Thorgy Brings Plenty of Christmas Cheer – and Drag Artistry – to the Queen City

Review: Charlotte Symphony Premieres A Very Thorgy Christmas

By Perry Tannenbaum

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The first thing to know about Thorgy Thor, a distinguished alum from the eighth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, is that she is outrageous. If political correctness is your passion, then the next thing to know is that I’ve chosen her pronouns after consulting the program for the world premiere of A Very Thorgy Christmas, performed with the Charlotte Symphony and resident conductor Christopher James Lees. The Wikipedia entry for Thor, née Shane Galligan, is a tossed salad of pronouns that doesn’t conclusively settle the question.

Headlining a Christmas show with a full symphony orchestra, Thorgy proved to have multiple talents. Not only did she serve as a guest violin soloist on three Christmas songs, she performed a standup monologue, screened a self-produced takeoff on an NPR podcast, presided like a gameshow host over a farcical giftwrap contest between four Symphony musicians, sang an autobiographical rewrite of “The 12 Days of Christmas,” and interviewed Lees a la late-night TV.2021~Thorgy Xmas-18

If Thorgy’s debut with Symphony in January 2020 had even half the variety and surprises of her Christmas extravaganza, it’s easy to understand why she was invited back so quickly – to basically do whatever she wished. The only restriction she acknowledged was an imposed limit of one f-bomb, and she certainly detonated that one with maximum impact. Lees and the ensemble began conventionally enough at Knight Theater for a very full house, launching into a merry rendition of “Joy to the World.” But the arrangement of this familiar carol soon became a mashup of several other carols and then an outright Christmas barrage – “Jingle Bells” and “Silent Night” at the same time? – before I began to wonder what few Christmas carols might be left over after this extravagant overture.

Unlike Jack Benny or Henny Youngman, the only other violinist comedians I can reference, Thorgy took herself seriously as she came on to play “O Holy Night.” Her tone was actually quite beautiful when she played, even though the arrangement and tempo didn’t demand impressive dexterity. “Carol of the Bells,” played just before intermission, required fleeter fingering, but even with this more energetic fare, Thorgy was flawless, unstressed, and only wisecracked once or twice over her performance. More of her freewheeling flamboyance came out when she put away the lumber and spoke out. This Very Thorgy Christmas was clearly a 2021 edition if Thor has any intentions of reprising her show as a Yuletide tradition. Not only was the new show silly, as Thorgy herself off-handedly remarked, it was also ephemeral.

Thorgy’s monologue was largely about her upcoming prospects and what she had done during the pandemic. Her pandemic shenanigans were plentiful enough, in fact, to supply prime fodder for her next two comical exploits prior to intermission. In the first, she went through the lowlights of her stint as a cameo celeb, that seemingly wholesome profession of producing customized video greetings for clients’ loved ones. As the smut piled on, we quickly realized that Thorgy didn’t attract a Hallmark Cards clientele. In the NPR video she showed us afterwards, Thorgy and a fellow drag queen, rather sedately dressed for this studio format, interviewed a comparatively blue-collar guy named Chef Schwetty. Judging by the varied colors of the samples he brought with him, I’d say Schwetty was a pastry chef. Without adding flavors or adjectives, Schwetty described his specialty as balls. Needless to say, the two gay interviewers feasted on the possibilities.

2021~Thorgy Xmas-36.jpgMore signals came after intermission that a 2022 edition of Thorgy Christmas would undergo drastic changes, for it was obvious that Thor revels in surprises. Dispensing with the customary concert preludes served up by her symphonic hosts, Thorgy burst onto the stage and kicked things off with a brash “Jingle Bells” spot. Of course, she had changed her outfit during intermission – from an ensemble highlighted by garish red-and-green-striped slacks to a fiery, glittery, fuchsia spectacular. She almost visually jingled in this one-piece caprice, and she discarded her dazzling Dolly Parton white wig in favor of a towering brunette bouffant. Thorgy is rather tall already.

Genial, easygoing, and relaxed, Lees complemented his guest artist handsomely. After the opening overture pillaged a huge chunk of Christmas inventory, Lees allowed the orchestra to stray briefly from holiday fare with an excursion to Grieg’s “Hall of the Mountain King.” When he returned to the podium, after the screening of Thorgy’s cameos, he and his cohort basically coasted along with a couple of snatches from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, rep that they play repeatedly for Charlotte Ballet every December. After Thorgy made her splash to open the second half, Lees engaged with the Knight Theater audience to help him out with the whipcracks in Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride.” A woman in a lower box seat happened to have a black fan that made a whippier sound than our claps when she opened it, adding to the fun (especially when she was late).

Although the Knight audience was heavily infused with RuPaul devotees, the “12 Days of Christmas” parody was too crammed with obscure references to Thorgy’s misadventures on Drag Race and its All-Stars spinoff – and often too unintelligible – to garner universal laughter. And of course, the repetitions built into the familiar song didn’t help, a lesson for Thorgy to learn for her 2022 edition. After this partial misfire, Thorgy came up with her most hilarious bit of the night, the giftwrap contest with four surprisingly smart-alecky Symphony musicians. With a connoisseur’s unerring judgment, Thorgy chose four gifts for wrapping that offered maximum opportunity for failure and embarrassment: a cluster of inflated balloons, an open umbrella (closing it was strictly forbidden), a toilet plunger, and a broom and dustpan combo.

Like those frenetic cookoffs you may have watched on TV, the four wrappers had to cope with a tight time limit, so Lees and the orchestra timed the competition by performing… something. The action was too engrossing for me to take heed, but the ending and Thorgy’s flamboyant flourish were emphatic enough to signal the sudden frantic finish. The cluster of balloons proved to be disappointingly wrappable and humdrum, but the unopened umbrella was such a colossal fail that I found myself howling with laughter.2021~Thorgy Xmas-29

On the other hand, the wrapping for the plunger, cunningly separated into two pieces, was an absolute triumph. But flutist Jill O’Neill ultimately won the night – via a plurality of audience applause – with her amazing wrapping for the broom and dustpan. Audaciously rolling the merchandise on the floor helped O’Neill execute her design, and I suspect that adopting a witch persona as soon as she first held the broom helped to sway the judges. I was actually impressed by the rapport that Thorgy developed with each of the four contestants as they displayed their handiwork.2021~Thorgy Xmas-31

We gracefully glided homeward after this high-energy highlight, as Thorgy sat down for her cozy interview with Lees, occasionally prompting principal cellist Alan Black to imbibe from a tumbler of alcoholic beverage during the course of the conversation. Things became unexpectedly revelatory when, after a very personal question, Lees suddenly asked his interrogator if they could continue their conversation backstage later on. Some marital history soon followed. Those hilarious moments prevented the sitdown with Thorgy from becoming overly anticlimactic after the madcap giftwrap – and it segued nicely into Thorgy’s closing performance on violin, a beautiful and heartfelt “Silent Night.”

Originally published on 12/25 at CVNC.org

The Road Gets Bumpy, but Theatre Charlotte’s “Christmas Carol” Prevails at CP

Review: A Christmas Carol at Halton Theater

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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Almost a year ago, fire struck the Theatre Charlotte building on Queens Road, gouging a sizable trench in its auditorium and destroying its electrical equipment. Repairs and renovations will hopefully be completed in time for the launch of the company’s 95th season next fall, but meanwhile, actors, directors, designers, and technicians are soldiering on at various venues for 2021-22, their year of exile cheerfully branded as “The Road Trip Season Tour.” Ironically enough, Theatre Charlotte’s Season 94 began in September with a downsized musical, The Fantasticks, at the Palmer Building, a facility that once served as a training ground for firefighters. For their 14th production of A Christmas Carol, Theatre Charlotte has moved along to Halton Theater, the permanent home of Central Piedmont Theatre.

Timing is a bit awkward on the campus of Central Piedmont Community College, where a new theater that will be friendlier to dramatic productions – replacing the demolished Pease Auditorium – is slated to open in April with The Diary of Anne Frank. Graced with a generous orchestra pit, the Halton is more hospitable to big splashy musicals (when its sound system responds favorably to our crossed fingers). In fact, this transplanted production of A Christmas Carol, in Julius Arthur Leonard’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ iconic novella, reminds us how well-suited the old “Queens Road barn” was for such spooky and creepy fare. Not only were the ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Future at home there, but so were such confections as Arsenic and Old Lace, Assassins, Blithe Spirit, and To Kill a Mockingbird. The Halton occasionally seemed oversized when You Can’t Take It With You took up residence there at the beginning of Central Piedmont’s current season, and you can imagine how their spectacular 2015 Phantom of the Opera emphasized the grandness of Andy Lloyd Webber’s grand guignol.

