Monthly Archives: September 2016

“Dirty Dancing” Turns up the Heat on Tour — but Not the Singing

Theater Review:  Dirty Dancing

unspecified

By Perry Tannenbaum

Last year, when I passed up my first opportunity to see Dirty Dancing at Belk Theater, I had this naïve idea that it would be a musical adaptation of the 1987 film starring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey. With the return of the national tour Charlotte, this time at cavernous Ovens Auditorium, I persisted in my folly long after the curtain rose. Silly me, I overlooked the fine print in my playbill under the florid romance novel italics of the Dirty Dancing logo: “the classic story on stage.”

So as the action unfolded, with a live eight-piece band perched above the scene at a Catskills country club, months before the JFK assassination, I was expecting Bronwyn Reed and Christopher Tierney to sing. Reed is “Baby” Houseman, a privileged lass on vacation with her parents and sister. The eponymous club owner of Kellerman’s wants to match Baby up with his grandson, Neil, who professes to have activist sympathies that are in tune with hers. Nevertheless, it is Tierney as Johnny Castle, the dance star of the Kellerman’s floorshows, who dazzles her.

All of the women – including some of the wives – are drooling over Johnny, but he seems to be the property of his dance partner, Penny. Not so. What clears the way for Baby to get closer to Johnny is a Penny catastrophe. As a result of a recent indiscretion – and the clandestine surgery required to fix it – Baby has three days to replace Penny as Johnny’s partner for a gig at a nearby hotel.

index

So there are opportunities here for plenty of music and singing as Baby trespasses into the world of the déclassé entertainment staffers, empathizes with Penny’s plight, and endures the grind of intensive rehearsals with Johnny, maybe the hardest honest work of her whole life. Body heat is amped up on the live stage to a level that celluloid can’t compete with as Johnny and Baby slither closer and closer, inevitably intertwining, and music from up in the bandstand is more constantly in the background. But despite the heat and the beat, these dancers never sing.

I expected Reed to sing because the curly Jennifer Grey hairdo (or wig) wasn’t especially becoming for her and her dancing, which is supposed to be stiff and tentative at the start, never evolved to spectacular, lingering at merely proficient. Why cast this Baby if she couldn’t belt?

Yet I was far more eager to hear Tierney. Not only does he have a rugged, muscular, sensitive, and sensual stage presence, his speaking voice has the rich, deep grain of a finely polished briar pipe, promising a liquescent baritone. Instead of our leads, Jordan Edwin André as Billy, an incidental character, shares the live singing chores with Chante Carmel as Elizabeth, an add-on character.

Less awkward than these musical shifts are Eleanor Bergstein‘s dramatic add-ons to her screenplay. Her stage adaptation inserts some friction by between Baby’s dad (Jon Edward Powell), the physician who actually saves Penny from the quack, and her mom (Hannah Jane McMurray), who sees similarities between Johnny and her husband that the good doctor misses. The resolution of that conflict enriches the reconciliation at the end.

index

So does watching it live. The sequence, first on a log and later on a lake, where Johnny spends their last day of rehearsal teaching Baby their lifts, pales on stage in front of some clunky projections compared to location shots crafted on film. But when they finally achieve those lifts, center stage and live without retakes or a net, it was not only breathtaking but also unexpectedly moving, wiping out the bathos of those earlier projections.

Yet it has to be said that part of why the closing scene is so surprisingly moving is the absence of any comparable emotional peak before then – the kind of peaks that heartfelt singing duets can help to create. The best comic relief comes from Alyssa Brizzi as the younger sister, giving us a heftier chunk of her cheesy Hawaiian number at the final soiree. Otherwise, the only other standout was Jennifer Mealani Jones as Penny. It hardly takes five seconds to realize that she’s an ace dancer.

Advertisements

Shakespeare Pens a Sitcom

Theater Review: The Comedy of Errors

By Perry Tannenbaum

unnamed-8

Up on North Tryon Street at NoDa Brewing Company, Chickspeare is flipping the script again.

