A Catchphrase Becomes a Mantra in “A Christmas Story”

Review: A Christmas Story, The Musical

By Perry Tannenbaum


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review:  The Planets and Deep Field 

By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Review: Fallen Angels

By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Review: The Daughter of the Regiment

By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Daffodil Girls

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Summer Night, With Unicorn” Plants the Seed for Professional Jewish Theatre at Shalom Park

Review:  Summer Night, With Unicorn

By Perry Tannenbaum

In a cycle that begins in November, The Levine Jewish Community Center jumped aboard the Jewish Plays Project two years ago as Charlotte became one of 12 cities adjudicating JPP’s annual Jewish Playwriting Contest. Charlotte has already assembled 21 readers for the judging process, tied with Chicago for the most among participating cities, in deciding the three scripts that are publicly presented in the spring at Gorelick Hall. That’s where the Shalom Park audience takes over, choosing the winner and also-rans for our region. From those results, a consensus national winner is chosen – not only for presentation at an annual Jewish play festival up in New York but also for full professional productions in all the cities where the Project has taken root. Last year’s contest was different from those that preceded, pitting all winners from previous contests against each other, so that an all-time winner from 2012 to 2017 would emerge. Decided by an objective points system, the 2018 contest actually produced two winners, Estelle Singerman by David Rush, winner of the 2013 prize, and Belfast Kind by Margot Connolly, the 2015 winner.

Among the co-winners, Charlotte chose Rush’s bittersweet comedy-fantasy. We had been told at the readers’ committee meeting back in January that Rush’s title was in flux. By the time it was presented at The Festival of Jewish Theater in June, Estelle had been renamed Summer Night, With Unicorn. That’s the title that JStage brought to Gorelick, sporting poster and playbill artwork with a Marc Chagall flavor that marvelously reflected the spirit and the magical realism of Rush’s play. The main figures in Kayla Piscatelli’s artwork are a crescent moon over the head and neck of a unicorn. Within that white unicorn, there is a silhouetted cityscape of skyscrapers with space enough above them for the Hebrew letters of the first four words of the traditional mourner’s kaddish. Estelle is a gregarious elderly Jew, not devoutly religious, since we meet her a little after 10pm at a lonely McDonald’s in Chicago. There’s nobody else to pester but Warren Spencer, an obvious Cubs fan busily clogging his arteries with a burger and a large order of fries.

Estelle would like this sullen, downcast, and brooding widower to believe she’s doing him a favor by sharing his fries and perhaps hoping to cheer him up as she invites him on a late-night odyssey. She will take him to a park, the Lake Michigan shore, a Christian Science reading room, a synagogue, and – inevitably – a zoo. Where else would Estelle and Warren converse with Seymour, a reincarnated giraffe? Rush proves to be very ecumenical in his ramblings around Chicago. The depressed and anorexic Hannah Kipper reads tarot cards on her lakeside blanket, the reading room is managed by a kindly Sister Rose, and the dark synagogue is haunted by a rabbi who’s unsure whether he’s alive or dead, a thickly bearded gent with Wandering Jew earmarks who has his visitors wondering who’s dreaming whom. Nor are the characteristics that Hannah and Rush assign to the Unicorn gleaned from the Encyclopedia Judaica, where there is no entry for the mythological beast.

Long before intermission arrives, we realize that Warren is a stubbornly lapsed Jew who is stewing in bitterness over the circumstances surrounding his wife Doris’s death. Estelle is a widow herself, habitually wandering the city at night because she’s afraid to go to sleep, promising Warren the glory of a sunrise over the lake at the end of their journey. We join Warren in wondering what Estelle’s ulterior motive is, getting hints that he isn’t the first to join her on her midnight rambles. As the lights go down for intermission, it becomes suddenly clear that Estelle is looking somebody to say kaddish over her. What we didn’t know was whether Estelle was alive, with a wisp of matrimonial motives triggering her quest, or dead, needing Warren’s prayers to bring an end to her ghostly wanderings. The other big question was whether Warren would ever say kaddish over his own beloved Doris, let alone this strange and mystifying Estelle.

