Monthly Archives: February 2016

Wizards of Winging It

Theatre Review: Journey to Oz

By Perry Tannenbaum

DONNA BISE

I’m not sure what the guidelines are on picture-taking at the new Children’s Theatre production of Journey to Oz, written and directed by Christopher Parks. Three or four kids in the audience read the pre-show announcements, and I must confess that I was so focused on how well they managed to talk into the microphones planted on the ears of various adult cast members that I didn’t pay much attention to what they were saying.

Whether or not photos are actually banned, I can report that, at last Saturday afternoon’s performance, there was a photo- and movie-taking orgy as the 75-minute fantasy unfolded. And I can’t say that I heard even one discouraging word from the staffers who were ushering. Children and parents were invited onstage to play a wide assortment of characters from L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz: the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and even the Mayor of Munchkinland.

And of course, multiple adorable Dorothys paraded down the aisles of the McColl Family Theatre. Considering that the contours of Tom Burch’s scenic design are the book stacks we might find at a public library – not Baum’s Kansas plains or his rainbow realm of Oz – I’d say that the iPhones gleefully chronicling the misadventures of children, husbands, and moms onstage added to the giddy mix of make-believe.

Oz erudition isn’t what it once was when Judy Garland sang “Over the Rainbow” every year on TV without ever aging. So the kids and parents fetched from the audience are far more likely to wander off script than they would have a couple of decades ago. Cast members eschew the subtle discrimination of asking for volunteers, so shyness and stage fright can also come into play.

Parks has his five-member cast primed for the unexpected, that’s for sure. A kid in the first row was called on to emulate Toto, but he repeatedly emitted a bark that was no louder than a purr. The dad chosen as Mayor couldn’t bother to try a high Munchkin voice or to offer any testimony at Dorothy’s criminal trial at the Witch’s castle. Cast members didn’t skip over these difficulties, persisted in efforts to get things right, but they never mocked the amateurs. We moved right along at just the right moment.

Opportunities for us to participate helped to sustain our goodwill. When the cyclone touched down in Kansas, we were the wind. When Dorothy landed in Oz, we were the Munchkins who welcomed her. And when the hapless Scarecrow was besieged by crows, we were rallied to be their caws. Perhaps the most magical participatory moment was when we arrived in the Emerald City and a mini-battalion of kids converged upon them from the wings, surreptitiously recruited to portray the Ozians.

Journey to Oz isn’t myopically focused on the foundational Wizard narrative. Over and over, the players insert little vignettes about Baum, newspaper reactions to his books, personal anecdotes, and tidbits on his times. It’s a little like an annotated edition. We also get a sense of the breadth of Baum’s Oz series, which Parks deftly keeps unobtrusive. Our only lengthy digression into the greater Oz opus comes when the players point out to us that the adventures invariably begin with a dramatic act-of-God cataclysm. The cyclone of The Wizard gave way to an earthquake to trigger one of the many Oz sequels, then an avalanche, and – weirdest of all – a “hurricane drizzle.”

When we got down to business, the upstage library shelves parted to simulate the prairie and subsequently, our arrivals in Muchkinland and the Emerald City. The bookshelves lining the wings never disappeared, forming the backdrop for the first encounter with the Scarecrow and the witness box for the trial. The Wicked Witch of the West actually entered through a bookcase, framed in appropriately spooky light and smoke, and a few paper-cut props – a beard, a lion’s mane, and Toto – fancifully originated from a large book spread out on a lectern.

The magic is resolutely low–tech here, and the classy costumes by Jennifer Matthews aim in a totally different direction from the last Wizard of Oz produced by Children’s Theatre, when the late Alan Poindexter directed and portrayed a singularly frightful Wicked Witch. This time, the hat worn by Nicia Carla in the same role looks like it was snatched from the Cat in the Hat’s closet.

Carla is spared from extensive emceeing chores, but she does confront a Dorothy or two during the drama, proving quite adept at modulating her menace. Tiffany Bear is vaguely dressed like Dorothy and wields the Toto wicker basket and puppet, but she’s more explicitly Glinda when she’s chaperoning the anklebiter Dorothys onto the stage, a very engaging emcee.

Of the three guys in the cast, Tommy Foster and Dan Brunson pitch in most often on the hosting chores. Chaz Pofahl aligns himself with Carla at the beginning and end of the show, starting out as Uncle Henry opposite her Auntie Em, and ending as her servile Flying Monkey Lawyer at Dorothy’s trial. In between, Pofahl has a nice stint as Scarecrow.

Foster is the most gregarious of the three guys, doing more of the audience interaction and morphing into the Cowardly Lion. Brunson’s fine physical work as the Tin Woodsman steals far more of the show than you usually see. His robotic shtick before and during his therapeutic lube job vies in hilarity with Carla’s melting – under a barrage of confetti water.

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Kinky Catfight in the Catskills

Theatre Review: Casa Valentina

 Casa Valentina

By Perry Tannenbaum

The cool Catskill Mountains have long served as cities of refuge for young and old New Yorkers. Escaping the summer heat, families might settle in for a few weeks at bungalow colonies, letting the kids run wild until dusk. Or parents might breathe easier back in the city, sending their schoolkids off to the many summer camps that dotted the hills. What set the Catskills apart from similar getaway locales was the storied Borscht Belt, where big names such as Jerry Lewis, Woody Allen, and Duke Ellington performed at venues that didn’t pretend to be Venice or the Pyramids.

