Hamilton Sparks a Feeding Frenzy – and Justifies It

Review:  Hamilton

By Perry Tannenbaum

Have you seen it? Does anybody have tickets?

Those seem to be the big questions now that the Philip Tour of Hamilton has rolled into Charlotte, and Belk Theater is the room where it happens. Unless you can find somebody who will let go of them, or you’re willing to take on the dates – and the prices – for the few stray tickets Blumenthal Performing Arts can still sell, the hottest Broadway Lights tickets in Queen City history are gone. A daily lottery gives you 40 shots at the prize for each performance. By all means enter it if you’re unwilling to abandon all hope.

So unlike most reviews that I file, this one isn’t for people on the fence. People jumped off that fence on August 1, when available tickets sold out in less than six hours. This review is more for readers who wish to know how good the tour is, and how well it compares with the original in New York and the replacement cast at the Richard Rodgers Theater that carries on now.

It is, of course, axiomatic that Hamilton is great. With book, music, and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show has sparked a feeding frenzy at every box office in every theater where it has played – and jaw-dropping prices for its top tier VIP tickets. We’re Americans, after all, fervently devoted to the capitalist system founded by Alexander Hamilton. Financial success and buyer enthusiasm are our current gold standards.

For the record, I was somewhat ambivalent about the New York production – and only scantly prepared. The experience was unparalleled, sporting the most palpable audience energy and involvement I’ve experienced. But the disorientation that this musical can produce is also unparalleled, even if you’ve braced yourself for it.

Face it, rap music is a wildly discordant idiom for the era and the epic biography that Miranda plunges us into, more so for anyone like me who doesn’t ingest hefty helpings of rap daily. If the life of Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s brainiest forefathers, were turned into a ballet, I’m fairly sure that the choreographer’s dominant style wouldn’t be tap dancing. Seems to me like an apt analogy for what Miranda has done – until you factor in that rap is the musical lingua franca of our time.

Miranda’s rap was the primary obstacle I needed to overcome, not just because of its disconnect with Colonial America but because lyrics often flew by unintelligibly, either because the actors were rattling them off at breakneck speed or audience reaction drowned them out. Might I also venture to hint that a few of the accents fell on the wrong syllable? Although Paul Tazewell’s costumes were a welcome concession to colonial days and helped differentiate among the players, David Korins’ scene design was a brash misnomer, staunchly refusing to yield to the old-school convention of scenery.

When Act 2 began, and Miranda leaned toward comedy with the foppish return of Thomas Jefferson from France, I found myself going with the flow more readily. “What’d I Miss?” and “The Room Where It Happens” seemed to burst open a musical palette that – with the exception of King George’s cameo – had sounded fairly monochromatic to me before intermission. And the breathtaking audacity and irreverence of turning two cabinet-level debates, between Secretary of State Jefferson and Treasury Secretary Hamilton, into absurdly anachronistic poetry slams refereed by George Washington?? Irresistible.

Seeing Hamilton in New York was most of the preparation I needed to enjoy it more in Charlotte. Dipping into the Ron Chernow biography that inspired Miranda’s work quickly proved to be a dead end: there is more historical depth and nuance in the book’s first couple of pages than you’ll find in the entire evening of this Broadway megahit. Maybe more empathy as well, though Miranda also rallies on that dimension in Act 2.

Listening to the cast album on your favorite streaming service will be a better use of your time, training your ears to the rhythms and the pace – while priming you for the intensified concentration that Hamilton demands. I listened repeatedly to first four tracks three or four times, getting the feel of the show without previewing too much of the content. But beware: immersion into Miranda-style rap can leave you with withdrawal symptoms. The following evening, listening to the local news, the weatherman seemed to be rapping as I fixated on the rhythm of his forecast instead of the meaning. Days after that, “Alexander Hamilton” and “My Shot,” the first two songs of the show, proved to be tenacious earworms.

What helped me more than better preparation my second go-round was a better cast. Mind you, when I finally snagged press seats for Hamilton in January 2017, replacements for the original cast had already been replaced. Each of these casts had two actors rotating as Alexander, one of whom subbed on Sundays. Reviewing cast #3, I saw none of the above, just a small-print understudy for the sub. On press night in Charlotte, Joseph Morales was an improvement – if you were looking for a Miranda overachiever rather than a Jimmy Smits heartthrob – prancing around impishly as a revolutionary provocateur, running his mouth pugnaciously whether rallying political allies or refuting his foes, and giving us a gentlemanly susceptibility to every woman who tried to seduce him.

By a smaller margin, I also preferred the saturnine authority and incipient menace that Nik Walker infused into Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s perennial rival and our frequent narrator. Walker’s Burr isn’t merely pragmatic and cunning. He’s dangerous. But what decisively separated the Philip Tour from the Broadway third-stringers were the three women who portrayed the Schuyler Sisters. Shora Narayan is Eliza, the sister Alexander will marry; Ta’Rea Campbell is Angelica, the sister that Alex maybe should have married; and Nyla Sostre is Peggy, the discard – resurfacing after intermission as Maria Reynolds, the siren who lures Alex into a shakedown sex scandal.

Up in New York, the trio emphasized their sisterhood to the extent that I began to suspect Miranda was basing his Schuylers on Diana Ross and the Supremes rather than actual historical figures, mere ploys to simulate diversity. I couldn’t wait to see them vanish. Here the contrast between the innocent, trusting Eliza, and the wiser, more sophisticated Angelica is wonderfully projected in Narayan’s silken plaintive voice juxtaposed with Campbell’s R&B power. Their songs came alive, deepening their individuality; the pain that Alex inflicted upon Eliza became poignant, devastating; and her quiet forgiveness of her wayward husband was an emotional peak.

Both of the remaining Founding Fathers are quite good, but it’s Kyle Scatliffe as Jefferson who threatens to steal the show from the leads each time he parleys his massive voice and his hulking frame with his bodacious dancing skills. His flair for comedy is a perfect match for his flamboyant purple threads. Less imposing is Marcus Choi, who makes George Washington a stern, sometimes avuncular father figure for Alexander. If you had seen Nicholas Christopher* as the father of our country – monumental Mount Rushmore stuff, really – you’d understand why Choi’s Washington was a bit of a letdown.

As for the lone white man among major players in this diverse cast, I couldn’t see the slightest difference between Jon Patrick Walker as King George here in Charlotte and Rory O’Malley as the Broadway monarch, though I suppose Walker is hamming it up a little more for the larger hall. In a sea of anachronisms and stylistic disconnects – Jefferson actually executes a mic drop after one of his raps! – there’s a sensible British tang to King’s “You’ll Be Back” and subsequent variants. Close your eyes and you might hear echoes of Lennon-McCartney ditties during the Beatles’ vintage Sgt. Pepper years. It’s an island of blissful, silly relaxation in a theatre evening of riveting energy and intensity.

*Christopher, you’ll be glad to know, hasn’t vanished from the scene. He has been reincarnated on the other Hamilton tour, the Angelica Tour, as Aaron Burr.

 

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Beethoven’s Fifth Recaptures Its Elemental Fire

Review:  Beethoven’s Fifth

By Perry Tannenbaum

Meeting an anticipated demand, Charlotte Symphony is programming their 2018-19 season opener, Beethoven’s Fifth, for three concerts instead of the usual two – and meeting subscribers’ hopes, they’re playing it beautifully. Leading off their season with an all-Beethoven program, music director Christopher Warren-Green and his ensemble weren’t exactly blazing new trails.

