Simon Says, Be Shocked and Shaken

Review: Actor’s Gym presentation of  Act Two

By Perry Tannenbaum

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As Neil Simon tells us in The Play Goes On, the second of his two memoirs, Chapter Two was inspired by a turning point in his life, moments after he had threatened to leave Marsha Mason, his second wife. She fought back. “Marsha came to me with a torrent of words that flowed out with such anger, but such truth, that she never missed a beat, never tripped over a single syllable or consonant,” Simon wrote. “I knew it was spontaneous, that it was coming from the bottom of her heart and soul, her one last chance to save something good.”

Chapter Two would be a turning point in his career, the first time that he really poured his own painful experiences into one of his comedies. Simon paraphrased Mason’s speech and inserted it deep in Act 2, where Mason eventually paraphrased herself co-starring in the film of the 1977 Broadway hit with James Caan. It’s one of two singularly heavy moments for Simon, who is so often celebrated for his one-liners, his strung-together skits, and his extended sitcoms.

George Schneider and Jennie Malone are the onstage counterparts for Simon and Mason. In his current Actor’s Gym presentation at Duke Energy Theater, director Tony Wright wisely resisted the temptation to look for co-stars who would bring the most sparkle to the snappy banter that marks the whirlwind romance of his protagonists. Wright prioritizes chemistry, casting Bill Reilly as George and Jennifer Barnette as Jennie, two performers mostly noted for drama until Wright cast Barnette in Noël Coward’s Fallen Angels last fall.

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George, a writer, is trying to get back into circulation after the sudden death of his first wife, but finds it difficult to put an end to his grieving. A soap opera actress, Jennie is still shell-shocked by the end of her six-year marriage to a football player.

She’s definitely wary of repeating past mistakes, quietly on the lookout for something different. When she finds him, she will know.

Getting them together is where Simon can infuse some broader comedy into his script, for it’s George’s big brother Leo, a Broadway press agent, who keeps trying to set our lovelorn hero up with female prospects until he strikes Jennie gold. Pushing from the other end is Jennie’s bestie, soap opera queen Faye Medwick.

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A couple of sitcom ironies give the story extra spark. While pushing George and Jennie together, both Leo and Faye are unhappy in their own marriages – leading to a side order of illicit romance between them. Meanwhile, when romance sparks between George and Jennie, both Leo and Faye are alarmed that the spark has become a bonfire, that their matchmaking has succeeded beyond expectations, with the lovebirds rushing towards matrimony.

Plenty of latitude here for two immense screwball performances, and Wright is just as unerring here. Fresh off her outré performance opposite Barnette in Fallen Angels, Karina Caparino plumbs deeper depths of daffiness as Faye, nailing a New York accent and making a meal out of the soap diva’s paranoid fear of discovery. Wright gives Trent Merchant even wider latitude in his local debut as Leo. Whether coaxing George out of his funk or wooing the skittish Faye, Merchant goes big, brash, and boorish, Davita Galloway’s costumes helping us to distinguish Leo as the most crass and déclassé of these New Yorkers.

 

So when Merchant draws Simon’s other dramatic monologue, detailing George’s despondency after the death of his first wife, it’s no less surprising than Jennie’s big outburst will be. Desperately urging Jennie to slow it down on the eve of her hasty wedding, Leo shows us how much he cares for his brother even as he goes about it in such a gauche way.

While not exactly swank, Tim Baxter-Ferguson’s set design splits the stage convincingly into two apartments, so that when George speaks to Jennie on the phone, there is credible separation even when they’re virtually back-to-back. Reilly turns out to be very good at rendering George’s lingering grief and his romantic awkwardness. Getting on the phone for the first time with Jennie – unintentionally – George turns this first telephone encounter into a typical Simon shtick.

But Wright and Reilly are keenly attuned to the difference. So many of the moments here are about “one last chance to save something good.” In George’s case, they are mixed with moments when he’s an endearing wit or a mopey jerk.

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Barnette firmly establishes Jennie’s forbearance in the first barrage of phone calls from George with just a twinkle of archness. There is so much that Jennie must indulge from George, from Faye, and from Leo – her sponsor! – that you wonder where and if Barnette’s saintly serenity will end. The explosion shouldn’t seem inevitable, but when it comes, it should seem in character.

Most of all, Barnette must nail it, and she does. Part of the essence of Jennie’s spontaneity is that she will be a little shocked and shaken herself by what has just flowed out of her. On opening night, Barnette was. So was I.

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Swinging and Singing Summits Highlight SMF Jazz Week

Review:  Savannah Music Festival’s annual Jazz Week

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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Call it the Jazz at Lincoln Center influence, but the Savannah Music Festival’s annual Jazz Week had a little bit more of an educational tinge this year. Not only was the Jazz at Lincoln Center Youth Big Band one of 12 finalists in the annual Swing Central playoffs, SMF’s nationwide high school big band competition, some of the jazz headliners took an overtly pedagogical approach to their sets at the Charles H. Morris Center.

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Warming up for Kat Edmonson on Sunday afternoon, pianist Jon Cleary offered a personal primer on New Orleans piano style, with pithy disquisitions on – and evocations of – Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, and Mac Rebennack. The following evening, Chris Pattishall and his quintet crossed the frontier into jazz piano with a full-length presentation of Mary Lou Williams’ Zodiac Suite. On the second half of that bill, Aaron Diehl dipped into Dick Hyman’s Jazz Etudes in the Styles of Jazz Masters with his trio, a foretaste of a complete traversal that would cap his solo set the following afternoon.

Since Swing Central already includes intensive workshops and clinics with such luminaries as Marcus Roberts, Wycliffe Gordon, Stephen Riley, Jim Ketch, Dave Stryker, Jason Marsalis, and Pattishall, concerts like these further enrich the program’s academic nourishment. Toss in an additional three yet-to-be-mentioned vocalists and the Grammy-winning Dafnis Prieto Big Band, and you may assume that non-student jazz enthusiasts had plenty to enjoy over the first six days of SMF 2019.

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Havana native Daymé Arocena led off the jazz lineup, backed by a fine trio headed by keyboardist Jorge Luis Lagarza. Prompted by Arocena’s recent recordings, Cubafonía and Nueva Era, I expected to see a singer who aimed mainly for Latin audiences with side glances toward R&B and jazz. With backup singers, brass sections, and overdubbing stripped away, quite a different artist emerged in live performance. The R&B dimension surfaced with a drive and vitality to her vocals that reminded me of Stevie Wonder’s breakthrough years. Her scat singing on “Maybe Tomorrow” no longer sounded like four bars sight-read in a studio but more like the free flights of Flora Purim, and there was more to come in “Mambo No Ma.”

More surprisingly, thanks to the wide spectrum of sounds offered by percussionist Marcos Morales, there were times when the full-throated beauty of Arocena’s voice – never really captured at all in the studio recordings I’ve heard – took me back to the sound of John Coltrane’s quartets during his early Impulse years. Adding to Arocena’s live electricity, she’s an engaging and involving entertainer, compelling us all to clap or sing along with her and holding her encore hostage unless we all got up and danced to “La Rumba Me Llamo Yo.”

Paying the ransom was definitely worth it, for the encore, “Don’t Unplug My Body,” began with an electric bass solo from Rafael Aldama and heated up to an intensity that you wouldn’t have thought possible on her tame recording – nothing short of an Cuban orgasm. Lagarza widened the palette of the backup trio when he turned away from the house Steinway and played his portable electric, bringing a rock guitar vibe to “Minuet Para un Corazon” and a B3 organ-like soul to “Negra Caridad.”

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Dafnis Prieto Big Band drew the coveted Saturday night slot, playing two sets at the Morris. Remembering past Latin Dance Parties at the Morris, the deafening Eddie Palmieri of 2009 and the still uncomfortable Palmieri encore in 2014, I was wary of sitting too close for this year’s Best Latin Jazz Album winner. So I’m truly gratified to report that, handling this 17-man ensemble, the Morris sound crew had decibel levels dialed in to perfection. Or so it felt from the side of the hall opposite to the four trumpets, four trombones, and five reeds.