By a quirk of history, Harvey Fierstein’s sad paean to the escapist wickedness of the Catskills, Casa Valentina, opened on Broadway a scant three weeks before the last great bastion of Catskills chic, the Kutcher’s hotel and resort, closed down during the spring of 2014. Even the pugnacious New York Daily News rent its garments, declaring, “It’s time to sit shiva for the old Borscht Belt.” Somewhere among my photo albums, an old shot I took of my parents rubbing elbows with Howard Da Silva at Kutcher’s gained more sentimental value.

The demise of the Borscht Belt during the run of Valentina also intensified the soft showbiz glow Fierstein has sprinkled upon the Chevalier d’Eon, a foundering Catskills enterprise run by Rita and George Vaccaro. Their bungalow colony caters exclusively to male transvestites seeking to escape their wives’ surveillance and release their inner Ethel Mermans.

Business is not as usual as the action begins at Spirit Square in the current Queen City Theatre Company remount directed by Glenn T. Griffin. George returns from the post office, where he was grilled for hours about an intercepted manila envelope, teeming with child pornography, addressed to his establishment. Back at the main house, two newcomers will check in that very day.

The first of these is the subtlest of Fierstein’s artifices, Jonathan, who seems to have little more experience in the art of cross-dressing than stealthily fingering his wife’s wardrobe. There’s little more in his pathetic suitcase than a humdrum dress and a sorrier wig. So George and Rita must introduce all the regular guests to Jonathan, a great convenience for us. More importantly, most of these regulars flutter excitedly around Jonathan, teaching him the fundamentals of femininity, demonstrating their hospitality and humanity.

Perhaps the most formal of Jonathan’s initiation rites is the taking of a woman’s name. He chooses the most Shakespearean name in the gang, Miranda. Of course, it’s George who sports the most flamboyant handle, Valentina. He’s also the most eager to entertain his guests. If he’s going to dress up like a nightclub chanteuse, he’s going to be one. He has no trouble enticing some of the other girls to join him in the merry role-playing. Look out for some sassy lip-syncing.

You’ll find some interesting contrasts between this risqué place and Fierstein’s more famous club, La Cage aux Folles. Although Albin is the celebrated Zaza, his partner Georges out on the Riviera hasn’t given himself a female name. Nor does the threat to the Chevalier d’Eon come from some pompous political ass outside the transvestite culture hoping to ride the wave of a moral crusade. No, the most devastating threats here come from within, so the prevailing tone grows sinister and dramatic rather than lighthearted and farcical.

Our other newcomer comes with an agenda, determined to stir up a ruckus. Charlotte runs a magazine for transvestites and, as publisher of Valentina’s writing, has some leverage as well. He wants Valentina’s circle to organize under a charter, and he wants one of basic tenets to differentiate all members from the beasts, emphatically declaring that transvestites are not homosexuals. It’s the first question he’s always asked on speaking tours, and he wants it to stop.

Talk about a party pooper. Obviously, Zaza never got Charlotte’s memo or he would have turned in his tiara long ago. Charlotte is relying on Valentina to help him overcome whatever resistance his clientele might voice. But George proves to be a more squeamish diva than Albin, unable to declare “I Am What I Am” because he’s not sure what that is. Compounding tensions, the whole crisis has Rita wondering whom she married, George or Valentina?

Casa Valentina

Griffin and his cast must navigate some murky waters here – and they only grow deeper as we move along. Fortunately, our anchors are strong with Berry Newkirk as Jonathan/Miranda wading into the culture for the first time and Barbi Van Schaick as Rita, helping George – and all of us – process the implications of the shifting currents. Newkirk is nervous and delicate, beautifully intimidated by his elders, the final aura that ennobles them. Van Schaick, on the other hand, is downtrodden and despairing in the face of all the weighty life lessons she has learned, determined to stay the course even though it’s unlikely she and her spouse will ever reach the light.

Joe Rux as Isadore/Charlotte and Matthew Corbett as The Judge/Amy generate the most intense hostilities, one more devious and unprincipled than the other. We probably hate Rux far more because of Charlotte’s bullying and homophobia, but Corbett is no less destructive, a massive oil spill of moral and physical weakness, all the more repugnant from a judge.

You may recall Matt Kenyon as the starstruck servant in the excellent Theatre Charlotte production of La Cage last fall. The telltale giggle is still there as Kenyon transitions to the more substantial role of Albert/Bessie, glad to become a bubbly Miss Congeniality in bringing Miranda along. He’s reliably comical purveying Bessie’s flamboyant vanity, yet he doesn’t shrivel when Charlotte shows up. More in the background are Steven Martin as Michael/Gloria and Christopher Jones as Theodore/Terry. Shiny costumes by Jamey Varnadore help them project some of the most formidable style and poise.

The riddle of how to make Kristian Alexander Wedolowski glamorous as Valentina remains unsolved by Varnadore. Wedolowski is a handsome enough man as George, but the bright red wig selected for his Valentina transforms him into a nightmare Little Lulu. But glamor isn’t the point at the heart of all this turmoil. It’s the stresses threatening Valentina’s livelihood, his marriage, and the circle he has drawn around him as his audience and support group. The ultra-neat absurdity of Wedolowski’s appearance, somehow crumbling in both of his gender guises, helps him to project both George and Valentina’s confusion.

Named after a famed and gender-ambiguous French spy of the 18th century, there really was a Chevalier d’Eon up in the Catskills, where New York professionals dolled up in secret, until it became known as Casa Susanna. The owners were Tito Valenti and his wife Marie. They weren’t very different at all from Fierstein’s Vaccaros. Marie did operate a wig store, Tito did write for the daring Transvestia, and the couple prided themselves on schooling neophytes.

