A Masterfully Engineered Comedy Machine

Review: The Play That Goes Wrong

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Bloopers! TV audiences, theatre audiences, and film buffs love them, for bloopers have been successfully audience-tested in TV series like America’s Home Videos, comedies like Noises Off, and countless gleanings of movie out-takes – some of them nowadays appended to the director’s cut after the credits roll. So SPOILER ALERT: you will see many bloopers at Knight Theater – really a whole evening of bloopers – when you go to see The Play That Goes Wrong.

The barrage of bloopers by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields – who have also colluded on Peter Pan Goes Wrong and The Nativity Goes Wrong – often had me in stitches and left me slightly weak with laughter when I exited on opening night. It was almost merciful that I found some of the shtick repetitious or predictable, allowing me to catch my breath. Others leaving the theater were giddier than I about the madcap performances, pratfalls, and hambone hijinks.

But I also noted traces of stone-faced disgruntlement from folks here and there in the crowd, redoubled perhaps by not being able to share in the euphoria surrounding them. Bloopers just may not be so damn funny to everyone, I immediately concluded. Upon further reflection, I hedged my diagnosis: maybe bloopers are so ubiquitous that people need a respite from all those we succumb to daily as click bait on Facebook and Twitter besides all those readily available on TV and in movie houses.

Blooper burnout isn’t pervasive, that’s for sure. Hell, it’s obvious that the Lewis-Sayer-Shields team has made a franchise out of them!

So let me pause to observe how artfully crafted – and expertly engineered – the bloopers we enjoy in The Play That Goes Wrong really are. Which may be a gentle way to remind folks, giddy and disgruntled alike, that they are not really bloopers at all.

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As the other plays created on this same template imply, namely Pan and The Nativity, the Broadway hit making its touring stop at the Knight also has a storyline, a play called “The Murder at Haversham Manor” – in a “Cornley University Drama Society” production. Even before this epic fiasco began, warning signals were firing off onstage and in the hall. One stagehand scurried somewhat frantically up and down the aisles, another – helped by an actor and a recruited audience member – unsuccessfully attempted a last-minute fix of the scenery, and a third issued a warning for audience members to watch out for a chandelier, affixed somewhere with duct tape, that might fall.

Inauspicious, to say the least.

Formality briefly takes over and the curtain goes down as the University emcee makes his sometimes informative, sometimes apologetic opening remarks. Regrets are proffered for budget constraints that resulted in such economies as Two Sisters and Cat. Then the curtain goes up, ending the brief spell of semi-competence. Our murder victim, Charles Haversham, hasn’t quite finished draping himself over the settee.

A parade of characters – suspects all – enters the scene, including Haversham’s fiancée, Haversham’s brother, Haversham’s butler, the fiancée’s brother, and Inspector Carter. Consulting your faux “Haversham Manor” program, a feature I fondly remember from Noises Off, you can see that the cool and composed Chris Bean is portraying the Inspector and directing the show. Not coincidentally, Bean has previously starred at Cornley as Hamlet in Hamlet, Macbeth in Macbeth, and Othello in Othello.

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Sadly, the polished actor has rashly ventured beyond his skills behind the scenes, most disastrously in designing the scenery and making the props. A steady blizzard of technical screwups whips through and inundates the production from the moment an actor makes his first entrance. The front door, which a stagehand and actor struggled to close throughout the pre-show, now will not open. The mantel that couldn’t be affixed over the fireplace needs to be used. The stretcher to gracefully remove the corpse shreds in two.

Sometimes the clumsiness of the actors compounds the flimsiness and unreliability of the set. When a door suddenly does swing open, one of the co-stars is knocked unconscious. The beam holding up the second-story study keeps colliding with another clumsy actor, and the Bean-constructed elevator to the study proves ill-designed for repeated use – and much, much more.

By the time we reach intermission at Cornley, an insurance adjuster would not be amiss. And by the time “Habersham Manor” concludes, a delegation from FEMA ought to be dispatched.

Obviously, the real scenic designer who engineered everything that so reliably “goes wrong” in Goes Wrong – an apocalyptic demolition that must be swept up, propped up, and rebuilt for every new performance – has created an awesome and supremely frivolous masterwork. Of course, Nigel Hook took home the Drama Desk and Tony Awards for scenic design in 2017. Slam-dunk decisions as far as I’m concerned.

As casualties and destruction mount, expect those black-clad stagehands to jump into the breach, further escalating the mayhem – and the acting incompetence. Remedies can often be as zany as the catastrophes that prompt them. What can go wrong usually does.

Comparisons are inevitably made between Goes Wrong and Noises Off, a Michael Frayn concoction that must be custom-built on a revolving stage. That mammoth turntable must show us backstage mishaps, misunderstandings, and antagonisms that unfold in a touring production of a bad farce. Sandwiched around the incompetence and venom that flow freely in the middle act backstage are frontal views of the two-story set where the farce unfolds. Act 1 of Noises Off shows us a belated and ominous dress rehearsal, and in Act 3, we watch the string of disasters that result at a performance months later when the troupe’s flaws and hostilities have fully fermented.

A simpler parallel can be drawn between the Goes Wrong franchise and the chain of “abridged” comedies begun with The Complete Works of Wm Shakespeare (abridged). The writers who formed Mischief Theatre, the company that produces Goes Wrong, wrote the travesty for themselves to star in – just like founding trio of the Reduced Shakespeare Company who wrote their medleys of shticks for themselves to ham up.

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Lewis, Sayer, and Shields made it far harder on themselves when they wowed London and then starred in their own show on Broadway, as you’ll readily see when you watch their touring replacements. Skirting – or succumbing to – the disasters that befall The Play That Goes Wrong requires quick reflexes and considerable physical prowess, especially when segments of Habersham Manor begin to resemble the sinking Titanic.

Standouts include Adam Petherbridge as Cecil Haversham, the victim’s brother and the fiancée’s secret lover, perpetually genial, clumsy, theatrically amateurish, and incurably hambone. Nor could I help but admire the ruffled suavity of Chris Lanceley as the beleaguered Bean, the relatively calm eye of the storm as the Inspector, trying simultaneously to get his investigation and his production on track.

The women draw some of the most challenging physical demands. Jacqueline Jarrold as Florence Colleymore, Habersham’s two-timing fiancée, must literally fight for her role when Bianca Horn, as stage-struck stage manager Annie, steals her costume and takes over. We get some wild World Wide Wrestling action when these two tigresses tangle, not a mere catfight.

Others you’re likely to savor are Jason Bowen as the lackadaisical lighting and sound operator, Trevor, who seems to care more about his boxed set of Duran Duran than Habersham Manor, and Todd Buonopane as the sorry thespian who portrays Perkins, the dignified butler. On multiple occasions, Perkins’ mispronunciations stop the show, and in one deadly instance, Buonopane’s memory lapse throws “Habersham Manor” spinning into an endless tape loop. He’s almost as bad as Petherbridge, which is very good.

Enjoy the silly, juvenile comedy – and the marvelously sophisticated stagecraft. A couple of things do magically go right in The Play That Goes Wrong, adding some delightful wrinkles.

Jilted Women at a Wine Bar Thirsting for Blood

Review: The Norwegians

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Bundle up! If you head north on I-77 to the Warehouse PAC later this week, playwright C. Denby Swanson will carry you off to the wilds of Minnesota, where she learned the frigid core lesson that inspired her dark arctic comedy, The Norwegians: “You gotta find a lover before the first freeze, or else it’s too late.” Two unescorted women, already bundled up in igloo mode, meet in a ladies’ room at a wine bar, get sloshed together, and bitterly commiserate over recently lost boyfriends.

But Betty, a devious plotter from Kentucky, and Olive, more recently arrived from Texas, aren’t passively drowning their sorrows.