Encountering the vastness of the Halton in transplanting Theatre Charlotte’s cozy Christmas Carol, director Jill Bloede has been characteristically resourceful in executing its many daunting scene changes. At times, we could see cast members whisking set pieces off to the wings in a smooth out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new routine. But there were occasions when changes of scenery necessitated a complete closing and reopening of the stage curtains. Veiling the tediousness of that maneuver, Bloede has summoned repeated parades of a small band of merry carolers, coached by Jim Eddings, to cross the stage while the curtains are closed – so you would probably be right in thinking there are more carols sung this year than in Christmases past on Queens Road. My welcome for the carolers on opening night veered toward the unredeemed Ebenezer Scrooge’s grumpy attitude as the evening progressed, yet opening night is destined to be enshrined in Theatre Charlotte lore as the night of the infamous doorknocker scene fiasco.

One of the first indications that Scrooge’s house will be haunted, after a ghostly “Ebenezer Scrooge!” exclamation blows in on the Halton’s sound system, is the brief scene at the threshold to Ebenezer’s home. Here is where Scrooge sees a fleeting glimpse of his deceased partner, Jacob Marley, bringing his doorknocker to life. The precision needed to carry off such a simple scene only became apparent when it went awry. Either the Halton curtains were tardy in arriving at their centerstage spots, where they would fully frame Scrooge’s front door, or the actor who was to lurk unseen behind that door arrived early – and was very clearly seen, garishly aglow. Portraying Scrooge, Hank West seemed sufficiently poised to extemporize while the stage curtains and the lurking Marley came into proper alignment. But the carolers took their cue and entered before West could properly proceed, and the panicked actor behind the door fled. West finished out the brief scene as well he could without any eerie lights beaming through the doorknocker, but the special effect was lost – the only real reason for that scene.

Legions of Theatre Charlotte veterans – and new initiates in years to come – will no doubt keep the memory of this snafu alive for generations, heartily laughing all the more at the incident because it didn’t typify the production. Scenic design by Chris Timmons and lighting by Gordon Olson didn’t expand quite enough to comfortably acclimate at the Halton, nor did the company splurge on smoke or fog effects during its financial woes, which might have deepened the spell of the spookier Marley and graveyard scenes. Don’t expect any snow to flutter down on the vast Halton acreage, either. With balmy temperatures likely to prevail throughout the opening weekend, it’s Beth Killion’s set of period costumes that most successfully instill a chill into the air.IMG_8525

We’ve seen some of this cast before, notably West as Scrooge, Chip Bradley as Christmas Present, and Mary Lynn Bain doubling as Fred’s wife Elizabeth in the present and Belle, Scrooge’s old flame, in the flashbacks. All of these enlarge on their past performances to some extent, maybe West most of all. His meanness is more startling in person than it was in last year’s video version, streamed online, and his sorrow and penitence are also magnified. The graceful arc of Scrooge’s redemption is only slightly bumpier this year with West’s adjustments to the new space, Bloede’s script edits for this intermission-free edition, and a body mic. Projected into a larger hall, Scrooge’s newly minted intentions needed to sound more like settled resolves and less like agonized pleas. Bradley enlarges to a similar degree upon Present’s outsized cheer, the more the merrier in his case – until he issues his climactic admonitions, now sharper in their contrast. Bain seems most content to let her mic do her amplification, but she is stronger this year in the climactic flashback scene when she returns Ebenezer’s engagement ring.IMG_8694_dcoston

All the newcomers to TC’s Carol are quite fine, a testament to Bloede’s ability to attract talent when she holds auditions. In contrast with the veiled youthful mystery of Anna McCarty last year, Suzanne Newsom brought a nostalgic melancholy to the Ghost of Christmas Past that was quite affecting in its serenity, while Mike Corrigan appeared for the first time as Bob Cratchit – very different with his more muted brand of meekness from Andrea King last year but no less kindly or comical. For richer or poorer, Josh Logsdon and Rebecca Kirby were a fine pairing for the Fezziwigs, Aedan Coughlin doubled well as Young Ebenezer and Ghost of Christmas Future, and Riley Smith brought all the optimism needed for the sanctity of Tiny Tim. With Mitzi Corrigan and Emma Corrigan on board as Mrs. Cratchit and daughter Belinda, there’s plenty of family authenticity around the humble Cratchit hearth – or there will be when Mitzi returns from personal leave due to a death in her real family. Vanessa Davis spelled ably for Corrigan as Mrs. Cratchit at the premiere performance, augmenting her regular role as Mrs. Dilbur.

Assuming that Thom Tonetti was already in character as Jacob Marley during the notorious doorknocker scene, I’ll say his opening night adventures most typified the Theatre Charlotte crew’s tribulations in acclimating to a new space. Marley’s entrance into Scrooge’s home wasn’t dramatized with smoke and lights, and Tonetti didn’t enjoy the benefit of having his prophecies and imprecations magnified with thunderous jolts from the soundboard. During the flashbacks, the actor certainly earned some sort of sportsmanship award, appearing as the younger Jacob opposite the truly younger Coughlin.IMG_8645_dcoston

Steadying this production and assuring that its professional polish never deteriorated into community theatre chaos for long, West ultimately triumphed over all missteps and obstacles, bringing us the compelling Scrooge we expect in all his goodness. It’s still a strong story, and 24 of its most ardent Theatre Charlotte believers are moonlighting at Central Piedmont, giving this 87-minute production the old college try. A drama within a drama, to be sure, both ending happily.

Originally published on 12/18 at CVNC.org

New Techni-Colorful “Velveteen Rabbit” Struggles to Retain Its Aching Soul

Review: The Velveteen Rabbit at ImaginOn

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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Beginning with a musical version in 1992, I’ve now seen at least eight productions of The Velveteen Rabbit at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, four at their former location on Morehead Street and four at their pioneering ImaginOn facility near Seventh Street Station. Scott Davidson’s dramatic adaptation of Margery Williams’ classic 1922 book, long a mainstay at Children’s Theatre after the musical version was discreetly discarded, was actually the first show staged in the smaller theater, now named the Wells Fargo Playhouse, when ImaginOn opened in 2005.

The company’s 2021 edition of the story, arguably more relevant for children in the midst of a pandemic, takes us in new directions – with a new stage adaptation by Michelle Hoppe-Long, CTC’s director of education. Hoppe-Long’s Rabbit hopped from page to screen last December with a different cast, a worldwide debut that was still viewable online back in March. Now it’s in its premiere live run.

Over the years, CTC’s Rabbit is likely the company’s most widely-known piece, since it has often travelled across the state in pint-sized portable productions with its travelling troupe, known once upon a time as the Tarradiddle Players. So perhaps the biggest shift between the former Rabbit and the new one is only becoming obvious now, as the ImaginOn staging leaps from the Wells Fargo to the larger McColl Family Theatre. Logically enough, Andrew Gibbon’s scenic design concept has discarded the simple, drab, intimate, and pastel look of the vagabond Rabbit in favor of a sweeping, eye-popping, and technically dazzling spectacle, abetted by Robyn Warfield’s bold lighting design. These flamboyant Disney fantasy elements are offset by Magda Guichard’s earthbound costume and puppet designs.

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That same tension between imaginative extravagance and minimalist simplicity is evident in Hoppe-Long’s script and Melissa Ohlman-Roberge’s stage direction. These discordant elements may be viewed as indecision, but it seemed to me that this new hourlong Velveteen Rabbit was consistently plagued with wrong, illogical, and perverse decisions. Most incomprehensible and disastrous was the transformation of the title character from a woman in an outsized bunny suit into a puppet, visibly wielded by an actress bravely striving to deflect attention away from herself.

Why reduce the size, expressiveness, personality, and lovability of your lead character in transit from a small venue to a larger one? Portraying the Rabbit by proxy, Margaret Dalton never gets the chance to equal the exploits of Claire Whitworth-Helm, Lesley Giles, and Nikki Adkins, past greats in the role. And Dalton must also moonlight, without changing her costume, as the household Nana! Occasionally, Dalton’s double duties became awkward and confusing, if not cringeworthy.

