Monthly Archives: December 2015

Ich Bin ein Beethoven! 

Opera Carolina’s Fidelio Upstages Children’s Theatre’s Creepy Coraline

By Perry Tannenbaum

The advantages for relying on readily recognized plays, novels, myths, or historical events for operatic storylines become quickly apparent in conventional productions of Beethoven’s Fidelio. When the title character appears in a prison courtyard, we already know that the jailer’s young daughter, Marzelline, is dizzily in love with Fidelio, having rejected Jaquino, the jailer’s assistant, as emphatically as she knows how. So why is Marzelline’s dreamboat, heartily endorsed by her dad, a soprano?

It’s tempting to presume that the difficulties in grasping what’s going on in Fidelio have multiplied since Beethoven’s day. Ludwig’s only opera, initially premiered during the French occupation of Vienna in 1805, was set at a fortress in Seville during the previous century, though its political aspirations were intended to resonate with the French Revolution.

True enough, the work was originally named Leonore after the masquerading Fidelio’s true name, but that name wasn’t spoken until the third and final act. Subsequent revisions trimmed the work to its current two-act format. Rocco doesn’t even know the name of the prisoner he’s starving in his deepest dungeon – the husband Leonore secretly seeks though he’s presumed to be dead. So the name of the dissident Florestan isn’t spoken until his nemesis, Don Pizarro, arrives on the scene.

In that dim light, the radical changes in Opera Carolina’s new production, under the stage direction of Tom Diamond, only do favors for Beethoven’s opera that the re-revised libretto by Joseph Sonnleithner and Georg Friedrich Treitschke cries out for. While maestro James Meena conducts the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra in the stirring overture, we’re getting some very important information on the transparent scrim as the Belk Theater curtain rises.

Maria Katzarava first appears in her starring role with long hair under a stage right spotlight and “Leonore” flashes onto the scrim in front of her. Then with the aid of her friends, acting with revolutionary purposefulness, she undergoes a strategic makeover. By the time the overture has ended, she has emerged with short hair. Putting on a man’s military jacket, she stands under a stage left spotlight as her undercover name flashes onto the scrim.

More context comes our way in a title projected onto the gray cinderblock wall of Dejan Miladinovich’s parsimonious set design. We’re in East Germany on November 8, 1989, a day before the fall of the infamous Berlin Wall. A recorded excerpt from JFK’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech gives us more Cold War flavoring – surely a more spot-on echo of Beethoven’s spirit than some obscure intrigue in 18th century Seville – and you can bet on hearing Reagan’s challenge to Gorbachev before the night is done.

Names of key characters have also been changed to enhance the East German ambiance. The implacable governor who spitefully imprisons Florestan, Don Pizarro, has become the East German head of state, Walter Ulbricht, the man who prevailed upon the Soviets to build the wall. Florestan is now listed in the program booklet as Kurt Wismach, a laborer who famously heckled Ulbricht, calling for free elections. His ultimate liberator, the beneficent Don Fernando, is reincarnated as Walter Momper, the first mayor of reunified Berlin.

Historical accuracy may be tossed out the window by linking Momper with the others, but the additions fill in some gaping narrative holes, giving Katzarava something to sing about in Act 1 as she drops hints about her motives. The soprano sings powerfully and beautifully but without sufficient urgency in Act 1, so the strange Fidelio-Marzelline-Jaquino triangle matters a little more than it should. What ignites Katzarava – and indeed this entire production – is Andrew Richards’ soulful portrayal of Florestan.

From Florestan’s first famished outcry as we behold the shackled prisoner for the first time, we ascend to a loftier level, even if Richards’ highest notes aren’t completely secure. Katzarava rises to the occasion with him. This is a man who has lived purely, idealistically, and after trifling with Mazellina and Rocco, Leonore is purified in his presence.

After an auspicious outing earlier this month at Opera Carolina’s Art • Poetry • Music over in CPCC’s Halton Theater, Raquel Suarez Groen was underpowered in the larger Belk hall as Marzellina, barely audible over the orchestra at times, and drowned out in the Act 1 vocal ensembles. What we did hear from the soprano was quite sweet, and her fainting spell in the final scene, upon learning the truth about her fiancé, was the comic highlight of the evening.

Otherwise, the supporting cast was strong and satisfying. Andrew Funk gives a rich account of the obedient, good-hearted Rocco, his copper-colored suit an island of color amid the drab costume designs of the opening act. Kyle Pfortmiller strikes terror from the moment he enters as the imperious Ulbricht, sporting a spiky bass that the notoriously squeaky voiced real-life Ulbricht could only dream of. Funk is suitably shaken when the despot first appears, but Pfortmiller’s confrontation with Florestan and Leonore in the denouement is even more electric.

Along with the robust Opera Carolina chorus, two locals round out the cast. Earnestly courting Marzelline, tenor Brian Arreola as Jaquino gives Leonore ample reason to feel guilty over her deceptions, and baritone Dan Boye is warmly authoritative meting out justice as Momper in the final scene. The conclusion is often cited as a harbinger of the “Ode to Joy” that ends Beethoven’s Choral Symphony with unmatched exhilaration. But having seen the public acclamation of Hans Sachs earlier this year at the Metropolitan Opera, I’d say that the praise showered upon the brave Leonore also prefigures the wondrous final scene of Die Meistersinger by Richard Wagner.

Beethoven takes about three hours less to reach his happy ending, an achievement that should endear him to Opera Carolina’s abstemious subscribers.

Coraline ON SALE NOW!

No doubt about it, the current Children’s Theatre production of Coraline at ImaginOn is the thinking family’s alternative to the purely visceral Scarowinds – and the insanely long lines of traffic to get there. The surreal scenic design by Tom Burch, with its gnarled tree and outsized moon, is nicely calibrated to the strange creepshow adapted by David Greenspan from Neil Gaiman’s novel. Costumes and puppets by Magda Guichard, ranging from zombie paleness to nightmarishly over-colorful clownishness, will have you wondering whether your toddler can keep it together.

And perhaps eeriest of all, the music! – delivered by a ghostly trio at electric keyboards and guitar, directed by Mike Wilkins. Also conspiring in the creepiness are sound designer Benjamin Stickels and Moving Poets choreographer Till Schmidt-Rimpler.

So I probably would have enjoyed Coraline if I’d been able to hear more than 70 percent of it. Stonefaced Parker Mullet was often inaudible as Coraline, but she was clarity itself compared to the three ghost children who help our hero find her true parents and escape the clutches of her evil Other Mother – in the parallel twisted universe beyond her closet door. Why Coraline was collecting marbles was far clearer to the kids around me who knew the book or saw the movie than it was to me.

Even the adults onstage could be difficult to understand when they weren’t singing alone, so I was often equally mystified about the lyrics Stephin Merritt had written to complement his music. But Nicia Carla and Grant Watkins are superb as the button-eyed Other Parents, proving there can be different paths to scariness, and before we reach their spectral domain, Devin Clark is a delight as the Cat.

