AMOS McGEE Takes Us Into Uncharted Pre-K Territory

Review: Children’s Theatre of Charlotte presents A SICK DAY FOR AMOS MCGEE

By Perry Tannenbaum

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When you watch the new Children’s Theatre of Charlotte production of A SICK DAY FOR AMOS MCGEE, you and your child might not realize that Amos is employed as a zookeeper. You won’t see Amos swabbing down or feeding the animals that he visits – an elephant, a tortoise, a penguin, a rhino, and an owl – nor will you see him sweeping any cages or disposing of any droppings.

The time Amos spends with the zoo animals, to be honest, never looks like work. Thanks to the text by Philip C. Stead, adapted for the stage by Nicole B. Adkins, what Amos does looks exactly like friendship. He sits down to a game of chess with the elephant, races – and discreetly loses to – the tortoise, sits quietly and patiently with the shy penguin, and wipes the allergy-prone rhino’s nose. Time has truly flown by when dusk comes and Amos reads the owl a bedtime story.

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What struck me more forcefully than Amos’s vocation in Scottie Rowell’s puppet design, excellently derived from Erin Stead’s illustration, was his age. He’s elderly. You don’t need much youthfulness or foot speed to play chess, lose a race to a tortoise, extract a hankie from your pocket, or read a book.

 

So if you come to Wells Fargo Playhouse, you’ll find that Children’s Theatre is carving out a new niche with this leisurely-paced production sensitively directed by Melissa Ohlman-Roberge. It’s theatre for pre-K, and kids that I saw at the opening performance last Thursday seemed to find the pacing perfect. Oldsters and anklebiters are a natural combo, like peanut butter and jelly.

I did begin to wonder whether all the unhurried quality time Amos was spending with his zoo friends was the “sick day” of the title, for it takes up a larger proportion of our time at the theater than it does in the book. And I also began to suspect that Amos McGee wasn’t as fit for Children’s Theatre’s vaunted Kindness Project as it might be for a Friendship Initiative.

All that was neatly sorted out after Amos returned home and his new day began the next morning – a sick day when he just didn’t want to get out of bed. Consternation breaks out at the zoo. Elephant is missing his chess rival, tortoise is raring to race, and rhino is a mess. More than ever, we see that the animals don’t regard Amos as a zookeeper. When he doesn’t appear on schedule, we see that they regard him as a friend and as an integral part of their day. Their healthy day.

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When it becomes obvious to Amos’s friends that something is wrong, the kindness breaks out. Apparently, the animals recognize the city bus that Amos arrives on each day, so they resolve to take it to his house and pay him a visit. I’m assuming that animals who play chess and understand stories can devise ways to take leave of the zoo, pay their bus fares, and squeeze through the entrance to their friend’s apartment. But how do they find Amos’s place? If I figure anything out, I’ll let you know.

What matters, of course, is that Amos is modeling behavior that the animals appreciate, count on, and reciprocate. As the tortoise plays hide-and-seek with Amos, penguin sits quietly with his friend, and owl initiates story time, we’re likely to realize something that probably should have hit us when Amos was well: he gets as much from his friends as he gives.

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The three actors who serve as our puppeteers and take turns narrating gravitate toward a middle ground between ninja invisibility and emcee assertiveness, earnestly directing their attention – and ours – toward the puppets most of the time and calmly genial, never loud, in addressing us. Kids are likely to have a lively debate over which of Rowell’s puppet stars we should like best, elephant and tortoise perhaps leading the pack, but a call to express a preference among the puppeteers – Ron Lee McGill, Kevin Sarlo, or Lydia Williamson – will likely be met with blank stares.

All three puppeteers efface themselves sufficiently to allow Amos and the animals to be the stars. They’re like good parents for kids in this pre-K age group, encouraging their children to discover and play without going too far in voicing their views or imposing their structure. Yes, this is fertile new ground for theatre, worthy of further exploration.

Ample Eloquence Thrusts Home Against Faulty Amplification

Review: Shakespeare Carolina’s Cyrano

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By Perry Tannenbaum

Not surprisingly, Edmond Rostand was a theatrical reactionary. His most famous drama, Cyrano de Bergerac, was the last play written in verse or poetry that is still widely revived. The verse plays of William Butler Yeats, Maxwell Anderson and Archibald MacLeish have long since fallen by the wayside, but Rostand’s throwback along with his more whimsical Les Romanesques, transmuted into the evergreen musical, The Fantasticks, still endure.

But lately, Rostand’s original French text has been buffeted by film and stage adaptations that take us far from the playwright’s classic Alexandrine couplets – and the Brian Hooker verse translation that Jose Ferrer immortalized playing the title role. My last brush with a traditional Cyrano was in 1997 in an Off-Broadway production, when Frank Langella heroically took the title role in an abridged rendering of the Hooker translation.

The Anthony Burgess version, performed in SouthEnd by Epic Arts Repertory Theatre in 2004, took some liberties with parts that the translator didn’t fancy – and Laura Depta took on the title role, liberating it from traditional menfolk. So it’s been awhile since Charlotte has seen a traditional Cyrano, though the opera composed by David DiChiera, presented here by Opera Carolina late in 2017, reminded us of the huge scale and tapestry that Rostand imagined.

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You won’t find comparable operatic grandeur in the SlimFast Cyrano adapted by Jason O’Connell and

Brenda Withers, presented outdoors at the Winthrop Amphitheater by Shakespeare Carolina. Among the 44 “persons” catalogued in the original cast list are groups of cadets, poets, pastrycooks, pages, and musicians. After all these, Rostand calls for citizens, musketeers, thieves, children, Spanish soldiers, intellectuals, academicians, nuns, etc. O’Connell and Withers distill these multitudes into a script that ShakesCar presents with a cast of five – fewer people than you’ll see onstage in any precious little revival of The Fantasticks.

Naturally, O’Connell and Withers keep those five actors very busy in multiple roles. Even James Cartee, who will settle into the role of Cyrano, appears in a curiously updated prologue, falling off a ladder and setting off an ambulance-vs.-Uber debate on how to get him to a hospital. Stefani Cronley, off my radar since her debut in Fahrenheit 451 two years ago, must moonlight as a cadet when she isn’t Roxane, the beautiful lady of surprising depth and courage who absorbs Cyrano’s undeclared love and Christian’s inarticulate rapture.

Christian is fairly stunning himself, which may explain why Daniel Brown reappears as Sister Marthe when he has finished wooing Roxane. S. Wilson Lee also has an interesting array of roles; including Montfleury, a bogus poet whom Cyrano mocks; DeGuiche, a powerful noble who stalks Roxane; and Ragueneau, a friendly baker. The scenes we remember best from traditional productions, the moonlit scene in Roxane’s courtyard and the finale 15 years later at the Ladies of the Cross Convent, don’t really suffer dramatically from the O’Connell-Withers compression.

On the other hand, the remaining scenes were conceived on a grand scale. Cyrano heckles and denounces Montfleury at a theatrical presentation, he has an ill-fated triste with Roxane and meets Christian for the first time amid a hubbub of impoverished poets at Ragueneau’s bakery. And the unique love triangle climaxes at a besieged castle defended by Cyrano, Christian, and the cadets of Gascoyne. These are the scenes where Rostand’s multitudes are normally deployed.

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This Cyrano also applies the shears to our hero’s swordsmanship and literary prowess, so Monsieur De Bergerac doesn’t sensationally compose a ballade at Winthrop while outfencing and casually slaying a hapless enemy – and Cyrano’s gazette gets short shrift in the final scene. There is simply less reason here to admire and fear this dashing cavalier.

But the new script occasionally rhymes, and Cartee gives Cyrano ample eloquence. He wears a mask of his own design to underscore his ugliness, and his pacing is perfection when he verbally demolishes the simpleton who has the nerve to declare that Cyrano’s nose is outsized – with 20 or more elegant and witty self-deprecating descriptions he improvises on the spot. Confronting Roxane, he is timidity and deference, abashed by his own repulsiveness, yet with a touch of élan. He grows noticeably bolder under the cover of darkness when he woos his beloved on Christian’s behalf.

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Chris O’Neill’s costume and scenic design prove adequate for the more intimate scenes, largely because of the strength of his stage direction and Danny Wilt’s deft lighting. Until the end, when I felt that Cronley was a bit monochromatic in her weepiness, I was nicely swept into Roxane’s impetuous vigor. Dealing with Cyrano and Christian, Cronley’s eager energy dispelled any suspicion that Roxane was stupid, and the scenes with Christian were always pitch-perfect.