No, no, no. Our first glimpse Olive is a far weirder scene. She’s hiring two hitmen, Tor and Gus, to knock off her asshole boyfriend. It just doesn’t look that way. Tor and Gus are questioning Olive as if she were the one who was trying to get hired for a job – making her sweat sometimes like cops grilling a criminal suspect.

Less askew, but with a definitely mean edge, are the barbs that the women aim at Minnesota and Texas. The Norwegians, Tor and Gus, pretty much demolish their own nationality by describing themselves and their Lutheran ways. These aren’t Lake Wobegon bachelor Norwegians, we should remember, that Garrison Keillor described so whimsically on the Prairie Home Companion comedy franchise. These are killers – and businessmen in competition with other area hitmen, most notably the Swedish outfit.

IMG_1170 (1)They are also pathologically serious, intense, and straightforward. Late in the action, Betty will take great satisfaction in bursting Tor’s “irony cherry.” Nor is there homespun solidarity between the carnivores that Betty has recommended to Olive. Every now and then, Tor will throw the fact that Gus is only half-Norwegian in his face.

Confronted by the strangely hostile and aggressive personalities of the Norwegians, Olive begins to have second thoughts and Tor begins to question Gus’s marketing expertise. We still haven’t heard anything concrete about her ex’s atrocities, or a solid reason for this radical payback, when Olive also has qualms about Gus’s weapon of choice, a baseball bat.

More complications, plot twists, and ironies ensue – and more second thoughts. After berating Gus for mixing business with pleasure, Tor realizes that he has feelings for Olive, who is resolving not to have the warmth of a lover during the oncoming winter. Or beyond. And Betty? She’s seriously considering contacting the Swedes and canceling the hit she ordered.

Well, everybody is serious here. Swanson has a knack for spicing up her dramatic tensions with wicked barbs and comedy. Meanwhile the oddity of her situations is enhanced by her odd structuring, which keeps us glued to Olive as she shuttles back and forth – in time as well as place – from the fateful wine bar meetup to the assassins’ lair.

Directing this exotic Slurpee of intrigue, Jessica Zingher doesn’t go overboard in finessing these transitions as Becca Worthington traverses the Warehouse. Together, Zingher and Worthington make a convincing case that a low-budget production at a storefront theater is an ideal way to present the shivery eccentricity of The Norwegians. The down-market wine bar is virtually built in!

Swanson’s quirky storytelling allows Worthington to shed her victim and protagonist roles, becoming a bystander like us. Her reactions are often more fun than her spoken responses. What she sees, when Tor and Gus regularly forget about her and engage with each other, is that they are not running a good-cop, bad-cop con. There’s real friction there, personality differences that go bone-deep. Bryce Mac as Gus is seething, suspicious, and volatile. Bill Reilly as Tor is comparatively stolid, stoical, trusting, and calm. He might erupt, and there are moments when we sense that there are limits to Tor’s patience for both Olive and Gus to be wary of.

Yet both of the Norwegians are rather tight-lipped and purposeful, which keeps their interrogation and negotiation scenes with Olive taut and quick-paced. Will Olive freak out or will Gus? Worthington and Mac keep us guessing.

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Over bottles of wine at a cocktail table, Olive’s conversations with Betty are noticeably less hostile, more leisurely paced, even if they’re mulling over similar homicidal subjects. Although Olive is clearly – visibly – the glue that binds the plot together, not to mention the two halves of the Warehouse stage, it’s Kerstin VanHuss as Betty who is the most loquacious of Swanson’s characters. VanHuss feasts on Swanson’s lengthiest and most outré monologues, giving Olive the lowdown on Minnesota life and persuading her that murder is the way to go.

Watching VanHuss cajoling her newfound chum and shakily delivering her pontifications, you begin to get the skewed idea that the Norwegians are more scrupulous than Betty. Another calibration might also happen as Worthington shuttles across the stage after each of her wine bar flashbacks: you may be thinking that the grilling Gus and Tor are giving her is helping Olive snap out of a hangover and back to sobriety.

The plot thickens after Betty makes her entrance for her first scene with the guys – and the action comically intensifies. Here we ultimately find the most intricate ensemble coordination, with Zingher’s most precisely timed direction, as Betty performs an epic ransacking of her supersized handbag that seems to extend at least five minutes and spill across a quarter of the stage. Others onstage while VanHuss performs this frantic, sloppy meltdown, searching for the Swedes’ business card, are largely unconcerned with Betty’s distress, digesting other news.

But as Betty’s junk pours out, and VanHuss feverishly rummages everywhere – inside the bag and out, on the table or under it – or on the floor – her epic search syncs with maximum comical impact on the dramatic conversation proceeding on a totally different topic. Amid an avalanche of trivial debris, pauses occur and certain items emerge on cue. Maybe we can compare this unique climax to a jazz improvisation, seemingly chaotic but precisely timed.

It’s funny and memorable, that’s for sure. If not altogether happily, everything falls satisfyingly into place as Swanson’s zany, treacherous comedy concludes.

Prague Symphony Stages a Glamorous Zukerman-Forsyth Season Opener

Review: Prague Symphony at Smetana Hall

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Sitting in our room at the Brewery Hotel on our last night in the Old City – after attending performances at the Estates Theatre, the Rudolfinum, and the Municipal House in the space of four evenings – I couldn’t help but reflect on how beer and classical music must run through the veins of Prague’s natives and people who visit the Czech capital. On our way to the Estates, where we saw the National Theatre Opera’s Don Giovanni in the very same hall where Mozart first conducted it, a gauntlet of pubs lined a narrow street, serving up an assortment of brews, including what is fiercely claimed to be the genuine Budweiser. A brewery and a restaurant are still a part of the hotel where we lodged, and we could have ordered beer-flavored ice cream until late at night.

Nor were our musical choices limited to the three programs we saw. On the night that we saw Pinchas Zukerman and Amanda Forsyth play the Brahms Double Concerto, we had to reject the National’s La Traviata because we were flying out the next morning. Two festivals were in full swing during our stay in Prague, the Young Prague International and the star-studded Dvořák Prague International, which offered five of its 16 events during our five-day sojourn. If that weren’t enough, the Church of Nicholas in the Old Town offers two concerts every day, including a handy 5pm event on the day we strolled by.

Aside from the National, the Czech Philharmonic and the Prague Symphony are the kingpins of the classical scene, though the Prague Philharmonia and the Czech Radio Symphony – both of which appeared at the Dvořák International – cannot be discounted. The Czech Philharmonic sports the more experienced maestro, Semyon Bychkov, and plays at the more euphonious Dvořák Hall at the Rudolfinum, but with violinist-conductor Pietari Inkinen on their podium in Smetana Hall at the Municipal, the Prague can lay claim to the hotter property.

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Inkinen also holds chief conductorships at the Japan Philharmonic and Deutsche Radio Philharmonie, and he is slated to conduct the new Wagner Ring next summer at Bayreuth. The 39-year-old Finn also has an affinity for the symphonic works of Jean Sibelius, having recorded complete cycles of the seven symphonies with both the New Zealand Symphony and Japan Phil. So I was just as eager to hear Inkinen and the Prague in the Sibelius 5 as I was to hear Zukerman and Forsyth do their glamorous Double.

Before their mighty husband-and-wife fireworks, Zukerman and Forsyth ingratiated themselves individually with two Dvořák gems, the violinist leading off with the Romance for Violin and the cellist following with Silent Woods. Neither posed the severe technical challenges you expect a featured guest artist to conquer, yet they both offered charming opportunities for expressiveness, proving they deserve to be heard live, not just on CDs or FM radio.

Though we needed to lean forward in the balcony at the Rudolfinum to get a full view of Gautier Capuçon when he played Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations the previous evening, the acoustics had been fabulous. At the Smetana, you needed to be at ground level if you wished to be enraptured by the sound of the soloists. The hall was kinder to Forsyth’s cello than it was to Zukerman as she floated through the dark orchestral shades of the orchestral setting, but the full sweetness of Dvořák’s woodwind writing never came close to full bloom.

