Daily Archives: June 9, 2016

Classics Collide at Spoleto

Reviews: Porgy and Bess and The Importance of Being Earnest

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By Perry Tannenbaum

They’re not just reviving Porgy and Bess at Spoleto Festival USA. They’ve designated “Porgy Houses” in Historic Charleston, set up Porgy tours to better acquaint you with the opera’s characters and Charleston landmarks – as well as the story’s author, Charlestonian DuBose Heyward – and there are Porgy exhibits at the libraries, museums, and galleries around town.

And they’re not merely celebrating Charleston and its indigenous black and Gullah cultures in this Porgy and Bess revival – with vibrant stage scenery and costumes by Charleston visual artist Jonathan Green. They’re celebrating the rebirth of Gaillard Center, the preeminent performance site at Spoleto, and they’re celebrating the festival’s 40th anniversary.

If the combination of Spoleto Festival artistry, authentic Charleston flavor, and an impressive new performing arts palace sounds like the perfect recipe for an incomparable Porgy and Bess, it almost is. The big letdown on opening night probably resulted from director David Herskovits, conductor Stefan Asbury, and the principal players not spending sufficient rehearsal time in the new hall – or with the Gaillard’s sound crew and engineer.

My first full week listening to Spoleto performances at the Gaillard convinced me that the hall’s acoustics aren’t weak. With new speaker towers flanking the stage, performances by jazz diva René Marie on the first Sunday of Spoleto and by the Randy Weston African Rhythms Sextet on the following Thursday were as sonically rich as they were artistically satisfying. But the size of the hall took its toll on the unamplified voices of the solo vocalists on opera night.

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This was the most beautifully sung Porgy that I’ve heard in live performance – but the least intelligible. You get all the great music from Lester Lynch as Porgy, Alyson Cambridge as Bess, Courtney Johnson as Clara, Sidney Outlaw as Jake, Victor Ryan Robertson as Sportin’ Life, Indra Thomas as Serena, and Eric Greene as Crown. Ah, but when we cross over to the lyrics and dialogue, we might call this production Porgy and Crown, for Lynch and Greene bring the most fully arresting portrayals onstage.

Lynch as Porgy is the best I’ve heard live or on recordings, overturning the notion that the hero of this drama is a weak pathetic cripple. Here Porgy returns from his police examination on the humble sledge we often associate with him, but in this production, we have long since become accustomed to seeing him with a cane or in a quite respectable wheelchair. A couple of those wheelchairs, including the one that’s outfitted for his trip to New York at the triumphant conclusion, are fit for a tribal king.

Green’s scenic and costume designs similarly overturn the perception that the people of Catfish Row are poor, oppressed, ignorant, and uncultured. Green and Herskovits have both asserted that African-American culture is the soul of Charleston – and that it has been for nearly 400 years. Part of Porgy’s strength and confidence becomes manifest, Herskovits has noted, when he allows Bess to join the townspeople at the fateful excursion to Kittiwah Island.

The other parts are evident in Lynch’s voice. Not a word is changed here, but we gradually realize that the pity we have felt for Porgy in the past has been fashioned by actors who have portrayed him, by their pitying co-stars and directors, and by our conditioned responses. A descendant of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Heyward discreetly hid a withered arm throughout his life, so his sympathies – as well as the original title of his novel – are definitely with Porgy.

Torn between three men, Bess’s apparent strength gradually vanishes in a haze of submissiveness, fatalism, and happy dust. While Cambridge fully captures Bess’s inner turmoil and anguish in her voice, her vowels migrate into Sopranoland, where the love of her life is transformed into “Pogah” and she neither talks the talk nor walks the walk. I’m really not sure Cambridge had a clue what was going on when she tossed Crown her “look at what arms you got” line. But when she pleads with Porgy that “it’s gonna feel like dyin’” if Crown takes her away, the urgency is primal.

