Monthly Archives: November 2016

Hey, Hey, We’re the Herdmans!

Theater Review: The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical

By Perry Tannenbaum

primary-pageant-1

So the holidays are here, and we know the live entertainment drill: inevitable revivals of A Christmas Carol, Nutcracker, and The Best Christmas Pageant Ever plus a few fresh novelties to liven the mix. This year, one of the novelties is also one of the inevitables. For while it’s possible to see the customary stage adaptation of Barbara Robinson’s Yuletide favorite at Matthews Playhouse starting on Thursday, Children’s Theatre of Charlotte unveiled the world premiere of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical on Black Friday.

Robinson adapted her 1971 novel for the Seattle Children’s Theatre in 1982, and the proliferation of productions across America has arguably made the playscript more beloved than the book. So the team of Johanna Beecham and Malcolm Hilgartner, adding their lyrics and musical score, did the prudent thing in adapting Robinson’s stage version.

Nearly 34 years to the day since the story succeeded in Seattle, a whole generation of parents who saw Best Christmas Pageant onstage as children are bringing their offspring to ImaginOn to see The Musical. Our Children’s Theatre, which has grown to national renown during those intervening years, had to add five performances to the run before opening night – a tribute to their prestige as well as the bankable title.

Turns out that the Robinsons, the playwright (who died in 2013) and her daughters, were pretty prudent themselves in choosing Beecham and Hiltgartner. They seem to know what can be enlarged to musical proportions and how to get the job done. I’d also say that Best Christmas Pageant is easier to swallow than A Christmas Carol was when it morphed into Scrooge.

Big crowd scenes can be magnified most easily from stage to musical dimensions, but A Christmas Carol doesn’t really abound with them. Scrooge’s workplace and Cratchit’s home aren’t bustling places, and London is a cold, lonely, and forbidding city until Ebenezer’s reformation. So a couple of parties and a funeral were supersized, effervesced, and choreographed for Scrooge. We’re also more familiar with the older, more entrenched Dickens tale, so tampering is riskier, more jarring.

 

Recognizing that they’re primarily dealing with schoolkids, normal ones in fear of the notorious Herdmans, they make sure to create their biggest scenes when kids congregate, at church for Sunday school, at school during lunchtime, and at their rehearsal hall near the fateful church kitchen. The catastrophic rehearsal scene, causing Rev. Hopkins to cancel the pageant after the Herdman herd has stampeded it, is rockin’ pandemonium.

Beecham and Hiltgartner are more artful even before that in their depiction of the adult antagonists. What I labeled as the four Old Biddies, when Jill Bloede directed the play for Children’s Theatre in 1995, are now three parents of Beth and Charlie Bradley’s classmates. Luanne, Connie, and Betty start us off singing “Perfect Little Town,” as beautifully harmonized and sugary as the overdubbing Connie Francis cooing “My Happiness.” They are natural allies of the dictatorial Helen Armstrong, the rigid director who is usually in charge of the unchanging Christmas pageant year after year.

ladies

But Armstrong is hospitalized this year, so the vocal trio mobilizes with Helen to convince Grace Bradley, Beth and Charlie’s mom, to take over just before auditions. In the play version, all four women wielded old-fashioned phones in cajoling Grace. A musical allows for more fanciful, comical liberties. By the end of another pop rocker, “Counting on You,” the ladies have circled to the opposite side of McColl Family Theatre from Helen’s bedside to resume their vocal trio assault on Grace at the Bradley home, with the siblings and their father joining in on the hubbub.

If the ladies can be more ridiculous now – a big if, since Bloede had Alan Poindexter and Sidney Horton crossdressing as two of the hags in ’95 – then the Herdmans can be more fearsome and ferocious to counterbalance them. Augmenting their chaotic energy is the fiendish work of choreographer Ron Chisholm, who keeps the six Herdmans and their terrified victims spread across the stage in frenetic action. Even Rev. Hopkins must be convinced of their true menace.

ctc-bcpetm-4

We are far closer here to believing Beth’s famed opening pronouncement: “The Herdmans were the worst kids in the whole history of the world.” Where Bloede capitalized a bit on the fact that rather entertaining performances could come from kids who might be visibly reluctant to immerse themselves in the full barbarity of a Herdman, current Children’s Theatre artistic director Adam Burke will have no such laxity.

As Imogene, the Herdman who takes the role of Virgin Mary by the throat, Carlyn Head is an absolute she-wolf in her howling vocals, and there is only the slightest glint of cuteness in Charli Head as Gladys, the little sister who pounces on the role of Herald Angel. With all of this vocal artillery hurled at her from young and old, Ashley Goodson can be sweet and caring as Grace, but when those moments arrive for reasserting control and conviction, she also unveils a voice of steel.

So when the Herdmans come around to the spirit of the Nativity, Grace is a little more amazing than she was in the play version, but I’m more thankful for the fulminating comic relief from Allison Snow Rhinehart, thwarted each time she issues a demand or insists that the Herdmans must be thrown out of the pageant. As phlegmatic as Rhinehart is, Tiffany Bear as Connie, Olivia Edge as Luanne, and Tracie Frank as Luanne are purest plastic, aging Supremes wannabes.