Of course, it’s Christian who readily strikes us as more dimwitted than Roxane at first, but Brown convincingly rides the tide of enlightenment that happens to this young buck as he becomes better and better acquainted with both Cyrano and Roxane. Montfleury and DeGuiche are akin in their foppishness and prissiness with Lee in both roles, which turns out to be quite fine, since De Guiche’s predatory lechery and his worldly power adequately supply sharp distinctions. Lee’s gentle geniality as Ragueneau also helps keeps things afloat and affecting at the end.

What may sink ShakesCar’s production for those less familiar with Rostand is the quirky performance of the sound system. Nearly all of the time, I could hear the players whether or not their microphones were working at that moment. But the in-and-out of the amplification, often in the space of a single line, gets to be annoying and distracting – a possible obstacle to understanding if this is your first encounter with this classic. I could only marvel how the entire cast soldiered through this adversity unfazed.

Hopefully, electronic glitches won’t mar the remainder of the run, for this compressed Cyrano certainly has plenty of panache.

Trying an Offramp on the Highway to Prison

Review: Pipeline by Three Bone Theatre

By Perry Tannenbaum

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One of 25 winners of the MacArthur Foundation’s “Genius Grant” last year, playwright Dominique Morisseau has begun, somewhat belatedly, a stealth invasion of the Queen City. How stealthy? UNC Charlotte and Three Bone Theatre, the first two outfits to present Morisseau works here, both latched onto the same acclaimed Detroit ‘67 for productions that would have opened a little more than a month apart.

That mutual unawareness was mercifully cleared up. Instead of two competing productions of the same 2013 script, we’re introduced to Morisseau by Three Bone with a newer work, Pipeline, that premiered at Lincoln Center two summers ago. ’67 matriculates on September 27 at the Robinson Hall Black Box.

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With a detached black dad checking his smartphone instead of making quality time for his teen-aged son, Pipeline feels 50 years more contemporary than Detroit must be. Yet the tide that high school English teacher Nya desperately resists, the progression of young black men’s lives from school to prison, comes at her with the lethal force of an eternal verity. Like mythic Greek royals seeking to avoid a sure fate pronounced by a Delphic oracle, Nya and her ex-husband Xavier have sent their son Omari off to a private boarding school to avoid the inner-city trail to incarceration.

It isn’t working. Although he isn’t dealing drugs, isn’t in a gang, and has a girlfriend who values him, Omari is volatile. In a classroom discussion of Richard Wright’s Native Son, the teacher has zeroed in on him to explain why Bigger Thomas explodes with such anger and violence – presumably because he, as the black kid the class, was best qualified to understand.

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The questioning escalated in a confrontation and then a physical action from Omari that seems open to dispute. Push, shove, assault, or a simple attempt to leave the room? Whatever happened – we never see the video that went viral – Omari not only faces possible expulsion but the teacher might press charges. Jail may already be on the horizon.

Nobody takes this unexpected defeat harder than Nya. She hasn’t merely been fighting against this tide of imprisonment and doom in her family. Every day in her classroom, she fights the good fight with wave after wave of young men, period after period, year after year. Teaching Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool,” written in 1959, Nya doesn’t merely wish her students to understand what the dropout pool players are saying in their semi-literate three-word sentences, she wants them to avoid living it.

So as Nya melts down in front of her students, Omari’s fate and her defeat acquire an Arthur Miller All My Sons moral weight, for she is angered and tinged with guilt at the same time. She is dangerous and out of control as she barges into Jasmine’s dorm room, demanding to know where her son has run off to.

Here is probably the best entry point into Morisseau’s subtext, for Nya gets a free pass on losing her cool and overstepping where Omari doesn’t. Just don’t get so caught up in Nya’s trespasses that you sleep on those of her colleague, Laurie, a white teacher. My first impulses were to see her as an empathizing sounding board for Nya’s anguished feelings and, together with security guard Dun, as a co-worker who underscores the sense of working in a terrifying, corrupting jungle teeming with at-risk youth.

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Ah, but keep your eye on what happens after Laurie snaps, striking one of her students – to break up a fight! Criticism gets hurled at Laurie by Nya and Dun, and surely there will be consequences from New York City school administration. But nobody onstage, not even Nya, believes that Laurie might be fired (in effect, expelled) and nobody, including me, entertains the notion that she might be brought up on assault charges.

These assumptions are the exact opposite of what we take for granted as applying to the Omaris, the Trayvons, and their black brethren striving to reach adulthood in America without being jailed or shot down in cold blood. We’ve all been numbed by this norm that is so hard-wired into American life.

While scene changes at Duke Energy Theater are a bit plodding in this Three Bone production, Ryan Maloney’s set design takes us where we need to go, and his projections add liveliness to the action, especially the poetry demo. Directing this meaty, turbulent, and layered script, Sidney Horton keeps the heat at about medium-high, so the playwright’s light shines through and we don’t suffer exhaustion.

And my goodness, the high-grade performances we get from LeShea Nicole as Nya and Susan Stein as Laurie make Horton look like the genius. Nicole discards all the irony we’ve seen from her in the past and gives us an earnestness and a heart-on-my-sleeve openness that marks an artistic breakthrough. When Nya teaches the last sentence of the Brooks poem, “We Die soon,” we get the full impact of what she feels is at stake.

Yet Nicole doesn’t get the luxury of delivering full-bore anger and toughness all the time as Stein does. Nya has a tender maternal side that peeps through even in the confrontation with Jasmine, Omari’s girlfriend. Stein offers us the sort of scrappy New Yorker whom I remember seeing and hearing so often when I was growing up. Yeah, her Laurie is back on the job after having her face put back together, but don’t you dare pity her.

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All of Nya’s fire and fury would be for naught if Morisseau hadn’t endowed Omari with enough complexity, strength and nuance for her to care about. Deandre Sanders takes a beautiful approach, playing Omari as a troubled young man rather than an immature teen. Nor does Sanders mute Omari’s big blind spot, his perpetually seething anger toward his dad. Omari’s scenes with Jasmine, his mom, and his dad are all multifaceted, Sanders projecting a manly grace and style that only partly veil the powder keg. Omari and his dad arguably draw the most noteworthy of Davita Galloway’s costume designs. That never hurts.

Slick, cold, and distant as he may be, Graham Williams as Xavier lets us know with only a trace of bitterness that he has taken the bullet for the breakup of his marriage to Nya. She slammed the door on him, now wants him back, and all this while has been peddling the myth that he abandoned his family – stoking Omari’s anger and partiality with the deception. So the guilt that afflicts Nya is not at all numinous.

Morisseau and Horton don’t neglect the smallest roles. While somewhat annoying in his pursuit of Nya, Marcus Fitzpatrick as Dun ably makes his point that the English teacher might be doing some income group profiling in undervaluing the school security guard. Meanwhile Alexis Jones gets to spray Jasmine with a few immature traits, letting us know there are some smarts mixed in with the coed’s insecurities and, in her showdown with Nya, that there is true worth behind her petulance.

Taking Down a Classic Thriller, Lateral Lisp and All

Review: Silence! The Musical

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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From God of Carnage to Hand to God to The Toxic Avenger and beyond, I’ve seen many of the original Broadway and Off-Broadway shows that Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte has gone on to present in their Queen City premieres. What is singular about Silence! The Musical, perhaps unprecedented, is the fact that the original New York production at PS122 was unquestionably smaller, shabbier and more low-budget than the one currently playing at Hadley Theater on the Queens University campus.

This Charlotte debut is seven years more distant from Silence of the Lambs, the Academy Award winning thriller that Hunter Bell and his musical cronies, Jon and Al Kaplan, targeted with their satiric mischief and malice. Back in 2012, I was already bemoaning my failure to refresh my memories of the 1991 film with a full viewing before I went to see this nasty sendup.

Oops! I neglected my own warning last week, allowing my aging VHS tape to gather seven more years of dust before heading out to see what director Chip Decker and his cast would do in their assaults on Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins. I must confess that my perspective was more than a little skewed, for by August 2019, I found myself remembering the Bell/Kaplans musical at least as well as the Jonathan Demme film.

