Monthly Archives: January 2016

Production Values Continue to Evolve at Charlotte Ballet’s Innovative Works

Innovative Works_Yamato_Dancer Ryo Suzuki

By Perry Tannenbaum

January 29, 2016, Charlotte, NC – Ever since the event was created in 2003, when Charlotte Ballet was known as North Carolina Dance Theatre, Innovative Works has been a special event in the company’s season, performed at a special venue that further set it apart. The size of these venues, the length of the pieces on the program, and the number of dancers in each work were all smaller than the big ensemble pieces staged at Belk Theater and, more recently, at Knight Theater. Charlotte Ballet artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux was not only providing a platform for edgier, lapidary pieces, he was also establishing an incubator for new choreographers, usually dancers or former dancers in the company, to expand their creativity and pave a pathway to their afterlives when they were no longer onstage.

Works first seen at Innovative have not only enriched the repertoire of Charlotte’s pre-eminent performing arts group, they have served as springboards for further choreographic creations and for the formation of new companies outside Charlotte established by the former fledglings. This year’s collection of miniatures, running at the Patricia McBride and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux Center for Dance through February 20, presents the brainchildren of current and former troupe members wedged among works by the company’s resident choreographers. Included on the bill are pieces by Dwight Rhoden, Mark Diamond, Sasha Janes, David Ingram, Sarah Hayes Harkins, David Morse, Gregory Taylor, and Josh Hall.

That’s a bunch, to be sure, but three of the works choreographed by current dancers – the “Dancer Spotlight” – are presented in rolling rep, so each evening consists of six pieces. The first two, Rhoden’s “Ballad Unto” and Ingram’s “Omologia,” are staples in every performance of the run. Taken together, they exemplify how Innovative has evolved. Intimacy and chamber size are no longer requisites of new choreography unveiled at the McBride. Both of these pieces were long enough to present on the Knight Theater mainstage, and by the time they were done, we had seen 18 dancers perform, including three up-and-comers from the satellite Charlotte Ballet II company.

Although scenery is still outlawed in this studio setting, lighting has become very sophisticated. In fact, the hard-edge lighting designs by Jennifer Propst are very much at the forefront of both experiences. Further blurring the difference between Knight and McBride presentations, the previously filmed “Behind the Dance” segments, where the choreographers talk about either their aesthetic or the genesis of the piece we’re about to see, are now as much a part of Innovative as they were last October in Fall Works at the Knight.

Innovative Works_Dwight Rhoden_Ballad Unto

Photos by Peter Zay

Rhoden’s “Ballad Unto” sets Bach’s famed Chaconne, prerecorded on violin, upon five couples, yet this destination is preceded by a setting to assorted sounds, textures, and rhythms that seemed equally long and substantial. Jamie Dee Clifton and Josh Hall were the couple that grabbed my attention most dynamically, but Ben Ingel and Raven Barkley were also charismatic standouts. All ten of the performers delighted in both the high-speed handwork and the footwork that Rhoden challenged them with, consistently accenting the beat with precision. Rhoden himself had fresher, livelier ideas than you might expect from him this deep into his career responding to Bach. Propst had a fairly a fairly stunning reaction to the choreography, setting five squares on the floor in an M formation for the five couples, occasionally replacing them with – or superimposing them on – an inverted V.

Interaction between the dancers and Propst’s lighting design was even more salient in Ingram’s “Omologia.” As the eight dancers advanced toward us at the outset of the piece, set to Corelli’s “La Follia,” a bright illuminated line across the stage seemed to daunt their progress. Once the dancers took possession of the stage, we discovered that there would be two more lines of lights connected to the first – and that each of the three lines was actually comprised of three adjacent squares. So while the dancers danced in close sync with the music, the nine pre-programmed squares, blinking on and off, were similarly wed to the movements and the shifting tableaus of the dancers. Numerous permutations of the nine squares flashed before us, including U shapes formed by seven of the squares that opened out at various moments to all four points on the compass.

From these lengthy baroque abstractions, we suddenly transitioned to a very real subject with Harkins’ “#Hatehurts,” the sort of high-concept piece that has typified Innovative in the past. Diagonally across the stage from each other when the lights came up, Sarah Lapointe in the foreground and Ingel upstage sat in front of laptop computers, reacting to online bullying and its fatal consequences. Of the six dances, this was the only one that didn’t come to us paired with a filmed introduction. Sure, it was the piece that least required explanation, but it was also so short that a prelude may only have drawn further attention to the piece’s brevity. Perhaps if the seated opening tableau didn’t seem to be such a substantial portion of the piece, the effect would have been more powerful, for the dance seemed to end as it was just getting started once the couple converged at the middle of the stage. The ratio between the prerecorded bullying and suffering we heard about and the anguish we saw live from the dancers ultimately struck me as too message-rich, an effective presentation for middle schoolers, perhaps, but artistically too thin for me.

John Adams’ “Short Ride in a Fast Machine” served as both title and soundtrack for David Morse’s piece, brilliantly danced by Harkins and Hall. In costuming, lighting, and choreography, Morse divides his work in two. The dancers come on in dim light, Hall in a waistcoat and Harkins in a long flowing blouse. Turning up their intensity, the dancers shed these upper garments as the lights come up fully. This moment of liberation is amplified by the ensuing choreography, which utilizes the entire stage. Morse’s piece returns to the rotation during the evenings of the final weekend of the run, February 18-20. Next weekend, Morse’s spot is taken by Gregory Taylor’s “Requiem of a Meaning,” and Hall shows off his “Social Butterfly” on the third weekend.

Hall will be borrowing rookie dancer Ryo Suzuki for his solo piece. Meanwhile, he is featured in “Yamato, earth/nature/drum,” a three-part celebration of Japan by Diamond, demonstrating that he’s no less eager to pursue new directions than Rhoden. The 12 people in this piece form a spherical mass as Propst’s shimmering lighting comes up, with Suzuki slapped across it horizontally. Then the ball explodes in big-bang fashion to an original score arranged by Rocky Iwashima, heavy with taiko pounding. Ultimately, the group regathers downstage in a tableau that is analogous to the spherical beginning but with Suzuki in an uplifted, triumphal posture. Inside of this effective framing, Suzuki and Addul Manzano are the dominant presences, although Barkley is hard to ignore whenever she’s involved.

Charlotte Ballet Innovative Works by Christopher Record

Photo by Christopher Record

For his new work, “Sketches from Grace,” Janes veered from his intent to create settings for works by Leonard Cohen, opting instead for a four-piece suite of settings to cuts by Jeff Buckley – including his cover of Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which became a posthumous #1 hit for Buckley in 2008. The work showcases a punkish set of costumes by Katherine Zywczyk with faint, silvery highlights, beginning with Buckley’s most distinctive original, “You and I,” a brooding, floating, dreamy song that would seem to defy choreography. Yet Chelsea Dumas and James Kopecky fully conveyed the smoldering energy lurking in the lyric. Once covered by Nina Simone, “Lilac Wine” took the tempo up to a bluesy dirge, given an aching elegance by Ingel partnering with Alessandra Ball James. Bringing the tempo further up to a lethargic shuffle, “Hallelujah” was undoubtedly the climax of the suite, danced with such heartbreaking perfection by Hayes and Hall that the audience applauded as if it were the finale, although Janes’s video intro had promised us that all three couples had a concluding segment together. That closing ensemble was a more driven Buckley original, “Lover You Should Have Come Over,” very appropriate for the hubbub of three couples strutting their stuff simultaneously. Those last pushes in tempo, spectacle, and animation gave the audience one more reason to cheer.

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Opera Carolina’s “Roméo et Juliette” Conquers Adversity and Inhibition

The final duet.
 

By Perry Tannenbaum

January 28, 2016, Charlotte, NC – It’s obvious that James Meena has a special fondness for Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, since no other Opera Carolina maestro had ever presented the work before – and now Meena has brought the tragic Shakespeare adaptation back eight seasons later. Both productions have been somewhat star-crossed. When Meena introduced the opera in 2007, the soprano couldn’t quite scale the heights of the stave in Juliette’s arias and the tenor who adored her couldn’t take his eyes off Meena’s baton when he sang, a rather wooden Roméo. This time around, weather and illness have been the adversities that Opera Carolina has been forced to conquer.

Days ahead of the Sunday afternoon opening, forecasts of the superstorm that would cripple the city caused Opera Carolina to offer special discounts for intrepid ticket buyers willing to brave the elements. My driveway was still so encased in ice at curtain time that my wife Sue and I couldn’t reach the street at the top of the hill where we had parked our car. After rescheduling for Thursday, we had barely settled into our seats at Belk Theater when we learned from Meena that the soprano slated for the title role, Marie-Eve Munger, had come down with bronchitis, sounding less like Juliette than Friar Laurence when the conductor had spoken to her earlier in the day.

There was a positive twist to this adversity. Although I had missed Munger’s debut, I would catching the first performance by Sarah Joy Miller with the company. Slated to perform as Juliette when this co-production moves on to Grand Rapids in April and Baltimore in May, Miller not only appeared to be acclimated to the role and Bernard Uzan’s stage direction, she also appeared comfy in the clinches with Jonathan Boyd, who will be paired with Miller in those upcoming productions.

In contrast with the 2006 Spoleto Festival USA, which remodeled the two ancient warring Montagues and Capulets into families in the Godfather mold, both of the Opera Carolina productions have been refreshingly traditional. You might even say radically traditional, since the supertitles of the current production revert to the original Shakespeare whenever possible, even at the cost of mistranslating the French of librettists Jules Barbier and Michel Carré. Production design by Uzan and Michael Baumgarten is nearly as traditional, evoking Verona very much the way old-school Shakespearean productions do. Three sets of Romanesque arches, rearranged and dressed between scenes, serve admirably for the Capulet palace, Juliette’s balcony, Juliette’s bedroom, Friar Laurence’s chapel, and that gloomy vault where Roméo finds the sleeping Juliette on her tomb. Baumgarten’s lighting and his superb projection designs also help to differentiate the scenes.

While Gounod and his librettists will bring down the curtain when the two lovers perish, Uzan contrives to stage the aftermath – the grim reconciliation of the feuding families – as this production’s prologue, where Shakespeare originally had his chorus. While this necessitates an extra scene change, whisking away the tomb where the dead lovers lie and bringing the lights back up on the festive night when they first met, the alteration plays as if that’s what Gounod always intended, particularly since he wrote enough gorgeous music to cover the subterfuge and the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra plays it so lustily under Meena’s baton. Nor is it much of a stretch for the Opera Carolina Chorus to sound funereal in the hushed opening passages.

An adequately majestic staircase is placed centerstage at the Capulet palace for Juliette’s entrance, and the dazzling dress that Miller gets to wear throughout this giddy evening for her birthday party makes it count. Miller herself was not quite so dazzling when she soon reached Juliette’s signature “Je veux vivre dans ce rêve” aria, straining to reach the high notes, getting there but not comfortably. She began to settle down in the iconic first encounter with Roméo: the “Ange adorable” duet, staged chastely with Boyd in a pleasing palm-to-palm style as the lovebirds circled one another.

Boyd sang beautifully and securely all evening long, but the most transporting moment came when he sang Roméo’s great “Ah! lève-toi, soleil” to launch the balcony scene. Juliette’s nightgown is no less bright than her party dress, dramatically lit by Baumgarten as she makes her way into the moonlight, so there can be no mistaking what Shakespeare meant when he wrote, “It is the East, and Juliet is the sun!” It hits with seismic force here, and the “Ah, ne fuis pas encore!” duet that closes the scene is even more enchanting than the lovers’ first meeting.

There’s considerably more chemistry between Boyd and Miller in this production than there was when Gaston Rivero and Sari Gruber sang the title roles in 2007, and Uzan pushes it in the bedroom scene, where the lovers’ awakening is nearly as sensual as the opening scene of Sondheim’s Passion. For anyone who thinks that opera is pathologically stiff and glum, this Opera Carolina effort will be an eye-opener. Miller caught fire when we needed it most, carrying us over the climactic aria where Juliette chooses between stabbing herself and drinking Friar Laurence’s sleep potion.