Directing this colorful spookfest, Mark Sutton only lets us down by not ensuring that we hear it. I strongly suspect he would have achieved far more satisfying results moving the show from the Wells Fargo to the larger McColl Theatre. All the actors could have been outfitted with mics there, lighting designer Eric Winkenwerder and his cohorts could have unleashed a more powerful barrage of tech artillery, and when Carla made her grand exit, a trapdoor could have whisked her to the infinite void.

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Charlotte Ballet Reboots!

Image result for Charlotte Ballet Fall Works pictures

Charlotte Ballet’s Alessandra Ball James and James Kopecky share a moment in Jiri Kylian’s Forgotten Land.

By Perry Tannenbaum

Turnover is a reality in most businesses, sometimes a necessity. In recent years, it hasn’t been at all unusual for Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux’s Charlotte Ballet to welcome three or four new dancers into its ranks after watching an equal number land a jeté into other troupes around the country – or into teaching, choreography, retirement, or parenthood. Transitions became so smooth at the Queen City’s pre-eminent performing arts troupe that I could view the newcomers as reinforcements. And the process? I called it reloading rather than rebuilding.

This season is different. Less than 18 months after changing its name from NC Dance Theatre, Charlotte Ballet opened its 2015-16 season with nine new dancers that weren’t on its roster last year. On top of that, the opening night of Fall Works came less than three weeks after Bonnefoux announced that he would fading away to emeritus status at the end of next season, with a new artistic director to be named next spring or summer.

Pardon me, but I’d call all of that a reboot.

Last week’s program gave us another preliminary chance to compare the new company with the old in revivals of Bonnefoux’s well-traveled Shindig, last presented here in 2009, and Jiří Kylián’s Forgotten Land, which was first brought to Charlotte in April 2014, the day before NCDT changed its name. Set to Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem and inspired by an Edvard Munch painting, Forgotten Land benefited from a simpler pre-recorded intro that was shown on a retracting projection screen.

Instead of navigating through the connections between Kylián’s choreography, Britten’s elegy for the receding East Anglia coastline, and Munch’s imagery – not closely matched by the costume designs – we could concentrate on the colors of John F. Macfarlane’s costumes. These three basic colors, worn by three different couples, represented the progression of youth to old age: white, red, and black. We actually saw these couples in reverse order, but each couple had a paler, less vivid, and less energetic couple in the sequence – fainter echoes in gray, pink, and eggshell.

After an extended dance of innocence from the dancers in white, we didn’t circle back to the reminiscing dancers in black. Instead, the entire 12-person ensemble gathered for what I’d call an anguished celebration of life. Then in a moving coda, the three vividly clad women were all alone onstage, faced away from us, moving toward McFarlane’s somber set design, a wide ocean wave eternally poised to break onshore in semi-darkness. Seeing it all for a second time, I found the quiet emotional acceptance of Kylián’s women reminiscent of the haunting resignation that suffuses John Millington Synge’s poetic drama, Riders to the Sea.

Pete Leo Walker was at his charismatic apex when he partnered with the sensuous Melissa Anduiza as the black-clad protagonists two years ago, but there was no lack of command or flair at Knight Theater when 10-season veteran Alessandra Ball James and newcomer James Kopecky replaced the escapees. Half of the couples were partnered exactly as they had been in 2014, Sarah Hayes Harkins with Addul Manzano, Chelsea Dumas with Josh Hall, and Jamie Dee Clifton with David Morse. So aside from the richer perspective provided by the intro, differences between the two performances were not at all cataclysmic.

No, the difference between now and then was most pronounced when we reached the elbows-up, kick-up-your-heels Shindig, Bonnefoux’s most frequently performed work after his annual Nutcracker. There’s a high-spirited yee-ha merriment to this piece, a shedding of balletic formality, that this 16-person ensemble didn’t quite capture on opening night. Jitters? I’m not sure whether the abandon that’s needed is attained until you reach the point when counting the beats and remembering the steps is no longer a chore.

Fortunately, between the two ensemble segments there are five smaller tableaux where one to four dancers are called upon to shine, and the live bluegrass music of the Greasy Beans quintet – featuring the hot fiddling exploits of Cailen Campbell and the unflagging bonhomie of guitarist/vocalist Josh Haddix – was a constant exhilaration. Extra musical helpings came with the curtain down as the Forbidden Land scenery was dismantled.

In the smaller Shindig segments, Clifton, James, Hall, and Harkins reasserted themselves. Among the newcomers, Amelia Sturt-Dilley aced her showcase, and in an all-male hoedown quartet, Kopecky and Ryo Suzuki flashed some more of their personality alongside Manzano and Morse.

If the rebooted company hasn’t completely acclimated to Bonnefoux’s festive Appalachia, they showed no such discomfort with Sasha Janes’s new setting for Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. It’s an intriguing collaborative effort that we’re likely to see again in years to come. While some of Christopher Ash’s seasonal projection designs were hackneyed animations from Stock Photoville, Aimee J. Coleman’s costume concepts became more and more amazing, peaking in the final “Fall” and “Winter” sections.

All 15 of the dancers were dressed in autumnal orange as we headed into “Fall,” but the women’s outfits were highlighted by what would normally be called tear-away skirts. These skirts were capable of standing by themselves and forming wee cone-like dwellings, becoming part of the scenery when guys weren’t wrapping them around the shoulders of their partners.

Coleman’s crystalline winter costumes were hardly anticlimactic, the most formal of her designs. The women’s dresses were regally white, fit for a palace in a traditional Russian ballet, and newcomer Raven graced the most regal of them all. Barkley made her spectacular entrance mounting a flight of stairs that rose from the orchestra pit. Nor were the men’s costumes any less spectacular – long thin full-sleeved coats, that were even more Russian in flavor, military in their formality, and sacramental in their white purity.

Vivaldi’s winter may have been Italian, but Janes and Coleman were clearly adding some Russian dressing. When snowflakes began fluttering down on the ensemble from the flyloft, Janes and the 2015-16 edition of Charlotte Ballet managed to magically transform the Venetian Vivaldi into a Yuletide Tchaikovsky.

COTU Gives “Nosferatu” the Silent Treatment

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By Perry Tannenbaum

Recent rumblings have reached me hinting that Citizens of the Universe may soon be taking its last lap around the track. As Nosferatu was opening last week, it was certainly disconcerting to hear that Charlotte’s most unique theatre company may soon announce a final season. Yet a possible flame-out is not out of character. Founded just over six years ago, COTU has always personified the restless energy, creativity, and eccentricity of its artistic director, James Cartee.

Hunter Thompson himself would have gasped in astonishment at Cartee’s hyper-caffeinated portrait of him in his one-man paranoid fantasia, Gonzo: A Brutal Chrysalis, COTU’s signature production. Cartee & Co. ranged from Beowulf to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, from Uncle Vanya to Reservoir Dogs, and from Titus Andronicus to The Princess Bride. No less restless than the range of Cartee’s interests is the range of venues he has taken his company to – surely unprecedented in Charlotte theatre history.