Last fall, Symphony also led off all-Beethoven, playing his mighty Ninth, and followed that program with more Beethoven in two of the next three concerts. So if anything, Symphony is tapering off on their Beethoven offerings this year – but not ignoring their audience’s rabid enthusiasm for his music. What’s impressive is that the musicians have maintained their enthusiasm as well.

A surprisingly small contingent, less than 50 players by my count, came out and played the “Overture to The Ruins of Athens,” one of Beethoven’s less familiar orchestral works, before guest soloist Garrick Ohlsson came out to perform the Piano Concerto No. 4. I couldn’t detect much desolation in The Ruins after its slightly gloomy intro. The first oboe statement was like a dewy sunrise, triggering a burst of orchestral merriment that drew a festive rejoinder from the oboe and jollity from the two flutes fluttering over the bassoons.

Such a charming appetizer! Then a big video screen descended from the Belk Theater proscenium, and the Steinway was wheeled to centerstage.

Ohlsson’s last appearance with Symphony was back in the early ‘90s, long before an overhead shot of the keyboard could disclose the size of this man’s hands for all to see as he attacked the keyboard. Those prodigious digits didn’t quite stop moving long enough for a conclusive measurement, but it sure looked like his pinkies were as large as the black keys. With that view, what was perhaps most impressive about Ohlsson in the first two movements was his delicacy and grace.

The opening Allegro moderato shuttled between swift, powerful passages and soft lyrical episodes. Ohlsson played both admirably, effortlessly, trilling with both hands simultaneously and, in the dramatic cadenza, clearly articulating its counterpoint. Warren-Green asserted himself more noticeably in the middle Andante con moto movement, so that it became a dreamy dialogue.

Every note of the concerto sounded fresh and new – until we slid into the familiar final movement with hardly a pause. Everyone onstage lit into it with gusto, the swift finger work at the start of this Rondo presenting no difficulty at all for Ohlsson, who proved that he was holding his full power in reserve for this celebratory climax. Ebb and flow weren’t so much about tempo here as they were about dynamics. Ohlsson and Warren-Green meshed beautifully to sculpt the loud and soft moments in a most satisfying way.

As the program notes on the concerto pointed out, it was especially fitting that Symphony had paired Piano No. 4 with the Fifth Symphony, for they were both premiered on the same December evening in 1808 – at a concert in Vienna, where Beethoven played and conducted. That marathon event also unveiled the Sixth Symphony, the Choral Fantasy, four movements of the Mass in C, and the “Ah! Perfido” aria for soprano. Although Warren-Green didn’t mention this historic landmark, when Beethoven would play for the last time in public due to approaching deafness, you can bet he was aware of it.

Six years ago, when Warren-Green conducted the concerto for the first time at Belk Theater, he paired it with Symphony No. 4, also in an all-Beethoven concert that launched the season. On that occasion, Warren-Green did mention that the very first time Beethoven performed the piece in a private concert at the palace of his patron Prince Joseph Lobkowitz in March 1807, he also conducted his Fourth Symphony.

This time around, Maestro called our attention to the fateful opening of Symphony No. 5, “the most famous four notes in the history of music,” saying that this was also the most familiar instance of Beethoven utilizing the music of the French Revolution, something he did throughout his career. Well, that pungent insight illuminated the entire symphony for me. Partly because of Warren-Green’s remarks, a piece that I had come to regard – and describe – as the most perfect ever written became freshly infused with its revolutionary spirit and elemental fire. Repeated hearings of recorded performance, I realized, had dimmed that fire for me.

Even in the relatively quiescent third movement, mostly notable for its 3/4 time and exquisite pizzicatos, there are brief outbreaks of revolutionary marching spirit, and afterwards, a gentle thrumming of the seething timpani as the whole simmering string section comes majestically to a boil and explodes – with a mighty entrance of trumpets – into the joyous, triumphant finale.

From the outset, Warren-Green spikes the sforzandos with terrific force, but the opening Allegro also features fine spots by principal oboist Hollis Ulaky and the French hornist to mellow the brew. It’s the trumpets that ignite the revolutionary fervor at the beginning of second movement Andante, exactly the kind of march that Warren-Green’s prefatory remarks suggested, but you’ll also hit a heavenly patch from the cellos that struck me as a foretaste of Wagner’s Rhein at this listen. Wonderful hushes of strings here hit me as one of the underappreciated reasons why we adore Beethoven. Some exquisite work lightly showered from flutists Amy Orsinger Whitehead and principal Victor Wang.

Maybe Erinn Frechette as well. From my vantage point up in the Grand Tier, I didn’t notice her until I heard her amid the tutti of the final Allegro, when she picked up her Little David of instruments, the piccolo. There she was, perfectly obscured in my line of sight behind Warren-Green! By contrast, I had noticed the elephantine contrabassoon lying neglected on its stand all evening. Only when the whole orchestra was wailing underneath Frechette in the symphony’s full-throated climax did I realize that Lori Tiberio had picked up her lumbering Goliath and was playing with everyone else. Why Beethoven had bothered with her and her contrabassoon I couldn’t say, for I cannot claim to have heard a single note.

I’m sure it was there. But I’ll stop short of making another claim, for I’d likely be surrendering a chunk of my judicial credibility if I told you that Beethoven not only wrote more stirring movements than the immortal “Da-da-da-DAA,” but that one of them is just a short distance down the road in the same Fifth Symphony. That’s one key reason why you need to experience this orchestra playing this music in live performance at the Belk.

CP’s Becket Struggles With Loyalty, Faith, and Caring

Review: Becket

By Perry Tannenbaum

When Becket began at Halton Theater this past Sunday afternoon, it struck me as a vast historical tapestry. I was a bit startled to find that I was asking myself, Why didn’t Shakespeare ever take up this story? As Jean Anouilh’s drama rumbled majestically on, however, quite a different question gripped me: Isn’t this a glorified two-hander between King Henry II and Thomas Becket, with other characters strewn around them like so many chess pieces?

This seems to be only the second play that CPCC has presented at Halton Theater – the first since Noises Off in 2012. You can infer from that history that theatre department chair Tom Hollis, who directs here for CPCC Theatre, is not a big fan of the Halton when CP isn’t using it for Broadway musicals. His pre-performance invitation to the audience to find seats closer to the stage during intermission underscored his wariness.

Hollis has had to make peace with the Halton – for now, anyway – because Pease Auditorium, the longtime anchor of dramatic presentations at CP, will soon be facing the wrecking ball. A new building with theatre facilities will replace it at that razed site. Very likely, Hollis is also surprising himself a little with this Becket because scene designer Jennifer O’Kelly has filled the stage so handsomely, both horizontally and vertically.

The pillars spaced across the stage are at least three times as tall as the squat dimensions of panoramic Pease would allow, so the impressive scenery evokes Las Vegas more than London. Action does cheat forward at times to the floor that covers Halton’s commodious orchestra pit, but the chief reason we hear all the actors so well is sound designer Stephen Lancaster’s sure hand with the hall’s famously wayward audio system.