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The Brahms was a better match for the venue, though Zukerman couldn’t break through in the opening Allegro with all the fiery immediacy you hear on the couple’s 2015 Analekta recording. We finally reached a higher plateau when Forsyth launched the middle Andante with a tone that the hall caressed – and Inkinen was able to draw the cohesive support from the Prague ensemble that he hadn’t mustered before. Chemistry between Zukerman and Forsyth, calmed and mellowed here, became sprightly and mischievous in the concluding Vivace non troppo now that the violinist had adjusted to the room. The double-bowed exchanges between the soloists were at the highest level as the concerto climaxed.

If the initial Dvořák pieces had been cagily chosen to showcase the guest soloists without stressfully testing the power couple, the encore was deftly selected to underscore Forsyth’s charm and Zukerman’s chivalry. The violinist gave way here, and it was Inkinen who picked up his violin and, sitting deferentially behind Forsyth, played a brief pizzicato duet with the cellist. A glamorous coda, as Inkinen and Forsyth shared a chaste smooch and Zukerman stood off proudly clutching a bouquet of flowers.

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Inkinen and the Prague struggled a little with the Smetana’s sonics in the Sibelius 5. Strings sounded a bit watery early in the opening movement, but their sound solidified later on. Pizzicatos weren’t ideally delicate to start the middle movement, but the bowed violins sweetened when they ascended the treble, and the reprise of the pizzicatos was notably improved. Flutes could sound dry or echoey at times in the opening movement, but the doubled flutes in the middle movement floated beatifically.

Fortunately, the hall is far more welcoming to trumpets, trombones, and oboes. The brass were unfailingly dramatic each time they were called upon and the principal trumpet was magnificent. Everything coalesced satisfyingly in the final movement, where the woodwinds were the first to impress. The alchemy between the flutes and the stealthy violins was nicely measured, and the roused violins had convincing ardor. As we neared the climax, the principal trombone excelled – the only non-string musician I could actually see clearly from ground level. To use a gymnastics phrase that is so apt for the end of this E-flat powerhouse, where timpani and brass mete out a string of sforzandos, Inkinen and the Prague’s big guns stuck the landing.

 

Barefoot in Carnegie Hall, Conqueror at the Knight

Review: Charlotte Symphony and Pianist Conrad Tao Perform Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Celebrations of Ludwig van Beethoven don’t really need to lean on a convenient excuse. Just before celebrations broke out worldwide on January 1, 2020, commemorating the great composer’s 250th birthday, New York City’s WQXR played out 2019 with their traditional New Year’s Eve countdown of their audience’s top 100 favorites, culminating in a marathon tribute to Beethoven. Not only did Beethoven’s “Choral” Symphony No. 9 take the top spot yet again at the flagship classical FM station, six works by Beethoven were in WQXR’s top 10, including the top three. Charlotte Symphony certainly wasn’t standing in back of the line of orchestras poised for celebration as the new decade began.

Returning to Knight Theater from a tour of Southeast Asia with the London Chamber Orchestra, maestro Christopher Warren-Green capped the first full week of 2020 with a double-dose of the birthday boy’s compositions, the “Leonore Overture No. 3” and the “Emperor” Concerto No. 5, which finished No. 10 in the latest WQXR popularity poll. In between, we heard the Symphony No. 7 in C by Jean Sibelius, perhaps the first time that the Finnish composer’s final symphony has been performed in Charlotte. Pianist and composer Conrad Tao made his Charlotte debut with the orchestra.

We don’t have too many instances of rewrites among Beethoven’s published works, but his lone opera, Fidelio, and its overture are prominent exceptions. The three Leonore overtures (plus a “Fidelio Overture”!) testify that Beethoven not only fussed over the music for his opera, he also fussed over the title. Leonore, Creatures of Prometheus, and Coriolan are the overtures most favored as fillers on CD collections of the symphonies, and Warren-Green programmed Coriolan in an all-Beethoven concert in 2012. As far back as I can trace, this is the first time Symphony has separated the “Leonore Overture” from Fidelio, but our musicians likely recalled rehearsing it for an opera-in-concert version conducted by Christof Perick in 2004 and when Opera Carolina offered us a fully-staged Fidelio in 2015.

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Musicians were perhaps too amped-up for the celebration as the Overture kicked off the concert. The opening sforzando over a timpani beat and the mysterious fadeaway that follows that burst were beautifully played. Woodwinds blended effectively and the flutes had a wonderful rapport before forebodings of the big tune rippled through the lower strings. But the crisp delivery and sleekly calibrated dynamics we have come to expect from this orchestra were missing on the first pass through the main theme, and there was no room left to dramatically turn up the volume later when the big tune repeated twice more. Thankfully, the ensemble steadied immediately afterwards – for the entire evening – sharpening their focus. Winds and horns remained tightly knit, principal flutist Victor Wang continued to charm, and principal trumpeter Alex Wilborn, deployed deep in the balcony, brought us forlorn pathos before concertmaster Calin Lupanu, playing fervidly, triggered the final galloping reprise and climax.

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Other than interpolating how exhausted he still was after conducting the Leonore, Warren-Green was all about Sibelius when he picked up his mic for the first time in 2020, pointing out that the Finn was battling two illnesses as he wrote the piece over a 10-year stretch: depression and alcoholism. He also drew our attention to the trombone solos with insights gleaned from the original 1924 manuscript. The winds and strings, particularly the violins, drew a sweetness from the music that I hadn’t found on either of the CDs in my collection, and there were definite hints in the darkest passages, where the violins played low in their range, of the illnesses that afflicted the composer – and possible promptings for the way Shostakovich would register WW2 in his symphonies. Only the flow and the full grandeur of my Ashkenazy recording with the London Philharmonia were missing in Warren-Green’s reading. As for principal trombonist John Bartlett, the orchestral wreath surrounding his contributions – along with the embroidery Sibelius weaves with the winds – might cause you to overlook his unquestionable excellence.

No such danger threatened Tao as he emerged in his colorful attire. Only later admitting that he had begun the new year by packing negligently and forgetting his formal attire, Tao attacked his opening cadenzas with swashbuckling panache, and his phrasing proved to be no less audacious and individual than his attire and attack. Clearly, Tao has heard this soaring masterwork in his own way – but without perversely differing with traditional interpretations or seeking to draw undue attention away from the composer. Warren-Green and the orchestra responded vigorously to the young soloist, as much in the forefront of the epic opening Allegro movement as the piano. Of course, Tao impressed us more in the softer passages than the accompaniment here, but Symphony was certainly an equal partner in the magical Adagio that followed. The upper strings, delicately supported by pizzicatos from the lower strings, solemnly and lyrically cleared the way for Tao’s ethereal entrance – with a clarity that I’ve never heard on a recording. A bit of subtlety and nuance eluded Tao here and there in his phrasing, but Warren-Green and his ensemble remained marvelously simpatico in sustaining the sublimity.

For those of us who love this piece, Tao’s way with the ingenious transition between the Adagio and the Rondo finale likely sparked the most controversy and admiration. He certainly took his time, not playing the ending quite as softly as the usual pianissimos I’ve heard, but the sforzando burst to launch the concluding movement still had a satisfying snap and éclat. Symphony was as zestful as ever in its response, and Tao parleyed a playfulness and a muscular power we had not seen from him earlier, conclusively proving he could punish a keyboard.

Two more Beethoven masterworks, his Missa Solemnis and “Pastoral” Symphony, highlight the remainder of the 2019-20 mainstage classics series, the latter to be led by JoAnn Falletta. Symphony certainly had the appeal of their Tao program nicely gauged, scheduling an extra Sunday matinee after the usual pair of performances. Of course, Tao may have been kidding us when he spoke of forgetting his formalwear. In his enthusiastic New York Times review of Tao’s Carnegie Hall debut back in November, critic Anthony Tommasini couldn’t help noting that the pianist was clad in black slacks, a black jacket, a black T-shirt… and barefoot!