Arella Flur is more than satisfying as Beth, but she’s usually upstaged by Bennett Harris as the bullied younger brother or Ryann Losee, the tattletale Alice who lets Imogene snatch the role of Mary from her without a struggle. Bobby Tyson’s comic timing is so sharp in the minor role of Mr. Bradley that it’s reassuring to see him get a duet with wife Grace late in the show, and Dan Brusnson is the kindliest, most Christian Rev. Hopkins that I can recall. Among the male Herdmans, Colin Samole as Ralph and Rixey Terry as Leroy impressed me the most, but I don’t think either is written fully enough.

At least not yet. Estimates of the running time that I’ve seen in the Children’s Theatre press releases and in their program booklet have ranged from 60 minutes, approximately the length of their 1995 production, to 80 minutes in the current playbill. My clocking of the Sunday matinee at under 67 minutes suggests that the piece I saw underwent feverish modifications in its final weeks of rehearsal.

I point that out for a couple of reasons. It illustrates that Burke and Children’s Theatre, who commissioned this world premiere, have taken significant ownership in intensively shaping the product. It also suggests to me that the process isn’t finished, that the 80-minute target that seems more sensible to me might be what we see the next time The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical opens at ImaginOn. Or even by the time it closes on December 23.

Maybe then I’ll be able to say that this is the best Best Christmas Pageant Ever ever. It’s pretty damn close right now – and a very gratifying achievement at Charlotte’s fantasy palace.

Advertisements

Gentleman’s Guide Brings New Balance to Love & Murder on Tour

Theater Review: A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder

By Perry Tannenbaum

gentlemans

In its original form as a 1949 motion picture – adapted from a novel by Roy Horniman – Kind Hearts and Coronets hinted obliquely at its dualities. But when Robert L. Freedman took over the story for his musical collaboration with composer Steven Lutvak, nary a mention of the famed Alec Guinness comedy vehicle was on the title page on opening night in 2013. Instead, audience and critics encountered A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder, a sharper description of the attractions to be found in Monty Navarro’s lurid confessions.

We seem to be hearing Navarro’s confessions on the eve of his march to the gallows. Short-circuiting any fears that we are about to see a grim tale of ruthless bloodlust and implacable retribution, the stage is ornately set up to replicate the style and era of vaudeville. On Broadway, everything in Monty’s narrative was reenacted on a proscenium stage within the proscenium of the Walter Kerr Theatre’s stage. Critics were charmed by the frank artificiality of this transformative concept, showering Gentleman’s Guide with both the Tony and Drama Desk awards for best musical. Audiences? Not so much: the show shuttered after a respectable 26-month run, hardly a smash.

It seemed to be a different story on opening night in Charlotte, where the touring version of Gentleman’s Guide is playing at Knight Theater, a cozier destination than Belk Theater, where most national tours are staged. A full house at the Knight, boxy though it might be, just feels more like a Broadway experience, and the audience’s reaction to the welcome novelty was noticeably electric. At the Knight, the cerebral nature of this story wasn’t at all off-putting.

Cut off by his grandpa from the status and riches of the D’Ysquith family, Monty only learns of his noble lineage after his mother’s funeral, thanks to the helpful gossip of Miss Shingle, a maidservant he has never met before. Papers discovered in mom’s humble flat confirm Shingle’s assertions, so Monty tries to reestablish his family ties. After all, despite being the son of a washwoman, he’s ninth in line to become the Earl of Highhurst.

The luscious Sibella Hallward is more than adequate incentive for Monty to murder the eight who are before him line, for she is disinclined to wed a pauper – and her looks open wide vistas of alternatives. So it is here that the dualities of this nifty plot conjoin. To rise in Sibella’s estimation, Monty is hormonally driven to murder his way to the top of the bunch.

14220_show_landscape_large_03

It won’t be a vulgar or brutish journey, for Monty’s murders are cunningly devised to evade detection. But along the way – say midway in his murderous exploits – Monty meets a D’Ysquith, namely young Phoebe, who appeals to his heart and mind as much as Sibella enchants his eyes and loins.

While Monty’s labors are mercifully condensed in number from Hercules’ mythical 12, the serial murders can become somewhat tedious and banal when performed within two prosceniums. What keeps us interested through two acts and a 2:09 playing time are the emerging love triangle, steadily intensifying toward a farcical climax, and the ripeness of most of the D’Ysquith victims for their colorful exterminations.

Nor does it hurt that all of the doomed D’Ysquiths are portrayed by the same actor, John Rapson, a Herculean feat that more than matches Monty’s. As the body count rises, so does the frequency of crossdressing, and the women nicely illustrate the range of worthiness that the D’Ysquiths actually have for extinction. Lady Salomé D’Ysquith Pumphrey, a totally wretched stage actress, is probably the easiest to dispatch with a clear conscience. But the mammoth Lady Hyacinth D’Ysquith undertakes beneficent projects all across the globe. She is also the toughest to extinguish, for Monty sends her off to various needy destinations where war, disease, or cannibals might act as his homicidal proxies.

