Shakespeare Is a Thieving Magpie in Theatre Charlotte’s “Something Rotten!”

Renovated Queens Road Barn is ready for its closeup

By Perry Tannenbaum

Something Rotten

 We are all stupid and silly – and we all love smart-ass musicals that tell us so. That’s the deep message of Something Rotten! Theatre Charlotte’s brash, big-ass extravaganza that’s raising the curtain for the grand reopening of the iconic Queens Road barn.

Yeah, it’s been awhile since a musical opened at our venerable community theatre’s home. That was early September 2019, when Oliver! launched what would have been the 2019-20 season. But COVID-19 shut everything down in early March, before auditions or rehearsals could even begin for Dreamgirls, scheduled to open in late spring. Then a latenight fire in the waning hours of 2020 gouged a huge hole in the theater floor, smoked the ceilings, and fried all the precious electronics – lights, audio, AC, computers – and kicked the company out of their house.

For over two years, while more than $1 mil in repairs, renovations, and new equipment requisitions could be authorized and completed, artistic planning continued while navigating insurance adjustments and jumping municipal hurdles. While the new 501 Queens Road gestated and marinated for more than two years, the company hit the road, resuming production in September 2021 and hopscotching the city to keep Theatre Charlotte alive in Charlotte. The Palmer Building, Halton Theater at CP, and the Great Aunt Stella Center were the first three stops on the season-long 2021-22 road trip.

Now there have been five or six shows at the old barn, in play or concert format, since Oliver! closed back in 2019, including two iterations of A Christmas Carol, a Theatre Charlotte gotta-do-it tradition. But nothing short of a musical, one with an authentic exclamation point yelling out its title, can truly show off a theater’s brand-new bells and whistles – or put them to their ultimate test.

Of course, there had to be some extra drama, an extended drumroll, before Something Rotten! could give the renovated Queens Road barn its much-anticipated relaunch. Scheduled for its closeup last October, the revamped site wasn’t going to be ready for opening night. The 2022-23 season had to be reshuffled, and the wondrous Shakespearean mashup of a musical was postponed.

A construction project. In Charlotte! Can you believe it wasn’t finished on time??

Billy Ensley, after directing the first little musical away from TC’s home, The Fantasticks, now pilots the first leviathan since the company’s return. Three of his mates from that Palmer Building gem back in 2021 are on board with Ensley for this new voyage, all of them playing major roles and all of them delivering.

I was fairly bowled over by the brash irreverence of Something Rotten! when I first encountered this Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick concoction on Broadway in 2016. You might wonder if the Kirkpatricks had the zany antics of The Compleate Wks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged) on their minds when they decided to take aim at the Bard of Avon and musicals.

Certainly the methods of their madness can be traced to the Reduced Shakespeare Company – with genetic material from Forbidden Broadway and The Producers also in the DNA. The Kirkpatricks discard the merely dubious ideas that Shakespeare’s works were written by someone else, or that his awesome greatness was only fully appreciated after he died. They ignore the reality that there’s only faint, sketchy traces of the man over the course the grand Elizabethan Era.

No, all those tropes are toast. The Kirkpatricks, with John O’Farrell collaborating on the book went full-bore misinformation and alternate reality. Months before The Donald descended the Trump Tower escalator.IMG_2969-2

Shakespeare is no longer a dim peripheral figure on the Elizabethan cultural scene. He’s a full-blown superstar, recognized and wildly adored wherever he goes. Mobbed by his rabid fans, he gives outdoor spoken-word concerts to sustain the mass hysteria.

The secret of the Bard’s genius is revealed. Like the Reduced Shakespeares, Forbidden Broadway, and the Kirkpatricks after him – not to mention The Donald – the real Shakespeare was a thieving magpie. Not only did he steal from ancients like Plutarch and Ovid, predecessors like Chaucer and Boccaccio, and contemporaries like Christopher Marlowe, he cribbed from unknown wannabes and the man or woman on the street.

Case in point: after defecting from Nick Bottom’s struggling theatre company, Will takes his former boss’s name with him and dumps it into A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Another case in point: Sniffing out the possibility that Nick is working on something revolutionary for the stage, Shakespeare embeds himself in his former company, where he swipes the complete manuscript of Hamlet from its true author, Nigel Bottom. Because big brother Nick has astutely told him that “to be or not to be” is trash. Not to be.IMG_2417

A hapless mediocrity, Nick is our hero. In his crazed search for the next new thing in theatre, Nick seeks out a soothsayer to look into the future, a rather Shakespearean ploy. The eccentric soothsayer that Nick picks, Nostradamus, turns out to be a genuine visionary, but his inner crystal ball seems to be afflicted with astigmatism. Skipping over the breakthrough artform of opera on the near horizon, soon to be birthed in Italy, Nostradamus is himself amazed to see… a musical!

So powerful is this concept that Nostradamus cannot even say the word without a vatic, conjuring sweep of his right arm. He wants Nick – and us – to see it clearly, too. Nick, poor thing, doesn’t have as juicy a role as the raving Nostradamus, who must convince his skeptical client that such an impossibility can be created, believed, and become universally popular. He’ll be able to bring my play to a complete stop and have my speaking characters suddenly start singing? And he’ll be able to interrupt this blatant interruption with a whole crowd of people dancing? Tap dancing?IMG_2703

Yes, yes, and yes, Nostradamus prophesies, and audiences will lap it up. We do see, for we were living proof of this seeming insanity at the Queens Road barn, just like I was at the St. James Theatre in 2015.

Over and over, the Kirkpatricks reinforce the idea that the road from brilliant concept to acclaimed masterwork is strewn with pitfalls. Nick begins with a colossal misstep, an upbeat number called “The Black Death,” which strives to match Mel Brooks’ “Springtime for Hitler” in utter tastelessness.

So Nick hurries back to his soothsayer. What will Shakespeare’s greatest triumph be, he asks, determined to beat the Bard to the punch. Pushing away invisible cobwebs between him and the future, Nostradamus proclaims, Omelet, the Musical is the future, confident he’s setting Nick on the right track.

With creditors and prudish censors dogging his way, Nick has ample complications to overcome. The backbreaker is Nigel’s resistance. Instead of sticking to the yolks and the big egg picture, Nigel is spouting useless lines like “To thine own self be true.”

Another Shakespearean device comes into play with little brother, the double plotline. While tasked with writing the world’s first libretto, Nigel is smitten by Portia, the lovely daughter of Brother Jeremiah, the most sanctimonious and censorious Puritan in London. Avid admirers of Shakespeare, both Portia and Nigel can see the parallel between their star-crossed plight and the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, their idol’s newest hit.IMG_3812

Ensley’s eager, able, well-drilled cast of 25 can seem like a teeming city in the confines of a barn, heartily welcoming us to two Renaissances, really, with Nehemiah Lawson as the Minstrel leading the ensemble’s bustling greeting – to the refurbished theater and olden days – when the curtain rises. They can form a credible mob around Will when he struts upon his stage.

Along with such teeming scenes, Ensley and choreographer Lisa Blanton and headshot sketch artist Dennis Delamar can pour in numerous references to familiar, beloved musicals we all know. Explicit references to Phantom, Les Miz, Cats, Sound of Music, and Chess are in the Kirkpatrick-O’Farrell script, but what about the sly nods to Annie, A Chorus Line, The Producers, and West Side Story?

There are more Broadway allusions than I’ve mentioned and still more that I may have missed. Ensley keeps the pace brisk.

Twice cast as Jesus at Theatre Charlotte in past seasons; along with leads in Rent, Memphis, and Arsenic and Old Lace; Joe McCourt steers us through Nick’s sea of troubles. Folks out in Matthews would remember McCourt’s exploits in Bonnie and Clyde more vividly, his first team-up with Ensley. The Arsenic and Old Lace agitation as Mortimer, when McCourt strayed from musicals into comedy, served as a nice precedent for his work here. When he leans away from straight-man chores opposite Will and Nostradamus, and into Nick’s showpieces, McCourt flashes his confident charisma – with comical seasoning – when he fumes “God, I Hate Shakespeare.”

McCourt is no less in command when he brings down the curtain for intermission with “Bottom’s Gonna Be on Top,” though his best soufflé may rise when he greets his troupe for the first Omelet rehearsal, absurdly exclaiming “It’s Eggs!” Yet this wannabe turn is decisively upstaged by the conceited rockstar and the wild-eyed prophet.

Perfectly cast at the Palmer in The Fantasticks, Mitchell Dudas and Kevin Roberge are even more smashing now. Dudas was a wonderfully swashbuckling El Gallo, the beguiling Fantasticks narrator, but he’s far slicker and more self-absorbed here, shining in his wicked showpieces, “Will Power” and “Hard to Be the Bard.” And the sheer arrogance of him when Dudas flashes his Shakespearean smile! You expect little LEDs to twinkle at the edges of his teeth.