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What still comes through in the end, vividly and freshly, is that Bess needs Porgy at least as much as he needs her. This impression is actually enhanced by the colorful portraits that we see of Crown and Sportin’ Life. Bringing chaos and bloodshed to a dice game or singing “A Red Headed Woman,” Greene is far more dangerous as Crown than ribald or desirable. Bess’s other stalker doesn’t amount to much, either. Tempting Bess with his happy dust, Robertson is the sly city slickster version of Sportin’ Life, cracking wise rather than satirically in his signature “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” where I grieved for the missing Methuselah stanza.

Designing costumes for Serena and Jake, Green brings out their special characteristics, Serena’s upright dignity and Jake’s wholesome determination. Thomas pours out Serena’s grief in “My Man’s Gone Now,” and Outlaw struts Jake’s infectious energy in “It Takes a Long Pull.” The Johnson C. Smith University Choir, decked out in a wonderful array of colors and styles, makes a bustling community out of Catfish Row and reminds us of the beauties that Gershwin packed into the ensembles.

The cherry on top of it all is the luxuriant presentation of the street vendors’ cries: Shanta L. Johnson as the Strawberry Woman, Tamar Green as the Crabman, and Walter J. Jackson as Peter the Honeyman. All in all, squalor is nearly banished from this reimagined Catfish Row. What remains is truly honey in the comb.

If you’re going to serve up something as popular and inviting as Porgy and Bess as the centerpiece of your festival, it makes sense to keep people around town with a companion theatre piece that is equally welcoming. So they’ve not only brought in their most frequent theatrical visitors, Gate Theatre from Dublin, they have them presenting the most popular and familiar comedy they’ve ever exported to Charleston in all of their 11 appearances, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.

Now I admit that this struck me as pandering to the masses until intermission, when my wife Sue and I listened to the couple behind us desperately wrestling with the complications of Wilde’s plot as if they were rocket science. My guess is that the fog lifted after intermission, when the action moved from Algernon Moncrief’s London apartment to Jack Worthing’s country manor.

Surprise follows surprise, unexpected intrusion follows unexpected intrusion as the men’s fiancées, daffy Gwendolen Fairfax from the city and peculiarly naïve Cecily Cardew on the manor, unravel both their beaus’ double lives – with nifty misunderstandings and reversals along the way. It’s an elegantly crafted comedy machine with a steady stream of wickedly witty dialogue along the way.

My only worry, after recent Gate efforts at the Dock Street Theatre, was whether the Dubliners would bring enough energy – and decibels – to their task to bring out Wilde’s brilliance. Underpowered Alex Felton as Algy and Aoibhin Garrihy as Gwen in Act 1 didn’t exactly soothe my fears. But when Michael Ford-Fitzgerald as Ernest/Jack came wooing Gwen, there was comfort, and when Deidre Donnelly sailed in as Lady Bracknell to forbid the union, there was hilarity.

As it turns out after intermission, in Acts 2 and 3, it’s Wilde’s energy that kindles the Dubliners’ energies as all four lovebirds are increasingly surprised and distressed. Thwarted in the city, Ford-FitzGerald becomes more animated, physical, and funny as Uncle Jack when Algy suddenly appears, pretending to be Jack’s fictional brother Ernest – whom Jack fictionally killed off just moments earlier. Algy has been drawn into the country by the prospect of meeting Jack’s ward, Cecily Cardew, and falls for her at first sight.

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Not to be outdone, Cecily has already fallen in love with her fictional uncle Ernest, with fanciful diary entries and love notes from the rascal vouching for their burning romance. Making all of this up out of whole cloth doesn’t faze Cecily at all, and Lorna Quinn blesses her with the most insouciant caprice. Most of all, she’s enchanted by Ernest’s name. If you didn’t know, there’s a lot of that going around.

All of this nonsensical fantasy, compounded by Jack’s opposition and Algy’s raging hormones, help to boost Felton’s energies to the point where we can hear him. Similarly, when Gwen discovers – or misunderstands – that both she and Cecily are engaged to Ernest, there’s enough spontaneous indignation for Garrihy to parlay into audibility. When Lady Bracknell suddenly appears, implacably pursuing her disobedient ward, we get a seemingly insoluble stalemate of guardians’ matrimonial prohibitions.

