Sports Seasons and Generations Clash in Brand New Sheriff’s Fences

Review: August Wilson’s Fences

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Sports fans quickly get a feel for what time of year it is in August Wilson’s Fences, set in 1957 Pittsburgh. Baseball seems to be supreme as you walk in to Brand New Sheriff’s production at Spirit Square. James Duke’s impressive set design doles out the left side of the Duke Energy Theater stage to a ramshackle two-story house. But a shabby yard dominates the right side, where a baseball dangles on a rope from an old gray tree. Pick up a bat, this is Troy Maxson’s place.

Maxson, an ex-baseball great, talks about the icons of the game, past and present, mostly contemptuous toward the white men who dominate the scene, while his friend Jim Bono rates Troy only below Babe Ruth and Josh Gibson as the best who have ever played. Since Gibson played in the Negro Leagues for the Homestead Grays, based in a mill town adjacent to Pittsburgh, it’s likely that he’s seen Josh far more often on the field than the Babe – especially since he introduced Troy to the sport during a prison stretch.

By the time Jackie Robinson had broken Major League Baseball’s color line in 1947, Troy was already 43, just missing the boat to national fame and power-hitting glory. Instead, he’s a garbage collector when we first see him on a Friday Night, as he and Jim observe their weekly ritual of getting drunk in Troy’s yard. We’ll hear mentions of Pittsburgh Pirates players, Dick Scofield and the under-utilized Roberto Clemente, who seems promising to Troy’s keen eye, so baseball is always in the air.

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We begin to zero in on the time of year it is when Troy’s son Cory first appears, trying to get dad’s permission for a visit from a college scout wanting to offer the kid a football scholarship. Troy doesn’t want Cory to give up his job to start his final season with his high school team, and in subsequent scenes, we’ll see his football jersey and shoulder pads, further assuring us that we’ve reached that point in the year when baseball and football seasons overlap. We hear about the Milwaukee Braves leading the National League pennant race, their wicked pitching duo of Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette, and their young slugger, Henry Aaron.

Hank, we hear, has hit 43 homers in a year he finished with 44, so it must be late September. Within a few weeks, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants will play their last home games in New York City before moving out to California, and Aaron – destined to surpass the Babe on the all-time home run list – will lead the Braves to victory over the Yankees in the World Series.

 

As Troy’s pal Bono and his wife Rose keep telling him, times are changing. A Goliath among ballplayers, accustomed to idol worship, Troy doesn’t easily change his thinking, so it’s interesting to watch how Bono and Rose make headway on those rare occasions when they do. Cory really doesn’t stand a chance against Troy’s tyrannical whims unless Rose intercedes on his behalf. Maybe he should have chosen baseball over football?

The father-son relationship is complicated by jealousy and resentment on both sides. Troy is ambivalent about seeing his son succeed in a way that he couldn’t, and Cory is wary of comparisons with his legendary dad, perhaps seeking to sidestep his shadow by turning to a different sport.

Wilson doesn’t downplay the Troy legend. On the contrary, he delightfully magnifies his mythic dimensions. Troy tells us how he has stared down the Devil, tells us how he wrestled with Death for three days, and he shouts his defiance toward the Grim Reaper before our eyes. So Troy’s practical advice toward his son clashes with his own swollen self-regard – and with his disregard for social norms. On the job, his strength and pugnacity will enable him to become the first black garbage truck driver in town, but at home, his unchecked infidelity will cost him.

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Part baseball legend, part Greek epic hero, and – as Bono observes – part “Uncle Remus,” Troy is the powerhouse that makes Fences among the most produced and anthologized of Wilson’s plays. Of the four productions I’ve seen in Charlotte, beginning in 1991 when Charlotte Repertory Theatre presented the local premiere, Brand New Sheriff’s best demonstrates how a strong overall cast elevates the script to the stratosphere of a classic.

And we’re seeing the best Troy we’ve had here in Jonavan Adams, who combines Ed Bernard’s physical presence from the Rep production of 1991 with the corrosive meanness and fiery defiance of Wayne DeHart at Theatre Charlotte in 1996. Snarling, cajoling, roaring, and willing us to see his distorted vision of the world, Adams is more outsized and supernatural than we’ve seen him before.

It likely helps that he and director Corlis Hayes are on their second go-round with Fences. The 2013 version at CPCC, where Adams played Lyons, Troy’s jazzy musician son, wasn’t the best of the previous versions, to be honest. But the current BNS production sure does demonstrate the benefits of taking a second shot at a work you revere. Cumulative experience with the playwright helps, too, for Adams builds upon what he learned in other parts of Wilson’s century-spanning Pittsburgh Cycle, with roles in The Piano Lesson, Two Trains Running, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.

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With BNS committed to presenting all of Wilson’s Cycle, others who have appeared with the company and in plays by this playwright are also shining lights here, most conspicuously Tim Bradley as Bono and LeShea Nicole as Rose. Audience members who hopped aboard the Pittsburgh train in 2017 with Jitney are certainly enjoying the ride the most. Bradley has been onstage at Duke Energy at every stop so far, and his Bono is a worthy – and compatible – longtime companion for Troy, not quite as righteous and upstanding as Memphis from Two Trains but strong and honorable when Troy could use a reality check.

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Nicole was paired with Adams last year in Two Trains, so their rich and nuanced chemistry as Rose and Troy shouldn’t be a surprise. Rose is a stronger woman here, so when she holds out her hand on Friday nights, she isn’t merely asking for Troy’s pay envelope. Rose is Troy’s equal, and then some – the family nucleus. Everybody but Troy seems to get that until her climactic utterances deep in Act 2.

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Still a junior at UNC Charlotte, Dylan Ireland is no stranger to BNS, having starred as Huey in Rory Sheriff’s Boys to Baghdad. As Cory, Ireland stands up to his dad without strapping on his shoulder pads. Eventually, he even disrespects Troy when he’s drunk and blocking the front door.

It’s a complex role for Ireland, who must forcefully declare that he doesn’t fear his father while imperfectly hiding that he does. He’s the reluctant, resentful free labor that Troy enlists to help build a fence around his property. So Ireland’s confrontations with Adams – along with Troy’s run-ins with Death – will come to mind when you contemplate the meaning of Wilson’s title.

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Graham Williams, lately the Tin Man in BNS’s Be A Lion, has the cool-cat swagger you expect to see from Lyons. Though he does scrupulously pay Dad back on his loans, Lyons does not prosper as a musician, and Williams gives us a poignant picture of his decline. Seven-year-old Raynell appears late in the show, a bit of a consolation for the misfortunes that befall the other Maxsons, and Lauren Vinson plays her sweetly, only slightly difficult to manage.

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Seven years younger than his brother Troy, Gabriel is a World War 2 vet who came back from the battlefield delusional, with a metal plate in his head. Troy may have seen Death and the Devil, but Gabriel believes that he has seen St. Peter and that he is the archangel Gabriel, destined the blow his junky trumpet on Judgment Day. James Lee Walker II plays this extravagant simpleton, the only cast member from the 2013 CPCC production to return in the same role.

More than ever, I must lament that I missed Walker when I reviewed the Sunday matinee of the 2013 production, when he was replaced by an understudy. Walker’s crazed, sunshiney energy this time around is a constant joy, and the ending, botched by the understudy or Hayes’ stage direction back then, was absolute perfection when I saw it on Saturday night. The glow of that ending may convince many that Fences is Wilson’s finest drama, and there’s plenty of firepower from the rest of the cast to fuel that feeling.