With so little between those pillars, which must remain fixed whether we’re sallying forth to a Saxon hut or to a French battlefield, there are many times that you accept O’Kelly’s set as the sort of backdrop we’ve accustomed ourselves to in Shakespearean productions. Unfortunately, the wide range of characters that Becket engages aside from Henry, from sullen peasants to a pragmatic French king, don’t deliver the rich depth we’re accustomed to in the Bard’s teeming histories.

Henry is selfish, lecherous, petulant, and spoiled throughout, but Becket transforms, beginning as a wily manipulator who thrives on the challenge of hunting and the thrill of battle. At his core, only fitfully awakened, are a set of scruples and a sense of honor. He is as apt as Henry to forget that he’s an archdeacon of the church.

In the long arc of the story, we watch Becket, appointed by Henry as chancellor of England, helping his king to extract taxes from the church. But then Henry miscalculates and appoints Becket as the new Archbishop of Canterbury, reasoning that that his old chum will make it so much easier to shake down the church. Becket shocks his benefactor after he becomes Archbishop, renouncing the chancellorship and returning the chancellor’s ring to Henry, and standing up for the church. In bare feet, renouncing worldly possessions.

In the shorter arc that plays out through much of the first act, very much along the same contours as the larger arc, we get a more vivid sense of who Henry and Becket are. After a daylong hunting excursion, the pair stop to rest and refresh at the Saxons’ hut. While the father is fetching water for the king, Henry takes a fancy to his daughter. To protect the girl from Henry’s ravishing, Becket professes to want her for himself. Henry yields the nameless girl up – on condition that he can demand payback later. When they return to the castle, Henry names his price. He lays claim to Becket’s mistress, Gwendolyn.

You can outwit and outmaneuver a monarch, we’re repeatedly shown, but power ultimately prevails. Gwendolyn and the Saxon girl are crucial to illustrating Anouilh’s point, but Shakespeare would have granted them the privilege of also being people. Hollis seems to empathize with the slenderness of these roles, giving both to Gabriela Celecia, who does what she can. Becket declares that he has never really loved anyone, but that doesn’t give cover to the playwright. Nor is this simply misogyny on Anouilh’s part, for the English clergy – and The Pope, for that matter – are also paper-thin. Seriously, he couldn’t give the Pope a name?

Ailing and decrepit, the Archbishop whom Becket will succeed is discerned easily enough amid the clergy, and Jim Greenwood gives him ample texture, the best of his multiple roles. But I can only report that Rob Craig was the Bishop of York, Roger Watson was the Bishop of York, and John DeMicco were the Huey, Dewey, and Louie of the English church. As a group, they are fine and spirited with a righteousness that is balanced with practicality. Or greed, depending on your view of the church.

Tony Wright is one of the best all-around theatre professionals we have in Charlotte, and his own company, Actor’s Gym, will soon be returning to the local scene, reviving Noël Coward’s Fallen Angels at Spirit Square. You can recognize various elements of Wright’s greatest hits as an actor – beginning with the comically delusional Elwood P. Dowd and the swashbuckling Zastrozzi – in the sunny, insouciant wickedness he brings to Henry II. The world is Henry’s playpen, so you almost laugh at his dark moments. They are petulant rather than profound.

Cole Long doesn’t always convince me as a man of valor, not exactly conjuring up Laurence Olivier or Richard Burton, the Beckets of Broadway and Hollywood. Lacking that physicality may be advantageous for Long when he tackles Becket’s more prominent traits, his wiliness, his deference, his fundamental decency, and his spiritual struggles to experience love and faith. With so few consequential people around Anouilh’s protagonists, we don’t need to pause and register that Long doesn’t ooze leadership qualities. He’s most credible as a loyal subject and surrogate before excelling as a fugitive.

The most affecting of Anouilh’s minor characters bloom when Becket becomes openly defiant towards his king. Rick Taylor’s portrait of King Louis of France has a weathered, wizened dignity to it as he offers refuge to the renegade Archbishop. Yet there is no heartbreak from His Highness when sympathy and goodwill toward the holy refugee must give way to expedience.

Accompanying Becket through his latter tribulations, the Little Monk that Becket has taken under his wing still seethes with Saxon resentment of Norman rule, nicely calibrated in Jake Dodge’s portrayal. Like Gwendolyn, he’s there for a purpose, but the fierce allegiance that Becket inspires in the Little Monk – contrasted with Henry’s inability to keep anyone’s true loyalty – strikes a deeper chord.

Aided by the age difference between them, Christy Stephens as the Queen Mother and Amy Pearre Dunn as the Young Queen transcend cardboard as the chief irritants of Henry’s court after intermission. Yes, Henry is lonely without Becket by his side, but he’s also afflicted.

Matilda Is Less Sweet and More Abrasive at ImaginOn

Review:  Matilda The Musical

By Perry Tannenbaum

The time lag between what opens on Broadway and what tours at Belk Theater has narrowed in recent years. Likewise, the gap between when the tour comes through town and when local companies get their hands on Broadway properties has also shrunk. With the arrival of Matilda The Musical at ImaginOn last weekend just two years after it played Belk Theater, it became apparent that CPCC Summer Theatre, Theatre Charlotte, or Children’s Theatre can expect to mount Broadway hits that are just as fresh from their New York runs as the off-Broadway sensations that Actor’s Theatre brings us.

Even with this slimmer interval, I fear that Roald Dahl‘s Matilda isn’t aging gracefully as a children’s story at McColl Family Theatre. It returns a bit awkwardly in a year when children are cruelly and inhumanely seized as pawns to discourage asylum seekers from Latin America. You might feel more comfortable with this story than I did just two days after I’d watched a Supreme Court nominee opt for yelling and indignation as his go-to defenses against credible accusations of sexual assault in sworn testimony on Capitol Hill.

I’m not sure which aspect of the Saturday afternoon performance disturbed me more. Was it director Adam Burke and his star, Tommy Foster, conniving to make the evil Miss Trunchbull more realistic than she had been in 2016; or was it the parents in the audience, bringing their anklebiters to the show and ignoring recommendations that it was suitable for 6-and-up? I was surprised – and slightly reassured – when so many stayed after intermission but not at all shocked when the adults sitting next to us fled.

Foster had some comical tricks up his beefy sleeves as the hammer-throwing harridan, turning a couple of unexpected cartwheels and almost executing a split. But Trunchbull’s implacable cruelty sometimes verged on rabid, when she unveiled all the “chokey” dungeons reserved for misbehaving and disobedient students at her school or when she pulled the ears of one cowering student about a foot away from his head. Neat technical effects, but perhaps too realistic for comfort.

Dahl wrote his Matilda in 1988, a decade before Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events took off – and before some of the edgier “anti” musicals like Urinetown began to invade Broadway. So his macabre sensibility here became more and more in tune with the times. With all its demonic cogs and gears, HannaH Crowell’s set design (fiendishly augmented by Kelly Colburn’s projections) brought home to me how Dahl’s sensibility had morphed during the quarter of a century following Willy Wonka and his iconic chocolate factory. Nothing particularly sweet here.

Matilda Wormwood certainly had more natural talents and gifts than Charlie Bucket, who snagged the lucky ticket to meet Wonka and taste his chocolate wonders. She is a precocious reader, which disgusts her dimwit parents and astounds Miss Honey, her timorous first grade teacher. As a storyteller, she holds the local librarian spellbound. Pitted against the fearsome, sadistic Trunchbull, Matilda turns out to have a combination of psychic and telekinetic powers that bring her victory – wielded with a sly naughtiness.