The fact that there are no real theaters on Central Avenue or in Plaza-Midwood has never discouraged Cartee. COTU’s guerilla invasions have targeted The Graduate, Studio 1212, Snug Harbor, the defunct Story Slam, and a warehouse loading dock on Central Avenue. Cartee’s explorations in NoDa have been no less pioneering, including UpStage, the Chop Shop, Seeds 100, and an epic tour of NoDa restaurants, bars, and coffee houses – in pouring rain – chasing down Jack the Ripper. The Beowulf at Duke Energy this past July was an out-of-body experience for COTU followers. We were all in seats you couldn’t budge!

No, Cartee hasn’t settled in there – or at any other place aside from Story Slam where he could become acclimated to the equipment. So COTU’s new NoDa foray, outdoors in the loading area of Salvaged Beauty, the community’s “music and art collective,” is almost as technically plagued as its maiden voyage into musicals, The Rocky Horror Show, was at Seeds back in May.

But it really doesn’t matter that much in Nosferatu. You wanted to hear what Brad, Janet, and their assorted tormentors were saying and singing in Rocky Horror, but in turning to silent film for the first time, Cartee mostly gives the silent treatment to Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s 1922 classic.

Henrik Galeen’s screenplay was an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, with all the names changed and the ending deftly condensed. Cartee’s stage adaptation adds a smattering of spoken narrative, but it is not from Thomas Hutter, nee Jonathan Harker in Stoker’s novel. Through strings of journal entries and letters home to his dear fiancée, Harker was the purported author of our tourguide to Transylvania.

At Salvaged Beauty, it’s Professor Bulwer, the crucifix-swinging Van Helsing in Stoker’s original, who occasionally creeps across our field of vision, reading snatches of an eerie narration. Among local actors, JC Kingsley is only eclipsed by Tom Scott and Brett Gentile for the sheer loudness of his voice, so my usual preference for sitting as close as possible to the action – especially for outdoor productions – could be confidently tossed by the wayside.

The more compelling reason to move away from the playing area is the wide vista of the action, which encompasses about half of Salvaged Beauty’s considerable depth. While titles flow downwards from the top of a closed garage door at the side of the building, action is usually staged off one of the sides, near front one of the adjoining entrances. Even when I withdrew from the rows of seats at floor level to the platform behind, keeping track of the titles and the action was often like watching a tennis match.

At the macabre ruins of Carolina Theatre, where Cartee originally intended to present his Halloween saturnalia, the whole concept could have worked far more effectively, with titles projected above the action – or below it, if the rickety old stage has been rehabilitated. But the main problem with the titles on opening night was that they were totally out of sync with the action, falling awkwardly behind the dialogue or leaping even more awkwardly ahead. Worst of all, when the titles were allowed to languish too long, catch-up was accomplished at the expense of watching whole chunks of dialogue and connecting narrative scroll by at an impossibly blurry speed.

Mandy Kendall as Hutter’s wife, Ellen, takes the brunt of this technical glitch in scene after scene fretting over Thomas’s return from Count Orlok’s horrid castle and reacting to his bizarre correspondence. As Thomas, Bryan Green hardly needs any supertitles to fortify the purity, idealism, and astounding naïveté of our hero. We can see him absently cutting himself with a knife at Orlok’s castle and his host’s ravenous response to the sight of blood. Likewise, Thomas’s discovery of Orlok in his coffin, his fainting, his comatose days, and his delirium are all visually explicit.

Thanks to the make-up wizardry Kendall, Kingsley, and Cartee, Justin Mulcahy doesn’t need to emote extensively to plumb the evil depths of Orlok, nee Count Dracula. Oh, but he does anyway! Joseph Tenney gets a similar pass as Knock, Orlok’s man in Hutter’s hometown, though there’s already a craziness in his eyes worthy of the insect-eating Renfield, Stoker’s most oddball creation.

The exhilaration that an unabashed surrender to silent screen hamming can bring us is probably best exemplified by the minor players, all of whom get to dig into multiple roles. Whether warning Thomas of the perils of Orlok’s castle, tending to our hero in the hospital, or protecting his hometown against the onset of plague, you can count on Ervin Green, Michelle Lampley, and Mirachol Carroll to inject some levity into the ghoulish story, either as dimwits or incompetents.

Aboard the ghost ship that carries Orlok to his new HQ across the street from the Hutters, the levity comes from an excess of Halloween melodrama by the Captain and the First Mate – or it will when the titles roll properly. The interplay between the Innkeeper and his servant is already slapstick gold.

In fact, once the big tech snafus are solved, all the problems of COTU’s Nosferatu are likely to vanish, except for one: the nagging annoyance of Kingsley’s pronunciation of the title. Emphasize and elongate the third syllable and you readily evoke the horror of vampires and the nocturnal fright of Transylvania. Transfer that emphasis to the second syllable, as Kingsley does over and over, and it sounds like we’re dealing with some milk company in New Jersey.

“Bad Jews” Venerates and Perverts a Family Icon

By Perry Tannenbaum

With a good portion of his congregation nodding their assent or laughing out loud, my rabbi recently devoted a good portion of his sermon to cataloguing the different, often hilariously quirky paths that individual Jews choose in keeping the dietary laws and customs of kashrut. For most Jews, deciding what’s kosher and what’s not is just one of many personal decisions made without consulting rabbinical authorities.

Between the dictates of the Bible and the rabbis, there’s plenty to navigate. For those Orthodox and Chasidic Jews who diligently observe the commands of the Old Testament and the labyrinthine addenda of multitudes of rabbis – from before the birth of Jesus down to the present hour – slackers who do their own thing can be conveniently classed as the Bad Jews of Joshua Harmon’s dramatic comedy, now in its local premiere at Actor’s Theatre.

Within the framework of Harmon’s story, judgments aren’t that simple. Poppy Feygenbaum, the beloved patriarch of his family, has just died, and the funeral has already concluded when we encounter two of his grandchildren, Daphna and Jonah. They’re bunking together at Jonah’s posh apartment in the Upper West Side, overlooking the Hudson River, which his mom has thoughtfully bought for him.

Daphna, a more purposeful and self-righteous person than her mellow cousin, doesn’t take long before trying to make Jonah feel guilty over all this luxury that has fallen into his lap, but the guilt-mongering barely succeeds in getting him to lift his gaze from his MacBook. Yet the brunt of Daphna’s ill-will isn’t harbored against Jonah, anyway.

Through the tangle of her pugnacious, infrequently interrupted harangue, we get the full current of her resentments toward Jonah’s older brother, Liam, beginning with the damning fact that he missed the funeral. This is symptomatic in Daphna’s eyes of Liam’s moral laxity and his utter contempt for Judaism. We get a whole case against Liam before he even arrives – with all the contrasts between the combatants.

