made this such a fun and unique process for all of us. We’ve been essentially running a series of experiments. It’s been pretty cool.”

Kelly doesn’t mention that a recent performance at Catawba College earned her a standing ovation, but Tynes does. There’s still some polishing going on behind the scenes as opening night approaches. Yet the object has never been to make the Three Bone version anything like the off-Broadway production that won Every Brilliant Thing its acclaim. Tynes has devoutly avoided watching any other version of the show, including the HBO special.

“It was also thrilling for us,” says Tynes, “to interpret and mold this script that was crafted by a white British man to fit an African-American woman. While casting Tania was not intentionally political – she was hands-down the best person for the job – it has inherently changed how I view the script. We’re discussing and diving into mental health, and the demographic in the United States with the least access to mental health care is women of color. I love that by having Tania play this role, a woman of color is at the forefront of this discussion about mental health care and support systems.”

Davidson’s pudgy cuddliness will vanish when Kelly takes over his role, but the heavy moments – and the touchy-feely ones – will be part of the challenge that she’s embracing. Kelly dismisses any talk of the larger significance of the event. “This is a really funny show about depression,” she insists. “I’m just telling a really gorgeously written story.”

Fair warning: you might feel otherwise. With all its shtick and spontaneity, Every Brilliant Thing becomes something of a ritual when different audience voices chime in, a ritual of empathy, celebration, and healing.

“Actually, we are all telling this story together,” Kelly agrees. “The audience is creating this with me every night. I have never done anything like this before. I can’t wait for y’all to see it!”

Oh, and don’t be surprised if Sherlock Bones is renamed Chuck Barkley. He’s Kelly’s dog now, and it’s Kelly’s show.

 

Egg-spressive Brothers Cook Up “Something Rotten!” for Elizabethan Stage

Review:  Something Rotten!

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By Perry Tannenbaum

The more you know about Shakespeare – and the more you know about Broadway musicals – love ‘em or hate ‘em – the more you’ll laugh out loud at Something Rotten. Conceived by songwriter Wayne Kirkpatrick and funnyman Karey Kirkpatrick, who teamed up on the music and lyrics (with a book by Karey K. and John O’Farrell), Rotten smells a lot like The Producers exported to Elizabethan England. Very much like the Mel Brooks classic, two partners hatch an impossibly bad idea for a hit show.

Big difference: the Bottom brothers, Nick and Nigel, aren’t trying to birth the biggest bomb of all time. Fueled by an intense jealousy of William Shakespeare, a bard of rockstar celebrity who shamelessly steals all of Nigel’s best lines, Nick seeks out a soothsayer to help him beat Shakespeare to the next big thing in theatre – and to Shakespeare’s greatest hit.

The soothsayer, Nostradamus, can hardly believe what he sees himself when he peers into the future. That’s because the seer doesn’t exactly see it with 20/20 vision. Through a glass foggily, Nostradamus sees that musicals are the future, isn’t quite sure how and why they work, and his divinations are sprinkled with inklings of Cats, Fiddler, Annie, Phantom, Lion King, tap dance, kick lines, and much more. Using his own imagination, Nick’s “The Black Death” isn’t quite the artistic abortion that “Springtime for Hitler” would be, but the showman realizes he’s in trouble.RottenTour_9089

So he returns to Nostradamus, reasoning that he can produce a musical version of the greatest tragedy Shakespeare hasn’t yet written. Once again, the soothsayer can’t quite read the eye chart. He confidently outlines the scrambled story of “Omelet.” Egg-citedly, Nick launches into an even more misbegotten concept, trying to whip up Nigel’s enthusiasm for “Omelet: The Musical.” You can write some truly rotten stuff when eggs are your inspiration.

That’s where the score manages to shine most brightly – in the Kirkpatricks’ intentionally rotten songs. There’s also a certain mean animus to Nick’s “God, I Hate Shakespeare” that I liked, contrasted with the panache of Shakespeare’s “Will Power” and the pampered idol’s excessive pouting in “Hard to Be the Bard.” But the opening “Welcome to the Renaissance,” severely overmiked on opening night, is gratifyingly transformed into the evening’s prime showstopper, “A Musical.” A bit of self-satire creeps in at the end of the show when the oh-so-familiar tune outwears its freshness with one last permutation.

On the other hand, the clever script provides a bounty of hambone for the cast to sink its teeth into – and a lot for Shakespeare to keep stealing, for besides Bottom, there is a Yorick, a Peter Quince, a Portia, and even a Jewish Shylock roaming the stage. While Adam Pascal offers us a glitzier gloss on Shakespeare than Christian Borle’s on Broadway, it plays well, and Blake Hammond’s Nostradamus is very much in the gonzo footsteps of Brad Oskar.

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Nick’s sponsorship problems open the door for Jeff Brooks’ comical antics as Shylock, and Nigel’s budding love life meets some funny, latently gay opposition from Scott Cote as Brother Jeremiah, Portia’s puritanical dad. While the female roles aren’t much to feast on, both Autumn Hurlbert as Portia and Maggie Lakis as Nick’s wife Bea show signs of modernity and liberation. Admiring Nigel’s talent, Portia proves to be familiar with contemporary Elizabethan poets, and worried that their future dreams might be hobbled by Nick’s financial woes, Bea goes out and gets a job.

A shitty job, but it’s a job.

The Kirkpatricks manage to conceive a satisfying pair of brothers with different outlooks and solid loyalties – a mundane verisimilitude that allows the more outré supporting cast members to repeatedly steal the show from them. Josh Grisetti as Nigel charms us with his purity and his shyness while Rob McClure as Nick brims with all the right energy you need to hawk the rotten ideas that drive Something Rotten. Ah, but when it’s a foregone conclusion that you’ll never be as funny as the Nick Bottom that Shakespeare created, a certain amount of flop sweat comes with the gig.