Founded upon the principle that Shakespeare’s works, originally performed by all-male companies in Merrie Olde England, can also be performed by all-female companies in Modern America, Chickspeare now propounds a new heresy. Although the Bard’s first great work, The Comedy of Errors, has its roots in Ancient Rome, why can’t we equate this trusty old farce with our own dopey TV sitcoms?

Executing this audacious concept, Chickspeare director Andrea King decrees a modicum of pruning and reshaping upon the script, along with hefty helpings of mugging, styling, and profiling from her hambone cast. If that weren’t enough to win us over — and it definitely was last Saturday night — then there’s the prepaid cupful of NoDa Brewing’s draft beer to further lubricate our receptivity. Four different brews were flowing from the kegs.

As the old story unfolds in modern dress, linkage to American sitcoms comes largely through familiar theme songs. When the luckless Egeon tells how his twin sons, both named Antipholus, were separated during infancy along with their parents, the fateful sea voyage is evoked by the familiar shipwreck of The Minnow immortalized in the ballad of Gilligan’s Island — plus an extremely cheesy scene change. Later when Antipholus of Syracuse marvels at the fact that everyone recognizes him in Ephesus, where he has never been before, his astonishment is punctuated by the theme song from Cheers, that Boston pub where everybody knows your name.

Action comes fast and quick in this Shakespeare in the Park(ing Lot) production, so I didn’t keep track of all the sitcom and game-show themes that zoomed by, or whether references to The Jeffersons, Mission Impossible, Laverne and Shirley, and The Beverly Hillbillies were linked quite as cunningly to the text. These “Chicksbeer” shows are all outdoors, with a nearby food truck supplementing the brewery offerings, but the evening performances beginning at 7 p.m. make some extra buffoonery possible as the Ephesian nitwits take multiple stabs at pointing to the setting sun.

Two sets of identical twins scurry about during this carnival of confusion, for the two Antipholuses are served by two Dromios who were also separated during infancy. Their befuddlement can only be sustained if they don’t meet, so it isn’t until deep in act five that all four of our protagonists must appear simultaneously before us. Historically, directors have relied upon actors’ height, costumes, and grooming to bridge the inevitable gap in physical appearances. Only recently have I seen or heard of directors who explore the comic possibilities of radically mismatching the identical twins.

King adopts yet another strategy. Perhaps inspired by her own recent experience in PaperHouse Theatre’s Much Ado About Nothing, where she was briefly Dogberry and Leonato simultaneously, King has cast Caroline Renfro as both Antipholuses and Tania Kelly as both Dromios. Talk about flipping the script! In most productions of Comedy of Errors, we’re challenged to perceive the twins as identical in spite of their obvious physical differences. At the NoDa Brewing Company parking lot, we’re challenged to keep track of which identical twin is which.

A couple of visual aids are helpful. When Kelly is the Dromio who dwells in Ephesus, she dons a dopey floppy hat, and when Renfro appears as the Syracusan Antipholus, she flips out a Clark Kent set of eyeglass frames. As you’ll see in the zany staging of her nativity, this Antipholus was actually born with eyeglasses. Additionally, the philandering Antipholus of Ephesus seems to be tipsy for nearly the whole evening.

Chickspeare (Photo by Weldon Weaver)

That extra degree of differentiation for Renfro seems justified. With all the thankless errands, unjust castigations, and slapstick beatings that Kelly absorbs as the two Dromios, it eventually ceases to matter which whipping boy is drawing the belly laughs. Except when Dromio of Syracuse is pursued by the amply padded Carmen Bartlett as Nell, Antipholus of Ephesus’ kitchen maid — and his manservant’s massive wife.

Kelly works up a delightful lather as she gets most of the shtick, but Renfro generates her share of zaniness, perhaps most memorably when she picks up a mic-like prop and hosts an impromptu segment of … let’s call it The Dating Game. Antipholus of Syracuse is less hotly pursued by his twin’s wife, but the scantily clad Alexandria White definitively stamps herself as the hottie of the house as Adriana, spurned though she might be by the look-alike Antipholus while her real husband is cheating on her.