My estimate is that I haven’t reviewed a theatre performance at Gorelick in almost 16 years, during which time the J has sprouted multiple new wings, one of them two stories high, along with a new entrance and dazzling new facilities – all of which make the Gorelick, now shunted from the front to the back of the complex, look old and drab by comparison. The stage and the dusty chairs we sat in could sorely use a refresh, for starters. JStage producer Susan Cherin Gundersheim, the cultural arts director at the Levine JCC (and a theatre professional in her own right), is clearly facing an uphill climb in convincing people to make a serious investment in the J’s theatre program. Gundersheim has managed to bring professional-grade theatre to the site regardless.

To check off all the design and directorial boxes, Gundersheim has brought in Piscatelli and Mark Sutton to don multiple hats, which they do admirably on their shoestring budget. Sutton’s set design, little more than three wooden frames after we exited McD’s, meshed well with his directorial concept, calling upon his audience to mostly imagine the scenes for themselves. Piscatelli’s costumes and lighting were no less complimentary, the raggedy cerements for the ghostly Doris and the gleaming silk cape for the Unicorn contrasting effectively with the garish attire of our earthbound protagonists.

There are plenty of Hebrew and Yiddish expressions studding this script like landmines. Fortunately, Sheila Snow Proctor navigated the treacherous terrain almost perfectly as Estelle, certainly better than Sutton, who allows Devin Clark to mangle his Yiddish mercilessly as the ageless Rabbi. Portraying a lapsed Jew, David Catenazzo probably earned a pass as Warren on his trespasses with the Hebrew blessing for putting on a tallit – I’ve heard worse during torah readings at my Conservative synagogue. Proctor not only clops around like a pensioner, slightly stooped, slightly squinting, she gets the essence of Jewish soul and humor, the impulse of kvetching leavened with a pinch of self-mockery. She even carries her late husband’s tallit bag and tefillin with a touch of reverence. Perhaps Proctor would have had an easier time of it if Catenazzo had similarly leavened his anger and impatience with hints of the Jewish soul that had loved and indulgently persevered with Doris when she wasn’t angelic. To some extent, Warren needed to be charmed by Estelle. Judging this role is a little like living the journey of Ebenezer Scrooge.

With two major cameos, the Rabbi and the giraffe, Clark had the most opportunities to shine among the supporting players. He was especially entertaining as Seymour sparring with Warren, who probed into the question of why he had been demoted to giraffe in his present incarnation. Yet Clark was curiously endearing as the bewildered Rabbi, notwithstanding the butchered vay iz meers. Liora Tal likely sparked some objections for how she delivered Hannah Kipper, a little underpowered and maybe a little too serene for a young fortune teller looking forward to death – but Estelle persisted in feeding her, and I didn’t think we were supposed to believe her, either. I’m afraid that Mariana Bracciale didn’t get much of a chance to shine as Sister Rose, but at least she got to glow in the denouement as the Unicorn, making her entrance and exit from the margins of the audience.

No cameo better encapsulated what Summer Night, With Unicorn was all about than Stephanie DiPaolo’s visit from the beyond as the ghost of Doris. Even more befuddled and uncomprehending than the Rabbi, DiPaolo only flickeringly registered what Warren was asking of her, but although she haltingly spoke, she never responded. That was very much the dynamic in Rush’s magical journey. Multiple possibilities presented themselves to Estelle when she posed the question we all have about what lies ahead, but through the night, there was no clearer answer than that death will surely come. With richer lighting, sound design, and a sprinkle of special effects, DiPaolo’s clarifying moment of confusion might have reached a finer pinnacle. Hopefully, when more people at the Levine JCC appreciate the gems these professionals are creating, they will also realize that the artists and their audience deserve a finer setting.