Virginia Prince (née Arnold Lowman), Charlotte’s real-life counterpart, closed down Transvestia in 1979, nine years after Susanna’s last column for the magazine. Both Susanna and Virginia eventually made up their minds, finishing their lives as women. “I invented gender,” Virginia boasted to the New York Times in 2006, less than two years before she died at the age of 96.

Orpheus Isn’t Calling the Tunes in Sarah Ruhl’s “Eurydice,” Told for Once from a Feminist Perspective

By Perry Tannenbaum

February 17, 2016, Charlotte, NC – The story of Orpheus and Eurydice didn’t start off as a particularly misogynistic myth. When Vergil told their story, he said it was the queen of the Underworld, Persephone, who decreed the conditions under which Eurydice was to be returned to life: that she follow behind Orpheus on the trek back to the living and that Orpheus not look back on his wife until they reached the light. After all of his musical exploits; charming the guardians, inhabitants, and rulers of the Underworld; it’s Orpheus who causes Eurydice’s second death by looking back – without the slightest provocation from her. Ovid’s subsequent retelling is even more benign, for he never states whether it was Pluto or Persephone who imposed the conditions that Orpheus violated.

In the annals of opera, the story has a hallowed place, sparking the first masterworks by Monteverdi (1607) and Gluck (1762). It’s only in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice where we might find some truly cringe-worthy traces of misogyny. Not knowing the conditions of her salvation, Euridice insists upon the two things Orpheus cannot do – look back or explain – with excruciating persistence until he gives in. But after that catastrophe, Orpheus grieves so eloquently that Eurydice is revived for a second time by the God of Love and all ends happily. So why did playwright Sarah Ruhl decide to drastically revise the myth in Eurydice, her 2003 play now at the Cunningham Theatre Center on the Davidson College campus? If the impulse is feminist, it’s likely because Ruhl wished to tell the story from Eurydice’s perspective for once.

Nor is Ruhl’s tone angry, for there is plenty of whimsy in her updates and alterations. Orpheus now plays a violin instead of plucking a lyre, and Eurydice calls more of the tunes. Taking a couple of breaks from her wedding celebration, she encounters a Nasty Interesting Man who lures her with the promise of something important – a letter sent to her from the Underworld by her dead father. Rather than dying from a snakebite as she flees a lecherous pursuer, the mod Eurydice dies in the act of recovering what belongs to her, an intrepid action rather than a fainthearted one. This Davidson College Theatre Department effort, student directed by Matthew Schlerf, remains timely without any militant edges.

Scenic designer Chris Timmons brilliantly utilizes the Barber Theatre stage, dividing the action into three distinctive levels. Floor level will be the Underworld, but we begin on a broad platform high above that, where Orpheus proposes and the nuptials are celebrated. Further above, a permanent upstage stairway to the studio’s catwalk arches over the Nasty Man’s lair, offering the highest point possible for Eurydice’s fatal plunge. Death is a downer, to be sure, but Eurydice certainly isn’t chastened or humbled by her fall. Impervious to the indignity of the shower that greets her at the gateway – she has come prepared with a handy umbrella – Eurydice expects to be shown to her living quarters even though a chorus of stones has told her that there aren’t any. Not to worry, Eurydice’s father dutifully shows up to pick up her empty suitcase, guide her to her room, and begin teaching her all that she forgot in the River Lethe. I can’t say how Dad is supposed to build Eurydice’s room in Ruhl’s script, but here he weaves his magic with a rainbow-colored ball of twine threaded through eyelets on the floor and the stage-left wall, forming a gleaming cat’s cradle.

By introducing Eurydice’s father into the mythic mix, Ruhl gives her heroine a reason to linger down below and feel some ambivalence about obediently following in Orpheus’s wake. On the other hand, Dad’s pre-nup letter to his daughter becomes a precedent after her untimely death, for Orpheus dispatches a letter to his vanished beloved, relying on the worms for delivery – and Eurydice has no less confidence that what worked for her dad will work for her. The eternal comfort of this system of family correspondence is spoiled by just one thing: the Lord of the Underworld, who reeks of the Nasty Man’s unsavoriness (they’re played by the same actor), wants to make Eurydice his bride. One more reason to go with Orpheus when he finally comes knocking.

Schlerf casts judiciously, using players who are mostly sophomores but not younger. As the lovebirds, senior Cy Ferguson as Orpheus and sophomore Savannah Deal in the title role pair up magnificently. He’s good-hearted, undoubtedly vulnerable, and the perfect antithesis of his nasty rivals. Deal is up to the spoiled, imperious figure she cuts entering the Underworld, but we never catch her trying to come across any older than she is. This is a natural Eurydice, not a flawless one. That approach may not be as ideal for Collin Epstein as Father or Ryan Rotella as the nasties above and below ground. Costumes by Carolyn Bryan help Epstein as Dad and Rotella as the Godfather-like Nasty put on a few years perhaps. But both speak as naturally as Deal does, a welcome change if you’ve ever been irritated by young actors straining to look older with the aid of makeup, hair coloring, or false beards. Once we adjourn to the Underworld, Rotella is purposely portrayed as childish when he appears as Lord of this domain, wearing a dopey beanie and pedaling a trike. And if this isn’t a punitive, hellfire Underworld, why can’t Dad be any age he likes while spending eternity there? Ruhl mischievously makes up her own rules as she spins her old yarn, twisting it enough to make it new and genially provocative. There’s even a beguiling touch of mystery when we reach the ending.