Lucena Quartet Tours “The Music of Brazil” With Raucous, Upbeat, and Sensuous Surprises Along the Way

Review: Duda Lucena and his quartet played 80-minutes “Music of Brazil”

By Perry Tannenbaum

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From the schedule at his website, you get the idea that Brazilian-born singer/guitarist/composer Duda Lucena and his quartet record only rarely and play most of their gigs in two posh spots in Charleston, his adopted hometown. Listening to the Duda Lucena Quartet at the Stage Door Theater earlier this week, the latest installment in The Jazz Room’s Premiere Thursdays series, I had to think that a lot folks are missing out. The 80-minute “Music of Brazil” set included a wide assortment of Braziliana by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Caetano Veloso, Djavan, and Lucena himself – and it could be accurately judged by the title of the Quartet’s one non-Brazilian excursion, the Gershwin Brothers’ “’S Wonderful.”

Lucena’s voice certainly brought back memories of João Gilberto, the vocalist who teamed with saxophonist Stan Getz back in the ‘60s to launch the bossa nova boom in the US with the music of Jobim; and memories of the later Renato Braz, who has headlined on multiple occasions in Charleston at Spoleto Festival USA. With a gifted rhythm section at his command, however, Lucena wasn’t always tethered to the dreamy, “Quiet Nights” concept of Brazil’s intoxicating rhythms. Not only would bassist Kevin Hamilton draw plenty of solo space, so would drummer Ron Wiltrout. At the piano, Gerald Gregory didn’t simply demonstrate his fluency with the tangy single-note stylings of Jobim and Count Basie, he occasionally showed us that he had absorbed the denser textures of Chick Corea and McCoy Tyner. No less surprising, the Lucena Quartet was emboldened to accelerate beyond quiet-city-streets speed limits on uptempo tunes.

Instantly quashing any suspicion that he was leading a Jobim or bossa nova cover band, Lucena began with two of his own compositions. Purely instrumental, Lucena didn’t stray far from his melody in “Spider Waltz,” keeping his guitar virtuosity and his vocal skills momentarily under wraps, but Gregory and Hamilton didn’t hesitate to show us what they could do, good omens both. “Just for Now,” with lyrics by Heather Rice, was a more impressive Duda display. After Gregory’s intro, Luceno sang with a rich vibrato-less tone more reminiscent of Braz than Gilberto and followed with his first guitar solo, festooned with grace notes and charming sliding glisses that assured us he could play. Gregory was even tangier than he had been previously in his solo, and Luceno embellished his concluding vocal with a sprinkle of Brazilian scat, more modest, concise, and percussive than Louis Armstrong’s American style.

With Veloso’s “Coração Vagabundo,” it was time for the Quartet to cut loose. Not only did the speed of the performance leave recorded versions by Veloso, Gilberto, and Karrin Allyson far behind, it unleashed a the denser side of Gregory’s pianism in a solo that again surpassed what we had heard before. More heretical yet, Gregory’s exploits were followed by the first explosions from Wiltrout at the drums. Maybe it’s useful at this point to mention that Jazz Room concerts not only include a cabaret-style bar and a fair amount of chichi cocktail tables near the stage, they also flash continuous slideshows on a large-screen monitor behind the performers. During the “Brazil” concert, we didn’t merely see the obligatory sunsets in Rio’s shores, we saw Corcovado and the coast spectacularly lit up at night, majestic night-time aerials that revealed an illuminated ring of sea water lapping the beach, and a bevy of photos highlighting the colors, the spectacle, and the glitzy sensuality of Rio-Carnival. In that context, the uptempo brashness of “Vagabundo” fit well.

Jobim fanatics, though put on hold, would not be disappointed. Lucena had four of the Brazilian pianist’s compositions slated for the middle of his set list, punctuated by another Lucena original, “Festa dos Passarinhos” (Party of Little Birds), which quietly featured Wiltrout briefly accompanying Hamilton’s fine solo with hands on drums instead of sticks or brushes. “Água De Beber” had all the scat trimmings of Astrud Gilberto’s version without João’s discreet backup vocals, spiced with solos from Gregory and Hamilton; “Insensatez” drew again upon Hamilton’s resourcefulness, with another nice Lucena solo; so it looked like we would be cruising through Jobim without any radical surprises or fresh wrinkles. That suddenly changed when the Quartet lit into “Só Danço Samba,” the only planned cover from the landmark 1964 Getz/Gilberto album. Suddenly, two Brazilian dancers in full glittery Carnival regalia emerged from the Stage Door wings, flanking the stage and shimmying with gusto. Although Lucena had planned this treat – or at least had been alerted beforehand – there might be some question about whether this spot had been rehearsed, for the two lovelies were not complemented with satisfactory lighting that would have enhanced their glitter.

Another Jobim fave followed this lively spectacle, his contagious “One Note Samba,” but when it came time for Gregory to solo, he absolutely blew away the presumption that he would play in the Jobim one-note style, tearing up the keyboard with a knuckle-busting barrage. The vibe grew quieter for the next three songs – but not at all moribund. In Veloso’s “Trilhos Urbanos,” Lucena unveiled some sweet whistling each time he finished singing the melody; and on his original “Hammock,” the leader showed off his instrumental skills most extensively with an appropriately relaxing intro and, after some fine work by Gregory and Hamilton, truly luscious tone in his concluding solo. “’S Wonderful” was a nice planned surprise, for we hadn’t heard Lucena singing English in a while – or anything from Tin Pan Alley – but the next surprise came from one of the cocktail tables up front with a request that Lucena return to Jobim and his megahit, “The Girl from Ipanema.” The Quartet took on this impromptu addition with gusto rather than humility or fidelity. Lucena played freely with Jobim’s rhythms, pushed the tempo a bit, and interpolated his own suggestive exclamations where lyricist Vinicius de Moraes merely provided a simple “Ah!” Gregory, Hamilton, and the guitarist also obliged with some gorgeous soloing.

The concluding Djavan section took us to a sunnier, more contemporary region of Brazilian music, one that reminded me of my beloved Gilberto Gil albums dating back to the ‘70s. But we did not arrive in that sunshine immediately, for the Lucena Quartet’s take on Djavan’s “Sina” was more than a little bit funky and R&B-flavored with the most blazing solos of the evening from Gregory and Hamilton between two righteous Lucena vocals. “Maçã Do Rosto,” with more soloing from the pianist and the bassist, was like a calming inhalation before the rousing finale, Djavan’s “Aquele Um.” The Brazilian dancers emerged from the wings, and it was Carnival all over again. But this time, perhaps aware of the poor lighting in the corners of the Stage Door Theater, Lucena invited the two glittering dancers to join him onstage where they could truly shimmy and shine. Their previous glitter was now full-fledged dazzle. I’m afraid I was too distracted by the dancing to track all who soloed here – and I’m not at all sorry!