14220_show_landscape_large_05

Ultimately, Monty is challenged to liquidate themost detestable of the D’Ysquiths, Lord Adalbert, the current Earl. To illustrate the prodigious odiousness of the man, he must be paired with a wife, Lady Eugenia, who is nearly as waspish and hideous as he. Lord and Lady D’Ysquith host a formal dinner, where Monty, Phoebe, and Sibella are the invited guests. Repeatedly, husband and wife snarl and hiss at each other like raging jungle cats before suddenly regaining their highborn composure.

Rapson takes on all his D’Ysquiths with satisfying gusto. His Lord Asquith D’Ysquith, the one truly benign member of the clan, is positively Dickensian. But at the dinner table, I did wish that the full house of Charlotte theatergoers could have been rewarded with the awesome flair – and phlegm – that Jefferson Mays brought to Lord Adalbert on Broadway. Kristen Mengelkock as Lady Eugenia was certainly sufficiently provoking.

gglam_1000_3_new-e6dc97c3cf

As fine as I thought Bryce Pinkham was on Broadway as Monty, I found a smidge more sparkle from Kevin Massey when he mingled with his women. Both ladies were up to the high Broadway standard in vying for his affections. Every movement by Kristen Beth Williams as Sibella was worthy of a Vogue magazine spread or a Victoria’s Secret brochure, and Kristen Hahn was the essence of wholesome refinement as Phoebe. Both Kristens teamed up beautifully with Massey in their farcical trio, though their door slamming was bit sloppy. You certainly won’t wonder why Linda Cho won the Tony for best costume design when these ladies are onstage.

With such a fine set of frontliners behind him, Rapson may not be a dominant as Mays, but the touring show comes off as more balanced, the Love and Murder more equally weighted. Some of the enthusiastic crowd may have been surprised because Guinness’s legendary screen performance shaped their expectations.

14220_show_landscape_large_02

Only two other players need to be mentioned, a testament to the compactness of A Gentleman’s Guide. Jennifer Smith insinuates herself beautifully into the beginning and ending of our story as Miss Shingle – and with “You’re a D’Ysquith,” she probably has the catchiest tune in the show. Off my radar since he appeared in a summertime musical revue at Theatre Charlotte in 2001, Ben Roseberry returns to town as Chief Inspector Pickney. Not only does he arrest our protagonist – for the one murder he didn’t commit! – he gets the opportunity to be seduced by Williams in a climactic tête-à-tête with Sibella.

Roseberry isn’t the first Broadway pro to make Charlotte’s community theatre proud, and he won’t be the last.

Four Guest Soloists Combine With Charlotte Symphony and Chorus in a Walloping Bruckner “Te Deum”

Reviews:  Bruckner’s Te Deum and Psalm 150, Wagner’s “Overture to Tannhaüser,” and Strauss’s “First Waltz Sequence from Der Rosenkavalier

Georgia Jarman, soprano, performs in Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi in the Venetian Theater at Caramoor in Katonah New York on July 19, 2014. (photo by Gabe Palacio)

By Perry Tannenbaum

The cramped look of the Charlotte Symphony onstage at the Belk Theater clearly confirmed to me that the music we were about to hear would be similarly dense and weighty, particularly when the Charlotte Symphony Chorus arrived to fill the many empty chairs at the rear of the stage. Before those mighty liturgical choral salvos from Bruckner, we had a couple of suitable preambles gleaned from operatic scores.

Placement of the orchestra at the Belk has a noticeable impact on how they sound. Rising out of the pit, the sound of the Symphony was satisfactory enough last month when they played Rossini’s score for the Opera Carolina production of The Barber of Seville. Yet if you had seen them spread out onstage the previous weekend for performances of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 and Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1, the ensemble now sounded comparatively muzzled. A similar constriction – but not nearly so pronounced – was evident last night when music director Christopher Warren-Green launched the Symphony into Wagner’s “Overture to Tannhäuser.” With Bruckner’s Psalm 150 and his Te Deum yet to come, the Wagner overture really would seem like a prelude by evening’s end.

In between the densities of Wagner and Bruckner, maestro Warren-Green made an excellent programming choice in inserting the “First Waltz Sequence from Der Rosenkavalier” by Richard Strauss. The flatulent French horns and trombones at the beginning of the piece, followed by a tumult of the violins reminiscent of Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel, formed a witty bridge back to the Wagner overture. A welcome oasis of comparative quietude featured some fine work principal clarinetist Eugene Kavadlo and a lilting solo from concertmaster Calin Lupanu as we leisurely traveled to the grand dancehall of Strauss’s big waltz. Warren-Green adroitly varied tempos as the familiar waltz slowly, gorgeously developed from a tentative bud to a giddy frolic before bursting forth in its full orchestral bloom.

paul-popup

Easily the shortest piece on the program, the full éclat of the Psalm 150 manifests itself almost immediately with the hallelujahs of the chorus, a battering of timpani, and flourishes of the trumpets. Lupanu exceled on a tender interlude as we transitioned from the thunder of the chorus to the sweetness of the soprano soloist, Georgia Jarman. The contrast between the chorus and the single female voice had the impact of a descent from the heavenly host of angels praising the Lord’s mighty firmament to the simple awe of a solitary human extoling his mighty deeds. Somehow the juxtaposition of that sweet episode with the finale, where all living things give praise to their creator, was even more awesome, introduced by a second volley of hallelujahs and whipping up from there to a divine frenzy. All creation seemed joined in a jubilant tribute.