Supporting roles are wonderfully cast and sung, mostly by newcomers. Imposing enough to be Shakespeare’s Capulet, Ashraf Sewailam was the most impressive of the baritones, expansive in his geniality as party host yet more than sufficiently authoritative as the family patriarch. Efrain Solis obtained maximum mileage from Mercutio’s “Queen Mab” ballad, more effective as a satirical cut-up than he was subsequently as a tragic calumniating victim.

Remember Romeo’s page, Stephano? Of course not. Gounod added her – it’s a soprano pants role – to spark the strife between Tybalt and Mercutio before the fatally pacific Roméo arrives and intervenes. Kim Sagioka makes a startling debut in this odd cameo. Among the old hands, bass Kevin Langan has all the dignity and warmth we want in the helpful Friar, and tenor Brian Arreola is perfectly pugnacious as Tybalt – actually so dashing in his wig and costume that I wished that the Capulets and the Montagues had switched uniforms so that Roméo could look more cavalier.

There’s a whole mini-ballet in Gounod’s score, 18 minutes long on the EMI Classics recording, that nearly all companies skip, but to me, cutting the next two scenes is a bit like tossing away the baby with the bathwater. After justifiably axing the choreography expense and the dancer payroll, I’d love to see the wedding scene where Juliette drops dead just as Paris is putting the ring on her finger. Soap opera and grand opera unite!

We save on having a Friar John in the cast (if the Duke of Verona doesn’t double) when we omit the next scene where Friar Laurence learns that Roméo never got the sleep potion memo, but why not leave it in for the few folks who may be coming to the story for the first time? Eric Loftin would certainly approve of restoring the wedding, since the tenor gets too little opportunity to show his mettle in his Opera Carolina debut as Paris.

Quibbles aside, this is one outstanding production that has it all: merriment, chaste romance, spectacle, sensual passion, a touch of comedy, and the ultimate tragedy. All the members of this sterling cast and chorus were as much into the drama as they were into the music, and the singers and musicians were constantly feeding off one another. As a result, the three hours joyously flew by.

Copyright © 2016 CVNC

Goings and Bearden Double-Team Black History in The Children of Children Keep Coming

Adapter-director Quentin Talley (top center) stands with his fine cast for “The Children of Children Keep Coming.”

By Perry Tannenbaum

January 27, 2016, Charlotte, NC – Suffering, persistence, and indomitable creativity are the threads that Russell L. Goings has used to weave The Children of Children Keep Coming, an incantatory and poetic account of the Afro-American journey. Quentin Talley, the artistic director of On Q Productions, has adapted and directed Goings’ “Epic GriotSong” for the stage, adding chants, work songs, blues, jazz, gospel, dance, hand clapping, foot stomping, ceremonial movement, and a cast of characters who all moonlight as members of a Greek-style chorus. The drawings that appear in the hardcover book by Romare Bearden are incorporated into Jeremy Cartee’s video design, losing a little of their impact in the transition from the page to the Duke Energy stage at Spirit Square, but quotes from Frederick Douglass, Marcus Garvey, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Adam Clayton Powell, and Martin Luther King are sprinkled into the script to take up the slack. With varying degrees of success in the singing impersonations, we also had cameos from Ma Rainey, Marian Anderson, Mahalia Jackson, and Sarah Vaughan.

Theatrical history isn’t littered with successful adaptations of epic poetry, so the task that Talley has undertaken would be difficult even if Goings’ poem came equipped with affecting character development and a graceful narrative arc. Aside from a generic Grandmother and Grandfather, none of the characters actually converse, and after we’ve been immersed in the slavery experience, the road – or train – to freedom is more of a cyclonic swirl than a straight or winding path. We go back and forth to various historical landmarks. Reaching Rosa Parks is no guarantee that won’t be doubling back abruptly to revisit the roots of jazz or even the Civil War – or that we won’t return to Rosa afterwards, still refusing to move to the back of the bus.

Talley gives a remarkable, evangelistic performance as our Narrator, but his work directing his fellow actors – and extra chorus members from the West Mecklenburg High School Drama – struck me as his most astonishing feat. Every one of the actors has numerous quick lines that don’t really respond to the line just spoken. Most of the lines throughout 110-minute show simply follow a cue line. Unless we see an actor moving toward a spot on the stage – or an actress making an onstage costume change while the Narrator is speaking about her character – we usually don’t know who will speak next. That means we need to amp up our concentration level as The Children of Children careens unpredictably from one speaker to another and fromone historical subject to another. The core cast of eight performers face an even more daunting task, keeping the ping-pong of the choreopoem format moving along briskly while executing the intricate patterns of the ensemble’s physical movement.

Even when you’re delivering your line on cue, one further level of concentration often comes into play. From his spot upstage, Talley might be saying the same line slightly ahead or after you. Or the chorus may be saying something else in unison altogether. Remarkably, this rapid-fire choral presentation only sputtered occasionally – and then only slightly – as this unique show sustained its impressive momentum. Helping to maintain order, Talley has strewn three mobile reading stands across the upstage. These stands not only help him to overlap without memorizing all those additional lines and cues, it helps with the daunting multitasking he must pull off as star and director of a fairly massive production.

We can also view this setup as an intermediate stage in the development of this On Q property. When the company unveiled the new script, first at Johnson C. Smith University in 2012 and in 2013 at Duke Energy Theater, it was as a reading stage production. Now with the entire chorus virtually off-book – and one glaring technical shortcoming – we can categorize the 2016 edition as a workshop production. Talley may have been partially aware of the technical gap still remaining in this project, since the program booklet still doesn’t list a lighting designer. Amid all of his multitasking (and the absence of an assistant director to be his eyes when he’s onstage), Talley has missed how sorely a lighting designer is needed. Time after time when he was declaiming from his spot behind the central reading stand, a thick, disconcerting bar of shadow covered him from head to toe, separating him from the light surrounding him.

Yet the energy continued to pour out from him, largely because the pace and the gusto of his cast bounced the energy right back to him. All of the major singing voices are new to this remount. Shar Marlin has become On Q’s go-to vocalist over the past two years, portraying Bessie Smith on multiple occasions, so it figures that she would get the nod when it came time to trot out Ma Rainey, Mahalia, and Lawdy Miss Clawdy. Andrea Michele, on the other hand, has only appeared on my radar previously as the tomboyish lead in Pauline Cleage’s Flyin’ West when Davidson Community Players produced it nearly two years ago. Michele’s singing voice as Evalina turns out to be very fine. Kenya Templeton is even more impressive in the more central role of Calli of the Valley, and she sang purely and sweetly as Marian Anderson, though she missed the famed contralto’s distinctive timbre by a wide margin. Most memorable is how Templeton’s scat singing Ella-vates the bebop segment and makes it a celebratory highlight.

The familiarity of the recorded legacy put Omar El-Amin on shaky ground when we reached MLK, but the efforts at elongating his syllables did not obliterate the goodwill El-Amin had built up in his evocations of Douglass, all of those seeming to come from the heights of Sinai or Rushmore. Few members of most audiences are familiar with the barking Caribbean patois of Marcus Garvey, Jr., so Shiduan Campbell wasn’t saddled with the objective of duplicating the notorious revolutionary in his Charlotte debut. There was also some promising versatility in his more genial stints as Grandfather and Banjo Pete, though the latter role didn’t come equipped with either an instrument or a vocal solo. Playing opposite Campbell as Grandmother, Soumayah Consuela Nanji also didn’t have a vocal solo in her debut, and she frankly mystifyied me a little. She was a fine Grandma and Rosa Parks at first blush, but between her two stints as Rosa, she was nearly inaudible when called upon to address us from the upstage platform. The ensuing rendezvous with Rosa was equally underpowered, as if she had lost her voice in the middle of the performance.

Yet Nanji’s vitality was undimmed when she danced with Campbell each time the grandfolk grew frisky. I wouldn’t be surprised if Talley had his eye on her for choreographic chores in future On Q presentations, including the full production of The Children of Children. Other things to think about as this project enters its next step, besides establishing a more linear scenario, is being more informative about the cavalcade of notables mentioned during the course of the evening. They enrich the experience for the initiated, but they’re likely to be nothing more than dropped names for youngsters or people who may be dipping into the sea of Afro American culture for the first time. The hardcover edition of Goings’ epic is followed by a 38-page glossary, a useful tool if you’ve never heard of Ben Webster, Claude McKay, or James Meredith before. I’m hopeful that Talley’s stage version, so rich in the music and the essence of the Afro-American experience, will evolve into something more than a handsome gateway to the book on sale in the lobby. Already the living performance is showing the potential of transcending the poem.

Copyright © 2016 CVNC

Jazz: The Best CDs of 2015

New Releases

Terell-Stafford-BrotherLee-Love

  1. Terell Stafford – Brotherlee Love (Capri)
  2. Harold Mabern – Afro Blue (Smoke Sessions)
  3. The Gary McFarland Legacy Ensemble – Circulation: The Music of Gary McFarland (Planet Arts)
  4. Matt Mitchell Quintet – Vista Accumulation (Pi)
  5. Arturo O’Farrill – Cuba: The Conversation Continues (Motéma)
  6. Cécile McLorin Salvant – For One to Love (Mack Avenue)
  7. Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis – Live in Cuba (Blue Engine)
  8. Charles Lloyd – Wild Dance (Blue Note)
  9. Maria Schneider Orchestra – The Thompson Fields (ArtistShare)
  10. Kurt Elling – Passion World (Concord Jazz)
  11. Jack DeJohnette – Made in Chicago (ECM)
  12. Dave StrykerMessin’ With Mister T (Strikezone)
  13. Rudresh Mahanthappa – Bird Calls (ACT)
  14. Scott Hamilton – Hamilton & Hamilton Live in Bern (Capri)
  15. Alexis Cole & Bucky Pizzarelli – A Beautiful Friendship (Pony Canyon)
  16. Joe Locke – Love Is A Pendulum (Motéma)
  17. London, Meader, Pramuk & Ross – The Royal Bopsters Project (Motéma)
  18. Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans Project – Lines of Color: Live at Jazz Standard (ArtistShare)
  19. Snarky Puppy – Sylva (Impulse)
  20. Chris Potter Underground Orchestra – Imaginary Cities (ECM)
  21. Karrin Allyson – Many A New Day (Motéma)
  22. Harris Eisenstadt – Canada Day IV (Songlines)
  23. Richard Nelson Aardvark Jazz Orchestra – Deep River (Heliotrope)
  24. Dee Dee Bridgewater – Dee Dee’s Feathers (OKeh)
  25. David Chesky /Jazz In The New Harmonic – Primal Scream (Chesky)
  26. Dafnis Prieto Sextet – Triangles and Circles (Dafnison Music)
  27. John Fedchock Quartet – Fluidity (Summit)
  28. Vincent Herring – Night and Day (Smoke Sessions)
  29. Chico Freeman & Heiri Känzig – The Arrival (Intakt)
  30. William Parker – Great Spirit (Aum Fidelity)
  31. Hayden Chisholm – Breve (Pirouet)
  32. Heads Of State – Search for Peace (Smoke Sessions)
  33. Pablo Held Trio – Recondita Armonia (Pirouet)
  34. Amina Figarova – Blue Whisper (In+Out)
  35. Kamasi Washington – The Epic (Brainfeeder)
  36. Myra Melford – Snowy Egret (Enja)
  37. Mathias Eick – Midwest (ECM)
  38. Anat Cohen – Luminosa (Anzic)
  39. John Scofield – Past Present (Impulse)
  40. Marta Sánchez Quintet – Partenika (Fresh Sound New Talent)
  41. Hadar Noiberg – From the Ground Up (Dot Time)
  42. Charles McPherson – The Journey (Capri)
  43. Marcus Miller – Afrodeezia (Blue Note)
  44. Joshua Redman – The Bad Plus Joshua Redman (Nonesuch)
  45. Joey Alexander – My Favorite Things (Motéma)
  46. Oded Tzur – Like a Great River (Enja)
  47. Carol Saboya/Antonio Adolfo/Hendrik Meurkens – copaVILLAGE (AAM)
  48. Charenee Wade – Offering: The Music of Gil Scott-Heron (Motéma)
  49. Mostly Other People Do The Killing – Mauch Chunk (Hot Cup)
  50. Branford Marsalis Quartet – Coltrane’s A Love Supreme Live in Amsterdam (Sony Masterworks)