Since “The Black Death” is an ensemble slaying, it’s Roberge who gets the killer solo of the night, “A Musical,” indoctrinating McCourt so thoroughly that the conjuring sweeps of Nick’s arm become nearly as prophetic. After his portrait of the more blustery Fantasticks dad, Roberge turns up his leonine energy more than a few notches. And the hair! Far more eccentric than the Einstein in Verizon ads. Think Charlton Heston on top of Sinai in The Ten Commandments.

Matt Howie, the naïf swain from Ensley’s Fantasticks, and Cornelia Barnwell mesh beautifully as the confidence-challenged Nigel and the overprotected Portia. But they’re overshadowed by a slew of quirkier characters who don’t sing nearly as much. Who comes first? Maybe Lindsey Schroeder as Bea, Nick’s proto-feminist wife, who fills out the contours of Shakespeare’s Portia in a memorable courtroom scene.

Certainly Hank West vies for the honor of favorite minor character as the shifty and resourceful Shylock, who remains a moneylender in Shakespeare’s world but transforms into the first theatre producer in Nick’s troupe and the New World. Delamar, our sketch artist and longtime Theatre Charlotte idol, gets props here for portraying a pair of pomposities: Lord Clapham, Nick’s skittish financial backer, and the Judge who must sentence Nick for his trumped-up crimes.

If there’s space for a feminist, a theatre producer, and a rockstar in this Renaissance makeover, there’s also room for a gay preacher and an outré transvestite. J. Michael Beech’s homosexuality as Brother Jeremiah is hardly latent at all as he strives to keep himself closeted with indifferent success, and we can presume that Paul Reeves Leopard as Robin gets the pick of the women’s roles in the Bottoms’ troupe, perennially dressed and simpering for the part.

Brave New World!

If the players I’ve named thus far decided to form a professional theatre company, I’d only be mildly surprised by their audacity. The new Old Barn made them all look good, first with the opulence of Chelsea Retalic’s period costumes – and the stark anachronism of Shakespeare’s glitter. Chris Timmons’ set designs didn’t look like he was working on a shoestring budget, either, indoors or out.

Better yet, the renovated 501 Queens Road facility has remained true to itself, in its lobby and its theater space. In the lobby, there are new, more modern-looking ceiling fans, which sit admirably flush to the upgraded ceiling. There were still extensive lines to the restrooms, so my inspections of the toilet – and the new backstage – must await visits to come.

In the theatre hall, the skeleton of the new scaffolding isn’t fleshed out at all with sheetrock, so the roofbeams are visible all the way to the bricks that meet it at the proscenium wall. More like a beloved old barn than ever! Artistic director Timmons, wearing his second hat as acting executive director, told me that the renovations made it possible to raise the stage proscenium. Yet there was a shower of confetti to climax the finale, where the “Welcome to the Renaissance” melody completes its last rebirth as “Welcome to America.”

Can’t remember the last time, if ever, that I had seen evidence of a functional fly loft at the Queen Road barn.

Best of all, there was a profusion of theatre lights shining in many colors, along with strategically spaced audio speakers. All are discreetly black, of course, so I couldn’t resist taking flash photos to confirm that all this equipment is spanking new. Everything worked flawlessly, including Theatre Charlotte’s soundboard. Nor did I notice any coughing or humming from the heating system. All was bliss, best feet forward, with nothing rotten except the show’s title.

Don’t be shocked to find that Something Rotten! is sold out for the rest of its current run. The show, the production, and the newborn theater are all that good. Timmons & Co. may need to add performances to meet the well-deserved demand.

Envy, Racism, and Pure Evil Explode in A Soldier’s Play

Review: A Soldier’s Story at Knight Theater

By Perry Tannenbaum

0042r - The Cast of the National Tour of A Soldiers Play - photo by Joan Marcus 

Premiered Off-Broadway by the Negro Ensemble Company at Theatre Four in late 1981, Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1982 – and had enough staying power for the original script, with its electrifying closing line, to finally make it to the Broadway stage 39 years later, just before the pandemic closed it down. Now the touring production, with more than the usual complement of actors who appeared on W. 42nd Street in the Tony Award-winning revival, is onstage for a two-week run at Knight Theater.

Set in 1944 at Fort Neal, Louisiana, this military whodunit still sizzles. Bigoted white officers lord it over justifiably resentful black recruits, who are prized only for their baseball talent and saddled with the meanest grunt work as soon as they triumphantly leave the diamond. These ballplayers’ deepest ambition, it turns out, isn’t to remain undefeated and play the New York Yankees. No, they’re itching even more mightily to be deployed to combat in Europe, where they will trounce Hitler’s Nazi army and prove themselves – and their race.

And if you didn’t know this already: all these fine athlete-soldiers can sing and dance.

Into this typical Deep South cauldron – stiffened with military spit and polish, flavored with Jim Crow scorn and bitterness – Fuller dropped his nuclear core, inspired by Herman Melville’s Billy Budd.

0013r - Eugene Lee as Sergeant Vernon C Waters in the National Tour of A Soldiers Play - photo by Joan Marcus

Sergeant Vernon C. Waters and Private C. J. Memphis are the counterparts of Melville’s naval petty officer John Claggart and foretopman Billy Budd. Even more than Iago, Othello’s treacherous lieutenant, Claggart’s hatred toward Billy was pure and unprovoked. Sergeant Waters, the highest-ranking black soldier at Fort Neal and manager of the awesome ballclub, is a unique kind of racist. Seeing himself and his subordinates through the eyes of his white superiors – and America at-large – Waters reserves his keenest hatred for his own race.

In particular, Waters despises the lazy, bowing-and-scraping, singing, clowning, and “geechy” Negroes whom he sees as keeping his race from advancing. Waters applies the N-word to those soldiers as contemptuously as a white man would and assigns himself the mission of diabolically hunting them down. Though the greenest envy is also at the heart of their common DNA, you could say that Waters eclipses the wickedness of Claggart and Iago, for Memphis is merely the most recent of the sergeant’s kills.

0018r - Norm Lewis as Captain Richard Davenport in the National Tour of A Soldiers Play - photo by Joan Marcus

By the time Captain Richard Davenport – also black, dispatched from DC – arrives at Fort Neal, both Memphis and Waters are dead. The mystery that Davenport must now solve is who killed the sergeant? We’ve swiveled away from the tragedies of Billy Budd and Othello into the modern realm of murder mysteries and police procedurals, from Hollywood to the BBC. Murder victims need to make as many enemies as possible so that Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason, S.S. Van Dine’s Philo Vance, and all their pulp novel and TV series descendants have as many suspects as possible to brilliantly glean through.

0026r - William Connell as Captain Charles Taylor and Norm Lewis as Captain Richard Davenport in the National Tour of A Soldiers Play - photo by Joan Marcus

Captain Charles Taylor, who brandishes a graduation ring from all-white West Point in welcoming Davenport to the base, is amazed, wary, and frankly skeptical that this black officer is the right man for the job. Yet Taylor also has his doubts about the widespread assumption that the KKK is responsible for Waters’ murder, which only multiplies Taylor’s skepticism. If white officers are to blame, how will Davenport manage to get at the truth? Worse, if the black DC outsider gathers sufficient evidence to charge a white man or white men – Waters was shot twice – how can anybody expect the charge to stick?

So the ongoing suspicion, skepticism, and open antagonism between Taylor and Davenport gradually turn out to be quite rational on both sides as it becomes clearer and clearer that Taylor really wishes to be rid of his bad apples. Each time Norm Lewis as Davenport and William Connell are alone together, the tension between them crackles, building to an Act 2 climax when they’re nose-to-nose, ready to rumble.

0033r - (From L) Sheldon D Brown - Branden Davon Lindsay - Will Adams in the National Tour of A Soldiers Play - photo by Joan Marcus

Much the same is true of Eugene Lee as Waters, each time he appears in flashbacks during Davenport’s interrogations. Unlike the Captains, Waters seems to revel in confrontations, not merely to show who’s boss but also as a prime tool in entrapping the “geechies” he has targeted for takedowns. Aside from a fistfight with Tarik Lowe as PFC Peterson and his demonic provocation of Sheldon D. Brown as the persecuted Memphis, there are numerous episodes of cruel disrespect, scornful scolding, arrogant orders, and stone-faced bullying for Lee to lean into.

Howard Overshown as Private James Wilkie gets about as close to being Waters’ confidante – and stooge – as possible, but only after the cruel monster has stripped Wilkie of the three stripes he has earned over 10 years in the Army. He can offer Davenport insights into Waters’ true feelings about his men. There is some slickness, polish, and deceptive acceptance in Overshown’s portrayal as Wilkie seeks to regain Waters’ favor and those lost stripes, but we also glimpse the grudge and his seething resentment as the sadistic sergeant demands more and more from him. Little sympathy flows from Wilkie’s bunkmates, and certainly no love.