The winning CD, Back to the Sunset, supplied five of the six tunes that the band performed at their second set. “Una Vez Mas” was certainly a very rousing, very Latin way to start both the album and the concert. More colorful and adventurous charts lay ahead, especially in the second half of the program. Expanding upon his recorded intro to “Danzonish Potpourri,” Prieto unleashed an awesome display at the drum kit. After some nicely blended saxes and an Alex Brown fill at the keyboard, Michael Thomas swooped in with a majestic soprano sax solo that eased its tempo after being partially inundated by the brass. A tasty Brown piano solo gave way to some pithy work from Michael Blake on melodica, not well-heard until the band dropped out.

Switching to flute and then alto, Thomas was even more impressive on the ensuing “Song for Chico.” At the crest of this chart, Thomas stood with his sax and counted out two successive sudden stops to the horns behind him. Then out of the second silence, he crafted a beautiful acapella solo, with numerous multiphonics strewn along the way. “Two for One” closed out this magnificent set, with high-energy exchanges between the brass and reeds, extended solos by Blake on tenor and Thomas on alto, and heavy workouts for Prieto and percussionist Roberto Quintero. Brown tucked in his loveliest piano solo in the calm before the leader’s parting shots.

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There are plenty of retro elements in Edmonson’s singing style, a pinch of Peggy Lee sultriness, the occasional Lady Day phrasing, and abundant echoes of Blossom Dearie. In the songwriting style, you might instantly recall the utmost despondency of Joni Mitchell – but you suddenly realize that Edmonson time travels farther back, dabbling in verses! If that weren’t enough, Edmonson testified to hearing the voice of Nancy Wilson when she composed “What Else Can I Do,” a song she proceeded to perform with an extended scat outro.

Like Arcena, Edmonson often verges on pop when she’s embellished at recording studios – and transitions effortlessly to jazz at Savannah with the right backup. If you feel her singing on recordings is too precious, coy and calculated, your opinion would likely improve seeing her live. The Blossom Dearie parallels certainly emerged quickly as Edmonson reined in her studio style for her opening “Champagne.” “Old Fashioned Gal,” the title tune on her latest release, was a frank and quirky instance of a verse that seemed to last the full length of the song.

Kat’s spoken intros took us to Europe, through a despondent breakup, on tour and at the studio with Lyle Lovett – dishy reveals that meshed well with her less-mannered live singing. Despite the Nancy Wilson channelling, “Nobody Knows That,” the song Edmonson sang immediately after “What Else Can I Do,” was the more diva-worthy composition, with drummer Aaron Thornton’s brushes and Al Street’s guitar adding gravitas. Admitting that the duet she wrote for Lovett was modelled after “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” before that hit became a toxic template, Edmonson did a solo version of “Long Way Home” that had a cheery post-party feel, slightly buzzed, with some solo space carved out for bassist Bob Hart.

Though “Sparkle and Shine” can be credited with an authentic verse, the best of the rest was definitely “Whispering Grass,” with an intro and outro that were no less outré and spacey than the studio version, and glimmering work from Roy Dunlap at the Steinway. Dunlap doubled on electric piano in “Lucky,” and Hart whipped out a guitar from behind his bass, turning Kat’s band for “All the Way” into a two-guitar quartet – remember The Ventures? – with a more novel electric sound than the studio cut.

While a songwriter who moans “if I had a voice” must be speaking for somebody else when her own top 10 songs on Spotify have been streamed over 22 million times, Edmonson’s rendition of “A Voice,” prefaced by another touching intro from Dunlap, was suffused with breathtaking beauty. “Summertime,” Kat’s most-streamed cut, was her encore, the Gershwins’ original comfort replaced by downcast commiseration. With nearly nine million plays, it’s working for her.

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It’s been nearly five years since Pattishall brought a quintet to Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola and played Williams’ Zodiac Suite with the same frontline, Alphonso Horne on trumpet and Ricardo Pascal on reeds. The 1944 composition, first recorded by Williams and her trio in 1945 and reissued in 1995, does not suffer from overexposure: Dizzy Gillespie brought the pianist to the stage at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1957 and played three of the 12 astrological signs with his big band, comprising one track on the resulting Verve CD. in 2006, Geri Allen recorded a Zodiac Suite: Revisited tribute with her trio.

So it’s safe to assume that the sheet music strewn across Pattishall’s piano and distributed among his cohorts was penned by the pianist for his quintet. Doubling back to the YouTube videos from the 2014 Dizzy’s gig, I’m even more sure that head arrangements have been in flux. Horne plays with far more individuality and self-assurance now than he did at the Dizzy’s date, where he looked so young, but he was supplanted at the Morris by Pascal on tenor in the volatile “Virgo” section.

Choosing to begin with “Taurus” instead of “Aries,” which he saved for his closer, Pattishall immediately shone the spotlight on Horne, trading full solos twice with the young trumpeter, who put plenty of growl into his Bull with and without his plunger mute before yielding to Roland Guerin and his five-string bass. “Leo” was the next true burner after Pattishall’s ruminative soloing figured prominently in the next two signs. Bryan Carter launched “Leo” with a fine drum solo and fired another fusillade later in the piece after the horns. Pascal, who had roared moments on “Cancer,” switched from tenor to soprano on “Leo,” a nice prelude to Horne and his first extended unmuted solo.

With a walking bassline in his piano intro that reached under the horns when they layered on, “Scorpio” became the sign where Pattishall most intently replicated the Williams style, though a listen to Dizzy Gillespie at Newport will convince you that Williams was pretty eclectic herself, with plenty of chops. Starting off by introducing each astrological sign – and asking us to make noise if we were born under it – Pattishall thankfully tired of this routine and played through. That’s why the “Capricorn” segment, adding two or three other signs before coming to a halt, was the most satisfying in the set, with tasty parts for Horn, Guerin, and Carter.

Somebody should sign these guys besides SMF, which lists all five quintet members as Swing Central faculty. A studio recording would help more people to catch up with Mary Lou’s chef d’oeuvre – in a full-throated style that would make Dizzy and Wynton proud.

Quite a composer and technician in his own right, Diehl proved more exciting performing his own compositions and interpretations than in curating others’. The pianist’s interplay with drummer Quincy Davis got “Uranus” off to a provocative start, releasing into an Oscar Peterson-like romp than ended with a playful “In a Small Café” quote before each of the three trio members took turns in the spotlight. During Diehl’s meditative intro to “A Story,” Davis switched to brushes and layered on. Then bassist David Wong made his entrance and soloed gorgeously, setting the stage – and maybe the tone – for the leader.

Gillespie’s “Con Alma” was another prime delight after the long immersion into Hyman’s Etudes, heavily inflected with Latin rhythm and percussion when we released into the familiar line. But the double layer of pedagogy when Diehl delved into the Etudes was distracting for me. Unlike the signs of the Williams Zodiac, which might be dedicated to such non-jazz heroes as FDR, each of Hyman’s exercises was an homage to a seminal 20th century jazz pianist.

So when “Portrait,” taken at a nice lively tempo, sounded more to me like Hyman in Diehl’s hands than the original dedicatee, John Lewis, my response was conflicted. Nor did I see much point in the “Ivory Strides” homage to Fats Waller, way too close to “Ain’t Misbehavin’” for comfort. Much better was “Onyx Mood,” dedicated to Art Tatum. After a couple of obligatory Tatum runs, Diehl administered a torrid pounding and just went off, no confusion at all about whose style was on display.

Two other problems often plagued the project, one of which carried over to the lunchtime solo concert the following afternoon. Hyman’s Etudes are noticeably shorter than Chopin’s, sometimes less than a minute on Hyman’s own renditions – so Davis and Wong tended to disappear in the trio versions, especially since Diehl usually refrained from embellishment.

Both problems were neatly solved when Diehl ended with “Passage,” dedicated to Bill Evans, and followed with a huge surprise, Philip Glass’s “Etude No. 16.” Not only did Diehl expand on this piece as he had previously with the Tatum etude, he showed an unmistakable affinity for Evans that enhanced the tribute vibe. No less important, Davis became newly involved – against the grain of Diehl’s playing, occasionally dropping bombs on the Glass and applying both sticks and brushes to his inspired efforts.

Diehl’s solo disquisition, “Blues & the Spanish Tinge,” ended in very much the same fashion as the trio gig, with a complete traversal of the Hyman Etudes and the Glass 16. But it began very much on-topic, tracing a lineage of piano styles starting just before the turn of the 20th century with Ignacio Cervantes’ Six Cuban Dances, published in 1899, followed by samplings of Jimmy Yancey and – after circling back to Louis Moreau Gottschalk, a New Orleans native who actually taught Cervantes – Jelly Roll Morton.