You need more than Orphan Annie pluck to play this role, and Allie Joseph has it. She nails Matilda’s signature solos, “Naughty” and “When I Grow Up,” and she sparkles in the spotlight – Colburn’s projections going wild behind – telling her four part “Acrobat Story” to Mrs. Phelps, the librarian. There’s a touch a grim determination in Joseph’s naughtiness that nicely counterbalances the added malignity that Foster brings to Trunchbull. Without too much suspension of disbelief, Joseph also passes for a first grader.

Also supplying counterweight to Trunchbull’s regimentation and brutality are Matilda’s other tormentors, her nutball parents. Caleb Sigmon gets to do the heavier comedy lifting as Mr. Wormwood, loudly dressed by costume designer Magda Guichard, victimized by Matilda’s vicious pranks, and cuckolded by his wife. A crooked used car salesman way beyond his depth in attempting to hoodwink Russian mobsters, Matilda’s dad deserves every indignity that comes his way, especially when he tears up his daughter’s library book. Yet Sigmon retains a wonderful energy amid all Dad’s atrocities, vicissitudes and cluelessness.

Wrapped up in her competitive ballroom dancing – and her sleazy partner Rudolpho (the lithe Paul Montagnese) – Matilda’s mom doesn’t realize she’s nine months pregnant with an unwanted second child when Matilda is born. That’s a high level of stupidity to sustain, but Lucianne Hamilton is more than equal to the task as Mrs. Wormwood, particularly when she schools Miss Honey on her philosophy of education.

Absorbing this lecture as well as Miss Trunchbull’s tirade, Miss Honey earns the right to sing “Pathetic” as her signature song, yet Bailey Rose builds Honey’s strength on stoical acceptance and self-awareness, her warmth toward Matilda counting for far more than her passivity. More comical appreciation comes from Janeta Jackson as Mrs. Phelps, the librarian who listens so raptly to Matilda’s acrobat saga.

Dennis Kelly‘s adaptation of Dahl’s novel is admirably intricate and well-crafted, but I find myself less impressed with Tim Minchin‘s music and lyrics, which might be more palatable with the vitality of Annie or the wit of Avenue Q. You still need to listen – carefully – to the cast album to decipher what the kids’ choruses are singing. Whether the older kids are rattling their cages in welcoming the first-graders on their first day or Matilda’s class is celebrating victory over Trunchbull, the music sounds a bit savage, as if Annie and her fellow orphans were on a bad acid trip. The transition from Belk Theater to the smaller McColl seemed to augment the abrasiveness.

Yet some of Matilda’s classmates do distinguish themselves. Calvin Jia-Hao Mar is consistently adorable as Nigel, who spends much of his time cowering or fainting whether or not Trunchbull is persecuting him. Ryan Campos is a more formidable martyr as the heroic Bruce, a young glutton who steals a piece of Trunchbull’s chocolate cake and is forced to eat the whole thing as his punishment. And though I can’t tell you why we’re bothered with Matilda’s best friend Lavender, Jeannie Ware made her charmingly self-important when we returned from intermission.

 

Dangling Against the Outside Walls of Mint Museum, Caroline Calouche & Co. Offers Exciting New Perspective

Review:  Perspective: Aerial Dance on the Mint Museum

By Perry Tannenbaum

We don’t normally expect the ruggedness of mountain climbing and the delicacy of dance to converge. But at the Levine Arts Center in the heart of Uptown Charlotte, they have. At Caroline Calouche & Co.’s new show, Perspective: Aerial Dance on the Mint Museum, the two disciplines were combined in a series of four performances on each of two successive days. Seated in front of the Uptown Mint Museum, my wife Sue and I needed to be vigilant skywatchers in order to notice when the performances began. The building folds slightly into two halves that flank the Museum’s graceful front staircase, taking visitors above the gift shop and into the Mint’s lobby. At the top of the museum’s two facades, Calouche and Sarah Ritchy, peered over the ledge – and at each other – and began their descents, holding onto sturdy cliff-climbing ropes that they were tethered to. At about halfway down the facades of the museum, they buckled themselves in place. There was plenty of rope for them to swing back and forth along the side of the building and plenty of slack for them to launch themselves away from the building into mid-air.

Yes, the dancing was happening in two directions. The women moved parallel to the beige concrete facades of the museum, executing a variety of leaps, spins, balletic poses, steps, and splits. Yet Calouche and Ritchy weren’t scraping the walls of the Mint, so air was always between them and the building. To a considerable extent, Calouche and Ritchy were perpendicular to the building. Photos and movies of them appear to be taken from overhead rather than below, for the contact points between the dancers and the building were more often the soles of their feet than their toes. Yet when they were “standing up” straight, so to speak, we were fully aware that the dancers were actually prone, facing the sky, or in free-fall posture, suspended high above the entrance stairway. Truly, these Calouche & Co. performances did present a fresh perspective by merging elements of aerial and floor dancing in ways that Cirque du Soleil has never encompassed.

The medium has its own restrictions, beginning with the outdoors. With Hurricane Florence still threatening the coast of the Carolinas, Calouche had to cancel the run of Perspective that was originally set for last weekend. Mere rain or wind would have likely caused the same postponement. Outdoors, with street traffic just a few yards behind your spectators, sound quality isn’t going to be the best, yet music did seem to be a necessary complement to the dancing, assuring that Calouche and Ritchy remained in sync when they danced together. Unlike the aerial dances Calouche and her company have performed with silks, the more mountaineering works of Perspective didn’t allow for variations in altitude, accomplished with silks by shimmying up the fabric, wrapping it around the dancers’ legs and waists, and making controlled – sometimes excitingly precipitous – descents. At first blush, the vocabulary of movement seemed limited, but this was a maiden voyage, so there may be more frontiers that Calouche and Co. can explore, provided that opportunities like this will present themselves with some regularity in the future.

Perspective was unusually brief for a dance program, clocking in at about 10 minutes. Each of the four programs presented on the night we attended featured two different dancers than those who had danced the previous hour. Entrances and exits are somewhat labored and unwieldy, which may explain why the four hourly presentations weren’t compressed into one. Calouche and Ritchy couldn’t simply prance to the wings or drop to the ground to yield up the stage. When they weren’t soloing or performing in tandem, the dancers went into a sort of suspended animation to avoid stealing focus from each other. Not until their time together was done could Ritchy and Calouche shimmy to the ground on their remaining lengths of rope. Expediting these exits, allowing dancers to enter on the same rope others were leaving on, or dropping additional ropes over the side of the building would invite additional danger or necessitate additional crew.

Like Cirque du Soleil, these Calouche & Co. performances combined elements of artistry and Evel Kneivel. The mixture of grace and excitement was unlike anything I had witnessed before, with the peril factor noticeably enhanced by the breathtaking altitude and the outdoors. If Calouche & Co. develop this medium further and conquer some of its restrictions, performances on the Mint – and other buildings around town – will be can’t-miss events.