Farewell, America

Review: Come from Away

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Traveling to Europe by air, you may recall the animated maps that flash onto the seatback screens facing you, orienting passengers during the flight as your pilot follows the great circle route over the Atlantic. At the very eastern edge of North America, you’re likely to notice the name of Gander, a Newfoundland outpost oddly mixed among the names of larger, more familiar cities.

So when all of North America’s airspace was shut down during the emergency of September 11, 2001, and 38 commercial and 4 military flights were diverted to the Gander International Airport, it was the next-worst thing to forcing more than 6,600 civilians and soldiers to wait it out on the ocean. Passengers almost had to bid America farewell. It was no picnic for the citizens of nearby Gander, either, who suddenly discovered that their airport had been transformed into a major immigration hub – while the population of their sleepy town mushroomed by over 66%.

Yet somehow, the hubbub sorted itself out beyond all expectations. At the time when news hit of the warm-hearted welcome strangers were experiencing in the wilds of Newfoundland, it was the feel-good story to break through a tsunami of anger, grieving, finger-pointing, and Islamophobia. A little island of hospitality in an ocean of hostility.

Sixteen years later, when Canadian husband-and-wife team Irene Sankoff and David Hein retold the story in a Broadway musical, Come from Away, the time was ripe for the Gander love-in to strike a nerve once again. When the show opened for previews in mid-February 2017, less than a month after Inauguration Day, an infamous Muslim ban had recently gone into effect, a thousand-mile Southern border wall was still a political imperative – most intensely among small town rustics, it seemed – and a wave of anti-immigration sentiment was sweeping Europe.

In that climate, Come from Away must have seemed like a rallying cry, hearkening back to a time when Christian values hadn’t devolved into round-the-clock xenophobia. This week, as the touring version of the Broadway hit rolls through Belk Theater, there hasn’t been a politically-charged photo op from an internment camp in recent memory. Iran, Ukraine, Russia, or our pathetic Panthers are more likely to inflame our passions than any imminent threat from Guatemala.

We’ve turned the page, right? I wondered if the warmth of the quirky Canadians and their spontaneous connection with a global hoard of uninvited guests would still resonate, especially when the storytelling turned out to be so objective, bland, and non-confrontational.

As studiously as Sankoff and Hein avoid controversy, analysis, or agonized post-mortems, they do go into admirable detail about the logistical challenges of accommodating thousands of detainees in the middle of nowhere. Pandemonium may have broken loose near Ground Zero, but airspace across the continent was in virtual lockdown, security precautions around aircraft especially tight. Our first peeps inside a passenger cabin, as planes languish on the ground until proper processing can be set up, show us people going stir crazy during the 28 hours they must wait before deplaning – separated from their checked luggage in an information blackout.

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Raiding their supply cabinets and freely handing out booze is one remedy a crew might try to ease the tedium, even if it doesn’t altogether restore quiet and calm – or appease the claustrophobic crone in the back row. Twelve actors draw the task of simulating all the global passengers and all the Newfoundlanders involved in this massive coping drill, so there’s an electric bustle as the actors switch from their traveler roles to townspeople.

While the passengers hovering over airstrips are disoriented, experiencing the surreal, on the ground in Gander, the impact is very much like a benign invasion has suddenly hit. An ordinary day that begins with the mayor ordering up his customary cuppa joe at Tim Horton’s is no longer pre-programmed. Instead of meeting with the leader of the school bus drivers to negotiate an end to their strike, he’ll be soliciting cooperation from this foe in transporting over 6,000 aliens from the airport to town.

Elsewhere, a school teacher will need to take charge of opening an emergency shelter and breaking the news of the attack to the passengers. Feeding, washing, and bedding all these travel-weary people must also be managed. The newcomers speak a host of languages and have a host of unforeseen needs – including kosher meals – and helping so many to simply check in with friends and relatives, by phone or by email, is a formidable challenge. It is almost comical when a local SPCA worker pops up, concerned about the plight of the cats, dogs, and monkeys stowed in the belly of the planes with the cargo.

In short, there’s a multitude of practicalities in the hurly-burly of this 100-minute musical that largely distract us from the two main things: the massive kindness that the Newfies showered on the newbies, and the massive changes to our world that came with the events in Manhattan, at the Pentagon, and aboard Flight 93. A few of the passengers remind us of the big picture. Beverley, a pilot, and Hannah, a mom, worry that loved ones may have perished, and there are multiple hints that the seeds of Islamophobia have already started germinating.

Otherwise, life goes on. Kevin T and Kevin J, a gay couple with personality differences, may or may not break up. A Texas woman and a British guy may get together, overcoming wariness, shyness, and the brevity of their acquaintance.

We aren’t deluged with one-on-one kindness from the friendly natives, but there are choice examples. The teacher, Julie Johnson as Beulah, bonds with Danielle K. Thomas as Hannah because her son is also a firefighter. Two Kevins walk into a Gander bar and find that their fears of Laramie homophobia are groundless – they’re accepted warmly and instantly. A nearby mayor invites the wary Bob to his home, opens up his liquor cabinet to the stranger, and helps him overcome his fear that he’ll wake up tomorrow without his wallet. Or how about the local store clerk? After thanking a first-time customer for shopping at Walmart, she invites her home to take a shower.

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Beginning with “Welcome to the Rock,” most of the songs in the score are sung by the entire ensemble, choreographed with the right kind of vivacity by Kelly Devine, so we often get a sense that we are watching an energetic community response after all. With a script that doesn’t have the Twin Towers, al-Qaeda, radical Islam, Osama, or even terrorism prominently in its vocabulary, that communal energy seemed to be the most potent reason why Come from Away connected so viscerally with the near-capacity crowd at Belk Theater on opening night.

While there are plenty of feel-good experiences to be found on our current media landscape, including synthetic fantasies of communities bonding together and accepting one another, Come from Away comes to us at a time when we seem hopelessly fractious and divided, digging in against each other instead of helping each other out. And the comity of Come from Away strikes us as very real, very possible – and as a rebuke that isn’t saddled with a party label.

After the opening ensemble, there isn’t much in the Sankoff and Hein score to keep us airborne until we reach “Me and the Sky,” a showcase for Beverley, who turns out to be first female airline pilot at American Airlines. Marika Aubrey ably takes the controls here, counterbalancing the levity of the barroom scene that precedes. In that episode, we get the most genuinely communal spectacle of the evening, presided over by Kevin Carolan as the mayor.

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While visitors get the opportunity to be initiated as honorary Newfies, Andrew Samonsky as Kevin T and Nick Duckart as Kevin J get to define their differences, while Chamblee Ferguson as the Brit and Christine Toy Johnson as the Texan get to share their first sloppy kiss. A local liquor, “Screech,” lubricates the zany ritual, along with a freshly-caught codfish.

Others in the cast who make an impression come across as the youngest – and maybe as surrogates or prompters for us as we watch. James Earl Jones II as the skeptical Bob registers his wonder at Northern hospitality most tellingly and holds our attention after he and his fellow passengers have returned home. When she isn’t clerking at Walmart, Julia Knitel is most notably a cub reporter on the local TV station, faced with the ginormous cataclysm of 9/11 on her first day in the field. Lanky, gawky, and adorable.

Sharone Sayegh may just be even more adorable as the SPCA zealot so mindful of the animals when all of humanity’s minds are elsewhere. No doubt about it, Come from Away comes to us with plenty of heart. Question is, will we come to Belk Theater to escape what we have become 18+ years later, or will we come to experience a reckoning? No matter which, audience reception on opening night seemed to hint that they had felt an unexpectedly positive vibe – an affirmation that, in the face of so much division and adversity assailing us, we can be better.