What I remember most about the PS122 show, besides its fundamental crassness and cheapness, was its dimly-lit, wicked cult ritual ambiance. Reasonably enough, Decker and his design team are going for something different: a musical! Evan Kinsley’s set design spans the Hadley stage and so does Emily Hunter’s choreography, with a gamboling chorus of Lambs in a matched set of wooly white ears by Carrie Cranford.

Where Actor’s Theatre, Off-Broadway, and Demme intersect best are in the takeoffs on Foster and Hopkins. Leslie Giles has a veritable feasht exaggerating FBI trainee Clarice Starling’s lateral lishp, surely enough to convulse audiences seeing this Foster takedown for the first time, but not as mean and relentless as the mockery Jenn Harris dished out in New York. What will further delight Charlotte audiences, however, is the sweet bless-her-heart drawl that Giles lavishes on Clarice’s entreaties and interrogations – and her expletive explosion when her sexist boss slights her is a comedy shocker.

There was plenty of seediness in the original Lambs for the Kaplans and Bell to build on. Clarice’s confrontation with Hannibal the Cannibal results from her boss’s unsavory idea of sending Starling down into the bowels of a criminal madhouse to pick Lecter’s brain – hoping that the psychiatric insights of one serial killer can help the FBI catch another. Maybe some kind of natural attraction will coax Dr. Lecter into opening up. Clarice’s descent into the Baltimore loony bin confirms that a rare visit from a woman will indeed rouse the snakes in the pit as the trainee walks the gauntlet of cells leading to Lecter.

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A couple of the arousals fuel the most memorable moments of ejaculation and rapture. After the best spurt of physical comedy, we reach the innermost sanctum where the Cannibal is caged, and the shoddy cheapness of his protective enclosure becomes one of the show’s numerous running gags. At the climax of the first Lecter-Starling tête-a-tête, Rob Addison gets to deliver Hannibal’s deathless love ballad, “If I Could Smell Her Cunt.”

Addison’s rhapsody mushrooms into a ballet fantasia centering around Ashton Guthrie and Lizzie Medlin’s pas-de-deux as Dream Lecter and Dream Clarice. While Hunter’s choreography is more than sufficiently purple and passionate, we fall short on crotch crudity from Giles, and Cranford’s costuming muffs the opportunity for the Lambs to deliver a labial flowering. Yet it’s here that Addison is surpassingly effective, for his creepy drone as Lecter not only replicates the familiar Hopkins bouquet, but his singing voice is robust and raspy. We stay firmly in an Off-Broadway joint during Addison’s rhapsodizing instead of detouring, as PS122 did, into Broadway spectacular.

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Other than the equine Mr. Ed, I couldn’t fathom what Jeremy DeCarlos was going for in his portrayal of the at-large crossdressing serial killer Jame Gumb, alias Buffalo Bill. To make things worse, production values reach their zenith when DeCarlos sings his showstopper, “Put the Fucking Lotion in the Basket,” to his latest captive, Senator Martin’s suitably plump (“Are You About a Size 14”) daughter Catherine. If Kinsley hadn’t troubled to elevate his sadistic serial killer to such a commanding height on his impressive set, flimsier security arrangements similar to the Cannibal’s would have played funnier.

Rest assured that verisimilitude isn’t a top priority elsewhere in Decker’s scheme. Kacy Connon excels as both Senator Martin and her daughter Catherine while Ryan Dunn shapeshifts from Clarice’s dad to agent-in-charge Jack Crawford, all without discarding their Lambketeer ears. Dunn’s eyeglasses shtick worked every time with the opening night crowd, and in welcoming Clarice to the institutional home of Hannibal, Nick Culp sleazily Clarice set the tone for the unfettered lechery to come.

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Clarice lucks out when Crawford cruelly reassigns her, but she shows up unawares and unprepared at Buffalo Bill’s lair. That disadvantage results in the last of the three scenes we remember best from the screen thriller, the duel to the death on Bill’s home turf in pitch darkness, Clarice armed with her automatic pistol and the psychopath wearing night vision glasses. Peppered with song (“In the Dark With a Maniac”), this parody comes off as winningly as the great prison sequence where we first encountered Lecter – and better than the previous climax when the Cannibal escapes.

Hallie Gray’s lighting design is a valuable asset when tensions intensify, and Kinsley’s tall scenery isn’t a total waste. At times, it adds to the absurdity of the Lamb chorus, but it pays off most handsomely at the end in Hannibal’s demonic farewell, adding a dimension that even Hollywood couldn’t boast.

 

Free Reign’s “Saint Joan” Handsomely Shaves a Shavian Tragedy

Review: George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Didacticism and verbosity are probably the chief reasons why George Bernard Shaw has fallen out of favor, even if those charges are often overblown and undeserved. The Anglo-Irish playwright’s works, faithfully presented each summer in rotation at the Shaw Festival in beautiful Niagara-on-the-Lake up in Ontario, can seem musty and intimidating compared to today’s snappy sitcom dialogue or yesteryear’s sleek Oscar Wilde epigrams.

Of course, the more didactic and verbose a GBS play might be, the less a director might feel she or he can reshape it. So there’s often a backstage disinclination to wrestle with Shaw’s once-revered scripts that conspires with the audience fear factor.

Maybe that explains why the last two Shaw productions I’ve seen, nearly five years apart, have both been Saint Joan. My first live encounter with Shaw’s only tragedy was at the Lynn Redgrave Theatre in New York in a lively Bedlam Theatre production. Almost instantly, I could see that this is one play where the playwright has loosened his tight grip on his stage characters. Here the story has a grip on him, and even before I found it confirmed in his humongous preface (more than half the size of the play), it was obvious that he not only deeply researched the exploits of Joan of Arc, but he had also meticulously studied the transcripts of her witchcraft trial.

Saint Joan at Duke Energy in CharlottActor/director Eric Tucker and his Bedlam cast had a field day with the script, divvying up 25 roles among four actors. Shaw’s contention that there was no villain in the Maid of Orleans’ undoing came through vividly in an evening that mixed some fun into the high seriousness – but the evening was three hours long, hardly making a dent in GBS’s notorious loquacity. The new Free Reign Theatre production, currently at Spirit Square, brings Saint Joan more fully into the realm of accessibility. Director David Hensley noticeably shaves the Shavian discourse, and company founder Charles Holmes has free rein to ply his fight directing craft. Multiple episodes of spirited swordplay are sprinkled amid the wordplay.

Hensley deploys four times as many actors on the drama, allowing it to breathe more naturally than Bedlam’s insane reduction, where one of the actors might actually change roles mid-sentence and reply to himself. A more benign form of such absurdity persists with Free Reign, where the same French faces we saw opposing and abetting Joan’s miraculous rise to military leadership suddenly transform into her enemies in the angry and confounded English camp.

In a role that has been mainly populated by the great dames of theatre history rather than precocious teens, Amy Cheek makes an amazing splash the first time I’ve seen her in Charlotte. There were times, over the course of the evening, a relatively svelte 2:15 at Duke Energy Theater, when I felt that her excellence was all that was necessary. There is, as her elders say repeatedly, something about her – an ardent belief that infuses a Peter Pan cocksureness yet never crosses over into presumptuous arrogance.Saint Joan at Duke Energy in Charlotte

At times, the light radiating from within, kindled for Joan by the voices of the warrior archangel Michael and Saints Margaret and Catherine, made me believe Cheek was the ideal age for this role. Predecessors have included the likes of Uta Hagen, Katharine Cornell, Sybil Thorndike, Judi Dench, and the aforementioned Redgrave.

It tickled me that most of the other Free Reign players did so well – and that Hensley decreed that they aren’t all men. Five women flit through this surprisingly nimble evening. Particularly delightful was the idea of having the pert and diminutive Alexandria Creech portraying the timorous Dauphin, the future King Charles VII of France. The holy coronation at Rheims Cathedral can only happen if Joan can prod him into standing up for himself and forcefully claiming his rightful throne. With Russell Rowe thundering as the Archbishop of Rheims, Holmes glowering as military commander-in-chief Monseigneur de la Trémouille, and both of them towering over Creech, chances for an upswell of valor from the Dauphin look slim.