Symphony’s Opening Night Gala Celebrates With Primal Beauty and Fire

Review: Charlotte Symphony Opening Night Gala with Violinist Joshua Bell

By Perry Tannenbaum

Although violinist Joshua Bell hadn’t played with the Charlotte Symphony since the 1994-95 season, he has maintained a presence across the Carolinas, appearing at Spoleto Festival USA, the Brevard Music Festival, and Asheville’s Bravo Concerts during the intervening years. Quite the favorite with promoters at Charlotte Concerts, Bell has also been welcomed to the Queen City on multiple occasions during the new millennium, a couple of times as the featured soloist and music director of London’s most revered small orchestra, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.

So it’s gratifying to report that, in his first appearance on the Belk Theater stage in 11 years, the Tom Cruise of violinists isn’t merely the same-old same-old Bell with more mileage on his chassis. Symphony’s Opening Night Gala lived up to its headliner and its hype, for I’ve never seen Bell play quite this well before. Nor was the Bell performance alone in being special as Symphony launched its 2018-19 classics slate, for music director Christopher Warren-Green not only soothed subscribers’ Shostakovich anxieties with a brassy overture, he slayed their fears of new music with a world premiere by Nkeiru Okoye celebrating Charlotte’s 250th anniversary.

Bell remained the highlight. The higher he has ascended in the firmament over the course of his career, the louder the grumblings have become charging Bell with complacency and superficiality. I’ve seen why the carping has persisted when Bell played for us before, for his readings tended to be fleet and his technique squeaky clean, earmarks of his Top Gun aura. The zest and fire he brought to the Brahms Violin Concerto were unprecedented here, surpassing even the Beethoven sonata he played with Jeremy Denk at the Belk in 2007.

The years with Denk and St. Martin have brought another dimension to Bell’s playing, a keener sense of his dialogue with the orchestra – and the audience. Bell and Warren-Green are both musical Londoners, so perhaps the camaraderie began there for this occasion, because there was absolutely nothing deferential about Symphony’s playing in the introductory passages of the opening Allegro con troppo movement. That forceful approach prodded Bell into a response that was as fierce as it was precise, nothing careful or sleek in his double bowing – or in the dramatic attacks that followed his grace notes.

Simpatico between Bell and Symphony was even keener when we moved to the middle Adagio movement, where the lyrical interplay intensified organically as the orchestral accompaniment switched emphasis from woodwinds to strings. The sheer beauty and inevitability of the first two movements drew enthusiastic applause, outbursts that may not have pleased Bell. Instead of admonishing the crowd, as Isaac Stern famously did in his Charlotte appearance, Bell silenced them as a conductor might. With an exaggerated nod that fully involved the top half of his body, Bell gave everyone in the house the downbeat for the final Allegro giacoso movement and plunged right in. Worked like a charm. The little pause before tackling his final cadenza also proved that Bell, at 50, is his own man.

Commissioned by Symphony, Okoye’s Charlotte Mecklenburg disarmed worriers as soon as it began. The luminous opening echoed Aaron Copland serenity rather than John Cage chaos, an unexpectedly heartland take on our metropolis, hinting that Okoye was taking a longer view and hearkening back to the primeval landscape before Europeans arrived on the continent. Episodes following this pristine preamble coalesced into a cavalcade of human signatures, a reel keeping us in Appalachia, snare drums bringing us to a Main Street parade. Eventually, Okoye’s new work took the urban tack we had anticipated, with an emphasis on diversity. We heard a bluesy decelerating train, a cop’s whistle, a tropical marimba and slithering Latin sounds mixing with the orchestral Americana.

The 250th anniversary celebration will continue later this fall at Symphony, with Warren-Green taking us to his native side of the Atlantic for an evening of English music, mostly written for British royals, mostly by Handel. You could hardly wish for a better foretaste of the celebration and the season to come than this regal, richly satisfying gala.

Sometimes Predictable, “The Legend of Georgia McBride” Is a Raunchy, Rockin’ Delight

Review:  The Legend of Georgia McBride

By Perry Tannenbaum

While there may be “Good Rockin’ Tonight” when Elvis impersonator Casey steps up to the microphone at Cleo’s Club down in the Florida Panhandle, there isn’t a big hunk o’ love emanating from the audience. On some nights, there isn’t even an audience, except for Eddie, the super low-key club owner. As we begin Matthew Lopez’s The Legend of Georgia McBride with a bumbling, subdued curtain speech from Eddie, we’re keenly aware that both Casey and his boss are in sore need of makeovers. Our sympathies are mostly invested in Casey in this lip-syncing comedy presented by Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte. He’s younger, and the odds are against him, especially when Casey’s wife Jo informs him that his paycheck from Cleo’s has bounced once again, and they’re behind on the rent. No big surprises on the next complications that Lopez serves up to Jo and Casey’s dismay: Casey has just shelled out considerable dough on a new Elvis jumpsuit, Jo’s home pregnancy kit has just tested positive, and Eddie has been trying to work up the nerve to fire his headliner.

Seedy comedy and outré musicals have become the irreverent essence of the Actor’s Theatre brand. With Lizzie in August revisiting the sensational Lizzie Borden murders to a live heavy metal groove and now with this Georgia McBride jukeboxer, ATC has launched its 30th season – and their first full season as resident company at Queens University – by playing solidly to their strengths. Chip Decker’s set design is hardly wider than those we routinely saw at Actor’s in its old Stonewall Street location, with three distinct spaces side by side. Jo and Casey’s living room and kitchen flanks the Cleo’s proscenium on one side with the club’s dressing room on the other. What the Hadley Theater at Queens also allows is a nice thrust stage performing space where the entire cast can eventually perform Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” for their curtain calls.

Yes, as Lopez’s title telegraphs, that’s where we’re heading. Obeying what his ledger is telling him rather than his own personal inclinations, Eddie brings in a pair of drag queens to strut his stage. Casey can stay on if he’ll tend bar, take it or leave it. Symptomatic of his sunny passivity, Casey takes it rather than daring to blaze his own trail. The new gals, Tracy Mills and Anorexia Nervosa are both more diva-like in standing up for themselves. From the moment they enter the dressing room, you expect that at least one of them will go Bette Davis on us and proclaim, “What a dump!” Rexy is the more temperamental and imperious of the two – when he isn’t so drunk that he can’t stand up. One night, when Rexy cannot be revived – let alone hoisted upon his roller skates – Casey is called on to fill in. Either he dresses up as Edith Piaf, or Eddie really will fire him.

This setup for The Legend offers more than merely the bawdiness of drag. We get to enjoy bad drag and bad lip-syncing as Casey wrestles with a bra, pantyhose, and the French language for the first time in his life. Prodded to forge his own identity in dragdom, Casey swivels his new Georgia McBride persona away from the drag trinity of Judy Garland, Piaf, and Liza Minelli. Cutting up his Elvis jumpsuit to fit his newly bolstered tush, the freshly inspired Casey adds female rockers to the customary Broadway-cabaret drag spectrum, including Connie Francis, Madonna, and numerous others beyond my ken. But even when Cleo’s begins to prosper, the sunny go-with-the-flow Casey still doesn’t have the guts to tell Jo about the transformation that has changed his fortunes. Warning: some very predictable scenes ensue between Casey and Jo.