530b8ba206611-preview-620After hearing the glorious conclusion of the Psalm 150, it was hard to grasp that an even grander work was yet to come, but the return of Jarman for the Te Deum with three other vocalists – including mezzo Jennifer Johnson Cano, tenor Paul Appleby, and bass baritone Davóne Tines – certainly fueled our anticipation. Like Psalm 150, the Te Deum shoots its volleys of chorus and brass from the start, but the onslaught isn’t as prolonged. Duos between Appleby and Jarman proved to be the most memorable moments of the opening Allegro moderato section, as Appleby distinguished himself with the purest, most penetrating voice. Cano participated in some trio episodes before the mighty return of the chorus, but she really wasn’t a legitimate rival for either Jarman or Appleby.

index

On the other hand, I was mostly impressed when Tines made his contributions later on. Though he didn’t project the lowest notes as fully and confidently as I would have hoped, Tines’s warm solo in the penultimate “Salvum fac” section of the prayer remained a thing of beauty. In the fifth and final “In te, Domine speravi” section, the interplay of the solo voices was effectively mirrored – and magnified – by the interplay of the men’s and women’s sections of the chorus. Under the leadership of Kenney Potter, Symphony Chorus delivered some of their most thrilling moments as we hurtled toward Bruckner’s concluding supplications. Backed by the full orchestra, most notably the trumpets, the liturgical piece remained piously devotional. Yet it became electric with affirmation and thunderous with finality.

 

Stirring the Pot in a Bronx Soup Kitchen

Theater review: Three Bone Theatre’s Grand Concourse

groupphoto

By Perry Tannenbaum

Most people, particularly the homeless and the poor, don’t need to be told that soup kitchens are all about feeding the hungry who are beaten down – temporarily or permanently – by the harsh realities of our teeming cities. But to an unexpected degree, Heidi Schreck’s Grand Concourse, set in one of these missions of mercy at a Bronx church, struck me as a play about soup.

Not to worry, the current Three Bone Theatre production, at Spirit Square through Saturday, occasionally delves into the question of how to best serve the poor. Yet we aren’t out there among the hungry who are gratefully lapping up their free lunches. Instead, we’re behind the scenes – in the actual kitchen of the soup kitchen – so we’re mostly involved with the providers of the meals, not the recipients.

Sister Shelley runs the kitchen, a nun who has chosen to discard the traditional costume and struggles to sustain another habit: prayer. Setting the kitchen timer on her microwave to one minute, she can’t nearly fill it with 60 seconds of earnest supplications. A new volunteer, Emma, enters in the next scene, and it’s really her time at the kitchen – first as a volunteer and then as a salaried worker – that shapes the arc of our story.

About two-thirds through the action, which clocks in at 95 minutes, I had the feeling – can I admit it was a worry? – that we were watching one of those incubator stories about a flawed, wounded, immature young person who experiences growth and healing via the subtle balms of acceptance and friendship. We’ve seen a few of these, haven’t we?

Lovely Emma turns out to be a different kind of apprentice, partly warm-hearted and enterprising but also partly toxic. The two men in this tragicomedy, Oscar and Frog, help in sharply defining the best and worst of Emma. Among her initiatives, the boldest is to expand the mission of the soup kitchen into helping the regulars get on their feet and find jobs. Appropriately, the first beneficiary of these attentions is Frog, who has long disregarded the taboos against camping out by the church and fraternizing with the kitchen folk.

Her effect isn’t so benign in her various interactions with Oscar, the maintenance/muscle guy who regularly drops by for sandwiches kept in the fridge, usually lingering to lend the women a helping hand. Emma works on Oscar’s eyes with her good looks, then on his sympathies with her big lies. Everyone around Emma is hoodwinked as she spins plausible yarns to her mother, about her mother, and about herself.

There is more complexity with Sister Shelley, who is dealing with her crisis in faith and the oncoming death of her dad. Unlike most volunteers, Emma returns for a second day, becoming a standout simply by persevering. Continuing to volunteer, Emma introduces new variations to the daily soup – a whole eggplant one day, maybe a few pinches of fennel the next. But she’s stirring the pot at a deeper level when she starts helping Frog to hop out of hopelessness. Why haven’t the sisters thought of doing that before? It starts Shelley to wondering.