 

Best of the Rest, Alphabetically

Gabriel Alegria Afro-Peruvian Sextet – 10 (Zoho)

Peter & Will Anderson – Déjà vu (Gut String)

Don Braden – Luminosity (Creative Perspective)

Joshua Breakstone – 2nd Avenue (Capri)

Ron Carter – My Personal Songbook (In+Out)

Alex Conde – Descarga for Monk (Zoho)

Matt Criscuolo – Headin’ Out (Jazzeria)

Steve Davis – Say When (Smoke Sessions)

Aaron Diehl – Space, Time, Continuum (Mack Avenue)

Duo Doyna – Sammy’s Frejlach: Modern Klezmer (Pool Music)

Yelena Eckemoff – Everblue (L & H)

Sinne Eeg – Eeg-Fonnesbæk (Stunt)

Essiet Okon Essiet – Shona (Space Time)

Oran Etkin – What’s New? Reimagining Benny Goodman (Motéma)

Expansions: The Dave Liebman Group – The Puzzle (Whaling City)

John Fedchock New York Big Band – Like It Is (Mama)

Nick Finzer – The Chase (Origin)

George Freeman/Chico Freeman – All in the Family (Southport)

Charlie Haden & Gonzalo Rubalcaba – Tokyo Adagio (Impulse)

Eddie Henderson – Collective Portrait (Smoke Sessions)

Fred Hersch – Solo (Palmetto)

Jon Irabagon – Behind the Sky (Irrabagast)

The Chuck Israels Jazz Orchestra – Joyful Noise: The Music of Horace Silver (SoulPatch)

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis – Big Band Holidays (Blue Engine)

Jacques Lesure – Camaraderie (Wj3)

Allegra Levy – Lonely City (SteepleChase)

Mack Avenue SuperBand – Live from the Detroit Jazz Festival (Mack Avenue)

Nilson Matta – East Side Rio Drive (Krian)

Josh Maxey – Celebration of Soul (Miles High)

Christian McBride Trio – Live at the Village Vanguard (Mack Avenue)

Paul Motian – Standards Plus One (1201 Music)

Christian Muthspiel/Steve Swallow – Simple Songs (In+Out)

William Parker – For Those Who Are, Still (Aum Fidelity)

Gary Peacock Trio – Now This (ECM)

Lucas Pino – No Net Nonet (Origin)

Powerhouse – In An Ambient Way (Chesky)

Prism Quartet – Heritage / Evolution, Vol. 1 (Innova)

Aki Rissanen – Aki Rissanen // Jussi Lehtonen Quartet With Dave Liebman (Ozella)

The Rodriguez Brothers – Impromptu (Criss Cross)

Adam Rogers – R&B / Rogers & Binney (Criss Cross)

Emiliano Sampaio / Mega Mereneu Project – Tourists (Sessionwork)

Antonio Sanchez – Three Times Three (Camjazz)

Christian Scott – Stretch Music: Introducing Elena Pinderhughes (Ropeadope)

Matthew Shipp Trio – The Conduct of Jazz (Thirsty Ear)

John Stowell – Live Beauty (Origin)

Symphonic Jazz Orchestra – Looking Forward, Looking Back (Mack Avenue)

Steve Turre – Spiritman (Smoke Sessions)

Michael Waldrop Big Band – Time Within Itself (Origin)

Johannes Wallmann – The Town Musicians (Fresh Sound New Talent)

Steve Wilson & Wilsonian’s Grain – Live in New York: The Vanguard Sessions (Random Act)

John Wojciechowski – Focus (Origin)

Kemasi Washington_The_Epic

Best Debut Recording

Kamasi Washington – The Epic (Brainfeeder)

Best Vocal Recording

Cécile McLorin Salvant – For One to Love (Mack Avenue)

Best Latin Recording

Arturo O’Farrill – Cuba: The Conversation Continues (Motéma)

 

Reissues or Historical Recordings

  1. Thelonious Monk – The Complete Columbia Live Albums Collection (Columbia)
  2. Red Garland – The Quota (MPS)
  3. Erroll Garner – The Complete Concert by the Sea (Columbia/Legacy)
  4. Thelonious Monk – The Complete Riverside Recordings (Riverside/Concord)
  5. Horace Silver Quintet – June 1977 – Livelove Series, Vol. 2 (Promising/ HGBS)
  6. Art Pepper – Neon Art: Volume One (Omnivore)
  7. Sam Most – From the Attic of My Mind (Elemental)
  8. Miles Davis – Miles Davis at Newport: 1955-1975: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 4 (Columbia/Legacy)
  9. Barry Harris – Barry Harris Plays Tadd Dameron (Elemental)
  10. Keith Jarrett / Charlie Haden / Paul Motian – Hamburg ’72 (ECM)
  11. Jimmy Heath – Picture Of Heath (Elemental)
  12. Cassandra Wilson – Introducing M-Base (1201 Music)
  13. Various Artists – Detroit Jazz City (Blue Note)
  14. John Abercrombie – The First Quartet (ECM)
  15. Buddy Rich – Birdland (Lightyear)

 

Lincoln Center Does the Holidays

By Perry Tannenbaum

The three square blocks where the Metropolitan Opera House presides is actually the hub of Lincoln Center, with five different indoor performance venues, a film center, and a handy park that hosts open-air concerts in summertime and tented events in winter. So while parts of the place are turned over to holiday events when December rolls in, other parts can go on with culture as usual. Across West 65th Street, there are frequent concerts at Alice Tully Hall, and down at 59th Street, overlooking Columbus Circle, there’s Jazz at Lincoln Center, another hub of activity at multiple venues.

The four musical presentations in this year’s roundup represent less than half of what was available around the main plaza during our 16-day stay. Four other operas were in rep at the Met, one other Philharmonic program, the Big Apple Circus pitched its tent in the park, the acclaimed King and I revival continued its run at the Vivian Beaumont, and the New York City Ballet presented something called The Nutcracker at the David H. Koch Theater. Ample choices whether or not you wished to revel in the holiday spirit.

Here’s what we saw:

Photo by Ken Howard

Lulu (***3/4 out of 4) – Germanic expressionism, Parisian wantonness, and London squalor all take their turns in fleshing out the decadence of Alban Berg’s last unfinished opera, based on two Frank Wedekind plays. With the soon-to-close revival of Spring Awakening drawing accolades on Broadway, musical adaptations of Wedekind works written more than a century ago are making the playwright newly notorious in New York.

Both pieces are preoccupied with sex. While the tragic teens in Spring Awakening are the consequences of 19th Century sexual repression, the title vamp of Lulu is a poster girl for calculated promiscuity, though the Animal Tamer of Berg’s prologue wants us to think of her worldliness in far more ferocious, elemental, and bestial ways. By the end of Act 2, the body count – and husband count – of men smitten by Lulu is three.

Yet Lulu is not a cold-blooded murderess at all. Her first husband, The Physician, has a heart attack when he discovers his wife being ravished by The Painter doing her portrait. The Painter, after swooping in and marrying Lulu, partly for the fortune that has fallen into her hands via The Physician, slits his own throat upon learning the truth of Lulu’s past, delivered by the man Lulu would really like to marry, newspaper publisher Dr. Schön.

And what is a girl to do when husband #3, Schön, who knows you for what you are, grows maniacally jealous and demands that you kill yourself with his gun on account of your infidelities? Sure enough, Lulu takes advantage of a distraction and pumps five slugs into her tormentor’s back.

Even after Lulu is convicted of murder, men are still standing in line for her favors when she escapes from imprisonment – and so is a lesbian countess. The line only comes to an end in London when Lulu, in her first night out on the streets as a prostitute, has the misfortune of picking up Jack the Ripper.

Lulu and her men seem to always be playing with dynamite in this new Met production. There’s a cluttered, disheveled look to each of Sabine Theunissen’s set designs, but the restlessness of William Kentridge’s production concept is compounded by Catherine Meyburgh’s projection designs. Woodcuts, lithographs, animated front pages of newspapers are frequently creeping across the upstage walls, sinister and dim, sometimes surreal. The nervous edge of what see is magnified by what we hear: 12-tone composition that goes crazy when it isn’t merely neurotic.

Marlis Peterson brings delicacy and vivacity to Lulu, often belying the harshness of what she sings. Just as often the softer elements of Peterson’s personality fuse with the edgy music to become a desperate angst imbued with beautiful melancholy. Adding luster to Lulu are the men who love her. Aside from her husbands, there’s a prince, an acrobat, and Schön’s son, Alwa, who is a composer and poet. Schön plucked Lulu off the street years ago when she was peddling flowers, and the broken-down Schigolch, who is either her father or her first benefactor, repeatedly drops by for handouts. So Lulu is ultimately a woman of mystery – tawdry mystery.

All of the husbands take on new roles in Act 3, parading in as her clientele on the night of her ultimate demise. Especially good are tenor Paul Groves as The Painter, though he’s not as credulous and vulnerable as I’d like, and bass-baritone Johan Reuer as Dr. Schön, whose gruffness is the essence of Berg – I’d love to see him as Wozzeck. Susan Graham was sweetly underpowered as The Merry Widow when I last saw her at the Met in 2003, and the hall swallowed her up again as Countess Gerschwitz this time around. More to my liking was tenor Daniel Breena in his Met debut as Alwa, in some ways, Lulu’s most ardent lover. It would be interesting if Breena and Groves swapped roles.

Left unfinished when Berg died in 1935 and completed by Friedrich Cerha in 1977, Lulu sounds as edgy, angry, and anguished as Spring Awakening did when I first heard it on Broadway over nine years ago. All in all, Lulu has been performed 44 times at the Met, eight of them this season, with Peterson retiring the title role at the performance we attended. Before then, the music and imagery sizzled on a Live in HD performance beamed to local cinemas. Surely it will sizzle again on Blu-Ray and in rebroadcasts.

Free Lulu for the masses? I fear it’s too hot for ETV to handle.

New York Philharmonic
Photo by Chris Lee

Messiah (***1/2) – Maybe it was nostalgia for my alma mater, Queens College, where I was first enchanted by Handel’s masterpiece. Or maybe it was the prospect of scoring an off-season fix of Charleston’s Spoleto Festival USA, where I’m annually uplifted by the voices of the Westminster Choir directed by Joe Miller. Could have been both, because as I drove toward Manhattan and my rendezvous with the New York Philharmonic, I had a glimpse of the QC campus and Colden Auditorium, where I saw multiple Messiahs, from the westbound lanes of the Long Island Expressway.

David Geffen Hall is slated for a massive overhaul in the coming years, a just verdict on its acoustics for symphonic concerts, but they do Messiah with all strings until they bring on a modest trumpet corps – and timpani – after intermission. Even the strings seemed thinned-out compared with the all-Nielsen concert I reviewed last January, so the sound of the hall was never a problem.

The hall also disabused me of the notion that the purity of the Westminster sound had something to do with always hearing the choir’s concerts in church settings. Now I realize that the richer, less pure sound of the Charlotte Symphony Choir (I still want to call them the Oratorio Singers) has to do with diversity of its membership compared with the Westminsters, who are all college-aged or in that neighborhood. Sounding more like a community, our choir strikes me as more human. The Westminster College voices (from Rider University in Princeton, NJ) are uncannily uniform, more angelic.

That communal sound of collective humanity has been very persuasive in “For unto us a child is born,” “All we like sheep,” and the celebratory “Hallelujah!” chorus. But in the early prophetic choruses, “And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed” and the ensuing “He shall purify the sons of Levi,” that angelic sound was revelatory.

Guest conductor Jane Glover, in her New York Phil debut, elicited crisp and alert work from the orchestra. The lithe precision of her approach allowed for gently accelerated tempos. The freshened “All we like sheep” sounded sheepish rather than puerile, but there was no lack of punch – or magnificence – moments earlier when the chorus gravely followed a countertenor air with “Surely, He hath borne our griefs.”

Trumpets and timpani fortified the climactic “Hallelujah!” Although a sidebar in the program booklet dissected the standing tradition, nearly all of the audience stood up – perhaps not for religious reasons, since they applauded lustily afterwards before sitting down. Thanks to baritone Roderick Williams and the solo trumpeter, we did not have to endure an anticlimax afterwards in Part 3.