Jamie Laval Stages a Colorful, Varied, and Multilingual “Celtic Christmas”

Review:  Jamie Laval’s “Celtic Christmas“

By:  Perry Tannenbaum

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Unless you were already aware that Fiona Ritchie’s widely syndicated radio show The Thistle & Shamrock originated at WFAE on the UNC Charlotte campus in 1981, you might have been surprised to see that Jamie Laval‘s “Celtic Christmas: Music and Stories for the Deep Midwinter“ attracted a capacity crowd at Booth Playhouse on Sunday evening. Yes, long before WFAE became mostly news and talk, Charlotte was the cradle of the most listened-to Celtic music program on earth. As a 2015 concert at the Aunt Stella Center showed – and the Booth sequel confirmed – Charlotte remains a hotbed of Celtic music fandom.

Sporting a kilt and sporran, Laval took fine advantage of the larger stage upstairs at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. While the champion fiddler didn’t bring the same dance artillery along with him as we saw at Aunt Stella, Laval’s production was greatly enhanced with the projections and lighting design by Michelle Fleming. Projections were also useful at the top of the program as Laval, his instrumental ensemble, and vocalist Megan McConnell cruised through the first three selections on the playlist – two of which were medleys – without pausing. Fleming’s ministrations in the light booth, changing the snowy midwinter scenes that projected behind the musicians, provided visual bookmarks at key transition points.

Onstage, Asheville-based Rosalind Buda was the most chameleonic of the instrumentalists, the only holdover in Laval’s ensemble from 2015. Buda switched from pennywhistle to bagpipes during “Da Day Dawn (Shetland Air),” from bassoon to recorder during the “Round About Our Coal Fire / Cornish Wassail” medley, and back to a bassoon continuo during the “Medieval Dance Carols / Patapan” potpourri. That gave us only a sampling of her varied capabilities.

McConnell was also notable for her versatility, traversing a range of languages during the concert in song lyrics that hopscotched from English to Cornish to Breton and to Galician as she exemplified the full spread of Celtic culture. The Galician of “Fum, Fum, Fum” just before intermission was especially eye-opening and arguably McConnell’s zestiest vocal: I was not expecting to hear Spanish at a Celtic concert! When the soprano retreated from her vocalist microphone, there was a percussion station with an assortment of cunning little devices, including a wood block, finger cymbals, glockenspiel, and Quebecois wooden spoons.

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As the evening progressed, it became harder to overlook the versatility of Irish dancer Claire Shirey. When she wasn’t striving to replace the three dancers who had appeared with Laval in 2015, Shirey showed considerable expertise in playing the bodhrán, a Celtic drum. That seemed to be the full extent of Shirey’s range until the concluding “Jacobstowe Wassail / Reels” medley, when she brought a fiddle in from the wings and performed a duet interlude with Laval. When Laval fully took over the fiddling chores, Shirey deposited her violin offstage and returned, merrily adorned in silver spangled shoes that she put percussively to use, clacking away as the tempo accelerated. Nor were those the only fireworks in the finale, for in the wassail, McConnell and Buda hooked up in a lilting vocal duet in 3/4 time.

There was plenty of texture in the instrumental fabric throughout the evening, but the balance wasn’t always satisfying. Chronically undermiked, guitarist Eamon Sefton and cellist Franklin Keel were never really prominent in the tapestry. The same might have been said about Rachel Clemente and her Celtic harp, except that the harpist was showcased in both halves of the evening, playing glimmering preludes when Buda performed her poetry readings of “White Eyes” and “Snowbound.” Clemente was also the sole accompanist when the first of these poems transitioned to “Caleno,” a lovely McConnell-Buda vocal duet. When “Snowbound” dissolved into “Winter, Fire and Snow,” Clemente supplied a lyrical coda before McConnell alternated vocal stanzas with Laval’s instrumentals.

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Amplification was most complex for Buda and her array of instruments. When she picked up the bombard – defined very unhelpfully by the Oxford Dictionary of Music as “a type of shawm” – for the first time on “Joyful Mysteries (Breton Carol and Dances),” Buda made a glorious sound, somewhat akin to Sidney Bechet’s storied jazz recordings, a robust soprano saxophone timbre with an extra Middle Eastern tinge. Later, when she switched from bombard to a smaller sopranino bombard (or shawm) midway through “Kanomp Nedeleg (Breton Carol and Dances),” there was only the slightest diminution in volume, for these ancient reed instruments hardly needed amplification. Nor did the riq, an Arabian tambourine that Buda would brandish in “Patapan” prior to the “Kentucky Wassail/Gloucestershire Wassail” medley – and after intermission, in the “Gower Wassail.” But Buda’s bassoon, banjo, and bagpipes weren’t as prominent as I would have liked. More disturbing, I strained to hear Buda when she read the poems, a problem that hadn’t plagued the 2015 concert.

Leaving his guitar behind on this visit, Laval was less conspicuous in his versatility, confining himself to violin, spoken intros, and some very effective narration in spinning the “Saban the Woodfitter” yarn, where we had our best taste of the bagpipes during Buda’s intro. For those of us who have overdosed on Christmas music, Laval’s opening description of his program reassured us that the emphasis would be on a solstice celebration – even if that message undercut his “Midwinter” subtitle and Fleming’s cavalcade of very snowy projections. Laval was especially charming in discoursing about Brittany, the bombard, and the folkloric significance of wrens for the Celts.

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There was plenty of double-stopping and ricochet bowing from Laval throughout the evening, but his virtuosity peaked when he gave himself the solo spotlight for “Variations on ‘Deck the Halls.’“ There was a double-stopped variation in this bouquet, of course, followed by nods to Appalachian mountain fiddling, a pizzicato chorus, a Scottish bagpipe-like variation, a minor variation, a couple of reel segments, and a climax that shuttled between double-stopped and ricochet-bowed passages. As an artistic director, lest we forget that aspect of his artistry, Laval provided a surprisingly varied assortment of instrumental and vocal combinations. The evening was not so much a Christmas, or a solstice, or a midwinter celebration as it was a Celtic cornucopia.

 

 

 

Still Tripping After All These Years

Review: Calouche & Co.’s Clara’s Trip

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Although Caroline Calouche’s Clara’s Trip has become a Yuletide fixture at Booth Playhouse since 2012, often playing while Charlotte Ballet’s more traditional Nutcracker runs down below at Belk Theater, the cirque and aerial variant on Tchaikovsky’s actually began a year earlier at Halton Theater. Conceived as an anti-Nutcracker or an antidote for Nut haters, the Calouche & Co. has always figured to be a better fit at the contemporary Booth than at the neo-classical Halton.

Yet a curious thing has happened between Clara’s first trip at the Booth and now her eighth. While Calouche’s brainchild has become more balanced, more polished, and less Bohemian, Booth Playhouse has become seedier and more déclassé. With all its former floor-level seating stripped away, replaced by drab moveable chairs on pitilessly exposed flooring, the Booth doesn’t boast enough style to be called Bohemian. These days, it’s the colorful Calouche costumes, scenery, and aerial apparatuses onstage that push back against a powerful suspicion that you’re in a musty old union hall.

Did I miss all the wrongheaded demolition when I last entered the Booth to hear Matthew Bourne give a pre-Cinderella interview last January – or has all this foolhardiness transpired since then? Do not know what they are thinking, and I could not google any info about current plans for the Booth.

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Turn up some stage lights on the Booth’s crimson curtain and you do get a certain cirque vibe as Calouche makes her introductory remarks and plucks a couple of volunteer performers from the audience. That audience participation may be a new wrinkle, and I noticed upgrades in Jennifer O’Kelly’s sets and projections, photos by Peter Zay, and costumes by Betsey Blackmore, Kriss Yavalek, and Calouche.

Calouche’s storyline remains pretty much as I remembered, with an accident-prone mid-20s Clara breaking her ankle at a holiday party. Rushed to an emergency room in the middle of Christmas Eve, Clara nods off into a snowy dreamworld very much like Charlotte Ballet’s pre-teen Clara does downstairs at the Belk. Only at the more adult Booth, we can ascribe Clara’s fantasy to inducements such as drugs, booze and anesthesia.