This is where director Patrick Mason’s concept shines brightest, for he and Ford-FitzGerald whip Jack up to a frenzy of desperation that I’d never suspected lurked in this script – while Donnelly as Lady Bracknell retains her signature sangfroid. They all somehow become one big magically dysfunctional family at the end, and we couldn’t be happier for them. Even if you’ve seen this classic over and over, this Earnest is worth seeing again.

Celebrating 40 Years With 150+ Performances

Preview: Spoleto Festival USA

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By Perry Tannenbaum

There’s plenty to celebrate this year at Spoleto Festival USA. The annual Charleston event, a busy and eclectic mix of the performing arts, marks its 40th season this year – along with the reopening of its grandest venue, the Gaillard Center, a sleeping giant since renovations began in 2012. It would be hard to imagine a more fitting way to celebrate the longevity of Spoleto, the city of Charleston, and the rebirth of the Gaillard than this year’s signature event.

Featuring the visual designs of Charleston-based artist Jonathan Green – and the voices of our Johnson C. Smith University Choir – the all-new production of the Gershwin Brothers’ Porgy and Bess will anchor the 17-day festival as no event before. Starring baritone Lester Lynch as Porgy and soprano Alyson Cambridge as Bess, the opera, clocking in at three hours and 15 minutes, will inaugurate the new Gaillard on opening night of Spoleto 2016 on May 27, and it will be among the final events on June 12.

23501830284_a14ed4cd0b_kThe second performance of Porgy on May 30 will nearly upstage the first, for it will be simulcast on a jumbotron screen at Marion Square in the heart of town – and rebroadcast the following evening at the West Ashley High School practice field. Both events will be free to the public.

Porgy and Bess not only unfolds in Charleston, it is adapted from a novel, Porgy, by Charlestonian DuBose Heyward, who was inspired by people he knew and heard about. George Gershwin came down to Charleston to get a feel for the place, and the songs he wrote with his brother Ira and Heyward have lived on in many classic recordings. In jazz alone, you’ll find treasured versions of “Summertime” and other of the opera’s folksy arias by Billie Holiday, Sidney Bechet, John Coltrane, Oscar Peterson, and Joe Henderson. Standing tallest among the P&B tributes are the album-length Miles Davis set, with orchestrations by Gil Evans, and the famed Louis Armstrong-Ella Fitzgerald traversal of the score.

Maybe that’s the reason this year’s jazz roster is so mainstream and American this season compared with the international lineups of recent years. Of course, when we talk about Porgy and jazz, we’re not talking whitebread American. There will be ethnicity galore, with a couple of the chief headliners getting to break in the Gaillard Center as a jazz venue. The first jazz artist at the Gaillard will be René Marie (May 29), making her fourth appearance at Spoleto, this time backed by trumpeter Etienne Charles and trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, heavyweights in their own right. Later next week, a jazz legend marks the 25th anniversary of his Spoleto debut as the Randy Weston African Rhythms Sextet (June 2) takes over the big stage.

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There’s nothing shabby at all about the Cistern Yard venue on the College of Charleston campus. Still, you might catch a slight aroma of decadence as the moonlight filters through the live oaks and Spanish moss, while an ancient stone-faced clock, eerily spotlit, presides over the outdoor evening concerts. Multi-Grammy Award winning pianist Arturo O’Farrell and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra (May 28-29) is the first big jazz name to lead a moonlight revel. Two jazz nobles split the next weekend at Cistern Yard. Cécile McLorin Salvant (June 3), winner of many recent critics’ accolades and polls, makes her second Spoleto appearance, and – in outré disguise – MacArthur Genius Fellowship winner Jason Moran (June 4) makes his Spoleto debut.

Moran will lead a Fats Waller Dance Party wearing a papier-mâché mask of Waller’s head – and hat. It will be fascinating to find out what that’s about.