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In a story about a boy’s toy aspiring to become real, all of this wrongheaded simplification makes it more difficult for toddlers to see that the Velveteen Rabbit is real – and for them to empathize with its aspirations. A whole franchise of Toy Story films is descended from Williams’ story, but Hoppe-Long and Ohlman-Roberge not only change the Old Skin Horse to a less cuddly Rocking Horse, they eliminate or downgrade all the toys and real rabbits that torment our protagonist. These abridgements of the Velveteen Rabbit’s world seemed to compound the audience’s struggle to empathize with her – it certainly compounded mine – because we never felt her pain keenly. And when the family Doctor was also removed from the cast, the Boy’s tribulations were also muted at the dramatic climax when he fell sick. Yes, even the size of the cast was smaller at this bigger venue.

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Ironically, simplifying and purifying the Boy also diverts our attention away from the Rabbit. More human stupidity and callousness from Lexie Wolfe as the Boy would have reminded us that the Rabbit should be our primary concern, though she does underscore those moments when the Boy disregards his cherished toy. Surrounded by such Technicolor splendor, it’s hard for Wolfe to break through and impress upon us that the Boy is not completely wholesome – and that his life before he falls ill is not totally idyllic. Instead, Wolfe diverts us with her charm as the Boy roams about with the Rabbit, pretending to be a warrior and pirate while immersing his cuddly toy in his fantasies.

This is the most vivid magic we get, yet Hoppe-Long has contrived to add a little more magic to the Williams yarn, expanding the role of the nursery magic Fairy. The sudden blooming of her presence in the midst of the Velveteen Rabbit’s most extreme desolation is beautifully conceived and splendidly staged, with Reneé Welsh-Noel’s lithe dancing skills adding to the wonder. Yet this new adaptation drops the Fairy into the beginning and middle of the story, where she has never appeared before, somewhat blunting the surprise of her climactic deus ex machina appearance at the end.

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Welsh-Noel also moonlights as the Rocking Horse and the Boy’s distant but understanding Mom. There’s a delightful surprise cameo at the end of the show, buried in the playbill credits, when stunt rabbit Brambles replaces the puppet protagonist. Parents and toddlers can decide for themselves whether a live rabbit that must be protectively caged at odd intervals – to prevent it from romping around forever in the audience – enhances or diminishes the nursery magic. For me, it was cute at first, but the benefits didn’t last.

Originally published on 12/6 at CVNC.org

Sensory-Friendly Theatre, or “How can I help you be you?”

Preview: Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Tyler made a surprising and daring decision at ImaginOn before attending the Sunday matinee of My Wonderful Birthday Suit. His mom, Ilana, had been sure that Tyler would want to wear noise-cancelling headphones at the performance, so I had to assure her that Children’s Theatre would be offering them prior to the show. Otherwise, she would need to pack his set of phones before they flew in from El Paso and make sure he had them when they left their hotel.

But Tyler refused the headphones that were available – in a really cool variety of colors, it should be mentioned – at the entrance of McColl Family Theatre. Instead, he chose a day-glo green worm, about eight inches long, from a wide array of fidgets and weighted cuddles on display. His younger sister, Brynn, chose a spotted little Dalmatian doggie that weighed five pounds. More surprises.2021~Sensory Friendly Theatre-01

Tyler had to live with his choice. Now when Oobladee and Oobladah, best friends on this side of Moonbeam, started blowing up balloons for the surprise birthday party they were planning for Shebopshebe, Oobladee’s bestie from the other side of Moonbeam… Tyler covered his ears with both hands, dreading the moment when a balloon would suddenly explode.

Yet he didn’t cower or turn away. He didn’t run for cover. His beautiful blue eyes remained glued to the stage.2021~Sensory Friendly Theatre-12

I was sure that none of the balloons would explode. Even if I hadn’t seen this show before, I could see that, sitting in front of the stage, “Tree” (resident teaching artist Kaitlin Gentry) hadn’t raised her two green glow sticks, the signal that “sensory rich” moments were around the corner. Anybody who had downloaded the Parent’s Guide from the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte website would also know that the balloons were “being blown up and let go, but they do not pop or make much sound.”

Tyler’s attention never wavered after the balloon scare, but he didn’t remain completely quiet. Gloria Bond Clunie’s script becomes heavier and more emotional. When Shebopshebe shows up from the other side of the rainbow, Oobladah is shocked to discover that Oobladee’s other best friend is brown. From the start, when he points at Shebopshebe and says, “You’re brown!” it doesn’t sound at all like a description – and she hears that clearly.

The pointing and the tone get meaner, more hateful, overtly racist. “People say that brown skin is…,” Oobladah stammers, leaning over a ledge and pointing an accusing finger down at Shebopshebe. He’s heard whispers that “you know…” and finally he blurts out: “Together – we should not play!”2021~Sensory Friendly Theatre-03

You might think the two girls would be furious. Instead, they’re both rolling on the floor, laughing hysterically.

“On the Other Side of Moonbeam – we play all the time!” Shebopshebe will respond, once she and Oobladee have caught their breaths.

And this is where Tyler breaks his silence. In a voice loud enough for Mom sitting next to him to hear. It’s also loud enough for me – his grandpa – to hear, sitting two seats away, next to his sister.

“That’s NOT funny!” Tyler calls out.

Nobody turns around to shush him. Nobody glares. At all of Children’s Theatre’s Sensory-Friendly Performances, autistic nine-year-olds like Tyler are free to call out, fidget, roam around the theater, cower in a corner, or find refuge in a quiet room, where they can still watch and hear all the comedy and drama with their mom or dad.

That’s really the point: they’re free to be themselves without being judged.2021~Sensory Friendly Theatre-17

Julie Higginbotham of Precious Developments has been overseeing the Sensory-Friendly Performances at Children’s Theatre since 2016, when ImaginOn’s new project was still a pioneering rarity. Now every run of every mainstage production gets a Sensory-Friendly Performance at its closing Sunday matinee. That includes the upcoming Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba, opening this Saturday and running through November 14.

“It’s a big deal!” Higginbotham often says – because it’s so true in so many ways.

She’s preparing actors, directors, designers, technicians, and ushers for the special performance – as well as carefully preparing printed and online guides for protective parents and surprise-averse children. This involves meeting face-to-face with the stage manager, the stage director, the musical director, and the actors. Higginbotham also attends the designers’ run-through, dress rehearsals, and performances during the run of the show, where she scribbles over the Children’s Theatre director of production Steven Levine’s script, containing all the light and sound cues.

Where should the volume on the mics be turned down? Where should a scream be changed into a loud exclamation? Where should a live gunshot effect be changed into a muffled recording? Where must a scene with strobe effects – almost automatically a two-light-cue alert – be redesigned so that triggers that would be hazardous to seizure-prone kids are gone?

Amid the final tweaks to lights and sounds happening during the run of the show, Higginbotham takes hundreds of photos – because the Parent’s Guide and the Child’s Guide are also illustrated full-color scenarios that prepare audiences for what they will see. That’s helpful when a stage adaptation or a set design significantly departs from an original book that kids and their parents are already familiar with.

She also annotates the script for “Tree” so that she can closely follow and precisely time her one-light and two-light cues. Higginbotham remained involved in the last 90 minutes before the Sensory-Friendly Performance and even while “Tree” was upfront waving her traffic-control glow sticks.

Grandpa had to rise and shine a couple of hours earlier than Ilana and the grandkids to witness Higginbotham’s final preps for My Wonderful Birthday Suit – after getting buzzed in at the ImaginOn loading dock.2021~Sensory Friendly Theatre-24

First came the final powwow with the actors, lighting crew, and “Tree.” Actors portraying Oobladee, Oobladah, and Shebopshebe all received Higginbotham’s final notes and reinforcements, with opportunities to air last-minute questions and concerns. Then the reconfigured “REWIND” scene – Shebopshebe’s brilliant and zany answer to the contrite Oobladah’s wish to “begin again” – was rehearsed and rerun without the strobes.

As the three actors exited and changed into their costumes, makeup, and matching masks (since ImaginOn is a public building, masks are worn by actors during performances), Higginbotham ascended the long lobby ramp to the top level of McColl Family Theatre. Time to prep the ushering staff, a mix of vets and newbies overseen by volunteer coordinator Louise Lawson.