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With all the assurance she could possibly need, Carol Quirós Otárola is in her first year as Clara, probably no longer in her mid-20s and definitely not accustomed to seeming awkward or accident-prone on stage. Early on, Otárola is gracefully paired with Joseph Nguyen as Beau, Clara’s white-clad cavalier. The party scene, now more upscale than I remember it, is livened by an acrobatic Mr.-and-Mrs.-Canes duet featuring Kaila Dockal and the ever-reliable Javier Gonzalez, now in his fifth season with the company.

Once Clara is booted in her post-op cast, we get a nice outbreak of imagery. Party guests become a somewhat bizarre nightmare throng, with a couple of the mob on stilts until we’re whisked into the eye-popping snow episodes. Otárola can now be all grace paired Nguyen before the curtain comes down on all the leading dancers enjoying a snow shower.

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Act 2 is more recognizably cirque with rings, silks, and trapeze. At the same time, it is more recognizably Nutcracker with Candy Canes, Gingerbreads, Flowers, and – slithering to Tchaikovsky’s Arabian dance – Fish. Accenting the talents of Susannah Burke and Sarah Small on the rings as those slithery Fish, the mesmerizing Calouche choreography is obviously “in collaboration with the Dancers” as the program booklet states. The rapport between Conner Hall and Alan Malpass on trapeze as Mr. and Mrs. Flowers has an unmistakable circus glitter, yet we might also detect Calouche’s influence in how superbly their moves align with the “Waltz of the Flowers.” Same story when Otárola and Nguyen ascend, descend, or circle around each other on the suspended silks, so snowy and ethereal.

It’s at moments like this, however, when I still wish Clara’s Trip were more anti-Nutcracker than it is. When we’re hearing canned music in a trashed venue, the high-grade heroics of Calouche’s cirque artists don’t fully dispel the feeling that we’re watching a down-market version of the Charlotte Ballet extravaganza going on below with its million-dollar designs and its live Charlotte Symphony musicians. That’s where the prime Gingerbread and Candy Cane still reside.

So I suggest it again: shake up the customary Tchaikovsky soundtrack, even if it’s just with the Duke Ellington big-band arrangements of the score or the much-lauded piano adaptation by Stewart Goodyear released four years ago. As for all the Nutcracker score that precedes the breakout of its greatest hits, I’d suggest tossing away most of the party music altogether. Either break away from the ballet score with music you might actually hear at a contemporary Christmas party or slyly transfer some of the hits that have been axed from Act 2.

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Calouche & Co. succeed with their audience involvement and in those ensemble moments where the party and Clara’s nightmare become truly wild. The aerial and cirque flights that take Nutcracker to new frontiers will also remain welcome. Certainly the wonders of Cirque du Soleil should play a leading role in Clara’s Trip, and when Zoe Flowers, Angela Kollmer,and Charley Weaver make their splash as Monkeys on their triple-wide trapeze, we’re reminded that there’s a place for Disney preciousness on this snowy frontier.

As for the shambles that is now Booth Playhouse, stoned Baby Boomers might call that a trip. What a “trip” became back in the ‘60s could still add a worthwhile dimension to Clara’s adventures, loosening up Calouche’s characters here and there while making them more at home.

Happily, Calouche doesn’t simply vanish into the wings after her introductory emceeing. After primping for the party, she’ll pop up again at various points in the show, most prominently at the end of Act 1 in the snow sequence and in Act 2 in the role of Ballerina Ornament. She still blends in quite well with the newer talent, still can light up a stage, and she still inspires students and the statewide dance community. Quite a powerhouse, all in all.

Trailer Trash Goes to College

Review: The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical

By Perry Tannenbaum

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To say that Betsy Kelso and David Nehls’ Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical is a sequel – or a prequel – would be an outrageously pretentious way of looking at this crass Yuletide concoction. Pure dirty fun, they would likely proclaim, citing as proof their most memorable song, “Fuck It, It’s Christmas.” Whether they’re targeting their own musicals or their trashy Armadillo Acres avatar for American trailer parks, the Kelso-Nehl is clearly tossing the “Great” label around with Madison Avenue nonchalance. Face it, The Great American Trailer Park Musical, its Christmas mutant, and Armadillo Acres are not so great.

Yet they have definitely struck a chord with the mischief makers at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte and their loyal audience. We first toured Armadillo Acres in 2007, seven years before Kelso and Nehls uploaded Christmas onto their fictional Northern Florida property. That first production, so much in tune with ATC’s freewheeling Off-Broadway irreverence, was popular enough for a 2010 revival – and to order up the fresh inventory one Yule after the Christmas edition was first unveiled in late 2013. I suspect that ATC’s loss of their stranglehold on local productions of The Santaland Diaries also factored in.

The move has proven to be shrewd in terms of box office and retaining exclusivity. Though the road for the company has been bumpy after they departed from their Stonewall Street location, with a regrettable stop at the McBride-Bonnefoux Dance Center in 2016 – and a two-year hiatus since that Uptown gaffe – Trailer Park Christmas has remained ATC’s baby.GATPCM 9

After remaking their production to fit their current HQ at Hadley Theater on the Queens University campus, the company seems poised to keep it that way.

Evan Kinsley’s scenic design is yet another eye-popping assertion that ATC has only begun exploring the Hadley’s full capabilities, once again capitalizing on the height and flexibility of the hall. God bless LED’s for keeping electrical costs down in Kinsley’s tacky-topia of beer-can wreaths and plastic lawn flamingoes. Kinsley also gets credit for the technical derring-do of the tall Christmas tree that straddles the borderline between the properties of Rufus Jeter and Armadillo’s resident Scrooge, Darlene Seward. Trailer park manager Betty makes repeated assertions that a Yuletide curse hangs over Armadillo Acres, and a late Vesuvius outbreak from the tree spectacularly confirms that dubious intuition.

Now it’s true that Darlene’s salacious boyfriend, restauranteur Jackson Boudreaux, undercuts all pretenses that Betty can be a trailer park manager – or that Rufus and Darlene can claim any property – by declaring that they are all squatters on land that they do not own. Such details, in the Kelso-Niehls worldview, are no doubt only for i-dotting Scrooges or Cratchits.

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By the time Jackson slithers onto the scene, Darlene has become an amnesia victim in the heat of her property dispute with Rufus. Suddenly electroshocked into loving Christmas, Darlene is now open to overtures from both men. Once this soapy love triangle is established, you might conclude that Betty has little to do. Well, she can fret over the possibility that Darlene’s amnesia might wear off – along with her holiday spirit – before Armadillo can win the annual Christmas decorations prize awarded by Mobile Homes & Gardens.

Otherwise, she and Pickles and Linoleum, all holdovers from The Great American Trailer Park Musical, are relegated to slinging flapjacks at Jackson’s lewd pancake house, singing backup vocals, and making flamboyant cameos in Darlene’s dream fantasia, an unmistakable takeoff on Scrooge and his Christmas ghosts. Carrie Cranford’s props and costumes help to sugar this Christmas Carol lagniappe – and don’t presume that the guys are left out of the fun. Or the live band.

Director/sound designer Chip Decker lavishes all the déclassé vulgarity you would expect from such a seedy romp, with a few extra crotch grabs and phallic sight gags tossed in for good measure. If the sound were only sharper, all the raunchy shtick might make up for the fact that this new Hadley Theater extravaganza lacks the seedy look and vibe of the Stonewall Street version.

Pirating cable TV, tossing tinsel on a tree, longing for the miraculously changed Darlene, and sulking off to his crappy trailer, Rufus seems to fit Nick Culp like a glove – or an old beat-up pair of sweatpants. If your last glimpse of Ashton Guthrie was as a romantic lead in Show Boat or A Gentleman’s Guide, his sleaziness here as Jackson might be revelatory. I must confess that I barely recognized him in his lounge-lizard wig, but when he had the chance to vocalize on “Baby, I’ll Be Your Santa Claus,” Guthrie delivered the goods to his “breastaurant” waitresses with #MeToo gusto.