Veering away from her given name – Diana – Daphna is embracing her Hebrew name. She has an Israeli boyfriend whose Hebrew name, Gilad, keeps making its way into her conversation, and she intends to make aliyah (to settle in Israel) and pursue rabbinic studies. (For those who need decoding, that career path would mean she is a Reform or Conservative Jew.) Liam, on the other hand, has struck Daphna as deeply ashamed of his Hebrew name. He’s getting his degree in Japanese studies, he’s constantly dating outside the faith, and though he attends the family seders, his manner suggests an eye-rolling superiority to all the Passover rituals and outright contempt toward the holiday’s special dietary laws.

Daphna’s epic indictment is aimed at tipping Jonah toward her side in the great controversy to come. No, despite the unconscionable largesse of Jonah’s apartment, Daphna isn’t seeking a huge chunk of the estate or even a handsome bequest. All she wants is the chai pendant that Poppy wore around his neck. It’s a traditional religious object – chai is life or living in Hebrew – but among the Feygenbaums, it’s a relic. Braving the Nazis’ prohibitions against possessing any jewelry inside the notorious death camps, Poppy kept the chai under his tongue for the full duration of his captivity.

With Poppy gone, the chai is the last family survivor of the Holocaust.

Of course, it’s Daphna’s venom against Liam and his run of girlfriends, all the while bullying Jonah with her onslaught of verbiage, that makes her so comically insufferable. By the time Liam flies in from the ski slopes of Aspen with his new love, Melody, we understand why he instantly bridles at the mere idea of spending a single night in the same apartment with his cousin – and exposing Melody to her lacerating spitefulness.

On the other hand, the description we’ve gotten of Liam isn’t grossly exaggerated. In fact, the amped–up skittishness of Daphna’s presentation can be largely explained by how formidable Liam proves to be. He oozes arrogance and entitlement, nonchalantly domineering over his little brother. Nor is he an intellectual lightweight. He has evidently given some thought to his views on culture and religion, and he has a heartfelt reason why the chai pendant should belong to him. His plan for the pendant proves to be a highly-charged litmus test for both Jews and Christians in the audience.

Although Harmon’s script offers some latitude in presenting the relative badness of the main antagonists, director Tonya Bludsworth maintains a modicum of balance between them. Tommi May McNally gives Daphna a hyperactive oppressiveness that is almost precisely offset by the privileged smugness Brandon James bestows on Liam. Aside from a shared regard for Poppy, their family bond is mostly evidenced by the mutuality of their fear and detestation, leavened by a single episode when they share a laugh recalling old times.

The pacing is furious, but so is the pressure applied by both these warring titans on Jonah, the cousin and brother in the middle of the hostilities – overbearingly recruited by both sides. There’s a steady outlet for comedy as the insouciant Jonah shrivels and withdraws under the protracted two-pronged assault, but Chester Shepherd gallantly resists taking the easy way. Shepherd is never quite diminished to an inconsequential fetal ball, and that turns out to be the prudent decision in the end when Jonah makes his silent claim to be the best of the Jews onstage.

With her straight blonde hair and her simple beaming smile, Christine Noah is the perfect shiksa casting choice. Melody is so meek and simple, so uninitiated in the rough-and-tumble of Jewish needling and disputation, that I found myself yearning for moments when the Christian lass from Delaware would show some smarts and backbone. Happily, Melody isn’t as far beneath Liam as Daphna has presumed, but Noah’s squeaky rendition of the Gershwins’ “Summertime” gives her solid reasons to misperceive.

There is also one key miscalculation by Liam and Melody. Liam should definitely know better – he knew he was pushing Daphna’s buttons when he once offered her a shortbread cookie right after a Passover seder – but Melody has no clue how deeply this devoted granddaughter is invested in preserving the chai pendant as a holy Jewish heirloom. So at this impromptu family gathering, she will blunder into the role of paschal offering.

Charlotte Symphony’s Take on Mahler Tips Towards Joy

By Perry Tannenbaum

November 6, 2015 – Charlotte, NC: With an opening funeral march and a brassy, jubilant conclusion, it’s hard to mistake the arc of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, but the way each orchestra and each maestro will make this arc sound, over the course of more than an hour, largely depends on how extremely they render those two extremes – from C-sharp minor as we begin to D major as we conclude. As the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra‘s program notes indicate, Mahler’s biography suggests an unusually wide latitude, for this symphony was begun after he had nearly died at a 1901 performance conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. It was completed in 1903, after he had met and married Alma, so this work represents a pivotal moment in the composer’s life and career, and the fourth movement, Adagietto, especially, is widely regarded as his love letter to Alma, the work’s dedicatee.
The first movement has at times sounded deeply lugubrious, almost as desolate as Shostakovich’s wartime ruminations, while the final Allegro can be driven to a joyous frenzy comparable to Beethoven. Since the Charlotte Symphony and artistic director Christopher Warren-Green have powerfully presented Beethoven’s Seventh and Shostakovich’s Concerto for Piano and Trumpet already this season, it would be interesting to see how far they would go toward these extremes of delight and despair. And since the CSO hadn’t performed Mahler’s powerhouse at Belk Theater in over 21 years, it was anybody’s guess.

Warren-Green’s zest for Beethoven, extended by his orchestra in his absence just a couple of weeks ago with a vivid showing in Fidelio under the baton of James Meena, proved to be the most reliable barometer. In the presence of principal trumpeter John Parker‘s majestic flourishes launching the Funeral March, I couldn’t bring myself to mourn the absence of a funereal mood. The outbreak by the full brass corps was thrilling and, while the winds were bittersweet, there was a slight hint of klezmer in their gait. Only the strings could manage what I’d call a lament, but even they were sweetly lyrical.

Softening the solemnities that Leonard Bernstein found in the March, Warren-Green left us free to imagine the ensuing Stürmisch bewegt (violently agitated) movement as taking us deeper into anger and despair. The turbulence here is as dark and flavorful as any music that has emerged from Eastern Europe, yet there are intervening calms between the great storms where the cellos are the chief mellowing agent, and the glint of a lone triangle peeps through the roar of the trumpets. So if things are indeed darker in this second movement, we’re moving decisively into the light by the end, with some unmistakably romantic lyricism from the violins. It was not a continuous movement toward the light, for the final outburst from the brass and drums almost drowned out the triangle, which kept tolling with renewed optimism through the concluding calm.

If Warren-Green avoided the constraints of a programmatic reading of Part 1, he readily embraced the youthful playfulness of the Scherzo that comprises Part 2. I’ve read about performances where the principal French horn actually comes upstage for his big moments, and that maneuver certainly wouldn’t have been inappropriate here, except for the fact that Frank Portone‘s artistry and virtuosity didn’t decisively eclipse the glory that Parker brought forth in the previous movements. Portone’s breaths did become noticeably longer than any we had heard before, but what set the French horn’s exclamations apart were their unmistakable affinity to the famed call that Wagner wrote for his heroic Siegfried and the signature outcries Strauss wrote for various orchestral protagonists, especially Till Eulenspiegel.