© 2016 CVNC

Selling Elegance, Spirit, and History for Just a Song

Theatre Reviews: I Love a Piano: The Music of Irving Berlin and The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence

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After its most lavish and extravagant production ever, last November’s The Phantom of the Opera, what was CPCC Theatre going to do to follow up? Well, since the laws of mathematics and the logic of budgets still apply on Elizabeth Avenue, the answer was simple: economize! Rolling into the parking garage, where the second story was unusually unoccupied, I was worried the audience for I Love a Piano: The Music of Irving Berlin would be as drastically reduced as CP’s expenditures.

Not to worry, I didn’t find that many more empty seats at Halton Theater last Saturday night than I saw at last February’s How to Succeed. More importantly, considering the relative merits of Berlin and Andrew Lloyd Webber, the show attracted a competitive enough turnout at auditions to yield a cast that is worthy of the music — including holdover Ryan Deal, who you may recall in the title role of The Phantom.

Like the audience, the orchestra isn’t reduced quite as much as the funding, a quintet led by music director Ellen Robison from the keyboard. They’re a busy bunch, accompanying the cast — all six of them triple threats to various degrees — through a songbook that includes 53 different titles. A few of these songs are reprised, and at one point, when Andy Faulkenberry’s “The Girl That I Marry” is juxtaposed with Corinne Littlefield’s “Old Fashioned Wedding” — while J. Michael Beech and Megan Postle are teaming up on the counterpoint of “You’re Just in Love” — there are four different vocalists onstage singing four different melodies simultaneously.

Conceived by Ray Roderick and arranger Michael Berkeley, Love a Piano never says Berlin’s name out loud. But the 11 scenes, beginning with Tin Pan Alley in 1910 and ending in a summer stock revival of Annie Get Your Gun in the late 1950’s, take us chronologically through the composer’s career. Or roughly so: “Old Fashioned Wedding” was written for the 1966 revival of Annie Get Your Gun, and you can bet the anachronisms don’t stop there.

With a generous portion of poetic license, the show sketches a musical portrait of a composer who was consistently able to mirror his times. The title tune, “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody,” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” take us back to a sepia-tinted era when rags roamed alongside sentimentality. As we cut from band shell to speakeasy, “Pack Up Your Sings and Go to the Devil” and “Everybody’s Doing It” evoke the wicked carefree spirit of the Roaring ’20s during Prohibition.

Two scenes are devoted to the ’30s, “Blue Skies” and “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” offering consolation during the onset of the Great Depression. Then a suite of dance tunes, including “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails” and “Cheek to Cheek,” evokes the elegance of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Thanks to Mel Brooks, the audience failed to take “Puttin’ on the Ritz” altogether seriously.

For some reason, Roderick — or perhaps CP’s director and choreographer, Ron Chisholm — bounced the heyday of dance marathons from the 1930s to the 1940s, sketching that lugubrious phenomenon with “Say It Isn’t So” and “How Deep Is the Ocean.” When we authentically reached the World War II era, it was quite obvious that Berlin more than reflected the hopes, the pride, and the humor of the times. He simply was these things, with a flowering of songs that included “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” “This Is the Army,” “Any Bonds Today,” and “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep.”

Even those left plenty of room to bring down the first-act curtain with two of Berlin’s most enduring songs, “White Christmas” and “God Bless America.” A more judicious dividing line would have been the beginning of WW2 toward the end of the ’30s. As it stands, Roderick drops a bunch of CARE packages on the 1950s, including “Easter Parade” from 1933 and everything attached to Berlin’s sharpshooting homage to Annie Oakley, which premiered in 1946.

I Love A Piano

Photos by Chris Record

James Duke’s scenic and lighting design, relying heavily on period slides and Berlin show posters projected onto three screens, move us gracefully from era to era. But it’s Debbie Scheu who most colorfully clinches the deal with her cavalcade of costume designs. Chisholm’s choreographic demands certainly tax his cast, with Littlefield and Faulkenberry negotiating their steps with the most apparent ease. On the other hand, while Postle and Beech looked like they might not be up to their challenges, both of them surprised me with their hoofing.

Deal and Kayla Ferguson were the remaining couple, most memorable in their “Blue Skies” duet. All six of the singers proved to be quite capable, not at all fazed by the spotlight, but Deal and Littlefield were my favorite soloists. The ensembles were often very lively and charming, but a special pinch of conflict was added in the summer stock tableau when Ferguson, Littlefield, and Postle all auditioned to be Annie opposite Faulkenberry’s Frank Butler.

“Anything You Can Do,” usually a comical face-off between Frank and Annie, is set up as an audition piece. So the comedy is reborn — as a rollicking showdown between three aspiring Annies.

Eliza and Watson 3

Time and reality bend in curious ways in The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, now at UpStage in NoDa through February 21. But so does playwright Madeleine George’s title, so what else would you expect?

Three rather curious Watsons that we’ve already heard of are trotted out and shuffled in Three Bone Theatre’s production, directed by Robin Tynes. The first of these is a relative, shall we say, of the Watson computer that defeated its human opponents on Jeopardy in 2011. Eliza, who collaborated with IBM on the victorious Watson, is now in her living room, working independently on a new android that sports a far more human body.

We travel back to the 19th century for the other two Watsons that we know. The first of these is the Watson summoned to Alexander Graham Bell’s side when Pa Bell invented the telephone, his assistant Thomas A. Watson. But we don’t really see him, either, on that historic day in 1876. Instead, it’s Alex repeatedly calling for him in brief blackout vignettes between other scenes. No, we must wait until 1931, when Watson goes on record at Bell Labs, insisting that what his boss really said was, “Mr. Watson — come here — I want you.”