 

Zingaresca Duo Pours Gypsy Fire from Seven-String Guitars

Review: “Secret of the Russian Gypsy Guitar” concert at the Belmont Abbey Basilica

By Perry Tannenbaum

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An Italian word meaning “in a Gypsy style,” Zingaresca may not seem to be the ideal name for a Russian Gypsy guitar duo, but once you hear the music of Vadim Kolpakov and Oleg Timofeyev in live performance, the name has a swaggering rightness to it. The duo’s “Secret of the Russian Gypsy Guitar” concert at the Belmont Abbey Basilica replicated the title of their 2017 CD and most of its content, with the added benefits of the Basilica’s warm acoustics and Timofeyev’s spoken introductions. It was quickly apparent that “Roman Gypsy Guitar” has a double meaning, not only describing the music that Zingaresca performs but also the seven-string instruments that Kolpakov and Timofeyev play. While the dimensions of Kolpakov’s instrument are close enough to those of a classical instrument to spark an urge to count the tuning pegs on top of the neck, Timofeyev’s instrument is more novel, sporting a second fretless lute-like neck, greater in length with six additional strings.

Apparently, Gypsy is too colloquial a term for the formal title of individual compositions in an Arts at the Abbey program leaflet – and Timofeyev does hold a doctorate from Duke University, after all – so the folk tunes in the concert lineup were called Romani Traditional. These were supplemented with compositions by Mikhail Vysotsky (1791–1837) and Tikhon Khrennikov (1913-2007). Arrangements for the two guitars were by Sergei Orekhov and Alexander Kolpakov, though it might be misleading to give the impression that it was all down on paper.

While Timofeyev had a music stand in front of him, donning a pair of reading glasses after he concluded each of his introductory remarks, Vadim was looking exclusively at the strings and fretboard of his guitar, no sheet music in sight when he accompanied or took the lead. Kolpakov was thus more likely to play the introductory cadenzas at the start of pieces, including “I Hear Your Voice Again,” “The Gypsies Were Traveling,” and the concluding “Gypsy Vengerka.” On perhaps the most unusual piece on the program, the traditional “Oriental Gypsy Dance ‘Are You Joking?’” Kolpakov not only embroidered the intro, he upstaged Timofeyev’s solo with a variety of percussive knocks and cracks on the body of his guitar before taking back the instrumental lead with dazzling strums, rapid-fire runs, and a spray of harmonics.

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Timofeyev also delivered impressive solos, seemingly without effort or frantic movement, especially on “Along the Kazanka River” and “A Nightingale,” but he seemed to take equal delight in setting the plodding two-step tempos of the dances, so redolent of the Zorba the Greek movie score and the Russian interlude in Fiddler on the Roof, and accompanying Kolpakov’s flights when he pushed the tempos. After a while, the delight of the slow emphatic openings to some of the pieces partly became the anticipation of the speed-ups to come. “Moscow Polka,” “The Godmother,” “Dance, Dzhandzha,” and the duo’s signature piece, “Zingaresca,” all displayed their special chemistry and characteristic tempo shifts.

Inevitably, the duo mentioned Django Reinhardt (1910-53) in their overview of Gypsy guitar, and the last two pieces on the program, “Moscow Windows” and “The Gypsy Vengerka” certainly took jazzier flights. Neither tune had an arranger listed on the program, a sure tip-off that Kolpakov was feeling free to wail after invoking the Gypsy leader of the Quintette du Hot Club de France. “Moscow Windows” was particularly designed to burn from start to finish, but the final “Gypsy Vengerka” reverted to the Russian Gypsy Guitar template, with Kolpakov establishing the lusty dance tempo this time. Here it wasn’t all about virtuosity, for when Kolpakov and Timofeyev quickened the tempo, they also injected sweet lyricism into their solos.

Climb Aboard a Retro Laugh Riot

Review: A highly animated Odd Couple revival with a professional-grade cast

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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With the benefit of hindsight, we can see more clearly that Neil Simon and his esteemed stablemates – Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart, and Mel Brooks – who all wrote for Sid Caesar during the early days of television, didn’t simply disperse into the realms of stand-up, movies, and theatre for the obvious practical reasons. Autonomy, fame, and fortune were surely enticing, but so was the satisfaction of working in longer forms than TV sketch comedy or a star comedian’s monologues.

Come back to The Odd Couple – or revisit Bananas and Zelig, A Funny Thing Happened and Tootsie, The Producers and Blazing Saddles – and we see a mature writer working beyond the limitations of zany characters and snappy one-liners. Simon develops his Oscar and Felix, tells a full-length story about them, and keeps the hilarity going. Entering Theatre Charlotte, where Jill Bloede is directing a highly animated Odd Couple revival with a professional-grade cast, I wasn’t thinking that I’d be seeing this old cash cow so freshly.

Somehow the difference between this 1965 comedy and TV sitcoms of the same era – including the spinoff Odd Couple sitcom that came to ABC in 1970 – suddenly seemed rather radical. The cardinal rule for most 22-minute sitcom writers back then was to hit the reset button at the end of each episode, so that next week’s episode would start out as if this week’s had never happened. On Broadway, you could expect the uptight, neurotic, neat freak Felix to wear out his slovenly pal Oscar’s patience by the time the curtain came down. On TV? No way. Felix made himself at home in Oscar’s Manhattan apartment for nearly five seasons.

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Many in the sold-out house at the Queens Road barn on opening night were struck even more freshly by Felix, Oscar, their poker-night buddies, and the neighboring Pigeon Sisters. Unless the younger people in the house had been hooked on the Matthew Perry reincarnation of the sitcom during 2015-2017 on CBS, they likely hadn’t run into much Simon or Oscar in their lifetimes. I was a little taken aback when I came home, double-checked, and found that I’d only seen Odd Couple once in Charlotte during the last 30+ years, back in 2007 at CPCC.

On the other hand, this comedy staple had been quasi road-tested at Theatre Charlotte when the Female Version – with Florence, Olive and a klatch of Trivial Pursuit-playing women replacing the poker buddies – dropped by in the summer of 2012. Bloede also directed then, an overachievement that certainly warranted her current return engagement.

Whether it’s Lady Bracknell or Lucy Ricardo, Bloede knows her comedy, and she has prospected long enough in Charlotte to be able to mine its finest talent. Doesn’t look like she had to twist any arms, either. For her Oscar, she landed the most experienced Simon exponent in town, Brian Lafontaine. Breaking in to Charlotte theatre in 1992-1994, Lafontaine played leads in three of Simon’s comedies, Brighton Beach Memoirs and Biloxi Blues on Queens Road – and Lost in Yonkers at Charlotte Rep.

Bloede goes edgier and high-energy for her Felix with Mark Scarboro, who first carved out his eccentric niche in 2001-02 with standout performances in Thumbs, The Pitchfork Disney, and Fuddy Meers. Yet Bloede has Lafontaine playing the 43-year-old Oscar with more energy than I’ve ever seen from this slovenly New York Post sportswriter. If she’s going to turn Scarboro loose to be as anal, neurotic, outré, and irritating as he can imagine Felix to be, then she’s returning the favor to Lafontaine and turning him loose to be as irritated, provoked, and out-of-control as he can imagine a devout 44-year-old slob can be.

No less pleasurable is the build-up to Felix’s first entrance. That’s because Bloede has a deep bench sitting around Oscar’s dining room poker table, supporting her stars. If we’re returning to Odd Couple, we’re likely surprised to find that Felix isn’t going to show up until we’re 17 pages into the script. Even Oscar isn’t onstage at the outset in his own apartment! Simon’s poker preamble steadily stokes concern for fragile Felix’s welfare in the wake of his breakup with his wife, but there’s already hostility and comedy shtick at the table before the two marquee combatants show up.