There were other eccentricities to savor in this romp, including the section where we paused for a pizzicato quartet from the string principals. Percussion also became a little outré, and there was an agreeably Russian sloppiness to the brass when we reached the episode for the woodblocks. More startling than that – at least visually – were the postures of oboists Eric Cice and principal Hollis Ulaky. Instead of the usual downward gaze and concentration, like Olympic divers on top of a high platform before the moment of truth, Ulaky and Cice had their instruments tilted upwards toward the balcony. Look quickly and you’ll also see Joshua Hood stuffing a cute mute into his bassoon, not as comical as outfitting a tuba with its clown hat but far more rare.

After all the brassy fanfares and all the woodwind frolicking and eccentricity, the arrival of Part 3, with the ethereal Adagietto, was most striking for stripping away all the previous frippery and artillery. Only the strings, violins foremost, and harpist Andrea Mumm were intimately playing here. Without burdening the music with any sacramental gravity – Bernstein selected this movement, after all, for RFK’s funeral – Warren-Green made a compelling case for a quicker pace and for keeping the sweet harmonies aloft. So yes, Warren-Green also took a far sunnier view of the Finale. Portone, Hood, principal bassoonist Mary Beth Griglak, and principal clarinetist Eugene Kavadlo all contributed to the chirruping crossfire at the outset. Oboes and French horns soared over the merriment of the strings as we reached the midsection, definitely evoking the pastoral Beethoven for me. Nor were there any lingering clouds to mar the jubilation of the final onslaught of the brass, with a full complement of five percussionists as we reached a triumphant conclusion. That tireless little triangle lurked blissfully among the high spirits.

Dietz’s “Dracula” Is Revamped With a Vengeance

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Steeped in ancient folklore and superstition, Bram Stoker’s Dracula began life in 1897 as a fiendishly clever Gothic novel. Layers of stage and screen adaptations, chiefly the 1931 Bela Lugosi film, have transformed the Transylvanian vampire into an industry, a genre, and a tradition, chiefly funneled toward Halloween celebrations.

Leah Wiseman (Lucy) and Tony Wright (Dracula). - DIANA WAKEFIELD

  • Leah Wiseman (Lucy) and Tony Wright (Dracula) / Diana Wakefield

Here in Charlotte, there have been highs and lows to our Dracula tradition. The unquestionable low was Charlotte Rep’s adaptation at McGlohon Theatre in 1989, an “authentic” adaptation so universally despised that one of the production’s participants, Duke Ernsberger, wrote a comedy, Dracula Bites, deriding it. Far more successful in meeting common expectations were the dance versions presented by NC Dance Theatre (now Charlotte Ballet) and Moving Poets Theatre of Dance.

The Moving Poets version, unforgettably staged in the ruins of Carolina Theatre in 1997, was a landmark, arguably the chief reason why creepshows now rule our theatre scene each year with the onset of October. Steven Dietz’s adaptation, now running at Theatre Charlotte, doesn’t add a new chapter to the tradition, for it first opened here on Halloween night in 2003 at CPCC.

But it’s certainly a high point, ranking right up there among the best with the Moving Poets’ saturnalia. Directed by Dave Blamy, this new version at the Queens Road barn sports the set and lighting designs of Chris Timmons, making for some spectacularly unexpected entrances and exits by the Prince of Darkness and his maniacal slave, Renfield.

Lena Olson’s costumes are similarly commendable. I haven’t seen Tony Wright look this dashing onstage since he took on the wicked title role in Zastrozzi, the Master of Discipline three years ago. There’s a vivid contrast now between the aged Count that Jonathan Harker encounters in Transylvania and the rejuvenated vampire we see after he has feasted on quarts and gallons of English blood.

Wright and his chief adversary, Tom Scott as Professor Van Helsing, were both prominent in the CP production 12 years ago, but the tech and intensity surrounding them weren’t nearly the same. Dietz is neither an authenticist nor a rapt purveyor of the film’s numerous re-shapings. He scrambles the narrative in such a way that we’re frequently flashing back and forth from Mina’s bedroom in England to the castle where her husband, Jonathan Harker, suffers in the thrall of Dracula and his vamping vampiresses. Harker is no longer our epistolary narrator, replaced by Renfield, who appears before us as an urbane gourmand before suddenly transforming into a raving lunatic.

Juxtapositions are managed so deftly that, when the curtain falls at intermission, action and energy are peaking simultaneously at three locations, the imperiled Mina’s bedroom, the dungeon where Jonathan is imprisoned, and the asylum where Renfield is in chains. It’s like George S. Kaufman comedy mayhem flipped over into horror, and under Blamy’s direction, the scene comes off as Dietz must have intended. If not better.

Dan Brunson’s manic energy as Renfield and his repulsive devotion toward Dracula are like nothing I’ve seen before. Coupled with Brunson’s outré ravings, Scott’s raging fire as Van Helsing now plays like grimly righteous determination. The swashbuckling Wright as the lusting Dracula becomes slightly sympathetic in this company, more fearsome when he’s elderly at his castle or when his strength increases so terribly that the usual charms are powerless against him. “Toys!” he exclaims scornfully, brushing aside the garlic necklace and the crucifix waved in his face.

Never the most dashing of heroes, Harker recedes pretty far into the background here, but Jay Masanotti keeps him wholesome and fairly manly in an auspicious Theatre Charlotte debut. Upstaging him are the two women making their Queens Road debuts, Caryn Crye as Mina and Leah Wiseman as her wanton, coquettish best friend, Lucy. Wiseman reminds us just how juicy the role of Lucy is, luxuriating in Dracula’s signature embrace, and hissing at her pursuers when Van Helsing & Co. come to liberate her from the ranks of the undead. It’s deliciously ambiguous whether she loves or loathes her vampire rambles, feeding on the jugulars of innocent children.

Dietz dwells no less lovingly on the exploits of Mina, veering audaciously from previous retellings by turning her into an action hero. Journeying from her initial moorings in Victorian propriety, Crye takes us convincingly to a new borderland between ladylike serenity and full vampire rapacity, trapping Dracula with a stratagem that’s too tasty to divulge.

I’ll be damned if Dietz, Blamy, and Theatre Charlotte haven’t given us a truly feminist version of Dracula. Bwaaa-ha-ha!

“Grounded”: A Pilot’s Tour of Duty in the Chair Force

FroShow’s Grounded Flies Higher Than Queen City’s Birds of a Feather

By Perry Tannenbaum

Little more than a century has elapsed since the dream of powered human flight became a reality, barely a dot on the timeline of history. Yet as travelers and pilots, we regard flight as a birthright, a capability we were born with. In George Brant’s Grounded at Studio 1212, we encounter an articulate eagle who undergoes the experience of having her wings cut off.

Flying her F-16 for the Air Force, dropping her Sidewinder and Maverick missiles on “Saddam’s dipshit army,” The Pilot feels invincible riding her Tiger in the sky, turning the minarets that punctuate the desert back into desert. She doesn’t hesitate to show us her arrogant, predatory pride, which begins with her flight uniform. She rocks. She rules.