Some ushering basics are turned on their head at Sensory-Friendlies. Ushers don’t simply show you to your seat, retreat to anonymity, and maybe sit back and enjoy the show themselves. They’re actively engaged in helping to ensure this special audience will enjoy their experience before the show and during the show.

Audience members don’t have a seat. With open, socially distanced seating, they have any seat. If say, they run up to the front of the house and find out that the sensory onslaught is too intense there, they can move back as far as they wish to any empty seat.

What ushers pay closest attention to is the kids’ needs. So my Tyler actually had extra backup during the little balloon scare that his mom may not have been aware of. Ushers were armed with the same fidgets, cuddly dogs, sunglasses, and headphones that Tyler was offered when he came in, standing at-the-ready, spread throughout the theater, instructed to come to his aid if they noticed he was constantly putting his hands over his ears and flinching.

“The biggest thing,” Higginbotham emphasizes to the volunteers, “is this: a lot of these families are overlooked, or they get stares. Our job is to actually see these folks, make eye contact, engage with everyone. If their communication style is one you don’t understand, that’s OK. Say, ‘Hello. We are really, really glad that you are here. What can we do for you? Can we show you to your seats? This is an amazing production, and we want to make sure you guys have a good time.’”

Any questions? Higginbotham is there to answer ushers’ concerns before and during the show, supervising the operation over a headset from the rear of the hall. Like a second stage manager.

Higginbotham’s meeting with Laura Beth Lee, the actual stage manager for Tropical Secrets, gave me a close-up view of how the Sensory-Friendly process begins – and a rewarding overview of the Precious Developments methodology.

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The situation was somewhat surreal for this reviewer, since Higginbotham had not yet read the L M Feldman stage adaptation of Margarita Engle’s young adult verse novel. I’d covered the original webcast premiere back in March, but there were never live performances of the show and no Sensory-Friendly edition. The same cast, starring Adrian Thornburg as the Jewish boy Daniel and Isabel Gonzalez as Cuban native Paloma, are back with director David Winitsky. But Lee will be new to Cuba behind the scenes.

New wrinkles will confront everyone involved, however, since the production is moving from the McColl Theatre at the east side of ImaginOn to Wells Fargo Playhouse on the west, with a shrunken, more abstract set design customized for the new venue. Before Higginbotham and Lee powwowed in the “Lizard Room” on October 20, the returning cast had already rehearsed on the new set, likely because there hadn’t been a live show at the Wells since January 2020.

As the title indicates, Tropical Secrets is very much about this world – historical racism rather than the Moonbeam brand. With the 83rd anniversary of Kristallnacht falling on November 9, during the run of the show, Engle’s story will be very much in season. We really begin with that cataclysmic 1938 event in Nazi Germany, which prompts Daniel’s family to rush the 11-year-old onto an ocean liner bound for New York, where they all plan to reunite and live happily ever after.

Except that the USA turns the ship away from its ports – all of them – because there are Jews on board. Canada does the same. Hello, Havana! How in this wide world will Daniel’s family find their boy now?

Miracles aren’t likely here, and you can rule out rewinds. Meanwhile, with little more than an overcoat and a flute, little Daniel must find ways to survive and fit in. Paloma and Daniel bridge the gap between languages and cultures far more easily than their elders, but Daniel finds a link to his heritage in crusty old David, played by Tom Scott, a Yiddish-speaking ice cream vendor who sports a gaudy yarmulke.

“It’s also a very emotional show,” Lee tells Higginbotham, “a Holocaust show, so you’ve got police officers who are bursting in and yelling, there’s scary emotional outburst moments, so I can definitely see that there are these big impactful things.”2021~Tropical Secrets-32

Together with our dip into Yiddish and repeated Judaic references, Paloma has her own story – and considerable depths. She is our gateway into Cuban culture and the Afro-Cuban beat. Daniel will discard his flute for a drum and jam with percussionist Raphael Torn, who will also play the vibraphone. Topping that outbreak of rhythm and dance, there’s a full-fledged carnival scene.

Yes, there is sensory richness aplenty in Tropical Secrets – and the kid protagonists are sharp. Explaining to Paloma what living Jewish was like back in Munich, Daniel says, “In Germany, you have to wear a star on your shirt, so everyone can know what you are and hate you for it.”

Paloma’s dad is El Gordo, played by Frank Dominguez, the notorious decider when it comes to which ships are allowed to dock in Havana and which are turned away. Defending his wartime profiteering, El Gordo schools his daughter: “The world runs on business!” With no less conviction, Paloma looks her dad straight in the eye and fires back, “The world runs on kindness!

Emotional.

Impactful as Tropical Secrets will be, part of Higginbotham’s job will be to prep the able actors onstage for what to expect from their ultra-sensitive, surprise-averse audience – especially when volume has been trimmed to 75% or less and houselights turned down to half. They will see their audience more clearly than they did at previous performances. There will be fewer kids out there, socially distanced and maybe moving around or fidgeting. It may be jarring to look out into the audience and see kids talking back to the actors or wearing headphones. Or holding their hands over their ears. Or not making eye contact.

They might not even clap.

Parents will need to show proof of vaccination to enter the Wells for Tropical Secrets, but they won’t need to bring doctor’s notes or medical records for the Sensory-Friendly finale. Nor will this be an entirely special-needs crowd.

“Some folks prefer the softer presentation,” Higginbotham explains. “Some parents feel it gives their kids more freedom, and some folks can only get tickets for the Sunday matinee!”

If all goes according to plan, Higginbotham’s guides for parents and children will go out to all ticketholders on November 8, giving families six days to prepare.

Ilana was impressed by both Birthday Suit guides, but she didn’t see them as particularly useful for her Tyler, whom she describes as falling in the mild-to-moderate range of the autistic spectrum. Medication also helps him in tolerating sensory irritants.2021~Ilana Visits-22

“I don’t think Brynn or Tyler would’ve benefited,” Ilana says of the illustrated guide, “and it may actually have detracted from their experience. In children’s theatre, anything that dampens the surprise and wonder of a performance wouldn’t be optimal for my kids. And the show itself didn’t have anything too jarring (sensory-wise) that we would’ve needed to warn him about.”

On the other hand, My Wonderful Birthday Suit was far more palatable to Tyler than his previous theatre experience at Sesame Street Live! in 2019.

“Brynn loved it, but it was too loud and glitzy for Tyler,” Mom recalls. “Crazy loud, confetti storm, etc. We had to buy him off with a snow cone to get him through it.”

Higginbotham points out that the guides aren’t merely handy in preparing kids for Sensory-Friendly Performances, they also help in revisiting and remembering what they’ve seen. That can happen soon after the theatre experience is over or before the next theatre experience, when parents want to pique their children’s interest and anticipation.

“I showed Tyler the Child’s Guide,” Ilana wrote me, “and he was very excited and asked if you had sent pictures of the stage. Then he asked if I could send him screenshots of his 3 favorite pictures. Why? ‘Because they’re beautiful!’”

Unforeseen as that reaction might be, it’s what Higginbotham aims for.

“People need the freedom to be exactly who they need to be,” she says, “and to be able to feel like they’re supported. And man, we can’t predict everything, but we try. They need a non-judgment zone that I defend to the death. How can I help you be you? That’s my job.”

Big Names and Big Sound Mark Symphony’s Return to Mainstream Programming

Review: Charlotte Symphony Plays Beethoven’s Fourth

 By Perry Tannenbaum

Vaccinated, boostered, masked, and carded, we’re all starting to feel more comfortable at public events these days. Charlotte Symphony had more than twice the number of musicians onstage on Friday night at Knight Theater, compared with just a couple of months ago. Social distancing is suddenly an ancient artifact. The stranger who presumed she could safely poach my seat at intermission readily took consolation by poaching the empty seat right next to me. Christopher Warren-Green felt so much at ease that, instead of scrounging for orchestral pieces that could be credibly performed by a reduced number of masked and distanced musicians, he stuck with a program of Mozart, Beethoven, and Prokofiev – returning to brand-name white male composers who have been dead for at least 65 years. And in a show of restraint that was unthinkable at the beginning of Symphony’s 2021-22 season, subscribers didn’t feel obliged to give every piece a standing ovation and every movement applause.