And as he disintegrates late in life, Waters gets sufficiently soused in a couple of flashbacks to stumble back to the base disheveled and drunk, ranting and raving in the presence of white officers, and – worst of all – ignoring their commands. So it’s a role that offers Lee a wide spectrum of personal corruption to embody, from steely ferocity to weak-kneed intoxication, with a couple of moments where we can empathize a little with the sergeant’s twisted viewpoint.

0039r - Eugene Lee (center) and the Cast of the National Tour of A Soldiers Play - photo by Joan Marcus

Lee is nothing less than magnificent. The only slack we need to cut him is when Waters challenges Peterson to settle their differences hand-to-hand. It should be axiomatic to us, as it is to Peterson, that Waters will beat the crap out of him, but Lowe is noticeably younger and taller than Lee. Unlike the 1984 film adaptation (A Soldier’s Story, screenplay by Fuller), where no less than Denzel Washington squares off and loses the fistfight, the action here at the Knight doesn’t draw a flashback, consigned to the wings when Peterson follows Waters offstage.

Directing the show here and on Broadway, Kenny Leon points up the advantages of the stage version over the film. In one way, Leon makes Fuller’s action more classical than Melville’s or Shakespeare’s. Coming and going from their interrogations, the black soldiers observe a military regimentation so strict that it gradually becomes ceremonial. Each one of them carves perfect perpendiculars entering and leaving Davenport’s office: left-face twice entering, about-face once when the questioning is done, and right-face twice exiting. They all seem on the exact same track, and they all salute so religiously that Davenport occasionally seems unnerved by it.

Whether these actions are evidence of their respect for top brass or a reverence reserved for the first black officer they have ever seen, we can easily recognize the difference when the soldiers are out of uniform or under Waters’ command. Discipline slackens and those perpendiculars vanish. These differences are subtly echoed by the contrasts in Derek Malone’s set design and Allen Lee Hughes’s lighting, bright and official for the Captains’ offices, dark and gloomy for the barracks and cots.

Action is so gripping and intense that we easily overlook the flaws in Fuller’s plot. So much infighting is happening on base that it seems almost natural that a watershed moment of World War 2 would happen smack in the middle of Davenport’s three-day investigation. We’re also so riveted by Lee’s ferocity, Connell’s grudging evolution, and Lewis’s cool charisma that we fail to step back and realize that Captain Taylor could have solved this case – before Davenport even arrived from DC – by saying five simple words: “Run a complete forensics review.”

Of course, forensics wouldn’t have helped Memphis when a murder weapon was planted under his bed. Unless some fool left his fingerprints on it. Strumming a guitar and singing sweet blues, Brown is so powerfully insouciant that we have no trouble believing that he is a once-in-a-generation talent at shortstop, able to clout home runs with the same nonchalance. Even when Waters provokes him, Brown has Memphis’s serenity giving way to spontaneity. There’s an almost stammering incomprehension to Memphis at this climax that links him to Billy Budd.

That primitive gloom we find in the soldiers’ shoddy barracks helps us forget that scientific crime-solving dates back to the era of Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, let alone in the Perry Mason courtroom dramas, born in the ‘30s, where ballistic experts often testified. Following Davenport’s diligent process, we’re guided through a pungent set of truths that remind us how far we have progressed from the Jim Crow days to integration and beyond.

Yet we’re reminded how the oppressors of old have spawned descendants who still struggle to hold their control over non-whites and non-Christians. Their desperate efforts to fortify institutional racism and sustain white privilege are keeping full equality tantalizingly out of grasp – even as it comes more vividly into view.

Ryan and CSO Launch 2023 in American Style, with a Wisp of Freedom-Fighting Ukraine

Review: Charlotte Symphony Plays Copland’s “Great American” Symphony No. 3

 By Perry Tannenbaum

2023~Copland + Korngold-15

January 13, 2023, Charlotte, NC – Kwamé Ryan was slated to make his Charlotte Symphony debut at Knight Theater last March in a program that included Errollyn Wallen’s Mighty River, César Franck’s Symphony in D minor, and Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto with soloist Jinjoo Cho. Cho showed, but Joshua Gersen from the New York Phil and the New World Symphony filled in for Ryan. We could have speculated that Ryan had withdrawn his name from consideration as Symphony’s next music director, giving way to Gerson as a hot new prospect for our upcoming vacancy. Earlier that same week, however, the native Canadian was announced as one of 10 guest conductors for the current season, so it was clear that Ryan’s hat remained in the ring – but he and Symphony would need to fashion an entirely new program.

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This time at Belk Theater, the program would be all-20th century – John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986), Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D (1945), and Aaron Copland’s “Great American” Symphony No. 3 (1946) – and even more American, since Korngold, revered for his many Hollywood film scores, became a US citizen four years before his concerto premiered, with Jascha Heifetz wielding the fiddle. Bella Hristova, making her local debut in the Korngold, was apparently booked after Ryan and the concerto piece had been placed in the 2022-23 lineup.

If you haven’t Adams’ brisk orchestral bagatelle, the title describes it well. Marin Alsop, recording the piece with the Bournemouth Symphony, appears to hold the land speed record for her Fast Machine among the seven samples I’ve tracked down, clocking in at 3:58. At the other end of the spectrum, Michael Tilson Thomas with the San Fran Symphony and Kurt Masur with the New York Phil are the sluggards among the conductors on record, leaning more toward Adams’ subtitle, Fanfare for Orchestra, than to the work’s speed. Tilson Thomas made the best-sounding recording, though Stephen Mosko’s performance with the Netherlands Wind Ensemble is definitely worth a listen, even if the woodblock opening the piece – and its insistent marking of time afterward – is tuned higher in the treble. Here the crisp woodblock over the pulsing brass may not have worn out its welcome before giving way to a richer timekeeping shaker when the brass began to soar.

We’ve heard Charlotte Symphony in this music at least a couple of times before, with Alan Yamamoto at the Belk podium in 2006 and Jacomo Rafael Bairos in an all-American KnightSounds concert in 2013. My review of the Yamamoto performance cruelly credited him with thinning the crowd during intermission, but with Bairos, I could happily note how far our subscribers had progressed in accepting Adams. There was a little helter-skelter in Ryan’s reading, maybe a good thing in warding off minimalist monotony, but the audience was downright enthusiastic when the rollercoaster abruptly shut down. Latecomers who were ushered to their seats in the wake of this tasty appetizer could be legitimately pitied for missing out.

Between the evening’s two fanfares – for the Copland Symphony famously repackages his well-known Fanfare for the Common Man – Korngold’s Concerto made for a lyrically lush contrast. Hristova was more precise than Vadim Gluzman, who introduced the piece to Charlotte with Christof Perick at the Belk in 2005, five years before his fine recording on the BIS label. But Gluzman was more ardent, personable, and charismatic in his playing. You can tell a lot in the opening bars of the Moderato nobile about which direction the soloist intends to take. There’s the richer, lusher approach taken by Gil Shaham and James Ehnes that opts for the alluring path I prefer, and then there is the thinner, more gilded approach favored by Sophie Mutter and Itzhak Perlman that aims toward the exquisite and ethereal.

2023~Copland + Korngold-01

Hristova most resembled Mutter among these four, but I felt that Ryan and the CSO outshone her in the opening movement. She wasn’t playing enough with the orchestra’s swells, so their oceanic responses to her episodes weren’t like majestically crashing waves, and her climactic cadenza lacked fire and confidence. Reaching the middle Romance-Andante movement, Hristova achieved parity with the orchestra, growing tenderer and richer in tone with heightened expressiveness. Better still, she was outstanding in the rousing Allegro assai vivace that climaxes the concerto, fairly dazzling with her ricochet bowing and pizzicatos. Here she was meshing well with the folksy ensemble as they reached the spirited series of cymbal smashes that signal the onset of the finale.

Although Copland’s most familiar fanfare doesn’t get its Symphony 3 rebirth until the concluding Molto deliberato movement, Ryan certainly understood the fanfare kinship of the opening Molto moderato with the more familiar Common Man proclamation that awaited us three movements later. More in keeping with Leonard Bernstein’s CD version than with the initially mopey takes by the San Francisco and Minnesota Symphonies, Ryan threw the themes into an echo chamber spin cycle before emerging at the conductors’ common summit: a cathedral of sound that fell away into quiet, mellow sublimity. With a bass drum alarm blast and fresh brass annunciations that dribbled away into comical clockwork pulses of woodwind and percussion, the Allegro molto sounded like a scherzo at first. But when Ryan brought back the heraldry from the brass and drums, the orchestral response was pointedly mellower and mature, cuing us to expect steady grandeur when the artillery returned once more.