 

Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony Upstaged by Epic Paganini Concerto

Review:  Italian Symphony

By Perry Tannenbaum

Last week’s Symphony concert at Knight Theater, Italian Symphony, was a bit of a double entendre. Yes, the featured work on the program was Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4, also known as the “Italian,” but all the other pieces on the bill had something Italian about them, even if the composers hailed from cooler climes. Other than Mendelssohn, we heard from Parisian maestro Hector Berlioz, whose musical marinara, gleaned from his poorly-received Benvenuto Cellini opera, was discreetly called “Roman Carnival Overture.”

In between these two non-Italians, we heard from Luciano Berio and the virtuosic Niccolò Paganini. Our guest conductor, Milan native Roberto Abbado, sustained the Italian connection. Only our guest soloist, Muscovite violinist Sergej Krylov, broke the Italian mold – unless we also consider the Charlotte Symphony musicians.

The last time Symphony played the “Roman Carnival Overture” in 2012, we were also at Knight Theater, but maestro Christopher Warren-Green had to battle the embryonic acoustics of the stage, which swallowed much of sonic details before they reached the audience. With the handsome wood-grained shell that now encloses the orchestra, strings sounded mellower and more immediate, the thrumming percussion that prodded the tempo had a far more audible and visceral effect, and the whole piece was livelier, with trombones asserting themselves in the final build.

Abbado seized upon the intro to Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 1 – its precipitous pauses, hairpin tempo changes, sudden thunderous outcries, and outbreaks of joyous melody – and brought out its kinship with Rossini’s overtures. The pause before Krylov’s bravura entrance was so emphatic that the intro might rightly be looked upon as an overture. As for Krylov, while he isn’t Italian, his pedigree for the Paganini concerto can hardly be bettered, for he studied under the renowned Salvatore Accardo, arguably the greatest living exponent of the entire Paganini violin repertoire. Accardo’s six-CD collection; including six concertos, the famed Caprices, and more; is calling out loudly to everybody at Knight Theater who sampled the goodies.

Of course, seeing this music performed live surpasses what you can merely hear. The speed, the exquisite harmonics, the double bowing, and the ricochet bowing heighten the drama when you watch them executed with such energy, deftness, and excitement. In the heat of the opening Allegro maestoso movement, you could see concertmaster Calin Lupanu and principal cellist Alan Black craning their necks to see around Abbado and fully savor what Krylov was doing. Not only was it epic enough to draw their smiles, most of the audience jumped up and gave the violinist a rousing ovation – forcing him, somewhat sheepishly, to remind us that there were two more movements to come.

The middle Adagio movement really required the audience to quiet down if it were to be heard, an oasis of tranquility before another onset of dazzle and fireworks. Anyone who had overlooked the purity of Krylov’s tone, particularly on the low notes and midrange of his instrument, could savor it here. Where the movement builds in volume and passion, both the soloist and the orchestra were up to the drama. The final Rondo: Allegro was shorter than the epic opening, but with some bodacious pizzicato work sprinkled amidst more frequent ricochet episodes, Krylov was no less spectacular, sparring a little with acting principal trumpeter Alex Wilborn along the way.

For those of us who love Luigi Boccherini’s guitar quintets, it bordered on criminal that credit to Luigi as the original creator of “La ritirata di Madrid” was deferred to the program notes on Berio in Symphony’s program booklet instead of in the main concert listing. All the guitar quintets are delightful, but the named pieces, the “Fandango” and “La ritirata,” are the stunners. Both take their names from their fourth and final movements, where Boccherini stretches the limits of his ensemble – string quartet plus guitar – by adding percussion effects. In the “Fandango,” he sneaks in a pair of castanets while the guitarist forcefully strums, but in the “Ritirata,” the strumming of the guitar simulates the fanfare of a full marching band, supplying all the percussion as the platoon moves through town and retires quietly to its barracks.

With principal Andrea Mumm Trammell sweetly plucking her harp, Berio’s orchestration of the arrival could be even quieter and stealthier. Nor did Berio deprive us of the services of traditional percussion – plus trumpets – where Boccherini had brought his quintet to a full roar. It was quite obvious that Abbado and Symphony relished their opportunity to bring orchestral power to this chamber music classic, and the fadeaway finish was absolutely adorable.