It also starts to make it obvious that Schreck isn’t primarily concerned about Emma’s apprenticeship. This playwright’s eyes are trained most diligently on how all the characters are affecting one another. What’s simmering up in the Bronx, workday after workday, is a human soup of interaction and influence – and this humble little soup kitchen is a microcosm for the Grand Concourse that is humanity. It’s a volatile stew without any pat or easy endings. It keeps on boiling along.

There are plenty of energies distributed among this unpredictable foursome, and director Robin Tynes does a fine job in making sure we see how different – and how unevenly distributed – these energies are. Shawna Pledger hasn’t been this wired onstage since she made her first Charlotte splash in the title role of Sylvia four years ago at CP. Here she’s rechanneling that restless energy into Shelley, a neurotic and indecisive nun whose ultimate crucible will be forgiveness when young Emma pushes her to her limits. Pledger’s is an intense energy pent up in a pressure cooker of religious tolerance and discipline. Even when she stumbled on a line on opening night, it came out like part of Sister’s high-strung struggles.

Emma’s confusions are on a more elemental, hormonal level than Shelley’s, and Callie Richards gives her a variety of erratic, moody, and sensitive shadings. Nothing about Richards’ demeanor suggests that Emma is a temptress. Nor are Jason Estrada’s costume designs spurring her in that direction. She’s sneaky, deceptive, and her conquest of Oscar is like a raccoon invading your attic in the middle of the night. Suddenly, she’s just there.

Watching things unravel, we don’t know exactly how to analyze Emma’s ultimate violence. It’s passive-aggressive, to be sure, and its effect is irreversible, but Richards is careful not to give away how intentional it may have been. Life is often messy precisely because we encounter chaotic, messed-up people like Emma behaving irresponsibly.

shelley-emma-oscar

 

As portrayed by Nicholas Enrique Pardo, it’s easy to come away thinking of Oscar as a genial sacrificial lamb, pounced upon by both Emma and Frog. But his victimhood is more complex and unique than that, for he had trained to be a dentist in the Dominican Republic before the process of immigrating to the US effectively stripped him of his credentials. Now he holds down a day job to survive and attends a community college to improve his employment prospects. Pardo just struck me as too young to have all that mileage and dentistry in his rearview mirror – but I didn’t detect much in Schreck’s script that exposed this shortfall.

Likewise, Bill Reilly may be a wee bit young to comfortably fit the aging hippy profile sketched for Frog, but he turns in such a compelling performance as this eccentric loose cannon that all incongruities quickly cease to matter. Reilly’s entrance at the dawning of his reclamation is delightful, largely because he himself seems shocked and disoriented by his new attire. The whole outing would have been even more extraordinary if Steven Levine’s fight choreography had been more meticulous.

Notably more shabby – and less clinical – than the Playwrights Horizons’ off-Broadway production, Ryan Maloney’s set design jibes better with the way most out-of-towners think of the Bronx. This kitchen is more welcoming and, with Jackie and Peter Hohenstein’s prop designs, still richly detailed.

The carefully crafted clutter and slovenliness of the kitchen also accords with the episodic manner that Schreck relies on in telling her story. Watching the jagged sequence of scenes unfold, it seemed that the playwright may have pieced them together like journal entries, maybe shuffling the order, discarding numerous scenes, and cutting out minor characters – the mother, the head nun, and a pesky teen delinquent – along the way.

We sift through a cunningly calculated slovenliness to get at Schreck’s takeaway, with a few loose ends purposely left dangling. You won’t be as sure of what to make of Grand Concourse as the many tidier comedies and dramas you’ve seen before, but you’ll likely be more convinced of its authenticity.

Opera Carolina Taps into a New Audience with Three Short Operas – Including a World Premiere

Reviews: “A Hand of Bridge,” “The Telephone,” and “Connection Lost (The Tinder Opera)”

14907223_10154107627428367_1574786247935966109_n

By Perry Tannenbaum

Just when you might have thought Opera Carolina was turning away from fruitful collaborations, they are diving back in with renewed vigor. Last month’s production of The Barber of Seville, kicking off their 2016-17 mainstage season, rose to the same high level of the previous Op Carolina production of Rossini’s comic gem directed by Bernard Uzan in 2002. Yet a noteworthy difference was the absence of Piedmont Opera as a co-producer, so after its Charlotte run ended on October 30, there was no second run in Winston-Salem as there had been 14 years earlier. Not to fear, new collaborators came into play within four days as Op Carolina forged new bonds with the D9 Brewing Company and the Warehouse Performing Arts Center. While these two Cornelius, NC, outfits are non-operatic, they fit in with the Charlotte company’s aim to remind us that all operas aren’t grand and that all opera audiences need not be elderly, strait-laced, and richly appareled. Everything about their world premiere of Scott Joiner’s “Connection Lost (The Tinder Opera)” was youthful, casual, and populist.