2023~Copland + Korngold-16

Where Bernstein was weepy and wistful, Ryan and CSO applied a gloomy, brooding patina to the other inner movement, an Andantino quasi allegretto. He didn’t find the same range of grandeur and folksiness that Lenny unveiled in 1986, but as the piece transitioned without pause into the stately Molto deliberato, there was a wonderful mix of forlorn wilderness and divinity as the quiet woodwinds introduced the familiar Common Man phrase. The brassy orchestral repetition came with all the éclat and majesty you’ll ever hear in the similarly crowning moment of Copland’s Appalachian Spring, gloriously tattooed with timpani, cymbals, and drums. There was plenty left to do before the second and third series of heraldic salvos, beginning with Hollis Ulaky’s magical oboe, escalating to some pre-dawn tweedling from the higher winds, and some shiny “Frère Jacques” tolling from the brass and strings. CSO continued to excel as new variants of the “Common Man” theme mixed with the recurring tolling, simulating an awesome and propitious post-war sunrise. In his apt introductory remarks, Ryan turned our attention – and the ultimate optimism of Copland’s symphony – to the current battle for freedom in Ukraine. We could hear and understand the relevance.

JazzArts Sweetens Ellington’s Nutcracker Suite With Jazzy Elzy Choreography

Review: Ellington’s Nutcracker at Booth Playhouse

By Perry Tannenbaum

2022~Ellington's Nutcracker-08

December 8, 2022, Charlotte, NC – While JFK was campaigning for the White House in 1960, Duke Ellington was out west, arguably having his sweetest year as a bandleader and composer, with an extended stay at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas, a festival triumph at Monterey that yielded two albums, and three sweet suites that were released on additional Columbia albums. The Nutcracker Suite marked the first time Ellington and longtime collaborator Billy Strayhorn had worked so extensively on adapting and arranging another composer’s music, and the pair did not wait for audience reaction to the Tchaikovsky foray before embarking on a similar project with Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suites No. 1 and 2.

Perhaps sweetest of all was the duo’s original suite, Suite Thursday, inspired by John Steinbeck’s novel, Sweet Thursday, which was set in Monterey. Ellington had played with these homonyms before, wittily naming his 1957 Shakespearean suite Such Sweet Thunder, but after the success of Nutcracker, the wordplay was over: Far East Suite, Latin American Suite, New Orleans Suite, and Togo Brava Suite were albums that announced themselves explicitly.

2022~Ellington's Nutcracker-07

Although Ellington’s embrace of classical music and form was obviously a commercial success, his Nutcracker never became the perennial evergreen that Peter Tchaikovsky’s ballet has – with helpful nudges from world-class choreographers and ballerinas. Yet it was still surprising to learn that the current run of Nutcracker Swing performances, presented at Booth Playhouse by JazzArts Charlotte, is an area premiere. One could only grow more puzzled by the delay when trumpeter and musical director Ashlin Parker began tearing into the Duke’s score with an able, self-assured 16-piece band. Very likely, JazzArts had also pondered the popularity gap between the ballet Nutcracker and the big band version, opting to fortify their version with jazzy choreography by the co-founder of the New Orleans Dance Theatre, Lula Elzy, delivered with flair by a sassy 12-member dance troupe.

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Even more lagniappe was added to the front end of this special JazzArts Holiday Edition, before intermission, with appearances by vocalist Dawn Anthony and a quartet of JazzArts All-Star Youth Ensemble musicians. Warm-up songs included a tasty mix of jazz standards, including Richard Rodgers’ “My Favorite Things” and Ellington’s “C Jam Blues,” and a bouquet of holiday fare: vocals on “Someday at Christmas” and “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” a big-band “Christmas Time Is Here,” and Youth Ensemble instrumentals on “O Tannenbaum” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” Ensemble’s tenor saxophonist, Gustavo Cruz, and bandmate bassist Lois Majors were nearly as well-received as Anthony’s high-energy singing, and the first appearance of the evening by the dancers made the instrumental from Vince Guaraldi’s Charly Brown Christmas even more endearing.

Parker and his bandmates had already proven their mettle before we reached the Ellington-Strayhorn orchestrations. As soloists, tenor saxophonist Elijah Freeman, altoist David Lail, and Tim Gordon, doubling on alto sax and clarinet, had also excelled. Yet the band’s work on Nutcracker Suite still eclipsed my rising expectations, reminding me why Ellington, before and during the big band era, stuck with Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra as the name of his group.

 

Ellington always believed that he wrote primarily for orchestra, but he launched his career and his band during the Jazz Age, so he kept the phonograph and the concert hall in mind when he wrote. That’s why most of the earliest jewels in Duke’s crown clocked in at approximately three minutes. The nine segments of Ellington’s Nutcracker barely exceed a half hour, but it’s a hardy concentrate, allowing the aforementioned soloists – and numerous others on the Booth Playhouse stage – to shine and shine again. Hearing this merry music swung live onstage, at sound levels that rose above 90 dB, was astonishing.

The quality of the choreography and the athleticism of the dancers will make it difficult for you to keep track of who is responsible for the instrumental excellence behind them – even when Lail stands up in his red cap and wildly wails. Henry’s work on clarinet is nearly as sensational, and Freeman remains rock solid on tenor. Parker’s rhythm section shines brighter after intermission, earning kudos for pianist Lovell Bradford, bassist Shannon Hoover, and drummer Kobie Watkins, particularly on the sinuous “Chinoiserie.” Elzy’s choreography lifted the excitement even higher, with costume changes for the women between their appearances.

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For the “Toot Toot Tootie Tout (Dance of the Reed Pipes)” segment, appropriately graced by Henry’s clarinet, they entered in cool turquoise dresses glittering with snowflakes, and for “Sugar Rum Cherry (Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy),” they sashayed in from the wings in hot red. The guys, in casual wear before the break, stuck with white shirts and black bowties afterwards, competing with the gals by executing higher leaps and more jivy steps. After they had been challenged by the women in “Sugar Rum” and “Entracte,” the men responded with their finest moves on “The Volga Vouty (Russian Dance).”

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Changing the order from the sequence you can hear on Ellington’s Three Suites album, Parker and company followed with an epic performance of “Arabesque Cookie (Arabian Dance),” the last and longest track. Here the men remained onstage after their triumphant “Volga” stint, surrounding the alluring alpha female, back in flaming red, while Lail blew his most memorable solo of the night. Out of its usual sequence, “Chinoiserie (Chinese Dance)” brought the full company of dancers back to the Booth stage for a rather startling cooldown, but energy built dramatically for the new finale, “Dance of the Floreadores (Waltz of the Flowers),” – loud, flamboyant, and for my money, the most Ellingtonian chart of the evening. Sensory overload was so total that I lost track of all the fine instrumental solos behind the lively dancers.

It Takes Two to Tina

Review: Tina – The Tina Turner Musical at the Blumenthal PAC

 By Perry Tannenbaum

Zurin Villanueva performing as ‘Tina Turner’ and Garrett Turner as 'Ike Turner' in the North American touring production of TINA – THE TINA TURNER MUSICAL. Photo by Mat thew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade, 2022_

Open your playbill at Belk Theater to the cast list of Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, and you’ll find that two women are starring in the title role, Naomi Rodgers and Zurin Villanueva. So the question instantly confronted me: what gives? Not having seen any clarification in the touring show’s signage on the way in, I was on the alert for a pre-show announcement. Sure enough, we heard that tonight we should ready ourselves for Villanueva.

Zurin Villanueva as ‘Tina Turner’ in the North American touring production of T INA – THE TINA TURNER MUSICAL. Photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade, 2022Well before Villanueva made her final exit two hours and 50 minutes later, I could easily understand why Phyllida Lloyd, who also directed the Broadway production, had opted for double-casting. In fact, with all the energy and fire that Villanueva expended on Queen Tina – dancing, shouting, and belting – I was mildly in awe of the fact that Rodgers hadn’t been brought in as a relief singer on opening night. That would have been an acceptable way to preserve our headliner’s fire and energy for her next performance.

Tasked with stringing together two dozen songs with a coherent bio-musical book, playwright Katori Hall glides over the years, toughens Tina, and struggles to make sense of her hardships and her comeback. Compared to The Mountaintop, Hall’s acclaimed MLK drama, this script is hardly even a foothill. Lloyd’s frenetic pacing isn’t exactly helpful to the storytelling, but the wayward Belk sound system, not at all as ceaselessly overbearing as it was last month for Jagged Little Pill, still wasn’t tack sharp at a softer volume.

Maybe that was a blessing in disguise, considering how the garbled lyrics prevented us from scrutinizing the strange, sometimes weird connections between hits like “Private Dancer,” “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” and “River Deep – Mountain High” and their place in Hall’s storyline.

As Ike Turner, Garrett Turner (no relation) is called upon to intimidate and bully a force of nature. Just about everyone knows about the Queen of Rock and Roll’s humiliating marriage walking into the theater, yet I was still shocked by the explosions of dragon fire (or phlegm) that Turner breathed into Ike. And I marveled at how much dirtier he sounded when he sang Ike’s signature “Rocket 88,” regarded by many as the fountainhead of rock. The edge he brings to his predatory marriage proposal – and his subsequent confrontation with Tina’s lover – is chilling.