The antique simplicity of the Cervantes suite, with hints of Chopin waltz and premonitions of Scott Joplin rag, grew livelier in the fourth dance, nearly a march in Diehl’s hands. Other highlights in the set included Diehl’s take on “Jelly Roll Blues” and the frenzied stride romp he applied to Fats Waller’s “Viper’s Drag” before its customary élan became discernible. In a more formal vein, Diehl’s rendition of Aaron Copland’s “Piano Blues for John Kirkpatrick” was a charming little bonbon.

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Riding high on top of Jazz Week’s airplay charts, Catherine Russell didn’t return to Savannah to promote Alone Together, her current release. Instead, she joined in a concept concert, “Billie & Blue Eyes,” with the John Pizzarelli Trio – a concept that wasn’t far distant from the “Ladies Sing the Blues” sets she sang in 2014 with Charenée Wade. As Pizzarelli pointed out in his warmup segment, Sinatra and Billie Holiday pretty much traversed (some might say defined) the Great American Songbook between them with many overlaps.

Of course, Pizzarelli is well-known in Savannah, his appearances at SMF dating back to at least 2011. Singing in a relaxed style, Pizzarelli is also a personable, self-deprecating, and humorous host – and he has obviously gotten to know Savannah well. After starting out in Sinatra’s effervescent postwar style with “I’ve Got the World on a String” and “You Make Me Feel So Young,” Pizzarelli carved out a segment devoted to Savannah’s iconic songwriter, Johnny Mercer. While the first Mercer tune, “Goody Goody,” remained squarely on the Sinatra Highway, the two scat choruses Pizzarelli added on signaled that he didn’t feel obliged to stay there. Both the beloved “Skylark” and the outré “Jamboree Jones” took the offramp, never recorded by either Ol’ Blue Eyes or Lady Day.

Cy Coleman’s “Witchcraft,” on the other hand, brought us emphatically back to recognized Sinatra hits, though Pizzarelli’s singing style still chimed best with “Skylark” collaborators Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael. “The Way You Look Tonight,” a solo with John’s own simple guitar accompaniment, was a nice way to segue into Russell’s regal entrance. There were still 14 songs to go in the 21-song set, so Russell’s brassier contributions felt quite ample as Pizzarelli and his trio stuck around.

Naturally they started off together really big with “All of Me,” Russell singing two choruses, Pizzarelli on a scat vocal and pianist Konrad Paszkudzki splitting the next chorus, and Russell harmonizing with John to take it out. Handoff accomplished, Russell took over for three songs in Billie’s bag, Pizzarelli relegating himself to a half chorus on guitar for “You Go to My Head” while both Paszkudzki and bassist Mike Karn took full choruses between the vocals on “Love Me or Leave Me.”

Pizzarelli’s return to the vocal mic was even more rousing than Russell’s initial arrival, as the whole ensemble dug into “Them There Eyes,” both singers pushing the tempo, John strumming four-to-the-bar and Karn laying down two choruses of calm before Russell and John roared home together. Back and forth the vocalists went, almost in medley style, for the next five songs. Pizzarelli’s best in this cluster was his lithe and nonchalant account of “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” which nearly stood up to the Russell gem that preceded it. Evoking Billie’s 1952 session recorded for Verve, Russell’s “Everything I Have Is Yours” was suffused with sufficient ache to have me in tears.

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Yes, this was truly a taste of what Billie was all about. More treats were in store as Russell and Pizzarelli hooked up on one last burner, “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” which Catherine refrained from kicking into high gear until midway through the opening chorus. John’s scat vocal then led a barrage of single choruses by his trio, and the guitarist comped furiously under Russell’s outchorus. The most exquisitely soulful moment followed as Pizzarelli duetted with Russell on “God Bless the Child,” tucking a pensive instrumental between the diva’s two vocals.

Both sets at the Morris were sellouts on the night I attended. With good reason. SMF knew what they were doing when they brought them back for another pair the following night.

MOZART REQUIEM Clashes With Sunny Salieri Symphony

Review: Charlotte Symphony “Mozart and Salieri”

By Perry Tannenbaum

It’s been 40 years since Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus vilified, ridiculed, defamed, and demonized Mozart’s less-gifted contemporary, Antonio Salieri, presenting the prolific composer and conductor as Wolfgang’s fiendish murderer. Shaffer wasn’t the first to riff on this unfounded smear, for the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin peddled it in Mozart and Salieri, his 1830 verse play.

Although he omitted his villain’s name from his title, Shaffer has proven equally bountiful to both composers, humanizing Mozart and bringing fresh life to Salieri’s name. Ian McKellan won a Tony Award as Salieri in the 1980 Broadway production and F. Murray Abraham repeated the triumph in the 1984 Miloš Forman film, winning the Oscar over Tom Hulce, who was a runner-up playing the title role.

So it’s altogether fitting that Salieri’s 1775 Symphony in D “Il giorno onamstico,” likely marking the Italian’s Belk Theater and Charlotte Symphony debuts, should be in the shadow of Mozart’s Requiem. During the composition of this work, which remained unfinished at his death, it was Mozart who first voiced the suspicion that he was being poisoned and that his mysteriously commissioned Requiem was diabolically planned for his own funeral.

Mozart later scoffed at his own poisoning paranoia, and the Requiem wasn’t premiered until late 1793, two years after his death, completed by his student, Franz Xaver Süssmyer. But the baseless murder accusation affixed itself to Salieri. And why not take advantage of Shaffer’s preposterous mythologizing if it draws more people to the music? Symphony was only too glad to borrow the indelible Amadeus poster art for this concert’s prepublicity. “Poor Salieri!” said Charlotte Symphony music director Christopher Warren-Green, upon picking up a hand mic to introduce Antonio’s piece.

That was after a reprise of Nkeiru Okoye’s “Charlotte Mecklenburg,” which received its world premiere last September, kicking off the current season. The encore was triply justified: the piece was originally performed one night only at a special opening night gala and not part of the season’s subscription, we’re still celebrating the 250th anniversary of the city’s incorporation, and the piece – commissioned by Symphony – is non-threatening to traditionalists and worth a second hearing.

It was easier for me to ascertain on my second go-round that the opening theme, very much in the Aaron Copland manner of evoking Appalachia and the American heartland, was something that Okoye would circle back to near the end of her historical portrait. What came in between statements of her “Queen City Hymn” was more daring and original. There was urban bustle and cacophony mixed with a mountain lilt, snatches of a Scottish fiddle tune and a post-Civil War protest song, and an unexpected glance southward.

A brief marimba concerto popped up, then a muted trumpet and a cool samba beat. Okoye’s objective of portraying the city’s multiethnicity was more successfully reached than her objective of depicting our racial tensions. The codetta, beautifully played by harpist Andrea Mumm Trammell, expressed hopes for the future residing in the innocence of our children. Or that was Okoye’s stated intent. For an affirmation, it was notably faint.

Not at all saturnine like Salieri’s stage and screen image, his Symphony in D was sunny and cheerful from the outset, the opening Allegro launched with a lively flourish of horns and winds. Both of the middle movements offered opportunities for principal bassoonist Olivia Oh. The charming Larghetto remained summery in spite of its weepy violins, and the Minuet alternated attractively between mellow and anthemic themes. Warren-Green vigorously pushed the pace of the closing Allegretto, lightly carried forward by the strings when the winds weren’t adding body and zest.

When the entire orchestra joined together toward the end of “The Name Day,” the music briefly grew joyous and grand. It was almost as if Salieri was apologizing for this outburst when the strings alone crept around stealthily in staccato phrases, but the whole orchestra came back for a crisp, good-humored finish.

Warren-Green’s programming effectively flipped the Hulce-Abraham characters we remember from Hollywood’s Amadeus, assigning all the frivolity to Salieri, but he didn’t mess with the awesome impression of Mozart’s Requiem that lingers after we have seen the film. Unlike some of the Mozart performances we’ve seen before from Warren-Green and his predecessor, Christof Perick, a robust assembly of musicians, guest soloists, and the Charlotte Symphony Chorus filled the Belk stage.

If the occasionally fierce reading that emerged from this formidable congress didn’t totally accord with Mozart’s accepting intentions, there was no doubting its power. The “Dies irae” rang out impressively, taut with terror, and the “Tuba mirum” was a fine spotlight for all four guest vocalists, particularly bass Adam Lau, smoothly accompanied by principal trombonist John Bartlett before giving way to tenor Isaiah Bell. Having already distinguished herself in the soprano section of the opening “Requiem aeternum” segment with the Chorus, Margot Rood floated in gracefully over mezzo Sofia Selowsky toward the end of the “Tuba.”