If Krylov’s pedigree was optimal for the Paganini, then no less can be said for Abbado’s with the Mendelssohn. Many regard the recordings by Claudio Abbado, Roberto’s uncle, as the most definitive traversal of Mendelssohn’s five symphonies. The nephew stamped his authority on the “Italian” in the opening measures of the most familiar movement, the vibrant Allegro vivace. Unlike the metronomic statement of the long melody line that we heard from Warren-Green and the ensemble in 2013, Abbado had a freer feel for the opening movement, the violins setting an exuberant pace and the winds injecting softer replies.

While the middle movements were mellow and satisfyingly cohesive, contrasting effectively with the bracing beginning, Abbado seemed to allow the lull to have a lingering effect on the Saltarello: Presto finale. The two flutists, Amy Orsinger Whitehead and principal Victor Wang, led a spirited charge into the breech, but when the strings answered back, it was merely with their former exuberance and not with a new ferocity or fire. Instead of Mozart bumping into Beethoven, it was more like Mozart flowing into Mozart, insufficiently bolstered by the timpani and brass. The flutes’ charge should have ignited more magic.

Like Panoramic Pease, “Music of the Night” Was Fun While It Lasted

Review:  The Music of the Night: An Andrew Lloyd Webber Revue

By Perry Tannenbaum

If you’ve never heard of Andrew Lloyd Webber – or you’re aching to become reacquainted – don’t blame Blumenthal Performing Arts, Charlotte Symphony, or CPCC. Three times in last nine years, Blumenthal’s Broadway Lights series has brought us touring versions of Phantom of the Opera with visits from Evita, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and School of Rock sprinkled in-between. CP brought us one of the first local productions of Phantom anywhere in 2015 and has kept enthusiasms stoked for Lord Lloyd with productions of Joseph and Jesus Christ Superstar over the past decade and Evita earlier this year.

Denial and deprivation have become harder to sustain in recent months. Broadway Lights brought Love Never Dies, Webber’s sequel to Phantom, to Belk Theater in early September, and both Charlotte Symphony and CP piled on with Andrew Lloyd sequels in late October. Symphony’s “Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber and More” opened last Thursday and encored the following evening, but the melodies of CP’s The Music of the Night: An Andrew Lloyd Webber Revue linger on after opening on the same night.

The current revue marks a farewell to panoramic Pease Auditorium, which is slated to be demolished along with the school’s library in early 2019. As you might expect, the fondness of the farewell comes from numerous actors and artists who have kept the theatre tradition thriving at Pease, regathering at ground zero where the CP program started in 1972.

At the helm, directing and choreographing, is Ron Chisholm, whose local pedigree goes back to 1990. Susan Roberts Knowlson, Patrick Ratchford, Lisa Smith Bradley, and Kevin Harris qualify as distinguished veterans handpicked for this 13-member cast, while Ryan Deal and Lucia Stetson have the creds to be labelled the new establishment. Watch out for a few of the others, though. There were stars on the ascendant in my telescope.

With a running time of less than 73 minutes, nobody onstage gets a truly full workout except the musicians led by the versatile Lucia Stetson, who has acted, directed, and conducted both musicals and operas over the years at CP. Why such a miserly songlist with so many singers onstage and so many songs to choose from? With a decent bouquet of your fave CP singers on hand to deliver, it would have nice to claim that you’d be hearing all your fave Andrew Lloyd Webber songs.

There are 20 songs, or there would have been if one hadn’t been skipped last Saturday. Most generously represented are Evita and Phantom of the Opera – not surprising when you consider that Lucia Stetson and Ryan Deal, who starred in the title roles at CP, are on hand to handle their reprises. This they do with panache, for Chisholm knows where to place his chips when he ponders his staging. Stetson is festively dressed by costume designer Ramsey Lyric for the brash “Buenos Aires” and backed with enough vocalists to evoke a carnivale – and she really is dressed to the nines when she does Evita’s anthemic “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.”