The third or fourth Watson, depending on how you tally the computer chips, is more in control of his narrative, for this is the Dr. John H. Watson who ostensibly chronicles nearly all of the Conan Doyle adventures of Sherlock Holmes. You’ll find that Watson Intelligence is all about connections Ð personal and electrical — and vague connections between the android and Sherlock’s sidekick are established by a fifth Watson, a tech dweeb hired by Eliza’s ex-husband to spy on her.

Compounding the absurdities, Tynes has chosen a black actor, Devin Clark, to play the whitest sidekick in the history of literature. What’s more, Clark is perfection as all the Watsons, human and robotic, plus a special set of scenes where he dons Sherlock’s deerstalker cap. Chesson Kusterer-Seagroves crystallizes Watson’s role as the archetypal listener, pouring out her heart to the robot and the tech dweeb in modern times and bringing an intriguing mystery to Watson at Baker Street in Sherlock’s absence.

Ken Mitten rounds out the cast as Bell and the two Merricks who cause their Elizas so much distress. He’s a powerful stage presence, but I’m sure he’ll be even better when he’s more secure with his lines and cues.

Albee’s Fantastic Day at the Beach

Theatre Review: Seascape

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By Perry Tannenbaum

Citizens of the Universe hasn’t announced the full details of its farewell season, but it has begun handsomely at “The Shell,” COTU founder James Cartee’s name for the suite on 2424 N. Davidson St. that CAST occupied in its latter days. The theater spaces where CAST often staged two productions at the same time have both been obliterated, stripped down to the original floors and walls, but the residue proves unexpectedly appropriate as a vast, bleak setting for Edward Albee’s Seascape, directed by S. Wilson Lee.

For awhile, the drama seems to revolve around Nancy and Charlie, a mid-life couple who bicker somewhat lethargically – compared with the titanic battles Albee staged between George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – about what they should do now and in the future. The weak grip this opening had on my attention was further weakened by Kylene T. Edson as Nancy, indistinctly audible when projecting her gripes over across the beach to her husband diagonally downstage. Lee would be advised to either energize Edson during these opening moments or bring her downstage more often.

Luckily, these difficulties evaporate when two ginormous lizards crawl ashore, frightening the humans as they scope them out. Since the sea is upstage, fright not only raises Edson’s energy level, it also drives her naturally toward us where she can be easily heard. Wariness is well-advised, but the lizards, Leslie and Sarah, aren’t foraging for food so much as they are reconnoitering the possibilities of life on land.

Amazingly, Leslie and Sarah speak English, if only the rudimentary kind you would expect from high school freshmen matriculating in Lancaster or Cabarrus County. There’s a lot for Nancy and Charlie to catch the reptiles up on, including the origin of the universe, the primordial soup, evolution, mammals, and the whole concept of emotions, beginning and ending with love. Shuttling between the urge to educate and the impulse to flee in terror, Nancy and Charlie might identify more with teachers in urban school districts.

The spark for this intriguing production comes largely from the extraordinary work Lee elicits from Emmanuel Barbe as Leslie, abetted by the phosphorescent glow of Kenya Davis’s makeup design. I’ve often struggled to penetrate through Barbee’s French accent when he battled against the Bard’s blank verse in Shakespeare Carolina productions. But here he is admirably slowed down by Lee – and often formidably booming. The physicality of him can be menacing enough as he advances toward you, but you really don’t want to broach the possibility that his species might lose their mighty tails during the next billion or so years of evolution. He’s attached to that tail.

By comparison, Brianna Merkel is a cute counterpart for Barbe as Sarah, as adorably clueless when she doesn’t understand concepts – matrimony, pregnancy, the list goes on – as Leslie is frustrated and antagonistic. We see a certain bond forming between Sarah and Nancy, peacemakers trying to calm their mates’ warrior instincts, and it’s here that Edson’s performance begins to blossom.

Brian Amidai is more consistently reliable as Charlie, very adept at the inertia of a husband who doesn’t wish to travel or repeat past adventures. He’s on a beach and just wants to relax, dammit, maybe get lost in a book. But Amidai’s transition between this beach potato and an instinctual protector rings viscerally true, and there’s a faint layer of comedy in the moments when he thinks he’s gone insane or died. Obliquely, I found him cuing my own reactions as this wild, mysterious fantasy unfolded.

Dahl’s “Matilda”: Don’t Mess With Mr. In-Between

By Perry Tannenbaum

We expect a fabulist like Roald Dahl to exaggerate and push reality to extremes, and so it is in Matilda the Musical, Dennis Kelly’s adaptation of Dahl’s book for second-graders-and-up with music by Tim Minchin. Parents either adore their offspring to the point of absurdity, creating a universe where all children are exceptional, or they’re like Matilda’s Mom and Dad, Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, disdainful toward all her prodigious gifts.

Pity is, Dahl’s book was written in 1988, when middle-of-the-roaders ruled the political scene and moderation was a virtue. Dahl was outré back then. But now in a country besotted by the ideas that government can accomplish what is mathematically impossible and that government is an evil that should do nothing whatsoever, Dahl’s exaggerations nearly pale into realism. Adults really are that crazy.

Children who are this bright, luminous, and innocent have walked through such harrowing worlds before. Oliver Twist and Little Orphan Annie may be considered as Matilda’s true ancestors in literature, pop culture, and hit Broadway musicals. Amid the Fagins, the Miss Hannigans, and the Bill Sikeses, there’s always a kindly Nancy or a Grace Farrell to shine rays of hope and sunshine into the gloom. Here it’s Matilda’s first-grade teacher, Miss Honey, who lives under the thumb of the school’s horrific headmistress, Miss Trunchbull.