Premiered in 1918, Sergei Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony No. 1 actually qualifies as an antique. Looking back to Josef Haydn and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov for inspiration, with a third-movement Gavotte that the composer reworked for his 1935 Romeo and Juliet, the aim of the “Classical” was to straddle old and new styles. Warren-Green took a more delicate and reposeful view of the work than the one we find in the acclaimed London Symphony collection of Prokofiev’s seven symphonies conducted by Valery Gergiev. The joy of the work was also arguably purer at Knight Theater than that recording if you find Gergiev’s accelerated tempos more than slightly manic.

There was more than sufficient zest and high-stepping marching spirit in the opening Allegro con brio for the delicate episodes to stand out in relief. Lovely orchestral textures were lavished on the ensuing Larghetto, with principal Victor Wang and fellow flutist Amy Orsinger Whitehead peeping through to admirable effect. The CSO actually made better sense of the Gavotte than either of the recordings in my collection by the National Orchestra of the Ukraine and Gergiev’s London Symphony, starting out with a mock grandeur and ending a stealthy impish exit, better than the usual awkward afterthought. The purity of Warren-Green’s concept was especially apt in the joy emanating from the Molto Vivace final movement, where the composer made a special point of avoiding minor chords.

Although Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 is the marquee piece now, Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto had top billing when it was last performed at the Knight in 2016 by guest soloist Michael Collins – interestingly enough, paired with selections from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Charlotte native Taylor Marino was the soloist this time around. Maybe that was the reason that the Concerto surrendered top billing to the Symphony, but there was no surrender in quality. In the opening Allegro, Marino quickly demonstrated why he won numerous concerto competitions before joining Charlotte Symphony as principal clarinetist in 2019. Here there was ample drama from the orchestra behind Marino’s virtuosity, maintaining a brisk, effervescent tempo that subsided effectively into a sedate whimper.

The lovely Adagio, singled out in Amadeus as the quintessence of Mozart’s genius, was absolutely exquisite in Marino’s hands, answered richly by the lower strings and woodwinds. I can never help reminiscing, when I hear this concerto, about the shining moment in 2004 when I heard it played by Martin Fröst on a basset horn at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, conducted by Ton Koopman. There was no applause or standing ovation here, but a couple of people sitting behind me could be heard marveling. The concluding Rondo: Allegro was only a slight anticlimax after such sublimity, for Marino’s virtuosity shone brightly again, and the bassoons added extra punch as we rounded toward intermission.

Between the heroic Symphony No. 3 and the mighty No. 5, Beethoven’s No. 4 can be seen as a merry middleweight. Returning from intermission without a score, Warren-Green wanted us to be in on Ludwig’s prank, making the Adagio opening to the first movement extra grave before it broke through to the galloping panache of its dominant Allegro vivace section. Violins snapped off phases with whiplash sharpness, the trumpets added steel while the flutes frolicked. The languid Adagio never quite lapsed into lullaby as the bumptious trumpets maintained patrol – with more restlessness from the lower strings and principal timpanist Jacob Lipham, while Wang on flute was an island of lyricism. Acting principal bassoonist Joshua Hood earned a subsequent curtain call from Warren-Green in the cheerful Allegro vivace, heckling the cheerleading strings. Yet the violins had the emphatic last word in the closing Allegro ma non troppo, busily sawing when they weren’t dominating. The cellos and the double basses only momentarily stole their thunder in preparing us for the ultimate climax.

Looking ahead, the concert was a fine bridge to the weightier fare that lies in front of us, as the 2021-22 season builds toward a Mahler symphony and Beethoven’s Ninth.

Originally published on 11/21 at CVNC.org

The Bechtler Ensemble’s Birthday Beatles Is a Big Hit

Review: The Bechtler Ensemble Plays The Beatles

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Celebrating her father’s 80th birthday, Tanja Bechtler and her string quartet found a charming way to mark the occasion, commissioning composer/arranger Mark Adam Watkins to produce a bouquet of a dozen new Beatle song arrangements for the Bechtler Ensemble. The gift was presented in the form of a world premiere concert, part of the Music and Museum series at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, where Andreas Bechtler, founder of the Museum, sat proudly and happily in the front row. Making the concert even more of an artsy (and family) affair, Polaroid shots of the Bechtler family taken by Andy Warhol in 1973 – and the artworks that resulted from them – were projected on the upstage wall, during the musicmaking and during Tanja’s meticulously researched remarks on the tunes and arrangements.

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Watkins’ arrangements gave due deference to the leader of the Bechtler Ensemble’s instrument, the cello, but they were remarkably even-handed in offering extended opportunities for violist Vasily Gorkovoy and second violinist Tatiana Karpova to excel. Lenora Leggatt on first violin hardly eclipsed her cohorts, so evenly were the labors divided, and guitarist Bob Teixeira joined this Fab Four on a couple of the tunes, becoming an honorary Fifth Bechtler.

Watkins lists Beyoncé, Al Jarreau, and Lou Rawls most prominently among his previous collaborations, but it quickly became apparent that he knew his way around arranging for string quartet. On the other hand, arrangements of “Eleanor Rigby,” “Let It Be,” and “Live and Let Die” underscored how much classical influence already infused the original Top 40 hits. Lesser known selections like “Julia,” “Norwegian Wood,” and “Blackbird” supplanted such imperishable earworms as “Yesterdays,” “Lady Madonna,” and “Penny Lane” in the Ensemble’s survey, making the daughter’s gift to her father more heartfelt and personal. Oftentimes in her intros, Tanja would also spotlight phrases or sections of a lyric that were meaningful for her.

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Not at all surprisingly, the Ensemble started off with one of the Beatles’ most familiar tunes, George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun,” the most streamed song on Spotify by the British rockers. Conceived as a song celebrating the joyous arrival of spring after “a long cold lonely winter,” Watkins seemed to imagine a more instantaneous scenario, sprinkling a series of pizzicatos across his quartet and then launching the melody from Bechtler’s cello as the plucking subsided – like his sun was emerging after rain showers. The melody itself never quite made it up to the violins as Gorkovoy carried us forward on viola, but there was a radiant aura of violins as the arrangement crested to its zenith.

Notorious for its cryptic and surreal John Lennon lyric – and its infusion of Eastern sitar by Harrison – “Norwegian Wood” became even friskier in Watkins’ hands as the bridge of the song, lugubriously slowed down by Bechtler, circled back to a lively intro that reminded me of a Latin street dance. Gorkovoy and Leggatt restarted the song, handing the melody back and forth until Bechtler checked back in. The Latin syncopation hung around stealthily in various guises underneath, maybe a sly suggestion of the song’s extramarital origin.

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There were other instances where Watkins reacted as thoughtfully to the lyric as to the music. Paul McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby” began very low in the cello with a mournful gliss from Bechtler, reminding us that the song was a breakthrough for a pop music confection in dealing with the loneliness and depression of the elderly. The inchoate intro of “Imagine,” as Bechtler pointed out, was like a blind groping for a melody – the cello seemed to hit the tune tentatively, and suddenly when it found the path, the sound became achingly sweet. “Revolution” started out like the four instruments were an inarticulate, unruly mob, but the melody lightened to a relaxed Western swing groove when Gorkovoy played it over volleys of triplets – as far from angry as Lennon’s lyric was from supporting violent revolution. When the violins took it to the next level, corresponding with Lennon’s “don’t you know it’s going to be,” the pulse was so swift that it sounded like the Gypsy jazz that violinist Stephane Grappelli pioneered with Romani guitarist Django Reinhardt. Karpova played the full-out licks, soaring high into the treble while Leggatt bowed ferociously behind her.

Hints of jazz lightened a couple of other Watkins arrangements. There was a bluesy boogie-woogie insistence from Bechtler, churning like the pistons of a locomotive or an R&B combustion engine, under the blend of the higher strings in McCartney’s “Drive My Car.” We nearly ended in jubilation when we reached the repeated “beep beep yeah” exclamations, but a wicked decelerating gliss instigated by Bechtler on her cello hinted instead that the car may have comically run out of gas. Karpova had the loveliest variants on the memorable melody of “Michelle,” the song McCartney serenaded the First Lady with at the White House, before Gorkovoy and Leggatt had a nice exchange over Bechtler’s jazzy pizzicato.