Theme music from Bewitched may have been cued up when the alluring Adriana invited her Syracuse brother-in-law to her home for dinner. Not only can’t Antipholus believe his good fortune, he is smitten by Adriana’s sister, Luciana. Some of the juice seems to be drained from this faux love triangle to trim this production to its desired running time, so we miss some of the sisters’ consternation when the Syracusan obeys his instincts and speaks his heart. Likewise, Dromio of Syracuse’s eventual relief seemed to overshadow his master’s delight in the denouement.

So Kacy Southerland didn’t get the fullest opportunity to explore the virtues of Luciana — or their ultimate reward. But she moonlights as Amelia, the local abbess, so she can lavish additional virtue on Egeon’s long-lost wife and gush forth the bliss of her reunion with her children and her husband.

Arrested in the opening scene for being a Syracusan on Ephesian soil, Amanda Liles isn’t seen much as Egeon after narrating the hilarious sea saga that sets up the plot. Not to fear, she resurfaces as the frustrated goldsmith, Angelo, who can’t get paid for the necklace he fashions for the philandering Antipholus — and as the courtesan he’s two-timing with. Of course, Egeon must be there for the sentimental reunions, so Liles has her schizoid moment, splitting into Angelo as all is settled.

Cara Wood is the Duke of Ephesus, who — mercifully? — grants Egeon 24 hours to raise the ransom money that will enable him to avoid execution for his trespass. We need more Duke at the end when the terrified Antipholus of Syracuse and his Dromio take refuge at the Abbey and the implacable Adriana wants her husband back. Wood tosses off the Duke — and an arresting officer in the necklace affair — with far more distinction than we usually see, never detracting from the merry mood.

Chickspeare has a knack for broadly entertaining while duly honoring the Bard, making the texts accessible to common folk four centuries after they played to the groundlings.

Symptomatic of the troupe’s sure touch here is how they treat the often intimidating soliloquies. Instead of making them occasions for declamatory orations, they’re prerecorded and presented as interior monologues, brought down to the level of cartoonish thought bubbles that pop with crass and delicious effervescence.

Yeah, the Chix banditas understand what contemporary audiences crave, and their Chicksbeer series deftly taps in.

The Bee Gees Lose Their Falsettos

Theater Reviews: Saturday Night Fever and 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

img_4913

(Photo by Chris Timmons)

John Travolta at his peak: has there ever been anyone like him? The ruggedness, the grace, the strut, the conceit, and the boyish charisma — all of these studmuffin assets uniquely tinged with a robust Brooklynese vulgarity that took America by storm from the moment Welcome Back, Kotter hit the airwaves in 1975. But the full bloom of Travolta-mania didn’t happen until 1977, when Saturday Night Fever hit the big screen.

Surely the music of the Bee Gees was a prime component in the mystique of that breakthrough film. Yet the Bee Gees’ film score underpinning Travolta’s disco exploits was exquisitely subordinated to the heart of Tony Manero’s halting, confusing, and sometimes comical progress toward manhood in Norman Wexler’s screenplay. Bring the song hits more to the fore, as the Broadway musical version of 1999 attempted to do, and the narrow emotional range of disco is cruelly exposed.

“More Than a Woman” is unquestionably less than a woman to me, “Tragedy” is barely morose, and the answer to “How Deep Is Your Love?” is not very deep at all. I’d say that the Gibbs Brothers chose wisely in never attempting to write music for the Broadway stage.

We can only guess why director Ron Law, kicking off Theatre Charlotte’s 89th season, passed on the original Broadway adaptation by Nan Knighton in favor of a newer 2015 adaptation by Sean Cercone and David Abbinanti that has never been on Broadway — or even a national tour. Either way, Law faced an uphill battle with his core of teenage performers.

After playing the somewhat delicate boy protagonist in Caroline, or Change earlier this year in the Theatre Charlotte lobby, Rixey Terry attempts a huge leap forward from that concert production in tackling the iconic Travolta role of Tony. While the welter of tunes launched at us — the worst are those newly penned by Abbinanti — dilute the impact of the drama, they don’t obscure the complexity of Tony’s character or his double lives.

