Gelb and La Fiesta Latin Jazz Quintet Dim the Party Lights on New CD

Review: The Latin Jazz Pandemic Suite – CD

By Perry Tannenbaum

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CD: The Latin Jazz Pandemic Suite – Gregg Gelb, leader, tenor saxophone; Stephen Anderson, piano; Andy Kleindienst, bass; Beverly Botsford, percussion; Ramon Ortiz, drums – 30:10

If you think about the makeup of a Latin jazz quintet, your expectations would likely include a pianist, a drummer, a conguero, an acoustic or electric bassist, and another soloing musician – on marimba or vibes if you’re looking for a tropical flavor, on trumpet if your taste runs to South-of-the-border salsa. The sound is easier to conjure: light, breezy, festive, or celebratory. Always joyous. So it’s almost redundant that tenor saxophonist Gregg Gelb and his group named themselves the La Fiesta Latin Jazz Quintet. By far more surprising for this quintet is their ambitious new project, composed by Gelb, that provides the main core – and the title – for the group’s second album, The Latin Jazz Pandemic Suite. Sunshine and celebration discarded in favor of morose ruminations on COVID-19?

No, that never quite happens in the new six-track collection, five of them forming the Suite. Yet a haze of lassitude, discomfort, or discontent hangs over the entire set – sheer jubilation never fully breaks out, even in the “Tiempo de Fiesta (Party Time)” finale. Millions of us have had many of the same thoughts, agonized in similar isolation, and experienced many of the same fears and frustrations. But however much we have experienced in common during our nearly two years apart, the global pandemic has done little to bring us together – and plenty to increase our divisions. Serving as a preamble to the Suite, Gelb’s first composition for La Fiesta during the pandemic, “Juntos De Nuevos (Together Again),” would likely be merrier and more anthemic if the togetherness were accomplished rather than merely yearned for – and if it extended beyond his quintet, which was “looking forward to when we would be together again and be able to play,” in the composer’s words.

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“Juntos” starts with a lush rain-forest quietude, Stephen Anderson’s piano faintly dripping, Andy Kleindienst’s bass replicating a soft acoustic guitar, and Beverly Botsford’s exotic percussion clucking, ticking and moaning rather than pounding. The pounding arrives when drummer Ramon Ortiz switches away from his cymbals and rims to the heart of his drums, making a nice launchpad for the saxophonist’s brash entrance and the announcement of his virile theme, more like Sonny Rollins’ or John Coltrane’s concept of Latin jazz than Cal Tjader’s. Anderson’s soloing, on the other hand, is suppler, more apt to feature Latin rhythms as well as chords, yet able to layer on some McCoy Tyner gravitas as the pianist builds to peak moments. The rhythm section gets ample space here to show why Gelb missed them, Kleindienst’s airy bass solo leading into a more intense jam between Ortiz and Botsford before the leader returned with the theme. After repeating his melody, Gelb played on it briefly, bringing the track to an abrupt, invigorating halt. A zesty reunion.

None of the five parts of the Suite is nearly as long as “Juntos de Nuevos,” but hardly a beat separates the flow – none at all between parts 2 and 3. With shifting tempos and themes, Gelb’s Pandemic Suite acquires a cumulative heft, only let down in those two fused sections, “New Normal” and “Mucha Positiva,” where the quintet becomes a bit too literal, first the rhythm section and then the leader, in simulating the monotony and repetitiveness of isolation. The outside sections, “Quarantine Dance” and “Tiempo de Fiesta,” both find the right balance between the festive impulses of Latin jazz and the grim reality of COVID confinement. Sunshine dominates, occasionally dimmed. Introduced by a mildly domesticated Mongo Santamaria shuffle, “Quarantine” soars midway through its melody line before falling down and stomping with a jazz riff. All of the solos that follow from Gelb, Anderson, and Kleindiest ultimately tumble into that recurring riff. Unlike his arrangement on “Justos,” Gelb didn’t play on the melody when he returned with it, signing off abruptly after repeating one chorus, stomping his riff one last time with Anderson.

Gelb injects a little more Latin spice into his “Fiesta” riff, with a sax component all his own interspersed with emphatic punctuation from the rhythm section, so the composition sports a bit of hard-bop jauntiness a la Horace Silver, one of the two composers the Quintet covered in their eponymous 2016 debut album. Unadorned by this zippy sax riff, Anderson’s piano solo is energetic and inspired as ever, nicely complementing Gelb’s best blowing on this set. Percussion kicks in twice surrounding Gelb’s final solo, the last a rather chastened jam, pointedly slowed down to underscore that we cannot readily recover our carefree pre-pandemic sunniness just yet.

The penultimate piece in the Pandemic Suite, “The Sad Truth,” the ballad that it sorely needed: as Gelb’s liner notes tell us, “As March 2022, almost one million Americans have died from the virus. We still wait for it to end.” This is the saxophonist at his most soulful, invoking the gruff artistry of Dexter Gordon and Rollins. What I do wish for here is a composition that would have extended more than 16 bars – and solos that lengthened with it. Anderson enters ever so lightly and, abetted by Ortiz’s work, succeeds in making this ballad a Latin Jazz “Truth.” The pianist, in fact, seems to love this composition more than the composer, for he continues to lavish filigree upon it even after Gelb reprises the theme. Botsford asserts herself along with Anderson toward the very end of the arrangement, where the saxophone becomes slower and softer. That makes the sudden onset of the “Fiesta” finale explosive and satisfying.

 

“Mean Girls” Delivers High School Intrigue and Nostalgia

Review: Mean Girls at Blumenthal PAC

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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John Keats, the great poet who never saw his 26th birthday, bid his younger brother George to look at the world as a “vale of soul-making,” a useful rewrite of the “valley of tears” handed down to generations of good Christians through the Latin liturgy. Two centuries later, when our world views were more likely to be molded by Tina Fey, that same epithet was nearly as apt a description of high school. That passageway, a hermetically sealed microcosm of the real world we seeped back into after the last bell rang, was seen to be the place where we were memorably loved, betrayed, scarred, pigeonholed and inspired to find our style, our niche, and our selves.

For the first time, anyway – or forever.

Amid stints as creator of 30 Rock and head writer on Saturday Night Live, a matched set of adult microcosms, Fey demonstrated her mastery of high school reality with her screenplay for Mean Girls in 2004 and, to a lesser extent, in the book she contributed to the musical adaptation of the box office success 14 years later. You’ll be better oriented to the touring version of the Broadway hit, now at Belk Theater, if you cuddle up with the 97-minute original on Netflix.Mean-Girls-1

There you will get a better feel for Evansville, the university town near Chicago where 16-year-old Cady Heron gets her first tastes of high school – and America – after growing up home-schooled in Africa. Markers along the way are clearer on film, where Cady checks in with her folks after days at school, and the progress of the conspiracy to take down queen bee Regina George is itemized and commemorated step-by-step. The musical score was written by Jeff Richmond, Fey’s husband, and clocks in at 66 minutes, supplanting those markers and eating into other key specifics.Mean-Girls-2

A couple of times when I was catching up with the film, where Lindsay Lohan squared off against Rachel McAdams, I found myself exclaiming inwardly, “Oh, that’s how mean she is!” when I saw Regina in action. The most egregious of these omissions from the musical occurred right before McAdams invited Lohan to come and sit with her exalted clique, The Plastics, and have lunch with them for the rest of the week. It’s a cringeworthy humiliation episode in front of the whole cafeteria that gets swallowed up by “Meet the Plastics,” the fourth consecutive lame and overloud song at the top of the show.

Or so it was in the early going on opening night at the Belk, where techs in the soundbooth offered more than a judicious amount of support for the lead singers and ensemble combatting the fortissimo orchestrations by John Clancy. They seemed to get the hang of the hall after intermission, so I was able to decipher more than half of Nell Benjamin’s lyrics. That will be a tremendous godsend at future performances before intermission, when some in the audience might otherwise be struggling to get their bearings.Mean-Girls-8

The show improves when it moves to Cady’s Calculus class, where English Bernhardt gets to sing the calmer, relatively low-key “Stupid With Love” when she’s smitten by the dreamboat sitting in front of her, Adante Carter as Aaron Samuels, Regina’s ex. A nice complex of intrigues begins soon after Janis, Cady’s Goth guide to the treacherous terrain, hatches her three-pronged strategy to dethrone Regina. While Cady sets about infiltrating the Plastics, sowing dissension among Regina’s acolytes, and ruining her perfect bod; Regina learns of Cady’s crush on Aaron and nonchalantly lures him back.