In Brant’s taut, jagged script, the speedy Mamet-like spasms of The Pilot’s monologue are laid out like free verse on the page. We’re just hitting the 200-word mark when she’s home on leave at a pilot bar in Wyoming, letting her defenses down for Eric, a local who manages a hardware store. The baggage he saddles her with before she returns to combat in Iraq swells into a baby bump, a signal to military brass that our Pilot must be grounded.

The plot thickens years after marriage and motherhood, when The Pilot acts on her itch to return to her Tiger and her beloved blue. Instead, the Air Force deploys her to a windowless bunker outside Las Vegas, where she learns to fly drones. With just a 1.2-second lapse between pressing her button and missile launch, she is soon firing missiles on verified enemy targets in Afghanistan, seen on a monitor she stares at for hours and hours at a time. She despises this ignominious demotion to the “chair force,” but as her commander predicts, it’s the wave of the future.

You might expect Brant to target the dehumanized brutality of drone warfare, yet heaps of ammunition aren’t forthcoming from a protagonist entrusted with piloting the $11 million devices all day long. But this is a one-woman show, so the parallel between this hero’s job and generations of pimply Americans raised on bloodthirsty videogames is never mentioned. We get a glimpse of what’s really on the playwright’s mind when we hear that Eric, supportively joining his wife in Vegas, lands a job dealing blackjack.

Like the convoys under Air Force protection in Afghanistan and like the bad guys planting roadside landmines in the middle of the night, Eric is constantly under surveillance. Even the Pilot in her top-secret battle station is constantly scrutinized by the unblinking eye of a camera. A weird kind of desert kinship is established between The Pilot at Creech Air Force Base, her Afghani targets, and her husband, the gambling predator – who works at the pyramid-shaped Luxor Hotel in Vegas, to underscore the point.

All of this happens as The Pilot dispels the notion that sitting in an office chair, staring at a monitor, and hunting down insurgents from nine time zones away is a dispassionate, stress-free job. With Veterans Day upcoming as my wife Sue and I watched this FroShow production last Saturday, I found Grounded keenly mindful of the stresses and sacrifices our servicemen and women endure at stations around the globe.

FroShow Productions founder Caroline Renfro zigzags through this richly textured script so deftly that it was surprising to realize that barely 62 minutes had elapsed when she was done. All of The Pilot’s dimensions as demigod, stud, and mom come through as Renfro does nothing to tarnish the accolade I handed out to her when I included her among Charlotte’s top three actresses for 2014. She gets dynamic direction from Glynnis O’Donoghue, with an effective blackout separating the main action from the emotional in-your-face coda.

All of the aspects that are likely to remind you of 1984 and A Few Good Men come through vividly. Brant and Renfro convincingly nail the special stresses that set stateside drone piloting apart. You may be inhabiting a virtual world in the “chair force,” but you’re shuttling back and forth from the war to your family every day. More to the point, when The Pilot’s missiles were hitting their targets in Iraq, her F-16 was long gone by the time the explosions went off miles below. Drones hover, and their multiple eyes maintain their gaze with telescopic intimacy. Confirming your strike after a 1.2-second delay, you can see body parts flying onscreen as you cheer.

Grounded leaves you thinking after its hour is up. The wondrous technology that exposes the wrongdoings of rogue cops and babysitters also has a serious downside.

 

L-R: Karen Christensen, Stephen Seay, Kristian Wedolowski and Robbie Jaeger star in Queen City Theatre Company’s Birds of a Feather. (Photo by George Hendricks)

Three other flightless birds are waddling onstage this week as Marc Acito’s Birds of a Feather celebrates a family of chinstrap penguins at Spirit Square in a cutesy Queen City Theatre Company production at Spirit Square. These are the notorious Roy and Silo of the Central Park Zoo, two males who famously began parenting a daughter in 1998 while she was still in the egg. When Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell turned their story into an award-winning children’s book, And Tango Makes Three, they learned what it means to legitimize same-sex unions in the Land of the Free.

Many, many libraries and school districts – including our own CharMeck for a while – disgraced and embarrassed themselves by banning the book. For three years in a row, beginning in 2009, Tango topped the American Library Association’s list of most-challenged books.

So the absurd maelstrom is a natural for the stage, where audiences will readily accept the concept of two human actors waddling around as the trailblazing Silo and Roy. In some ways, Acito goes further than the kids’ book in personalizing the couple. As Roy, the expansive Kristian Wedolowski can spread his flippers and be a showtune-loving, nurturing extrovert, while the pert Stephen Seay can be stiffly demure and publicity-shy as Silo. Closeted, perhaps.

Surrounding them, we expect the zookeepers, the journalists, and the book authors who catapulted Roy and Silo to fame, juxtaposed with the idiots who were outraged by all they stood for. This wouldn’t be the first children’s theatre piece with animals that were more sensible and mature than humans.

To some extent, Acito follows this path, but mostly, he goes far astray. Besotted by some kind of New York state of mind, he insists on telling the saga of Pale Male (Wedolowski) and Lola (Seay), two red-tailed hawks who nested on top of a Fifth Avenue apartment, across the street from Central Park, becoming a prime attraction for birdwatchers. Their controversy occurs in late 2004, when their nest was removed by the building co-op, rousing the ire of the Audubon Society, birders, and Mary Tyler Moore.

This part of the comedy, in which CNN correspondent Paula Zahn and her husband figure prominently, was excruciatingly boring and irrelevant for me. These silly bickering humans only succeeded in sucking time away from the yahoos who hated Silo and Roy. We hear from just one. As for the hawks, Lola’s jealousy over Pale Male’s previous mates siphons more attention.

With stage direction by Glenn Griffin and set design by Wedolowski and Tim Baxter-Ferguson, the production at Duke Energy Theater is charmingly mounted. Robbie Jaeger, chiefly as a Birder, and Karen Christenson, most significantly as the Zookeeper, soldier on through multiple roles and scenes, most of them as tiresome as the hawks. Jaeger’s costume designs count as another big plus.

Warehouse’s “Grand Boeuf” Serves up a Tribute to Papa Hemingway – with a Side Dish of Takedown

By Perry Tannenbaum

November 12, 2015, Charlotte, NC – Sacrifice and service are the specialties of the house in Michael Hollinger’s An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf, a Franco-American concoction that alternately mocks and reveres the Lost Generation élan of Ernest Hemingway. The play is particularly beloved in Cornelius at the Warehouse Performing Arts Center, where it was the first production scheduled at the Westmoreland Road storefront in June 2009. Yet the local debut was staged four years earlier by the BareBones Theatre Group at a real warehouse in Charlotte’s SouthEnd.