Saint Joan at Duke Energy in CharlottCreech can not only hide behind her courtiers when the Dauphin stages his first audience with Joan, she can nearly disappear. But Cheek also towers over this Dauphin – a little bit – so it’s a nifty tug of war for the future king’s favor. Holmes retains his bellicosity when he briefly appears at the English encampment as the Black Prince, but he becomes slightly more sympathetic at the trial as Peter Cauchon, somewhat doubtful that La Pucelle is a witch but absolutely certain that she is the worst of heretics.

Rowe follows a more interesting arc when he changes into an Englishman, becoming the implacable and somewhat stupid Chaplain John de Stogumber, who believes so rabidly in Joan’s witchery that it’s alarming. At the trial, he appears to be a mashup of the Chaplain and the Canon de Courcelles, who zealously brings over 60 charges against The Maid to the bench. Stogumber seethes mightily when Cauchon trims those charges to a mere 12, violently advocating that Joan be burnt at the stake – until he actually sees her on fire. He was so shaken and chastened by the spectacle that I almost pitied him, a truly wrenching turnaround.Saint Joan at Duke Energy in Charlotte

The Maid attracts believers and followers along the way, of course, and the most impressive of these are the hulking David Hayes as Bertrand de Poulengey, Joan’s first champion, and Robert Brafford as the wily renegade Dunois, who shrewdly sizes up her military acumen. Hayes resurfaces at La Pucelle’s side in the pivotal battle scenes before drawing a fearsome, taciturn role as her Executioner. Brafford sheds his good heartedness but retains his craftiness when he becomes The Earl of Warwick. The coolest of Joan’s enemies, Warwick is willing to offer a bounty to anyone who betrays The Maid – not the most dramatic thrust in Shaw’s script, so I suspect the suave and calculating Brafford was the most victimized by cuts to the script.

Every now and then, as in Boeing Boeing, we get the treat of seeing Emmanuel Barbe in a French role. As Robert de Baudricourt, the first nobleman to be won over by Joan’s eloquence and spunk, Barbe helps to get things off to a flavorful start. By the end of the first scene and its exhilarating little coda – and miracle! – this Free Reign production had already captivated me. As Shaw well knew, Joan’s story has that power.

 

Matt Lemmler and a 10-Piece Band Ignite a Stevie Wonder Sampler, Aided by Three Guest Vocalists

Review: Matt Lemmler Plays Stevie Wonder

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Anyone who seriously follows the work of jazz instrumentalists and vocalists has likely realized that, for the last 30 years and more, the compositions of Stevie Wonder have become as much a part of his contemporaries’ songbooks as the works of George Gershwin were for Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, and Ella Fitzgerald. Jazz covers of certain Wonder songs like “Sir Duke” or “All in Love Is Fair” are so ubiquitous that it came as no surprise that the latest Jazz Room concert presented by JazzArts Charlotte, Matt Lemmler Plays Stevie Wonder, should set out to explore the superstar’s songs for the length of a full concert at the Stage Door Theater. What did take me a little by surprise was that those songs – as well as “Superstition,” “Higher Ground,” “My Cherie Amour,” “Boogie On, Reggae Woman,” “Living for the City,” “Keep on Running,” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” – could all be omitted from Lemmler’s playlist without crashing the quality of his concert. Perhaps we all take the bounty of Wonder’s output for granted.

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Lemmler brought plenty of artillery to the occasion, leading a 10-piece band from the keyboard and deploying four vocalists to the singing chores, including his own tonsils. For his opening and closing tunes, Lemmler showcased his band, rotating his vocalists for the intervening eight songs. Beginning the set, “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” was the only purely instrumental offering penned by Wonder, readily identifiable in a fairly long ensemble arrangement before Lemmler soloed and we had our first sampling of David Lail’s zesty tenor sax. The ensemble continued to be a substantial part of the mix when the vocalists appeared. A plucked bass intro kicked off Lemmler’s arrangement of “Ribbon in the Sky,” followed by some pleasing back-and-forth between the brass and the piano before the vocalists took over. Lemmler took the first vocal and his first guest vocalist, Matt Kelley, took the second. “Ebony Eyes” drew an even more colorful arrangement as Lemmler layered on another vocalist, Robyn Springer, into his chart, limiting his own role to the piano and giving trumpeter Eleazar Shafer some solo space. “I Just Called to Say I Love You” spotlighted Kobie Watkins’ percussion, Dave Vergato’s bass, Darrel Payton’s muted trombone, and some nice section work from the saxes around the vocal.

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After Kelley returned with “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” and Springer had joined with him on a more satisfying “You and I,” punctuated by solos from Lemmler and Lail, I was expecting to pronounce that Springer had outsung Kelley on this night. But a couple of unexpected twists – and a whole new level – lay ahead as Lemmler introduced a third guest vocalist, Kevin “Mercury” Carter. Wait a second. Isn’t it a law that, after any vocalist you’ve introduced to your audience makes a second entrance, no new vocalists shall be introduced? Apparently not. Compounding the singularity of this moment, Lemmler was playing his first set in a three-night, six-performance engagement, and was apparently only fleetingly familiar with Mercury’s talents. He introduced him as “Mercedes Carter,” which really threw me, since I was totally unfamiliar with this singer. On the one hand, I’ve only heard of women named Mercedes; but on the other, despite a coordinated Afro-flavored outfit that was gender-ambiguous, Carter was sporting some serious facial hair.

So we seemed to be floating outside of binary territory when Carter lit into “Isn’t She Lovely,” scaling substantially into the treble clef after Lemmler’s vocal and Lail’s tenor with a smoothness that recalled Michael Jackson, the best vocal so far. But after a solid rendition of “Overjoyed,” Kelley returned and forced me to shuffle my vocal rankings once again as he absolutely torched a wondrous arrangement of “Part-Time Lover,” embellishing the wordless riffs on Wonder’s original recording to the point that they became a more freestyle scat. In between Carter’s two choruses, the last followed by a prolonged scat outro, there were exciting solos from Shafer and Payton, the latter unmuted this time on his trombone, and Lemmler’s best piano solo of this set.

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Off that high, Lemmler came down to earth with his own original dedicated to Stevie, “S’Wondersong,” yielding the instrumental spotlight to Lail, Watkins, and alto saxophonist Harvey Cummings. It’s a bit awkward for a 10-piece band to go through the ritual of vacating a stage and returning to do an encore after wild audience applause. Lemmler opted to skip those formalities and, after the perfunctory coaxing from the JazzArts Charlotte emcee to justify our presumed reward, it quickly became obvious that Lemmler’s Storyville medley was an integral part of the show. Not only did the medley give the leader/arranger a chance to extol his New Orleans roots, it carved out space for all of his band members to toss off a valedictory solo. It also brought Lemmler home to the places where his vocal style sounds most forceful and comfortable, “The House of the Rising Sun” and “St. James Infirmary.”

 

Simmering Cauldrons in a Lonely Desert Town

Review: The Band’s Visit

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Loneliness. Isolation. Boredom. Stagnation. No, those aren’t the ways we think of the Middle East when all the newsclips we see splatter blood, anger, violence, terrorism, explosive devastation and mass migration in our faces. But in 2007, Israeli screenwriter and director Eran Kolirin explored a different side of the region in The Band’s Visit, a film that unearthed all those sorrowful and solitary dimensions we hadn’t seen before. Critics had no problem in perceiving that Kolirin was onto something, and the film garnered awards at festivals far beyond its native land in Cannes, Zurich, Montreal, and Australia – to name a few.

Nine years later, with music and lyrics by David Yazbek and book by Itamar Moses, a musical adaptation of The Band’s Visit opened for a monthlong run Off-Broadway, moving to Broadway in 2017 after copping the Obie Award for best musical. Loneliness, isolation, boredom, and stagnation were still unapologetically intact, a rather lowkey brew for a Broadway musical. But 10 years after Kolirin’s film premiered, The Band’s Visit carried home 10 Tony Awards, a rather loud success.

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Against such éclat, you’ll need to brace yourself for heavy doses of calm, quietude, and smoldering ennui in the touring version, now entering its second week at Knight Theater. The story begins at a Tel Aviv bus station, where the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra is expecting to be greeted by emissaries from Petah Tikva, where the band is scheduled to keynote the opening of a new Arab cultural center tomorrow evening. A two-minute wait on the Broadway stage is equivalent to a numbing five-hour vigil in real life. So instead of waiting any longer, the bandleader, Tewfiq, decides that the ensemble will take the bus.

Oy vey.