I’m more ambivalent than I expected to be about Katy Shepherd, so strong and hard-rockin’ in the title role of Lizzie last year and so strong and hard-rockin’ now as Darlene. Shepherd just may be overthinking Darlene, for she could be artificially sweeter as the amnesiac Darlene and more comical as the park Scrooge. Yes, there’s an empathetic backstory behind Darlene’s surly Scroogyness, but do we really want realism here?

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After Renee Welsh-Noel’s semi-divine outing as Peter Pan just two months ago at Children’s Theatre, it was distressing to see her so underutilized, badly miked, and seemingly dispirited as Linoleum here. Lizzie Medlin was more in touch with the true trashiness of Pickles, but not better served by her electronics. Most at home at Armadillo Acres was Karen Christensen, transferring to Betty after a stint as Lin in previous years. Although both Welsh-Noel and Medlin have striking and skilled entrances in the Dickensian dream sequence, Christensen gets the best of them all.

 

BNS “Lion” Keeps Roaring and Romancing

Review: Be A Lion

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Without much fanfare or marketing knowhow, Rory Sheriff and his Be A Lion arrived on the local scene in 2014. The musical sequel to The Wiz has been produced here five more times since then, has drawn 12 nominations for excellence from the Metrolina Theatre Association at their recently revived annual awards, and was successfully produced at the 2019 Atlanta Black Theatre Festival, where Sheriff was honored with the Best Director prize. So the time was ripe for me to catch up with this triumphant production. Something must have clicked for Brand New Sheriff Productions for Be a Lion to have been reprised so frequently and lauded so widely.

Sure enough, I found plenty to enthusiastically recommend at Spirit Square last Friday Night. Music and lyrics by Sheriff and five others are clearly ready for prime time, costume design by Dee Abdullah and Shacana Kimble is an absolute joy, and choreography by Toi Phoenix Reynolds consistently hits the sweet spot. Perhaps most exceptional among the show’s technical and design attractions is Gbale Allen’s makeup creations, a category that isn’t adjudicated in Metrolina or Atlanta – or even on Broadway. Lion, Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Damneesha – the hellspawn of wicked witch Evilline – are merely highlights in the gallery of Allen’s splendid handiwork.

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Yet overall, I was underwhelmed. Aspects of Lion were surprisingly rudimentary for a company staple that has been so extensively developed and presumably rethought, particularly Jennifer O’Kelly’s scenic design and Sheriff’s book.

Without the blandishments of fade-dissolves, the scenery is a series of projections on a massive sheet that doesn’t stay still. Nor am I awed by the graphics, which never come close to matching Sheriff’s Broadway aspirations. When you can count the bricks on the famed Yellow Brick Road – and it twists more than a couple of times before terminating at approximately shoulder level – you aren’t seeing much of a road.

More disheartening are the lingering weaknesses in Sheriff’s script, which testify to a lack of tough, honest criticism more than to a lack of talent. Action throughout Act 1 simply drags, relieved only by the splashy costumes and the bravura singing. Really, it’s like nobody has suggested a rewrite in five years across the six-plus BNS productions here and elsewhere. As Lion rounds up the old gang with drop-ins on Tin Man and Scarecrow, encouraged by Miss One (formerly Glinda) to travel to Emerald City and claim his rightful kingdom, Sheriff fails to establish any dramatic urgency for his mission.efd8703eb37b1c8e19b483746e1d6515.jpeg[8]

The hybrid offspring of Evilline and a Flying Monkey, Damneesha knocks off her daddy and summons an army of Flying Crabs to muster behind her evil intent. The upshot of this fiendish mobilization? Who knows. We dally instead at a carnival where Tin Man presides, henpecked by wife Teenie, and at a school established by Scarecrow, where she teaches. These are the respective humdrum outcomes of being granted a heart and a brain. Not exactly dramatic substitutes for cutaways to Emerald City, where citizens could be cowering under Damneesha’s tyrannical rule and Gotham City-like chaos could break out as the oppressed masses cry out for a hero.

Not only isn’t there urgency to Lion’s quest, there’s too little drama for Sheriff to build to a big finish and emphatically announce the break. Instead, a prerecorded PA announcement tells us it’s intermission. Axiomatically, that means trouble.1c0906c97b0deab102cd3ec5f253f8c4.jpeg[8]

Somehow, Sheriff mostly finds himself in Act 2 – and we find that the writer-director-producer can also sprinkle plenty of comedy and wit in his script while revving up the drama. Damneesha and her Flying Crabs finally do get aggressive, good ole Dorothy is transported – from Harlem in a cute yellow taxi – to Oz and becomes one of the witch’s kidnap victims, and Lion comes up with a clever stratagem to save the day. Oh yeah, there’s definite evidence that Act 2 has been manicured. The Emerald City masses remain out of the picture, and Dorothy doesn’t have much to contribute, but there’s hope here that Be a Lion could evolve into a truly marketable property.

Although I can trace complete turnover in the cast since the last time Queen City Nerve editor Ryan Pitkin covered BNS in a previous life, the talent onstage now at Duke Energy Theater is exemplary, beginning with Melody Williams as the ultra-wicked Damneesha and Frank “Facheaux” Crawford as Cheetah, her hapless dad. Nikki Dunn could pass for a female impersonator as Miss One, she’s so over-the-top and outrageously dressed; and Danius Jones as Miles, Lion’s obsequious mouse servant, has a bit of weasel mixed into has DNA – and a newfound worship of Michele Obama.DSC05462[4]

At the center of Sheriff’s story, for better or worse, are Tim Bradley as Lion and K. Alana Jones as Ladawn, with the producer (and choreographer) dipping perilously deep into The Lion King in crafting their romance. Lion and Ladawn are a mushy, overlong detour from the cataclysm shaking the Oz kingdom, but the chemistry between Bradley and Jones, fueled by how well she sings and how lithely she moves, keeps them watchable. Bradley never reverts to the big cowardly clown we remember before his audience with The Wizard, but every so often, slight lapses in courage and fortitude add to his texture.

Yet I’m so glad when Lion and Ladawn quarrel and break up, allowing the Oz story to breathe.3c5332bf0b172f337626fc5c9d4f4064.jpeg

While they aren’t as cleverly integrated into Sheriff’s denouement as they were in the classic 1939 Wizard film, you will still enjoy Tin Man and Scarecrow heartily. Graham Williams as Tin Man and Jessika Johnson as Scarecrow not only get the benefits of smashing costumes and makeup, they’re both accessorized with new characters they associate with. For Williams, it’s Shar Marlin playing the termagant ball-and-chain wife Teenie to the hilt. Even better, Johnson gets two Crows to teach, Trinity Muse as Leroy Crow and Cecilia Mitchell as Walter Crow, detonating the Act 2 comedy.

Muse and Mitchell moonlight as minions of the evil Damneesha, Flying Crab #1 and Flying Crab #2. Together, they are her whole army!

 

 

It’s Hard to Shout “Humbug!” at Theatre Charlotte’s Latest Dickens

Review: A Christmas Carol

By Perry Tannenbaum

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In his 15th and final season as executive director at Theatre Charlotte, Ron Law has been doing double Dickens duty in the artistic realm. Back in September, he stage-directed Oliver! to open the 2019-20 season, and now he has stepped into the formidable role of Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. There’s a satisfying finality to seeing Law onstage, reminding us of the varied roles he and his family have played in reshaping Charlotte’s community theatre, which includes establishing the Dickens classic as a Yuletide fixture on Queens Road. For subscribers whose memories extend back to 2007, when Law introduced the first annual Christmas Carol, there was also an element of nostalgia: Oliver! was the season opener that year as well.