The other men who revolve around Tina are also Broadway caliber, including Geoffrey Kidwell as record producer Phil Spector, Zachary Freier-Harrison as manager Roger Davies, and Max Falls as German music exec – and future husband – Erwin Bach. Lael Van Keuren as Rhonda, the small-time road manager who graciously gives way to Roger, is also very fine. Since Bach and Turner are the executive producers here, we can assume that all historical inaccuracies and fabrications have earned their seal of approval.

Tina diehards could have been disappointed only by the rendition of her iconic “Proud Mary,” aborted midway by the singer because Ike had yanked her out of a maternity ward to perform it. The two guys sitting next to me outsmarted themselves by walking out during the curtain calls. They missed out on the reprises of “Nutbush City Limits” and the full “rough” half of “Proud Mary,” where Villanueva, emptying her tank, was even more electrifying than she had been during the show.

One last stunner.

“Sunlight and Solstice” Balances Seasons, Continents, and Testaments

Review: CP Dance Theatre’s Sunlight and Solstice

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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December 2, 2022, Charlotte, NC – Compared with Charlotte Youth Ballet’s annual production of Tchaikovsky’s beloved Nutcracker, Central Piedmont Dance Theatre’s fall presentation, Sunlight and Solstice, drew only a small fraction of the huge crowd that converged on the CP Community College campus for the second weekend of the 2022 holiday season. Yet the few of us who chose the less-ballyhooed event were rewarded with more new things to see, for Sunlight and Solstice delivered plenty of new choreography in its bouquet of seven dance pieces, and the program was staged at The New Theatre – in the spanking new Parr Center complex. Dance faculty members Clay Daniel and Tracie Chan each created three pieces for the auspicious event, working with their students to synchronize and refine their performances.2022~Sunlight and Solstice-08

The program closed with a guest appearance from the Chris Thompson Cultural Ensemble, with live singing and drumming by their leader.

Sadly, the newness of the venue was underscored by the fewness of the audience. That increased my admiration for Daniel, who maintained his poise and geniality in handling his hosting chores. Without a printed program in our hands, you could say that Daniel’s intros were godsends, and as our host candidly disclosed, they also spread a convenient veil over the time needed backstage for costume changes between dances. Daniel was no less savvy in choosing his own 2014 settings for Shel Silverstein’s A Light in the Attic to start us off, for they provided a satisfying variety of little nuggets from the 1985 recording while introducing us to a wide swath of CP’s dance corps. Among the ten different vignettes, a couple as brief as 18 or 19 seconds, my favorites were “Bear in There,” “Homework Machine,” and “Monsters I’ve Met,” but all of these were decisively upstaged by “Eight Balloons,” which featured a helium balloon (an unbeatable prop) and an engaging array of dancers and movement.2022~Sunlight and Solstice-02

My first audition of the New Theatre’s sound system was a letdown after the brilliant impression made by the hall, the seats, and the sightlines. Silverstein’s poems should have been louder and clearer. Even more ominously, the backup music promised by Daniel was rarely audible. Replay at home on Spotify was necessary for me to confirm it was actually there.2022~Sunlight and Solstice-04

Nor was there instant redemption or revelation when the soundbooth cued up Camille Saint-Saëns’ Danse macabre for “Cadence,” the first of two Chan pieces that followed. Impact of the music was tepid rather than electrifying. The men who launched the dance were freer to move around than the more balletic women who came afterward, so the best of the work’s three segments was the last, when both groups joined together and movements emphasized leaps more than en pointe work. “Hannah” was an even more delightful piece, though I refuse to believe that Chan chose the best recording of “Hard-Hearted Hannah” she could find. On the other hand, Chan did choose Aubrey Conrad, her best and most alluring dancer, to portray the Vamp of Savannah, GA. Costumer Emily McCurdy dressed her in a tight, eye-popping red outfit to make sure we noticed. Backups (aged 17-69 as Daniel pointed out) were in slacks, their black tops besprinkled with coppery spangles.

A couple of interestingly varied Daniel pieces ensued, with music by JS Bach and Mark O’Connor. Their titles, Art of the Fugue and Appalachian Waltz, were sufficient to distinguish who composed what. Once again, Daniel’s programming was on-the-money, following the splashy éclat of “Hannah” with a piece for three men – Carson Fullwood, Dawsyn Ransome, and Nicolas Hare – more quietly titled “Prelude.” This agreeable trio also provided Conrad with extra time for a breather as well as the costume change she needed to reappear as the soloist in “Moonlit,” the dreamiest piece of the night.2022~Sunlight and Solstice-11

The perkiest piece of the night was undoubtedly Chan’s “Winter’s Frolic,” set to three choice cuts by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. Or maybe two choice cuts would be more accurate, since the choreographer’s musical taste could be questioned once again when she chose Guaraldi’s take on Beethoven’s “Für Elise” as the middle piece in her three-piece suite – not wintry, not frolicsome, and not typically Guaraldi, with no redeeming Christmas or Halloween spirit. The icy skating motif established by the dancers in “Skating” was stopped cold, thankfully returning with Chan’s finale. Somehow, Conrad managed another costume change to slip in among the six dancers, but it was Rieonna Weldon and Carson Fullwood who were featured.

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Whether it was the African style of clothing Chris Thompson’s dancers wore or the lighting shift behind them from the rich violet of “Winter’s Frolic” to a peachy sunset hue, “Rivers of Babylon” brought on the most sunshine of the evening and reminded us that there are two solstices. With Thomson beating out rhythm on his drum, we could readily feel transported from winter to summer as his three dancers – Micheline Ruffin, Erika Guzman, and Briana Hubbard – moved gracefully onto the brightly-lit stage. Then it all came together as Thompson sang the reggae song: summer meshed with winter, one solstice followed another, and the words of an Old Testament song were sung in the season of the New Testament’s most joyous holiday.

For Alanis Fanatics, “Jagged Little Pill” Is Easy to Swallow

Review: Jagged Little Pill at Blumenthal PAC

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Overamped opening nights seem to be a tradition at Belk Theater when Broadway tours hit town, but this week’s JAGGED LITTLE PILL set a new standard, catapulting me out of my seat with the first words of the pre-show announcement – before the onstage band launched into the overture. Things quieted down mercifully after sound levels peaked at 103dB just before intermission, but despite an early lull, Act 2 peaked a couple of times at 104dB as the Alanis Morissette musical climaxed.

Diablo Cody’s stage adaptation of Morissette’s breakthrough Grammy Award album meshes well with those teen-anguished songs and the Belk’s high decibels. Sporting a fresh overload of angst and suffering unimagined by Morissette in 1995, Cody’s book shuttles between three plotlines and eight characters for most of the evening, ostensibly linked by the normal, successful, and well-adjusted Healy family, represented in each of the three stories – and not nearly as happy or well-adjusted as they appear.Heidi Blickenstaff and the North American Touring Company of JAGGED LITTLE PILL_ Photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade, 2022

The somewhat disjointed stories are neatly bookended by Christmas letters that sunny matriarch Mary Jane Healy reads to us from her living room. Her first letter, prior to the humility and honesty she will learn during the coming year, whitewashes the Healy family’s struggles, discomforts, and resentments for public consumption. Mary Jane is not truly healing from her car accident earlier in the year with the wholesome aid of herbal essences or natural medicines: she is hooked on prescription Oxycodone and will soon be seeking out the neighborhood drug dealer when her doctors and pharmacist cut off her supply.

Meanwhile, all is not bliss in the Healy marriage, because husband Steve is working 60 hours at an unfulfilling job, spurned by his pill-popping wife in bed, and turning to porn for solace.Chris Hoch and Heidi Blickenstaff in the North American Tour of JAGGED LITTLE PILL - photo by Matthew Murphy, Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade, 2022

MJ can be justifiably proud of her kids, whom Steve has done more to support than to father. Nick, the eldest, has just earned early admission into Harvard, a fabulous achievement he is not as excited about as his parents. Like his exemplary mom, he feels the pressure to be perfect – and remain the best thing she’s ever done.

Bisexual and African-American in a lily-white Connecticut town, young Frankie is obviously an adopted child, yet she remains the most normal of the Healys despite the dogged colorblindness of her parents, her brother, and her community. She already has a girlfriend that she’s keeping secret from her family, and just before Christmas break, Frankie attracts a new boyfriend in their creative writing class.

Frankie is an earnest rebel at first, in search of a cause. Her social consciousness leads her to spearhead a campaign to give out free tampons at her high school. The protest placards we see in Act 1 can be pretty droll.Jade McLeod and Lauren Chanel in the North American Tour of JAGGED LITTLE PILL - photo by Matthew Murphy, Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade, 2022

Amid this underwhelming welter of decadence and angst, it’s the jilted girlfriend, Jo, who has the best reasons to feel aggrieved, upstaging the Healys and torching some choice vocals. Condemned by her Evangelical mom for her sexuality, obliged to keep her relationship a secret from Frankie’s parents, and thrown over for this upstart Phoenix guy just because he defends her writing in class, Jo is the twitchiest and most upset in her set. Topping all that, Jo is dragged to a Christmas Eve service by her pious mom while Phoenix puts his moves on Frankie at the school party.