By day, Tony works a dead-end job at a Brooklyn paint store, coming home to parents who adulate his older brother Frank, a priest, while belittling his talents. A huge chunk of Tony’s paint store paycheck — and some elaborate rehearsals and primping rituals — go into Saturday nights, when he reigns as king of the dance floor at the 2001 Odyssey club. Local girls long to be his partner, thrilling to the privilege of even mopping his brow after a dance.

So at work and at home, Tony is meek, querulous, and downtrodden, but out on the street or at the club among his friends and admirers, he’s self-absorbed, arrogant, and cruel. He ignores and snaps at his good friend Bobby, who leans on him for advice, and he forcefully rejects all advances from Annette, the best dancing partner in the neighborhood.

From the moment he first sees Stephanie Mangano at the club, Tony’s world turns upside-down. Classically trained, Stephanie’s moves are easily a match for Tony’s — and her savoir-faire is miles ahead. She has a job in Manhattan! Suddenly, Tony is the supplicant and the pursuer, hoping Stephanie will be his partner for an upcoming prize competition. Yeah, the story has been slightly altered.

Terry wraps his arms around the meek, downtrodden, and needy aspects of Tony a lot more readily than his imperial arrogance. Terry’s ordinariness carries over to Tony’s first few turns on the dance floor, where he just doesn’t look masterful. So the true turning point on opening night last week came when we reached Terry’s solo on “You Should Be Dancing” at the end of Act 1. Adding acrobatic break dancing moves never seen in the iconic film, choreographer Lisa Blanton unleashed the beast in Terry.

In less than a minute, Rixey proved that, even among triple-threats, he possesses unique gifts.

img_4851

Whether or not Stephanie is intended to have more confidence and dancing polish than Tony, Susannah Upchurch definitely brings it. The way things are between Tony and his groupies doesn’t always come off precisely as they should, but when Upchurch is around, Tony’s shortcomings and vulnerabilities snap sharply into focus. Her Stephanie is almost unattainable, not quite.

Meanwhile Ava Smith is acting up a frenetic whirlwind as Annette, almost convincing us that Tony is the dreamboat we never quite see. Vic Sayegh and Mara Rosenberg make Tony’s parents a rather squalid couple, contributing mightily to the Brooklyn ambiance, and Jay Masanotti brings out all of the older brother’s cryptic contradictions.

The fabled three-piece suit from the film isn’t quite equaled by costume designer Jamey Varnadore, whose budget was likely too strict for all the clotheshorses and wannabes he’s called upon to outfit. Zachary Tarlton leads a tight five-piece band, but the real heat is mostly generated by Blanton’s choreography — and Dani Burke’s solos as Candy, the 2001 chanteuse. Burke’s “Dance Inferno,” not a Bee Gees song, is the chief showstopper among the vocals. With so many three-part harmonies discarded, it’s hard to pick a lowlight among the songs that the Gibbs Brothers made famous. Not one falsetto all evening long!

I’ll go with “Stayin’ Alive” as the nadir. For decades, I’ve despaired of explaining how tone-deaf most renditions of “If I Were a Rich Man” sound to Yiddish-speaking Jews when Christian singers navigate the vocalise, non-verbal sections of the lyrics. Now I can finally point to an equivalent.

 

4cab0c_8e61596cf00f4ad2a25425910884a614mv2

At first, I could hardly believe how over-the-top director Sarah Provencal was wanting her cast to act in 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche, currently at the Warehouse Performing Arts Center in Cornelius. This was the customarily sophisticated Lane Morris as Wren, one of our five quiche bake-off hostesses? The effusive audience interaction, from the time we enter the Westmoreland Road storefront, makes Pump Boys and Dinettes seem funereal by comparison.

But after a while we realize just how strange this script by Evan Linder and Andrew Hobgood truly is. For this egg-worshipping black comedy takes us back to a 1950s dystopia in an alternate universe. Only the desperation of our hostesses’ plight can prod them into coming proudly out of the closet, a delicious juxtaposition with their ’50s primness.