Overshadowed here somewhat, Selowsky had better opportunities further along in the mass, leading off the “Recordare” and “Benedictus” sections when all the solo vocalists stood up again. Still it was Rood who shone brightest, drawing the opening moments of the concluding “Lux aeterna” and sprinkling her loveliness all over before the music grew grander and fugal with the full ensemble joining in.

The orchestra made its presence known most emphatically when the brass and timpani underscored the most dramatic choral moments. Aside from the whiplash “Dies irae,” there was ringing majesty at the start of the “Rex tremendae” that contrasted affectingly with the hushed women when we reached the “salve me” pleas. Symphony Chorus showed more finesse in the “Lacrimosa,” beginning softly over the orchestra’s keening strings, with some satisfying crescendos preceding the satisfying “Amen.”

Warren-Green and chorus director Kenney Potter may have been thinking more of Buckingham Palace than a church when they prepared Symphony Chorus for the climactic “Sanctus.” Both the orchestra and the choir suffused the repeated holies with a pomp and fervor of “God Save the Queen” proportions. Or maybe they had Westminster Abbey in mind. Warren-Green has played that joint as well.

Butchering a Tearjerker

Review: Terms of Endearment

By Perry Tannenbaum 

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In spite of its Academy Awards and critical acclaim, I’ve never much wanted to see Terms of Endearment. Reading the old Roger Ebert review of the film does a far better job of changing my mind than the current stage adaptation at Theatre Charlotte, I can say that. My working theory on tearjerkers is that I already know it’s sad when good people die young, sad that people allow petty differences to stand in the way of enjoying one another, and that sorrows and pointless conflicts are redeemed by moments – too few moments – of sweetness and laughter. Watching the 129-minute Hollywood version of these self-evident truths still doesn’t entice me.

The stage adaptation by Dan Gordon trims James L. Brooks’ 1983 screenplay, based on the novel by Larry McMurtry, to a mere 108 minutes at the Queens Road barn. No doubt some butchery was involved, for I can’t find serious fault with Chris Timmons’ cheery and versatile scenic design, Mitzi Corrigan’s direction, or the efforts of her cast. Can’t find the characters played by John Lithgow or Danny DeVito, either. Maybe McMurtry and Brooks were better judges of their worth.

Gordon starts with a scene so cinematically short that I couldn’t see its connection with the rest of the story. It’s useful for you to notice that the newborn Aurora Greenway is screaming at in the cradle is Emma. The next time we see Emma onstage, she’s being played by Gabriela Celecia and she’s at least 20 years older. Cynthia Farbman Harris as Aurora cannot age so radically so quickly, helping me to miss the passage of two decades. What Harris can do very well is retain Aurora’s imperious prissiness, her total self-absorption, and her industrial-strength vanity.

These are wonderful traits for Celecia to play against as the normal wife and mother of three who hopscotches from one Midwestern locale to another with Flap, her college teaching husband. Suffering the slings and arrows of Aurora’s patrician superiority, Maxwell Greger makes good on his scant chances to fire back. He’s also an effective Middle America edition of Don Juan. If James Dean ever became so humdrum that his utmost rebellion against propriety were sneaking kisses with one of his students, that Dean would look very much like Greger’s Flap.

But the juiciest pushback against Aurora’s dominion comes from Garrett Breedlove, a former astronaut whose ego outstrips his fading celebrity. He’s as open about his profligate ways as Flap is furtive and delights in offending Aurora’s elegance with his vulgarity. Why not? He still has the goods in the sack. Kicking, screaming, and sputtering, Aurora is putty in his hands.

In an auspicious Theatre Charlotte debut, Vince Raye mixes charisma and conceit into this aging moonwalker – with a chunk of tenderness that took me by surprise. At his most impressive, Raye took up Garrett’s revelation that he still boasted friends in high places. If not, he certainly showed he could bluff a weak poker hand at a championship level.

By the time this happened, the drama had seemingly dragged on for seven hours, Emma had been diagnosed with Stage 7 cancer, and the only chance she had at survival was to be admitted to a special clinical trial that was already closed to new applicants. Only Dr. Maise, the head of the hospital could make that happen, and Maise had no intention of being cowed by a mere astronaut with VIP connections.

To guard the gates against Emma’s last chance, Corrigan chose the formidable Tim Huffman, who has chewed and spit out scenery as Capt. Slank in Peter and the Starcatcher and as the thunderous Deputy Governor Danforth in The Crucible. This was quite a heavyweight confrontation, Raye’s celebrity cool as Breedlove pitted against Huffman’s towering dignity as Maise. I’m not sure which delighted me more, watching Raye coolly assailing Dr. Maise with Breedlove’s vicious threats or Huffman’s trembling capitulation.

Ah, but after that clash, the very sweet and likable Celecia had miles to go before Emma slept. Farbman had to absorb additional rebuffs and regrets as Aurora and learn additional lessons before she grieved. Let it be noted that costume designer Chelsea Retalic dresses Farbman beautifully during all her changes. When Breedlove leers at her, it is not for naught. There are also lighter moments between Aurora and Emma that allow Farbman respites from her hauteur and Celecia respites from her wholesome bland forbearance. Maybe three of them.

Facing Your Fears in a Haunted Basement

Review: The Ghost of Splinter Cove

By  Perry Tannenbaum

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There’s a glint of magic as the adventure begins in Children’s Theatre of Charlotte’s production of The Ghost of Splinter Cove that you’ll only appreciate if you’ve already seen playwright Steven Dietz’s companion piece, The Great Beyond, in the world premiere Actor’s Theatre production at Queens University. What’s going down? Make that who, for Nate Banks and his sister Cora, on their first night at their late grandfather’s house, have been sent downstairs into the basement to spend the night.

Yet their parents are far from callous. With the camping gear that their dad bought Nate for his birthday, they will break in his new tent – with a dome! – while their parents get their “adult time” upstairs. Nor has Rex, their dad, been lazy. To liven up their adventure, and to make up for canceling an outdoor expedition, Dad has downloaded a nifty smartphone app that will help simulate a true wilderness experience. Rex has troubled to hook the app up to loudspeakers, lights, and even a fan, so a starry night and stormy weather are both on the horizon after sundown.

But wait, there’s a holdup during the setup. Sydney, the daughter of Aunt Emily’s partner, Rene, asks Nate if he has chosen the destination for their wilderness adventure. Nate is dumbfounded until Sydney explains that she has the latest version of the same wilderness-simulating app, and it offers that cool option. Nate will need to take the time to download the update.

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Now here’s where the magic happens. Once the Sim-Camp app is downloaded to Sydney’s phone and all the necessary Bluetooth connections are made, the most advanced Deep Wilderness option it presents – past the “Peppermint” and “Sunset Trail” baby options – is Splinter Cove. None of the kids has ever heard of the place, but if you’ve already seen what unfolds upstairs in Great Beyond, you will not have forgotten how important Splinter Cove is in the family history. It’s the place where Dad wants to bury Granddad’s ashes, for one thing.

Pure coincidence? “Hey, it’s selected already,” Nate observes as soon as he sees the most advanced options. When we hear him saying “Splinter Cove” for the first time, it triggers the loudspeakers.

Long before this, however, a foreboding sense of dread hovers over the overnight adventure. There’s a fourth person in the basement, J, that both Nate and Cora imagine they can see. This imaginary friend doesn’t look anything like what the siblings imagine, he’s always in a different spot from where they point, and he’d rather talk to us than either of them.

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There’s a comical aspect to the kids’ misperceptions, of course, but J is not the clownish comedian that Nate imagines. So who and what is he? Why has he been in the kids’ lives for as long as they can remember, and what are his intentions now?

Finding out will be part of the adventure, to be sure, and you can bet that Dietz has built plenty of suspense into the action leading up to that revelation. Among the works I’ve seen over the past 32 years of covering Children’s Theatre productions, only The Wizard of Oz, The Hobbit, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe were scarier, which makes Splinter Cove the scariest original children’s play I’ve ever read or seen.