As the ghoulish, predatory Phantom, Deal can only fully come into his own when paired with his prey – the more beautiful, the better. Deal breathes heavily enough to be truly sinister in singing “Music of the Night,” but he’s most commanding when he torments Knowlson in the title song. Squat as Pease is, scenic designer James Duke does provide twin staircases flanking his final Pease set. The one at stage left is definitely an asset when Deal makes his dominant melodramatic exit. “Sing!” he bellows as Knowlson sustains high notes we haven’t heard from her in years. I’m guessing that’s the rest of the ensemble forming an offstage chorus for this duet, intensifying its power.

Taking up the Raoul role, Ratchford struck up the more consoling duet with Knowlson, “All I Ask of You.” All that chemistry was still there, no doubt kindling widespread nostalgia among those in the audience who remember the multiple times Knowlson and Ratchford shared top billing at CP in the past. With the entire ensemble singing “Masquerade” and Knowlson soloing on “Wishing You Were Here,” you will gather that Chisholm & Company’s Music of the Night is wringing maximum mileage from Phantom.

Even before the selections already cited, Brittany Currie Harrington and Traven Harrington were a more age-appropriate Christine and Raoul in “Think of Me.” Traven’s voice is the mellower at his low end, but Brittany was sensational at her uppermost in an unforeseen cadenza at the end of their duet. Each of the Harringtons logged an additional solo before the revue was done, Brittany reprising the title song from Love Never Dies and Traven taking us way back to the title song of Starlight Express.

Do you remember There’s A Light at the End of the Tunnel from that same rollerskating musical? Me neither, but Kevin Harris – perhaps signaling that he’ll be back for Showboat next summer? – reminds us how righteously rousing it is in bringing us to intermission, with backup support that matches the liveliness of “Buenos Aires.” Of the remaining cast members, I most fancied Ron T. Diaz and Emily Witte, both of whom I wished were better showcased.

Witte was saddled with the lackluster “Another Suitcase” from Evita before being obliged to timeshare “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar with Sarah Henkel and Karen Christensen. Diaz continues the Superstar momentum into the final bows, getting a better split on that title song, with J. Michael Beech sharing the spotlight and everybody in celebratory form backing up.

Lisa Smith Bradley bore the burden of beginning the evening with “Memory” from Cats, a song that I loathe from a show I despise. As we moved onward – and inevitably upward – I could be thankful that this irritation had been immediately disposed of. But I remain peeved at the evening’s brevity and the songs from other shows that remained AWOL. If we could dip into Joseph for Ratchford’s Elvis-like “Song of the King” and Harris’s “Close Every Door to Me,” surely there could be space for more than the peeps we had into Song & Dance and Whistle Down the Wind.

Maybe it’s okay to skip past The Woman in White, Aspects of Love, and Tell Me on a Sunday, but surely we must sample the Tony Award-winning Sunset Boulevard and Sir Andrew’s triumphant comeback, School of Rock, which wowed this town back in January. A couple of songs from each of those hits would expand the running time past the 90-minute threshold – and sound more like a respectable survey of this composer’s work.

“The Philadelphia Story” Bides Its Time Before Detonating

Review:  The Philadelphia Story

By Perry Tannenbaum

One of the wonderful things about Philip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story is that, yes, it really is about class distinctions and peculiarities, but the playwright remains ambivalent and tolerant of them all. Beneath their upper or lower crust exteriors, all of these Philadelphians – young and old – are recognizably human. You rarely see so many fully-fleshed characters onstage in the course of a single evening. I wouldn’t be terribly surprised to see a premier professional company repeatedly reviving this witty, effervescent comedy, but it’s absolutely astounding that Theatre Charlotte, our community theatre, has revived Philadelphia Story twice in the new millennium, now and back in 2000.