Just as the English language doesn’t have a consonant like the guttural “h” at the end of Petah, Arabic doesn’t have an authentic parallel to the “p” sound, which was added to contemporary written Arabic to accommodate such foreign words as Pepsi (and Palestine). When the dreamboat trumpet player Haled goes to the ticket window, he returns with tickets to Bet HaTikva.

Now Petah Tikva is a real city with nearly a quarter of a million people, less than seven miles east of Tel Aviv. Bet HaTikva is another story – a fictional one – a dusty little town somewhere in the middle of the Negev Desert. It seems to boast a street café, a restaurant, a roller-skating rink, a pay phone, and a park bench that passes for the town’s park. But no hotel, and the next bus out of town isn’t coming till the following morning.

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POV is a powerful tool, but it can also be a subtle one. By the time the Police Orchestra arrives in Bet HaTikva, clad in powder blue uniforms that might remind you of Paul McCartney on the cover of Sgt. Pepper, we can empathize with the disorientation of this Egyptian band. Because at one time or another, we’ve likely had that same sinking feeling of tourists who are lost in a strange place – and because the Egyptians don’t seem to be carrying any political beliefs in their baggage. These musicians carry themselves with dignity and a blend of meekness, restraint, and regimented discipline. Just what you would expect from cultural ambassadors who will be held accountable when they return.

The Bet HaTikva natives buy their story, but what are they to do with their visitors? Dina, the café owner, takes the lead – in cuing her friends on what tone to take toward their guests, distributing band members among neighboring households for their overnight stay, and in romantically pursuing Tewfiq. From there, the story splits into three, tracking Tewfiq, the more gregarious Haled, and Simon, one of the two clarinetists in the band.

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Contrasts between the band and the townsfolk are obvious, but they aren’t always what you would expect, and they never boil over into outright Arab-Israeli hostility. Here it’s the Egyptians from Alexandria who are the urban sophisticates while the Israeli desert dwellers are the rubes. Haled’s hosts are nonplussed when he repeatedly asks if they know Chet Baker, even after he imitates the trumpet legend’s vocal on “My Funny Valentine.” On the other hand, Tewfiq is incredulous when Dina reveals that she listened to music on Egyptian radio as a child and confesses her crush on Omar Sharif.

Music is the obvious bridge between the two peoples, deepening when Dina coaxes Tewfiq into singing the Arabic song he once sang to his now-deceased wife. There’s more rapprochement when Simon, staying the night with Itzik and his resentful wife Iris, soothes their crying baby with a lovely little half-tune on his clarinet, disarming Iris’s hostility on the spot and leading to the couple’s reconciliation after an earlier blow-up.

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Curiously, that little tune is emblematic of the less obvious bridge that binds these people together: inertia. Simon wrote the beginning to his concerto a while ago, but he has no special desire to continue or finish his composition, no matter if people keep telling him it’s damn good. Dina broke up with her husband sometime back, once had ambitions of becoming a dancer in her Tel Aviv days, and doesn’t know why she stays in this in this one bus-stop town. Tewfiq is in no special hurry to move on from sorrowing over his family tragedies, and Itzik and Iris’s upward immobility, quarreling, and reconciliation seem to be in an endless loop.

ugq_LgmPMost absurd is the Telephone Guy, who stands vigil at the outdoor pay phone night after night, waiting for his long-gone girlfriend to ring him up.

Like a boring family get-together, The Band’s Visit has time to coast through a recital from Itzik’s father-in-law on how he and his wife bonded over the Gershwin brothers’ “Summertime.” The livin’ is easy in this cumulatively powerful musical, and tempo is certainly not rushed under David Cromer’s deft direction. But there’s nothing lazy about the way Scott Pask’s scenic design slickly whisks us from location to location, indoors and out, with a turntable to speed up the skaters. I half expected a bus to ease onto the stage when it came time for the band to depart.

There’s unquestionable DNA from the 2007 film in the current tour, with Sasson Gabay returning to his award-winning role of Tewfiq and his son Adam Gabay scooping up a smaller plum as the painfully shy Papi. Sasson established admirable chemistry with Chilina Kennedy opposite him as Dina, absolutely definitive, but 12 years after that film, the age gap between him and his leading became conspicuous. If Tewfiq is so tentative and unwilling, why doesn’t Dina hasten to go after the younger bucks who might be more receptive and responsive?

More problematic on opening night was Sasson’s energy shortage and Kennedy’s tendency to mute her sassiness to be more compatible. I’ll need to read the script or watch the film to get the full gist of their Omar Sharif intimacies. On the other hand, when Kennedy gets to belt and vamp on “Omar Sharif” and “Something Different,” she shows us that there’s a tender, sensuous side to the tough and brusque sabra she first reveals at her café. And even at low volume, Sasson’s restrained emotion comes through powerfully when he sings “Itgara’a” in a cappella Arabic.

Pleasant surprises come from the humbler members of the supporting cast as Papi’s panic attack on a blind date at the roller rink becomes a “Papi Hears the Ocean” showstopper for Adam Gabay, and Mike Cefalo comes vividly to life as The Telephone Guy with a potently plaintive “Answer Me.” Throughout this intermission-less treat, Yazbek’s score shuttles between familiar showtune style and Arabian exotica, percolating with pluckings from a lute-like darbouka (Roger Kashou), a mandolin-like oud (Ronnie Malley), and – what truly does boil over here – the pounding of Arabic percussion (Shai Wetzler).

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Given Haled’s cool Chet Baker proclivities and his brash breaches of police decorum, we shouldn’t be surprised that when Joe Joseph sings “Haled’s Song About Love” to calm Papi’s panic attack and supply him with encouragement, he sports the hip jazzy sound of early Frank Sinatra, late Baker, and contemporary Seth MacFarlane. Took me by surprise, because it’s so smoothly different from everything else we hear. Spoiler: it definitely works when Joseph sings it, with a kind of Zachary Levi charm.

Both Kennedy (Beautiful) and the elder Gabay (Band’s Visit) have starred in Broadway productions, albeit in replacement casts, so the top-tier quality of this touring edition begins at the top – when the co-stars aren’t allowing their energies to flag. Small and relatively quiet with its nine-piece instrumental ensemble, this Yazbek-Moses gem manages to cover a fairly wide swathe of Israeli life. We get perceptive sectors on midlife yearnings and regrets, bachelor urges and trepidations, and the simmering cauldron of domesticity. With Pomme Koch as Itzik and James Rana as Simon, the two knowing husbands we see onstage, the top-tier quality extends far and deep.

ATC’s Outdoor “Midsummer” Is Electrifying Fun

Review: Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte A Midsummer Night’s Dream

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Aside from sporadic Chickspeare ventures in the NoDa Brewing parking lot and a tentative CPCC Shakespeare on the Green production up at their Cato campus two summers ago, we haven’t seen anybody commit to an annual series of outdoor Bard since the Queen City’s second Charlotte Shakespeare bit the dust in 2014. If you’ve been hankering for some good Shakespearean comedy under the moon, with a refreshing beverage in your beach chair’s cup holder and a trusty cooler at your side, the long drought is over.

Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte has made good on their promise, announced at the dawn of their new residency relationship with Queens University, that they would launch an annual Midsummer Nights @ Queens series, starting with the most logical choice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Now Shakespeare hasn’t exactly been in Actor’s Theatre’s wheelhouse during its first 30 years. Nor has any classic playwright dating further back than Edward Albee. Perhaps for that reason, ATC executive director Chip Decker tamped down expectations when he first unveiled his plans, saying this would likely be a cooperative effort featuring students in the Queens U theatre program.

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He lied. Directed by Chester Shepherd, this Midsummer is as professional as any homegrown Shakespeare production we’ve seen in the Metrolina area since the first Charlotte Shakespeare folded in the early ‘90s. Even though admission is free, production values are not at all cheap. Costume designs and props by Carrie Cranford are literally electrifying in a few instances and, while there isn’t any scenic design, Shepherd leads his players up and down, up and down, taking advantage of a bush here and a tree there, borrowing the stone stairway and entrance to campus building for the Athens scenes and kidnapping a toddler from the audience when we adjourn to the forest and the fairies.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some serious economies, but they don’t include forswearing playbills, which are handed out to audience members by wingèd ushers. Although the roles of Athens royals Theseus and Hippolita are often doubled with those of Oberon and Titania, the fairy king and queen, here we’re confronted with an orgy of doubling – nine actors in 18 roles. Except for Peter Finnegan as Bottom, all the mechanicals are moonlighting as Athenian nobles.