It could be scarier at the Wells Fargo Playhouse if director Courtney Sale had put the pedal to the metal on all the jolts of surprise and terror that Dietz has sprinkled into his exemplary script. And it could be more spectacular if all the technical capabilities of ImaginOn’s larger theater, the McColl Family Theater, were marshaled to the cause.

While I felt Sale had been too cautious about crossing the fright threshold, my mom wondered if this show might be too intense for 8-year-olds after viewing Cove with me. So this is far from a punchless production, though our friend Carol opined that she also was disappointed in the fright factor after seeing Great Beyond earlier in the week.

Dietz’s craftsmanship certainly shines through, all the more brightly if you see both plays in this unprecedented Second Story Project. You don’t simply have adults upstairs and kids downstairs. Dietz makes sure we see a family at both ends of the staircase, with traits that align across the generations.

Like her mom, who resists the idea of holding a séance upstairs, Cora is anything but gung-ho about the camping trip, letting out a stream of sarcasm that parallels Mom’s resistance. Nate not only embraces his dad’s camping idea, he expands upon his resourcefulness, adding a campfire and a moon to the experience.

You’ll readily recognize moments that must occur in both plays, when Rex calls down from the top of the stairs and the kids respond, but I’ve discovered another one that isn’t so obvious. When Sydney asks the time, Nate responds, “Dad would say: ‘Straight-up six o’clock’” – while Dad is saying those exact words to Aunt Emily.

There are amusing misalignments as well. Cora is contemptuous of the prospect of joining hands and saying something enthusiastic before embarking on their wilderness adventure, yet her mom, Monica, does a little pinky-square ceremony with Rene, Sydney’s mom, shortly after they meet for the first time. Upstairs, with Rene presiding, they will dim the lights and light candles for a spooky séance, so it’s apt – if not particularly healthy – that her daughter is afraid of the dark.

Telling you what happens on the Splinter Cove camping adventure would be spewing spoilers for two Dietz dramas at once. It’s more prudent to point out that the playwright follows a tried-and-true storytelling formula by having Sydney face and overcome her fear in the heat of her adventure. Following the Wizard of Oz template, Dietz does this in triplicate, for Nate is afraid of deep water despite his swimming lessons and, again like her mom, Cora has serious trust issues.

Sale’s all-adult cast is marvelous, even if she doesn’t allow them to be as frightening as they could be. Chester Shepherd, whose electrifying high-strung performance in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time will be long remembered, is hamstrung as Nate by Sale’s trepidations, scurrying around in terror as if he were doing one of the comical minor roles in Disney’s The Lion King. Notwithstanding how excellently it is done, that shtick dampens a moment when the fear factor should be dialed way up. You always believe Shepherd is a child, though, and his eagerness for the adventure fuels momentum from the start. Thrown by the adventure into the deep water, his terror is more human but still homogenized.

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Carman Myrick seems to enjoy freer rein conveying Cora’s doubts and fears, for Dietz is demonstrating in both of his plays how much more readily we believe when our heroes face strong and nasty skepticism. Cora is the heavy, no doubt, but only intermittently like her mom, and I loved how thoroughly the magic of “Splinter Cove” worked on Myrick from the first time it was said out loud. On a relatively spare Anita Tripathi set design, Myrick makes her climactic climb and discovery compelling, and her achievement of trust becomes a dramatic watershed moment in more ways than one.

Coming off her stint, just last month at ImaginOn, as the pesky would-be girlfriend in Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, Kayla Simone Ferguson doesn’t get to be cute or obnoxious this time around. The physical resemblance between Ferguson and Tania Kelly, the actor playing Sydney’s mom, is pronounced, but the personality parallels aren’t as obvious as the Banks kids’ with their parents. You could say that Rene is the spiritual guide and her daughter is the phone app guru, but the more lasting kinship is their calm and impartiality reacting to the sibling squabbles going on upstairs and downstairs.

Ferguson understands that she’s to be the sounding board for Nate and Cora to tell her (and us) all the important things they already know about each other. Meeting strangers in a strange house – “Wait – I’m spending the night?” – gives her license to be a little forlorn and pathetic. Most importantly perhaps, in confessing her fear of the dark, Sydney brings the squabbling sibs together in sympathy and starts the conversation going about each one’s greatest fear. Facing and overcoming these are the core of the adventure from a classic theatre-for-young-audiences perspective.

Bemused detachment typifies J as he slinks unseen among the children, along with a light sprinkling of menace – a bit heavier when he steals a smartphone from one of the kids’ backpacks. Sooooo shrewd of Sale to cast Arjun Pande in this intriguing role. He doesn’t immediately tell us he’s an adult, but with his low voice, he contrasts with Shepherd, whose sound and energy mark him as a kid. Pande also towers over all his castmates, so even those 8-year-olds in the audience who are braving this thriller will likely realize he’s the adult in the basement before he actually lets on.

If Pande isn’t quite as sardonic as he could be ridiculing the siblings’ basic misperceptions, he has the strong quiet confidence of an enigma waiting to be discovered, presciently knowing that this is the night when he will be. It’s a magical, magisterial role that Pande inhabits almost nonchalantly. Quiet confidence is more than justified, for even after everyone has vanished, J will remain a dizzying enigma.

One last wonder is how Dietz packs so much into the 53 minutes of Splinter Cove, only slightly slowed down by the two mind-blowing set changes. For that matter, what Dietz packs into less than 80 minutes in The Great Beyond is an equal marvel. Perhaps one day, a single theatre company will produce both Beyond and Cove on the same stage on the same night, and perhaps that’s what Dietz had in mind when he put the finishing touches on his Second Story Project.

Maybe then Dietz will decide which play should be seen first! He wrote Splinter Cove first, but my vote goes to seeing it last. And last it definitely will.

A Séance With 200% Certainty

Review: The Great Beyond

By:  Perry Tannenbaum

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When you walk into Hadley Theater on the Queens University campus for the world premiere of Steven Dietz’s The Great Beyond, you’ll be treated to a rare “don’t-think-about-elephants” experience. Even if you haven’t read the prepublicity around town, seen the spots on local TV and the web, or thoroughly perused your playbill, your emissary from Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, artistic director Chip Decker, will call your attention to the elephant in the hall. While Dietz’s spooky new drama can stand on its own, it was written with an interconnected companion piece, The Ghost of Splinter Cove, that is now premiering at ImaginOn in a taut 53-minute Children’s Theatre of Charlotte production.

So once you’ve heard that, can you really be satisfied seeing The Great Beyond without going to see Dietz’s companion piece? Probably not.

If you’ve somehow failed to pay attention to the prepublicity, the playbill, and the curtain speech, all of them telling you that the action of Splinter Cove is happening downstairs in the basement of the same house at the same time in the same family as the action we’re seeing upstairs, the parents upstairs will remind you frequently enough of the strange adventure their kids are having below.

More than that, thanks to Evan Kinsley’s scenic design, which offers us a smidge of the home’s exterior, we get glimpses of the basement action through translucent windows that peep above ground. So it isn’t just a matter of Rex, the dad, opening the door to the basement and checking up on how his kids are doing – with prerecorded replies. No, no, no. Beginning with camping gear that he bought for his son Nate’s birthday, Rex has sent them on a wilderness adventure, with a smartphone app hooked up to the home’s electronics simulating the sounds, the natural lights, and the weather of the great outdoors.

At unexpected moments, then, the handiwork of lighting designer Hallie Gray and sound designer Rob Witmer captures our attention – and whets the curiosity of the three women who have gathered with Rex for an adventure of their own. The historic collaboration between two theatre companies is called “The Second Story Project,” but it’s at Queens U that we see why.

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Dietz has said that The Great Beyond is a reunion play, and it certainly follows a template we’ve seen before, bringing far-flung and estranged kinfolk together, comically or dramatically uncomfortable with each other, after a death in the family. Here Rex has brought his two kids to the home of his former father-in-law, where his distraught ex, Monica, served as caretaker during Tobias’ last difficult days. Relations between Rex and Monica seem cordial enough, though she isn’t a big fan of his elaborate camping scheme for their children – since it brings unpleasant family history to mind.

It’s also obvious that Rex retains a genuine affection for Tobias, whom he calls The Captain like everybody else in the family. The real family strife will rev up when Monica’s wayward younger sister Emily arrives. Or actually, it begins before, because the rigid and judgmental Monica has labelled Emily as a chronic latecomer – on the basis of one past incident – so hostilities can begin as soon as Emily arrives. On time, of course.