Both productions showed the pitfalls. The cast needs to be nine deep, alert to the amount of polish and roughness Barry expects of them, and aware of the energies and pacing required at each point of Barry’s intricate plot. The story revolves around “virgin goddess” socialite Tracy Lord – as you might expect, since Katharine Hepburn, the original Tra on Broadway and on celluloid, matched the 25% investment that the playwright plowed into the original production. Tracy is sensibly engaged to the cold and ambitious George Kittredge, impetuously divorced from the dapper C.K. Dexter Haven, and estranged from her father, whose indiscretions have brought the Lords unwanted publicity.

While Tracy is resolving these relationships, her brother is focused on suppressing a magazine exposé that will be published about their wayward father, dangling the prospect of exclusive access to the wedding as an enticing alternative for the publisher. The reporter and the photographer assigned to the Kittredge-Lord nuptials, Mike Conner and Liz Imbrie, bring another level of complications to the scene. She’s been secretly carrying a torch for him for years, but when spirits rise and champagne flows on the night before the wedding, Mike finds that he has fallen – hard – for Tracy, a prelude to their both enjoying an illicit, drunken midnight dip together in the Lords’ swimming pool.

While Barry is at work on how the wedding, the magazine story, and multiple alienated affections – past and present – will ultimately resolve, director Tonya Bludsworth and her cast must deal with all of the reactions and repercussions along the way. Making all of this bubbly complexity even harder for Bludsworth and Theatre Charlotte to achieve is the relative lack of enthusiasm for the project. Turnout for auditions was likely as tepid as audience turnout. Compared with opening night for Peter and the Starcatcher in September, there were conspicuously more empty seats at the back of the house – and a bit less confidence onstage.

Ten of the 14 cast members are new to Theatre Charlotte, including most of the key characters. We started off strong back in 2000 with a Tracy who had the look, the patrician manner, and sometimes even the sound of Hepburn, but that newcomer’s imperial highness never became sufficiently ruffled when the plot thickened. In Bella Belitto, we have another newcomer as Tracy, and on opening night, her serene highness was conspicuously lacking in the early going and – like others onstage – she was often underpowered and inaudible.

Without that serene aura and grace, the splintering of Tracy’s goddess élan isn’t as poignant as it should be in Belitto’s account of her re-education. Yet when she’s assailed by complications, catastrophes, and intensifying adoration, she faces it all very convincingly, her spirits and energies rising. Waking up on the climactic morning after, her decibel level also crescendos spontaneously. We feel that she is learning her lesson and actually benefiting from the indiscretions that brought on her fall – and that the lesson runs deep to her core. Her epiphany detonated effectively for me.

A lot of that depends on Nick de la Canal radiating a rakish upper-crust urbanity as Dexter with enough of that crust trimmed away to make room for tolerance and forgiveness – the two key qualities Tracy needs to acquire. De la Canal’s insouciance also contrasts nicely with the stuffiness that Will Millwood brings to George Kittredge. Barry doesn’t completely hide his disdain for George’s commercial outsider status, so Millwood makes a prudent choice in stressing his judgmental bent.

Dexter also comes off finer than Mike Conner, but by a significantly smaller margin. Here the nuanced class distinctions are no less telling. Christopher Long reminds us that Mike starts out fairly judgmental himself before Tracy bewitches him, but we indulge his pre-judgments more readily in the same spirit that we’re inclined to forgive his boyish, impulsive trespasses. Our best verdict on him vis-à-vis George is much like Barry’s: he’s more deserving, in spite of his depressed finances, of being called a gentleman.

What gives The Philadelphia Story its screwball slant is that everybody up onstage and down in the audience seems to know who the best fit for Tracy is – except for the goddess herself. This includes her mischievous younger sister, Dinah, who attempts some telephone matchmaking. Helena Dryer makes little sis pesky and likable in the right proportions. She’ll be an utter triumph once she makes herself consistently intelligible.