With the aid of outlandish costumes, the elder Wormwoods will still seem outré to the small fry in the audience, even in 2016. For the rest of us, their disdain for books and their faith in TV as an educational tool are sufficient markers. Dahl hasn’t pushed far enough, however, until he has Dad – a supreme creation of moronic conceit – insisting that Matilda is a boy from the moment she’s born, despite the evidence of her genitalia.

Nor does Dahl mess with nuance when it comes to Trunchbull. The headmistress is a former Olympic medalist in the indelicate sport of the hammer throw, and she revels so much in cruelly punishing unruly students she has designed a torture chamber expressly for that demented purpose. The preternaturally sized harridan is portrayed by the fiercely outsized David Abeles, and even he is augmented by mammaries that runneth over any cups in the county.

The frightfulness of Trunchbull and the blithe disregard of her used-car-salesman dad won’t faze any of the kids who have been baptized in Lemony Snicket, but that really isn’t the worst of this touring production’s baggage. Even on the second night of the run at Belk Theater, most of the kids were unintelligible. You’ll hear them, but what they’re saying is only fitfully comprehensible. The Observer’s review points out that printed copies of the lyrics are available in the street-level lobby, a less practical solution than supertitles when you’re sitting there in the dimly lit theater.

I caught up with the lyrics in the booklet that accompanies the Broadway cast album, which helped me to further appreciate the clever recitation of the alphabet when we reached the “School Song,” circling back to Matilda’s first day at Crunchem Hall Primary School. Even the first part of this song worked for me on a visceral level when I saw the unintelligible elder students scaling the gate to the school like caged animals and snarling at the newcomers about to enter. Yeah, that first day can be scary.

I’m assuming that the Broadway success of Matilda gives the lie to my contention that the show takes too much time to accomplish too little. Compared to the new School of Rock, which we’d seen nearly nine weeks earlier, my wife Sue and I found the kids onstage here less talented – and less molded into a genuine class by evening’s end. Three of Matilda’s classmates briefly pop into the spotlight at various moments, but there’s little rapport developing in the group, let alone camaraderie.

Sitting in the cozier 1460-seat Shubert Theatre in New York, I’d imagine we would have heard the darling children more easily. The lighting is also presumably better up yonder. I could hardly make out a word on Miss Honey’s blackboard in Act 1, which ultimately diminishes the impact of the denouement after intermission.

Three young actresses play the title role, compared with the four who share that responsibility on Broadway, but for some yet-to-be-explained reason Savannah Grace Elmer took over for Sarah McKinley Austin when the curtain rose Tuesday evening on Act 2. Both brought the requisite precocity to the table with a certain amount of British starchiness, just the thing for protagonists trapped in gray primary school uniforms.

So the grownups outshine the kids, cartoonish as most of the important ones are. Looming like an epic soldier from the Trojan War, Abeles is discombobulated enough by little Matilda’s defiance to make “The Trunchbull” a tasty villain. Cassie Silva and Quinn Mattfield as the Wormwoods have even less rapport with each other than Matilda’s classmates, bickering at those rare moments when they even acknowledge one another. Both are loudly colorful in Rob Howell’s costume designs and compete spiritedly for the edge in comical cluelessness.

It’s hard to say whether Stephen Diaz added more to Mom’s stupidity credentials or Dad’s as the mega-sleazy Rudolpho, Mrs. W’s competitive dance partner. Dad seems perfectly oblivious to their sensual tango rehearsals while Mom must miss a competition because a hospital physician informs her that she’s nine months pregnant.

The consoling women in Matilda’s life don’t offer the poor waif much in the way of guidance and wisdom. Obviously, the teacher is sweet: Miss Honey quietly defies The Trunchbull’s disciplinarian philosophy in her classroom, and Jennifer Blood strikes the right balance of timidity and righteousness when she meekly stands up to Trunchbull, advocating on behalf of her own humane pedagogy and Matilda’s special gifts. Ora Jones as Mrs. Phelps, the library lady, is a warm Gypsy-like sounding board for Matilda and a refuge from her absurdly broken home.

Phelps encourages Matilda to spin the story that will ultimately be her salvation. That’s what I like most about Matilda, for Dahl’s story-within-the-story turns out to be a miracle of rare device.

Lady Bracknell Weathers Three Storms

Reviews of The Importance of Being Earnest and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

Jon Ecklund (John Worthing) and Lance Beilstein (Algernon Moncrieff) in The Importance of Being Earnest.

They were planning to open The Importance of Being Earnest on January 22 at Theatre Charlotte, where Oscar Wilde’s “Trivial Comedy for Serious People” hadn’t played since 2002. But the snow and sleet that were icing the roads hadn’t begun to melt away on the following evening, so opening night was transformed into an opening Sunday matinee. Even if I had been able to scale my icebound driveway, I was already booked for the opera at Belk Theater.

After all the reshuffling on my iCal, my wife Sue and I were finally able to catch up with Wilde’s menagerie of smart alecks at the second Sunday matinee, nine days after the originally scheduled opening. With so many other reshufflers in the crowd, the Queens Road barn was close to capacity. An extra performance has been slated for 2:30 this Saturday to help out other migrants.

The airy sophistication of Joshua Webb’s set design boded well for the blizzard of bon mots to come, but who were these Ernests opening up the action, Lance Beilstein as the roguish Algernon Moncrieff and Jon Ecklund as the deceitful John Worthing? Beilstein had briefly blipped on my radar last year when he was cast in a stage adaptation of Casablanca that didn’t happen. and Ecklund had never performed on a Charlotte stage before nailing his audition as Wilde’s protagonist.