Under the astute direction of Billy Ensley, Georgia McBride transcends this hackneyed marital turmoil with a cavalcade of winsome and hilarious performances on the Cleo’s stage. They are the springboard for tacky, butch, and saccharine creations from costume designer Carrie Cranford ranging from Nazi leather to Busby Berkeley chiffon. The inspired choreographer goes inexplicably uncredited – but I suspect some needless modesty from Ensley himself, a preeminent triple threat back in his acting days.

Judging from reviews of past productions, I’m confident that Lopez left plenty of latitude in his script for characterizations and song selections. If history is a judge, Elvis can drag either country or rock into drag, and both Eddie and Jo can be more loud, nasty and assertive than they were here. I cannot remember when James K. Flynn was funnier than he was on opening night, inconspicuously evolving from a terse mumbling rube to a glittering ebullient emcee – and beyond. Nor did Juanita B. Green rub me wrong as Jo, improbably remaining slightly adorable even when she threw her husband out. I got the idea that only a preternaturally compliant soul like Casey’s would comply.

Ensley’s casting choices for his drag queens are just as brilliant, especially since two of the three are making their debuts with the company. Over the years, Ryan Stamey has conspired on many of ATC’s wildest musicals as an actor, music director, and instrumentalist, so it wasn’t at all surprising to see him making a grand entrance as Rexy in full diva mode, on heels high enough to require a dismount. Stamey actually did multiple dismounts from those heels, doubling as Casey’s put-upon landlord, Jason, and executing bodacious changes in makeup and costumes. As Rexy, he strengthened the impact of Casey’s climactic crisis with his confessional monologue on what he has suffered to pursue his art form, a topic that Lopez should have explored more deeply. I also suspect that Stamey had a hand in formulating the eclectic playlist. I just wished that Rexy had performed more of those drag numbers.

With his elegant serenity and his razor-sharp zingers, Paul Reeves Leopard’s performance as Tracy reminded me of Coco Peru and Charles Busch, two supreme queens I’ve been fortunate enough to see live. In the midst of Casey’s crisis, he also gets a nice moment of truth at Tracy’s front door, answering Casey’s pathetic apologies and entreaties with makeup, dress, and wig discarded for the night – bathrobe-and-hairnet deglamorized, with all his steely maturity on display. Everybody seemed stronger and more mature than Casey, thanks to the sunny optimism and gentle humility Sean Riehm brought to the role. Anybody, man or woman, would let him be his or her teddy bear! Physically, Riehm is well-sculpted but not intimidating, with legs that can inspire a woman’s jealousy. Riehm’s lithe movements underscore the logic of the Elvis-to-Georgia transition: in and out of the jumpsuit, those swiveling hips are very much a part of his job description. Another warning: if you sit in the front row at the Hadley, you are a prime target for a lap dance from a drag queen. Mine was a first for me, the most memorable moment of a fun evening. You won’t be able to experience that when Jim Parsons plays Tracy in the upcoming Fox 2000 film.

Hatem’s “Confidence (and The Speech)” Loses Its Way but Delivers a Poignant Ending

Review:  Confidence (and The Speech)

Nathaniel Gillespie, Jonathan Hoskins and Greg Parroff in a scene from CONFIDENCE Sept 2018

By Perry Tannenbaum

Say what you want about Jimmy Carter, he wasn’t about lining his pockets with money or telling other nations what to do, and he certainly wasn’t about cozying up to the Russians. Among his more controversial – and principled – actions, President Carter slapped a grain embargo on Russia in response to their invasion of Afghanistan and pulled us out of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. In the midst of an energy crisis, Carter faced a TV camera inside the Oval Office and, wearing a drab cardigan sweater, urged a nationwide audience to turn down their thermostats to 68ºF. After the turmoil of Nixon, Cambodia, and Watergate, President Carter was barely in office two days when he granted blanket amnesty for Vietnam War draft evaders. Probably his most egregious faux pas was reminding wasteful and self-indulgent Americans that we were wasteful and self-indulgent, that two-thirds of us were so apathetic that we didn’t bother to vote, that there was a growing distrust of government and the press, and that our nation’s self-confidence was slowly eroding. Free spending and trickle-down Reaganomics proved to be far more palatable to our shrewd electorate.

Actor Jo Hall plays President Jimmy Carter in CONFIDENCE Sept 2018

Using the pivotal “Crisis of Confidence speech of 1979 as her ground zero, with occasional traces of animus from the shocking 2016 election result, playwright Susan Lambert Hatem reappraises Carter’s leadership and courage in Confidence (and The Speech). Hatem’s sister, producer Anne Lambert, is directing a workshop production of the new play at Spirit Square with the company she founded, Charlotte’s Off Broadway. Taking us to Camp David, where Carter took an extra 10 days to refine his address – convening a domestic summit where he gathered ideas from “business and labor, teachers and preachers, Governors, mayors, and private citizens” – Hatem also trains a critical eye on how much input and impact women had on the deliberations. Seven years after Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman,” it wasn’t exactly a roar.

To look at the Camp David process pointedly from this outsider’s angle, Hatem erects an unusual framework. For her eyes and ears, the playwright recruits a somewhat disillusioned history professor, Cynthia Cooper, who served as a White House intern when Carter’s national address was being crafted. We’re not exactly sure when young Jonathan Rollins approaches Cooper after one of her lectures (not until the end of the evening, anyway), asking her for her reminiscences on Carter, but his persistence is rewarded. There is one catch: Cooper will take us behind the scenes at Camp David only if she portrays President Carter in the retelling. Rollins will need to switch genders as well and portray the young Cynthia.

Josephine Hall takes on the challenge of rekindling our affection for Carter, and she captures 39’s dignity, determination, and quiet uprightness rather well, but the hours she presumably spent watching YouTube videos of Carter have been wasted. She hasn’t listened well enough to produce Jimmy’s distinct Georgia sound, producing a generic drawl that London and New York would deem adequate for their most pallid Tennessee Williams revivals. Nor does Hatem take the opportunity to shine a bright light on the difference a woman in a pantsuit and heels might have made if she had been standing in Carter’s shoes. Unexpectedly, Hall does her best work during her technically impossible private scenes with Rosalynn Carter and in the equally impossible town hall segment when Jimmy listens to the voice of the people and responds. These responses are improvised at every performance, for three audience members will be chosen to give input to the President on key questions facing the nation.

Berry Newkirk, Greg Paroff, Paul Gibson, Maxwell Greger and Josephine Hall in a scene from CONFIDENCE Sept 2018.JPG

Subjected to unwanted advances when he becomes Young Cynthia – and relegated to typing up notes and brewing coffee – Jonathan Hoskins drew a more revelatory role as Rollins. The harassment and abrasive sexism come from pollster Pat Caddell as Cynthia gathers information and works with speechwriter Hendrick Hertzberg. Hoskins gave us enough prissy drag comedy mincing around in heels to effectively contrast and underscore those serious moments when Young Cynthia was being ignored, patronized and disrespected. Another fine episode lies in wait for Hoskins at the end when Rollins sheds his importunate and demure pretenses to reveal his true identity. These are the moments when Hatem is most successful.

Focusing on the polls, the process, and the pragmatism of aligning the speech with Carter’s re-election prospects, Hatem neglects the content of the speech and how it responded to the crises it addressed. It all seemed so promising and convincing in the playwright’s rendering of the first staff meeting at Camp David. In addition to those already named, press secretary Jody Powell, chief of staff Hamilton Jordan, communications director Gerald Rafshoon, and Vice President Walter Mondale all seemed professional, intelligent, and capable. All were agreed that the speech originally for July 4 had been a disastrous snooze and that Carter had been wise to postpone it at the last minute and regroup. The thrust of the message, the stakes, and the pitfalls were briskly and excitingly laid out.