Just watch Michael Corrigan and Patrick Keenan at work, sparring as Murray and Speed, and you’ll see that Bloede has selected a second comedy team for us to revel in, very much in the same Felix-Oscar, Laurel-Hardy template. Decades ago, when Corrigan was younger and slimmer, he tended to remind you of Tim Conway. So the particular quirks of Murray the policeman come to readily to Corrigan, his exasperating slowness in shuffling cards and his alarmist reactions to any new news about Felix. Keenan is the master of the slow burn and the bellowing explosion, repeatedly supplying perfect exclamation points to punctuate the comedy.

Tall and lanky Matt Olin is the perfect choice for the spineless Vinnie, the guy Murray and Speed can both agree to pick on, the dutiful husband who submits to his wife’s curfew, and the man who deeply appreciates Felix’s sissy sandwiches. Meanwhile, Lee Thomas continues to ply his teddy bear charm as Oscar’s diffident, occasionally witty accountant, Roy.

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If you’re worried that Bloede might be taking PC pains to update the Pigeon Sisters and present them as more evolved, rest easy. Vanessa Davis as Gwendolyn and Johanna Jowett as Cecily stay true to their origins, Davis the flirtier sister and Jowett the more empathetic bleeding heart. Set designer Rick Moll, costumer Yvette Moten, and sound designer Rick Wiggins have all climbed aboard Theatre Charlotte’s retro train. With a soundtrack that includes James Brown, Petula Clark, Jack Jones, Herb Alpert, and The Shirelles, Bloede and her all-pro cast are bent on taking you back to the ‘60s, like it or not. I’m betting you’ll like it.

Matthews Mamma Mia! Mixes Summer Romance and Autumn Regret

Review: Mamma Mia! is playing this ABBA hit parade

By Perry Tannenbaum

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There’s typical teenybopper inanity – and melodrama – in the lyrics of ABBA tunes that infiltrated the pop charts during the glam rock supergroup’s heyday, 1974-82. It’s all about desire, baby, followed by intense workouts on the hormonal treadmill of adolescence. Prospecting for ABBA gold, you’re rewarded with the age-old cycle of blissful acceptance or bitter ejection, romantic pleasure and conflict, burnout and breakup, cynicism and regret, all rendered in the elegantly engineered shorthand of a Top-40 hit.

Something interesting happened in 2001, after even the youngest member of ABBA had turned 50 and the quartet’s jukebox faves were cunningly transformed into a hit Broadway musical. You can feel it at Matthews Playhouse of the Performing Arts, where Mamma Mia! is playing through February 9. Writing the book for this ABBA hit parade, Catherine Johnson gave most of the songs to characters we could presume were nearly her own age, almost 44 on opening night. Old enough to have teenybopper kids of their own.

When a teenybopper pout is transformed into a midlife lament, regret takes on a whole new coloration in the title song as Donna Sheridan sings:

Yes, I’ve been brokenhearted,

Blue since the day we parted.

Why, why did I ever let you go?

The “day we parted” isn’t two melodramatic weeks ago. Not anymore. It’s over two decades ago, long enough for Donna to be experiencing the autumnal chill of lost youth. But hold on, Donna! You’re on a colorful Greek Isle, with lively cabana studs serving your taverna’s drinks, bikini-clad nymphs frolicking everywhere, dazzling eternal sunshine – and your darling daughter Sophie is getting married tomorrow!

It was easier to see Mamma Mia! from Sophie’s point of view in its Broadway days, pre-Meryl Streep, for Sophie really kickstarts the plot by prying into Mom’s secret diary and inviting all three of her possible dads to her wedding. Imagine if your three exes showed up unexpectedly for your daughter’s wedding. Sophie might as well have hired a skywriter to spell it all out: MOM, I READ YOUR SECRET DIARY AND INVITED ALL THREE OF MY POSSIBLE DADS TO MY WEDDING. Donna probably wouldn’t have looked up and noticed.

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Presumably, Mamma is preoccupied with wedding preparations, but Donna compounds her distractions by inviting two of her old chums, Tanya and Rosie, to the festivities. Plenty of catching up to do, but conveniently, the three women were a glam rock vocal trio back in their salad days, Donna and the Dynamos, so they can provide the party entertainment. With this makeshift guest list and its ‘90s setting, the prevailing outlook of the story shifts emphatically toward the baby boomers, ABBA’s perennial demographic.

Directing the show, Billy Ensley clearly gets the boomer drift, and more than a couple of seasoned Charlotte musical stars ride the wave with him to the Matthews Playhouse stage. With a richly detailed scenic design by John Bayless and a sumptuous array of costumes by Lisa Altieri – including a surprise set of glam rock duds for the dads – it’s likely that all of these vets appreciated the warmth of their welcome.

We don’t need to wait around for all these elders to gather in the Mediterranean sun before the excitement begins, for Ensley has found newcomer Alexis Thomas to ignite the action as the nubile Sophie. Thomas quickly proves she’s a precocious belter, bookending Act 1 with lead vocals on “Honey, Honey” and “The Name of the Game.”

Having deceptively invited her three possible dads – Sam, Bill, and Harry – using Mom’s letterhead, Sophie must also subject each of the candidates to an impromptu paternity test, inviting all three to give her away at tomorrow’s wedding. The hurried brevity of these scenes would make any self-respecting playwright blush, but Thomas carries them off as if they were hallowed Broadway formalities, codified as cliché. Which they are. Spencer Ellis doesn’t get nearly as much opportunity to shine as Sky, Sophie’s fiancé, but he makes his big moment in Act 2 count, letting Sophie know that he feels her quest for her true dad is a bigger thing to her than their wedding.

Of course, the ABBA songs, stirred by island breezes and mixed with the celebratory vibe of the oncoming nuptials, become a cocktail that takes all six of the mid-lifers sip by sip from the tipsiness of nostalgia to the full inebriation of regression and reawakening. The women are the most intoxicated here, each arriving at her own pace. Burdened with a mother’s cares and saddled with the bitterness of a jilted sweetheart, Lucia Stetson as Donna travels the longest path – though the magic is there from the moment she sees Sam.

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Stetson staunchly deals with the fact that Donna is prone to some truly stupid-ass choices, flexing the same regal star-quality insouciance that carried her through the title role of Evita a couple of summers back. Notwithstanding the baggy overalls she wears early on, we’re not surprised that she’ll soon emerge as a “Dancing Queen” and a “Super Trouper” – singing lead vocals, of course. You wonder a bit at first about Lisa Smith-Bradley, sporting a pair of mousy eyeglasses as Rosie, a far cry from the charismatic Mama Rose she brought to Theatre Charlotte seven years ago.

Never fear, Ensley and Smith-Bradley are cooking up a startling mouse-to-tigress rejuvenation as Rosie sets her sights on Bill, sinking her slinky claws into him in their “Take a Chance on Me” duet. Lisa Blanton talks like the bawdiest woman onstage as Tanya, but is it all talk? No, it is definitely not as we watch Blanton’s cougar rampage on “Does Your Mother Know?” Blanton pulls double duty at Matthews, doubling as the production’s choreographer, captaining her own carnivorous showcase with obvious gusto.

Aside from Thomas, a young talent to watch, the most promising of the young Greeks is Adrian White as Pepper, prime target for Tanya’s predations in “Does Your Mother Know?” – agile and slightly bewildered. He’s the dancing king here, for none of his elders, aside from Blanton, was chosen for hoofing prowess.

