Daily Archives: February 5, 2016

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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