Cady doesn’t blow her cover by showing her anger and jealousy, but she doesn’t give up on Aaron. She begins pretending that she’s dumb rather than brilliant at math, starts taking dives on exams, and reaches out to Aaron to be her tutor – when she should actually be tutoring him. Since Regina’s crimes against her classmates are abridged, we can wonder more readily here in the musical who’s the real meanie than we could in the movie.Mean-Girls-3

These intrigues get to be pretty tasty as the thrust of the songs switches from sketching the horrors of high school to more personal feelings and drama. After Barnhardt bemoans Cady’s Calculus crush, Lindsay Heather Pearce gets to vent her fury at Regina in “Apex Predator,” hoping to destroy Cady’s naïve delusions about the reigning prom queen. It’s apex of this musical’s hard-rock pretensions. Even Eric Huffman as Damian, Janis’s genial gay chum, gets a nice cautionary confessional at the top of Act 2, though “Stop” sounds like he’s shamelessly stealing from Avenue Q or The Book of Mormon.

Reveling in our tragic teen diva, standby Adriana Scalice* subbed on relatively short notice for Nadina Hassan as Regina, growing more admirable in her screaming power ballads as the sound system settled down. You could pretty much get the onslaught of her cattiness late in the opening act as she thrust her predatory claws into Aaron with “Someone Gets Hurt,” but she was far more sensational after the break in her apocalyptic “World Burn.” That’s when Regina discovers that she’s been played.

Hassan disappeared so suddenly from the tour that her name still appears in the top row of both the cast marquee and the photo gallery in the playbill. More amazing at the sold-out opening night performance, a woman sitting close behind me screamed her head off – and nearly mine – each time Scalice appeared! Most amazing was driving home with my wife Sue and two other women: I found myself surrounded by pure nostalgic bliss. High School USA!

*For the Saturday matinee, understudy Olivia Renteria steps in

Joy and Grasso Revivify the Kings and Queens of Bebop at Middle C

Review: Samara Joy and the Pasquale Grasso Trio at Middle C Jazz Club

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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August 27, 2022, Charlotte, NC – Born in the Bronx, Samara Joy didn’t stray far from home to win best vocalist honors in the annual Essentially Ellington high school competition at Lincoln Center. You can get to that Versailles of Jazz overlooking Columbus Circle by taking any of four Bronx subway lines, including the A train. Nor was it much of a drive – if she didn’t simply hop a bus – for Joy to go across the Hudson River to Newark and win the prestigious Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition in 2019 while still a collegian.

Recently, she graduated from the jazz program at the State University of New York at Purchase, less than 35 miles from the Big Apple, where she was an Ella Fitzgerald Scholar. No, Joy hasn’t needed to hit the road to pick up these auspicious accolades. But make no mistake, teamed up with an extraordinary bebop guitarist, Pasquale Grasso, young Joy is going far. The 7:00pm set last Saturday evening was sold out at Middle C Jazz, where Joy and Grasso’s trio made their Charlotte debut, testifying to the already impressive momentum of Joy’s career and the spiraling sophistication of the Queen City’s jazz audience.2022~Samara Joy~12-1

Hard to say where the crowd had caught the buzz. A year ago, both Joy and Grasso were featured in August issues of major magazines, the singer in Downbeat and the guitarist in a JazzTimes write-up. Both have toured recently and both have been listed in their respective “Rising Star” categories for the past two years in Downbeat’s International Critics Polls, the more established Grasso rising to #3 in this year’s rankings. Grasso’s discography is also more extensive, but news of Joy’s triumphs is hitting my inbox more frequently these days. Verve, one of the choicest pearls among jazz recording companies, has signed Joy and will be dropping her first CD (and vinyl) on her new label in mid-September, and she has recently climbed aboard the list of heavyweight headliners for Jazz Cruise 2023. Yes, Grasso will be in the same boat, not quite as high on the quirky marquee.

Although only two tracks from the new album, Linger Awhile, have been released, the full songlist – otherwise greyed out – can already be viewed at Apple Music, and you can hunt down one other new song in a YouTube concert. Maybe even more exciting and auspicious than the half dozen songs she sang from the new release, including the title track, were the five songs that have not appeared on either of her two albums to date, including new lyrics for tunes by Thelonious Monk, Fats Navarro, and a tryout for Joy’s French translation of “April in Paris,” mashed up with the original English by Yip Harburg for composer Vernon Duke.2022~Samara Joy~16-1

Nor was Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust,” the lone tune Samara performed from her eponymous debut album of 2021, merely a lazy reprise. The YouTube concert recorded last July at Duck Creek, just after the release of Samara Joy, leans far more heavily toward Sarah Vaughan than the studio version, which shuttled between Sassy Sarah and Ella Fitzgerald in its timbre and interpretation. At Middle C, she was bolder, more self-assured, more venturesome, and more individual. Freed by Grasso’s lacy and linear accompaniment to take liberties with the beat, Joy bent the melody – and the lyric – more audaciously, particularly in the final sentence, letting Hoagy’s vain “dream” float longer than those previous versions and ending with a little cadenza that stretched out the final “refrain” to two or three long breaths.

Since Vaughan was the vocal great most closely associated with bebop, it was inevitable that Joy would gravitate toward melodies by Monk and bebop phrases coined by Charlie “Bird” Parker – especially since Grasso, in addition to his latest Be-Bop! album on the Sony label, has also released solo EPs devoted exclusively to Bird, Monk, and the wellspring of his unique guitar style, bebop pianist extraordinaire Bud Powell. Sprays of dazzling lucidity poured from Grasso’s fingers whether he was setting the stage for Joy’s vocals with oblique intros or soloing midway to give our featured artist a well-deserved breather. Not that this future diva ever took a seat or even a sip of water. She’s just 22!2022~Samara Joy~4-1

Jumping right into “Can’t Get Out of This Mood,” a somewhat neglected gem that Vaughan introduced in 1950 on her first LP, Joy’s vocal kinship with Sassy was instantly apparent – but she was getting to the song a few years earlier in her career, so her voice had a lighter, more youthful sound. She sounded like a younger Vaughan from back in the ‘40s, when you could only hear her “Perdido” on 78rpm. That made a difference when Joy sang the payoff line, “Heartbreak, here I come!” almost embracing disaster. After giving her “April in Paris” a French twist, Joy played around a little bit with Cole Porter’s “Just One of Those Things,” starting at a ballad tempo with the bridge, which slightly veiled the song’s identity before she hit the familiar opening line with an abrupt uptempo splash.

For me, the most delightful segment of the program came at the midpoint, when Joy concentrated on retrofitting some lost bop treasures with fresh lyrics. “Sweet Pumpkin,” already gathering plays on the streaming sites as the B-side of Joy’s first Verve single, has had two separate lives – as a Ronnell Bright song recorded by Bill Henderson in 1959 and as a Blue Mitchell instrumental in 1960. Joy’s second chorus was so unlike her first that you could accuse her of a second melody in vocalese, a precipice from which Neal Caine’s ensuing bass solo contrasted like a pleasant, peaceful valley. The young singer really did craft new lyrics for the next tune, Navarro’s “Nostalgia,” which will pick up a parenthetical new title, “The Day I Knew,” when the new album releases. Most fun of all for me was the Monk tune that Joy may not have taken to the studio yet, her new setting for “San Francisco Holiday,” nearly renamed “Don’t Worry Now” – I say nearly because one cover of the tune I’ve found has “Worry Later” as its parenthetical title.

Joy sang her song so slowly that it was unrecognizable at first. Aside from Carmen McRae, the only diva I know who has dared to devote a whole album Monk’s marvelously eccentric music, nobody has ever sung such a prickly, astringent song so slowly. It is blaring, repetitive, brassy music that would lose most of its flavor on piano or guitar, cresting with a bridge that echoes the main theme maybe an octave higher – with more discordant harmony. Only when Joy sped up the melody on her second pass did I recognize the Frisco melody and the wan, soused gleefulness of the original 1960 recordings by Monk’s quintet. Prudently, Grasso took a pass on soloing here, ceding that honor to drummer Keith Balla, who fashioned a fine and witty tribute to Monk’s legendary eccentricity, playing three-quarters of his solo quietly with his bare hands and his finale with a pair of sticks held no further than three inches above his drum kit.2022~Samara Joy~17

There was no letdown after this delight. Joy will be building to the climax of the Linger Awhile CD with the title song followed by the pinnacle of Monk’s composing genius, “’Round Midnight” – a fairly objective judgment if our measuring stick is either the number of cover versions the work has drawn by other jazz greats or the number of plays the pianist’s own versions have tallied on Spotify. If Joy’s recording is like the Charlotte performance, you will not be disappointed. The live version had all the trimmings and more, with Joy singing the verse, the vocal, and what seemed to be an even longer version of the familiar out-chorus vamp than even McRae’s, with little melodic variants all Joy’s own. Separating the two vocals, Pasquale played his most soulful solo in the set. Arriving as a signature song for her upcoming album, “Linger Awhile” was capped by a gleeful trading of fours by the instrumental trio, another pleasant and cordial valley after another majestic peak.

For the Middle C audience, the most delight was probably delivered with Duke Ellington’s “Just Squeeze Me.” Not only did Joy wail it with two pairs of soaring choruses, she challenged the crowd to repeat a series of scatted riffs, breaking the room into two competing teams, and choosing sides. Just a bunch of fun, underscoring how relaxed and self-confident Joy had been throughout her sellout set. The encore was a nicely chosen mellowing agent from the forthcoming album, “Guess Who I Saw Today,” a special bouquet for Nancy Wilson fans. There seemed to be many of them in the house.