There are interesting contrasts between the two productions, demonstrating the latitude offered to directors by the script. The BareBones version directed by Chad Calvert (the current production’s graphic designer) emphasized the macho elements of the Hemingway-esque protagonist and the French elements of the ceremony, turning the Grand Boeuf into the snootiest of restaurants. At the Warehouse production directed by Jim Esposito, service is far more frayed and frenetic, and our hero is more notable for his tragic impotence and suicidal self-loathing.

There is no menu at the Café du Grand Boeuf, new waiter-in-training Antoine is instructed by the impeccable maître d’ Claude, because the establishment is committed to serving “Monsieur,” the restaurant’s owner and sole patron, anything and everything he desires. Much to Claude and his wife Mimi’s alarm, Monsieur shows up alone without his longtime lady friend. “This does not usually happen,” Claude tells Antoine, which describes the utmost of catastrophes for the prideful headwaiter.

Like the humor that fueled so many Marx Brothers shticks, more and more breaches of chichi decorum are yet to come. Monsieur has returned from the bullfights in Madrid, not Milan as previously planned. Antoine stutters uncontrollably asking for Monsieur’s order, and Monsieur declares that he will have nothing to eat. He has decided to starve himself to death at his own restaurant and, in a final relaxing of decorum, insists that his staff call him Victor.

Panic naturally runs wild at Grand Boeuf with this turn of events. Chef Gaston is summoned from the kitchen to describe the prolonged horrors of dying by starvation, a suicide that cannot be consummated in a mere couple of days or weeks. Yet we are well aware – as is Hollinger – that a detailed description of an excruciating death may not be the ideal method of stimulating the listener’s appetite. The group arrives at an amicable compromise that is no less absurd. Grand Boeuf staff will enjoy the honor of preparing and presenting Victor’s valedictory seven-course meal, but it will be delivered and lusciously described on an empty plate. The actual feast will remain in the kitchen, unless Victor relents and decides to eat. In the meanwhile, Victor will narrate his life’s story between courses to Antoine, who is conveniently gifted at transcription.

All in all, this makes for a satisfying win-win-win-win. Victor gets to expound on his life while committing a suicide this is even more renunciatory than the one he conceived. Staffers at Grand Boeuf get to go out with a suitable flourish. We get it all: Victor’s story, the elegant ceremony with its slapstick breaches, and the mouthwatering culinary descriptions. Warehouse is a winner too, serving up all this bounty without needing to fork out the cash for the extravagant food.

If the props by Jackie Hohenstein and Nicole Miller steer us somewhat from café to cafeteria, Esposito’s tasteful set design is closer to an off-Broadway standard. The cast is well-suited to Esposito’s more robust view of the script, including the director himself as the outré chef. Philip Robertson sets the tone early on as the punctilious Claude, nothing whatsoever inward about his ultra-sensitive nerve endings. Yet he does not sacrifice propriety during all his visible episodes of seething. I can summon plenty of sympathy for Dominic Weaver as Antoine. Back in 1994, when Hollinger wrote his oddball comedy, stutterers were more of a comedy staple onstage and on TV than they are in our own politically-correct times, but I think Weaver attempts the right degree of affliction, though his Antoine is occasionally more labored than believable.

Aside from his tragical brooding, there are no larger-than-life dimensions to Brian Willard’s portrayal of Victor, so its merits are very different from those of Hugh Loomis when he performed the role in 2005. Here we savor the disparity between Victor and Hemingway. He’s still an ardent admirer of the great Papa but a shadow of the Nobel Prize personality rather than a replica, so the fact that his journalistic ambitions brought him no higher than The Daily News struck me as funnier this time around and less disappointing.

There is also tragedy in the kitchen, because Mimi feels her husband vastly underappreciates her and Gaston is too honorable and shy to declare his love for her. I’m not always sure that Pam Coffman quite gets what it meant for a Parisian to admire Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy in July 1961, but she contributes deftly enough as Mimi to her husband’s frequent explosions. Esposito is delightful as the incorrigible Gaston, relentlessly indiscreet and irresistibly upbeat. Just by resisting Esposito’s zesty sketch of perishing by starvation, Victor nearly rises to heroic stature.

Late in Act 2, Stephanie DiPaolo walks in as “Mademoiselle,” the paramour that Victor last saw in Madrid. As Louise, DiPaolo serves us our final dish, the full account of the bullfights and the breakup. She’s as beautiful as a rose and as tearful as a widow. If you know your Hemingway, you’ll understand in the denouement that this love affair is the one part of Papa’s sensibility that Victor successfully manifests.

Most of CP’s “Phantom” Tricks Are Treats

CPCC Ambitiously Celebrates 10 Years at Halton Theater With The Phantom of the Opera

By Perry Tannenbaum

Celebrating their 10th anniversary at Halton Theater, CPCC has found the perfect way to outdo anything they’ve attempted there before. With their current production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, CPCC Theatre – teaming up with CP’s Opera Theatre and Dance Theatre – have achieved one feat that even the original Broadway production, now in its 28th year, can never claim: they’ve sold out every performance in the run.

With that unprecedented presale, it’s safe to say that the longest-running show in Broadway history is a powerful brand. But how close can this community college’s Theatre-Opera-Dance alliance come to fulfilling those towering expectations? Closer than I would have predicted.

The technical demands are prodigious, beginning with the iconic Paris Opera House chandelier that lifts off the stage at the end of the Prologue and comes crashing down at the Phantom’s summons, cuing the intermission. You watch the CP production, and even when it doesn’t quite measure up to Broadway original or the two touring versions, you marvel at the audacity and prodigality of an effort that will only be in town for 10 days.

Sure, the chandelier looks a bit like an oversized Chinese lantern, a flimsy Horn & Hardart affair compared to the ritzy glitter that has floated over the Belk in recent incarnations. But I was more intimidated when this trinket was hoisted above me at the Halton. Awesome and cheesy also go hand-in-hand in Robert Croghan’s set design. Although the gloomy staircase leading down to the subterranean lagoon was unimpressive, Croghan’s evocation of the Phantom’s lair is gothic splendor, and the boat that carries Christine Daaé to and from that dungeon is magical.

Like the recent SlimFast remake of the touring Phantom that came to the Belk back in February, CPCC has liquidated the majestic stairway that wowed us in the Broadway concept of the Act 2 opening scene. But at this New Year’s Eve masquerade, we have the most conspicuous consumption of yard goods in the eye-popping costumes by Croghan and Jamey Varnadore, a rainbow of colors that fills the Halton stage. Arm-and-arm with the cardboard elephants, all of the opera costumes radiate a musty Elizabethan authenticity.

Some of the things that fall short at CP point up the niceties we’ve probably overlooked before, like the cunning of those multiple levels built into the auction scenery of the Prologue. Without it, the chandelier plopped onto the centerstage foreground blocked my sightline for the latter moments of the scene before it was borne aloft. Raoul’s presence in that scene was merely hearsay to me.