Tracy’s mom isn’t the most pivotal role here, though Margaret does point the way for her daughter in forgiving her husband’s infidelity. What makes Heather Place’s debut so auspicious as Margaret Lord is her clear bubbly delivery and her effortless projection of warmth and class, richly portending her reconciliation with the dashing, slightly over-the-hill Seth Lord. Victor Sayegh is mildly and earnestly supplicating toward Margaret and his disapproving daughter, as befits a Philadelphia patriarch, another cue for Tracy to accept people’s imperfections, including her own.

Sayegh and Place draw two of Chelsea Retalic’s most stylish costume designs in evoking high society elegance, but it’s an uphill battle to project prosperity amid Josh Webb’s drab and dour set design. Two Ionian columns fail to provide uplift, and there’s no longer a visible hint of the swimming pool in the wings. Portraying the eccentric Uncle Willie in a delightful debut, Dan Kirsch gets my nod as the plutocrat most at home in this down-market mansion, lovable for all his pomposity.

Fresh from his crossdressing exploits in Starcatcher, Johnny Hohenstein is mostly responsible, as Tracy’s scheming brother Sandy, for the PR intrigue that lurks beneath the romantic comedy. Good luck following – or caring about – all the Act 2 twists in that sector of the plot. For that reason, Anna Royal as Liz turns out to be more important for me. Ultimately, she’s modeling the patience, forbearance, and forgiveness toward Mike that Tra should have toward Dex. Royal gives Liz just enough edge to update her and elevate above the cliché she must have been in 1939 when THE PHILADELPHIA STORY first hit Broadway.

Here she isn’t just a working-class woman who knows her place, meekly deserving Tracy’s discards. Wielding her Contax camera, she’s Mike’s professional partner, biding her time for a natural upgrade.

Thomas Pandolfi Recital Ranges from Chopin to Gershwin With Sprinklings of Broadway

Review:  Arts at the Abbey concert featuring pianist Thomas Pandolfi

By Perry Tannenbaum

Driving out to Belmont Abbey College for an Arts at the Abbey concert featuring pianist Thomas Pandolfi, I seemed to have a previous memory of the name from my CD collection. Later that evening, I found Giovanni Antonio Pandolfi Mealli among my CDs, nestled between music of Paganini and Panufnik. The recording of his violin sonatas by Andrew Manze, which I heartily recommend, was released nearly 20 years ago when Manze could do no better than narrow the composer’s birthday to somewhere between 1620 and 1634 in Umbria. A search of Spotify unearthed three subsequent albums after Manze’s 1999 excavation – plus a new disc by the pianist that includes three of the pieces I had just heard at the Abbey Basilica. At Amazon, Thomas is better-represented than Giovanni, with a selection of CDs dating back to 2006. Scanning the extensive biography in the Arts at the Abbey program, I didn’t find a family connection between the American pianist and the Italian composer, but an artistic connection emerged while Thomas played: these are both musicians who deserve to be better known.

 

Pandolfi has technique to spare and the strength to punish a piano. His program showed a predisposition toward the tried-and-true, Manuel Ponce the only composer he needed to introduce. Leonard Bernstein, frequently performed during his centennial year, was the first of the familiar names to get a hearing with “Rhapsody of Themes from West Side Story,” Pandolfi’s arrangement of Lenny’s most famous score. Very much like Bernstein’s orchestral overture, but with a different mix of melodies, Pandolfi’s arrangement gave him a chance to show his prowess with splashy, spicy tunes as well as tender lyrical ballads. Playing loose with the sequence of the show, Pandolfi seized upon “Tonight” for his first subject and used the familiar theme from the “Prologue” and “Jet Song” to transition to the festive “I Feel Pretty,” which became a rather grand march before a minor-key meditation flowed into “One Hand, One Heart.” A second slow-fast-sequence intensified the rhapsodic mood of the piece with florid treatments of “Maria” and “Somewhere” bookended around a sprightly “America.” With Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue looming at the end of the program, this was a truly auspicious beginning.