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Law brings different strengths to the role of Scrooge than his predecessors, Kevin Campbell and Christian Casper. He was frequently the loudest of the three as the unredeemed Scrooge when I saw him on Saturday night, so his explosions of meanness could be startling, though he was not as mean-to-the-bone as Campbell was in the latter years of his tenure – nor as greedily calculating as Casper. The joy and giddiness that Scrooge radiates are really the highest hurdles for an actor, and Campbell was one of the few anywhere who have ever fully convinced me of the miser’s miraculous transformation, one of the few to really create a convincing character arc.

Of course, the capability of an actor to deliver the full range of Scrooge partly hinges upon the adaptation chosen by the company or the director – and the amount of butchery inflicted by the director upon the script. Over 100 adaptations have been created for stage, TV, and film over the years, and Theatre Charlotte has done at least three of them. The current one, directed by Aaron Mize, was adapted by Arthur Julius Leonard. Unlike some others that I’ve seen, it shows us Scrooge and future partner Jacob Marley conspiring to take over the business run by Fezziwig, Scrooge’s great benefactor. And courtesy of the Ghost of Christmas Present, we peep in on Ebenezer’s former fiancée Belle, happily married with two kids, bemoaning all that has befallen Marley and Scrooge. But the Ghost of Christmas Past only revealed Ebenezer’s first encounter with Belle at a holiday soiree hosted by Fezziwig, skipping over Young Scrooge’s marriage proposal. Thus the first conversation between Leonard’s version of Belle and her fiancé occurred when she dropped by Ebenezer’s office and returned her engagement ring. Any sense of Ebenezer having been on the path toward happiness until he took a wrong turn has basically been destroyed for anybody new to the story.

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Mize and lighting designer Chris Timmons continue to make the visit from Marley’s ghost a highlight of the show, aided by Sabrina Blanks’s costuming and accessorizing. Rick Taylor startled me more than once as Marley when sound board operator implemented Vito Abate’s original sound design and smoke seeped through Scrooge’s threshold. Taylor was sufficiently fierce, aggressive and urgent to make Law quail credibly in terror, and he was able to texturize Old Joe later on in one of the Christmas Future scenes. Costuming and atmosphere contributed decisively to making an impression this year on Queens Road. Maxwell Greger was surprisingly generic as Scrooge’s oppressed and underpaid clerk, Bob Cratchit, and Keyes Miller was only marginally more satisfying as Fred, Ebenezer’s shunned nephew. Yet the garish largesse of Chip Bradley’s getup as the Ghost of Christmas Present – especially when a grubby Ignorance and Want crawled out of it – keyed his hearty success.

Only a handful of others in the 29-member cast had sufficient opportunities to leave an imprint during this production, which ran 110 minutes with an intermission. These included promising turns by Anna McCarty as the Ghost of Christmas Past and Olivia Lott as Belle, despite McCarty’s underpowered voice and Lott’s outrageous white wig, which did nothing for her romantic appeal. Mize utilized his large corps effectively toward the end of the evening when he had the bulk of them parading down the center aisle toward the stage – singing a Christmas carol, of course. But at other times, Mize seemed tone-deaf to the heart of Dickens’ appeal and how much kids should contribute to his Yule-flavored sentimentality. When the miraculously transformed Scrooge shouted down to the street to get a child’s attention, Mize had his Turkey Boy (Vann-Dutch Marek) standing up onstage near him instead of down below among the audience. Awkward. Worse was the deployment of Pearce Stinson as Tiny Tim. Perhaps misguided political correctness prevented Mize and Pearce from making much of Tim’s limp, but Mize never really allowed Pearce to shine, glow, or stand apart – even when he delivered his most famous line.

All these criticisms will likely sound as if I were shouting “humbug!” to this entire enterprise, for there was no grumbling heard as the audience filed out onto Queens Road on Saturday night, greeted warmly by cast members in the lobby. Nor were there many empty seats at Theatre Charlotte, where robust Christmas Carol sales can be expected to continue.

Dvořák’s New World Picks Up Slack in Symphony Concert

Review: Charlotte Symphony’s Dvořák’s New World Symphony

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Sometimes orchestras program pieces to meet popular demand, and at other times, they program works to meet expectations or fulfill a sense of obligation. It’s so easy to yield to inertia! This past weekend’s Charlotte Symphony concerts balanced both types of choices. Dvořák’s New World Symphony is so popular in the Queen City that an extra row of seats was set up at Belk Theater behind the already-packed Grand Tier.

Before subscribers could be appeased with the New World they were waiting for, we had to withstand lackluster performances by the CSO and guest conductor Ilyich Rivas of Robert Schumann’s “Overture to Manfred” and Johannes Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn. Neither performance convinced me that Symphony musicians were familiar with the music or took much pleasure in playing it. I was unsure myself whether I had ever heard these pieces before at the Belk.

My files confirmed how consistently forgettable the ensemble had been tackling this repertoire. CSO had last played the Schumann at the Belk in 2001, when I declared that the orchestra had fallen far short of the composer’s Byronic ambitions. Each of the two occasions since then, when Symphony had played the Haydn Variations in 2002 and 2010, I had found that the results were similarly moribund. Outcomes were perhaps marginally better last Friday night, though it’s still uncertain whether our musicians are completely sold on either of these works.

Wouldn’t it be better for everybody if Symphony put fresh new or unfamiliar scores on their players’ music stands – instead of repeatedly exhuming stuff like this so unenthusiastically?

While Amy Orsinger Whitehead ably headed the flutes and the brass accented well, violins seemed sloppy and lackadaisical in the Manfred, their exchanges with the brass and winds more precise than those with the lower strings. Rivas probably sparked more energy and cohesion than in the performance of the Variations led by Christof Perick in 2010, which observed pauses between variations.

But there still wasn’t enough zest – or dramatic contrast – to assure us that everyone was relishing their part, and there was little of the exquisite delicacy we have come to expect in softer, slower movements since Christopher Warren-Green took over the musical director’s baton. A limpid calm prevailed in successive reposeful Con moto movements that descended into lifelessness before a Vivace revival, and even the Finale, an Andante that can be grander than grand, grew slightly slack though it was still strong.

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Indicative of the éclat they created the last time they performed Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,” Warren-Green and the CSO waited only four-and-a-half years to reprise their triumph – and with Rivas on the podium, the orchestra satisfied its subscribers just as fully. The magical mojo of 2015 wasn’t quite replicated, but then again, my expectations could no longer be taken so completely by surprise.

And to be truthful, Symphony didn’t get off to a great start this time, the French horns not as solid as the lordly trombones when we moved from the Adagio section of the opening movement to the sweeping Allegro molto. But the horns didn’t take long to steady and the flutes, Orsinger and Erinn Frechette, were superb; and gosh, the sforzando at the end of the movement had a fierce snap.

Four years ago, Warren-Green took the trouble to wade into the orchestra after its New World performance and embrace English horn principal Terry Maskin for his playing of the “Goin’ Home” theme in Dvořák’s lovely Largo movement. Rivas would not have been faulted if he had done the same. The flutes had a sunshiney glint in their frolics, the soft violins wove mystical enchantment, and the brasses and horns added dignity each time they were cued.

Dvořák’s crowning achievement fittingly premiered in the New World at Carnegie Hall in 1893, and the third movement Molto vivace, inspired by Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha, has always seemed the most prophetic to me, spawning the film scores of multitudes of Westerns yet to be shot in our rugged plains, canyons, and badlands. All went well here until the ending became too disjointed for comfort.

Rivas regained – and then retained – his mastery in the awesome Allegro con fuoco, where the Old World can be felt birthing the New World and our fearsome Manifest Destiny marches westward, arrogant and irresistible. (“Get over it!” professed patriots might respond.) The Venezuelan-born conductor beautifully navigated the protean moods, and the orchestra keenly grasped the moment. In the wake of the heraldic brass, the violins burst forth with a vigor that had been missing earlier in the evening, adding new summits of grandeur. When the music grew soft, the woodwinds, especially the flutes, sweetened it; each time the brass and strings rallied, Ariel Zaviezo and his timpani triggered the uprising.