We’ve seen all the middle-aged guys before in Charlotte, Bob Mauney most recently starring in The Music Man at Theatre Charlotte, Steven B. Martin in Evita and Bridges of Madison County, and Patrick Ratchford in anything he has ever auditioned for over the last 25+ years, most recently 1776, Ragtime, and Charlotte Squawks! The Ratchford voice is still in peak condition, mostly held in reserve until Sam’s “S.O.S.” duet with Donna in Act 2, an all-out cri de Coeur in the top-40 world. Those smooth baritone tonsils also wrap themselves around two other hit singles, “Knowing Me, Knowing You” and – spoiler alert – the climactic “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do” duet.

Sam isn’t the most comical of Donna’s exes, just the most interesting: the last he heard from her before Sophie’s faux invite was that she didn’t want to see him again. Understandably, he’s a bit uncomfortable and ambivalent when Sophie admits the subterfuge, but like the other guys who are also residually fond of Donna in various degrees, the possibility of being Sophie’s father keeps him hanging around in hopes of closure – and maybe making amends.

Martin as Harry and Mauny as Bill follow parallel tracks, not called upon to do much singing. Neither squanders his opportunity, Martin in a nostalgic “Our Last Summer” duet in Donna’s bedroom (here we go again?) and Mauny as Rosie’s willing prey in their “Take a Chance on Me” tête-à-tête. Bill claims to be an adventurer, so a tigress should be just right up his Aussie alley.

Dancing in the Aisles for 36 Years

Interview: Billy Ensley

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Call him Mister Versatility. To find anyone else in the Charlotte theatre scene who has been celebrated for excellence in so many different areas as Billy Ensley, you would have to summon up the memory of Alan Poindexter, the wunderkind who came out of the UNC Charlotte theatre program and won accolades as an actor, director, and sound designer. Ensley’s awards, a total of 16 from Creative Loafing and the Metrolina Theatre Association, have been for his work as an actor, director – in musicals, comedies, and dramas – and as a choreographer.

Song and dance were Ensley’s calling cards from the beginning, and they remain handy skills as he directs the upcoming Matthews Playhouse production of Mamma Mia! – the fifth musical that he has directed there. We interviewed Ensley about his evolution as an artist, the enduring popularity of Mamma Mia! and the vital importance of our community theatres.

QC Nerve: Take us back to the early days. Outside of school productions, what was your first appearance on a Charlotte stage? Can you tell us how you felt about theatre at that time and the part it would play in your life?

My first appearance on a Charlotte stage after school was in Seesaw (1983) at Theatre Charlotte [then known as Little Theatre of Charlotte]. At that time, I was moving into theatre as a result of having dance training throughout my youth. Male dancers were in demand, and therefore I was able to make that transition and learn acting and singing as well. While performing on Charlotte stages in my 20’s, I regularly got work in professional theatres, some of which include The Blowing Rock Stage Company, Opera Carolina, Busch Gardens, and Cook/Loughlin productions at Spirit Square.

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I wanted to dedicate my life to the theatre arts, but I also had a strong desire to own a home and be self-sufficient. I worked for over a decade as the director of office operations for the Robinson, Bradshaw & Hinson law firm. After a couple of years in the travel industry, I went to work for Rexus Corporation, a national background screening company, where I am their chief operations officer for 15+ years.

By the time I first saw you back in the late 80s, in House of Blue Leaves and The 1940s Radio Hour, you were well on your way to establishing yourself as Charlotte’s pre-eminent triple threat. How committed were you at that time to accomplishing that goal, and how did you hone your acting, singing, and dancing skills?

At the time, I was not aware that I was establishing myself in any way actually. I was merely doing what I loved and what I was driven to do. Of course, it helped that I was receiving good reviews in the local press and support from the theatre community. That was positive reinforcement to keep working basically two full time jobs.

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Through the support and training of many people in Charlotte – including Tom Vance, Tom Hollis, Ron Chisholm, Terry Loughlin, Steve Umberger, to name a few – I was fortunate enough to work in the theatre almost constantly. I received a lot of my acting and singing training by being in productions, but I also continued to take dance classes, study voice with Joyce Marshall and study acting privately.

What role did our community theatre play in launching your career in theatre? How do see Theatre Charlotte and Matthews Playhouse figuring in the local scene today?

Theatre Charlotte often had the best directors and performers in the region. I was surrounded by some of the best and, as a result, I almost always got a paying gig from that exposure in community theatre. In addition, I was getting excellent hands-on training from them.

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Theatre Charlotte and Matthews Playhouse figure prominently in the local scene today, attracting good directors and seasoned performers as well as exciting new talent. In addition to cultivating new talent, they both are providing a venue for professional performers to have the opportunity to perform roles that may not be possible otherwise, due to the fact that Charlotte still struggles with sustaining many theatre companies.

You’ve made a couple of dramatic changes to reignite your career. First, you stopped doing musical after musical and took on a major role in a straight play, You Should Be So Lucky, in 1997. Then in 2003-04, we suddenly found you directing local productions of Evita, Bat Boy, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. What motivated you in each of these instances to break out of your previous mold – were there practical considerations involved, or was it all about self-fulfillment?

For me, it was a combination of both. As a dancer, you learn pretty early in life that the thing you have been training for, performing and loving, must eventually come to an end, or at least morph considerably. The same applies to playing the young male leads in musical theatre. I knew that I wanted the theatre to remain in my life, and I wanted to continue growing in other ways so that I could facilitate that.

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As a youngster, I marveled at performers that were always reinventing themselves – David Bowie comes to mind, actually – and I thought that was a great way to remain relevant. I also did not want to be pigeonholed in musical theatre, which I felt I clearly was. I wanted the challenges of dramatic acting like McDonagh’s The Pillowman (2007), in which I was lucky enough to play the lead, Katurian, in the Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte production.

As for directing, that was a slow and methodical process, and not an easy career to break in to. I started choreographing and directing in theatres outside of Charlotte like Belmont Abbey College and Wingate University. Eventually, the executive director at Theatre Charlotte, Candace Sorensen, offered me my first directing job in Charlotte with Sweet Charity (2002). After a few Charlotte shows, I got a great deal of support from Dan Shoemaker and Chip Decker at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte.

Tell us about your history with Matthews Playhouse and what you have experienced there in terms of the quality of their facilities, staff, and talent pool.

I have directed Shrek, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Bonnie & Clyde and Grey Gardens for Matthews Playhouse. Matthews Playhouse is an excellent example of a successful and vibrant community theatre. Under the leadership of June Bayless, they have an excellent staff, a remarkable youth training program, combined with a very nice auditorium and excellent technical staff.

Who are the familiar audience favorites and the hot new discoveries that are going to make your Mamma Mia! a smashing success? Who are the scenic design, costume design, and choreographer aces on the case?

IMG_6570Lucia Stetson and Lisa Blanton are audience favorites. Lucia having played Maria in The Sound of Music and Lisa Blanton having played Little Edie in Grey Gardens. Our two young romantic leads both qualify as hot new discoveries. They are Alexa Thomas and Spencer Ellis as Sophie and Sky. Lisa Blanton agreed to pull double duty for this show by both choregraphing and playing the role of Tanya. Lisa Altieri is handling costumes and Emmy Award-winning John Bayless is the scenic designer. His work is amazing and his talents run very, very deep.

What do you continue to find in Mamma Mia! that keeps us from getting tired of it?

Well, ABBA of course! The music is familiar and well loved; bringing back lots of memories of love and romance for us middle-aged folk. The women characters in the show are strong and independent, the male characters are sensitive and compassionate. Like other jukebox musicals, it is fun to watch a scene that evolves into a song that most of us know at least some of the lyrics to. It is a show where the audience should come in with their hair down, their troubles stowed away, and perhaps their inhibitions stowed away as well – in favor of singing along or dancing in the aisles!