The free event was at D9, where a line of draught beer taps greeted me near the entrance, and a row of tall stainless steel brew tanks caught my eye as I made my way to my front row seat – on a folding chair. Joiner’s new opera would half-surround me, a string quartet and pianist/music director Emily Jarrell Urbanek slightly behind me and a cast of 14 in front of me in a far corner of the brewery that served as a stage. Two smaller chamber operas with librettos by Gian Carlo Menotti led up to the premiere. Music director Erin Palmer accompanied from the keyboard as the triptych opened with “A Hand of Bridge,” the 1959 score by Menotti’s life partner Samuel Barber, almost axiomatically a four-hander. Dr. Greg Thompson took over at the keyboard for “The Telephone,” a two-hander that Menotti wrote all by himself in 1947, when it premiered together with The Medium.

Clocking at around a scant 10 minutes, “A Hand of Bridge” is a bit long for its subject, problematical for singers and stage directors because Menotti frequently loses interest in the cardplaying once the bidding stage is over. It’s the characters who matter, except perhaps for Sally, whose thoughts don’t go beyond the depth of craving a peacock-feather hat, appropriately the dummy for this hand. The way she announces her passive status gives her husband Bill a spasm of anxiety: maybe she has discovered that he’s having an affair! Sally, sung with slightly more personality than a tape loop by Anna Harrevald, seems like sufficient reason for a husband to stray. Singing about his beloved Cymbeline, tenor Kyle Melton seemed less blissfully committed to his paramour than disaffected with his wife. Cymbeline seemed to have six or other men to choose from, rousing jealousy within Melton’s aria, but his roiling passions made for a comical contrast with Harrevald’s shrill shallowness when they sang together.

The other couple had a different disconnect that evoked a little more sympathy. Geraldine has suddenly realized that nobody loves her, not her stock-trading husband, her football son, or even Bill, whose days of playing footsie with her under the table are long gone. With her pure soprano, Lindsey Gallegos took advantage of her opportunity to turn in the most heartfelt singing of the evening, crossing over the edge of maudlin when Menotti’s lyrics took her to regrets over her breach with her dying mother, the only person alive whom she feels truly cares. Her husband, David, underscored Geraldine’s isolation in a more human fashion than I anticipated. As David, baritone David Clark could sing feelingly about his status as a downtrodden stock market underling, dreaming of the excesses he would indulge in if he were richer than his hateful boss Pritchett, until he realized that, even with fabulous wealth, he’d still be likely to spend humdrum bridge nights with Bill and Sally. So the materialistic David had a wider range of emotion than Clark to contrast with his wife. Altogether the closing quartet sketched the separate subterranean streams that run through the minds of people who have known each other a long time but don’t truly know each other at all. Perhaps the most timely aspect of this quartet happened when “A Hand of Bridge” dropped us off in our current world with its final exclamation: “Trump!”

“The Telephone” was clearly the fulcrum of the program, linked to the “Bridge” miniature by its librettist and the world premiere to follow with its comical use of the phone. Separated by 79 years, those phones ought to look radically different, but stage director Jessica Zingher opted for an update, equipping both Ben and Lucy with cellphones. Poor Ben. He hopes to propose to Lucy before he must leave on a business trip, but the woman can’t be torn loose from her phone. I believe soprano Kate Edahl handled five phone calls while Ben attempted to present her with an engagement ring and pop the question, over 15 minutes of delays, exacerbated by some fine coloratura filigree. Three of the calls – chattering to Margaret, fielding a wrong number, and inquiring about the time – were frustrating for their triviality. Another two were connected: after getting a furious call from George, she had to tell Pamela about the false accusation. Unlike Ben, I found myself thankful for the follow-up call, because Edahl was mostly unintelligible responding to George’s unheard verbal assault.

Both of the modifications required by the update fell to baritone Eric Lofton to execute. Back in 1947, Ben attempted to disable Lucy’s phone by cutting the cord with a scissors while she was momentarily out of the room. Here he flipped a pair of scissors over and attempted the bludgeon her cell with the butt end, arguably improving the comedy effect. Lofton carried all of this off with a nice mixture of ardent devotion and helpless frustration, though the vocal lines afforded to Edahl were more flattering. And to tell the truth, the tech update applied to “The Telephone” leaves Ben looking a little less bright. Lucy occupies herself so long in phone chatter that Ben must leave on his business trip before he can propose. In 1947, he found a handy phone booth along the way, but in Opera Carolina’s revival, he simply pulls a cellphone out of his pocket – a stratagem he could have resorted to earlier instead of wielding those scissors. With all of Edahl’s giddiness and all of Loftin’s dogged earnestness, I found myself in a forgiving mood as the couple reached their happy ending, but what Thompson had provided from the keyboard to simulate the ringing of Lucy’s cell definitely needed a reboot.

Keeping those production shortfalls in mind, I was very happy to see the technical polish lavished upon “Connection Lost (The Tinder Opera).” If you haven’t heard of Tinder, I can tell you that it’s a smartphone app that facilitates getting acquainted with strangers through photos and texting. Getting information about the app and installing it are impressively easy. On my iPhone’s app store, I simply entered t in the search box and Tinder appeared instantly on the top of the list of choices, lending credence to their claim that they have made 10 billion matches worldwide. Joiner’s opera, extolling the joy, the excitement, and the pain of prospecting for a date with Tinder, explains the key difference between the free and paid versions of the app, shows us the app in action, and ends in delicious mock tragedy.