It’s always interesting to see how the solo chores are doled out. Tenor Paul Appleby, countertenor Tim Mead, and soprano Heidi Stober were in the lineup with Williams – and each had at least one shining moment. Stober’s came when she warbled the “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion” and when she brought a creamier texture to “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” Mead seemed a little jittery in his “Who may abide the day of His coming,” but he rivaled Stober in vitality singing “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion” and in suppleness when he reached the “He was despised and rejected” lament, adorning it with trills.

Early and late, Appleby was sleekly impressive. He was beautifully mellow and controlled in the first of so many snatches from the prophet Isaiah, “Comfort ye, my people,” and he truly did make the rough places plain in “Ev’ry valley shall be exalted.” Yet there was anger and steel near the end of Part 2 in his “Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron.”

Nobody was going to upstage Williams, whose “I will shake” recitative was easily as striking as Appleby’s “Comfort ye.” The richness of his baritone didn’t quite match Bryn Terfel’s in the “Why do the nations so furiously rage” air, where the bite from the orchestra came to Williams’ aid, but the comparative lightness of his voice became a winning asset at the end of the evening in his “Behold, I tell you a mystery” recitative.

Fortified by the bravura of the solo trumpet, Williams’ “The trumpet shall sound” was mighty and thrilling. And who was that intrepid trumpeter? None other than Karin Bliznik, former principal of the Charlotte Symphony, whom I’d last seen in Messiah five Decembers earlier at Belk Theater. There was enough glory and jubilation in the Williams-Bliznik volleying for the Westminsters’ “Amen” to sound, if not peaceful, like a satisfying ceasefire.

Photo by Marty Sohl

La Donna del Lago (***1/4) – After watching this production in a Live in HD broadcast last March, I was eager to see soprano Joyce DiDonato repeat her stupendous performance at closer range. Even if she didn’t sing quite as well, the sound of her voice would be more rousing coming from her throat at the Met rather than from an array of loudspeakers at the Stonecrest 22 multiplex.

There was at least one factor I hadn’t counted on, because of the deftness of the Met’s video production – and because I didn’t pay close attention to the credits. What we have here is a co-production with the Santa Fe Opera, where DiDonato has been a mainstay for over 20 years. Among regional companies, a co-production usually promises a pooling of resources and a more opulent product than any of the participants can budget individually.

At the Met, it simply means that the production directed by Paul Curran and designed by Driscoll Otto at Santa Fe during the summer of 2013 was co-opted for presentation at Lincoln Center the following winter. Or you can look at it another way: the limitations of the Santa Fe’s glorious outdoor stage impose some limits upon what a co-production can have in common.

Scenery is very spare and compromised. A projection at the Met fills in for a New Mexico sunset in the opening lakeside scene, where King James V of Scotland, disguised as a huntsman, meets the captivating Lady of the Lake, Elena. Scenes at Elena’s cottage and the king’s throne room are not sorely compromised, though they can’t be confused with more lavish Met efforts such as La Bohème or Lucia di Lammermoor.

But the intervening scenes are stupefyingly spare and unvarying, as if the entire military conflict between James and the Scottish rebels occurs on the same grassy slope where Elena and James first met. The opening scenes of Act 2, which are supposed to unfold in a thick wood near the mouth of a cave and then in the cave, are on the same slope that we left when the Act 1 curtain came down.

A few members of the chorus differentiated the setting by impaling a row of spears up the slope and removing them at the end of the scene. If you’ve never seen a production at the Met with a community theatre tang, this was your chance.

There are similarities between this story, adapted by Rossini from a Walter Scott poem, and Lucia, adapted by Donizetti from a Scott novel. Multiple men love both heroines, and the man who has captured each of their hearts is not Daddy’s choice. But while the title roles are both famed for their vocal challenges, the peak moments are very different indeed. Lucia’s mad scene in the final act is deranged despair, while Elena’s is unbridled happiness, coming on the unexpected heels of her rebellious dad’s redemption and the family’s reconciliation with the king, who also yields up his beloved so she can marry hers.

If there was anything anticlimactic for me in DiDonato’s performance the second time around, it was probably because the elements of shock and surprise had vanished, not because the mezzo-soprano’s excellence had dimmed. There was a palpable diminution, however, in the grandeur of Giacomo V with tenor Lawrence Brownlee replacing Juan Diego Flórez on the throne. Brownlee is more than adequate as a romantic lead, imbuing his pleadings and his arias with admirable verve, reaching the high notes with only minimal signs of strain. Flórez was simply more dashing, confident, and regal, and his voice is arguably the best and most recognizable of this era.

Listening to a slightly lesser king inevitably makes Elena’s favorite more appealing, a favor to the lumbering mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona, who returned from last season’s cast. Here the absence of shock and surprise were helpful whenever Barcellona swaggered in from the wings, eternally outcast and resentful until the denouement, for she sings beautifully.

A couple of crusty voices rounded out the cast, bass Oren Gradus as Elena’s noble father and tenor John Osborn as Rodrigo (Roderick), the conceited Highland chieftain she’s been promised to. I wouldn’t want either one to sound any different.

Photo by Karen Almond

The Barber of Seville (**3/4) – In past seasons, the confectioner’s sugar served up during the holidays ranged from Hansel and Gretel to celebrate Christmas and Die Fledermaus for Auld Lang Syne. Met general manager Peter Gelb has shaken things up since he took over, mounting new productions of the old standbys and adding a fantastical Magic Flute to the rotation in a family-friendly version that gets trimmed for the holiday season and upsized to run just for the adults.

By subjecting The Barber to a similar trim, the Met can offer a conveniently sized sampling of one of opera’s most tuneful creations, suitable for parents who would like to introduce their kids to the art form as a holiday treat. Running it concurrently with La Donna del Lago might also serve as a pathway to more Rossini for young adults and professionals making their first encounters with opera. Or it could serve as a bridge to and from Die Fledermaus, a dazzling production that is being reprised after its triumph last season.

The Bartlett Sher Barber was first trimmed in 2012, six years after he originally directed, so it’s appropriate to give credit to Kathleen Smith Belcher as the stage director of this speedy effervescence. All the familiar tunes are here, but they play second fiddle to the double-layered comedy. While the pert Rosina is hoodwinking her aging – and lecherous – guardian, Dr. Bartolo, the young and handsome student she loves is deceiving her. That student is actually Count Almaviva. The wily Figaro helps the aristocrat in gaining opportunities to woo Rosina and in eluding the increasingly watchful, jealous, and domineering Bartolo.

Originally crafted by Beaumarchais in 1775 (minus a few provocative speeches that he eventually snuck into The Marriage of Figaro), the Barber plot doesn’t lend itself easily to the fast-forward button, particularly in the helter-skelter that ends Act 1. Yet Belcher gets fine comedy performances from the entire cast, beginning with mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, who has done Rosina in this Sher version before, and Elliot Madore and David Portillo as her dashing conspirators, both newcomers.

For these three confidantes, it helps that the 200-year-old libretto is freshly translated by J.D. McClatchy into English, their native tongue. First-timers in the audience can get a lot of Leonard’s sauciness as Rosina without the aid of supertitles, along with Portillo’s noble ardor as Almaviva and Madore’s hearty worldliness as Figaro – and there are still supertitles to help in grasping the rest. Those already familiar with The Barber have a rough go of it in certain spots, beyond the compressed overture and arias. Figaro, usually such a déclassé rascal, is something of an action hero in Sher’s concept, almost as dashing as the Count and more roguish.

Michael Yeargan’s set design is winsome, circling the orchestra and bringing the action nearer to the audience. Costumes by Catherine Zuber aim straight for the funny bone, from Figaro’s striped pantaloons in his famed “Largo al factotum” entrance near the top of Act 1 to Almaviva’s absurd disguise in Act 2 impersonating a music tutor.

Most laughable are the old farts who think they can outflank the young blades. Valeriano Lanchas, in an auspicious debut, brings a supreme Charles Laughton ugliness to Bartolo, giving rise to laughter as soon as we consider the prospect of his marrying Rosina, and Robert Pomakov as his disloyal best friend – and Rosina’s music tutor – adds a scruffy sleaziness to the household that entitles us to think that Almaviva is rescuing rather than stealing the unfortunate orphan.

El Niño Mellows the Great White Way: The Lullaby of Broadway

While Charlotte theatre companies generally go into hibernation during the last two weekends of the year, finishing off extended Yuletide runs rather than opening anything new, Broadway is invariably having their top two box office weeks. Families enjoying their winter vacations swell Times Square and the surrounding theatre district to such a degree that they’ve now taken a good chunk of it and repurposed it exclusively for pedestrian traffic, sightseeing, and – hooray! – pure loafing.

During the seven full weeks when our major local companies have no mainstage premieres, Blumenthal Performing Arts has jumped into the void, opening Kinky Boots, Wicked and The Hip Hop Nutcracker. It’s a great time to scoot off to the Big Apple without any great disloyalty to Theatre Charlotte, Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, Actor’s Theatre or CPCC Theatre.

You should go. Some topnotch Broadway musicals, like The Light in the Piazza or the acclaimed revivals of Company and South Pacific, never reach us in touring versions. Have you ever seen a Sondheim musical tour Charlotte? Other shows, like Les Miz or Ragtime, only reach us when the bloom has long vanished from the rose.

Of course, there are still other shows, chiefly those built around a big-name box office draw, that are never intended for a second life on the road. Even the most acclaimed and influential off-Broadway show is no more likely to hit the road for a national tour than a show we see premiered at Actor’s Theatre or ImaginOn — unless it transfers to Broadway first.

Seeing an original Broadway production that does eventually hit Charlotte has its own rewards. You get the big names, the Tony winners and all the bells and whistles to gush about — first when you’ve see the show there and later when the tour arrives here without the same big names and big budgets. While you’ve already paid enough to reserve the privilege of nitpicking the tour, you can also quietly admire how well a truly fine piece holds up in the hinterlands without all the wowee-wow-wow technical blandishments or the megawatt glitz of a superstar lead. Cases in point: the touring versions of Wicked and The Producers.

We started going up to the Great White Way during the cusp of fall and winter many seasons ago while my wife, Sue, was still a special ed teacher taking her well-deserved holiday breaks. In recent years, hoping for smaller crowds and greater selection for our annual roundup of reviews, we’ve put off our pilgrimage till as late as February. But in 2015, after our family’s Thanksgiving revels in Baltimore, we kept heading northward, staying in New York past Chanukah.

We lucked out on both available shows and, thanks to the mellowing agent known as El Niño, the weather. Of the 15 shows we saw, seven were Broadway, four were off-Broadway, three were at the Metropolitan Opera and one was with the New York Philharmonic. Allowing for the more decadent New York state of mind, we can also claim to have seen two holiday shows. A first taste of what we saw appears here, with an ample overflow completing my roundup online:

Broadway

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (**** out of 4) — An autistic 15-year-old English boy is propelled toward adulthood at heart-pounding speed when he’s seized by police for a grisly crime: murdering his neighbor’s dog with a pitchfork. Not having read the best-selling novel by Mark Haddon, I can’t say which Tony Award winner is more brilliant, playwright Simon Stephens in his stage adaptation, or director Marianne Elliott (of well-deserved War Horse fame) with her high-concept production.

Like a hit TV procedural, the crime scene is right there in the middle of the stage as the action begins — and so are young Christopher Boone’s vulnerabilities as he grieves over the slain Wellington’s body. He thinks and understands things very literally, does not take easily to strangers, and plunges instantly into panic mode if he is touched. So the interview with the police bobby who arrives on the scene does not go well. But the twin traumas of the evening forge a resolve in Christopher that will painfully liberate him from some of his afflictions.

He will solve the mystery of who killed Wellington. It’s a project that’s encouraged by his special ed teacher Siobhan, who asks Christopher to keep a journal of his investigations. But Chris’s probe is discouraged, even forbidden, by his lunch-pail father Ed, a Billy Elliot-type dad, slow to grasp his own son’s unique gifts.

What will likely be surprising — and comforting — to those who haven’t read the book is that the solution of the mystery isn’t the end of the story. No, there is much more for Christopher to discover about his parents, the neighbors, and himself. The sum of it all is life-changing while that journal blossoms into the play we watch.