Toni Stone’s Path to Glory Goes Beyond Winning and Losing

Review: Three Bone Theatre’ Toni Stone at The Arts Factory

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Trivia questions: who replaced Hank Aaron when the future home run king moved up from the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League to the majors? And who was the first woman to sign a professional baseball contract and play with a men’s team? The answer to both questions is Toni Stone, nee Marcenia Lyle Stone (1921-1996) – unless you’re a stickler for fact-checking and historical accuracy.

Then we need to face the truth that Hammerin’ Hank was already playing for the Braves’ farm club, the Eau Claire Bears, a season before Stone made her Negro League debut at second base with the Clowns. And before team owner Syd Pollock signed her to a Clowns contract, Stone had played in professional men’s leagues – if not the topmost major league – for 16 or 17 years, depending on which capsule biography you read.

Hearing all this for perhaps the first time, you’ll probably ask a truly important question, one that playwright Lydia R. Diamond surely asked after reading Martha Ackmann’s 2010 biography, Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone the First Woman to Play Professional Baseball in the Negro League. Why haven’t we all heard about Toni Stone before, and why isn’t she more celebrated?

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Amazingly enough, when Diamond’s Toni Stone premiered Off-Broadway in June 2019, the playwright didn’t blare out the answers that would become so glaringly obvious to everyone the following summer in the midst of #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, and our communal COVID hibernation. Diamond’s portrait of the pioneer nicknamed Tomboy during her childhood in St. Paul is more nuanced, diffuse, and detailed than it might be if she had begun sketching it after the cataclysms, polarization, and pandemic chaos of 2020. Or the nationwide schism of January 6.

Lucky us? In some ways, Three Bone Theatre’s production at The Arts Factory, meticulously directed by Dr. Corlis Hayes, reminds us how relatively dispassionate we were less than three years ago when we looked at neglected pathfinders and feminist icons. There’s a certain amount of useful calibration when Diamond seemingly steps aside and lets Toni tell us her story – and what she thinks of herself.

In her third standout outing of the year, Nasha Shandri immerses herself engagingly in all of Toni’s quirks, vulnerabilities, and strengths; candid rather than arrogant, sassy rather than seductive. Above all else, Toni loves baseball – the ball, the glove, the game. Both Diamond and Shandri make us believe it.

When she runs out of things to say, to us or her teammates, Toni will recite major league player stats, as if she’s collected and memorized every baseball card out there – as if the numbers have magic healing powers when she’s distressed. Diamond makes her so obsessed with baseball that romance and sexuality make her uncomfortable. Shandri has a mumbling recitation of stats at her disposal, or a Peter Pan aversion to being touched, whenever hormones begin flowing around her. She’s a natural, either way she goes.

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An all-Black ensemble of eight men hustles around Jennifer O’Kelly’s appropriately seedy set, which packages a movable tavern, a ramshackle players’ dugout, and a dimly lit brothel, leaving most of the Arts Factory playing space free to fancifully, maybe laughably, serve as a baseball diamond. Eight men aren’t going to be enough to bring us all the mentors, parents, teammates, and romantic interests of multiple races and genders that Toni will deal with from her childhood through her baseball career (1936-1954). Props and costumes are stowed in the dugout as well as offstage to keep things flowing.

Cutting through much of the confusion, Diamond keeps the names, personalities, and fielding positions of Toni’s teammates as constant as the parks she plays in. All evening long, Shandri and her team wear the same Clowns uniforms, authentically rendered by costume designer Kara Harman. That way, Toni’s path comes across as less solitary while she moves from her early ballplaying days in a local church league to a series of American Legion and minor league teams in Minnesota, San Francisco, and New Orleans before her major-league apotheosis: a full year with the Indy Clowns in 1953, before she joined the famed Kansas City Monarchs for her final season.

Diamond and Hayes are both aware of the perils of allowing Toni and the shorthand differentiation of her crew to devolve into a wholesome replay of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The playwright not only gives us frequent glimpses of the racism that dogs Toni’s progress, she also shows us the sexism and piggishness behind the scenes in the clubhouse, occasionally checked but never eradicated.

We also see that there are good reasons for the men’s resentments when Stone signs on with the Clowns. When Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947 and Larry Doby integrated the American League during the following season, the Negro Leagues began to crumble. By the time Aaron is signing with the Braves in 1952, the talent drain is on the verge of killing Negro League baseball, reducing its remaining teams to barnstorming roadshows.

Clowns owner Syd Pollock – nearly overacted here by James Lee Walker II – didn’t sign Stone to make his team better. Unlike previous owners, who signed Toni on her merit, Pollock signed her as a novelty to improve the marketability and entertainment value of the team, already baseball’s equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters. In a notable confrontation between Shandri and Walker, Diamond shows us that Pollock isn’t interested in showcasing his new acquisition on a level playing field. To ensure his investment – not very much, if we’re talking about Toni’s salary – Pollock colludes with other owners to ease up on her in the middle innings, when their pitchers will throw her more hittable pitches.

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Hayes does her part, casting the other Clowns, so that Shandri doesn’t stick out uncomfortably as the smallest on the team. In particular, the other middle infielder is diminutive, in the vein of Phil Rizzuto, Jose Altuve, or Joe Morgan. On the other hand, Miles Thompson as Spec, the team intellectual, is not at all the dwarf that he was reputed to be. Along with Justin Jordan as Woody, the embittered teammate who is by far the most trouble for Toni, Thompson is quite an imposing figure.

More than one of the Clowns points up Toni’s sexual inexperience in their dugout and locker room banter. One whole scene, a rather bawdy little prank played on her with a baseball bat, more than emphasizes her naivete. It also heightens uncertainty among the men about Toni’s sexual orientation.

Clearly, Diamond wants to keep us guessing, too. The juiciest roles outside the clubhouse go to Robert Rankin as Millie, the madam of that brothel, and Keith Logan as Captain Aurelious Alberga, an elderly admirer who persistently pursues her at Jack’s Tavern, a San Francisco joint. Skittishly resisting Alberga’s initial advances, Shandri seems more attracted to Millie, whose sexual appeal is aimed at her teammates. Both Rankin and Logan give charismatic performances, worldly and mature, charismatic and confident.

Doubling as Drunk Willie when he dons his Clown uniform, Walker as Pollock is probably the best at marking those moments when white men enter the story. Hayes could have sharpened the portraiture a bit more when we meet the other white folk: Father Charles Keefe, the neighborhood parish priest who paves the way for Toni to play organized ball; and Gabby Street, nicely handled by Thompson, the former manager of the world champion St. Louis Cardinals, who yields to Toni’s repeated entreaties, making it possible for her to aim higher.

Melissa McDaniel Grisham’s choreography seems a bit toothless and pointless when the Clowns team goes into their pre-game shtick. From reviews I’ve read on the Off-Broadway production, the aim there was not just to show how athletic and entertaining the players were but also to show the degradation and of being clowns as well as ballplayers. There’s not even a hint of cringeworthiness here at The Arts Factory that critics had perceived in New York.

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Yet the chemistry among the players has exactly the tang we want when they’re playing the game they love – under shabby, hateful conditions. Johnathan McKnight as the catcher Stretch exudes the authority of the team’s quarterback, and Devin Clark has the aloof dignity of Elzie, the Clowns’ pitching ace. Tito Holder energetically grins and pouts as Jimmy, the team dumbass, and Frank FaCheaux makes the most of the glimpse Diamond gives us of team comedian King Tut, whom Pollock dubbed “The Clown Prince of Negro Baseball.”

Toni Stone has a hazy mythic aura to it unlike most biographical baseball sagas. Intense nail-biting games down to the last pitch or the cumulative drama of a torrid pennant race are nowhere to be found. They are as irretrievable as the barnstorming Clowns’ won-lost records, batting averages, ERAs, and boxscores. What binds the roaming Clowns together like family, in spite of their frustrations and resentments, is the love they share with Toni – for the game.

Newborn Charlotte Conservatory Conjures Theatre Magic – and Memories of Charlotte Rep – with “Witch”

Review: Witch from Charlotte Conservatory Theatre

By Perry Tannenbaum

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August 11, 2022, Charlotte, NC – Last April, when theatre was just beginning to emerge from its pandemic hibernation, would have the perfect moment for Charlotte Conservatory Theatre to spring to life with its first production, Jen Silverman’s Witch, now at Booth Playhouse. For the 2018 tragicomedy was based on The Witch of Edmonton, a lurid script written by William Rowley, Thomas Dekker and John Ford. All of that original play – all five acts, mostly in iambic pentameter – was written and readied for performance within the space of four months. That’s how long it had been since the true-life “witch” the play was based upon, Elizabeth Sawyer, was hanged for witchcraft on April 19, 1621. A year and four months after the quadricentennial of that execution, when our fears have shifted from death by COVID to inflation and monkeypox, the sardonic tear-it-all-down thrust of Silverman’s play may have blunted a little, but its fierce feminism remains intact.