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So the looney lovers who are confounded and enchanted in the woods by the fairies cannot mock the mechanicals when they present their “Tragical History of Pyramus and Thisbe” – they’re performing it, you see. Their lines disappear with them, part of a shrinking process that yields a playing time of less than 100 minutes. That’s another economy. Anybody who has memorized the lines uttered by Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed will notice that these fairies have also been vaporized – or compressed into the generic Fairy played by Kerstin VanHuss.

Steven Levine is certainly manly and commanding as Theseus and Oberon, but he is upstaged by the antics of Sarah Molloy as Puck and the misplaced amorousness of Nonye Obichere as Titania – not to mention their outré costumes. Obichere has only to swish her illuminated blue cape to dazzle us, and Molloy’s outfit is even wilder than Bottom’s. Of course, Finnegan’s hambone bravura must begin before Puck mischievously transforms Bottom into an ass, and we benefit from the minimalist design decision not to obscure the actor’s face when Titania plies her charms.

Finnegan really takes over when he stars as Pyramus for Theseus and Hippolita. More than one actor has made the death of Pyramus into a full meal. Finnegan aims for a banquet.

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Among the befuddled lovers, the women get the most comical opportunities. Iesha Nyree as Hermia and Anna Royal as Helena both make good on their mightily distressed episodes, and Shepherd hasn’t erred in stressing the height differential between them in his casting. With so much thunder stolen from their benighted partners, it’s actually fortunate that Adam Griffin and Jonathan Ford, Demetrius and Lysander respectively, get to moonlight as mechanicals, Griffin as Snout and Ford as Flute.

The caution that free insect repellent was available at the theater site proved to be unnecessary on Saturday night, but in the early part of the evening, I found it welcome to have some cold liquid at hand. Microphones consistently operated well, so you can expect audibility to be less of a challenge than Elizabethan English. The plenitude of physical comedy supplies ample translation.

A couple of real concerns: handicapped access begins on Selwyn Avenue, to the left of the Queens U traffic circle, not in the traffic circle itself. And counterintuitively, the worst seating is in the middle of the greensward facing the stage. The further you sit toward either side, the more easily you’ll see past obstacles in the center, namely a table, a slatted bench, a soundboard, and the technician standing over them.

Get there early, select a good sightline, and your Midsummer Night @ Queens should be quite dreamy.

Charleston Heatwave and Steamy “Salome” Set Spoleto Ablaze

Review: Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, SC

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Hold your horses! That was the directive that went out to operators of horse-driven carriages that usually swing Memorial Day tourists around Charleston during Spoleto Festival USA. It takes readings of 95º or higher for tourism officials to order the drivers and their carriages back to their stables. During this year’s festival, the mercury hit that mark on the first Saturday and eclipsed that high for five consecutive days afterwards. On Memorial Day – and the next day– official highs hit 100º, the first times that plateau had ever been reached during the month of May.

Naturally, the heatwave was the hottest topic among concert audiences and operagoers during the first week of Spoleto. The sensational – or sensationalized – new production of Richard Strauss’s Salome was a distant second in generating buzz, while the proliferation of new music at all of Spoleto’s music venues hardly generated a peep.

You could say that grumblings about new music had receded because new opera at Spoleto had retreated. Although the directing team of Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser, rethinking their 1987 approach to Salome, had made their modernized version steamy enough to rival the weather, it stood alone. There were no new operas at the festival, such as last season’s Tree of Codes or Quartett from the year before, both given their American premieres. Nor were there any exciting excavations like the past two seasons’, when we saw Donizetti’s Pia de’ Tolomei and Vivaldi’s Farnace in American premieres.

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On the other hand, you could also say that orchestral director John Kennedy, Westminster Choir leader Joe Miller, and chamber music director Geoff Nuttall have opened the gates to new music to such a degree that it now permeates Spoleto’s classical programming. At Dock Street Theatre, the chamber music venue dripping with antiquity, I don’t recall an after-concert buzz that quite equaled what I heard when Karen Gomyo made her festival debut. On the heels of a gorgeous Bach sonata from flutist Tara Helen O’Connor and an exhilarating Concerto for Two Celli by Vivaldi, featuring cellists Joshua Roman and Christopher Costanza, Gomyo gave an electrifying account of Sarasate’s “Carmen Fantasy” that left me trembling.

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That performance seemed the obvious choice when I reached the outdoor courtyard, probably no warmer than 98º, and I overheard one guy asking his lady which piece she had liked best. After a couple of seconds of reflection, she answered, “I think I preferred the quartet!” That piece was When the Night for Cello Quartet by composer-in-residence Paul Wiancko, with Roman, Costanza, the composer, and Nina Lee in her Spoleto debut. Introducing the piece, Nuttall outed Lee as the musician who had asked Wiancko where his title had come from. Then he had Wiancko play the bass intro to Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me” and, to complete Lee’s hazing, asked everybody who knew the first three words to sing them. We were fairly loud responding to our cue. Twice.

Like Charles Wadsworth before him, Nuttall feels no compulsion to solemnly match the mood of his intros to the music that will follow. So it’s typical of his hosting style that, while pranking the newbie, Nuttall also let us know that the three movements of When the Night would be ethereal and serene.

Wiancko’s previous pieces had been more multicolored in mood and instrumentation. Closed Universe, written in the wake of the 2016 election, pondered the dark days to come with Costanza tilting the instrumental makeup of a piano quartet toward his solo cello. The composer added another intriguing twist, playing a second cello and a glockenspiel, which chimed in to signify the glimmers of hope he felt amid the gloom. On Program III, oboist James Austin Smith and the St. Lawrence String Quartet premiered Wiancko’s newest piece, Faults. It was also the brightest of the works played during the composer’s residency, with abrupt shifts between lyrical beauty and discordant chaos – with a little mischief tossed in. Smith seemed to be having fun on the bumpy terrain, particularly late in the piece when he and St. Lawrence violist Lesley Robertson performed a clapping accompaniment for the other players. Playing first violin with his quartet, Nuttall was so gleeful that he seemed like a kid.

In the more traditional repertoire, Nuttall was playing with more fire and flair than we had seen from him since he took over as chamber music director after the 2009 festival. Following on the heels of Closed Universe in Program I, Nuttall absolutely scorched the first violin part of Ernst von Dohnányi’s Piano Quintet, smiling as he burned with pianist Stephen Prutsman and the St. Lawrence. Nuttall and the St. Lawrence also played the coveted finale spot – with its guaranteed standing O – in Program II, Haydn’s “Emperor” Quartet, after the violinist’s alert that the “Deutschland über alles” melody was upcoming in the quiet second movement.

If we can accept that Ben E. King would go on to upstage Carmen, then I’m emboldened to proclaim that Prutsman turned the St. Lawrence’s heroics with Haydn into something of an anticlimax in his rendition of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata. Nuttall’s intro stressed the range of emotions we were about to experience, warning the Dock Street audience that the opening Adagio sostenuto might bring them to tears. My tears actually welled up in the closing Presto agitato, one of my favorite piano pieces, for I’d never heard it played live with such white-hot ferocity and fury.

As far as audience favor that afternoon, that may have been secured by the chunk of Ovid’s Metamorphoses that bassist-composer Doug Balliett so charmingly modernized in his Echo and Narcissus, with countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo singing both of the title roles and the composer narrating. Prutsman was literally upstaged in Program IV when he performed a rollicking film score for piano quintet – with Nuttall doubling on a cheesy toy trumpet – that he composed for Buster Keaton’s 1927 silent film, College. At the start of the concert, Nuttall promised that anybody who didn’t laugh hard at least once could ask for his or her money back at the end of the show. Projected on a fairly wide screen while the musicians played off to the side, Keaton’s antics prevailed. Even if I hadn’t been comped, I couldn’t have collected.

Prutsman also had a salutary impact on Kennedy’s more militantly modern Music in Time series, which split its four concerts between the funky Woolfe Street Playhouse, with its Bohemian cocktail tables and faux candles, and the Simons Center Recital Hall with its clean-room sterility. Looking very much at ease at Woolfe Street, Prutsman introduced his 30: An American Kaleidoscope and left the performing to a string quartet comprised of four Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra members – except for the pre-recorded soundtrack that the composer provided for accompaniment. The idea was to simulate a road trip across the US, the quartet acting as the riders and Prutsman’s audio imitating the sound of a car radio as the travelers sped in and out of the wavelength of stations that they passed. Sped might be an understatement, since Prutsman claimed to have condensed snips of some 400 songs into his soundtrack, far more than he stole for his feature-length College score.