A trio of fine Chopin showpieces followed, building gradually in intensity after the placid Nocturne No. 2 in E-Flat. Playing a little too quickly to plumb the full depths and beauties of this piece, with dynamics that didn’t make the most of its dramatic contrasts, Pandolfi was impeccable in his technique, teasing out the Nocturne’s waltz rhythm – and his trilling little codetta as we turned toward home was simply exquisite. After calling our attention to the “Always Chasing Rainbows” midsection of the Fantasy-Impromptu, Pandolfi produced his best playing so far, admirably navigating the turgid A-theme so that clarity was balanced with power. Transitions in and out of the midsection delivered sharp, dramatic contrasts.

The marvelous Opus 53 Polonaise, “The Heroic” in A-Flat, is a litmus test for piano technique and artistry. I remember arriving at the University of South Carolina as a teaching assistant in the early ‘70s and discovering the extensive LP collection at the local library that enabled me to compare how the masters attacked and interpreted this masterwork: Rubinstein, Horowitz, Entremont, Vasary, Brailowsky, and others. There are worse ways to absorb the nuances of musical interpretation and develop personal taste. It’s also pretty special to be able to hear this piece played live by someone with the attack force that can shake and roll a grand piano the way Pandolfi can. The opening sforzando snapped our heads back, and the first sounding of the heroic melody was as sharp, crisp, and uplifting as you could wish. All the intervening passages were also beautifully judged and mastered (the second quick-step interlude is a formidable beast), and the closing summation was truly rousing and thunderous. There was a satisfying rigor to the earthbound final chords, which can often sound awkwardly separated from the explosion that precedes. My only problem with the performance came when Pandolfi repeated the heroic refrain on its second and third hearings. While I appreciated his urge to vary what we had previously heard, I felt that he strayed too far, softening and muddying a couple of measures that had previously been crystal clear and bright. Nothing nearly as perverse as Lang Lang’s recent recording, mind you, but a bit outré.

After that thunder – and the enthusiastic applause that greeted it – Pandolfi reset and started a fresh trilogy in the same intensifying mold as the Chopin set. Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” came off with more lyricism and delicacy than the Nocturne, indicating that the pianist was calmer now – or maybe slightly wearied from his Polonaise exertions. The sound he could coax from the piano was as impressive as the feeling. Ponce’s Intermezzo #1 was the only letdown in the concert, rushed too much at the start and not sufficiently varied in dynamics afterwards to get a full sense of the piece’s architecture, though wisps of its “Windmills of Your Mind” flavor came through.

Not to worry, Pandolfi had a grand finale in his pocket and, he hinted, a special encore if we liked his Gershwin enough. The piano transcription of Rhapsody in Blue is daunting from the beginning, when the soloist is called upon to replicate the famous opening glissando that fits the clarinet so divinely. Pandolfi accepted the challenge with gusto, producing a sound from the keyboard that was respectably close to the reed instrument, and he attacked orchestral passages with a zeal that was exhilarating. All the dynamic contrasts that were wanting in the Ponce were here in superabundance, so that the succession of late-night, blues-tinged quietudes flowed meaningfully into the city lights outbursts. Of course, all the passages originally written for piano had a special glitter, but Pandolfi was also up to grand onset of the familiar rhapsody melody and the rocking celebration that follows. All of Pandolfi’s considerable showmanship came in handy as we reached this classic upswell, yet the final moments of this epic performance were a model of restraint, control, and dignity. Of course, the audience loved it.

So we were granted the privilege of an encore, a resourceful mashup by Pandolfi of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera. On the new CD, Pandolfi’s “Phantom Phantasy” is actually the first track, but the 2018 release is titled After the Applause, so if I’m interpreting correctly, everything on its songlist qualifies as an encore. About half as long as the mammoth Rhapsody in Blue, the Lloyd Webber fantasia was noticeably longer than typical encores and quite a feast, more cleverly and artfully arranged than the Bernstein rhapsody – florid, romantic, rhapsodic, and melodramatic. A lot of fun, really, as Pandolfi unpredictably interwove the Phantom melodies, and a refreshing way to end a satisfying recital.