Make no mistake, most of the gripping power of this evening at the Booth emanates from the white-hot Charlotte debut of Audrey Deitz as the lonely, defiant, and principled Elizabeth. But then there’s also the Charlotte debut of Stephen Kaliski as Scratch to bring out all of Dietz’s bewitching charisma, for his portrayal of the Devil has plenty of charisma to vie with Elizabeth’s. Kaliski was guileful, quick-witted, disarmingly frank, and surprisingly vulnerable on opening night. Here the Devil had met his match and more.

Such stunning simultaneous debuts of two experienced out-of-town actors with a local theatre company at Booth Playhouse are phenomena we haven’t enjoyed since the demise of Charlotte Repertory Theatre in early 2005. The regional professional aroma of that long-gone LORT company was sustained by the polish of the design team, led by scenic designer Tom Burch, whose previous local gigs I’ve praised at UNC Charlotte and Children’s Theatre. With their brushwork, scenic artist Lane Morris and portrait artist Eva Crawford clash a bit with Burch’s 17th century furnishings, echoing how Silverman pulls against the bygone era with her idiomatic dialogue. But Kellee Stall’s costume designs settle the matter, sort of. “Then-ish. But equally of our moment,” is Silverman’s dictate on the era of her work.

We see the “Then” most vividly in Stall’s costumes when we shuttle to Silverman’s other plotline at Sir Arthur Banks’s castle, which occupies most of the stage. After Elizabeth’s opening burn-it-all-down aria, delivered under a sharply brilliant spotlight, the other actors parade onstage, following the lead of Cuddy Banks, Sir Arthur’s foppish/effeminate son, who may be morris-dancing around Dad’s imposing dinner table. Anyway, he will soon tell Scratch that he performs in a morris-dancing troupe. What Silverman and Elizabeth seem to enjoy most about Scratch is that he’s selective.

So what Cuddy likes about Scratch, when he comes offering temptations in exchange for his soul, is that he’s coming to him before approaching either Elizabeth or the up-and-coming Frank Thorney. You see, Dad has taken Frank into his household and is now thinking about adopting the upstart, because Frank is clearly more likely to produce an heir. Robert Lutfy, who has been off our radar as a director for over a decade, makes an interesting alteration in how he sees Cuddy, pointing up his sexuality and discarding his shyness, handing a plum comical role to Jeremy DeCarlos, who feasts on it. What was easy to forget on opening night, amid DeCarlos’s prancing and his Percy Blakeney fopperies, was that Cuddy first considered asking for Winnifred, Dad’s servant, in exchange for his soul. Scratch short-circuits that request by pointing out that Winnifred is secretly married to Frank – a revelation that is doubly devastating to Cuddy. Even as he switches the bargain, exchanging his soul for Frank’s life, he is wildly in love with his manly, dashing nemesis.

If you’re scratching your head a little over Scratch’s objection to Winnifred, you will learn more intriguing details about Silverman’s concept of the tempter. He is not all to be confused with Satan or Lucifer – or with their supernatural omniscience. Instead, he’s like a traveling salesman, assigned to a specific territory, not exactly a rookie but lacking in past prestigious catches to boast of. Watching Witch at the Booth, I had the feeling that, after bagging Cuddy, Scratch moved on to Elizabeth and Frank because his bargaining with Cuddy yielded those leads. Dominic Weaver plays the confident and ambitious Frank with a hulking, self-assured swagger that contrasts perfectly with DeCarlos’s spindly fidgeting.

When Frank sets his price at becoming Sir Arthur’s heir, in exchange for his soul, Scratch’s answer is exactly the same as when Cuddy asked him to kill Frank: “I think we can make that work.” You might wonder how Satan’s Edmonton rep accommodates both rivals. Without explicitly answering, I’ll surmise that Silverman may have read Macbeth as profitably as she read The Witch of Edmonton. Fulfilling the devil’s work delivers some complications, of course, not the least of them are Winnifred’s flare-ups when she hears that her husband is yielding to Sir Arthur’s efforts to fix Frank up with a nobly-born wife.

It’s not just Elizabeth and Cuddy, then, who get their opportunities to sing their woes. From her multiple cares and troubles, Savannah Deal gets to deliver a fine aria – Silverman’s term for all the soliloquies she doles out to her players – touching us as she transcends her worldly status of peasant wench. Ron McClelland certainly gets multiple chances to humanize Sir Arthur, pouring his heart out to his deceased wife (the woman in the portrait) and agonizing over the future of his family name.

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Your only worry, as Silverman’s separate plotliness develop, is whether she will ever tie them together. It’s not a terrible concern, for Elizabeth’s destiny becomes as fascinating as the love triangle at the castle once Scratch becomes as besotted with Elizabeth as we are. Silverman offers the choice of casting the outcast witch as a woman from her 40s to her 60s, but after seeing the vibrancy of Dietz in the title role, I believed Lutfy made the ideal choice in going for the low end of that scale. Aside from one single bobbled line, the opening night performance was seamless, magical perfection. What an auspicious beginning for Charlotte Conservatory Theatre! May their future runs be longer than four days.

Cosper’s Take 2 on Genet’s “The Maids” Is a Keeper

Review: XOXO Presents The Maids at The Mint Museum

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Why hasn’t Absurdism ever taken root in America as it has across Europe? After analyzing the plays of Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Harold Pinter, and Jean Genet in his renowned study, The Theatre of the Absurd, Martin Esslin briefly pondered the question. What America seemed to lack, according to Esslin, was the deep disillusionment that sprouted up in the UK and France, the epicenters of Absurdism, as they languished in the lingering ashes of World War 2.

On this side of the Atlantic, we still had a strong sense of meaning and purpose, for the American Dream still flourished during the Ike Age. Watergate, Vietnam, and Edward Albee hadn’t yet dented our optimism – or our tough, leather-clad cynicism – while Absurdism percolated abroad.

Well, 75 years after the premiere of Genet’s The Maids, disillusionment and despair seem to be the most unifying features of American life. Coin of the COVID realm. So the times could hardly be riper for the gestation of new Absurdist playwrights in the Land of the Free, though inhabitants of MAGA World may have gotten a head start in their alternate universe.

Certainly, The Maids should be considered in-season at the Mint Museum, where a stylish and purposeful XOXO production is running through August 14. We’ve waited long enough: since I last reviewed The Maids in 2002, we’ve hardly heard a peep around here from Pinter, Ionesco, Beckett, or Genet.

Over the past 35 years, Charlotte’s main proponents of the notoriously criminal Genet – thief, prostitute, smuggler, deserter – have been UNC Charlotte, where I saw The Balcony and The Maids in the late ‘80s, and Matt Cosper, who directed both the 2002 edition of The Maids at the Hart-Witzen Gallery and the current effort in the Mint’s Van Every Theater. Imprisoned many times, “Saint Genet” (as Sartre called him) could have easily fit Esslin’s profile of disillusionment and despair.

Yet a look at Genet’s most notorious works (add The Blacks to those suspects I’ve already named) shows the Frenchman to be subversive, nihilistic, angry, rebellious, wickedly sarcastic, and restlessly playful. At the same time, The Maids is an especially oblique and mercurial text, tough on readers and even tougher on actors, directors, and audiences.IMG_2229

In his second shot at presenting Genet, Cosper takes the script by the scruff of the neck and bends it to his will, making the action more sensational and surreal, adding musical interludes for the sister maids, and taking charge of the denouement and the final tableau, making the experience easier for us to take in. With an outstanding set and lighting from production designer Will Rudolph, and with composer Shannon J Hager’s sound design deepening the spell, this may be the richest theatre experience we’ve had at the Van Every.IMG_2192

Rudolph captures the Louis-Quinze ambiance prescribed for Madame’s boudoir with his furnishings and eclipses the playwright’s wildest imaginings with his follow-through on Genet’s call for flowers-flowers-everywhere ornamentation. We seem to be watching Madame dressing up and admiring herself more convincingly here, waited on by her maid Claire, than we did at the Hart-Witzen 20 years ago. Yielding partway to Genet’s perverse suggestion that men play all three roles, Cosper had one man onstage as the action began.

Not this time. We can see in our playbills that this is an all-female cast, but we still might think there’s a misprint even if we recognize Kadey Ballard and Kate McCracken when they first appear. It’s not long before Cosper’s players let us know that things are more than a little out of whack.5680C148-E886-464F-88DA-28A0326C5891

Two-time Blumey Award winner McCracken is noticeably histrionic, sometimes almost operatic as Madame, preening herself and striking attitudes. Ballard, QC Nerve’s 2021 Best Singer-Songwriter, is even more bizarre, veering as Claire from Southern drawl to bossy Irish brogue and then to a French accent. Then she shifts from sweet maid to bossy dominatrix, slapping Madame hard in her expensively powdered face.