Kaleidoscope was somewhat unique in the “Rebellion in Greenery” concert, since Britta Byström’s title piece, Pauline Oliveros’ From Unknown Silences, and Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s were all more tranquil nature studies, not speedy at all. was easily the most exotic, with bass flute and bass clarinet included in the texture, and punctuations on the piano that included hitting the strings with a mallet. Percussionist Ye Young Yoon had even more outré assignments: rubbing a drum with a disc, bowing a vibraphone, applying a crumpled piece of paper to gong, and simply crumpling a second piece of paper! Except when Yoon banged the bass drum, the music hardly rose above a whisper, mesmerizing.

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Dedicated to bringing rock instrumentation to new – and old – classical music, The Living Earth Show was more rowdy, raucous, and crowdpleasing in their second Spoleto appearance. Both members of this Left Coast duo, stoked percussionist Andy Meyerson and slightly mellow guitarist Travis Andrews, took turns personably introducing their repertoire along with one or two of the many instruments that littered the stage. By far the most unusual of these was the electric percussion instrument Myerson played with mallets during Dennis Aman’s Prelude #5/Fugue #4, based on Bach. It seemed to be fashioned from three plastic disks, about the size of an old studio tape reel, each of which sported four blobs of primary colored Jell-O – lemon, lime, blueberry, and cherry – sufficiently solidified so they wouldn’t splatter.

Living Earth’s exploration of what is possible was fun. Before Nicole Lizée’s Family Sing-A-Long and Game Night, I’d never seen anybody bowing a guitar, and before Raven Chacon’s Tributary, I’d never contemplated the musical possibilities of smashing a drinking glass into a bucket and mucking around with the broken shards. Also memorable was Sarah Hennies’ update of Bolero, emphasizing the snare drum tattoo until the piece dissolved into a percussion orgy.

As opposed to the more retro and conservative music performed at Woolfe Street, mostly by female composers, the slate at Simons was strictly modern, often minimalistic, and exclusively male-composed. In the “Stay on It” concert, the title piece by Julius Eastman was preceded by two more recent works by Steve Reich, Pulse and Runner. Before conducting, Kennedy prefaced the Reich works, comparing Pulse (2015), in particular with the late symphonies of Haydn for its clarity. A bit of a stretch, I thought when the piece was done, so the whoops of enthusiasm that welled up from the audience took me a little aback. Patches of fanatical support enlivened the entire Music in Time series.

Written for two orchestras, each deployed to one side of the stage, Runner (2016) struck me as livelier and more engaging, but the Eastman piece, exhumed from 1973, had the most color and chaos, with stretches of jungle riot and jazz. Soprano saxophonist Jeffrey Siegfried led the ensemble, playing with and without his mouthpiece and reed, contributing the elephant roar to Eastman’s sonic Africa.

After my Spotify preview, I had somewhat dreaded staying an extra day for Georg Friedrich Haas’s in vain (2000), but Kennedy hinted that seeing the work staged would add an extra dimension, and he was right. Aside from its tuning complexities, this apocalyptic work, over an hour in length, was written to be played through two extended periods of total darkness. Not only did the 24 musicians from the Spoleto Orchestra need to memorize long stretches of their parts, they needed to play them together without Kennedy’s direction, shifting dynamics and tempos by listening to each other.

I found myself getting more accustomed to the gloom during the second episode of darkness, able to see Kennedy’s motionless silhouette – and also able to more keenly perceive the musicians’ striving for unity and community. Their struggles were all the more poignant when brief flashes of light pierced the darkness without providing any help.

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Kennedy was one of five conductors at the podium for Spoleto’s larger musical productions. After serving as assistant director for the 2017 production of Eugene Onegin, Michelle Rofrano made her formal debut conducting a groundbreaking Classical Showcase concert that brought the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra out of the pit and onto the stage at Dock Street Theatre. She also brought Fanny Mendelssohn’s Overture in C on board to share the stage with works by Bach, Stravinsky, and Beethoven. A hefty piece it was, for there were more musicians exiting after the Mendelssohn than entering for Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1.

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Memminger Auditorium, where Amistad, Peony Pavilion and Paradise Interrupted have been staged, was the right choice for Michael Gordon’s City Symphonies trilogy, paired with films by Bill Morrison. Kennedy took on this edgier fare, getting wonderful work for the Festival USA Orchestra, but the most provocative elements of this evening were Morrison’s depictions of New York in Gotham, LA in Dystopia, and – let there be color! – Miami in El Sol Caliente.

Aside from the customary Westminster Choir concerts, which included touching tributes to their late former director Joseph Flummerfelt, Miller and his Princeton-based ensemble were unusually active. Before and between the two choral potpourris at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, there were two blockbusters at Gaillard Center, Joby Talbot’s Path of Miracles and Bach’s St. John Passion.

Stage directed and set designed by John La Bouchardière, Spoleto’s Path of Miracles took a score that wasn’t intended for the stage and plopped it down at St. James the apostle’s tomb in Santiago and the Camino de Santiago path across Spain that pilgrims take to the shrine to be healed and shriven. Talbot’s music handed out 17 different vocal lines to the Choir, set to a Robert Dickinson libretto in seven languages. Seven, including Basque.

path-of-miracles_47954465041_oA circle of rocks onstage seemed to allude to the circle of stars that originally helped a hermit to discover what is called Santiago de Compostela – Saint James of the field of stars. Having seen so many Westminster concerts before, I was probably more disoriented than anyone. La Bouchardière began with a procession of choristers parading down the aisles to the stage, skipping over the miraculous 9th century discovery of St. James’s tomb and introducing us immediately to the flocks of pilgrims trudging there on foot.

Didn’t La Bouchardière know that Miller does that same processional shtick at the beginning of every Westminster concert? Yes, he did it this year, too.

Somewhat overshadowed by Caurier and Leiser’s bold restaging of Salome – and the outstanding cast he was fortunate enough to lead – Steven Sloane did not instantly emerge as the most outstanding conductor at the festival this year. Sure, the score absolutely crackled under his baton, but the new twists were sensational, Salome baring her breasts as she attempted to seduce Jokanaan and a “Dance of the Seven Veils” set to a full ten-thrust sexual encounter with Herod. Hail, Viagara! The modernized rooftop set design by Christian Fenouillat became spectacular when he dropped Jokanaan’s entire bedroom down on it, glowing against the nighttime sky.

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Scenery and stage directing screamed audacity, but consider: Sloane’s Salome, soprano Melanie Henley Heyn, was singing professionally for the first time ever in a full-length operatic production – and she was amazing, validating the awesome risk of casting her. Heyn wasn’t a temptress; she was more of a petulant Salome, a privileged teen accustomed to being worshipped. So she wasn’t tasked with performing diva exploits when she came on to rich-voiced baritone Erik Van Heyningen in Jokanaan’s bedroom, and she could be unusually passive – if not absolutely a victim, since she knew she would be repaid! – when tenor Paul Groves dropped his pants for the “Seven Veils” dance.

The hauteur and conceit of Salome came across best when she prevailed upon the helplessly enamored tenor Zach Borichevsky as captain of the guard Narraboth (easily on a par with Groves and Van Heyningen in this admirably deep cast) to let her visit Jokanaan in his cell – and later when she demanded his head, stretching his name each time to seven chilling syllables. Caurier and Leiser stumbled a bit after Herod hitched his belt, for they didn’t make a serious attempt to equal the shock value of Salome’s failed seduction and faux dance when she claimed her prize. Heyn and Sloane were arguably most impressive there, because the succeeded in making up the slack.

Newly appointed as music director of the Jerusalem Symphony, Sloane may have been the most underappreciated conductor at Spoleto this year in his mostly underground performance, but Evan Rogister vied with him for excellence in a program of Prokofiev and Shostakovich. He also has big things in the works as the newly appointed principal conductor of Washington National Opera. What all these conductors accomplish with the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra, young professionals and grad students freshly gathered through nationwide auditions every year, is routinely astonishing.