After we grasped Carter’s motivations, process and practicalities stifled the flow of ideas vying for inclusion in the final draft. Rafshoon and Jordan remained thinner than cardboard and as Mondale became little more than an ominous negative voice, Powell became a glib appeaser to a press corps hungry for substance. The play veered along a similar path for us with its gender-bending protagonists, sidestepping the meat of the speech. Deepening the portraits of Rafshoon, Jordan, and Mondale would be one way for Hatem to go – leaving Maxwell Greger to ably provide comic relief as the unctuous Powell. But I suspect the better path might be for her to parade more fleetingly developed characters into the mix – those teachers and preachers and businessmen and politicians that Carter talked about in his speech.

Actor Josephine Hall as President Jimmy Carter and Actor Lane Morris as First Lady Rosalynn Carter in COB's CONFIDENCE Sept 2018Yes, I’d advise doubling and tripling the roles of the staffers. Then Josh Logsdon would have more to do than Mondale’s brooding fatalism, the criminally underused Berry Newkirk could more fully display the full spectrum of his talents, and Paul Gibson as Jordan could flub a more interesting variety of lines. That tack would also present ways of sneaking in more background info about 1979 America and let us outside of the White House West Wing bubble that Hatem creates. With those enrichment opportunities missed, Greg Paroff as Hertzberg, both avuncular and ambivalent, emerged as the most compelling performer in a supporting role while Nathaniel Gillespie was convincingly cringeworthy as Caddell.

Technically, the Charlotte’s Off-Broadway production also disclosed its workshop status. The upstage screens weren’t utilized nearly enough for projections, furniture occasionally boomed or rattled backstage, and on one unfortunate occasion, a folding table failed to become Young Cynthia’s bed for a bedroom scene. But the Lambert sisters’ efforts eventually made a favorable impression on me with a new resolution that Hatem wrote in response to the catastrophe of Election Night 2016. I really shouldn’t reveal what happens, but I will say that it brought tears to my eyes – for a poignant reason I’ve never experienced before: knowing that what I was seeing and hearing onstage couldn’t possibly be true.

 

New Horror and Grotesquerie as Phantom Moves to Coney for “Love Never Dies”

Review:  Love Never Dies

By Perry Tannenbaum

Your knees won’t buckle when you enter Belk Theater to see Love Never Dies, Anthony Lloyd Webber’s long-awaited sequel to The Phantom of the Opera. There’s no gleaming chandelier looming ominously over ticketholders in the front rows, nor will you see any nooks or gargoyles spanning the stage proscenium. Until the curtain rose, about the only aspect of the new Lloyd Webber melodrama that reminded me of its predecessor on opening night was the size of the crowd who had come to see it. A near sellout – not too shabby for a musical that has never played on Broadway.

Compared with recent tours that stopped at the Belk – Lion King, Book of Mormon, Something Rotten! or even the homespun Bright Star – this new Lloyd Webber juggernaut looks rather drab before the lights go down. We find ourselves… wait, in Coney Island? Yes, the macabre Madame Giry and her bubbly, high-strung daughter Meg have spirited The Phantom far from the ill-fated Paris Opera House without telling the songbird he still obsesses over, Christine Daaé. It’s 10 years later, and The Phantom has grown fabulously wealthy as an amusement park tycoon.

So wealthy that when Oscar Hammerstein offers Christine a fortune for her to cross the Atlantic – with her husband Raoul, the Vicomte de Chagny, and her son Gustave – to make her stage comeback, The Phantom is able to double that offer without hesitation.

If only she will SING for him again!!

Now how The Phantom became so rich and why Madame and Meg Giry have been so deeply committed to him are details you will need to ferret out in Frederick Forsyth’s 1999 page-turner, The Phantom of Manhattan. Ben Elton’s book is very loosely based on the Forsyth sequel, changing nearly as much as he left out. Specifically where The Phantom expects Christine to sing is rather vague, and the chief reason for his having a subterranean lair is to echo his old Paris Opera surroundings.

Elton changes Lloyd Webber’s previous work with hardly less impunity. If you remember Phantom well, you’ll be surprised to learn that Gustave is the lovechild of The Phantom and Christine – and that Christine feels spurned, jilted, and cruelly deceived by her former kidnapper. Many things must change in the sequel simply because there is little compulsion for Christine to be at The Phantom’s park, his hotel, his theater, or whatever. Opera was Christine’s life and soul back in her Paris days. Yet he hasn’t even written a new opera for her. Just one song. The nerve!

You’re forgiven, then, if you feel disoriented in the world of Lloyd Webber’s Phantom sequel. But there are vivid echoes of the past in the music and the love triangle at the core of the story. The most exciting new wrinkle is the five-way tug of war over Gustave. Not only are the lovers fighting over the boy. Less forthrightly, so are the Girys, who see him as an obstacle between them and The Phantom’s estate. It’s borderline comical how the good people who love him repeatedly lose track of poor Gustave. It’s a high proportion of the melodrama.

Lloyd Webber’s music is in the vein of Phantom, but not nearly as good – nor as memorable as either Sunset Boulevard or The Woman in White, his most successful follow-ups before his School of Rock comeback. “Till I Hear You Sing” gets us off to a promising start, extensively echoing Phantom as the masked composer bemoans his ten long years without his angelic muse, but until we reach the title song deep in Act 2, there was little rhapsodic flamboyance to fulfill the early promise.

Sung by Jake Heston Miller on opening night, Gustave is a bit of an angel himself, and his duet with Mom, “Love With Your Heart,” is an ingratiating waltz. The barroom confrontation between The Phantom and Raoul has an eerie early morning edge to it, spiked with the animus of their “Devil Take the Hindmost” duet. You’ll also find a thrilling éclat in a couple of The Phantom’s entrances, for Lloyd Webber has replaced the organ, his formerly favored instrument, with pounding drums in his sequel.

Scenic and costume design, both by Gabriela Tylesova, mesh beautifully, especially effective in evoking the lights of Coney Island and Christine’s posh hotel suite. And does she also take credit for the wonderfully saturnine carriage that whisks Christine and family off to Coney? Our unofficial greeters or coachpersons – Stephen Petrovich as the gangly Gangle, rotund Richard Koon as the clownish Squelch, and the super-diminutive Katrina Kemp as Fleck – perfectly cue the phantasmagoria to come with their garish attire. Okay, they are the phantasmagoria to come, especially the Little Person.

This tour has been on the road for almost exactly one year, and the core of major players, even Miller as Gustave, has remained nearly perfectly intact. Obviously we’re seeing a solid unit that has completely jelled. Bronson Norris Murphy as The Phantom is the only interloper, rising up over the course of the tour from ensemble roles and proving to be an excellent fit from the moment the curtain first reveals him. Perhaps most indispensable is Meghan Picerno, whom I saw early last year, glittering and gay as Cunegonde in the New York City Opera production of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide.