Then an alarm clock goes off, bringing the ritual to a halt, and soon afterward, the phone rings – another sudden reversal that further excites and confuses us because it discombobulates the sisters. We gradually understand that two maid sisters, Solange as Claire and Claire as Madame, have been playacting while Madame is away, fondling their mistress’s jewelry, modeling her dresses and lingerie, building toward the climax in the sisters’ fantasy when they will murder Madame.

But the alarm going off startles them, signifying that the real Madame is returning from her nocturnal partying. The telephone call brings news that Madame’s beloved Monsieur, whom they have cleverly contrived to send to prison – apparently an easy chore in Genet’s world – has been released on bail. The delicious jig-is-up panic between Ballard and McCracken, seasoned with a desperate mix of sisterly animosity and solidarity, weaves a wonderful red carpet for Jennifer Adams to make a serenely regal entrance upon as the true Madame.IMG_2353

And indeed, an exit door from the theater opens and Adams descends three straight flights of stairs to join the quaking siblings, instantly and effortlessly establishing her superiority and dominion. Adams is the diva that McCracken has pretended to be, her crises are as big as life, maybe bigger, and her dictates are to be followed.

Or at least Madame’s tragic and operatic sufferings are real until Claire stupidly blurts out that Monsieur has been released. In the blink of an eye, the air of fantasy and seething underclass resentment turns into a movie thriller predicament. Now if Claire doesn’t kill the real Madame before she gets to have a tête-à-tête with the liberated Monsieur, her mistress might get to the bottom of why her beloved was thrown into jail, and the two complicit maids could be facing some prison time of their own.

It’s urgent, for the impulsive Madame plans to rush out and rendezvous with Monsieur immediately, past midnight, at a designated place.

The 20-year interval since my last experience with The Maids was enough for me to have forgotten the outcome, even if Cosper weren’t bent on changing it. Curiously enough, the comical vibes from the three extravagant performances allowed me to feel a certain amount of detachment. After all, if the bumbling maids couldn’t manage to knock off Madame in multiple roleplaying sessions, what could we expect when it all had to become real, outside their hurriedly aborted play-within-a-play?IMG_2364

Yes, I could root for the maids because Adams had regally discarded feelings in favor of decorous posturing, her Madame never condescending to display any sort of interior. Cosper flips the chemistry between the females by making his Madame older than her servants, rather than 5-10 years younger as Genet prescribed. Somehow this Madame is less innocent in her imperiousness, more heartless than she might have been in Genet’s mind. The oppression of these maids by their mistress seems more severe.

At the same time, McCracken and Ballard point up the youthfulness and playfulness of the sibs, adding extra edge – and a bit of shock – to McCracken’s sweetly murderous Claire and Ballard’s wickedly cruel Solange. Even if you read Genet’s script tonight, you’ll be surprised tomorrow at the Van Every by how energetically and decisively this duo navigates the changes in mood, tone, and subject in their dialogues. One moment, they are in their ritual roles. Next, they’re themselves, bickering sisters, berating each other as Madame would.

For they admire the mistress they hate.

Late in the playscript, there’s a moment when only the audience should be able to see Claire. It’s a moment where Cosper would need to reconfigure his stage design to comply with Genet’s demands. Instead, he becomes wildly imaginative, with electrifying results. The ghostly, demonic ceremony of flaming despair that concludes The Maids at The Mint remains in the spirit if the lurid script, if not the letter, becoming Genet and Cosper at their best. Perhaps the rogue playwright, beholding this director’s boldness and impudence, would have been as awestruck as we were.

Great Caesar’s Ghost Heads for the Hills

Review: Julius Caesar from Free Reign Theatre Company

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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It’s an odd juxtaposition, that’s for sure. In reviving Julius Caesar, Free Reign Theatre Company has taken what is arguably Shakespeare’s most urban tragedy and transported it to Historic Rural Hill, a 15-minute drive from the nearest town, suburban Huntersville. Coming by way of I-77 and the I-485 beltway to the Sunday matinee, we may have seen one traffic light after exiting the highways and entrusting our destiny to Google Maps.

When you arrive, you turn off a narrow winding paved road onto a narrower, arrow-straight gravel road that carves through a grassy rise, two rustic buildings looming at the top. On a sunny Sunday afternoon, the simple colors and weathered wooden structures of the place reminded me of Christina’s World at first blush, Andrew Wyeth’s masterwork. Even as we parked, it seemed unlikely that either of these buildings could be a theater. The shed at our right seemed too small, and the barn-like building in front of us seemed to be serving a different purpose.

The sheer number of cars in the makeshift lot gave me the sinking feeling that we were in the wrong place. The family emerging from another car did not have the look of theatergoers heading to see Julius Caesar. God help us.

Moving closer, I still felt that the old building might be serving as a café, with customers or picnickers mulling around under a ramshackle awning at the side. Wide double doors facing us didn’t seem to be in use, so we headed to the other side of this barn, where things finally began to make sense.

A long file of food trucks was aligned down the slope at the other side of the rise, explaining the phenomenal number of cars that had parked. The doors at this side of the big barn proved to be the entrance to Free Reign’s makeshift theater, extending all the way to the other end of the building. Actually, this theater extended beyond its rear wall – for those people who seemed to be dining al fresco on the other side were really Free Reign’s acting troupe.

Most of the backstage maneuvering in this production actually happens outdoors, with just a narrow corridor behind the temporary stage devoted to entrances and exits. Stage manager Megan Hirschy already had the comings and goings of the 17-person cast running with admirable precision by the time we witnessed the fourth performance, but could she really do it without a stash of Tylenol or other medicinals?

We couldn’t have mistaken the Roman citizens, senators, tribunes, tradesmen, or Caesar for picnickers if costume designer Heather Bucsh – and director Robert Brafford – had opted for the ancient attire from Italian fashionistas that was trendy in March of 44 B.C. Judging by the half dozen Caesars I’ve seen since the turn of the millennium (in Oregon, Canada, High Point, and Charlotte), it would be a novel idea these days to revert to authentic dress.

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Not surprising. The tensions in this tragedy between representative government and autocracy, freedom and slavery, those in power and those scheming to overthrow them – all of these resonate with us more readily in the New World than the dynastic Old-World struggles and power grabs that typify Shakespeare’s histories and dramas. For some odd reason, the approval of the common folk seems to matter in Julius Caesar, and that naturally appeals to Americans.

Because Shakespeare views Caesar, Mark Antony, and Marcus Brutus with such admirable objectivity, it has always been fairly easy for actors and directors to tip the scales one way or the other – to make this Caesar’s tragedy or Brutus’s – or to balance Brutus equally with his adversaries, making them both tragic victims. In Elizabethan days, Shakespeare’s contemporaries would have been more likely outraged by any opposition or treachery against a monarch. For generations, Antony’s funeral speech would be memorized as if it were gospel.

Today’s audiences are more cognizant of Antony’s cunning. The laughter that rang out at Historic Rural Hill as Ted Patterson delivered the famed oration was partially directed at Antony for his transparent manipulativeness. Mostly, it was aimed at the notion that “We, the people” would fall for it. We would need to be very rustic indeed for that to happen.

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Patterson lets us see, with a choice expression or three, how Antony marvels at how easy it is to sway a Roman mob, not exactly the same valiant and vulnerable romantic hero we find in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. That’s enough to ensure that our sympathies will lean toward Brutus, but Russell Rowe gives us an extra nudge as Caesar, a little bit more arrogant, pompous, and egotistical than we might expect from a benevolent ruler – and a little less tender and empathetic towards his wife, Calpurnia, who pays more heed to soothsayers and bad dreams.

Offstage, Caesar is rejecting a crown three times during the opening scenes, but we actually see Brutus rebuffing Cassius when he repeatedly urges taking action, fearing that Caesar will relent, accept a throne, and become invincible. Both of the main adversaries show character, but Devin Clark as Brutus is clearly the gentler of the two. With just spare scenery at his disposal, Brafford shrewdly distinguishes between the dignity of Caesar’s household and the humbleness of Brutus’s at the other end of the stage.

There is also a palpable difference between the wives. Lauren Duckworth is regal as Calpurnia rather than adoring: when she counsels her husband against venturing out to the Capitol on the Ides of March, we assume that she’s angling to reign for decades as Empress of Rome. Alexandria Creech is definitely more submissive as Brutus’s wife, Portia, more intimate and seductive.

2022~Julius Caesar-31Both men give in to their wives, but Caesar’s yielding to Calpurnia is only temporary, largely because Cal has overstepped while Portia asks for less. More to the point, both leaders give in to their most potent political allies, Caesar finally deigning to accept a crown from Antony and The Senate, Brutus agreeing to join Cassius and his cronies in their assassination plot.