Besides the extra instrumental artillery of a string quartet, Michael Baumgarten completely covered the fevered Tinder activity of our protagonist, Graham, with a set of projection designs that were superbly synchronized to the texting/singing. Color-coded text balloons, white for Graham and blue for the parade of his dating prospects, were sequenced on opposite sides of brewery’s white wall behind the players, scrolling upwards as the sound and text conversations moved along. Glued to his smaller screen, Johnny Harmon was the young man fervently looking for love – within the constraints of the free app. In the only non-telephone conversation, Graham and a Waiter (Tim Laurio) concur that the monthly rate for the premium version of the app is way too high. Among the dozen prospects who texted with Graham, my favorites were Amber (Xela Pinkerton), Sakura (Sarah Musick), and – for obvious reasons – the dolled-up Dennis (David Clark). Sakura’s answers were in disconcerting Asian characters, and when Graham asked Amber whether she was free that night, she insisted she would only take cash.

Graham finally appeared to find a soulmate in Katie, wholesomely sung by Corey Lovelace. What clinched Katie’s attraction for Graham was her revelation that she liked opera, all the proof we needed that both Katie and Graham were people of genuine substance. But that was precisely the moment when tragedy struck. Dropped connection? Battery drain? Unlike his title, Joiner’s libretto offered the production team a choice, and Baumgarter chose the latter for his final screen shot. Graham’s expression of devastated anguish was worthy of Verdi’s Rigoletto. Instead of crying out “la maledizione!” (“the curse!”) as the inconsolable jester always does, Harmon let out a single word – “Tinder!” – with all the might of an overstressed lumberjack. A memorable ending to a fun hour of opera that absolutely delighted the standing-room-only crowd. Of course, the craft beer didn’t hurt, either. D9’s other collaboration with Opera Carolina is a West Coast IPA “boasting grapefruit and tropical fruit flavors.” If you haven’t guessed the name, it’s HOpera Carolina. I hope that more of these collaborations are on tap for the future.

Forget All That Money Stuff and Be Happy

Review:  You Can’t Take It With You

By Perry Tannenbaum

When it first came to Broadway, just after the 1936 election, Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s You Can’t Take It With You was steeped in the Great Depression – and a deep suspicion of the efficacy of government. Twenty elections later, as the audience favorite returns to Theatre Charlotte yet again in a truly sharp production directed by Mitzi Corrigan, the anti-government sentiments of the Sycamores and family patriarch Martin Vanderhof may strike some longtime subscribers as more virulently right wing than they remember.

Previous revivals of the show that I’ve seen tended to portray the whole extended family – except for Alice, who has ambitions and craves normality – as lovably eccentric, even borderline daffy. With the pandemonium that cuts loose at the end of the first two acts, that’s certainly a major part of the impression that Kaufman & Hart sought to convey.img_5635But the wonderfully avuncular Dennis Delamar as Grampa Vanderhof has a bit of an edge to him when an IRS agent comes calling about those income taxes he has never paid. There’s a “government of the people” tinge to his reaction as he demands to know how his money will be spent, but there’s also a saintly element of renunciation – for he has willfully abandoned the hustle-and-bustle of capitalism outside his home and devoted himself completely to doing as he pleases in and about his own roost.

Although there’s plenty of hustle-and-bustle inside the home, all except Alice fit the same mold: busy and industrious though they are, none of them has a job. How pleasant and agreeable such a bunch must have seemed to Depression Era Americans! Not only aren’t they competing with anybody in the jungle of a desperately shrunken job market, they’re genially and energetically coaxing us to toss aside all our anxieties about getting and spending. Forget all that stuff and be happy.

Corrigan softens the usual daffiness just enough for us to see the eccentricities of the Sycamore household winking at us as the sunny side of American individualism rather than principled silliness. This puts Alice in a somewhat different light, more akin to the disagreeable hetero son in La Cage aux Folles than we usually see. Cora Breakfield takes nicely to these fresh shadings of her role, subtly aided by costume designer Chelsea Retalic. The dresses she changes into for dates with her beau Tony Kirby are darkly elegant, but the clothes she wears coming home from work are less flattering.

Set design by Chris Timmons is uncommonly handsome, further discouraging our impulse to view the household as a clown car. Della Knowles is less outré as Essie, Alice’s hopelessly bad ballet dancing sister, and Stephen Peterson is mellower than most versions of their father Paul, the fireworks enthusiast. Johnny Hohenstein mostly lurks contentedly in the background as Paul’s lab assistant, Mr. De Pinna, briefly taking the spotlight when he models for Penny Sycamore’s long-unfinished painting of a Greek athlete.

These finely judged touchups allow Alice’s mom, Penny, and Russian dance teacher Boris Kolenkhov to emerge more emphatically from the general hullaballoo. When Tony’s parents unexpectedly arrive to meet their prospective daughter-in-law’s family, these emphases pay off. It’s Penny, after all, who scandalizes Mrs. Kirby by declaring spiritualism an obvious fake, shortly before Boris shocks Mr. Kirby by wrestling him to the ground.