Actually, Morris with her “victory curls” looks more like a throwback to the ’40s and the Andrews Sisters (yes, these Daughters of Susan B. Anthony and Gertrude Stein have a club song). It’s Joanna Gerdy as Vern who’s the outright lesbian of this quiche quintet from the start, flinging away her customary sophistication even further from the norm in a comedy performance to relish.

Ginny, played by Stephanie DiPaolo, is a diffident Brit who almost seems catatonic at times. Vying with her for the distinction of being the most repressed in the house is Nikki Stepanek as Dale, who hasn’t spoken to a man since the age of three. She’s definitely the youngest, which is why she becomes the chosen vessel — for a while, anyway — to save mankind.

Every one of us in the audience must come out and admit that, yes, we are also lesbians, a quite unique moment in the annals of theatre. The only remaining holdout is Pam Coble Coffman as club president Lulie, a veritable Betty Crocker of propriety and discipline. Lulie hits us with the startling revelation that sends this 73-minute production into its unnecessary break. My wife Sue balked at this intermission, but the folks taking hits from the boxes of wine on the buffet seemed to be okay with it.

So real men and real women don’t eat quiche? Please forget I said that.

 

Writing Tips and Serial Seductions

Theater Review: Seminar @ Spirit Square

20160809166652467

By Perry Tannenbaum

We all know that politics, connections, and strategic socializing often figure into securing Hollywood production budgets and achieving Hollywood stardom. We’re apt to think of the proverbial casting couch as Tinseltown’s exclusive domain. But can the same tools also work in the literary world, where writers aspire to lucrative publication and enduring prestige?

 

You better believe it, playwright Theresa Rebeck tells us in Seminar, a surprisingly steamy — and sometimes dark — comedy that brings Three Bone Theatre to Spirit Square for the first time. The veneers of artistry, aesthetics, and collegiality rapidly disintegrate in successive encounters with a famed writer and his very exclusive fiction-writing class. Izzy, Douglas, Martin, and Kate all scrape together $5,000 apiece for the privilege of being praised, critiqued, berated, and mentored by Leonard in weekly sessions at Kate’s posh Upper West Side apartment.

Kate has been honing her story about a narrator obsessed with Jane Austen for so long that cleverness and craft are all that remain. Izzy’s writing, on the other hand, is so laced with sensuousness and sexuality that it rouses mighty urges in every man in the room — and she knows exactly what she’s doing. Douglas arrives with a fine literary pedigree, key connections, and a manuscript that is already under consideration by The New Yorker.

Martin has had the toughest time scraping up the necessary cash for tuition, so tough that he has been evicted from his apartment. He wouldn’t need to pay any rent if he could crash in one of Kate’s many extra bedrooms, but he’s oblivious to the possibility that Good Samaritan impulses might not be the primary reason why Kate says yes. There are more than a couple of things that Martin is oblivious to, and he’s very guarded about showing his writing to anyone, so he’s a useful person for Rebeck to have around for expositional purposes. So much must be explained to him until he becomes central to the story.

Meanwhile, it’s Izzy and her serial seductions that stir the pot and drive the plot. There’s actually an admirable amount of balance in Rebeck’s script, but in the Broadway production directed by Sam Gold, the important character seemed to be movie star Alan Rickman as Leonard, while the students often seemed to be mundane minnows swimming in his orbit.

Leonard is a revered writer who is still globetrotting on reporting assignments despite his literary decline, so Rickman’s aging celebrity was not amiss. And Rebeck delves so deeply into the mysteries of teaching and mentoring writers that our fluctuating assessment of Leonard’s efficacy emerges as more important than any other subject Seminar tackles. But Rickman’s aura, for better or worse, made Leonard appear above the politics, the exploitation, and the literary logrolling.

With Michael Harris in the role (and probably in the best form of his life), the fault lines in Leonard’s character — and his redeeming humanity — are more readily evident. Three Bone director Steven Levine doesn’t have the luxury of imposing a huge gulf between Leonard and his students from a celebrity standpoint, so we also discover who Leonard’s costar is a bit earlier in the game. Rickman’s fame — and stage presence — really didn’t allow for an equal in the Broadway production.