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The smallest jazz venue, College of Charleston’s Simons Center, isn’t as clubby as the Woolfe Street Playhouse recently adopted for the contemporary Music in Time (June 1-2) series when it veers toward latenight. But it’s a sonic gem – with general seating. So you’ll want to be the early bird, especially when The Freddy Cole Quartet (June 8-11) comes calling for eight performances. Word has long since gotten out that his singing sound is very much like his elder brother’s, Nat King Cole, and with Randy Napoleon backing him on guitar, there’s a kinship in his combo’s sound as well.

Fewer people know about the Bohemian Trio (May 28, 30-31), who make their six-performance stand at Simons a week earlier. Having rated saxophonist Yosvany Terry’s most recent New Throned King album among the top 40 for 2014, I’ll vouch for him. With a piano and a cello rounding out the trio, don’t be surprised to hear some classical sounds mixing into the Afro-Cuban flavors.

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On the Theatre front, Dublin’s Gate Theatre will be making their 11th appearance at the festival with Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (May 27-June 12). So what could possibly go wrong at the beautifully renovated Dock Street Theatre? Nothing at all IF THEY SPEAK LOUDLY ENOUGH!! I’ll be heading back to Charlotte too soon to see Every Brilliant Thing (June 8-11), but having caught Jonny Donohoe’s one-man show off-Broadway early last year, I can recommend it – and the Woolfe is a perfect place to stage it.

I’ll be opting for another theatre solo during Spoleto’s final week with Gary McNair’s A Gambler’s Guide to Dying (June 7-11) at College of Charleston’s Robinson Hall. After winning a fortune on a 1966 World Cup bet, the Scotsman’s grandpa bets it all on living to the year 2000 – with a diagnosis of cancer hanging over his head. Please don’t tell me how this turns out! My own bet for a surefire hit comes from Suzanne Andrade’s 1927 company, making their third appearance at Spoleto. Mixing film, animation, Claymation, and mind-blowing set and costume design with live performance, Golem (June 8-12) promises to transform eerie Jewish folklore into a contemporary technological dystopia. Hopefully, Andrade & Co. can conquer the off-putting vibe of Sottile Theatre.

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Dance is the most consistently fabulous element at Spoleto, so you also want to earmark anything you can wangle a ticket to in the same can’t-miss category as Golem. Appearing at the Gaillard during the last two weekends of the festival, L.A. Dance Project (June 4-5) and Havana Rakatan (June 9-11) are both self-recommending – especially if you realize that Havana Rakatan is shepherded to Charleston by Sadler’s Wells, the same London powerhouse that brought the fiercely exciting Breakin’ Convention to Charlotte last year.

Break dancing does get its moment at Spoleto when choreographer Amy O’Neal brings five world-class B-Boys to Charleston’s most versatile midsized space, Memminger Auditorium, for Opposing Forces (June 8-12) – with an original score by WD4D. Aakash Odedra Company (June 1-5) brings the acclaimed soloist to Robinson Hall, but that’s only after the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company (May 27-29) brings their some choice cuts from acclaimed repertoire to the Sottile, plus live musicians to help bridge the moat between the stage and the audience. They’re also bringing a setting to my favorite piece of chamber music, Mendelssohn’s mighty Octet for Strings, an exciting prospect.

Of course, there are also two operas, 11 lunchtime chamber music programs, two choral explosions, a recently exhumed cabaret revue that relates to Porgy, three orchestral concerts – including a 40th Anniversary Celebration Concert (May 28) – and the category-defying Manual Cinema (May 27-30) that I haven’t described. Head to the helpful Spoleto website for the complete festival schedule of all 150+ performances and info about all 45 of the shows.

Those of you who might be dragged away from Charlotte’s NASCAR bacchanalia might be consoled by the two bluegrass performances by Old Crow Medicine Show (May 26-27) at Gaillard Center, and if you’re gnashing your teeth over missing Brandi Carlile (May 30) here in Charlotte, she and her Americana pops up at Cistern Yard on Memorial Day. Lovers of Sam Cooke and Otis Redding soulfulness will be tempted by the Festival Finale (June 12) at the lovely Middleton Place plantation. Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats headline the musicmaking that begins in the afternoon, continues into the evening, and climaxes with a post-concert fireworks display.