Except for the actress who portrays Chris’s mother, replaced by capable understudy Stephanie Roth Haberle on the night we attended, all the leads of the original September 2014 production have departed. It was hard for me to imagine that Tony winner Alex Sharpe was any more compelling — or moving — than Tyler Lea as Christopher, a performance that was free of the slightest taint of Dustin Hoffman. Rosie Benton is an empathetic teacher as Siobhan and a likably amazed narrator when she shares Chris’s journal. Andrew Long’s work as Ed is arguably the most profound, each new layer illuminating those we thought we knew.

Changing costumes and characters, the remaining ensemble swirls around Christopher as if he’s afloat in a dream. The entire grid-like set design by Bunny Christie, combined with Finn Ross’s video artistry, occasionally casts the action into an abstract realm akin to outer space. That galactic effect is especially telling when Christopher audaciously decides to travel on his own to London or when he speaks so eloquently about the stars. It even resonates when Chris plunges into the deep psychological chasm that yawns open when he discovers that his parents are not merely imperfect but deeply flawed.

Fun Home (***3/4) — Lisa Kron has turned Alison Bechdel’s gay autobiographical novel into an anguished-yet-luminous memory play worthy not only of a Tony Award for best musical but also a Pulitzer Prize nom for best drama. Kron’s alchemy with composer Jeanine Tesori is no less magical, yielding a score that tingles with natural monologues and dialogues and shimmers with soaring, sometimes jubilant melody. The twin poles of fascination here are Alison, played by three different actresses as she reaches her current age of 43, and her domineering, charismatic father.

Aside from being a closeted gay man, Bruce is an ardent, unforgettable English teacher at the local high school in rural Pennsylvania and the ultra-fastidious owner — and restorer — of Bechdel’s Funeral Home.

“Fun Home” is the slick nickname Alison and her two siblings come up with when they ponder how they might advertise the family biz on TV. The fun lasts well into Alison’s college years at Oberlin, where she discovers she is a lesbian and finds her first love. Bechdel’s novel cannot make lesbian love as wholesome, youthful, natural, and joyous as Emily Skeggs singing “I’m changing my major to sex with Joan.”

But the fun abruptly ends when Dad spirals downward and commits suicide. Alison is left to pick up the pieces, rummage through them for clues, and construct a narrative that makes sense of it all – frame by frame on her sketchpad. For that reason, Beth Malone, observing her younger selves pad-in-hand as our narrator, has a far less engaging role as fully-mature Alison than Skeggs has as Medium Alison. The tomboyish collegian awakens to her true sexuality through the ministrations of the smart, confidently seductive Joan, given a spot-on activist cool by Roberta Colindrez.

None of the Alisons, not even Gabriella Pizzolo as the adorable Small Alison, is nearly as compelling as Michael Cerveris as the enigmatic Bruce. That’s how it should be, because Bechdel’s novel concentrates on the many facets of her father from its opening panel. It’s a breathtaking range, including cruelty and perversion, and as commanding as I found Cerveris in 2010 as the sexist physician in Sarah Ruhl’s notorious Vibrator Play, he surpasses himself here: gentler and more human than the Bruce that Bechdel’s novel introduces us to, yet still as deeply self-loathing.

With Sam Gold’s stage direction, abetted by Ben Stanton’s lighting, I found myself well-acquainted with the Bechdel family after the 99 intermissionless minutes I spent with them, especially in the intimate confines of the Circle in the Square theater. My only quibble was with how much there was to absorb so quickly. For that reason, I’d recommend streaming the cast album after you’ve seen the musical. It not only gives you a second chance to savor Tesori’s tunes and Kron’s deft lyrics, it also preserves generous chunks of the spoken dialogue.

An American in Paris (***3/4) You may need to adore ballet and modern dance as much as I do to be fully swept away by director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s bold homage to the famed Gene Kelly-Leslie Caron movie. Taking the characters of Alan Jay Lerner’s 1951 screenplay as a jumping-off point, Craig Lucas also steers the book more emphatically toward a post-war celebration of dance. Most of the melody remains the same, if you consider that the title ballet was a 17-minute extravaganza on celluloid, but the music and lyrics of the Gershwin brothers have been reshuffled and refortified.

There’s more variety to the music and choreography now – and more meat to the story. Jerry Mulligan remains an aspiring painter and illustrator who lingers in Paris after V-Day, but Lise, the girl he pursues all around the city, is no longer a mere shopgirl. She’s a mesmerizing ballerina with prodigious talent. A prestigious ballet company director wants to hire her after a brief audition, Jerry’s composer friend Adam wants to write a ballet for her, and her longtime protector Henri is working up the courage to ask for her hand in marriage.

Basically, the same obstacles are strewn in Jerry’s path to bliss that were in the film. Lise feels beholden to Henri because she and her Jewish family were sheltered by his family during the Nazi Occupation. At the same time, Jerry must resist the temptations offered by the predatory Milo, a poised and sophisticated patroness bent on seducing Jerry. But here Milo’s philanthropy throws a wider net than simply offering to bankroll an exhibition of Jerry’s work. Here she proposes to commission a new ballet; fostering the ambitions of Adam, who will compose it, Jerry, who will design it; and of course, Lise – the whole piece will be built around this new étoile.

An artsy bunch, all in all, considering that Henri longs to break free from his parents’ sway and become a cabaret singer. But while it’s engaging to watch the romantic complications sort themselves out, the show really gets its kick from Wheedon’s audacious ensemble dances – and takes flight on the wings of the two lovebirds, Robert Fairchild as Jerry and Leanne Cope as Lise. On Wednesdays, you have to choose one or the other, depending on whether you book the matinee or evening performance. The press rep (a woman, I might note) steered me toward the matinee, when Fairchild performs.

A principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, Fairchild has a more classic style than either Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire – and he doesn’t have to flash his moves to attract the fair sex. Singing the Gershwins’ “Liza” and “I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck,” Fairchild’s voice tops off his triple-threat credentials, evoking the velvety sound of Michael Feinstein. Subbing for Cope, Sarah Esty seemed to be the ideal partner for Fairchild, slim and delicate with a Leslie Caron allure lurking in her modesty. She’s no slouch as a ballerina, with a Princess Grace Award on her résumé.

My only disappointment, after hearing Max von Essen on the cast album, was to find Nathan Madden bringing Henri’s French accent to “I’ve Got Rhythm” – and prodding Adam to pep up the tempo. Brandon Uranowitz, another original cast member, delivers Adam’s bohemian pessimism with a Woody Allen twinkle, and Jill Paice is purest porcelain as Milo, just what you’d expect 65 years after Nina Foch originated the role.

School of Rock (***1/2) — There’s very little that I can say in defense of Dewey. He’s loud and obnoxious, deceitful and undependable, slovenly and insensitive, and there’s no way this broke, borrowing loser can get a respectable job unless he steals his best friend’s name and résumé to do it. Or let me put it another way: Dewey is the raging, rambunctious soul of rock ‘n’ roll!

Who would have predicted that His Lordship, Andrew Lloyd Webber, would have added such a shambling misfit to a musical pantheon that includes Evita, Norma Desmond, and The Phantom of Opera – not to mention the biblical Jesus, Joseph, and Deuteronomy!? Musically, Lloyd Weber has tossed dignity to the winds in crafting his adaptation of the popular 2003 Jack Black film. Working with lyricist Glenn Slater, Lord Lloyd produces songs that are loudly arrogant like “I’m Too Hot for You,” loudly anti-establishment like “Stick It to the Man,” loudly defiant like “If Only You Would Listen,” and just loudly stupid like “When I Climb to the Top of Mount Rock.”

As we witness the culture clash that happens when Dewey signs on as a substitute teacher at a straight-laced prep school, the occasional excursions away from hard rock are dictated by the action. Students and faculty sing the school alma mater, the too-tightly-wound principal ascends to the throne of “Queen of the Night” (yes, from Mozart’s The Magic Flute) at choir practice, and when the shy black girl finally breaks her silence in Act 2, she sings an amazing “Amazing Grace.”

Amid the basic chords of Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones, and the wild jungle of heavy metal, there are no American Idol power ballads here. On the contrary, His Lordship hints that he himself might be tired of hearing “Memory” from Cats.

Like Dewey, the composer has had to become perversely devout. Molding his middle-schoolers into an ensemble worthy of competing for the prize money in a battle of the bands contest, Dewey finds that he must treat and respect his students as people – something their teachers and parents haven’t done. Being the man for once instead of always flouting him, Dewey grows up a little. The rascally con man may have even become vulnerable to love by the time the jig is up.

Four nights after School of Rock officially opened, the Winter Garden was filled to capacity and audience enthusiasm was sometimes louder than the band. It was lit by Alex Brightman’s incendiary performance as Dewey, leonine in its energy and fury – and teddy bear-like in its clumsy attempts at humanity. Sierra Boggess, ranging from stiff Mozart to loosey-goosey boogie while principal Rosalie gradually lets her hair down, is also a treat.

But the pre-recorded announcement that the boys and girls onstage will actually be playing their instruments proved to be necessary almost as soon as they showed off their chops. Under the keen direction of Laurence Connor, Brightman is more than willing to let the precocious kids shine. Letting them have a good time performing for a packed house seems to lift Brightman’s spirits as the evening progresses – and they’re coke-high to begin with.

King Charles III (***1/2) — Not so long ago, Queen Elizabeth II became the longest serving monarch in the history of the British Crown. With bard-like presumption, playwright Mike Bartlett peeps into the future and divines what will happen when the longest-tenured heir apparent to the throne finally gets his hands around that precious circle of gold.

Bartlett models his drama on the tragedies and histories of Shakespeare, so we haven’t had to swallow this much blank verse in a contemporary Broadway play since the heyday of Maxwell Anderson. Except for the fact that he’s getting a crown in his declining years rather than yielding it, Tim Pigott-Smith as Charles III is often very Lear-like in his quixotic dealings with his family and Parliament. Somehow in his dotage, Charles has latched onto the notion that being the King of England and assorted remnants of the British Empire ought to count for something in determining how his nation is ruled.

Crowned and presented with a bill that would curb the intrusions of the press into his own royal family, Charles refuses to sign, urging the MPs to reconsider before he does. Such regal arrogance does not go down well with Mr. Evans, the sitting Prime Minister, and we suspect that the support Charles gets from Mr. Stevens, the leader of the opposition, is based less on principle than on political opportunism.

And of course, the cantankerous King is beset by thankless children – and haunted by the ghost of Diana. Yes, there is a conspicuous falling off between the saintly Diana (Sally Scott) who seraphically haunts Buckingham Palace by night and the frumpy Camilla (Margot Leicester), particularly since Charles’s second wife has been afforded the luxury of aging.

Things grow royally trashy when we cut away to the kids. Egged on by the former Kate Middleton, Prince William is quite capable of taking advantage of the growing constitutional crisis and snatching the crown for himself. Echoes of Lady Macbeth are unmistakable in the slim, sleek Lydia Wilson’s portrayal of Kate. With better makeup, a more fashionable wardrobe, she’s a cover girl even in her mourning dress.

William’s resistance to Kate’s rapacious hunger for power is rooted in his keen understanding of the innocuousness demanded of a modern monarch. If he is to prevail, it will be through sheer charm and vapid glamor. Oliver Chris wields all these scepters as if he’s born to it. We just don’t hear this urbane scoundrel very clearly because, like Adam James as the PM, he’s too intent on making Bartlett’s verse sound like everyday chitchat. Sadly, they succeed.

There’s a touch of Hamlet in Charles’s vacillations and in his haunting by Diana, but much the same can be said about little brother Richard Goulding as Harry, who thinks about chucking the whole royal scene for the real world. Goaded in that direction by Tafline Steen as Jess, Harry’s latest flame, the family screw-up gets a taste of an anti-Kate. Goulding offers us the Prince Hal aspects of Harry’s peccadillos, striking me as a younger version of Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, while Steen is deliciously instinctive, principled, and rough around the edges.