 

Janeta Bounces from Poppins to Billie

Review: Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Forget the famous nickname for a second. Like only a handful of jazz artists – instrumentalists Miles Davis and John Coltrane come to mind – Billie Holiday’s vocal career had a distinctive arc, leaving the diva’s fans with a blithe and sunny early period of recordings, a forceful and dramatic middle period, and a worldly wise and poignant late period. The meteoric 25-year Lady Day career has stages as identifiable as Beethoven’s groundbreaking music or Shakespeare’s awesome procession of plays.

The legend of Billie Holiday took off almost instantly after her early death in 1959. That legend is easier to capture on film if you want to deliver the full breadth – and the full tragedy – of the story. But Lady Sings the Blues (1972) was a wasted opportunity, totally worthless as a biography, notwithstanding Diana Ross’s Oscar-nominated portrayal. Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill by playwright Lanie Robertson was a more serious attempt, though the 1986 drama didn’t gain real traction in the theatre world until 2014, when Audra McDonald brought it to Broadway – and subsequently to HBO.

Now it’s here at Queens University, where Hadley Theatre has been transformed into Emerson’s in an Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte production directed by Jeremy DeCarlos. Janeta Jackson not only sings Billie’s songs and wears her signature gardenia, she mingles with the paying customers and engages them as they sit in casual cabaret style at cocktail tables. Chip Decker’s scenic setup also provides for extra stadium seating behind the many cocktail tables plus a bar at the rear of the hall.

Robertson focused on the most notorious part of Billie’s life, the final days when her deteriorating health and appalling finances sent her on a trajectory toward police custody on her deathbed. When she died of cardiac arrest and liver disease at the age of 44, handcuffed to her hospital bed, there was $7,500 in cash taped to her body and 70 cents in her bank account. It’s already 1959 when we see her at Emerson’s, and costume designer Carrie Cranford has outfitted Jackson in the same sort of satin dress that you’ll find on Billie’s valedictory Columbia album, Lady in Satin, and on the Verve memorial LP set, The Unforgettable Lady Day.

Not a total surprise, since Willis Hickerson, Jr., leading his trio at the keyboard in the role of Jimmy Power, plays Billie on with “Satin Doll.” When Jackson arrives, she mostly sings songs that are actually associated with Billie – but not necessarily with her latter days. With his choice of songs and with the rambling patter of his script, Robertson contrives to have latter-day Lady Day present an informal retrospective of her life and career, musically emphasizing the early and middle years, leaving space for songs that inspired her and, of course, the songs she wrote and championed.

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Among the early songs sprinkled on the Lady Day songlist are “When a Woman Loves a Man,” “Foolin’ Myself,” and “Easy Living” from Billie’s swinging early period, recorded in 1935-38 with the likes of Teddy Wilson, Benny Goodman, and Lester Young. Robertson does something interesting “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” not only programming it early in Billie’s set but making it emblematic of her heroin habit as she staggers backstage midway through her show. Jackson arrives onstage slurping a drink, so Billie’s substance abuse is never a secret. It’s the main reason she’s performing in this Philadelphia dive, we quickly learn, for she had lost her license to perform in New York City cabarets a few arrests earlier.

Although we never hear any of the mighty heartbreakers on Billie’s final album, like “I’m a Fool to Want You” or “You’ve Changed,” the mood definitely darkens toward the end. Although lighting designer Evan Kinsley repeatedly flouts the words of the script, which should prompt him to keep the piano player in semi-darkness, he does turn down the houselights and shine a spot on Jackson for the climactic “Strange Fruit,” a searing depiction of a Southern-style lynching that became a Lady Day hallmark.

Or as she puts it, one of the songs we came to hear. She doesn’t say it quite that politely.

There are no “I’ve seen the mountaintop” moments in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, so the ending is more pathetic than tragic. Embedding an autobiography into a cabaret performance wasn’t the easiest assignment for Robertson, but his best line, “Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married: he was 18, she was 16, and I was three,” flows naturally out of the opening of Billie’s Lady Sings the Blues autobio.

He did his research, you will find, and so have DeCarlos and Jackson. DeCarlos has chosen his musicians well – bassist Peter de Klerk and drummer Tim Scott fill out the trio – and he gets an alert and spontaneous performance from Hickerson where Powers has to speak a few lines here and there, coping with Billie’s spaced-out eccentricities. And who what DeCarlos saw from Jackson at auditions, where she arrived with calling cards that included the doo-wop group in Beehive and the lead in Mary Poppins? Bet it wasn’t nearly the same Billie as we’re seeing now.

For there can be no doubting that, if she wasn’t a Lady Day fan when she showed up auditioned for DeCarlos, Jackson has certainly immersed herself in the recordings since landing the role. To a Billiephile, it’s obvious that Jackson concentrated most heavily on the Verve recordings of 1948-57, which have snippets of Billie’s spoken introductions, a nice compromise between the juicy early recordings and the raspy final releases. Jackson seems to have avoided or rejected the Emerson’s Bar recording by McDonald – a very wise choice, for Audra not only leans a bit on Billie’s raspiness, she occasionally exaggerates the mannerisms of her last years.

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Jackson echoes those mannerisms rather than imitating or caricaturing them, and she is almost as uncanny as McDonald in capturing the timbre of the speaking voice, though she eschews the telltale rasp. On other aspects of the speaking voice, Jackson might move closer to the six-time Tony Award winner, who won her sixth as Lady Day. Slowing down would help Jackson make Lady Day’s aging and physical deterioration more real, and slurring her speech a little more would couple nicely with the effects of the liquor and the junk.

The Jackson vocals are consistently wonderful in her chosen Verve groove, most Billie-like near the end of the evening in “Don’t Explain,” where she almost equals “Strange Fruit” as the highlight. If she puts a little too much mannered mustard on the bridge and at the end of “God Bless the Child,” Holiday’s most-admired original composition, it’s still outstanding – and she has none of the difficulties with the metre that plague the recorded covers by McDonald and Ross.

While the setting at Hadley isn’t as intimate as the HBO Special, it’s cozier than the Broadway production was and DeCarlos gives Jackson freedom to mingle with the clientele and roam away from the little stage – which she does with admirable poise. Ladylike, we can say. If you love Lady Day, there’s no need at all to hesitate, and if you’re looking to find out more, look no further.

“Beyond the Mint” Crosses the Street for Inspiration

Review: Charlotte Ballet’s Innovative Works: Beyond the Mint

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Programmatic works seem to come more readily to choreographers than to symphonic composers. For many who love the art of dance, a ballet without a story to tell isn’t a ballet at all. So it’s natural, while choreographers at Charlotte Ballet search for music for their dancers, they’re also in quest of stories, ideas, and images to give their works added edge.

In her three seasons as artistic director at Charlotte Ballet, Hope Muir has enriched this collaboration by formally reaching out to other organizations in town – including UNC Charlotte, who collaborated on last season’s Innovative Works program, Shakespeare Reinvented, with two of their distinguished professors of literature. Surrounded by two neighboring museums at Knight Theater, where they are the resident company, it’s completely logical for Muir to reach out now to one of them for new inspiration – across the lobby to the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art or across the street to the Mint Museum Uptown.

