Daily Archives: January 1, 2016

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.

Drosselmeyer Takes It to the Hood, Yo

By Perry Tannenbaum

On a nighttime set projected onto the back wall of Booth Playhouse that evokes the setting for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, Mike Fitelson has made over a Christmas classic produced by the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. Aside from Drosselmeyer’s Toy Shop and the tumescent fir tree that sprouts up deep in Act 1 on an empty moonlit playground, The Hip Hop Nutcracker makes few references to Christmas or the E.T.A. Hoffman story that inspired Tchaikovsky’s wondrous ballet.

But a lithe and versatile 11-member dance troupe certainly reminds us of the Russian composer’s music, dancing to a conventional pre-recorded performance of the score with live lagniappe provided by violinist Mathew Silvera and DJ Boo. Here in Washington Heights, with the mighty GW Bridge looming behind the tenements, Maria-Clara is our protagonist. The teenager’s quarreling parents and an assortment of neighborhood characters, some of them gang members, precede her onstage.

Surrounded by such seedy strife, Maria-Clara could use a Prince Charming coming to her rescue. Enter The Nutcracker in the appropriate artist-formerly-known-as-Prince costume, wheeling a pushcart that bears his nutty name. He’s promptly thrashed by the gang when he tries to come to the aid of our damsel in distress. So perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Drosselmeyer is her prince – except, in this instance, it’s Frau Drosselmeyer, since the impish Miki Michelle dances the role.

As in the traditional Nutcracker, Drosselmeyer flamboyantly doles out gifts, and once again, it’s ambiguous whether Frau Drosselmeyer sends Maria-Clara off on a magical journey or lulls her into a fabulous dream with a hypnotic watch chain. In either case, no Flying by Foy is necessary to convey Maria-Clara to this magical realm – as it is when Charlotte Ballet sets up its traditional Nutcracker downstairs at Belk Theater. No, the gateway to this journey is a graffiti-strewn storefront façade that lifts like the garage door of a loading dock (such protection is required by Upper West Side shopkeepers), revealing a deeper more amazing vista than you would ever have suspected inside a neighborhood Candyland store.

There are more blandishments to the new scenario that you’ll enjoy, most notably the pair of red sneakers slung over the lamppost where we first see the violinist play, and Fitelson does attack the problem that besets most traditional Nutcracker productions – the fact that nothing really happens in Act 2 besides a pleasant parade of luscious melodies and dances.

What chiefly pleased me was choreography of Jennifer Weber, a marvelous fusion of hip-hop and traditional ballet. Perhaps because Weber, who also stage directed, allows for so much of the dancers’ freestyling to be incorporated into the dance, the lead characters positively gush with charisma. Leading the ensembles, Ann Sylvia Clark gives Maria-Clara a definite Janet Jackson wickedness and flair, yet in the pas de deux, there’s an innocence and grace that recalls Mia Cunningham’s sweetheart exuberance during the many years that she was NC Dance Theatre’s Clara. In the title role, Gabriel Alvarez is as proper and deferential as his starchy military costume would imply, but he can also bust some prodigious moves.

In the holiday spirit, the strife between Mom and Dad is more comical than mean, with Myriam Gadri and Alain “Hurrikane” Lauture establishing a winsome contrast. Gadri is long, leggy, and wanton, a Mom who wants to dance; while Lauture is crotchety, jealous, and hypochondriacal. Another side to the old folks emerges in Act 2 when we behold the couple back in 1984, before Marie-Claire was a gleam in Dad’s eye, so these are two juicy roles. Among the minor players, I’d call attention to Brandon Rosario, as the gang leader and the Mouse King, and Sophia Lavonne as Drosselmeyer’s toy marionette, perhaps the most classical episode of the entire evening.

My only disappointment was in the music coming languidly out of the Booth’s sound system. I wish they had done more with it. Duke Ellington was able to record a whole CD of jazzy Nutcracker hits, making them over into his inimitable big band idiom. I think a funkified Tchaikovsky would be more to the point here, at least interspersed with the orchestral score. Except for one charming moment when his soundboard ministrations mimic a blizzard wind, DJ Boo devolves into virtual insignificance after his overloud preshow and break, and the lonesome forlorn Silvera merely plays the tunes as written.

A fiddler under a pair of sneakers. Sounds crazy, no?” Okay, that was a bad joke, but I couldn’t resist throwing it out there.

Jamie Laval Injects Wassail, Bagpipes, Poetry, and Highland Dancing into His Scottish Christmas

Jamie-&-Dancers-Christmas-5-Low-res

By Perry Tannenbaum

Unconvinced that Charlotte was a hotbed for competitive fiddling enthusiasts, I was a little doubtful that a U.S. National Scottish Fiddle Champion would attract a substantial crowd to a “Christmas in Scotland” concert on a Monday night three days after the holiday. But as we drew up to the Great Aunt Stella Center on a sloppy evening, we noticed that the outdoor parking lot was full. So was the lower level of the nearby parking deck, and there was a bit of a crowd in the lobby, where we picked up our tickets. Jamie Laval last appeared in the Metrolina area back in October at Belmont Abbey College, more than two years after participating in a Classical Idol fundraiser on behalf of the Charlotte Symphony – perhaps on the strength of the Asheville-based violinist’s previous Metrolina foray at Davidson College in 2011. This Christmas gift from the mountains had no precedent, but there is no doubt that the Great Aunt Stella Center has established an enviable folk music cachet in Charlotte due to the series of free concerts that Charlotte Folk Society stages there monthly.