Plagued by a toxic Congress, we may be more sympathetic to this steely Charles III than his countrymen might be. Make no mistake, in Bartlett’s prognostications for the future, he is very much dissecting and eviscerating the present. Doing it in Shakespearean style just underscores how far we’ve fallen. (Through January 31)

Allegiance (***1/4) — With xenophobia running amuck across our republic, perhaps even deciding the upcoming presidential election, there could hardly be a more opportune moment for exploring the shameful time in our history when we herded Japanese Americans into concentration camps in response to the attack on Pearl Harbor. We haven’t reacted to 9/11 with quite the same fevered paranoia, but after the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, there were ominous echoes in Donald Trump’s stump speeches – and tweets! – when this new musical opened in November.

Unfortunately, as we’ve seen recently when Birds of a Feather opened at Spirit Square, each time playwright Marc Acito touches a hot topic or issue, his script devoutly avoids stirring up emotions with advocacy. In the aftermath of the widespread censorship of And Tango Makes Three, Acito’s Birds managed to so thoroughly dilute the story of Roy and Silo, two gay Central Park penguins who inspired that banned children’s book, that both birds were satirically neutered.

Acito is collaborating on this timely project with Jay Kuo, who also wrote the score, and Lorenzo Thione. But it actually began in 2008, when Kuo and Thione met with George Takei, who stars as our reminiscing narrator, Sam Kimura. Best-known – and loved – for his role as Mr. Sulu in Star Trek, Takei and his family were among 120,000 Japanese Americans who were incarcerated in the camps during WW2, forcefully evacuated from his home in LA and sent to a relocation center in Arkansas.

Those events are replicated in retrospect, with Telly Leung sidling in as the young Sammy, opera singer Christòpheren Nomura providing substantial backbone as his father, and Lea Salonga – a Broadway star since opening night of Miss Saigon in 1991 – providing an interesting counterweight to the other Kimuras as Sammy’s older sister.

So instead of focusing on the wave of paranoia and bigotry, by Americans and their government, that robbed citizens like Takei of their liberty through most of their childhood, we lock in on the conflicting ways that the Kimuras chose to personify gaman, the Japanese concept of “endurance with dignity.” Tatsuo, Sammy’s father, stands up for his principles by refusing to capitulate to the loyalty questionnaire our government distributed to internees – demanding their pledge of allegiance in writing.

Sammy took the opposite path, not only filling out his questionnaire with the answers Uncle Sam expected but also enlisting in a special Army unit. Sammy is bent on demonstrating his willingness – and his people’s – to go into battle for America and to accept the most hazardous duty Uncle Sam can devise. The resulting family rift can never be healed.

Amid the semi-fictional Kimuras, I found myself intrigued by the one true-life character in Allegiance, Mike Masaoka, the national spokesman for the Japanese American Citizens League. From the safety of Washington, DC, he urged all Japanese Americans to cooperate with the government’s actions – and accept pennies-on-the-dollar offers for their property – rather than question the constitutionality of this Nazi-like roundup.

By the end of the evening, all the Kimuras despised Masaoka. Thanks to the scripted, pampered sleaziness by Greg Watanabe, I also grew to hate Masaoka more than anyone else I saw onstage. With all the unjust indignities heaped upon innocent Japanese citizens, I would rather that my outrage had been channeled toward some of the white bastards who were truly responsible. With the same obliquity of its title, Allegiance denounces their unconscionable actions by showing us the humanity, fortitude, and character of their victims. (Through February 14)

Sylvia (***) — A.R. Gurney’s frisky comedy has been mounted so many times in Charlotte that it can be considered a modern classic. Yet until last October, it hadn’t been done on Broadway. The original 1995 production, starring Sarah Jessica Parker in the title role, ran less than five months, and by the time I caught up with it, the late Jan Hooks of SNL fame had taken settled into the doggie leash.

So it’s quite possible that Parker’s husband, Matthew Broderick, logged more performances in Sylvia during the limited three-month engagement (including previews) that ended less than two weeks ago. Undoubtedly, more people saw Broderick as Greg, the disgruntled commodities trader who spirals into a midlife crisis after indulging and adulating a stray pooch that he picks up in Central Park. The Cort Theatre, where this revival was staged, has more than three times the capacity of the site where the Manhattan Theatre Club first birthed Gurney’s bedraggled part-poodle.

I can’t say that the upsizing does Gurney any favors – aside from allowing him to charmingly record the pre-show cautions about candy wrappers and cell phones. The larger stage allows David Rockwell the opportunity to create a set design encompassing a large swath of the park with imposing luxury hotels in the background. It’s also cool to see Greg’s apartment drop out of the flyloft while the bosky cityscape remains visible through its windows.

But I like Greg better in a small theater where I feel like I’m intruding on his space. On the Broadway stage, Greg is in our larger space – diminished because Broderick is too much the artist to upsize him into theatricality. Annaleigh Ashford takes fierce hold of that job as the mouthy, doggie lead. She can only have gained in stature and confidence since she first won my heart during the summer of 2013 in Kinky Boots. Last season, she snagged a Tony for her role in the You Can’t Take It With You revival.

Under Daniel Sullivan’s direction, Ashford seemed to be straining at times to carry the comedy on her haunches. On the other hand, Julie White as Greg’s increasingly stressed – and jealous – wife Kate seemed exactly the right size, striking a wonderful tone that discarded the shrewishness I’ve seen from other actresses in favor of a very literate exasperation. The lady quotes Shakespeare, after all.

Robert Sella took on the three juicy cameos, but only one of them scored well. Working as Ashford’s foil, Sella was hilarious as Kate’s friend Phyllis, increasingly alarmed by Sylvia’s physical attentions to the point where her visit ended abruptly in panic. Encounters with Tom, the manly owner of the dog who deflowers Sylvia, failed to detonate as well as any of the Charlotte productions I’ve seen. Late in Act 2, both Sullivan and Sella seemed to miss the point of Leslie, the neurotic therapist of indeterminate gender who presumes to offer counseling to Greg and Kate – even though she’s clearly more unstable than either of them.

It was toward the end, when the action became dramatic, that the rapport between the three leads jelled most effectively. The aftershow was also charming, with pictures of audience members’ pets projected on the upstage wall, submitted via social media.

The Lullaby Off-Broadway

By Perry Tannenbaum

Hir (***3/4) – Taylor Mac and I have a history. When I first saw him at Spoleto Festival USA in 2008, the highlight of his one-man Be(a)st of Taylor Mac came when he donned a ginormous set of singing boobs to deliver one of his greatest hits, “The Revolution Will Not Be Masculinized.” Three years later, it got more personal. Now it was his festival, bitches, renamed the Stiletto Festival. Mid-performance, he stopped to ask me why I was writing. Mac not only found my answer cool, he called me “Honey”!

So as I planned my latest New York pilgrimage, when I learned that Mac had penned a new play — and that he and his ukulele were not in it — I was intrigued and a little skeptical. As Mac himself freely admits in his illuminating essay included in the Playwrights Horizons playbill, Hir is a totally new kind of venture for him, a plunge into the mainstream.

He’s riffing on the hopeless environment he grew up in — Stockton, California — “one of those places where the American dream got stuck in an American reality.” The family situation; Mom and Dad living in their starter home for 30 years, raising two boys who are now fully grown; echoes Mac’s own upbringing. But the realism pretty much stops there.

What we see at curtain rise is no less disturbing than the explosive ending Mac has in store, just more strangely comical. The living room/dining room/kitchen is chaotic — with a willful vengeance, a tacky mess-terpiece by set designer David Zinn.

In the corner, by the side door (the front door has been sacrificed to a mound of junk), a man adorned with clown wig and makeup lives and sleeps in a cardboard box. He’s still in his nightgown — and his diaper may need changing.

Enter our returning war vet, Isaac, a Marine who has served the past three years in Mortuary Affairs, doing what must be done with body parts retrieved from combat. What he sees blows his mind, for the man is Isaac’s father, Arnold, debilitated from a massive stroke during his son’s absence. His formerly meek mother, Paige, not only condones her husband’s degraded condition, she forcibly insists on it. This is her ghoulish retribution for the years that she suffered abuse at Arnold’s hands. Same thing with the epic clutter. Don’t you dare clean that disgusting sink!

A bigger surprise emerges from the bedroom. Isaac’s younger sister, Maxine, is now transgendered as Max, a walking new New Testament of thou-shall-nots. Ze is the pronoun that must replace he or she, and from now on, him or her are off-limits when referring to Max. It’s hir. Ze also would have us acknowledge Mona Lisa’s true gender and discard the Old Testament, due to the gender bias evident in the Noah’s Ark story.

Beyond seeing his baby sis sprouting a beard, future shock besets Isaac, who presumably never got the memo that trannies are no longer content with mere tolerance and equality. But instead of staying focused on Max, Hir becomes a pitched battle over how Arnold should be treated and whether order should return to Isaac’s home.

The chief reason why this dark comedy worked so well, despite somewhat betraying its title, was the astounding Kristine Nielsen as Paige, more frightfully eccentric than she was in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike and just as funny despite all her sadism. No less colorful in his nearly silent role, Daniel Oreskes as Arnold ably bestrides the pitiful invalid he is now and the brute he once was.

The brothers, less traveled than the true theatre vets, were also very fine. Under Niegel Smith’s deft direction, Cameron Scoggins gradually allows us to see the upside of Isaac’s spit-and-polish temperament. And in so many ways, Tom Phelan is the antithesis of Mac as Max. Despite a certain amount of brashness and defiance, we can see that Max is sensitive, vulnerable, and normal. There are no sequins in his makeup kit. All in all, Max may be the most wholesome person we see, the Medium Mac of Mac’s uniquely twisted Fun Home.

While his preoccupation with Paige strays from the subject promised in his title, Hir doesn’t stray from its main theme. It’s a question, really: how far can we go in redressing past abuses before we become the abusers? You can bet we’ll see a Charlotte company address that question as soon as it can get the production rights. Much of what’s wrong with today’s world is wrapped up in that explosive question.That’s exactly right. I’m accusing Taylor Mac of profundity. (Closed on January 3)

Colin Quinn: The New York Story (***1/4) — It’s interesting to observe how Quinn has flipped his basic thesis since his previous off-Broadway hit of 2011, Long Story Short. In that story of world history, ranging from the days of the Greek and Roman Empires right up to the just-completed economic summit in Davos, Switzerland, Quinn debunked the notion that humanity had progressed and evolved. All you needed to do was pick up a copy of today’s newspaper, and you’d find such presumptions of evolution decisively refuted.

Now, he’s telling the story of New York from the opposite perspective, showing us how the characteristics we now associate with New Yorkers are the result of successive waves of immigrants washing onto the shores of Manhattan, beginning with the original Dutch settlers. So why are New Yorkers so pushy, so blunt, so cynical, so rude, so snobbish and so cultured? The answers lie in the cavalcade of nationalities that didn’t altogether melt into the city’s melting pot: Dutchmen, Germans, Irish, Jews, Italians, Blacks, Greeks, Chinese, Russians, Dominicans, Arabs and East Indians.

Some of these groups were already in Quinn’s crosshairs back in 2011, when he also had some choice quips about the French, the Israelis, and Indians. But if you haven’t heard any good Polish jokes lately — or if you’ve been a bit freaked about how Mexicans, Muslims and Syrians are being mentioned in political discourse — you might share my notion that times have changed as radically as Quinn’s historical perspective.

Ethnic humor isn’t as innocent and carefree as it was just five years ago. Perhaps that’s the reason why Quinn, who only seemed nervous when his show began in 2011 (in a performance that was filmed by HBO), displayed some nervousness spasmodically for the entire 67 minutes. The SNL alum is sharper than ever in his analysis, but he’s more keenly aware that he must tread carefully. (Through January 31)

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Nutcracker Rouge (***) – Fin de siècle decadence was already in full swing when Tchaikovsky joined choreographer Marius Petipa in producing a new yuletide ballet in December 1892. Perhaps it was the lack of decadence in this sugary adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King that caused it to fail. While orchestras retained their affection for the Nutcracker Suite, gleaned from the score’s greatest hits, the ballet didn’t gain traction until the San Francisco Ballet made it a holiday tradition in 1944 and George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet followed suit a decade later.