The title of this year’s Innovative, Beyond the Mint, spells out her choice. Three choreographers have visited the Mint Uptown and soaked in their current exhibition, Immersed in Light, an installation of five works by Studio Drift, an influential Dutch studio established by Ralph Nauta and Lonneke Gordijn in 2007. Inspired by “Franchise Freedom” and “In Twenty Steps,” Chelsea Dumas created Journey Home. Christopher Stuart took his cue for Dispersal from “Fragile Future 3,” while Duane Cyrus was more general in citing the basis for his Colony of Desire, quoting the exhibit’s mission statement: “creating a dialogue between opposites, exploring the relationship between nature, technology, and mankind.”

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All three of the choreographies were certainly satisfying, but Dumas’ seemed to fulfill Muir’s objectives best, drawing the most from the Immersed in Light exhibition. Taking her cue from “Franchise Freedom,” she sought to juxtapose the freedom of the individual with the safety and security provided by a group, while “In Twenty Steps” prompted her to visualize the group like formations of birds in flight.

Costumes by Anna De La Cour had the spare simplicity and uniformity of futuristic sci-fi cults we often see skewered in movies and TV, while the John P. Woodey lighting design carved out the boundaries of two realms at the McBride-Bonnefoux Center for Dance: the circumscribed area of the individual, Peter Mazurowki, and the territory of the group, seven other dancers. Writhing around on the studio floor in his egg-shaped area, Mazurowki could hardly be described as comfortable or happy in his own little world, but you could construe Dumas’ sequence of movements as a birth of sorts.

Only Elizabeth Truell separates herself from the group, and only she traverses the divide between and the group. Yes, she invades Mazurowki’s space – his discomfort zone? – and coaxes him out of his isolation, but there’s little that is human in her efforts and nothing sexual or alluring. Truell’s actions are a pathway to joining the flock and an invitation to flight. Music by Philip Glass seems apt for this chaste avian action, but there are mellower moments when the score shifts to a track by composer Mark Yaeger and cellist Gautier Capuçon. Amid the flattery and fluttering that engulf Mazurowki, it’s obvious that there is tension – and a yearning to return to his former solitude.

Stuart told the opening night crowd at the post-performance talkback that he had worked on Dispersal for a mere 18 days and that he had called back to Nashville, where he is established as the resident choreographer of Nashville Ballet, for Christina Spinei to compose the music. Maybe because the choreography was so rushed, Woodey’s lighting and Katherine Zywczyk’s costumes seemed more spot-on in capturing the dandelions of “Fragile Future 3” and the floating essence of dandelion seeds. Relying heavily on pas de deux for four couples, Stuart seemed to be tugging against his Dispersal concept and a vision of their epic journeying.

Yet the couples and the composer certainly weren’t tugging against each other or Spinei’s original music. Sarah Hayes Harkins paired with Colby Foss, followed by Alessandra Ball James partnered with Josh Hall, displayed the kind of mutual trust and simpatico that takes time to develop. These couples, with their individuality and chemistry, surely helped shape the choreography and infuse the new music with their unique imprint. They are also, no doubt, motivating the newer couples – Juwan Alston with Amelia Sturt-Dilley, as well as Maurice Mouzon Jr. and newcomer Nadine Barton – to develop a comparable rapport.

Although his concept was the most abstract of the three choreographers, untethered to any specific work at the Studio Drift installation, Cyrus in collaboration with Emmy Award-winning costume designer Shane Ballard has produced the most exciting of the new Innovative Works – and arguably the work that goes furthest “beyond the Mint.”

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Utilizing five men and three women, going from white to black costumes late in his piece, Cyrus’s give-and-take with opposites was not at all concerned with symmetry. Nor were Ballard’s glamorously bizarre costumes with their military silhouettes. No tidy pairings here, either. Foss is as likely to lift a man as a woman, emerging once again as the guy who does the splits. Unlike the other two choreographers, Cyrus takes a strong hand in conceiving the set, joining John Tringas in the scenic design to frame the splashy entrances that climax his scenario. Woodey adds drama to these entrances, widening the spectrum of his lighting design with orange, green, and violet after Ballard’s black costumes appear.

Cyrus is no less restless in the dance idioms he uses, as likely to pillage hiphop vocabulary as classic ballet moves. The soundtrack ranged from the contemporary beats of Angus Tarnawsky and Jonboyondabeat to the choral chants of David Lang. In contrast with Dumas’ superb synthesis and transmutation, Cyrus worked his wonders in a spirit of adventure and experimentation – plus a dash of showmanship.

Cherokee Nation Claims Territory Next to “Appalachian Spring”

Review: Appalachian Spring

By Perry Tannenbaum

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When you think of an All-American concert at Belk Theater performed by the Charlotte Symphony, composers like Samuel Barber or Aaron Copland figure to be in the mix. Sure enough, Copland’s Appalachian Spring is the marquee attraction at the latest Symphony concert led by maestro Christopher Warren-Green, preceded by Barber’s equally familiar Adagio for Strings. What came between these works by a Pennsylvania blue-blood and a Brooklyn-born Jew was really surprising, enlightening, and inspiring – and frankly stole the show.

That work was by a composer most of us had never heard of, William Brittelle, titled Si Otsedoha in a language most of us don’t know. Commissioned by the North Carolina Symphony in 2017 and premiered the following year in Raleigh, the new piece tripled the Appalachian aspect of the concert, for the Boston-born Brittelle was raised in Newton, NC, the county seat of Catawba County. Appropriately enough, the featured performers of Si Otsedoha were the Cherokee Chamber Singers of Cherokee High School, led by Michael Yanette.

With English and Cherokee text by the Singers, the piece is divided into five sections, including a “Still Here Overture.” It’s forceful stuff from the beginning, with each of the Singers stepping forward to recount a segment of Native American or Cherokee history. The history goes back many millennia before the so-called “discovery” of the New World, and after each section – even after the sufferings, indignities, and betrayals inflicted by white European occupiers – the whole ensemble proclaims, “But we’re still here!” with an edge of affirmation and defiance. Special rancor is reserved for President Andrew Jackson.

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These young men and women are telling us things. Though they mention the infamous “Trail of Tears,” they’re not complaining or asking for pity. In the softer second section, “Phoenix Rising,” we hear of the young people’s yearnings, sung in English and Cherokee, keyed by a recurring phrase, “When I look to the sky.” In the next section, we begin to notice the composer, the orchestra, soprano soloist Catherine Brookman and Yanette more; for it is here, with the women answering the men, that the Singers really begin to sing. Brittelle’s music leavens the message of “When Money Becomes Religion,” arguably containing the orneriest statements in the piece. The section on the Keystone Pipeline in North Dakota, in particular, aren’t intended to salve the sensibilities of Evangelicals or Republicans.

Adorned with silvery percussion and gossamer harp strings, “Walls of Glass” is the most soothing and ethereal section of the piece, where the lyricism of the composer and the harmony of the ensemble shine most brilliantly. The finale, “Si Otsedoha,” circles back to the “We’re still here” message of the opening section, but the Cherokee version is spoken with far less defiance than the earlier English preamble. Gradually the music, the singing, and the chanting grow insistent, then exclamatory and celebratory – with a little bit of a militant edge. The next time Native Americans wish to protest construction of a new pipeline that violates existing treaties, Si Otsedoha (first word is pronounced “she”) would be a stirring, powerful statement to fire up demonstrations.