ALW doesn’t write nearly so well in Love Never Dies, but he seems to write as stratospherically high, so I suspect a voice like Picerno’s is welcomed here for as long as she wishes. She not only nails the high notes, she also immerses herself in the passion. You’re not listening to great music when Picerno and Murphy tear into their “Beneath a Moonless Sky” duet, but you’re witnessing some riveting theatre as they lash out at each other.

Grown destitute and dissolute, Raoul isn’t the matinee idol of yore, but Sean Thompson puts some gravity into his drunken brooding, so his self-pitying “Why Does She Love Me?” acquires a Sinatra-like maturity. Madame Giry is quite the callous, grasping harpy now, but with Karen Mason so implacably dark and wicked in the role, it’s a pity that Elton and Lloyd Webber haven’t given her more space to spew her venom. On the other hand, to see Meg so debased and preoccupied with her cringe-worthy “Bathing Beauty” earns a purple heart for Mary Michael Patterson, who soldiers through these indignities every night. The spotlight does fall on her in the frantic denouement, a rather startling transformation.

While it’s difficult to forgive how thoroughly Elton and Lloyd Webber botch the Girys, my biggest beef may be with the instrumentation of Love Never Dies. If you’re going to Coney Island to evoke circus horror and grotesquery, the sound of a calliope is a must. Please fix that instantly, Lord Andrew. It’s a start.

Fleet Buffoonery Conquers Enchantment in “Peter and the Starcatcher”

Review: Peter and the Starcatcher

By Perry Tannenbaum

As a fairly frequent reader of Dave Barry’s newspaper work, still recycling in Miami Herald newsletters a full 13 years after he left, I’ve developed a healthy skepticism about whether the humorist is capable of being serious about anything. I was optimistic that I might witness a breakthrough back in 2012 when I realized – as I was preparing to review the original Broadway production – that Rick Elice’s Tony Award-nominated Peter and the Starcatcher was adapted from a novel by Barry and Ridley Pearson.

Surely a prequel to Peter Pan, the most adulated and beloved story of the 20th century, would give Barry the incentive to see beyond his next one-liner, especially with a collaborator on board to keep him from jumping the rails. The giddy acclaim buzzing around the show and its five Tony wins for acting and design further fueled my optimism. On a July evening, I entered the Brooks Atkinson Theatre with the wild expectation of seeing a play that artfully, joyfully, and humorously dovetailed with James M. Barrie’s indelible fantasy.

My expectations were badly misaligned with the clever deconstruct of storytelling that I saw. Elice and Barry were equally tone-deaf to the sense of enchantment that Barrie brought to Peter Pan and to the Englishman’s flavorful zest for the primitive. In its belated rush to chime with the story so many of us grew up with, Starcatcher plopped Neverland in the middle of the ocean rather than up in the stars, Peter remained far from the heartless arrogant joy we all remember, and we were left to figure out that Barry’s Molly was Barrie’s Mary, Wendy’s elegant mom.

Unhindered by my former expectations, I found the touring version of Starcatcher far more enjoyable than the Broadway version when it came to Charlotte in 2014. A lot of credit went to the players. There was more chemistry at Knight Theater between Peter and Molly than I saw on Broadway, therefore more heart emerging from Elice’s script, and unlike the fellow who tried so hard to please as Tony Award winner Christian Borle’s replacement, John Sanders seemed to be having a great time as Black Stache, alias Captain Hook.

Yet I must have still been searching for Barry-Barrie links that I might have missed two years earlier, because I found myself even more pleased last week when Theatre Charlotte opened their 91st season with Jill Bloede directing a strong cast in Peter and the Starcatcher. Adept at zany comedy and slapstick, Bloede knows what this piece is – and what it isn’t. She has prodded Dave Blamy to the top of his game as Stache, no less funny here than in his award-winning turns at Actor’s Theatre in The 39 Steps and The Scene, eight years ago and more. How far can Blamy go over-the-top? The climactic amputation scene will be your delightful answer. Part-time foil and part-time torment, Jeff Powell as Smee outbumbles his master, perpetually aflutter and the perfect complement for Blamy,

Prime yourself for buffoonish villainy rather than hapless wicked cunning to get the full effect of Blamy Stache. The other wicked captain onstage, Tim Huffman as Captain Slank, takes up some of the slack on wickedness and menace – not a surprise if you saw Huffman in his Queens Road debut in The Crucible. Two piratical seamen have gotten wind of the treasure that Lord Leonard Aster is transporting to India. Getting both vessels to sea obliges us to accept that Lord Aster would want her Molly to sail separately from her father with one of the two treasure chests.

With Troy Feay making his Theatre Charlotte debut as milord, there was plenty starchy British propriety on board one of the ships, and with Johnny Hohenstein crossdressing as Mrs. Bumbrake, there was plenty of bawdy bustle aboard the other. Bowen Abbey woos her with intermittent success as Alf, allowing Hohenstein some comical vacillations – and partially explaining her slack supervision of Molly. Hey, they’re all kidnapped anyway, so Mrs. B has some cover for her negligence.

Also kidnapped – sold into slavery, if you want to get picky – are three orphan boys whom Molly befriends. By the process of elimination, we can figure out that the urchin with no name, played with a soft chip on his shoulder by Patrick Stepp, will eventually emerge as Peter. In the spirit of adventure, Molly seeks them out in the bowels of the pirate ship, and in the spirit of Barrie’s Wendy, she takes on the burden of educating the Lost Boys. Fifteen-year-old Ailey Finn is more than sufficiently precocious to portray both the tomboy and maternal dimensions of Molly. Why not? She was Rose of Sharon nearly a year ago in Theatre Charlotte’s Grapes of Wrath!

Stepp and Finn both render their roles like they’re on the cusp of puberty, so their mutual awakening comes moments before they must part forever. With Bloede at the helm, this is the most poignant ending I’ve seen in any Starcatcher production.

We seem to get there at warp speed, even though Bloede manages to sharpen Captain Slank and Mrs. Bumbrake more than I’ve previously experienced. Yet the sensory bombardment is so constant that I can admit without shame that, while I can tell you that Jesse Pritchard and A.J. White played the orphans creditably, I can’t say for sure whether Prentiss was the ornery one or Ted. Likewise, a peep into Wikipedia was necessary to nail down which character wooed Mrs. B.

Somebody remarked to me in the lobby at intermission that Peter and the Starcatcher is like children’s theatre for adults. If you’ve seen ensembles in children’s productions who break away from their characters and directly narrate to the audience, you’ll see the truth of that comment hand-in-hand with Elice’s deconstructing mischief. We are taking in a lot of information here. Listening to the players is often a more reliable indicator of where we are than following the changes in Chris Timmons’ spare set design, nicely coordinated with Gordon Olson’s lighting.

Keeping pace with all that happens is hard enough without worrying how Elice’s play connects with Barrie’s. So don’t. It was only on my third go-round that I realized how important the sound designer’s contributions are to making Starcatcher work. No sound designer is listed in the Theatre Charlotte playbill, so I’ll cite Ben Sparenberg and Rick Wiggins, listed jointly as light and sound board operators. Bloede and her cast certainly keep them busy, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that both of them might be cuing sounds together when tensions intensify.

You won’t find much enchantment in this 91st season launch, but there’s some magic aboard one of the ships when we land in Neverland. The journey is roaring good fun at its best, and it’s running with professional polish and precision.