So can we say that Company XIV’s radical alteration of the now-beloved ballet–making it bluer, raunchier, and more acrobatic — is simply bringing us what The Nutcracker should have been all along? Nah. Director/choreographer Austin McComick only begins by relocating Marie-Claire’s sugarplum discoveries from the Land of Sweets to a land of hedonistic abandon. He and our burlesque hostess, zaftig Shelly Watson as Madame Drosselmeyer, also take us far beyond the bounds of Tchaikovsky’s music.

I knew that this wicked confection would be for 16-and-over audiences only, but I was surprised to discover that photography was not only permitted but also encouraged. Tweet your naughtiest shots during the show if you wish, nobody will mind. Luckily, I had my camera with me, for the orgy of picture-taking that I indulged in would have surely exhausted my cell phone’s battery.

Yes, I watched a goodly portion of Nutcracker Rouge through the 3-inch monitor of my Canon G15, and it did occur to me that this might be somewhat unprofessional. But how else could I plumb the true depths of this voyeuristic experience?

There were orgiastic ensembles complete with simulated copulation, an artsy pole dance, an S&M-lesbian episode, a cross-dressing stag party and a kick line of man-poodles. There were also lyrical moments, particularly when Marcy Richardson soared above us into star-studded blackness on an aerial hoop, singing an operatic arrangement of Sia’s “Chandelier.” There may be a few messages from Cirque du Soleil on Richardson’s voicemail. Vegas beckons!

Straddling the gulf between kinkiness and lyricism, Laura Careless as Marie-Claire shed her hoop skirt and corset — and nearly everything else — to dance Tchaikovsky’s climactic “Grand Pas de Deux.” Steven Trumon Gray, wearing nothing more than a florid military coat and a thong, was her Nutcracker Cavalier. Careless has made the sexual awakening of Marie-Claire into her signature role over the course of six years with Company XIV, and she owns it with an expressiveness worthy of the best dancers we’ve had here in the Charlotte Ballet.

Inevitably, Careless’s awakening isn’t as vernal as it once must have been. There’s an unstated conspiracy now between the innocent ballerina and her expectant audience. We all understand that her ignorance, innocence, and shock are all artfully shammed, which gives her fantastical adventure an extra jolt of witchery. (Through January 17)

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Ruthless! (**1/2) – Written and directed by Joel Paley, with music by Marvin Laird, this high-energy spoof, billed as “The Stage Mother of All Musicals,” first stormed onto the off-Broadway scene early in 1992 and snagged the 1993 Outer Critics Circle Award. When it arrived here in 1995, Ruthless! pretty much swept CL’s Charlotte Theatre Awards, including our Show of the Year, encouraging Vance Theatrical Organization to reprise their production in 1996.

Precocious child actress Tina Denmark is the main attraction. Tina can pout impressively, toss a tantrum, or even sob unconvincingly. When these ploys let her down, there’s murder. Tina will literally kill for a role at her school’s upcoming Pippi Longstocking. “But not just any role,” she protests. “The lead!”

Sylvia St. Croix becomes Tina’s manager and agent, hiding the fact that she’s actually her grandmother, the shattered Ruth Del Marco, slain by a critic’s sarcastic review. Believing that Ruth had committed suicide because of her review, the guilt-ridden critic adopted Judy, never letting her know her true origins. So while there’s murder, deception, and violence lurking in the Del Marco/Denmark gene pool, there’s also — talent!

As you might expect in a stage mother spoof, Gypsy is a prime target, but only one of many. Paley recommends that the entire production team should also familiarize themselves The Bad Seed, All About Eve, The Women and Valley of the Dolls. Back then, you might have also found hints of Mame, Cats, A Chorus Line, Mommie Dearest and A Star Is Born, plus a string of long-forgotten Broadway and Hollywood drivel.

So what went wrong in the current revival, also directed by Paley? A couple of things leap to mind. First, he decided to streamline the show to 90 minutes, ditch the intermission, and quicken the pace. Why? So many of those titles in the catalogue above may be too forgotten, 24 years later, to remain ripe targets for mockery. Updating those sharp attacks within the Ruthless framework would have been a mighty challenge. Yet the streamlined result seems thin and hurried. The bang-bang finish that once was so wildly absurd and hilarious is now little more than a blur.

Perhaps more to the point, Paley has continued to maintain that Ruthless is an all-woman show and that the only reason why the over-the-top stage grandmother Sylvia St. Croix is traditionally played by a man is because a man, Joel Vig, gave the best audition for the premiere production. So it would seem that Paul Pecorino, who has replaced Peter Land, is playing Sylvia as an actor disguised as a woman – with little of the effeminate bravura that would gush forth from an authentic drag queen.

Back in 1995, it never occurred to me that Steve Bryan’s diva rendition of Sylvia was better than Vig’s. But it should have, because he was certainly better then than Pecorino is now. Way better. The rest of Paley’s new cast does measure up, beginning with Tori Murray as Tina, a beauty contest belter with an insane evil streak. Kim Maresca as her mother Judy is as perfect a housekeeper as Tina is an ingénue — with similar schizoid tendencies.

Yet Rita McKenzie as theatre critic Lita Encore upstages her daughter in the big show-stopping song, “I Hate Musicals.” This is preternatural, Ethel Merman-sized hatred for a critic’s daily bread, and McKenzie nearly does it as brashly and robustly as dear Deborah Rhodes did it here in ’95 and ’96. God bless ’em both. (Through April 2)

Two Simpatico Spirits Combine on Saint-Saëns

Photos by Michael Polito and Sheila Rock

By Perry Tannenbaum

January 8, 2016, Charlotte, NC – Twenty years after her breakthrough recording of Saint-Saëns’ First Cello Concerto, Han-Na Chang made her debut with the Charlotte Symphony last week. Only she wasn’t playing the cello as she was then, when Mstislav Rostopovich conducted the London Symphony. No, at the ripe old age of 33, Chang was our guest conductor and Cicely Parnas, 22, was our soloist – in the midst of a victory lap of her own with the Saint-Saëns.

ParnasPredictably, the concert perked up when the kindred spirits collaborated. The busy opening isn’t easy for the soloist to project in a concert hall. Among the recordings I’ve sampled – including two I own by cellists Yo-Yo Ma and Jacqueline DuPré – only the one recorded by the Seattle Symphony by Gerard Schwarz with his son Julian as the soloist manages to truly balance orchestra and cello. So I suspect that legerdemain was accomplished at a mixing board.

Chang didn’t hold back in her accompaniment any more than Rostropovich had, but there was a little more snap to her conducting, a special relish for the sudden sforzandos. Some exquisite filigree from flutist Amy Orsinger Whitehead adorned the opening Allegretto non troppo, instigating some sweet dialogue as Parnas played the slow section beautifully, more body suffusing her tone.

Somehow there was more space provided for her sound when Parnas returned to the uptempo climaxes of the movement. Yet there was no sense of her being hurled into these more passionate outpourings. The suddenness of the sforzandos halted the flow instead of prodding the soloist onwards, and I wasn’t as swept along as I am listening to the two London recordings.

The soft middle movement, a quaint Allegretto con moto, crept in without quite matching the delicacy you hear from Michael Tilson Thomas in his fine 1993 recording, also with the Londoners, behind Steven Isserlis. Gradually, the orchestra in staccato was partially won over by the cello’s legato, so a rather starchy minuet eventually became a pleasantly flowing waltz. Here there was more admirable delicacy from the woodwinds with Parnas trilling behind them.

With no pause between the middle movement and the concluding Allegro non troppo, the dialogue between the Chang and Parnas came into fullest flower. Principal oboist Hollis Ulaky keyed the return to the fast tempo, and the snappiness of Chang’s approach worked perfectly. The big orchestral passages were played speedily, zestfully, and precisely – with Parnas answering in kind. (The Chang and Isserlis are at the head of the class among the Saint-Saëns recordings I’ve heard. Ultimately, I find that the Isserlis has the benefit of richer sound.)

As graceful in her own willowy way as Christopher Warren-Green on the podium, Chang often reminded me of Seiji Ozawa and his zest for color and percussion. Applied to Ravel’s eight-part Valses nobles et sentimentales, the opening suite of the concert occasionally sounded too raucous and contemporary, as if warring with the sentimental waltzes and its own pastoral charm. The French horns and the strings emitted a magical glow in one of the middle movements, and the woodwinds faded gracefully in the quiescent conclusion, leaving plucked strings in their wake.

But I really loved the zest that Chang brought to the Sibelius – and the bravura that came from Charlotte Symphony’s principals. Eugene Kavadlo opened this Andante with an extended clarinet solo, occasionally backed by a soft rumble of the timpani. What really triggered the full orchestral outburst, among the most memorable for me in symphonic music, was the churning of the second violins. Each time the music peaked, the robust brass section – three trumpets, three trombones, and the tuba – were there to crown it.

The violins were very sweet – or skittish – carrying us along toward the huge brassy reprise. In the quieter moments, harpist Andrea Mumm conspired first with Ulaky and later with Kavadlo, but as the storms gathered, timpanist Leonardo Soto became increasingly active. Another andante followed, where Chang and the violins seemed spontaneously swept along. When she brought her characteristic snap to the orchestral texture, it was after the strings had ratcheted up the urgency and let out a keening lament. At the point when we spun toward warlike fury, those jagged edges spiked the insanity. A weepy aftermath ensued from the violins with a solemn overlay from the brass.

Sibelius’s idea of Scherzo was also much to Chang’s liking, its quick marching sections very amenable to the punch she applied to them. Lighter moments came courtesy of the flighty flutes and the calm French horns. Soto was able to play the insistent marching theme a few times on timpani, and he didn’t shrink at all from his moments of melody.

Chang was no more immune to the rhapsodic allure of Sibelius’s Finale than Jan himself must have been when he heard the symphonic works of Tchaikovsky that surely inspired it. (Scratch that, Sibelius hated it when everyone compared his symphonies to Tchaikovsky’s!) There’s plenty of turbulence counterbalancing the opening schmaltz, plenty of opportunities for Chang’s slashing proclivities to come to the fore. But unlike the Ravel, the shuttling between the bellicose and the sentimental episodes was deftly handled.

Mumm was not only active in the sugary sections. There were times when she actually coaxed a tinny sound from her harp. The spotlight fell on her at the end of the piece, as the last thunder from Soto and the brass gave way to a brief hush. My favorite recording of the symphony remains the first I acquired, by Mariss Jansons and the Oslo Philharmonic. They thoughtfully give a special credit to the clarinetist, so it was no surprise that Chang asked Kavadlo to stand for the first bow. The audience needed no such prompting.

“Schumanniana” Presents Vivid Echoes of Bipolarity and Romanticism

By Perry Tannenbaum

There is certainly no post-holiday letdown in Classical programming at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art. Leaping into 2016, they’ve resumed their first-Tuesday series with an all-Schumann concert of chamber music gems, foreshadowing a February visitation by world-renowned clarinetist Michael Collins, who will be playing trio works by Mozart and Bruch. In addition, a side order of John Adams is planned early in the same week, when he plays Mozart’s concerto for basset clarinet with the Charlotte Symphony. Nor does the March installment of the Music and Museum series qualify as an anticlimax, since Antonio Lysy will be playing half of Bach’s six solo cello suites at the lunchtime concert and the other half – the even-numbered suites – later in the day at the after-work concert.

Turning the clock further and further back as it progressed, the noontime “Schumanniana” launched the new year with the first of the composer’s two 1851 violin sonatas, calmed down somewhat with the cello sonata scoring of the 1849 Adagio and Allegro, and galloped to the finish line with the rousing Piano Trio No. 1 from 1847. Bruce Murray, the former Brevard Music Center dean, was at the keyboard throughout. After the opening piece, Charlotte Symphony’s assistant principal cellist, Jon Lewis, joined him. Only the young French-born violinist, Chloé Kiffer was making her Charlotte debut – one that I will not soon forget.

If the programming strategy had prioritized acclimating the audience to the echoey acoustic of the Bechtler’s fourth floor with its high-vaulted ceiling, the ensemble would have opted to begin smoothly and lyrically with the Adagio and Allegro. Instead, we plunged into the dark brooding mood of Schumann’s “Mit leidenschaftlichem Ausdruck” (with passionate expression), the swift opening movement of the A minor Violin Sonata No. 1. It wasn’t the best way to spotlight Kiffer’s precision – or her silvery tone – as she attacked the turbulent swirl of Schumann’s romanticism. However, amid the hairpin turns of mood there were calm episodes when the music slowed down long enough to dispel the room’s reverberations and reveal the pearlescent clarity of Murray’s accompaniment and the graceful sinew of Kiffer’s playing. Kiffer navigated the shifting currents with the driving purposefulness of an Olympic kayak racer knifing through the rapids.