Yet they instantly established a fine rapport, hinting early on that Algy and Ernest — as John calls himself in London — were not only great friends but kindred spirits.

There was a problem, however, even before the divine ladies arrived. Though their chemistry was sparkling, Beilstein’s cue pickup was razor sharp while Ecklund’s was erratic. Not a symptom you would expect from your lead at the end of your second week.

Ecklund’s symptoms became more serious during the scene change between Acts 2 and 3. In fact, he was taken to the hospital, reportedly suffering from dizziness, and didn’t reappear.

Johnny Hohenstein, who plays John’s butler at his country home, bravely substituted for Ecklund during the final 19 minutes, script in hand. That forced the imperious Lady Bracknell to announce herself when she triumphantly reappeared.

The waters were already troubled in Act 1 when Jill Bloede, amply bustled in a floor-length dress, first floated in like a majestic tugboat as Her Ladyship. It was she and she alone who must approve of Ernest as the prospective husband of Algy’s cousin, Miss Gwendolen Fairfax — a grim prospect, since her wicked nephew has already devoured all the cucumber sandwiches.

Lady B attempts to be judicious. Ernest’s income of seven to eight thousand pounds, the equivalent of $1 million annually according to the Norton Edition of the text, actually counts in his favor.

It’s Ernest’s lineage that is an insuperable stumbling block, for he cannot trace his family any further back than a leather handbag! My, how Bloede huffs when she repeats that fatal word, nearly adding an extra syllable to it each time she lingers on the first letter.

Lady Bracknell’s contempt was so hilariously absolute that when she exited, leaving Ernest and Gwendolen’s hopes of marital bliss in shambles, the audience erupted in lusty applause.

By the sort of insane coincidence that Wilde uses to resolve Ernest’s difficulties, Bloede’s name rhymes with Lady. So, after her current triumph, Jill is no more: she will no doubt have to suffer being called Bloede Bracknell for the rest of her days. You may revise my headline accordingly.

Needless to say, Bloede’s arrival calmed any worries that this production, directed by Tonya Bludsworth, would be anything less than a delight. Eleven years after starring in NC Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Gretchen McGinty’s professionalism still gleams with vitality and caprice as Gwendolen, irresistible despite her perverse silliness. She accepts Ernest, but only for the shallowest of reasons — she’s the perfect antithesis of Juliet.

Caprice continues to rule when we arrive at John’s country home for Act 2, where we meet his lovely ward, Cicely Cardew. Her requirements for a prospective husband are not merely similar to Gwen’s.

They are exactly the same, obliging both John and Algy to make christening appointments with the Rev. Canon Chasuble. Under the watchful eyes of Cicely’s governess, Miss Prism, Algernon has snuck into John’s home, pretending to be his fictitious brother Ernest, and swept Miss Cardew off her feet. That’s partly because Miss Prism’s eyes are devotedly affixed to the Reverend.

As we’ll learn in the denouement, it’s not the first time Miss Prism’s attention has wandered.

Further complicating John and Algy’s attempts to live double lives, Gwen follows her would-be fiancé into the country — with her mother barking at her heels. The running joke of Act 2, amid all the confusion of who’s really betrothed to Ernest, is the radical shifts of sisterly love and murderous hatred between Gwen and Cicely.

Mixed in with devout cynicism and decadence, punctiliousness and pomposity squandered over trivialities are the key ingredients of Wilde’s satire, and Bludsworth has her entire cast embracing it with the proper élan.

Emily Klingman is hormone-driven innocence in a lemon chiffon dress as Cicely, assiduously transcribing Algy’s marriage proposal into her teen diary, and Hank West bumbles quite sanctimoniously as Rev. Chasuble when he manages to recall where he is. Scrunched up like a squirrel, Stephanie DiPaolo is the essence of fretful and incompetent spinsterhood as Miss Prism.

Bludsworth also differentiates nicely between the servants. Ron Turek is urbane and dignified as Algy’s man, Lane; while Hohenstein, tasked to distraction by his temperamental superiors, is more apt to let his resentments play over his face as John’s butler, Merriman. Or he was until he was obliged to pick up Ecklund’s script and stand up to Bloede Bracknell.

Edward Tulane(C)Donna Bise 6686

Photo by Donna Bise

Not at all plagued by postponements, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane opened at ImaginOn last weekend in as polished a production as you’ll ever see from Children’s Theatre. It’s a gem that will no doubt remind longtime subscribers of The Velveteen Rabbit, since the title character is a rabbit doll. Ah, but Edward is fashioned entirely of porcelain, except for his furry ears and tail (he prefers not to think about the origin of his whiskers).

Adapted by Dwayne Hartford from the novel by Kate DiCamillio, Edward’s story begins when he is given to 10-year-old Abilene Tulane on Egypt Street by her mysterious grandmother Pellegrina, the only human who knows his heart.

Unlike the Velveteen, Edward does not aspire to be real or human, but he is frustrated when Abilene doesn’t set him in a place where he can see the outdoors and the stars through her window.

Even before he is severely broken many years later in Memphis, Pellegrina perceives his flaws, and the inference is that he must suffer for them. But Edward’s sufferings and adventures will be epic ­— beyond human, to tell the truth.

Our protagonist remains the three-foot doll the DiCamillio created, but Mark Sutton is always close by to articulate his thoughts, shouldering and picking a banjo as Edward morphs into Susannahr, Malone, Clyde, and Jangles during his odyssey on land and under the sea.