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Though Barber’s Adagio has been programmed at least twice since I heard Jacomo Rafael Bairos conduct it at Knight Theater in 2011, I had never seen what Warren-Green would do with it. Nobody who loves this affecting work will be disappointed. The cellos, violins, and even the violas get opportunities to stand apart during this eight-minute warhorse, and all three perform precisely and sensitively. Watching the performance is a treat – and after navigating the unexpected Uptown detours to find a feasible pathway to the Belk, which seemed to confound Google Maps as much as me, I can heartily credit the players for soothing my frazzled nerves.

Copland’s Appalachian Spring was more of a surprise than the Barber, last performed here in October 2015. After a moribund rendition of the score in 1993, which I consistently cite as among the most wretched Symphony performances I’ve ever witnessed, the orchestra conquered Copland’s iconic ballet suite the next two times I heard it in 2009 and 2015. For the current concert, Warren-Green expands his conquest, restoring music from the original Martha Graham ballet, which Copland called “Ballet for Martha” before Graham discerned spring in the music and took the eventual title from Hart Crane’s The Bridge.

Chamber and orchestral versions that flowed from the 1944 ballet abbreviated the score. Neither of the recordings in my collection break down the piece, but those conducted by Bernstein, Mehta, and Copland are among those you can find on Spotify. Of these, only Mehta’s begins to describe the ballet scenario with any of the detail that you’ll find so helpfully reproduced in Symphony’s program booklet. I suspect the absence or abbreviation of Section 4, “The revivalist and his flock,” was one of the things made that lamentable 1993 version so lifeless.

The “Calm and flowing” Section 7 of the piece, memorable for all its voicings of the “Simple Gifts” Shaker melody – by the violas, the cellos, and (most memorably) the clarinet – seemed to come with more off-road excursions by piano, brass, and percussion before the unforgettable orchestral explosion that Charlotte Symphony plays so grandly together. It may be a less cohesive Spring than Copland conceived in his suite, but after hearing the same-old-same-old so many times, I found it fresher and even more satisfying.

Robbins Hatches an Immigrant Experience

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Review: The New Colossus

By Perry Tannenbaum

If you are one of those knuckleheads who oppose illegal and legal immigration – “good” folks who scoff at the notion of allowing terrorists onto our sacred soil under the flimsy guise of political asylum – you won’t need to watch The New Colossus for long before concluding that this is not the show for you. On the other hand, if you were expecting Tim Robbins and his co-writers, The Actors’ Gang Ensemble, to bring a play to Knight Theater – or a suite of touching immigrant narratives – you might hang in there considerably longer before deciding that maybe you should have passed on this show as well.

For despite the assurances of the playbill that we would be watching scenes and stories, The New Colossus was not a play on the opening night of its national tour. Actors in the Ensemble, representing refugees from 12 different countries – including the US Confederate States – speak 12 different languages in portraying their own ancestors.

But not that often. In his director’s notes, Robbins clarifies his intentions, describing Colossus as a movement piece, a “calling up of ancestors.” Here and there, we see supertitles as each of the 12 refugees voices the perils in his or her birthplace – Iran, Turkey, Malaysia, Germany, Vietnam, Mexico, Finland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Russia, Austria, and Louisiana – driving them to find liberty and new lives in America.

The cast of The New Colossus, photo by Ashley Randall

More often, we see them as a raggedy group, toting valises that contain everything they own, then fleeing from pursuers, squatting by a stream to quench their thirsts, helping each other to dig a tunnel with their hands, freezing in the cold, urgently struggling to build a fire, basking in the heat and light once they’ve succeeded, scurrying for cover when they believe their pursuers might see them, standing at a border wall where they’re not allowed to cross, and desperately hailing passersby who might assist their journeys to freedom. It’s fair to say that these wordless actions and movements are at least two-thirds of the 90-minute piece that Robbins and Ensemble “wrote.”

No doubt about it, Actor’s Gang delivers an immigrant experience. There were moments during these diverse and harrowing pilgrimages to our shores that were heart-rending – moments when I couldn’t help thinking about people fleeing today from wartime atrocities in Syria or murderous drug gangs in Guatamala. What has become of governments here and in Europe that close their borders to such desperate refugees? What has become of those peoples who demand, with the force of their votes, such absolute callousness from their governments and elected leaders?

Around the 14th time, or maybe the 27th time, these immigrants circled the Knight stage; grunting, panting, and sometimes muttering phrases in their native tongues; I couldn’t help feeling that my liberal tolerance was being stretched past its breaking point, even if the Ensemble was credibly simulating the tedium of their forefathers’ and foremothers’ exhausting treks toward freedom. Robbins not only co-wrote The New Colossus, he directed it. Sitting at rehearsals or announcing his reactions afterwards, he should have had the sense to say, “We can definitely cut some of that action.”

Music by cellist Mikala Schmitz and percussionist David Robbins alleviates the tedium, while projections by technical director Josh Keh open up fresh possibilities. Those possibilities surfaced during the post-show powwow that Robbins emceed from the stage. By a show of hands, our opening night audience revealed how many descended from indigenous Native Americans, how many of us were immigrants, sons and daughters of immigrants, grandsons and granddaughters of immigrants, etc., all the way back to the Mayflower.

The indigenous folk were also prompted to give us their names and tribes, immigrants gave their countries of origin and dates of arrival, while sons and daughters of immigrants gave the names, dates, and countries of origin of family members who first set foot here. When all these names, tribes, countries of origin and dates had been called out, Robbins asked for volunteers in the audience to share their special immigration stories.

At times, the speakers became emotional, and again, this was no place for anti-immigration, America-is-closed knuckleheads. But this wasn’t necessarily the end of Robbins’ show, even after the add-on segment. If they wished, people who had shared their stories could come backstage afterwards and retell their tales with a camera rolling. Robbins even invited the shyer folk who hadn’t ventured to share their stories with the entire Knight crowd to come backstage and open up in a more intimate setting.

So I can only hope that Robbins is conceiving The Colossus as something more than a play, a movement piece, or a simulated immigration experience. I hope he really sees it as a dynamic project and that, someday soon, the stories he is filming will nestle in among the images projected behind his performers – filling in their silences and preventing the images already chosen from overstaying their welcome.

None of the actors gets to dominate the stage for very long amid the hurly-burly of fleeing their motherlands, so it probably shouldn’t surprise anyone that performers representing familiar stories resonated most with me, namely Quonta Shannell Beasley as the emancipated Sadie Duncan from Louisiana and Jeanette Rothschild as her grandmother Yetta Rothschild, escaped from Germany. It also helped that the stories of Stephanie Lee as Ly My Dung from Vietnam and Paulette Zubata as her mother Gabriela Mia Garcia from Mexico also arrived somewhat pre-warmed.

Zirko Petkovic and Pierre Adeli, photo by Ashley Randall

Influenced by my own ancestry, I had a special fondness for the performers who delivered the most Eastern European flavor, Zivko Petkovic as his Yugoslavian grandfather, Mirko Petkovic, and Dora Kiss as Hungarian grandmother Aranka Markus. Of course, Emma Lazarus, the Jewish American poet who gave the Statue of Liberty her voice when she wrote her “New Colossus” sonnet, had a soft spot in her heart for Eastern Europe. Small wonder, then, that Petkovic and Kiss strongly evoked for me the immigrants famously described by Lady Liberty in the Lazarus poem:

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me;

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Sobering reminders when even our courts are okaying the concept of income requirements for aspiring citizens – and the idea of rejecting other countries’ rejects has become White House policy. Hopefully, Robbins’ new piece will blossom into a project that will be heeded.