Not that Emily is flawless. A recovering alcoholic who now limits herself to one full glass of wine at the same time every day, Emily has made Dad’s home the last stop on an epic apology tour, launched five years ago when she achieved sobriety, spanning 23 states and two foreign countries. A straight arrow and a black sheep, the bread-and-butter combatants of countless theatre clashes are poised to have it out! But unlike Sordid Lives or Appropriate, two of the funeral-triggered plays we’ve seen before in Charlotte, the dead Tobias will also be invited to the reunion.

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You see, Emily is bringing her bisexual partner Rene to this sad reunion, hoping to summon up the spirit of Tobias at a séance later in the evening. It’s Tobias, not Monica, that Emily has really earmarked for receiving her last apology, and she thinks that Rene, a spiritual medium, can make contact and make it happen.

As if the friction between Monica and Emily weren’t torrid enough already! Now they need the scornful, skeptical, and sarcastic Monica to complete the circle around the séance table. Outnumbered three to one in this tussle – and somewhat pre-empted by Dietz’s two play titles – you can guess how Monica’s opposition to the séance turns out. As for whether Tobias shows up, I can safely defer to Dietz himself, who was present at the post-performance powwow on opening night. He told us that one of chief pleasures he found in telling this story came in conveying his 100% positive conviction that the supernatural visitations at séances are absolutely bogus and his 100% certainty that those visitations are absolutely real.

Whatever you may think of the action around the table, you can’t deny that Dietz has made intensive efforts to sustain our ambivalence, giving us numerous reasons to believe that the house Tobias built with his own hands is in the grip of the supernatural – countered by an equal number of escape routes to disbelief. But to his credit, Dietz leaves us with a giddy sense of confusion rather than a rational set of alternatives as we attempt to arrive at the truth now – and the truth about the tragedy that has haunted the family for nearly 40 years – teasing us out of thought.

That giddy confusion will be compounded when you factor the climax of Splinter Cove into your calculations. If you go to Hadley with somebody – whether an adult or a child – you can expect that conversation on your way home will be peppered with lively clarifications and disputes.

Decker certainly holds up his end of Actor’s Theatre’s historic collaboration with Children’s Theatre. Rather than missing core elements of the script that I’d seen when I read it (a fundamental reason I customarily avoid reading scripts I’m scheduled to review unless I’m planning to interview a playwright before seeing the production), Decker and his superb cast managed to bring Dietz’s drama more intensely to life and reveal the power – and comedy – of a couple of moments that I’d overlooked. Didn’t hurt that Dietz was here in Charlotte, tweaking both of his scripts during the process.

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All of these roles are beautifully rounded, so it wasn’t surprising to see the keen relish that the players took in them. It would be hard to overpraise Tonya Bludsworth’s work as Monica, the meanie who has worked so devotedly and so selfishly to be The Captain’s favorite. Bludsworth brings out the humor and the sharpness of Monica’s mocking sarcasm, turns it off when she realizes she’s wrong, has moments of self-awareness, and is delightful in so many different ways during the séance she has so grudgingly agreed to. There’s a bit of swagger to her, for all of her starchiness.

Robin Tynes-Miller mixes Emily’s feelings of resentment and remorse to perfection and turns them up high. Her wrenching efforts toward reformation make Bludsworth’s cynicism and rejection all the meaner. Tynes also hones in on just how thin-skinned and childish Emily remains as the younger sib, allowing Bludsworth the delight of intentionally provoking her, elevating Monica’s wickedness at times to villainy. For all her weakness, it is Emily who powers the story forward when her determination is steeled, yet Tynes makes her lapses likable, so we’re still rooting for her when Rene and Rex must rally behind her cause.

Dietz has Rene doing a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to coaxing Monica to the table – and an even greater share of the calming and reassuring that Emily needs when her frustrations with her recalcitrant sister get the better of her. Tania Kelly does it all with a confident authority, belying Monica’s presumptions of what a medium should be. Not a dreamcatcher earring in sight, and no Whoopi Goldberg kookiness.

As patient and sure as she is at the séance table, unruffled by Monica’s taunts, Rene also takes it upon herself – without any desperate urgency – to rectify Monica’s obsolete assessment of Emily’s character. Rene is the mother of Sydney, the third child downstairs at play with Nate and Cora, and Kelly dials in the right amount of parental concern and trust in Rex. Most of all, when the doors and windows are unlocked, the candles lit, and the incantations begin, Kelly makes us believe that Rene is in earnest and something amazing could happen.

Rex is the glue that binds Dietz’s plays most firmly together, and Scott Tynes-Miller beautifully captures his strength, his self-deprecation, and his insouciance. For the most part, Rex’s role is as a peacemaker in the siblings’ brawls, the steadying force that Monica realizes she was foolish to discard. Miller not only gets the last of the play’s four monologues, addressed directly to us, he also demonstrates to closest bond to Tobias, briefly recalling how The Captain taught him to be a man. Turns out to be a surprisingly important plot point. There’s a nice through-line that Miller finds in Rex, for he has a firm and quiet purposefulness, and like Emily, arrives with a mission. That turns out to be yet another way that he binds Dietz’s magical plays together.

There’s much more to the story of The Great Beyond than I’ve disclosed here – with surprises stirred in that are calculated to startle and astound. Much of this story is expanded upon and illuminated in The Ghost of Splinter Cove. So your intuition to see the companion piece will not lead you astray.

Imaginary Cyber Friends

Review: Dear Evan Hansen

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Playing to a Broadway house that barely packs in a thousand patrons, using no more than eight actors and eight musicians each night, with scant choreography and no glitz, Dear Evan Hansen isn’t going to fit most theatergoing definitions of a big Broadway musical, six Tony Awards or not. Yet big it is, for Steven Levenson’s book traverses multiple issues that absorb us these days, including bullying, the effects of social media, teen suicide, and single-mom parenting. Just as rare, music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul frequently rise to the level of the emotions roiling inside Levenson’s characters, actually enhancing the drama on a couple of occasions.

Evan is a mess when we first meet him at Belk Theater, where seating capacity for the touring production is extended beyond the usual 2100-seat capacity with the musicians perched up above the action. Mothered by an anxious single mom who holds down a day job and goes to school at night, Evan is an even tighter tangle of anxiety. He dreads returning for his senior year in high school, afraid of the daily interaction with other people, tongue-tied with nearly everybody – especially Zoe Murphy, the girl of his dreams.

Zoe’s big stoned brother, Connor, bullies Evan on at least two occasions. On their first day back at school, Connor knocks Evan to the ground when he thinks our hero is laughing at him. That paranoia carries over to their next encounter at the computer lab, where Connor retrieves the “Dear Evan Hansen” letter that Evan has written as an assignment from his therapist, supposedly a daily pep-talk to himself. Thinking this is more mockery from Evan, Connor refuses to return the letter, which contains suicidal thoughts and Evan’s desperate yearnings toward Zoe. In a further act of aggression, when Evan awkwardly asks him to sign the cast on his healing broken arm, Connor takes a Sharpie and scrawls his first name – in big capital letters – across the full length of the cast.

So a whole host of ironies and misconceptions will explode when Connor commits suicide, and his parents, finding Evan’s letter in one of his pockets, mistake it for their son’s suicide note – addressed to his best friend. The big black letters that Connor had signed onto Evan’s cast, originally a nasty symptom of bullying, become a testament to their friendship, writ large. Tongue-tied as usual, Evan can’t shoot down the Murphys’ delusion that he can provide them with insights into the son they never really knew. In yielding, he finds that he can provide some therapy to others.

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If he can keep a steady flow of palliating information to the Murphys, Evan feels that he can help them in their grieving process. And establish a closer connection with Zoe, whose memories of Connor are even more unsavory than his.

In varying ways, then, the Murphys have unwittingly conspired in giving Evan an imaginary friend. With the help of Jared, who keeps reminding him that he’s more a relative than a friend, Evan can spin a backdated email correspondence with Connor filled with new feelings and faux memories. With the help – and intrusion – of Alana, a pesky busybody who seems attracted to him, Evan can establish a “Connor Project” tribute, a memorial website, and after he surprises himself by addressing a school assembly, a viral #YouWillBeFound hashtag when video of the speech lands on YouTube.