All of these indignities set Jo afire amid this otherwise humdrum scenario. What sets it all ablaze is the febrile stage direction of Diane Paulus and the trembling all-shook-up movement and choreography of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. Every surreal sight and unmotivated tremor is further whipped to a frenzy by Morisette’s music and the overamped vocalists, often unintelligible in their cries and wails. Unless you’re moving furniture to the wings, no member of this cast makes an exit without a hugely melodramatic gesture of anger or frustration.(L to R) Heidi Blickenstaff, Allison Sheppard and Jena VanElslander in the North American Tour of JAGGED LITTLE PILL_ Photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade, 2022

For all the Morissette fanatics who filled the Belk to its topmost balcony, all this excess, performed with gusto and bravura, was nirvana. You would have thought, with a title like Jagged Little Pill and all the enthusiasm greeting it, that we were watching a devastating denunciation of adult hypocrisy, rampant drug culture, industrial greed, and the onset of environmental catastrophe rather than much ado about nothing.

Until the Christmas party. This is where Cody finds a dramatic core to her script and adds two key dramatis personae, a rapist and his victim. As a result, Nick proves to be very imperfect, disagreeing with both his sister and MJ in his initial reactions to the assault. After meeting with Bella, the rape victim, Frankie now has a substantial cause to crusade for. Nick must decide whether to break with his rich best friend, Andrew, who perpetrated the rape and snapped the humiliating photos that are being texted during the Christmas break.Allison Sheppard and the North American Touring Company of JAGGED LITTLE PILL_ Photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade, 2022

Wishing to protect her son’s future, MJ sides against Frankie, but her impregnable pill-fed armor begins to crack. She will begin some long overdue introspection and face up to her past. Poof, Cody’s chimerical soufflé of universal discontent will mostly deflate before MJ composes her next Christmas card.

Duke grad Heidi Blickenstaff shows us how – and why – she won the lead role of Mary Jane on Broadway after the COVID hiatus, bringing us an affecting mix of maternal warmth, diligence, cluelessness, and neurosis. Paired with Chris Hoch as a decidedly corporate-looking Steve, Blickenstaff as MJ struck me at times as somewhat surreal delving with her partner into the marrow of Morissette’s songbook.

Here the wildly enthusiastic audience was helpful in reminding me that the Healy parents, though clearly older than the 19-year-old or 20-something who wrote most of their lyrics, are younger than Morissette is now – like so many of us in the roaring crowd listening to their anguish. And it’s also helpful that they both yearn so earnestly to recapture and redeem their past.Lauren Chanel and the company of the North American Tour of JAGGED LITTLE PILL - photo by Matthew Murphy, Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade, 2022

Dillon Klena and Lauren Chanel are marvelously mismatched as the siblings, Chanel as Frankie making the abrupt voyage from Connecticut to Greenwich Village in an effortless manner hard to imagine for Klena as the preppy elder brother. Both of these sustained presences, especially Nick, are upstaged by the more seriously aggrieved teens, Jade McLeod as the raffish Jo and Allison Sheppard as the flirtatious Bella.

McLeod pours their renegade voltage into two of Jo’s prime cuts from Little Pill, “Hand in My Pocket” and “You Oughta Know,” as well as the subsequently revealed phantom cut from that album, “Your House,” when they reveal their nasty side. Underscoring the best craftsmanship that went into updating the Morissette playlist with fresh #MeToo flavoring, Sheppard draws two new songs. “Predator” was released by Alanis as a single in 2021, two years after the JAGGED LITTLE PILL cast album came out, and she has never recorded “No,” an overtly didactic song penned by Guy Sigsworth.

Sheppard makes both of these late additions fit seamlessly into the musical as she grabs much of the spotlight after intermission. But she’s also fine in Bella’s first interactions with Frankie and Jo, accepting her victimhood with a nicely calibrated reluctance.

My suspicion is that while Bella ascended in prominence as this musical’s creative team tinkered with their handiwork, Phoenix and Andrew lost ground. Jason Goldstein as Andrew hardly utters a word, let alone sings one, after giving our story so much impetus by raping and humiliating Bella. If only the evildoers in our politics could be so totally silenced and ignored!Lauren Chanel and Rishi Golani in the North American Tour of JAGGED LITTLE PILL_ Photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade, 2022

Perhaps Cody should be tossed from her scriptwriters’ union for neglecting her villain, but I felt we suffered more from the hasty dispatch of Rishi Golani as Phoenix. Golani shines in “Ironic,” his classroom duet with Chanel, and subsequently serves charmingly as the mellow edge of Frankie’s love triangle in “That Would Be Good,” sharply contrasting with the belligerent McLeod.

After fleeing from Frankie’s bedroom, we never really see Golani as the genial Phoenix again. Cody offers us a rather flimsy pretext for the cooldown in their relationship before Golani even gets a chance to weigh in on what happened to Bella. Surely, it’s the talk of the school – and the town, once Bella hits the police station.

So MJ’s valedictory Christmas letter gives us the illusion that all loose ends have been addressed, and Cody ultimately packages Morissette’s hits with the best giftwrap a jukebox musical has gotten since Mamma Mia. It’s more than enough to satisfy Alanis fandom, and it’s a forward-looking attempt that bodes well for a more woke future up on Broadway.

Joy and Akinmusire Cap SeixalJazz 2022

Review:  Ambrose Akinmusire and Samara Joy at SeixalJazz 2022

By Perry Tannenbaum

2022~Portugal-190At SeixalJazz, across the graceful April 25th Suspension Bridge from Lisbon, Portugal’s renowned capital, the festival must go on. The last couple of pandemic editions, in annual two-meters-apart format, had been muted echoes of the expansive new direction SeixalJazz had taken in 2019, when Kenny Barron, Ralph Towner, Peter Bernstein, and the John Beasley Monk’estra had all been headliners – while afternoon and latenight concerts had been added at separate venues.

After a strategic retreat to an all-Portuguese lineup in 2020, the 2021 festival celebrated its 25th anniversary with a stellar smorgasbord for its socially-distanced audience, including Seamus Blake, Melissa Aldana, Ted Nash, and a high-powered Billy Hart Quartet that slipped in Mark Turner and Ethan Iverson. But it was SJ 2022 that turned on the burners full blast once again at the Municipal Auditorium of the Seixal Cultural Forum, discarding the social-distancing of previous years and restoring the alternate slate of free-admission “Clube” programming at the Sociedade Filarmónica Democrática.

2022~Portugal-186Monty Alexander, Ambrose Akinmusire, and Samara Joy were the big names ready to cook at the Municipal. Breaking our own personal travel bans, my wife Sue and I had already shortlisted Portugal as an attractive autumn destination. Seeing Joy perform with guitarist Pasquale Grasso in August, at Charlotte’s Middle C Jazz Club, pretty much cinched our decision. The opportunity to also see Akinmusire, whose albums I had supported on multiple JazzTimes Critics Picks lists in past years, made the closing weekend at SeixalJazz even more irresistible.

If that weren’t enough, the 10:00pm starting time for all Municipal Auditorium concerts left us free to tour as we wished during daylight hours without being rushed or constricted in our evening dining choices. Across the Tagus River from Lisbon, atop an imposing slope overlooking the shore, the Municipal sports a hillside parking lot that could likely accommodate an audience of 1000. We were rather surprised when the hall, unlike most festival spaces we’ve experienced, had a cozy capacity of 400 or less – completely sold out on both nights we attended.2022~Portugal-196

Akinmusire was actually more familiar with the Municipal than we were, having played on closing night of SeixalJazz 2014 with two other members of his current quartet, pianist Sam Harris and drummer Justin Brown. Missing in action from that gig eight years ago were tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III and bassist Harish Raghavan, staples in the trumpeter’s formative years, replaced by Joe Sanders wielding the upright.

So the rapport between Akinmusire’s bandmates – and between the band and their festival audience – figured to be solid. Knowing each other for more than 20 years, the returning members of the Akinmusire Quartet could hearken back to the leader’s earliest recordings, play off on the tender spot of every calloused moment, Ambrose’s latest release, and even play a new composition for the first time. Adding to the band’s comfort level, no doubt, the acoustics and the sound crew at the Municipal quickly proved to be admirable, and the audience’s energy and courtesy were outstanding.2022~Portugal-066

While the sound of Akinmusire’s band put me in mind of the Miles Davis Quintet that astounded me at the Village Vanguard in the mid-1960s, with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock in the lineup, the shape of the compositions and the composer’s arrangements were freer in form. Meters, tempos, moods, and dynamics could all change abruptly during each piece on multiple occasions. Except perhaps for Sanders’ occasional bass solos, bars and choruses seemed to be an arcane concept when the soloing players took the spotlight.