A subtler aspect of Rickman’s magisterial stature on Broadway was the stylish domain where Leonard held court. Ryan Maloney’s set design for Kate’s living room, flowing silk sheets for walls and simple furnishings, has an unmistakable elegance, not a word I’d apply to any of Three Bone’s previous efforts in NoDa over the past four years. But it’s Maloney’s evocation of a ratty artist’s apartment later in the action, complete with its telltale writer’s clutter, that had me flashing back to the Broadway production.

Outside of ivied university walls and politically correct quads, taboos against student-teacher hookups obviously don’t apply, but with Three Bone’s comparatively leveled playing field, it’s easier to see that Izzy is playing the guys to her advantage — and actually less apparent that Leonard is playing her. Karina Caparino augments the difference by emphasizing Izzy’s wantonness and her frolicsome spirit. The Asian who played Izzy on Broadway was a little brainier, cosmopolitan. This Izzy is Bohemian with more raw and exposed emotions.

That chimes well with Harris’s more vulnerable approach to Leonard. I found myself paying far closer attention to Leonard’s big monologue, where he addresses his past disgrace. For me, it was less of a rueful confession and more of a bitter outcry of victimhood this time around, accentuated by some deft lighting cues by designer Carley Walker. Unexpectedly, it’s the previously meek Martin who pushes the esteemed writer to open up.

Michael Harris and Scott Miller in Seminar.

So yes, I can declare that Martin, in his painful — at times, infuriating — evolution demands a performance on a par with Leonard’s, and Scott A. Miller certainly delivers. I’m sure it isn’t a coincidence that Levine elicits an outing from Miller that’s as extraordinary as what we see from Harris, arguably eclipsing Miller’s stellar work earlier this year at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte in the title role of Danny, King of the Basement.

I’m only wondering how Levine did it. It’s easy to suppose that Levine enabled Miller and Harris to look inside themselves and find things they had never discovered before. That’s a typical mythology applied to directors. But here I suspect that Levine opened up new depths in Rebeck’s text, for I must admit that I thought it was a far slicker piece when I left John Golden Theatre in 2012 than I did at last Thursday night’s opening.

Beth Killion’s costume designs for Douglas aren’t as loud as those I saw on Broadway, making the well-connected student less of an object of derision. I found that new twist as enjoyable as the others, but with three of Charlotte’s best actors bringing their A games to this local premiere, Paul Gibson’s shortcomings as Douglas were more glaring than they might be otherwise. To mesh better with this ace cast, Gibson’s cue pickup needs to be swifter and his delivery surer. When he settled down — conquered his opening night jitters? — Gibson offered us a nuanced rendering of Douglas’s sense of entitlement and his nonchalant insider’s knowledge, not cartoonish at all. But his difficulties had come when he needed to dominate.

Our hostess Kate has more complexities than Izzy, and she can be even more irritating than Martin with her stubbornness and preciousness. Becca Worthington is better at Kate’s priggishness than she is at projecting the embarrassment of her privileged wealth, but there are hidden dimensions to this Kerouac hater that go undetected by Martin until the scene changes — and Worthington is marvelously attuned to those devastating surprises.

Roguish “Rouge” Keeps Its Freshness

Dance Review: CC&Co.’s Rouge

379075_10150607398863084_1504680463_n

By Perry Tannenbaum

Now in its fourth year, Rouge began as a slightly naughty variety show featuring Caroline Calouche & Co.‘s signature aerial choreography, with a naughty cabaret twist that meshed well with its October timeslot – and a late 9:30 pm performance that was a novelty for dance in Charlotte. Compared to the Nutcracker Rouge that I sampled last winter in an off-Broadway production, the first two CC&Co. editions of Rouge barely grazed the possibilities of risqué dance. Absent from the spectacles at Booth Playhouse were the profusion of pasties, satyrs, fauns, and cross-dressing men that I witnessed in Greenwich Village, all ganging up on an innocent virgin and serving as her initiation into the rites of eroticism. So if the Charlotte troupe had no intention of following a similar trail, it was prudent for the company to retreat from October, when steamier saturnalia might be expected, to a sunnier timeslot in August. Here the modest moves toward cabaret decadence and S&M stylings actually seemed more daring.