We could luxuriate more in Kiffer’s sweet lyricism when we reached the middle Allegretto movement, where the Bechtler’s acoustic warmth became more of an asset. The lilt of the violinist’s playing didn’t disappear during quicker-paced episodes. Their joy bloomed while a delicate elegance remained. Rounding into the closing “Lebhaft” (lively) movement, Kiffer didn’t have to deal with the constant bipolarity of Schumann’s mood swings, and forged straight ahead with a speed that carried the jubilation of love along with its urgent anguish. Only a couple of cautionary decelerations punctuated the onrush of exhilaration. Murray and Kiffer conspired to sustain the freshness of this finale, serving up abrupt changes in dynamics and tempo until it climaxed.

There were far more opportunities for Murray to shine in the A-flat Adagio and Allegro, beginning in the opening movement, marked “Langsam, mit innigem Ausdruck” (slowly with heartfelt expression), where he and Lewis passed the melody back and forth. The cellist’s fine left hand was particularly effective here, delivering silken glissandos and a well-judged vibrato. Lewis hit the more familiar Allegro melody with admirable gusto, although he also ran afoul of the room’s acoustics in the most agitated moments, as you might expect with a movement marked “Rasch und feurig” (quick and fiery). The effort required to savor Lewis’ work on the melody often distracted me from Murray’s fine work at the keyboard, a richer accompaniment than you might expect behind such a catchy tune. As we reached the crest of this powerfully yearning movement, the duo turned up their intensity a notch, drawing attention to their fine rapport as the piece ended.

Schumann’s Piano Trio No. 1 is so chockfull of memorable ideas that only the third of the four movements can sound unfamiliar after you’ve heard the piece two or three times. Both Murray and Kiffer reveled in the melodiousness of the opening, sharing most of the action of this “Mit Energie und Leidenschaft” (with energy and passion) movement. Lewis was most impactful in the onset of the mood change, Kiffer stamping it in wistfulness before the onset of another passionate storm.

The violinist had a keen sense of the flourishing gestures in the foreboding moments and of their connection to the grand peaks that followed. She and Murray galloped into the ensuing movement, nearly violating the “not too fast” component of its “Lebhaft, doch nicht zu rasch” marking. Nor did the softer midsection of the movement ease off as dramatically as other readings I’ve heard. So the return to the opening gallop was more organically connected, though less dramatic. Yet there was still unmistakable bravura held in reserve for the conclusion.

An island of calm – and ordinariness – in this powerful masterwork, the third movement was particularly notable for its pleasantly tart blending of Lewis’ cello with Kiffer’s violin. Murray was no less effective here, levitating the end of this “Langsam” so that it floated decorously into the final “Mit Feuer” without a pause. It was here that I noticed the ongoing ministrations of the projectionist, which dissolved a previous quibble I had with the slides on the rear wall that I noticed as Benjamin K. Roe was delivering his erudite intros to the works and the musicians. Amid the movements listed under the titles of each succeeding piece, the first movement was always bolded, standing apart from the other movements. It was only when we moved seamlessly to the final movement of the concert that I noticed the boldface helpfully shifting to “Mit Feuer” on the projected slide.

While the trio didn’t initially illuminate the mystery of why Schumann thought this movement was notably fiery, they brought out its true anthemic flavor as well as any live performance or recording I’ve heard. Murray and Kiffer were both ardent handing the melody off to each other, all the more powerful when they chimed in together. The entire trio churned ominously before the final return of the triumphal theme. After it sounded, the pianist and the violinist took turns taking us on arpeggiated excursions, ratcheting up the tension before an ultimate release of true fire. It was a frantic, galloping rush to the finish, and there was no mystery at all about why the performance drew a standing ovation.

50 Ways to Leave Your Sofa: the Best of Charlotte Theatre in 2015

There really was a time when I could legitimately claim to have seen every theatre production that Charlotte had to offer. So when I tell you that I saw 67 comedies, dramas, and musicals during 1988 — the first full calendar year that the Loaf was dispensed in our ugly green boxes — well, that’s pretty close to all there was, folks. Even among that manageable number of productions, a few from Concord, Davidson, Winthrop, and UNC Charlotte padded the total.

Nowadays, I can’t really keep up with it all. When the ball drops in Times Square later this week, I will have seen upwards of 85 events in the Metrolina area that exhibited the spark of live theatre. And I will have missed at least 46 more — not counting productions in Concord, Winthrop, and UNC Charlotte.

On rare occasions, I get the feeling that quality of local presentations has grown as lushly as quantity. Just after Labor Day, when the 2015-16 season unofficially launched, our most professional adult company in town, Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, was running The Patron Saint of Losing Sleep, winner of their second nuVoices New Play Festival competition. It was arguably no better than the fourth-best homegrown show opening that week, behind Theatre Charlotte’s La Cage aux Folles, Queen City Theatre Company’s The Money Shot, and — up yonder in Cornelius — The Warehouse’s Wonder of the World.

The latter three are among my picks for the 50 Best Charlotte Theatre Productions of 2015 that you’ll find posted online at our website. We need not shed crocodile tears for Actor’s Theatre as their lease on Stonewall Street lapses, for you’ll find four or five of their other productions on that list, with strong candidates for top comedy, drama, and musical among them.

But when have we ever been able to say the same thing about Theatre Charlotte, CPCC Theatre, and Children’s Theatre of Charlotte all in the same year? Yup, 2015 was pretty historic hereabouts for its theatrical excellence.

Sure, these companies are filling the voids left by the implosions of Charlotte Repertory Theatre in 2005 and CAST in 2014. But they’re just part of the story.

Rep was the resident company at Booth Playhouse while they were twisting in the last throes of their death spiral. In the years since they left, Blumenthal Performing Arts has dramatically augmented their theatrical offerings. While top-tier tours are playing at Belk Theater in their longstanding Broadway Lights series, the Blumenthal is increasingly importing Off-Broadway attractions to their smaller venues, including the Booth, whose exterior often sports an authentic Broadway vulgarity these days.

50 Shades! The Musical Parody, Dixie’s Tupperware Party, Menopause the Musical Survivor Tour, Evil Dead The Musical and Love, Loss, and What I Wore are among the pint-sized theatricals that Blumenthal brought to us in 2015. Meanwhile, they’ve grown more proactive in other performing arts, most notably in jazz and dance. Although their Jazz Room series is already in full swing, Blumenthal PA’s biggest jazz splash is yet to come, with the debut of the new Charlotte Jazz Festival set for April 22-23.

With visits from Martha Graham Dance Company, Momix, and this week’s Hip Hop Nutcracker, you might infer that Blumenthal has designs on establishing Charlotte as a hub for modern dance, anchored by our own Charlotte Ballet. But when they staged the first Breakin’ Convention at Levine Avenue of the Arts and Knight Theater for two days in October — with commitments to reprise the Sadler’s Wells import twice more through 2017 — we could heartily declare a mission accomplished.

Up in NoDa, where CAST left its void, the scenario has been subtler. When we broke the story of how another rogue theater board of directors wimped their way to oblivion — on the same real estate where Rep’s administrative offices and rehearsal space had stood — we recapped the final hours when CAST founder Michael Simmons had reached out to UpStage impresario Michael Ford. Simmons’ scheme to partner with Ford in leasing the 2424 N. Davidson St. site never came to fruition.

Yet the overflow demand for bookings at UpStage, fueling Ford’s interest in extra space at CAST’s multiple stages, didn’t evaporate. How could Appalachian Creative Theatre, Charlotte’s Off-Broadway, Citizens of the Universe, FroShow Productions, Innate Productions, PaperHouse Theatre, Quixotic Theatre, TAPROOT, Three Bone Theatre, and XOXO all create in peace and harmony in the spacious grunge of Ford’s trendy NoDa landmark?

Even with the formation of the League of Independent Theatres (LIT), such coordination was impossible. The overflow of booking demand took a migratory turn, and the geographical overflow irrigated sites in NoDa and the surrounding area that hadn’t hosted theatre before or recently. Led by visionary eccentric James Cartee, Citizens of the Universe (COTU) did most of the groundbreaking. First they tilled 100 Gardens on 36th Street, transplanted one of their staples to Tommy’s Pub in Plaza-Midwood, took a Beowulf detour to Spirit Square, overran NoDa’s streets in a second annual pursuit of Jack the Ripper, and occupied NoDa’s signature consignment shop, Salvaged Beauty, for a suitably retro Halloween.

Other explorations were auspicious. Nicia Carla took Oscar Wilde to the vintage Frock Shop on Central Avenue, Brianna Smith’s TAPROOT and Caroline Renfro’s FroShow reclaimed the 1212 Studio on E. 10th St., and Donna Scott Productions revived the Charlotte Art League in SouthEnd as a theatre destination. Finally, the COTU odyssey weighed anchor in the desolation of 2424 N. Davidson. Yes, The Woolgatherer was staged on the same property where CAST had decamped. Actually, their most recent effort played out at the 28th Street entrance to the site, where the lobby to Charlotte Rep’s offices had once been. How’s that for tying the essence of 2015 into a neat little bow?

I’ll do the same by naming my choices for best comedies, dramas, and musicals for 2015. Winners are shown in bold with Show of the Year in caps.

Comedies: Bad Jews (Actor’s Theatre), Boeing Boeing (CPCC), The Book of Liz (Donna Scott Productions), Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse (Children’s Theatre), The Money Shot (Queen City), A Woman of No Importance (PaperHouse), Wonder of the World (The Warehouse)

Dramas: Detroit (Actor’s Theatre), 4000 Miles (Three Bone), Jackie & Me (Children’s Theatre), Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (CPCC), The Lion in Winter (COTU), The Normal Heart (Theatre Charlotte), Seven Guitars (On Q Performing Arts)

Musicals: Chicago (Davidson Community Players), Ella’s Big Chance (Children’s Theatre), La Cage aux Folles (Theatre Charlotte), The Phantom of the Opera (CPCC), Rock of Ages (Actor’s Theatre), Spunk (On Q), Young Frankenstein (CPCC)

And what about those touring productions that invaded Belk Theater? The best were Newsies, Pippin, and Kinky Boots. The winner is pretty obvious, since the Kinky Boots is back at the Belk this week.

 

50 WAYS TO LEAVE YOUR SOFA: Roll the Credits!

Here are the best shows Charlotte theater companies had to offer in 2015, listed alphabetically by company. Where more than one show is listed for a company, shows are given chronologically.

Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte

Caesar’s Blood [staged reading]

Stick Fly

*Detroit

*Rock of Ages

*Bad Jews

Appalachian Creative Theatre

Sylvia

Children’s Theatre of Charlotte

Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel

*Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse

*Jackie & Me

Coraline

*Ella’s Big Chance

‘Twas the Night Before…

Citizens of the Universe

1984

*The Lion in Winter

Beowulf

The Woolgatherer

CPCC Theatre

*Joe Turner’s Come and Gone

Oliver!

Anything Goes

*Boeing Boeing

*Young Frankenstein

The Trip to Bountiful

*The Phantom of the Opera

Davidson College

What You Will

Davidson Community Players

Ordinary People

*Chicago

Donna Scott Productions

Shiloh Rules

*The Book of Liz

FroShow Productions

Grounded

Innate Productions

Three Tall Women

On Q Performing Arts

*Seven Guitars

*Spunk

PaperHouse Theatre

*A WOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE

Queen City Theatre Company

Buyer & Cellar

*The Money Shot

Quixotic Theatre

The Pillowman

Shakespeare Carolina

Henry V

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Theatre Charlotte

Harvey

*The Normal Heart

Jesus Christ Superstar

*La Cage aux Folles

Dracula

The Avant Guardians

Bull

The Playworks Group

Lunch at the Piccadilly

The Warehouse

Barrymore

*Wonder of the World

Three Bone Theatre

2 Across

*4000 Miles

Two Rooms

* – category nominees

Bold – category winners

Bold caps – Show of the Year.