Ensuring that the event would be nothing if not colorful, Laval brought plenty of artillery to the occasion, including four instrumentalists, a budding young vocalist, and four dancers, who changed costumes at least four times during the concert. Further diversifying the musical palette, most of the musicians played multiple instruments. Both McLeod brothers, David and Michael, played bagpipes and the less punishing smallpipes, with Michael adding a drum and a pennywhistle along the way. For the most part, Rosalind Buda supplied a fluid obbligato and continuo on bassoon, but she also wended her way through a couple of bombards, a recorder, and an odd percussion instrument that could have begun life as a black canteen. Above all else, Buda read all the poetry selections beautifully, adorning them with a warm expressiveness and just a faint touch of dramatic flair. When he wasn’t flashing his championship fiddling bravura, Laval switched less impressively to strumming a guitar. But Laval was also a relaxed and personable host – his intros, anecdotes, and stories flowing so effortlessly that I sometimes lost track of when he crossed over from one type of spiel into another.

Yet there was nothing offhand about this concert. Laval’s craftsmanship was immediately apparent in the arrangement of the opening medley. Kelly Brzozowski began it with a lovely solo on the Celtic harp, introducing the “Wexford Carol,” and reminding me what a marvelous acoustic the Great Aunt Stella offers – something I’d quite forgotten since I last heard music there in 2001. We savored the sweet-sounding Ana Carolina Scott soon enough as she sang the ensuing “Angelus ad Virginem,” where we also heard our first sampling of the smallpipes. By the time we galloped into the fifth and final tune in this medley, “The Flagon,” we had seen most of the musical arsenal. With three wind instruments blowing simultaneously, the dynamic difference from the opening quiescence was startling.

The variety, contrasts, and unpredictability of the opening medley were mirrored by the entire program, which eventually covered more than 30 songs. Scott returned for three more vocals before intermission, beginning with a quiet rendition of a pre-Christian version of “The Holly and the Ivy,” accompaniment by harp and guitar with a couple of bassoon fills between stanzas. Assembling his program, Laval took a special interest in Celtic materials, melodies and lyrics that were eventually commandeered by Christianity – altering traditions rather than superseding them. That didn’t prevent Laval from utilizing a trio of young women from Atlanta’s Glencoe School of Highland Dance in further exploring Scottish folkways or from sneaking into North American tradition for a taste of Cape Breton step dancing with Amy Mooney.

After Buda and the McLeod brothers demonstrated how loud and make-it-stop irritating just three smallpipes could be on “Ding Dong Merrily on High,” things quieted down for the no-less-lively “Cape Breton Step Dance” featuring Laval’s infectious fiddling and Mooney’s percussive stepping. Mooney’s dancing was actually so percussive that she and Laval would trade two-bar solos with each other as Brzozowski accompanied on harp (with a few foot stomps of her own). All three Glencoe dancers then appeared in bright plaid skirts for their “Highland Dance Set,” accompanied by Luval’s fiddle and the McLeods’ smallpipes.

Return visits by the quaint trio didn’t wear out their welcome. The Glencoes next appeared in black outfits that were bedecked with colorful strips of fabric. Shaking bell sticks in both hands as they danced, they simulated a pair of wassail ceremonies designed to waken the apple orchards in the dead of winter and ensure the hard cider for the coming year. The next costume change was even more surprising as the Glencoe gals shuffled back onto the stage after intermission in sailor suits, doing mock battle with one another as the two bagpipers played the “Sailor’s Hornpipe” behind them.

While the smallpipes’ wind is supplied entirely by a small bellows pumped under the armpit, the bagpipes are fueled by both breath and bellows. Two of them, as was proven by the ensemble’s “Bessie Brown” just before intermission, can be even more make-it-stop loud than three smallpipes – with a rougher, more irritating sound at full blast. A rock concert sensibility would have been helpful, but I found that I’d acclimated well enough by the time we reached the evening’s final medley, finishing with the “Break Your Bass Drone” and “Flett from Flocca.” Meanwhile, Laval pursued his musical travelogue even more extensively than the ladies’ dance rounds, taking us to Orkney, Brittany, Coventry, Sussex, and Gloucester before we were done.

Most engaging of all was Laval’s extended excursion to Iceland, from where he brought us some diverting Yuletide legends and anecdotes along with three very entertaining songs. Withholding them until the end of the evening, Laval obviously knew the value of what he had. But he also edited prudently, beginning the “Icelandic Yule Lada,” the local equivalent of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” on Day 8. There are actually 13 days in the Icelandic tradition, and how that evolved was another narrative. Laval hadn’t sung audibly during the evening, and when he duetted with Scott in “The Wren in the Furze,” we could hear why, for his vocals were chiefly effective in contrasting with the beauty of Scott’s. The backstory of this song, traditionally sung on St. Stephen’s Day after Christmas, meandered into Icelandic history and how the wren became an icon for military betrayal before taking on a radically different meaning for the holidays. Basically, “The Wren” was the weirdest begging song I’ve ever heard.

The final medley began with the “Boar’s Head Carol” and ended with the entire audience clapping rhythmically as the musicians and dancers took their bows, both bagpipes blaring once again. Even that wasn’t a sufficiently emphatic return to Scotland, but Laval wasn’t guilty of an oversight. For an encore, the pipers and the harpist accompanied Scott as she sang “Auld Lang Syne.” I didn’t recognize Scottish laureate Robert Burns’ words – or his brogue – in the stanzas Scott sang, but when the ensemble answered with the refrain, all hearts were in the Highlands.