Taking the old imaginary friend concept to a whole new cyber level, Evan and Alana, co-presidents of The Connor Project, launch a GoFundMe initiative to restore the apple orchard where Evan and Connor fictitiously met. Adding new dimensions to the idea of an imaginary friend piles on new challenges and stresses for Evan. Some of these, of course, help him to mature and develop self-confidence. He’s speaking to an entire student body after starting out the year cowering in fear of interacting with just one of them.

Alone in his room at moments of highest stress, Evan turns to… an imaginary friend. Ironically, it’s Connor, who did nothing but torment him in real life. Connor’s posthumous transformation is now complete – in his family’s eyes, for Evan, and for thousands of followers at school and online.

Chiefly, Evan is stressed over all the lies he’s been telling Zoe and her parents, but he’s also been deceiving his mom – while coping with the sudden celebrity the whole #YouWillBeFound phenomenon has brought him.

Here is where the chamber size of the Dear Evan Hansen fails the potential magnitude of Levenson’s vision. Where are all the high school peers that Evan feels himself lost in, fears talking to – peers who might adoringly add to Zoe’s unattainable aura and desirability? Where are the admiring classmates who ratify Evan’s newfound relevance and fortify Zoe’s inclinations to give him a serious second look?

Basically, they’re projected onto the scrims and screens of David Korins’ high-tech set design, perpetually scrolling as social media feeds behind Evan’s bedroom, multiple rooms at the Murphy home, and various locations at school. It’s a cool alternative to populating the stage with energetic dancing teens but sometimes a cold one, especially in a space as large as the Belk.

What sweeps us past these limitations is how intently we become involved with both the Hansens and the Murphys. Anxiety, social inadequacy, and teen suicide are big things to cope with up close, and Dear Evan Hansen brings us there. Ben Levi Ross captures all the awkwardness, insecurity, and fearful caution that Levenson has written into Evan’s outward self, and he has the star-quality voice for the Pasek/Paul songs that reveal the inner self wishing to break free.

Marrick Smith doesn’t play up the suicidal kindred spirit of Connor as much as the sullen, domineering loner. In his imaginary friend afterlife, he becomes the tough-love antithesis of the “Dear Evan” pep talks endorsed by Evan’s therapist, a longhaired renegade forever. By contrast, Connor’s parents are wholesomely flawed. Aaron Lazar as the dad appears to have detached from Connor’s upbringing and to have given up on him, but when Evan encounters him in his workshop – and afterward at a powwow between Hansen and Murphy families – we realize that he had plenty he wanted to give.

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As “Anybody Have a Map?” her opening crosstown duet with Evan’s mom makes clear, Christine Noll as Cynthia Murphy is as clueless about how to cope with a teenage boy as Heidi Hansen is. But as a full-time suburban housewife, she has more free time to flit from one New Age fad to another, salving if nor solving her problem. Cynthia has the deepest need – and gratitude – for Evan’s cyber fables and projects.

Comes with the territory, Levenson tells us. Mom’s credulity and stubborn belief in Connor has strained her relationship with Zoe when we first see them coping together. Maggie McKenna struggled to untangle the enigma of Zoe on opening night, more so because her vocal on “Requiem” was the least intelligible in her family. There was a nicely calibrated combo of empathy, skepticism, and need as her familiarity with Evan grew, and the climactic “Only Us” love duet had an honest and intimate sizzle.

Ultimately, Jessica Phillips as Evan’s overextended, trying-so-hard mom stole the show from everybody except Ross. There’s a wonderful one-two punch before things reach a final resting point, with a wrenching “Words Fail” confessional from Evan following shortly after the unexpectedly turbulent meeting between the Hansens and the Murphys. Heidi had already stirred things up at the Murphys, but it was in her “So Big/So Small” testimonial that Phillips was absolutely devastating – at first narrative, then apologetic, before finally arriving at a stunning affirmation.

As an actor, there are moments when you might dread having to weep onstage, on cue, night after night. With “So Big/So Small,” I’d imagine that the performer has the opposite worry: getting too deep into this mom in this song could lead you to an emotional corner where you’re sobbing uncontrollably. When she finishes, we’re fairly convinced that a chunk of this show has been about her.

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For all its intense intimacy, the Pasek/Paul score also boasts some concentrated magnitude, since the musical tandem packages two anthems that get reprised. Climaxing Act 1, “You Will Be Found” seizes our attention, with the whole company joining Evan as his assembly speech goes viral, augmented by pointedly anonymous prerecorded spoken blather as the YouTube sensation takes hold. Even the relentlessly scrolling background projections suddenly crystallize into relevancy.

But don’t overlook Evan’s “For Forever” fantasy as you settle in to the story. This dreamy “two friends on a perfect day” idyll gradually ascends and soars, prefiguring the apple orchard fable Evan will devise to placate the Murphys – and echoing the lie he’s been telling about how he broke his arm. We don’t hear the backup voices for this anthem until it reprises briefly in the “Finale,” when all Evan’s hidden truths have been revealed. You may not immediately see all the reasons why the final scene is set where it is, but there’s a little bit of technical derring-do to announce that we’ve arrived.

There’s as much craftsmanship in Dear Evan Hansen as there is honesty, and that’s saying a lot.

Christopher Warren-Green Expands Symphony’s “Titan” Concert to Rousing Effect

Review: Charlotte Symphony’s Mahler 1

By Perry Tannenbaum

When Charlotte Symphony’s season announcements and brochures were issued last July, Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 “The Titan” stood alone on the program for their concert coinciding with semifinals of the ACC basketball tournament at the nearby Spectrum Center. Whether there were second thoughts on the length of that program or worries about automobile traffic inconveniencing concertgoers, two additional works – and an intermission – were added to the evening. Mahler’s Symphonic Movement: Blumine seemed a natural add-on, since it was part of an earlier draft of the symphony, which premiered in 1889 as a five-movement piece titled “Symphonic Poem in Two Parts.”

Adding a piece by Strauss wouldn’t appear much less apt – if it were Richard Strauss, not quite four years younger than Mahler and very much his contemporary. But Johann Strauss, Jr., the renowned “Waltz King”? Picking up a microphone as soon as he appeared onstage at Belk Theater, music director Christopher Warren-Green immediately cleared things up. Far from a grotesque contrast, parts of Strauss II’s Emperor Waltzes were actually echoed in the second movement of “The Titan.” And since Blumine was the second movement in the original “Symphonic Poem” before Mahler excised it, the whole grouping had an elegant logic to it.

Implicit in Warren-Green’s intro were dual assignments – with dual effects. We were subtly being asked to catalogue the musical and melodic content of the Emperor Waltzes and retain our findings until after intermission. Then we were to identify an undisclosed fragment of what we had heard when it was echoed in “The Titan.” Listeners were thus encouraged to take Strauss’s work a little more seriously in searching for enduring substance and to realize that Mahler’s music, with its fun-loving Viennese influences, wasn’t as ponderous and forbidding as they might have believed. Whether such attitude adjustments actually factored into the audience’s enthusiasm for the performances, they certainly sounded like fruitful approaches for the musicians to take as they played.

Unburdened of the worry that they were tossing off light fare, the orchestra played the Emperor Waltzes with infectious zest. Principal percussionist Brice Burton’s snare drum caught my attention first, before the woodwinds announced the idiomatic Strauss sound. Principal cellist Alan Black and principal timpanist Ariel Zaviezo kindled our anticipation as the most familiar of the melodies drew near. Weighted toward the trombones, the brass episode was impressive, and as the piece climaxed, four percussionists were on their feet, as cymbals and a bass drum joined the fray.

Logical choice or not, Blumine was a fairly odd piece to send us off to intermission with, for it conformed to the relative quietude we expect of second movements in large orchestral works. Surprisingly, this andante sounded nothing like the sort of derivative apprentice work you might expect a major composer to discard upon mature reflection. As performed by Warren-Green and his players, Blumine had some of the ethereal flavor we might associate with Mahler’s middle symphonies, especially at the end of the piece, where the playing of the strings, lightly tinged with Andrea Mumm Trammell’s harp, was quite exquisite. Yet it was principal trumpeter Alex Wilborn who made the deepest imprint on the performance, playing his serenading episodes with a mellow and magnificent softness. Principals Victor Wang on flute and Taylor Marino on clarinet had gleaming moments of their own, but principal Hollis Ulaky drew the best solo wind passages and played them flawlessly on her oboe.