Yet the move to a balmier season didn’t absolve Calouche & Co. of the obligation to embrace cabaret naughtiness with gusto. If the opening tableau with three couples intertwining downstage and four females behind them straddling chairs was any indication of how the company would attack the can-can, then I could be grateful that I was spared from seeing a kickline that would have proven they can’t-can’t. Couples went through the motions of sensuous contact without either the heat or the enjoyment that would bring the choreography vividly to life, and the women on those chairs did little more than occupy them. A “Take It Easy” duet with Javier Gonzalez and Sarah Ritchy, some segments aerial and others on the floor, generated a little heat, but the closest we came to flame was Calouche’s “It Takes Two” aerial coupling with Anthony Oliva, introduced by hostess/songstress Rachael Houdek as the evening’s BDSM segment and boasting black costumes to match.

Set to some orgiastic guitar blues, something in this aerial choreography was definitely simmering.

10424463_1495611417317853_930816821_a

Hosting for the fourth time, Houdek seems to get what CC&Co. is about much better than she did in her first two years, and her singing has improved as much as her poise, most noticeably on “Creep,” the penultimate number on the Rouge 2016 program. Keeping the show fresh were five other guest performers, including the Von Howard Project from New York. Dancing the choreography of Christian von Howard, this trio of dancers – Breeanah Breeden, Jake Deibert, and Tracy Dunbar – were the gray antithesis of an orgiastic rouge spirit as they performed “Seeker”: eerily fluid, urban, dystopic, and occasionally extraterrestrial. Notwithstanding their discordant vibe, I wished Von Howard Project had offered us second and third helpings.

I can warily say the same about Atlanta-based Nicole Mermans, who delighted me midway during the second half of the evening with her “Tousled” on an aerial sling. Aerial pieces rarely strive for comedy, but this one had slapstick elements, set to a klezmer score. Hopefully, other pieces Mermans has devised would be equally unique, perhaps on an assortment of apparatuses. After watching aerial acts for a number of years, I’ve concluded that the number of moves available on each apparatus – particularly the aerial silks – is probably more limited than the number afforded by such gymnastic apparatuses as the rings, the pommel horse, or the balance beam. So are the risks after the performer has mastered each skill.

536539565_1280x720

So I was pleased that Rouge presented the wide variety of equipment that CC&Co. has accustomed its audience to, including Gwynne Flanagan from DC on trapeze and Molly Graves from Vermont on aerial rope. The only guest soloist who disappointed was Jen MacQueen from Atlanta, who only showed me moves on the cyr wheel that already I’d seen many, many times since the days that Cirque du Soleil first began touring. To her credit, Calouche has fortified her troupe to such an extent that the aforementioned members of the troupe – Gonzalez, Ritchy, and Oliva – aren’t alone in being able to perform to the level of the guest artists. Sarah Small performed a gorgeous aerial solo silhouetted behind a translucent disc, choreographed to an instrumental adaptation of Dvořák’s “Moon Song,” and though he wasn’t airborne at all, Jake StainbackSarah Small’s talents as an ecdysiast were singular nevertheless.

After the busy opening and the Von Howard Project spot, there were other segments featuring three or more performers, including a bouncy bungee trio (with some unseen complicity up in the fly loft) and an aerial finale on a massive twin-cube apparatus that could accommodate four performers simultaneously. My favorite was the semi-spontaneous segment that brought us to intermission, which began with Houdek picking out a conspicuously gifted member of the audience to bust out a few of his startling dance moves. Then members of the company invaded the audience, pulling some choice prospects onstage – well, they discreetly avoided old codgers like me, anyway. All of these recruits began to show their stuff to some very festive music. I not only noticed a non-musical actor among the recruits but also a few moves from the others that were raunchier than any of the rehearsed choreography. Rouge may not be particularly wicked, risqué, or even particularly French, but it remains an impressive show – and it attracts an impressive crowd.