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Teixeira first appeared with the Ensemble to enrich the very classical-sounding rendition of McCartney’s “Let It Be,” and he returned, logically enough, for the grand finale, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Bechtler came most beautifully to the fore starting the melody, Leggatt was a fine exponent of the first violin’s role, and Karpova shone in some truly sublime treble, but Teixeira’s guitar was mostly relegated to a subservient strumming role, nothing at all like Eric Clapton’s electric exploits on the Beatles famed White Album. The Bechtler Museum’s lobby, where I was hearing my first classical concert after many amplified jazz concerts, wasn’t as kind to Teixeira’s acoustic guitar as it was to the other string instruments onstage. Bechtler, in fact, sounded far richer here on her cello than I’d heard her many times before upstairs at the Museum. Hopefully, Music and Museum will continue downstairs alongside the Jazz at the Bechtler series, but I hope more care will be taken in the future the next time Teixeira is called upon to mesh with the Bechtler Ensemble’s wonderful ecology.

Originally published on 11/14 at CVNC.org

Major and Minor Keys and Composers Besprinkle NC Baroque’s “Les fontaines de Versailles”

Review: Les fontaines de Versailles – Music @ St. Alban’s

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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Yet another classical music ensemble, the North Carolina Baroque Orchestra, has joyfully returned to the stage and the thrill of live performance. Led by Frances Blaker, who also presided as emcee and took a turn as a recorder soloist, the authentic-instrument players assembled at Sharon Presbyterian Church, which has happily returned to hosting and sponsoring concerts in their sanctuary. The title of the concert, “Les fontaines de Versailles,” deftly signaled that the baroque offerings would not be limited to works by the usual German and Italian suspects. Aside from pieces by Handel, Telemann, Vivaldi and Albinoni, we heard music by Michel-Richard de Lalande, André Campra, Johann Fasch, Michel Corrette, and Jean-Philippe Rameau. Lalande’s Les fontaines de Versailles wasn’t the pièce de resistance of the evening, but it certainly keynoted the multiple infusions of Gallic flavor into the program.

2021~NC Baroque-14Georg Friedrich Handel’s “Overture to Alessandro” was likely the most familiar composition on a warhorse-free playlist, so there were multiple reasons for us sitting in the Sharon Presbyterian pews to experience frissons of pleasure. We could be surprised by the unexpected familiarity of the music or by how wonderful a live baroque orchestra sounded in a sanctuary after more than a year-and-a-half of being deprived of the satisfaction. This place was what this kind of music was for, though the complete Alessandro was a somewhat comical opera of royal intrigue with Alexander the Great in the middle of a romantic triangle. Violins were at the center of the gorgeous orchestral texture at the start of the Overture, its stately gait blooming emphatically and effortlessly throughout the hall. Tempos sped up and slowed with an ebb and flow that suggested the full opera in miniature – responses by the wind instruments growing boldest in the swift episode before the music settled into its ultimate repose.2021~NC Baroque-02

Lalande’s little gem, with grand treble harmonies from trilling winds over dancing strings in 3/4 meter, was actually nestled between two multi-movement concertos by Georg Philipp Telemann and Antonio Vivaldi. Each of these concertos, in turn, featured multiple soloists. In Telemann’s E Minor Concerto for Recorder and Flute, TWV 52:e1, Blaker teamed with flutist Kathleen Kraft on the first two movements of the four-movement work. The opening Largo had a more balanced interplay between the soloists, with exquisitely intertwined melodies and harmonies, but Kraft was clearly at the forefront in the ensuing Allegro, delightfully fleet in her playing with Blaker surfacing most deliciously when her recorder blended with the virtuosic flute.

Vivaldi’s D Major Concerto for two violins and two cellos, RV 564, was presented in its entirety, two Allegro movements separated by a shorter Largo. Blaker added some engaging showmanship by calling upon a different pair of violinists for each movement, thereby showcasing most of the section. Tom Lajoie and concertmaster Martie Perry, playing the violin solos in the brisk opening movement, with churning violins and foreboding cellos behind them, proved to be a tough act to follow. The Largo, pairing violinists David Wilson and Janelle Davis, reminded me of Vivaldi’s most familiar Mandolin Concerto, and the closing Allegro brought us spirited exchanges between Annie Loud and Steph Zimmerman – with cellists Alexa Hanes-Pilon and Lisa Liske making their most distinctive contributions.

After a halved intermission that Blaker proclaimed would be seven-and-a-half minutes, NC Baroque demonstrated that multi-movement pieces would not be devoted exclusively to famous composers. Gleaned from Campra’s three-act comédie-lyrique of 1699, Le Carnaval de Venise, the ensemble played four instrumental excerpts, shuttling between slow and fast. The Ouverture began as a stately processional before the winds began mimicking the accelerated strings in canonical fashion, gliding into a dignified slowdown. Two “Airs pour les Arts” followed, the second noticeably swifter than the first, and then a “Marche de la Fortune” for the Followers of Fortune, achingly slow and mesmerizing. Two passe-pieds offered joyous compensation for this lull, closing out this charming sampler, both of them very sprightly, bringing smiles to those faces that weren’t masked.2021~NC Baroque-10

Looking forward to the oncoming classical period, Fasch’s Allegro, from his three-movement Concerto Grosso in D minor, FaWV L:d7, was the pleasant little departure that Blaker promised, retaining many baroque traits with its woodwind filigree, yet more homophonic in its string textures. At times, the wind voicings sounded almost brassy. In the French segment that followed, Blaker and the orchestra began with the “Rondeau – Danse exécutée par les sauvages” from Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes and moved smoothly into Corrette’s “Carillon des Mortes.” Compared with the most outré moments of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Rameau’s Danse was not savage at all, rather formal, and the alternate title, “Danse du Grand Calumet de la Paix,” is more accurately descriptive of this Rondeau, which was nearly as familiar to me as the Handel selection. Similarly, the back and forth of flutes in the Corrette composition was rather blandly descriptive compared to more percussive evocations of bells by modern composers. All in all, there was an amusing quaintness and restraint to these paired programmatic ventures.

Albinoni’s Sinfonia in G minor for two flutes, two oboes, bassoon and strings, Si 7, was a great way to conclude this concert, though I wondered why the wind soloists didn’t come downstage as Blaker and Kraft had done. On an I Solisti Veneti compilation of 12 concertos and three Sinfonias, conducted by Claudio Scimone, this G minor also concludes that program, so its appeal is far from subtle – which was likely why we heard much of the finest playing of the night in these three delectable movements, the whole of this petite symphony. Liveliness was apparent in the first notes of the Allegro, featuring some choice exchanges between bassoonists Chuck Wines and Hanes-Pilon, who abandoned her cello here. Flutes separated themselves melodiously from the full ensemble in the ensuing Larghetto e sempre piano, offered up in beguiling 3/4 time. We finished with what sounded like the fastest Allegro of the night, with especially dazzling ensemble bowing from the violins. This was not only a joyous return for NC Baroque, it was also a reaffirmation that Charlotte, with a return of our Bach Festival looming in 2022, is a hotbed for this music.

Originally published on 11/12 at CVNC.org

“My Dinner With Andrea” Takes Feminism to the Limit

Review: My Dinner With Andrea from Charlotte’s Off-Broadway

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Thanks largely to Anne Lambert and Charlotte’s Off-Broadway, the Queen City’s fiercest proponent of homegrown professional theatre and her spunky little company, we have now seen two provocative new plays by her sister, Susan Lambert Hatem. Not surprisingly, since Lambert is also a founding member of Chickspeare – “all female, all Shakespeare, all the time” was their catchphrase – both of the Hatem plays we’ve seen have been spiritedly feminist.

Lambert directed Confidence (And the Speech) at Spirit Square in 2018 and now takes on the title role in My Dinner With Andrea. Charlotte’s Off- Broadway has moved off-Tryon to The Arts Factory, the stand-in of choice so far for resident theatre companies at Spirit Square while that facility is reconfigured. In Confidence, we had a former presidential aide who was willing to recount her role in crafting Jimmy Carter’s “Crisis of Confidence speech, but only on the condition that she and her questioner playact the narrative – with her playing the President and the questioner portraying the aide, a role and gender reversal.

Like Confidence, Hatem’s new play is a reaction to the 2016 election. You might presume that an initial reaction would be angry and visceral, leading subsequently to a more reasoned and pragmatic response. This playwright is flipping that order. She’s angrier, more irrational and visceral now than she was three years ago.