Nor did Harris or Brown diligently withdraw into accompaniment when handing off the lead to each other – or even when Akinmusire was had the reins. Because Harris and/or Brown were so persistently expressive instead of subordinating themselves, the very definition of soloing was often in flux as each arrangement organically unfolded. It was as if all were so eagerly joining in on a narrative – and so comfortable with each other – that nobody ever hesitated to speak up or interrupt.2022~Portugal-072

Yet the Quartet’s volatile brew never gave any sign of devolving into cacophonous chaos. Most freely expressive was Akinmusire, growling, squealing, whining, sighing, or ranting – angrily or urgently or plaintively – with his horn. Nearly always, he had the last word, more like a soliloquy than a cadenza. Pieces often seemed to end after a moment of reflection when Ambrose decided he had said exactly enough.

The crowd was only thrown once by the Quartet, three pieces into the concert, when a cooldown Akinmusire offering was followed by a titanic solo by Brown. It was so epic that the hall burst into wild applause when the drummer simply paused for a breath and a mood shift – followed by a briefer trumpet solo crackling with fury. “Mr. Roscoe (consider the simultaneous),” for composer and multi-instrumentalist Roscoe Mitchell, was the most cerebral and rigidly arranged nugget on the playlist, showcasing Harris in a wonderfully thoughtful vein.2022~Portugal-062

That provided a perfect segue to Akinmusire immersing us in his ballad mode with “Roy” for trumpet great Roy Hargrove, also from the most recent album but in a live version that was more extended and virtuosic. Not having seen Ambrose playing live before – or even on YouTube, I’ll confess – I was more than a little surprised that this brass player, unlike Wynton Marsalis or Wycliffe Gordon, didn’t bring a collection of mutes, plungers, or assorted doodads onstage to help him produce that wide array of signature sounds he perfected.

And of course, I was impressed. Even Miles had his famed Harmon mute in his arsenal.

Nestled at the bottom of the hilltop commanded by the Municipal Auditorium, a gaudy riverboat with a gangway leading down to it stood gleaming on the shore. Our first night at SeixalJazz, we mistook the riverboat for the ferry from Lisbon, which had its last run of the night when festival concerts began. As it turned out, the posh vessel was the Lisboa à Vista, a truly fine seafood restaurant where we had booked reservations for the following night – and where we first encountered Samara Joy and her band, already seated at the table next to ours.

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My wife recognized her first, but I soon felt compelled to confront jazz’s newest diva with a question that had been nagging at me all the way across the Atlantic. Since Joy had favored us back in August with a song she had written in French for a previous concert abroad, could I get a scoop on a new song she had written in Portuguese?

Not quite. Joy hadn’t written a song in Portuguese for tonight, but she assured us that she would be singing one.

Joy’s career has certainly been in high gear over the past few months, so I’ve needed to shift into overdrive just to keep up with the news. At Middle C, she was signing pre-release copies of Linger Awhile, and eight weeks later when she sang at Seixal, the new album was rapidly climbing the charts. By the time we returned stateside, Linger Awhile was #1 on the Jazz Week airplay chart. Two Grammy nominations came in shortly afterwards, including Best New Artist, and word of a seven-city Big Band Holidays tour with the Jazz @ Lincoln Center Orchestra was posted online, to be followed with a stint on the 2023 Jazz Cruise.

At the Municipal, the contour of Joy’s set was very much as it had been back in North Carolina, about half of the songs from her two albums, leaving her plenty of space for pleasant surprises – and leaving us plenty of additional delights to discover in her new album if we hadn’t heard it. Unlike Akinmusire (one Grammy nom, we should mention), who started off full steam and never let up except for his well-placed but no-less-intense balladry, Joy started off at a high level, less chatty and playful than she had been at Middle C, but there was a gradual build in the second half of her set list.2022~Portugal-218

Once again, “Can’t Get Out of This Mood” was near the beginning of the program, unmistakably echoing the Sarah Vaughan arrangement from her landmark In Hi-Fi album of 1950. This time, pianist Ben Paterson instead of Grasso was Joy’s prime collaborator, so the performance was far closer to the sound of the Grammy-nominated studio version. On the other hand, Grasso – like Paterson, a major voice on Linger Awhile – had played the intro and instrumental solo on “Nostalgia (The Day I Knew)” where Joy has added fresh lyric to Fats Navarro’s 1947 solo on the Tadd Dameron original. So that tune got a fresh twist in Seixal, with a Euro edge as French bassist Mathias Allamane and Danish drummer Malte Arndal rounded out Joy’s rhythm.

“’Round Midnight” has a bigger horn arrangement in the studio version, so I preferred the intimacy that Joy established with her audience in both of her live performances here and abroad, though I’d be eager to hear a J@LC arrangement. The other Monk tune, with Joy’s vocalese on “San Francisco Holiday (Don’t Worry Now),” hasn’t been recorded yet. Both Grasso and Paterson were exemplary when I heard them, so it will be interesting to see which one Joy will choose for her studio take.

With his work on “If You Never Fall in Love With Me,” swung with Joy more confidently and energetically than “This Mood,” Paterson made his case that the vocalist’s eponymous debut album, cut exclusively with Grasso’s trio, could have benefitted from his presence. The lingering rush of adrenalin from that uptempo romp provided a perfect moment for Joy to spring her Portuguese surprise, a lyrical tribute to Lisbon’s own “Queen of Fado,” Amália Rodrigues (1920-1999).2022~Portugal-201

Not attempting to emulate the fadista’s oft-imitated style, Joy charmed her audience with her sincerity, humility, and individuality. Clearly, she was buoyed by their response, for after rocking the house with a newly-minted “Blues in Five,” Joy ripped my heart out with the best “Guess Who I Saw Today” I’ve heard from her, better than the cut on Linger Awhile and better than her Middle C encore. I can’t honestly say the same about her rendition of the title song: it flashes by so quickly every time, like lightning – ironically, the shortest track on both Joy’s and Sassy Sarah’s Linger Awhile albums.

The truest measure Joy’s growth over the past couple of years – she’s still only a tender 22! – was her valedictory rendition of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust,” with multiple levels of depth beyond what you’ll hear on the opening track of last year’s Samara Joy debut. Coupled with her extraordinary voice and command, she seems to possess an unquenchable urge to seek out the purest essence of the music and the lyrics she sings.

Photos by Perry Tannenbaum

DREAMers on Guard in Three Bone’s “Sanctuary City”

Review: Sanctuary City @ The Arts Factory

By Perry Tannenbaum

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In the wake of the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers, as lethal smoke and dust afflicted policemen, firemen, and medics who converged upon Ground Zero, a wave of xenophobia began to sweep across America. Muslims and air travel were the prime targets of paranoia and impulsive policy adjustments in the early days, with follies in Iraq and Afghanistan soon to follow. As Martyna Majok’s Sanctuary City demonstrates, the seismic shock of the attack and the insidious xenophobia it unleashed were keenly felt across the Hudson River in Newark, New Jersey, where her two teenage protagonists face uncertain futures as undocumented Latinx immigrants.

Adapting a thrust-stage configuration at the Arts Factory black box, director Caroline Bower places the audience close to the action – and to the hearts of Majok’s teens as they navigate their treacherous paths to adulthood and possible US citizenship. We may look down pityingly on the adolescent recklessness and naivete of B and G, the rather generic names our playwright assigns to her main characters. G has a litany of fictional excuses for her serial truancies at school, but she can still coach B on his math homework.

Yet there’s plenty here in this Three Bone Theatre production to rattle our smug complacency. Humble and ignorant as they may seem, both B and G often school us in the brambly terrain of daily life in a Sanctuary City and the vagaries of US immigration law. As we will see, their paranoia wasn’t over-the-top in 2001, when most of us would have been skeptical, and their fears proved prophetic 15 years later when MAGA morons began to dominate our national discourse.202211205681389164319280691

G needs to fabricate reasons for skipping school because the welts and bruises that keep appearing on her face and limbs might be noticed by teachers, prompting a home visit from social services, a check of her mom’s immigration papers, a disclosure that her work visa expired years ago – and a swift deportation. Instead, B must tell G’s teachers that she is bedridden with flu until her black eye has cleared up.

Nor does B have it easy just because his mother isn’t tyrannized by a drunken, sadistic SOB. He and his mom can be easily shortchanged on their wages, since they have no legal recourse unless they’re willing to risk deportation. Indeed, it’s B’s mom, not G’s, who gets collared and deported. Paradoxically, Northerners can be smug and complacent in their convictions that such deportations define the inhumanity of red border states in the South, and that heartless Immigration feds are to blame for cruelly separating Latinx families.

Wrong on both counts, Majok reminds us. By not seeking out Federal assistance in clearing out undocumented immigrants, Sanctuary Cities do not prevent the Feds from swooping in, and it’s federal immigration law that discriminates between parents and their children. When B learns that his mom has been nabbed, he must make the painful call on whether to board the plane with her.