Off my radar since her college days 12 years ago, Chelsea Hunter is instantly sensational as Cassius. Along with Patterson, Rowe, and Clark, Hunter has one of the strongest voices onstage, so her Cassius is formidable and authoritative as well persuasive – perhaps even intimidating, notwithstanding Clark’s impressive sangfroid. What seems strange in this modernized Caesar, with its colorblind and gender-blind casting, is that Brafford didn’t cross a final frontier and change the pronouns of the text to suit his players.

Two thousand years after Caesar’s death – and 300 after Shakespeare’s – it’s perfectly ordinary to find women scheming and mixing it up with fellow politicos. So why hesitate?

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Brafford’s reluctance became most problematic and comical with Jess Johnson’s unmistakably feminine – and gossipy – take on Casca. Giving Cassius and Brutus the lowdown on Antony thrice offering the crown and Caesar turning it down with increasing reluctance, Johnson was repeatedly flapping open an oriental fan to punctuate her narrative. This mode of exposition was pretty hilarious and hard to quibble with, particularly in recounting what we know, we know, we know.

Johnson’s demonstrative antics were also handy at a matinee on a hot afternoon when the building’s AC was waging war against the heat outside, victorious against the torrid temperature but also against all but the loudest voices. Conditions for hearing all the actors and getting the full impact of the lighting are undoubtedly better at evening performances, and a boost for Great Caesar’s Ghost. But whoever had his or her hand on the switch should be coping with cooler weather next Sunday’s matinee – and better aware of the AC overkill this week that had some members of the audience rubbing their arms or shivering.

Less AC would be a win-win for noise and comfort.

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The view outside at Historic Rural Hill is likely pretty hectic during a performance, for more than half the cast is doubling, tripling, or more to play all the roles that Shakespeare prescribed. Brafford himself took on four roles aside from directing. My favorites among these platooned players were Jonathan Caldwell as the sassy Cobbler in the opening scene, Kristin Varnell as the spooky Soothsayer, and the inimitable David Hensley as Lucilius, the slimeball who hilariously impersonates Brutus in the heat of battle.

Best of all, though, is the chameleonic Katie Bearden, who plays no fewer than five roles, including Decius Brutus, surely the most underappreciated role in all of Shakespeare. For Decius undoes Calpurnia’s persuasion, reinterprets her prophetic dream, and with sly flattery convinces Caesar to come on down and accept the crown from The Senate. These are feats of dissembling and oratory worthy of Mark Antony, with no less impact on Roman history.

What was conspicuous for me in 2022 watching Julius Caesar – what I overlooked when I previously saw it at Spirit Square in 2014 – was the complete lack of dialogue between Brutus and Caesar before differences between them were settled with violence. Very much like America now and then, only so much more obvious today.

Off-Course “Noises Off !” Eventually Malfunctions Like Clockwork

Review: Noises Off! by Davidson Community Players

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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July 21, 2022, Davidson, NC – I’m not sure that a single American comedy has been produced as often in the Metrolina area in recent years as Noises Off, the wild door-slamming farce by Britisher Michael Frayn. What makes this particularly astounding is the monumental effort needed to mount this insanely high-energy, fast-paced work – and the time and effort it requires from audiences, stretching out to over two hours in length with two intermissions. There are folks in my family circle who groan at the prospect of one intermission. The sheer height, size, sturdiness, and swivel-ability of the scenic design – none of which can be compromised – make the comedy virtually impossible to stage at some venues.

Yet the adamantine laws of physics have not deterred some of our local companies from giving Noises Off a go. The production at Central Piedmont’s Halton Theater in 2012, for example, was penance for an ill-advised effort at panoramic Pease Auditorium in 1994. Likewise, it would have been foolhardy for Davidson Community Players to even attempt this two-story Everest of a comedy back in 2010 – or now in their encore – if they had been confined to their customary HQ at Armour Street Theatre. Fortunately, DCP had the good sense on both occasions to indulge their ambitions in the summertime, when Duke Family Performance Hall is available to them on the Davidson College campus. A ramp takes you up to the balcony level of the Duke if you arrive at the front entrance of the five-floor Knobloch Campus Center, which also houses the Alvarez Student Center. The fly loft of the theater extends to the full height of the building, so director Matt Webster can decree that the stage curtain be lowered halfway for a spectacular culminating technical gaffe.

Of course, theatre gaffes are the coin of the realm as this comedy-within-a-comedy unfolds so delightfully badly, starting with a calamitous dress rehearsal of “Nothing On” that extends past midnight into the morning of the day when it’s scheduled to open. Gleeful Instagrams and Facebook posts were broadcast to the wide world web by elated audience members at the Duke who were able to take cellphone pix of real printed programs after a hiatus of more than two years. It might be deflating, then, to recall that in the old days, we received additional fake programs from “Nothing On” with side-splitting fake bios of Lloyd Dallas, Dotty Otley, and the gang. With a charming ad for sardines, the most important of props. That’s part of a dizzying confusion we experience as we simultaneously track what’s happening in the badly-performed “Nothing On” – in a calamitous rehearsal and two calamitous performances – and the whirl of intrigue and contretemps between these endearing incompetents and their despairing director.

How do we see the personal trials, attachments, and antagonisms of these actors while they rehearse and perform a play? This is the riddle that Frayn solves so brilliantly. Because dress rehearsal is so epically bad, there are numerous pauses when the actors, stagehands, and director can interact or gossip. Then after the first intermission, Frayn obliges everyone who stages Noises Off to revolve their mammoth two-story sets a full 180 degrees so we can witness the last moments of the run-up to a second performance of “Nothing On” two months later and the performance itself – from backstage, where our actors interact as “themselves.”

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From the opening words of Act 1, when we could barely hear the venerable Jill Bloede as Dotty, it was obvious that opening night could turn into a harrowing misfire. Brandon Samples as Lloyd was usually far more audible to us, but that may have been because, in directing this dress rehearsal of “Nothing On,” Lloyd was sitting amongst us in the audience, mostly on our side of the hall. When Andrew Pippin entered from upstage as real estate agent Roger Tramplemain, and Tate Clemons followed as Vicki, the incredibly seducible girl he’s trying to seduce, my worst fears threatened to come true. Clemons was usually more audible than Pippin, but her Vicki was totally unintelligible as well. It would be hard to overstate how thankful I was, as five more performers made their fitfully audible appearances, that I had seen Noises Off at least six times before.

For newbies, welcome relief came during intermission, when I spotted empty seats and ruthlessly moved to the front row. What else happened during the break to salvage the evening cannot be reported conclusively. Surely, with a judicious visit backstage, stage director Webster would be a prime suspect in perpetrating the onset of fresh energy throughout Acts 2 and 3. Or maybe Samples, after playing Lloyd throughout Act 1, sounded the alarm backstage when he couldn’t hear his castmates during the poor director’s rambles around the hall. My wife Sue, loyal to her ticket stub and Row F, confirmed that audibility improved markedly back there for the rest of the evening.

Of course, the full benefits of increased volume don’t occur in Noises Off until Act 3. With so much of the wondrous Act 2 happening backstage, behind a monumentally delayed live performance on “Nothing On” that proceeds on the other side of the set, the principals we see are religiously hushed, adhering to actors’ etiquette. So most of the communication in Act 2 – whether amorous, angry, stealthy, jealous, urgent, frustrated, or diabolically mischievous – is delivered in earnest, energetic pantomime. You not only marvel at the synchronization between the torrid action backstage and the unseen staging of “Nothing On” which we can still hear droning and faintly exclaiming in the background, but in the precision of the hubbub in front of us as flowers, a whiskey bottle, a menacing fire axe and more keep moving in blurry rapidity across the stage, in and out of sight. Webster has all this mayhem malfunctioning like clockwork.

Most of what was missing in Act 1 arrived most emphatically in the final act, where we watch a performance of “Nothing On” some 10 weeks into its travels – discipline gone, tempers worn to a frazzle, animosities fully ripened, and the set itself needing repairs. Bloede was back on top of her game as the disillusioned and despairing Dotty, who can let all her grudges and inebriation run roughshod over her performance as Cockney housemaid Mrs. Clackett, since she is the producer bankrolling this stinkbomb.

Pippin and Clemons also showed marked improvement. All we needed from Pippin, it turns out, was a little more energy and clarity to sharpen the self-important dopiness of his Garry Lajeune and the starchy amorality of his Roger, now frazzled by too many jealousies to keep track of. Clemons is only marginally more intelligible than before as she continues her adventures with the slutty squeakiness of Vicki while attempting – probably attempting – a British accent. But we don’t need to really know what Vicki is saying anymore to appreciate the comedy of Brooke’s maddening insouciance, never varying from Vicki’s scripted lines and never thinking to improvise no matter how things have changed and disintegrated all around her.

Justin Thomas is absolutely disarming as the frail and squeamish Frederick Fellowes, the actor who portrays tax dodger Philip Brent, owner of the property that realtor Roger is seeking to rent. If there was ever even an attempt by Thomas of an English accent, I’ll confess that I missed it, and his dual role in “Nothing On” as the sheikh seeking to rent Brent’s hideaway was too brief for me to say how he handled it. We could be thankful that neither of his shticks, nosebleeds and dimwittedness, demanded an accent. Amanda Pippin doesn’t get a proportional share of the comedy as the cast gossip, Belinda Blair, the least frazzled and dysfunctional member of the troupe and their show. As Philip’s wife Flavia, Pippin does reliably abscond with various props and wardrobe, most notably Vicki’s dress.