Then her heroine was an academic who helped Hatem juxtapose Jimmy Carter’s reasoned, cautious, calculated, and inclusive methods of policy- and decision-making with the infamous 45’s. Furthermore, she showed us how naturally a woman (could the playwright have had Hillary in mind?) would fit into that more intelligent, deliberate, and statesman-like mold.

The anger and impulsiveness of My Dinner With Andrea indicate that there’s more than a little 2020 in Hatem’s fuel tank, firing up her engine. It wouldn’t be too far-fetched to say that Andrea, portrayed by the playwright’s sister, is a female Donald. Or an amalgam of the two 2016 candidates? A devious entrepreneurial maniac who is more ambitious than 45, more pragmatic and intelligent, and less likely to run off the rails and flame out.

After tasting the bitter fruit of whistleblowing, Julia Grace Brandt is a research scientist who can use a job that utilizes her talents without compromising her integrity. She agrees to meet with an old, somewhat estranged friend, Andrea Ranger, who has become a renowned A-lister, on a first-name basis with Serena Williams, multitudes of glitterati, and key influencers. Divorced twice, if I counted correctly, with no kids – and no-thank-you on the subject of motherhood.

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Andrea’s next great entrepreneurial target, one that Julia is supremely equipped to spearhead, is the development of a wondrous vaccine, distributed globally, that will wipe cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s from the face of the earth. Lurking behind those wonders will be a genetic side-effect of ridding mankind of men – or at least skewing the female-to-male birthrate ratio from 50-50 to a more comfortable 70-30, if not north of that.

“The future is female,” Andrea says, not kidding at all, though the phrase is familiar. As happens occasionally in dystopian sci-fi epics, she wishes to speed the process.

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Certainly, there are sufficient urgent crises facing humanity – and more than sufficient patriarchy screwups – to justify Andrea’s design and haste. Likewise, there are reasons why the highly principled Julia will sit there, hear Andrea out, and negotiate rather than simply walking away. For one, the fabulously wealthy Andrea will very likely make a fabulous salary offer to her old friend. More immediately – and temptingly – they are meeting at Miesha, the most chichi restaurant in all of Atlanta, and Andrea is having their waiter, William, bring out every single delicacy on the menu, from the appetizers to the desserts.

The meal of a lifetime for an unemployed lesbian.

So yes, the resemblance between My Dinner With Andrea and the 1981 movie, My Dinner With André (written by and starring André Gregory and Wallace Shawn), isn’t accidental. Hatem’s script is more purposeful, confrontational, and sexual, a pretty explosive combo in a space as small and intimate as The Arts Factory.

Utilizing the ubiquitous cellphone of 2021, Hatem can brief us on the upcoming action by simply having Julia confide in her partner by phone as she waits for Andrea to make a fashionably late entrance. Back in 1981, we needed Shawn’s voiceover, as he walked toward the restaurant, to clue us in.

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As the posh dinner and job offer unfold, Julia faces a couple of moral dilemmas informed by Hatem’s astute reading of 2020 and the Trump Era. Most obvious is the quandary that many who signed on to 45’s heinous administration ultimately faced. Should I risk soiling my reputation by joining this malignant organization, compartmentalize my work into the good that it might accomplish, and try to curb or sabotage its leader’s megalomaniacal schemes? Or should I distance myself from this creep as far as possible?

If Julia actually takes home Andrea’s prospectus and considers her devil’s bargain, she will probably be gauging her chances of subverting her vaccine development enterprise so that only good comes out of it. Or she may be simply fortifying her powers of self-delusion, finding excuses for allowing herself to be bought off, and placing herself in danger of being outfoxed by Andrea and other members of her brain trust, making her a duped accomplice in their diabolical scheme.

Adding some West Wing gravity to this tête-à-tête, Andrea has Julia ink a non-disclosure agreement before revealing how she plans to change the world. Enhancing the intrigue and giving us a little foreshadowing, William assists in preserving confidentiality by ceremoniously relieving Julia of her cellphone – and her smartwatch. We may think Andrea’s security concerns are frivolous and overblown, but then Julia suddenly comes face-to-face with her second moral dilemma, a climactic #MeToo moment that hatches more confrontation and dispute.

Echoes of that moment reverberated with me during the drive home, for I kept thinking how the incident would sit with Julia on her drive home and when she talked things over with her partner. Does what just happened potentially give her extra leverage down the road if she accepts Andrea’s job offer?

Tracie Frank plays Julia with such elegant cool that I could easily imagine her factoring this possible leverage into her ultimate calculus, for if the world isn’t in such dire straits that Andrea’s remedies are truly necessary, it could be if the psychopath makes headway. Maybe director Marla Brown could have called upon Frank to devour the culinary delights arrayed before her with more gusto to point up her susceptibility to temptation, but we see more than enough Epicurean enthusiasm to suspect there might be chinks in her armor. Frank’s is a nicely calibrated performance when you weigh it accurately, with the simmering rage of an unrepentant whistleblower often lurking beneath the surface.

Lambert has the juicier role as Andrea, seemingly with a green light to go all the way to a “Hillarump” Hillary+Trump if she pleases. Yes, we see her regally dangling all sorts of perks in front of her prey, flexing her wealth, but she also has a shrewd respect for Julia’s scruples, sees that bribery needs to be supplemented with down-to-earth charm and statistical persuasion to have her way. Brown doesn’t rein Lambert in to the extent that her confidence in emerging victorious – now at the restaurant and ultimately in the future – ever seems to wane, but she definitely credits Julia with being a formidable and admirable antagonist.

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Matt Howie rounds out the cast as William, nicely complementing his elders. His youth and suave servility give a nice edge to Andrea’s cougar tendencies while cloaking her true motives, and his smiling condescension subtly puts Julia in her place – maybe steeling her spine.

While My Dinner With Andrea compares favorably with My Dinner With André – and with her earlier Confidence – I do wish Hatem had been more thorough in her research, which would have made this Dinner richer in its logistics. Male birthrates actually outpace female birthrates in today’s world, particularly in Asian countries where cultural influences and social engineering are in play, skewing the numbers. You can compound the steepness of that climb with other hills, including the FDA, the CDC, and anti-vaxxers.

How would Andrea outmaneuver and circumvent all those obstacles? Concrete answers would certainly bring this archvillain’s fiendishness to a loftier level. Asking those questions would also sharpen Julia’s acumen.

Fully embracing those considerations, a Dinner 2.0 could be a provocative knockout. Meanwhile, without fully sweating the details, Hatem’s lively play certainly begins offers us a different path to discarding democracy for the sake of a better tomorrow. Sadly, it also makes more sense than the path pursued by 45’s insurrectionists.

Anthem, Summer, and Winter Bring Enthusiastic Charlotte Symphony Audience to Its Feet

Review: CSO Plays Vivaldi’s Four Seasons

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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Charlotte Symphony had plenty to celebrate as their 2021-22 Classical Series began: they were playing on the Knight Theater stage for the first time since February 2020, they were beginning what is expected to be their first full season since 2018-19, it’s their 90th season, and it’s maestro Christopher Warren-Green’s farewell season as CSO’s musical director. Happy as Warren-Green and all the musicians appeared to be, there was no hiding that the return was not altogether smooth. The disconnect between what brochures in the lobby said the orchestra would be playing and the reality was fairly dramatic. All three of the selections originally scheduled in the “Russian Masters” program – including a Shostakovich symphony, a Glinka overture, and Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, featuring Paul Huang – were dropped. Now we were three-quarters Italian, with works by Ottorino Respighi, Pietro Mascagni, and Heinrich von Biber served up before intermission and Huang switching off to Antonio Vivaldi’s beloved Four Seasons after the break.

When last season belatedly opened back in May at Belk Theater, in front of a socially-distanced audience, I wondered whether Warren-Green would honor Symphony’s tradition of playing our National Anthem to mark the first live concert. He declined then, and it seemed quite possible that he would hold off yet again, since the vaccinated audience, masked but no longer distanced, would be obliged to stand and sing together. But the mood was different now. Concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu preceded the maestro to the stage, gesturing so victoriously that you would have thought the orchestra had won the Super Bowl. After Warren-Green told us how glad he and his orchestra were to be playing to a live audience once again, he indeed turned sideways to cue the drumroll for the Anthem. As we stood together singing, rounding into the final eight bars, Warren-Green’s previous hesitance felt justified. For after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the January 6 invasion of the nation’s Capitol, the affirmation that “our flag was still there” was more vivid now in a closely bunched crowd, suddenly fresh and renewed.