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But with selections from Prokofiev’s two Romeo and Juliet orchestral suites, what Rogister achieved was unique for me. What I heard at Gaillard not only eclipsed every live or recorded performance I’d experienced before, it made me admire and thrill to music that I had strained to tolerate before, beginning with the familiar “Montagues and Capulets” theme that had grown hackneyed and noxious for me. I can hardly explain the difference other than to say that Rogister had channeled the youthfulness and energy of this orchestra and somewhat pierced through to the soul of the gritty, grudgy, and utterly rhapsodic story Shakespeare had written, a story whose essence is youth. Of course, the proficiency of the musicians and the acoustics of the hall didn’t hurt.

A window into how Rogister accomplishes such wonders may have been opened when he prefaced the Orchestra’s rendition of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5. He went beyond talking about Shostakovich’s tribulations during the Stalinist regime, the framing of this symphony as a penitential offering, a step toward political and cultural rehabilitation. Rogister took an additional moment to pay tribute to three virtuosi who made so much of modern Russian music possible with their encouragement, sponsorship, and artistry – cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, pianist Sviatoslav Richter, and violinist David Oistrakh.

That’s valuing musicians to the highest degree.

ShakesCar’s Dystopia Is as Serious as a Cartoon

Review: Shakespeare Carolina’s production of Mr. Burns at Spirit Square

By:  Perry Tannenbaum

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If your Simpsons erudition doesn’t extend far beyond Bart, Homer, and “D-oh!” you likely haven’t the foggiest notion about who the evil owner of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant might be. Good reason for boning up on the 30-year-old animated TV series before you go and see Shakespeare Carolina’s production of Mr. Burns, Anne Washburn’s strangely imagined “Post-Electric Play,” at Spirit Square.

The Simpsons is very much at the heart of Washburn’s myopic dystopia, beginning not too long from now, somewhere south of devastated Boston – at a safe distance from obliterated Pennsylvania. Not an ardent lobbyist on behalf of nuclear power, Washburn doesn’t trigger her nuclear winter with weapons unleashed after treaty breaches, miscalculated escalations, or some jerk’s pudgy finger on the nuclear hot button.

Instead, we seem to have been decimated by a chain reaction of nuclear reactors.

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Certainly, the evil Mr. Burns has triumphed over humanity in Washburn’s scenario, but it’s unclear whether she views that as her ultimate horror. For as a few survivors sit around a campfire, we might gather that The Simpsons has outlived all other recognizable trappings of civilization. Matt, Jenny, Maria, and Sam aren’t preoccupied with reaching out to other clusters of survivors or isolated wanderers – or in re-establishing the nation’s electrical grid. Rather they’re engaged, sometimes excitedly, in piecing together an old episode of The Simpsons that they have all watched years ago.

Presumably a rerun, for the “Cape Feare” episode, the core of the reconstruction, first aired in 1993, twenty years before the off-Broadway premiere of Mr. Burns.

A newcomer named Gibson wanders into the campsite with the bad tidings from Boston. He is also familiar with this seminal episode of The Simpsons and contributes to the group reclamation. Aside from a ritual sharing of possible survivor info, that’s pretty much all of the Act 1 action.

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Not at all interested in adhering to established theatre traditions, Washburn gives us two intermissions instead of the usual one. And if you think the opening act was a bit impersonal, wait till you see the acts that follow. It’s seven years later and Colleen, recumbent and silent throughout Act 1, has become a post-electric TV director, and the company has grown to seven with the addition of Quincy.

We see the group rehearsing an odd amalgam of quick TV sitcom blackouts and commercial breaks, where “Cape Feare” has evolved and commercials are no less revered for their nostalgic content. Apparently, touring with such rudimentary fare has become a cutthroat industry. Lines, slogans, and episodes are licensed, and competition for rights to them is fierce – and perhaps more important than the quality factor.

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Zoom ahead 75 years and, under Amanda Liles’ ritualistic direction, you’ll be able to visualize “Cape Feare” as either a solemn religious rite or as an eerie melodramatic opera, for most of the music written by Michael Friedman to Washburn’s lyrics resides here. Liles and the ShakesCar cast also leave the ending ambiguous. We’re either watching the near-revival of the electrical grid or a re-enactment of the original flameout.

Mr. B finally emerges emphatically during this savage spectacle, not as the evil and greedy capitalist of yore but as a demonic destroyer. Homer, Bart, and Marge are now as foundational as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – though their sacrificial fates bring in a New Testament flavor. Stray wisps of Washburn’s referential comedy still remain, though, as when the Simpsons make merry with new lyrics to The Flintstones’ theme song.

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My suspicion is that enjoyment of Mr. Burns will be proportionate to how readily you can see yourself sharing in the opening bursts of enthusiasm that the nuclear holocaust survivors have in reconstructing “Cape Feare” on The Simpsons. Lacking more than rudimentary Simpsons erudition – Homer’s voice will send my hand flailing toward my remote a bit more quickly than Bart’s – I’ll have to admit that I struggled. My memories of Homer’s zenith had faded into forgetfulness long before 2013.

An apocalyptic landscape such as Washburn’s is obviously frill-averse, so if Jess Clapper’s costume designs look somewhat makeshift, no harm done. The cylindrical blue headdress that Jen Jamsky-Pollack wears as Marge works fine, recognizable in an instant for The Simpson faithful, while Rasheeda Moore’s get-up as Bart looks comparatively thrown together. Viking shoulder plates? Why not.

Nor does an outdoor campsite in the middle of the night – or the scenes to follow – require that Liles seek out a set designer, though the final flashes of zonked light presumably required some technical derring-do from James Cartee. The design and tech needs of Mr. Burns really do jibe well with ShakesCar and their fundamental Elizabethan fare.

Except that, in Mr. Burns, we never become more than superficially acquainted with anyone onstage. In Act 2, we can at least conclude that we’re watching a director with a company of actors, all of whom discuss the production they’re rehearsing and the biz. In the outer acts, Shakespearean ripeness is pretty much deep-sixed. The characters they’re portraying or debating are more important than who Matt, Jenny, Gibson, Colleen and the rest really are. By the time we’re 75+ years hence, when all these folks are sporting various configurations of face paint, they can’t really be the same people we were introduced to.

It’s not just a surrender to a debased pop culture that Washburn seems to be sketching – it’s a surrender of identity. Maybe that’s the point that the playwright wants to make, irrespective of nuclear threats, and maybe she was worried that we wouldn’t notice or be alarmed.

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Most people who enter Duke Energy Theater for an evening with Mr. Burns – or the actor who plays the actor who eventually portrays Mr. Burns – will likely wish that Washburn were a little more worried about our perceptions of her script and a little more proactive. While I may need to evolve into a post-critic to properly evaluate Washburn’s post-characters, I’ll start with David Jamsky-Pollack as Matt, the geekiest Simpson preservationist in Act 1.

Although he lays relatively low in the middle act, Matt morphs into Mr. Burns, and more than anyone else, Jamsky-Pollack incorporates the pop-eyed essence of The Simpsons into his portrayal. That creates a credible bridge with Matt, whom Jamsky-Pollack makes the most hyper and paranoid of the people around the campfire. As Colleen, Corlis Hayes is another near-person we pay attention to, primarily in Act 2 while she is the company director and Matt is in eclipse. Hayes is moderately bossy, a bit yielding when her authority is challenged – everything her role demands.

Dervin Gilbert is arguably the nearest to a three-dimensional person as Gibson in the first two acts. With multiple guns pointed at him as he enters the campsite, we can empathize with his trepidations and attempts to ingratiate himself, and seven years later, Gibson is Colleen’s leading man, a temperamental artiste in an arts wasteland. Matt Kenyon as Sam/Homer, Melody McClellan as Maria/Lisa, and Jen Jamsky-Pollack as Jenny/Marge are most memorable during the sacred Simpsons rites, successfully achieving and slightly transcending cartoon reality.

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Among the latter-day Simpsons, I was most taken with Moore, who doesn’t arrive until after the first intermission as Quincy, a singer with as much artistic pretension as Gibson. It does make sense that Quincy would get to chew nearly as much scenery as Matt when the Simpsons ritual becomes a life-or-death struggle between good and evil. Cartoon or not, Moore’s writhing, struggling, despairing, and rallying are key reasons why we see the horror in Mr. Burns, whatever it may mean.