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This allows Vicki to bustle around the two-story set and its eight doors in her underwear through most of the staged action we see. This wantonness gave us the notion that Vicki would ultimately become the title character of the “Nothing On” we never see, while justifying the aging Lloyd Dallas’s enduring backstage lust and devotion toward Brooke Ashton. He’s supposed to be away somewhere in Act 2 rehearsing Richard II, but he returns to see his dear nymphet. Emerging from hiding, Lloyd is outraged and distracted by all the chaos of the production. Then he becomes the excruciating victim in one of the most comical climaxes we’ll ever see. Much of Samples’ pantomimed sufferings are caused by Lloyd’s traveling stage crew, Jack Bruce as the inept and overworked handyman, Tim Allgood, and Jenna Tyrell as Poppy, the competent and frowzily attractive stage manager who doesn’t realize she’s been dumped by Dallas.

This oddball trio of Allgood, Poppy, and Dallas unite surprisingly in the comedy climax of Act 3 when Fellowes performs his crowning feat of dimwittedness. Suffice it to say that Jonathan Ray as the aging alcoholic actor, Selsdon Mowbray, is supposed to make a surprise appearance in “Nothing On” as a septuagenarian burglar. But he’s too deaf to reliably catch his cue line – and too frequently soused to reliably be there, ready to break in. The hilarious catastrophe far exceeds even a doomsayer’s expectations. You might be surprised to learn that I auditioned for Selsdon way back in 1992, when Theatre Charlotte brought Noises Off to town. That’s too long ago for me to remember how I intended to play Selsdon, but I suspect that my performance would have more soused, more crotchety, and more devious than what you will behold at Duke Family Performance Hall. Maybe that’s why I found myself cherishing Ray’s mellower, more natural portrayal.

Thomas Goes Off, Atticus Told Off in Sorkin’s Bold New Mockingbird

Review: To Kill a Mockingbird at Blumenthal PAC

By Perry Tannenbaum

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In light of what I truly experienced at Belk Theater on opening night of Aaron Sorkin’s To Kill a Mockingbird, watching Atticus Finch valiantly defend Tom Robinson for at least the eighth time onstage, it’s simply inadequate for me to say that Richard Thomas was stunning as the iconic Alabama defense attorney. Staggering is more like it, easily the most powerful work I’ve seen from Thomas in my 59+ years of watching his most memorable performances live on Broadway, in Charlotte, and on TV.

Much of the credit should go to director Bartlett Sher and his design team for prodding Thomas toward reimagining Atticus so radically. The unexpectedly drab and humble scenery by Miriam Buether is particularly effective, draining nearly all of the Southern charm and elegance from Harper Lee’s Maycomb County – and doing it on a spectacularly large scale.

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Yet it’s Sorkin who really lights the fires, scandalizing the stodgy protectors of Lee’s legacy with the first Mockingbird adaptation to reach Broadway. Now he’s doubling and tripling down with subsequent revisions that enable his West Wing political points to hit home more and more sharply. The Broadway script took on Bob Ewell, the low-life Klansman who beat and raped his daughter Mayella before accusing Robinson of the crimes, and added to his foulness by layering on a couples of doses of antisemitism as he berates Atticus. Mayella spews far more venom than we remember after Atticus gives her a harder time, and prosecutor Horace Gilmer goes after Robinson with a new viciousness, all the more shocking in the finely tailored suit that costumer Ann Roth dresses him in.

j Calpurnia at homeLike me, audiences are so used to seeing this story of grim understanding and growth through the eyes of a little girl, Finch’s tomboy daughter Scout. They will likely be shocked to discover that Sorkin is far more interested in the lessons Atticus learns – and the lessons we still haven’t learned as a society. In the wake of 2020 and the bitter fruit of #BlackLivesMatter, Sorkin’s Mockingbird 2.0 offered some fortified pushback from the Finches’ housemaid Calpurnia, scolding Atticus for his oft-expressed bromides that we should respect everyone since everyone has some good inside of them.

So the post-pandemic script returned to Broadway with some new wallop, but I won’t divulge how the formidable Jacqueline Williams as Calpurnia silences Atticus with a single sentence. Not yet. Both Sher and Thomas do know how to wield a silence, that’s for sure. We’ve waited our entire lives to see the Atticuses of our Dear Old Southland told off like this.

Maybe Sorkin should have left well alone after delivering this fresh blow. But he started delivering haymakers on Broadway in 1989 with A Few Good Men, a good ten years before establishing his more colossal bully pulpit with The West Wing. So restraint and soft-spokenness are way back in his rearview mirror.

Very likely, Sorkin and Sher have continued to tune up their production, maybe even after it started touring in March. For Mockingbird 2.1 or 3.0, whatever you choose to call it, now has a political dimension that savvy Broadway reviewers could never have overlooked.

b Courtroom Scene A

Most probably as a nod to Rep. Liz Cheney – if not to Republican Trump flouters who preceded her – Sorkin now lets it drop in his narrative (split up here between Scout, older brother Jem, and their chum Dill) that Atticus holds an elective office at the state level, so popular and entrenched that he usually runs unopposed for re-election. Ah, so in addition to getting told off, we will also learn that Atticus suffers political consequences for all his integrity, linking him to Cheney’s apparent martyrdom-in-progress.

Receding into the background, as Mockingbird becomes Atticus’s story more than Scout’s, is all the midnight cooing over the mystery of Boo Radley that cluttered the beginning of our narrative. Now Scout and Jem and Dill all obsess over how Bob Ewell could have possibly fallen on his knife, flipping the narrative almost entirely upside-down, since even Tom’s rape trial is a series of flashbacks.

All of this will be easy enough for first-timers to follow, with far more dramatic intensity for those of us used to the clunky old Christopher Sergel adaptation. On the other hand, Sorkin has jettisoned a few key moments that both the Oscar-winning 1962 movie, starring Gregory Peck, and the theatrical version – staged every May at the courthouse of Monroeville, Lee’s hometown – have effectively memorialized and graven in our minds.

h Calpurnia and Atticus A

Sheriff Tate won’t be scampering onto the Finches’ front porch begging Atticus to put down a rabid dog that is terrorizing the town, a calm display of marksmanship that will amaze Scout and Jem, both of whom view their dad as effete and ineffectual. Sorkin also dispenses with the dignified episode where Atticus slowly, with exquisite self-control, extracts a handkerchief from his pocket and mops his face after Ewell has rudely spit in it. Instead, Atticus demonstrates his manhood by executing a neat jujitsu move on Ewell when the abusive boor confronts him after being publicly humiliated at the trial.

Nor will Atticus get the customary reverential treatment from the black folk when he makes his final exit from the courtroom, a further diminution of the icon – and perhaps the oddest of Sorkin’s juxtapositions of how we see Atticus today and how he would have been seen in 1934 Alabama. Goodbye, Rev. Sykes, your services aren’t needed in this version. Equally strange, yet far more delightful, Tom Robinson’s defense witness and former employer, Link Deas, is now played by deaf Canadian actor Anthony Natale, infusing the character with a totally fresh back story. Link now speaks ASL when he takes the witness stand, mostly translated for us by the children. It’s not the last of the personal secrets he will share with them exclusively.

The universally acknowledged town drunk injects some welcome comedy into this Deep South segregation tragedy, giving it more contour. Yet we find it hard to forget the phenomenon of Atticus Finch going off on Mayella Ewell, the overworked big sister that even Tom Robinson has the audacity to feel sorry for. The kid gloves are also tossed aside – along with his prepared written remarks – when Atticus rises to give his closing remarks.

e Courtroom Atticus and Tom

You could see how inspired Thomas was by the words Sorkin gave him, first berating himself for not schooling Robinson effectively enough to prevent his voicing pity for a white person, then heaping scorn on the city, the society, the nation and himself for insisting on such toxic racist niceties. But Thomas looked out on us more often on opening night than on the jury box as he mixed self-flagellation with earnest pleas and white-hot anger in his volcanic eruption, making it possible that he was also drawing inspiration from a Belk Theater crowd that filled the highest row in the highest balcony, hanging on every word, a rarity for a non-musical production.

The usual rituals and ceremonies relied upon in presenting Mockingbird had been shunted aside for new ones. With thundering success.

Thanks to the Blumenthal Performing Arts sound crew, all that thunder sounded quite natural and human. While Thomas can’t be accused of holding back when called upon to lose control, he is poise and grace as Atticus aside from his three notable eruptions. His antagonists, Joey Collins and Arianna Gayle Stuky as the Ewells and Luke Smith as prosecutor Gilmer, are no less fired up. It’s as if Sher told them that Mockingbird had been accused of being a children’s book – and to take that as a personal insult.