The Blumeys Turn 5, Loud and Spirited as Ever

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By Perry Tannenbaum

I suppose that I should begin by saying that Central Academy of Technology and Arts swept the top trophies last Sunday evening at the 5th Annual Blumey Awards. Their production of Ragtime won the Wells Fargo Best Musical for high-budget productions, and the show earned two of its stars tickets to New York for the Jimmy Awards, which recognize, mentor, and present the top high school performers in the nation in fine Broadway style. Our reps up in the Big Apple on June 27 will be Justin Rivers, who was Coalhouse Walker, and Amina Faye, who was his wife Sarah.

And hey, if you didn’t know, Central Academy of Technology and Arts is in Monroe.

Even if you were at the live ceremonies in Belk Theater, you might have assumed that Central Academy was a Charlotte school: the partisan screaming for them when they performed the “Prologue” from Ragtime was that loud. The almost universal standing ovation they drew validated it.

But Central wasn’t the only finalist from out of town to bring spirit, excitement, and enthusiasm at high decibels. Nation Ford High brought their “Under the Sea” sampling of The Little Mermaid from down in Fort Mill. Butler High, presenting “Brotherhood of Man” from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, rode in from Matthews. And cfa Academy, singing the dum-diddle-eyes of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” from Mary Poppins, hailed from Concord.

Their parents, teachers, and schoolmates were as loudly supportive as the winners’. Nor did these faraway schools go away empty-handed. Butler High’s Rickey-Levon Burch II was Best Featured Performer, and cfa took home top honors for Best Choreography, Best Set Construction, and Best Tier 1 Musical (budget under $10K). Other out-of-towners who were gleeful on their rides home were Hickory Ridge High from Harrisburg for Best Costume Creation (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) and Libby Hatfield, from Arborbrook Christian Academy in Matthews, who took the Best Supporting Actress laurels (You’re a Good Man, Charley Brown).

Oh, and Central Academy added to their haul of trophies with Best Overall Direction honors.

Charlotte high schools had less to cheer about. Ethan Holtzman’s yeoman work as the Pirate King in The Pirates of Penzance brought the glory of Best Supporting Actor to Charlotte Latin School, and Ardrey Kell High won a pair of prizes, for Best Ensemble/Chorus and Best Student Orchestra (Mary Poppins).

Yet cheer they certainly did. All 43 of the competing schools were involved in the opening number and the finale, with two representatives from each school plus the Best Actor/Actress and Best Supporting Actor/Actress nominees. When they sang “We’re on the Air” to kick off the ceremonies and “Don’t Be Surprised” to conclude them, the cheering was so loud that you couldn’t really hear the 19-piece Blumey Awards Orchestra or the nearly 100 voices onstage.

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Either you bask in this pandemonium or add to it. As you’d expect, jolts of the same electricity came when ensembles performed and winners were announced – but partisans also punctuated the evening with raucous cheers almost every time a nominee’s name flashed onto the huge projection screen over the Belk stage. I’ve witnessed similar outbursts at the defunct Metrolina Theatre Awards and when Creative Loafing’s Charlotte Theatre Awards were briefly a live event.

Multiply that by about 25 and you’ll get the idea of how big and how electric the Blumey Awards have become. You can get a taste of it next month: WTVI jumped aboard this year, their Amy Burkett co-hosting with WBT’s Maureen O’Boyle, and the PBS affiliate will rebroadcast the whole shebang on June 14 at 8pm.

Concentrating on the Belk stage and hall, WTVI may not capture the full impact of the live event. As a judge for both the MTA and CL Awards, I found that the presentation ceremonies had an Oscar Night vibe, with folks I’d normally bump into – or review – at local theaters all dressed-up and in their sophisticated red-carpet mode. There was a lot of that at Belk Theater last Sunday – just three weeks before the Tony Awards, after all. But with those special infusions of high school pep, hormonal frenzy, and hysteria, the Blumeys are more like Oscar Night and Prom Night rolled into one.

Forgot to mention: These kids have talent to burn. You’ll discover that in the rebroadcast.