Saturday night’s misadventures with Don Ketcham’s technical effects also underscored the effortlessly-overcome challenges we take for granted when we treat ourselves to a Broadway production or a topflight tour. Snow that was intended to fall on the rooftop scene stopped abruptly after a mere 10 seconds. All the onstage fireworks went off flawlessly, covering the Phantom’s disappearances, but I seemed to hear an extra explosion backstage that was surely accidental, and the final vanishing through the Phantom’s chair was laughably botched. When Christine slammed a cup down in her climactic opera scene, it broke like one of those two-piece disposables you buy at a dime store, another unintentionally comical moment.

All of those things will be cleaned up by the time the run resumes on Wednesday, right? Already admirable are the sound designs by Steve Gamble. We customarily shout hosannahs when the much-maligned Halton sound system desists from assaulting us with sonic dropouts, body-mic thumping, and screechy feedback. In this landmark Phantom, the demons of yore are more than merely exorcised. They are supplanted by profusion of echo effects that add a charming, ethereal luster to the whole evening. I can’t say that I hear all the contrapuntal parts of the sextet scenes in the Paris Opera manager’s office, but the unamped voices of Opera Carolina principals can be just as murky at the Belk when Puccini and Verdi veer into counterpoint.

More than any of the touring productions I’ve seen, CP’s version vividly reminds me that Webber’s Phantom really is an opera – perhaps because Opera Theatre’s guiding light, Rebecca Cook-Carter, wields the reins on musical direction. She certainly has some wonderful voices at her command, including her own as aging prima donna Carlotta Guidicelli, distinctly audible in every ensemble with a vibrato that spans two time zones. Down in the pit, I counted 25 desks and keyboards – more than you’ll find at most Broadway productions nowadays – but the program actually lists 33 musicians, all of them zestfully led by former Charlotte Symphony resident conductor Alan Yamamoto.

You don’t want to do this show without synthesizers that convincingly render the Grand Guignol sound of a mighty pipe organ. Mission accomplished there.

Aside from the quality of the lead voices, I need to mention their commitment. Listening to the duets between Ryan Deal as The Phantom and Anna Belle Lusk as Christine, it was difficult to overlook the probability that singers who get to perform these roles just eight times – or a precious four in the case of the double-cast Lusk – pour far more passion into it than leads who have rendered these same roles hundreds of times before with additional months and years ahead. It was striking to hear “The Music of the Night,” “Angel of Music,” the title song, and even the choral “Masquerade” attacked so freshly.

Lusk’s exertions did convince me of the prudence in double-casting the role of Christine, and you’ll be totally satisfied if Karley Kornegay – who opened last Friday – is nearly as fine. Completing the complex love triangle as Raoul, Matt Carlson has matured astonishingly, shedding the rocker swagger that has served him so well in musicals from Aïda to Rock of Ages and becoming a standard-issue Broadway leading man.

The dungeon denouement crackles with excitement as the three purest voices wail way against the show’s most impressive backdrop. Nor are you likely to forget the lovers’ escaping on the underground lake, Carlson’s and Christine’s voices echoing in the distance with the despairing disfigured Phantom in the foreground. Kudos to Jason Estrada for the make-up and wig design.

As opera idol Ubaldo Piang, Robert Piang is wonderfully paired with Cook-Carter, nearly matching her grandiloquent excess. Disdaining the mugging that usually makes the Paris Opera’s new owners so obnoxious, Eric Johnston and Chris Chandler only slightly rob the Phantom of the sympathy due to a mad composer.

Amid all the color, pageantry, and pyrotechnics, it’s easy to overlook the contributions of choreographers Ron Chisholm and Clay Daniel with CP’s Dance Theatre corps. Not only does Christine emerge from the Paris Opera’s little ballet chorus, so do the Girys, dancer Meg and her stern maman, Madame Giry. As Meg, Aubrey Young gradually recedes into the background while her friend Christine’s star rises – but Meg is luminously the last person we see. Kristine Reynolds is a more constant, powerful, and sinister presence as the dance mistress, dressed in black and imperiously pounding her staff. Fittingly, there’s a mystery to her, Judith Anderson mixed with Gandalf, for she alone knows the secret origin of the crazed Phantom and the subterranean region where he dwells.

 

“The Woolgatherer”: A Romantic Clash of Losers

By Perry Tannenbaum

Anyone who has seen William Mastrosimone’s Extremities, either onstage or at the movies, is likely to approach the playwright’s previous 1979 drama, The Woolgatherer, with a certain amount of wariness. For me, the violence that erupted in Extremities when I saw it at UNC Charlotte in 1991 was shocking – and I’m not easily shocked. The new Citizens of the Universe production of that earlier script often seems to be headed down a similar harrowing path as Rose, a painfully shy and paranoid hemophiliac who works at a dime store candy counter, entertains a grubby long-haul trucker named Cliff in her boarded-up South Philly apartment.

Obviously, there are echoes of Rocky (1976) in this coupling, with Rose’s counter work and Cliff’s corny jocularity fitting the Adrian & Balboa mold. But Rose’s fragility also seems partly inspired by Laura in The Glass Menagerie. As for the seething aggression that we see churning inside Cliff as Rose neurotically fends off his advances, it seems to be rooted in a deep underclass place, the wild soil of our industrial jungle. Cliff’s restless, predatory instinctiveness in David Pollack’s performance reminded me of the fearsome yet inwardly broken Pale in Lanford Wilson’s Burn This (1987).

Yet the drama does prove to share some crucial DNA with Extremities, for Mastrosimone also toys with the idea that the shrinking Rose is as much a predator as the well-traveled and rugged Cliff. So as the story unfolds, and the balance of power teeters, it’s advisable to forget that Pollack himself is directing this tense two-hander. Aspects of Megan Sky’s manner as Rose may strike you as overly directed or insufficiently spontaneous at first. Her arm folding, her cowed bent-over head, and her sideways movements pulling away from Cliff are the most obvious ways an actress can signal that she’s shy.

Then as the truth emerges in Act 2, you may perceive hints from Sky that rudimentary acting may be Rose’s primary weapon. Buying that will likely raise your estimate of Sky’s performance after the previously fleeced Cliff returns, knocking on Rose’s door in the middle of the night.

No set builder was required to provide this sturdy door, for COTU’s newest production is at the unleased site where Carolina Actors Studio Theatre once stood – the same 2424 N. Davidson St. address previously occupied by Charlotte Rep and NC Dance Theatre. Both of the CAST theater venues have now been liquidated, but COTU is actually using the space where Rep and NCDT had their lobbies, elevated above the floor where performances and rehearsals were previously staged, directly accessible from a doorway facing 28th Street. Folks are manning the old CAST entrance on the side of the parking lot, but we found parking less iffy last Friday out on 28th Street.

It’s a much cozier performing space than any that’s been used by the three previous tenants, raw and ramshackle in the true COTU spirit. This corner of 2424 works especially well with Mastrosimone’s raw, déclassé script. The chemistry between Pollack and Sky frequently shuttles between attraction and repulsion, veering more toward extremes when antagonisms are roused. Whether either of these commitment-averse losers could be redeemed kept me guessing until the emotional denouement.