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All of the pieces that Warren-Green followed up with were musically descriptive in some fashion. Respighi chose three masterworks by Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli for his Trittico botticelliano. The first, “La Primavera (Spring),” offered a tasty comparison with the opening Vivaldi concerto, light and airy with little solo passages that reintroduced us to the orchestra’s worthy principals playing French horn, trumpet, celesta, glockenspiel, flute, and reeds. Beauty and liveliness were nicely counterpoised in the steady, brisk tempo until the strings imposed their serenity. “L’Adorazione dei Magi (The Adoration of the Magi)” belied its expected bustle and ecstasy as it began, dark and solemn as acting principal Joshua Hood began on the bassoon and principal oboist Hollis Ulaky layered on. After some lovely runs by principal flutist Victor Wang, the middle of this movement did become more hectic and dramatic, keyed by harp and percussion, with a gently quickened tempo as the strings asserted themselves. Wang returned to the forefront at the start of the climactic “La nascita di Venere (The Birth of Venus),” surely Botticelli’s greatest hit, but the slow massing and building of the judiciously trimmed string section, forcefully topped by the violins, was the prime wonder in this satisfying ending.

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With unerring instinct, Warren-Green programmed Mascagni’s “Intermezzo from Cavelleria Rusticana” between the more substantial Respighi and Biber compositions so the three-minute piece for strings and harp played like an interlude as originally intended. The throbbing harp gave this lyrical gem a heartbeat, while the singing strings made it affecting like an aria. Now it was time for some fun as Warren-Green reveled in introducing Biber’s Battalia à 10, an eight-part evocation of warfare with some astonishing quirks. Most of these were novel ways that the musicians were called upon to replicate percussion instruments, beginning with the entire ensemble stamping their feet. Fingerboards of the basses and cellos were wrapped in paper and rapped with bows to simulate marching drums in the “Mars” section while Lupanu impersonated the piper on his violin. “Bartók slaps” were inflicted on the basses to mimic canon fire in the climactic “Battle” section, made more bizarre when the cellists turned their instruments sideways like guitars – with added mock drama when the harpsichordist fainted comically over her keyboard. Vying with this spectacle for the most memorable aspect of Battalia – and certainly the most modernistic – was the Bohemian composer’s second movement, “The lusty society of all types of humor.” Evoking the drunkenness of a teeming tavern, Biber split his little ensemble into four parts, each one playing a different song and blithely oblivious to the others. Warren-Green half-turned to us during this unspeakable cacophony and gave a little shrug.

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Returning to Charlotte for the first time since his Symphony debut two years ago, when he played the Dvořák Violin Concerto, Huang did not pale at all in comparison with the charismatic Aisslinn Nosky when she played – and conducted – The Four Seasons in 2018, the last time it had been presented here. The magnificent tone Huang achieved on his coveted 1742 “ex-Wieniawski” Guarneri del Gesù instrument was nearly as impressive as his fleet-fingered virtuosity and intensity. Even on normal occasions, recordings do not nearly capture the excitement of a live Four Seasons performance. On opening night, the pent-up hunger of this audience was palpable enough for the soloist, the musicians, and Warren-Green to feed off, and in the most turgid moments of these four familiar concertos, there was a feverish frenzy to the onset of the wind and storms that Vivaldi brings on. After the final notes of “Summer,” the crowd sprang to their feet, either electrified by Huang’s bravura or convinced that nothing could possibly follow what they had just heard. There are 12 movements, after all, so any confusion was easily forgiven – and the string players also joined the ovation, tapping their bows.

Yet there was more to come, including some nifty double bowing from Huang in the first movement of “Autumn” and a sprinkling of “Bartók slaps” from the upright basses in the last. Nor was “Winter” at all anticlimactic as Huang reached hyperintensity once again as Sirocco and Boreas engaged in windy combat. The final standing ovation was no less deserved than the previous outburst, and it lasted longer.

Cox and Beilman Play the Changes, Guesting with CSO

Review: Charlotte Symphony Plays Wagner, Mozart, and Brahms

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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Holding our collective breaths, subscribers can hope that the current Charlotte Symphony program represents the last retreats from the fare originally announced for the 2021-22 season. Although Richard Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll replaced Zoltan Kodály’s Dances of Galánta and Johannes Brahms’ Serenade No. 2 replaced his Symphony No. 3, we still had guest conductor Roderick Cox and guest soloist Benjamin Beilman, though Beilman needed to be as flexible as the orchestra, switching from the Charlotte premiere of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Violin Concerto to Mozart’s “Turkish” Violin Concerto No. 5. Of course, Brahms himself might have laughed out loud at the hasty substitution, since he had been so famously averse to attempting a symphony while Beethoven’s shadow still loomed so large. Compounding the hilarity, the Serenade No. 2 may have been historic, possibly the first closing piece at a Symphony Classics Series concert to be played without violins onstage.

Written for his wife, Cosima, in 1870 and later dedicated to their son upon publication, Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll isn’t extracted from any of his operas, though the music sometimes smacks of themes from The Ring cycle, especially Siegfried. It begins intimately enough, with a quiet string quartet, comprised of principals from the string sections, with concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu unmistakably the lead voice. So audience members at Knight Theater could easily imagine the romantic story of the music’s informal premiere, when Wagner stealthily placed his little orchestra (just 13 on that morning) on the stairway leading to Cosima’s bedroom while she was still sleeping – gradually awakening her as the music swelled. A couple of French horns and a trumpet eventually added force and volume to the composition, and principal oboist Hollis Ulaky played memorably in numerous spots.

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Beilman seemed to be even better matched with the Mozart than he had been with the Beethoven in his 2017 Charlotte debut. Hearing a live performance at this level was more rewarding than listening to my favorite recordings by Arthur Grumiaux, David Oistrakh, and Julia Fischer. By this time, it was quite obvious that Cox had taken the eleventh-hour changes in programming totally in stride, for the introductory orchestral passages of first two movements of the Mozart, an Allegro aperto followed by an Adagio, had a bloom that rivaled the most sublime passages in the Wagner, with no less polish. Beilman’s highest notes had admirable muscle, his pianissimos in that stratosphere were ethereal, and his midrange was as burnished as I had remembered from the Beethoven. The closing Rondeau showed us how truly ingratiating Beilman can be as he genially swayed us in a waltzing 3/4 tempo – then suddenly jerked us out of our comfort zone as he and Cox conspired, nearly halfway in, to bring extra drama to the sudden lurch into the “Turkish” section of this movement and its lively duple tempo. Try counting this section any other way than 1-2, 1-2, 1-2… I couldn’t.

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Unlike so many of the serenades inflicted on us – there, I’ve said it! – during the pandemic, Brahms didn’t limit either of his to strings alone. The Serenade No. 2 includes a full complement of woodwinds and a pair of French horns. Bassoonists Joshua Hood and Naho Zhu were unusually prominent in the reedy opening measures of the Allegro moderato, with flutists Victor Wang and Amy Orsinger Whitehead soon afterwards coming to the forefront. Violins over plucked cellos and basses heightened the intensity and made a pathway for Ulaky on oboe to shine again. Rigidly on-the-beat handling his stick, Cox made the ensuing Scherzo: Vivace more march-like than the acclaimed Michael Tilson Thomas recording, but the rhythmic thrust and liveliness remained unmistakable.

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Audience members should have noticed by this time that Brahms intended his clarinetists to switch between A, C, and B-flat clarinets over the course of this Serenade. Churning lower strings (remember, there weren’t any violins) ushered in the middle Adagio non troppo movement, but principal woodwind players had sufficient time to leave their imprints, including Ulaky, Wang, and – far in the treble – clarinetist Taylor Marino. With Cox taking a notably sprightly take, the penultimate Quasi menuetto was more of a trinket than the Scherzo had been, Ulaky and Wang excelling once again. Discarding all remaining restraint and tenderness that we might have expected from a Serenade, Cox and Symphony made the closing Rondo a rollicking romp from the first bars, clearly taking aim at compensating for the lack of a symphony on the program. Oboes, clarinets, and horns led the charge, with the low strings high-stepping right behind them. Erinn Frechette finally had chances to tweedle on her piccolo as the winds reached their maximum effervescence, but the congregation of strings eventually had their say, building to a satisfying ending.