Bad news or good news often arrives suddenly as G climbs up the fire escape to B’s bedroom after dark and he mimes a window to let her in. Or occasionally the simple Bunny Gregory set design transforms and B visits G’s place to bring her some urgent news. Neither B nor G has any furnishings until years after B’s mom has been deported and he’s forced to survive on his own.Gus Zamudio

Meanwhile, G’s mom evolves, after seeming to be a hopeless doormat according to her daughter’s early reports. She sheds her abuser, secretly studies for – and passes – her citizenship exam, and achieves the naturalization that eluded B’s mom. In the blink of an eye, G is a legal as well, able to pursue higher education beyond a Newark community college when she graduates high school. Just as suddenly, since both of them know the laws, G can help B reach the same goals. Citizenship plus education.

Isabel Gonzalez sparkles in the rapidfire scenes with Gus Zamudio that open Sanctuary City. Some are brief flashbacks and flash-forwards, others a series of riffs on recurring events, and still others are jump cuts between parallel events in the illegals’ lives. Zamudio, who lived out a real-life DACA deportation drama chronicled by local media in 2017, taken into ICE custody just before he graduated from Northwest School of the Arts, has no problems at all internalizing B’s plight – or still passing for 17.

Making her Charlotte debut last year, portraying 10-year-old Paloma in Children’s Theatre’s Tropical Secrets, Gonzalez doesn’t have to regress nearly as far to bring us all the adolescent vitality, anxiety, and ambivalence of G. Somehow, it’s through Gonzalez and her wary intimacy with her bestie that I began to grasp why Northerners and Southerners alike fathom so little about how immigrants live in citizenship limbo. They’re a secret – and secretive – society who can only truly trust each other.Grant Cunningham and Gus Zamudio(1)

When Grant Cunningham entered as Howard deep into the second half of this no-intermission production, more than a couple of notable shifts came into play, including two new plot twists and an abrupt change in pacing as Majok’s script settled into one extended closing scene. All three actors quickly rev up intensity as the cluster of revelations forces them to rapidly shift their perspectives on each other. You couldn’t help feeling impressed by the melee and how well Cunningham fit into it, and you couldn’t help smiling when you saw the blind spot they all shared, for we have seen the social and political progress that can happen in less than two decades.

Howard, the first character we encounter here with a full name also comes equipped with a fuller character. Yes, he seems far more confident that he belongs here, and as a law student, far more definite about who he is and what he aspires to be. Gradually, he brings out one of the playwright’s salient points, that B’s plight not only focuses him sharply on the niceties of immigration law and enforcement, it makes him adept at attaching himself to people he can use to help his cause.

But really, I didn’t think arriving at that point was as important as the basic heartbeat of what Majok leaves us to speculate about: what specifically are these DREAMer hopefuls’ dreams? What aspirations stir their souls as they struggle to emerge from the shadows into full American lives?

A little more of that kind of intimate disclosure would have helped the emotional magnitude of Sanctuary City to align better with its cerebral clout. Even the dimwitted Lenny in Of Mice and Men had his rabbits to break our hearts. So even a Lin-Manuel Miranda bodega would help Majok’s taut drama – with a few stray spritzes of comedy – to sprout a little more Latinx color. And we shouldn’t have to Google a New York Times review or call upon Three Bone Theatre’s playbill to inform us that the drama is happening in Newark.20221111578320097703585702

More urban and aspirational detail would certainly make Majok’s brew more combustible, but Gonzalez, Zamudio, and Cunningham deliver plenty of firepower. Sarandon Shindon steps in to play G at the Wednesday and Thursday performances, with Gonzalez returning to close out the run on Friday and Saturday.

Rhiannon Giddens Returns to Charlotte and Leaves Plenty of Music in the Air

Review: Rhiannon Giddens with Charlotte Symphony

By Perry Tannenbaum

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November 5, 2022, Charlotte, NC – Since the long-anticipated world premiere of her new opera, Omar, at Spoleto Festival USA back in May, composer-singer-instrumentalist Rhiannon Giddens has hopscotched the worlds of folk, jazz, and classical music. Her Spoleto apotheosis down in Charleston was embellished with a sit-down interview event and an outdoor concert with multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi, her collaborator on They’re Calling Me Home, the 2022 Grammy-Award-winner for Best Folk Album. Among Giddens’ many gigs since then, she has headlined at the San Francisco Jazz Festival and Carnegie Hall before entering downstage at Belk Theater for a rendezvous with the Charlotte Symphony and resident conductor Christopher James Lees. As you might presume of a MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient, Giddens is not easily pigeonholed.

2022~Rhiannon Giddens-23Yet the Greensboro native co-founded the Carolina Chocolate Drops, her first Grammy Award exploit, and now has an opera firmly rooted in the Carolinas to her credit, so an audience studded with black ties and tuxes had no difficulty embracing the polyglot Giddens as their own – even as she navigated a songlist that included Parisian and Celtic selections. They may not have realized that Giddens had played Charlotte before, as far back as 2008 when I caught her with the Chocolate Drops at Northwest School of the Arts. Turrisi and bassist Jason Sypher, who shared the Cistern Yards stage with Giddens at the College of Charleston in May, accompanied her once again, though Lees and Symphony lightened their load. Nor was it obvious that Turrisi would be playing piano until late in the concert when he insinuated himself upstage.

As soon as my QR code scanner brought up the evening’s program, I could see that the Symphony offerings would be more eclectic, accessible, and daring than the set Giddens performed at Spoleto. Even before Giddens led her trio onstage, Lees and the orchestra demonstrated that they would not be content to trot out the stale and familiar, following up on John Williams’ brassy Liberty Fanfare with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Overture to Hiawatha, referencing a half dozen episodes from the composer’s trilogy of Longfellow-inspired cantatas. In the wake of the fervid Fanfare, a little more finesse could have been applied to the opening of the African Britisher’s evocation of the primeval American classic, letting the harp sound more clearly, but Lees was certainly simpatico with the shifting moods and tempos afterward. Violins were gossamer-light in “The Wooing” section, the waltzing section that followed had admirable propulsion, and the cello corps warmed the tenderest episode, before the big build in the “Reunion” finale.2022~Rhiannon Giddens-31

The truly treasurable experiences began when Giddens strode onstage and picked up her banjo; for her first song, “Spanish Mary,” was co-written with Bob Dylan, with a fine orchestral arrangement for Lees and Symphony to luxuriate in. Shedding the banjo, Giddens followed up with “Julie’s Aria” from Omar, co-written with Michael Abels, reminding us of her own capabilities as an operatic soprano. Yet within minutes, Giddens was delivering a smoking-hot version of “Water Boy,” the pile-driving prison song immortalized in recorded versions by Paul Robeson, Odetta, and Harry Belafonte.

No doubt, Giddens has listened repeatedly to all three of these cultural touchstones, for the simple hammering arrangement was borrowed from Odetta and Belafonte while the lyrical clarity hearkened back to Robeson. The Odetta recordings of “Water Boy” are unparalleled, particularly when it caps a medley begun with “I’ve Been Driving on Bald Mountain,” shot through with explosive grunts and gasps from the hammer-wielding prisoner. But Giddens has found her own path toward heightening the intensity at the end, and the orchestra beats delivered by Symphony added jolts of electricity throughout the piece that simple guitar strums couldn’t match. Better still, Giddens’ preamble, “At the Purchaser’s Option,” was certainly a coupling with “Water Boy” that civil rights champion Odetta would have appreciated, repeatedly delivering a “you can take my body, you can take my bones, you can take my blood but not my soul” mantra.

2022~Rhiannon Giddens-19“Mouth Music” was all we needed to hear if we needed assurance that Giddens could make a credible showing at a jazz festival, and there would be more to follow. Lees ceded the stage to the guest trio, lightening the vibe, and Giddens picked up a viola and yielded some of the spotlight to her bandmates, especially Turrisi when he sizzled on his accordion during one of the fiddle tunes. The merriment faded when Lees returned to the podium, replaced by the romance of “Autumn Leaves” en français until Giddens favored us with the English lyric as well. If you hadn’t glimpsed the program, just the tropical sway of the violins was enough to announce our return to the Carolinas and “Summertime” from the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, sweetly sung. Plenty of space was afforded to both Giddens and Symphony in the arrangement of “La Vie en Rose,” and the singer did not seem to be straining to sound like Edith Piaf, which was more than OK with me.2022~Rhiannon Giddens-15

Homing in on the end of the evening, Giddens and Symphony tacked toward the spiritual. With Turrisi at the keyboard, Giddens embarked on this final journey with “He Will See You Through,” followed by “Wayfaring Stranger,” opting to travel through this world “alone” rather than “below” or “of woe” as others have sung. These songs of faith certainly cleared the way for the affirmation and joy of Giddens’ final two selections, an irresistible pairing of “That Lonesome Road” and “Up Above My Head,” a perennial YouTube favorite that can’t be found on her albums. The last of these was memorably inspired. We all heard so much “music in the air” that we could leave more than satisfied, even without the planned encore.