None of the recordings of “The Titan” that I looked up reach the length of a full hour except for that of Seiji Ozawa with the Boston Symphony, who just ekes past the 60-minute mark after restoring Blumine as his second movement. So I heartily endorse Warren-Green’s decision to fortify and vary the originally-announced program with judiciously selected appetizers, but you just needed to look at the Belk Theater stage to see that “The Titan” was the evening’s main dish. At the outset of the “Langsam” (Slow) portion of the opening movement, a phalanx of eight French hornists was seated in front of the battery of percussion, which included two sets of timpani drums.

More brass lurked offstage. After softly churning strings, reminiscent of Wagner’s famed evocation of the Rhine River, played under mournful woodwinds – with just a glint of piccolo – a trio of distant trumpets was heard, triggering a response from the horns. Then as the trumpeters entered from offstage, the cellos steered us toward echoes of Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony,” bringing us the springtime awakening of nature promised in Mahler’s 1893 program notes. When the winds reached their bright, full-throated twittering, the season burst into blossom. But with solo spots from Wang’s flute, Marino’s clarinet, a soft tattoo on the bass drum, and more fine section work from the French horns, there was ample space for reflection afterwards.

Echoes of Strauss II were readily apparent in the “Kräftig bewegt” (Forceful animated) movement that followed, not subtle at all once we had been alerted to them; and in the trio section that followed, the waltzing spirit of the orchestra became more contagious. After timpani and percussion had engaged, there was a nice simple spotlight for Byron Johns and his French horn. The other middle movement, “Feirlich und gemessen” (Solemn and measured), lost its power to intimidate as soon as the listener realized that the fugal figure was a slowed-down, macabre mutation of the familiar “Frère Jacques” nursery song. Initiating the round, principal Kurt Riecken had the rare opportunity to offer us a sampling of his solo handiwork on the double bass, with oboe and clarinet taking us to higher frequencies. Cellos and violas initiated another round before the clarinets lightened the gloom with a klezmer-like interlude.

Aside from the cresting of the opening movement, there was nothing titanic about “The Titan” until we reached the “Stürmisch bewegt” (Stormy animated) finale. Here is where the double-duty barrage of timpani was detonated, though there also was some finesse from the lyrical violins in the early stages. With the entrance of the trombones, the horns, the woodwinds, and the trumpets, the strings throbbed with more urgency. Increasing the final drama, Mahler circled back to the calm, the distant heraldry, and even some of the vernal twittering of the opening movement, and Warren-Green obviously reveled in quietly setting up his final explosion. The entire phalanx of eight French horns stood up, punctuating the majesty and the showmanship of the climax. Programming Mahler yielded some vacant patches down in the orchestra seats – and a totally empty upper balcony – but the Belk Theater audience responded to “The Titan” with a lusty standing ovation that was as enthusiastic as any I’ve seen there. Ultimately, they bought into the whole “Mahler Lite” concept as completely as the musicians.

 

Upstairs/Downstairs in a Haunted House

Previews: The Great Beyond and The Ghost of Splinter Cove

By Perry Tannenbaum

Great Beyond 1

An old living room card table shaking uncontrollably during a candlelit séance… an unidentified ghost – or two – lurking in the dark basement, where kids are at play… and an 8-year-old child who has been missing for nearly 40 years.

These are some of the chilling elements in two new nail-biting plays hitting the QC. Upstairs with the adults at the séance, the Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte production of The Great Beyond begins previews this Thursday on the Queens University campus, officially premiering next Wednesday. Next Friday at ImaginOn, The Ghost of Splinter Cove takes us downstairs into the basement with three imperiled kids in a world premiere Children’s Theatre of Charlotte production.

Both spooktaculars are by renowned playwright Steven Dietz, who splits most of his time between Seattle and Austin, where he teaches his craft at the U of Texas. Dietz has written and adapted more than 40 plays, and a slew of them have been performed in various theaters across town, including God’s Country, Lonely Planet, Yankee Tavern, and Becky’s New Car (a “Show of the Year” winner in 2010).

But these two newbies would never have been written if Dietz hadn’t gotten on a plane and met with Adam Burke and Chip Decker here in Charlotte.

Burke, the artistic director at Children’s Theatre, and Decker, his counterpart at Actor’s Theatre, had cooked up their concept during a 2015 meetup. Cooperating was feasible between their two companies, but what kind of project would bring audiences together to see the kinship between Decker’s adult theatre and TYA – Burke’s theatre for young audiences?

Decker and Burke both have considerable experience in bringing new plays to their theaters, so it was obvious that their joint project would be a new script. But what if they commissioned two scripts, each one designed to funnel audience from their theater to the other theater while both shows were in production?!

Somehow the two plays and their stories would have to interlock. Yet to encourage rather than force audiences at one company’s theater to also see the other company’s play, each of the two plays would have to stand independently on its own. The concept that would be named The Second Story Project was born – in excited brainstorming interspersed with copious cups of coffee.

When Burke and Decker decided to move forward, there were no funds earmarked for the project, no playwright commissioned to create the scripts, and no parameters detailing how the two stories would interconnect. There was just one dynamite concept that had never been tried before.

“It’s always a leap of faith to do anything, especially something new,” Decker observes. “We just both hit on it, felt it was a good solid idea, and when you feel that way, you have to jump in with both feet and hope there’s a safety net at the bottom.”

Looking back on it, Dietz was a super-obvious choice. Multiple productions of his plays had been presented at Actor’s and Children’s, but Decker and Burke were thinking about advertising in trade publications or soliciting proposals – until the successful run of Dietz’s adaptation of Jackie and Me at ImaginOn turned on the lightbulb in Decker’s skull.

He sums up his realization: “We’re looking for a playwright who has a great voice for theatre for younger audiences and a playwright who has an experienced track record with adult audiences, we’ve both produced Steven Dietz plays, why should we look any further – especially the first time out?”

2019~Splinter Cove Rehearsal-8

Burke had sort of blocked out the idea of looking to an established adult playwright, calculating that the TYA piece would be the higher hurdle.

“I am more confident that someone who can write a great play for young people can write a great play for adults than I am of the reverse,” Burke explains. “So when Chip suggested Steven, I’m like, ‘Ah, yes, of course!’ There are only a handful of people that are moving between the two worlds successfully.”

Dietz was a little wary, wanting to make sure that there wasn’t some special issue or theme that his scripts were expected to address. Getting reassurances of his complete freedom, he warmed to the prospect of such an unprecedented challenge.

“What was so beautiful about the idea was that it was so simple,” Dietz recalls. “The core of the pitch to me was something shared. A shared story, a shared theme – something shared. And in one theater piece, we see it through young people’s eyes, and in the other, we see it through grownups’ eyes. That’s just like Post-it Note simple!”

The playwright was also on Burke’s wavelength with respect to the primacy of the TYA piece. It would be the more difficult piece to write and take more time. So it needed to be written first. Unlike other commissions that Dietz has fulfilled, neither The Ghost of Splinter Cove nor The Great Beyond turned out to be a play he would have written anyway. No barely-started scripts or scribbled scenarios were on his studio shelves waiting for these unique commissions.

Dietz suspected that he would make many false starts on his youth play – and he did. The upstairs/downstairs idea didn’t occur to him immediately, but when it did, it seemed like an elegantly simple way to make his plays interlock. But what kind of full-length play can be staged in a basement?

“I had this little tiny notion,” Dietz reveals. “I had a friend who had his kids try out his camping equipment in their basement once. And of course, that is what’s beautiful about writing for young people: where they go on that camping trip in their imagination is much more dynamic than getting out even on the San Juan Islands, which is near my house. Because it’s in their imaginations, so it can be anywhere.”

Especially when your brand-new camping gear is a birthday gift, you’re in a strange haunted house for the first time in your life… and there’s a smartphone app your dad bought you that makes your whole camping adventure come alive!

So that’s the downstairs core of the Second Story Project. From time to time, Dad calls down from upstairs, making sure the kids are settled in and sending down snacks. The two plays interconnect with those conversations – we only see Dad in The Great Beyond – and there are key props that will be common to both of Dietz’s eerie dramas.

Upstairs, where the séance happens, the parents are having a dinner reunion after a great family loss, and we learn why the kids have never visited this house before. For Dietz, there was a unique benefit in crafting his two new plays as a matched set.

“Writing [Splinter Cove] taught me about those kids’ parents,” Dietz remarks. “In any other play I’ve ever written, they would just be offstage characters. This process doesn’t have offstage characters, really. They have characters onstage at the other theater.”

And they’re not necessarily alive. Bwa-ha-ha!