Margaret Dalton figures most prominently as the bereft Abilene, but she resurfaces on numerous occasions during Edward’s journey, most notably as a frisky dog. Beginning as the semi-exotic Pellegrina, Allison Rhinehart ranges across multiple roles and genders, last seen as Lucius Clark, the sagely doll mender. Devin Clark rounds out the cast, shapeshifting from fisherman to hobo to handyman when he isn’t slyly inserting sound effects. Pure enchantment for 81 minutes.

Up Close and Versatile: Michael Collins Plays Mozart, Stravinsky, Adams, and Bruch

Michael Collins | University of London Symphony Orchestra

By Perry Tannenbaum

February 1, 2016, Charlotte, NC – Michael Collins will no doubt bring pleasure to thousands later this week when he plays Mozart’s great concerto for basset clarinet with the Charlotte Symphony on consecutive nights at Belk Theater. Yet it would probably be exaggerating to say that hundreds were in attendance when the esteemed virtuoso performed another pair of concerts earlier in the week on the fourth floor of the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art – one for a lunchtime crowd and another after work. Poetic justice would have decreed that at least an equal number should bear witness when Collins, toting two other clarinets, headlined a program that not only included a complete Mozart clarinet trio but also a solo Stravinsky suite and generous samplings of works by John Adams and Max Bruch. Joining Collins were pianist Bruce Murray, who pinch-hit personably on most of the hosting, and violist Rosemary Furniss. There were a couple of links between the two pairs of concerts: Collins is playing both programs and Christopher Warren-Green, the Charlotte Symphony’s musical director conductor, is united in holy matrimony to the woman who wielded the viola.

Furniss’s hand was certainly perceptible in the choice of repertoire, since she collaborated on Mozart’s “Kegelstatt” Trio and a selection of Bruch’s 8 Pieces for Clarinet, Viola and Piano at a Davidson College concert in September 2013. These sweet trios framed the two more raucous works that Furniss sat out. All three trio members had their moments to shine from the opening Andante of Mozart’s E-flat gem. Furniss introduced the first subject at the beginning and its return at the end of the movement, answered by Murray, who laid the groundwork for Collins’ first entrance and then beamed with joy as soon as he heard the clarinetist’s first notes. With good reason. The waltzing 3/4 sway of the ensuing Menuet was instantly evident, especially since Collins himself swayed a bit with the melody while Furniss sawed an agitated countermelody. Nor was Murray idle here, at times playing two strands of accompaniment at the same time. Collins dreamily led into the concluding Rondeaux, hitting the high notes effortlessly, and Murray’s responses from the keyboard grew more elaborate. Interplay was quite delightful as Murray and Furniss led off successive rounds. At a certain point, Collins’ answers gave way to an outright takeover, with delicious filigree that dipped into the lower range of the instrument. Staccato passages near the end, when the trio chimed in together, were brimming with charm.

The first of Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for Clarinet Solo was actually a mellow, brooding thing, ideally suited for showing how much better-suited the clarinet is to the Bechtler space than a grand piano. Following this Molto tranquillo, the second piece was quick, raucous and squawking. Collins himself called attention to the hall midway through, pausing for a moment and waiting until the echo almost died away before flinging himself into that latter half. The third piece was no less fleet and raucous, but it had more of a circular, chasing feel rather than jumping around helter skelter, ending with an emphatic tweet that Collins clearly relished.

It was Collins who premiered Adams’ Gnarly Buttons in 1996, and he chose the middle movement of the piece, the shortest yet most signature of the three. “Hoe-down (Mad Cow)” would normally be associated with horses, according to the composer’s album notes, but it takes on its altered perspective as a nod to his “British friends who gave the first performance during a time of quarantine.” Recorded with the London Sinfonietta, the album cover features a wide-eyed animal that could serve as the perfect poster child for the infamous mad cow disease. It’s the most challenging of the three movements, but as Collins pointed out in his intro, in distilling the 11-piece accompaniment to the piano, the arranger had probably shifted the burden of difficulty to Murray. Indeed, Murray poured forth fistfuls of notes during this merry frolic. Interspersed with his hoe-down romping, Collins had the most minimalistic figures, which occasionally sounded like a boogie-woogie bass pattern. Clearly enjoying himself and Murray’s trials, Collins had time to point out the most important ingredient that this reduced version had to sacrifice – the sound of the lowing cow from the orchestral version. He mouthed the moo when it came around.

Scored for viola or cello (Furniss split her part with cellist Alan Black in her previous go-round), Bruch’s 8 Pieces are mostly dark and melancholy, so the four movements selected were altered from their intended sequence, leaving out the final Moderato and ending instead with the penultimate Allegro vivace, the only segment of the suite in a major key. The overtones of Murray’s introduction to the “Nachtgesang” actually emulated a clarinet’s sound, but there was no mistaking Collins’ true entry, floating in on high and dipping into darkness. Furniss’s nocturnal viola intertwined with the clarinet, before and after an exquisite Collins monologue, forming an ethereal frame. Launching the brief Allegro con moto, the viola came in darkly before before Collins echoed it from above, but the most characteristic of the Bruch pieces was “Rumänische Melodie,” with Furniss achingly setting the tone, at times reminiscent of Sarasate’s firelit Gypsy ruminations and the keening of Jewish cantorial music. Collins and Murray were at the forefront of the Allegro vivace, but Furniss was very expressive in the accompaniment, fomenting the augmented intensity when frolicsome passages veered suddenly into turbulence. Throughout the concert, I had an up-close view, less than 10 feet from Collins when he took his final bows. Nor were my seats reserved: any one of the thousands who may marvel at Collins’ musicianship this Friday and Saturday night could have snatched up the same opportunity on Tuesday, at a fraction of the ticket price.

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