Here on the road and back on Broadway, Sher has consistently opted to use adult actors to portray the kids in this story. After about five seconds of uneasiness as Melanie Moore seemed to struggle with Scout’s Southern drawl, my discomfort disappeared. Kids would have worked as well or better than Justin Mark as Jem, Steven Lee Johnson as Dill, and Moore tagging along as Scout if their main charge was to sneak out at night and snoop on Boo or playact the painting scene from Tom Sawyer. But Sorkin mainly has them haunting the trial as our narrators, where less gee-whiz wonder and more spontaneous energy is better.

If Williams enjoys the enviable luxury of acting like she’s been imported intact to this story from a fully woke 2022, Yaegel T. Welch must finely calibrate his Jim Crow subjugation as Tom Robinson. Despite all the attitudes and traits Welch may have told Sher he would not do – or all the stereotypes Sher may have tried to avoid – this Robinson seems to have just the right amounts of fear, courage, and resoluteness that fit how his fate plays out. The new ingredients that Sorkin and Sher give him, from the moment Atticus first visits him in jail, is a healthy realistic cynicism.

Can a court-appointed attorney really help him? Can there be any other verdict than guilty for a black man in Alabama accused of raping a white woman? Both Welch and Williams in their roles seem to know the world better than Thomas does in his. These are two persistent tugs against Atticus’s education and elitism, insidiously allied with Tom Ewell. Neither of them acts as if this were a tender bedtime story. Whether you’re Tom standing trial or Calpurnia, making sure the children see it, this is all dead serious.

With the shifting emphases of Sorkin’s adaptation, Travis Johns gets to be as effective as Mr. Cunningham, the impoverished KKK father of one Scout’s classmates, as he is later in the more crucial role of Boo Radley. While Sorkin lets us know that each member of the Maycomb jury has blood on his hands, he allows Richard Poe as Judge Taylor and David Christopher Wells as Sheriff Tate to escape the kind of scrutiny he aims at Atticus. They are the most solid links between this Mockingbird and those that have come before, though I’d say both men are warmer and more prominent as the town’s good citizens.

After all, with all the other hooded white folk and the dozen unseen jurors filling out Maycomb’s voting rolls, who’s left in Maycomb to say something good about? Just Tom, Calpurnia, Atticus, the kids, and the upright black folk who attend the trial and bear witness.

f Mrs Henry Dubose B

No, Sorkin does not forget about the Finches’ haughty neighbor, Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose, and her precious camellia bushes. The racist’s belligerence is elevated to Broadway dimensions, justifying Jem’s attack on her garden more than ever. Played on tour by Mary Badham, a new link is forged with the 1962 film, for the Birmingham native made her auspicious screen debut as Scout. When she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, she became the youngest nominee who had ever received such Oscar recognition.

Nor is Dubose a token throwaway role. Badham plays her with iron rectitude and fiery malice, clearly as bad an influence on the kids she berates as Atticus is good – and she berates Atticus with gusto as well, which proves fatal to those precious camellias. This altercation, not devoid of comedy, tumbles around enough to become a fairly central teaching moment. Sorkin flips it beautifully, for now when Atticus makes Jem make restitution for his misdeed – and apologize – he not only gets pushback from his son.

Later on, Calpurnia forgets her place a little and goes off on him. By bending over backwards that far to show Mrs. Dubose respect, Calpurnia says flatly, Atticus is disrespecting her – and all other people that nasty racist is hurling hatred at.

Thomas sits there downstage, doesn’t answer, gets the point. We all do.

Common Thread Presents an Uncommonly Well-Constructed Racial Comedy

Review: Barbecue at Davidson College

 By Perry Tannenbaum

Common Thread Theatre Collective - Barbecue

July 15, 2022, Davidson, NC – There are plenty of questions to ask in Robert O’Hara’s Barbecue as two O’Mallery families – one white and one black – gather at the same park, both of them staging fake outdoor parties for the same kindly but devious purpose. These questions explode upon us as soon as the white O’Mallerys are replaced by the black O’Mallerys after the first blackout, wearing the same exact outfits we have just seen moments earlier, drinking the same beverages, and popping the same pills. Even their names are the same. Both Lillie Anns are prodding their reluctant kinfolk – husband James T. and sisters Adlean and Marie – to drape the same pavilion at the park in party decorations, to feign a joyous family celebration, and to confront family renegade Barbara and get her into a therapy program that Lillie Ann has specially chosen for her in faraway Alaska.

Mercifully, we gather that both of O’Hara’s O’Mallery families are on the same track because their scenes deftly overlap rather than tediously repeating. The checkerboard structure of the playwright’s comedy was a perfect vehicle for the new hybrid company that was presenting it at Barber Theatre on the Davidson College campus. Common Thread Theatre Collective is a joint venture between North Carolina A&T State University theatre faculty members and Davidson’s Department of Theatre. Established 131 years ago in Greensboro, A&T is the nation’s largest historically black university, with a student body that is currently less than 80% African American. Domestic students of color, according to Davidson’s website, are currently at 28% of the matriculated population – and an influx of 8% international students enhances the College’s diversity.Common Thread Theatre Collective - Barbecue

Predictably enough, the two O’Mallery families appear to be blissfully unaware of one another – until intermission. Directing the show, Donna Baldwin encourages skin color to make a difference in how James T’s Pabst-Blue-Ribbon trashiness, Adlean’s chain-smoking vulgarity, and Marie’s besotted Jack Daniel’s elegance play out onstage. Maybe I’m biased, but the trashiness, vulgarity, and besottedness of the white folk seemed more outsized to me than their counterparts’, which chimed well with O’Hara’s overall design. The two Lillie Anns were woefully lacking in vices as they masterminded their schemes and manipulated their interventions, but both were more controlling than they strictly needed to be, relishing their dominion. Here again, Joanna Gerdy gets to be just a little bit bossier, trashier, and more crotchety than Willa Bost, her black clone, even though she was basing her master scheme on some cliched TV series.

We began to understand what was going on with the abrupt break in the action that brought us to intermission. If that sudden jolt hadn’t made it all obvious, O’Hara double underlined his answer in a manner almost as surprising as his intermission reveal. For the first time, a black person and a white person spoke to one another – and it was the two Barbaras, Ava McAllister Smith and Jade Parker, who clarified the mysteries we had seen, two characters who had hardly spoken 10 words between them until now. Suddenly, what seemed to be a satirical dive into the crassness of American life, with subtle distinctions between the races, acquired new meta textures as the two Barbaras met at the park and negotiated. How this story should be told, who should tell it, and how much it should cost were all up for grabs as the Barbaras jousted over making a deal and setting a price.Common Thread Theatre Collective - Barbecue

Taking it all in, from the unseen moment when Lillie Ann was inspired by primetime TV to hatch her scheme, moving along to how one Barbara reshaped her rehab memoir before her counterpart Movie Star Barbara bought the rights, I came away with the following message from O’Hara: fueled by drugs, alcohol, and toxic righteousness, truth is what gets most thoroughly slaughtered and barbecued in American life. On the way home, another pleasant thought hit me. Thanks to an artful gap between scenes in Act 2, rehab Barbara may have actually lowballed the amount of money she was promised earlier from Movie Barbara when she confronted the other O’ Mallerys with Hollywood’s offer.

The presence of two Actors Equity performers, more than we see in most touring shows nowadays, testified to the professional-grade theatre that Common Thread has delivered, for neither of them stuck out uncomfortably among their local and intern castmates. Parker and Smith were nicely matched in the comedy’s one interracial faceoff, taking turns in holding the upper hand and smoldering nicely when they didn’t. As the only men we see before intermission, Shawn Halliday and Tyler Madden get to pop and stomp plenty of beer cans as the JT’s, taking heavy fire from the Lillie Anns all the while, but Halliday is the seedier of the two while Madden has the edge in timidity. La’Tonya R. Wiley was a formidable presence as Adlean no matter how many cigs she fired up or how many pills she gulped down, while Lane Morris made her Adlean more strung-out than anybody.

Gregory J. Horton has designed a set of costumes that likely inspired Baldwin-Bradby and her cast nearly as much as O’Hara’s canny script. At the opposite end of the spectrum from JT’s splashy mashup of baseball, soccer, and tennis outfits is the eye-popping elegance of the lemon dresses worn by our Maries. These citrus dresses are accessorized with high heels that are just as inappropriate for an outdoor barbecue, along with jugs of Jack Daniel’s large enough to sport handles for easy chugging and pouring. Of the two Maries, it was hard to say whether I most enjoyed the arc of Shawna Pledger taking Marie from swilling to passing out, or whether Xulee-Vanecia J subsequently surpassed her in Marie’s decorous revival.

Questions about Barbecue continued to assail me on the drive home. Foremost among these was how anyone could imagine a homespun, humdrum story like this winning an award. Sure enough, O’Hara had embedded an answer. You can bet it had nothing to do with honesty and everything to do with America.