Jill Bloede makes Penny a blithe short-attention-span spirit, while Frank Dominguez turns Boris into a spectacularly bellicose poseur – with some brash assistance from costumer Retalic. The Kirbys are nicely matched to absorb these indignities, John Price as the orchid-cultivating plutocrat and Corlis Hayes as the delicate Mrs. Kirby. Price especially traces a graceful character curve, ultimately receptive to Vanderhof’s soft sermon – and itching for a rematch with Boris! Armie Hicks cuts a fine figure as Tony, well mannered yet susceptible to the charms of both Alice and her family.

Standing out among the unwelcome intruders, Mike Carroll brings a starchy persistence to the IRS agent, while Rick Taylor layers on a New York vulgarity to the Head G-Man. The aging waifs that the Sycamores embrace during this farce are closer to caricature and more delectable. Zendyn Duellman has a regal tipsiness to her as the soused actress who wanders into the scene, and Suzanne Newsom is superbly compromised as the Russian royal, Olga Katarina, exiled to waiting tables at a Child’s restaurant.

I waited and bussed tables at multiple Child’s locations around Times Square during one memorable summer break. There were 45s by the Four Tops playing on the jukebox and no aristocrats sitting down for dinner. So I can personally vouch for Olga’s humiliation.

Fung’s Virtuosity Pushes the Bechtler’s Schubertiade Envelope

Review: “Schubertiade…and Then Some!”

ar-310099447

By Perry Tannenbaum

The whole idea of a Schubertiades, impromptu revels organized by musician friends during Franz Schubert’s lifetime to keep abreast of the composer’s astonishing output, would seem to be inimical to the traditional concert format or a museum setting. Yet it has been the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art that has brought the idea to Charlotte. Early in 2013, a First Tuesday program imported a chamber ensemble from the UNC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem to serve up Schubert’s “Trout Quintet” with a side dish of the Notturno piano trio in E flat. So the original Schubertiade up in the Bechtler’s fourth floor gallery didn’t stray from its namesake’s work.

The sequel, with a main dish of the “Arpeggione” Sonata, featuring pianist Bruce Murray and 17-year-old cello phenom Zlatomir Fung, expanded the concept. Yielding to additions from J.S. Bach and Krzysztof Penderecki, the Bechtler made their “Schubertiade… and Then Some” mostly Schubert. Murray and Fung combined on an adaptation of a song, “Ständchen,” from Schubert’s posthumously published Schwanengesang, before the pianist took over the floor for two of the four posthumous Impromptus. Those solo selections helped the ensuing departures make more sense, since there are no solo works by Schubert for a cellist to play.

“Ständchen” or “Serenade” is certainly a dark and lovely ballad, but it offered no great challenges to either musician. The wordless lyricism of the piece likely did more to ingratiate the players with the audience than it did to warm them up. Winner of numerous competitions in the US and Europe, with six appearances logged on NPR’s From the Top, Fung has a luscious tone on his instrument – and, one guesses from his surprisingly mellow speaking voice, an affinity for singing. Sitting in the front row, maybe five feet from the platform that Fung was playing on, I found the sound of his cello more powerful than expected. I’d also recommend the left side of the room, where I found myself near the wall, over my customary spot on the right side near the passageway to the main exhibition hall. The sound of the Steinway also seemed better defined from this fresh vantage point.

brevard_murray_082012

While Benjamin K. Roe, long associated with both the WDAV classical station and NPR, did the initial introduction for the concert, Murray zeroed in on Impromptu No.’s 2 and 4, clearly indicating his preference for the latter and its touch of madness. He played the A flat No. 2 with admirably contrasting dynamics within each of the three sections and linked the middle section to the outer sections in a manner that made them sound very much like a set of variations on the same theme. But the liveliness of Murray’s playing sounded nothing like madness at the start of the F minor No. 4, with jollity echoing Mozart giving way to waves of romanticism presaging Chopin and Liszt. The sudden stops and plunges into more ruminative passages were a different matter, indeed simulating the depths of a depression, when we reached the midsection of the piece before jollity returned.

Fung’s introductions were no less lucid than Murray’s, making a virtue out of the necessity of explaining why Bach and Penderecki belonged at a Schubertiade. Apparently, Bach inspired Schubert to take up the study of counterpoint late in his abbreviated life, a fair connection, but the charm of Fung’s intro to the Penderecki was his frank acknowledgement of how weak and lame his explanation was for any linkage at all. The two pieces fit the profiles of these introductions very nicely, for the Prelude from the Cello Suite No. 6 in D was rich and meditative, more like Yo-Yo Ma’s account of the Bach classic than Rostropovich’s. Aside from one stray squeak, the only complaint I can lodge against the performance was that Fung only played one of the six movements.

If the 1994 Divertimento by Penderecki wasn’t as whimsical as Fung’s intro, it was certainly as unusual and unpredictable. Perhaps the better course of linking the piece to the Schubert repertoire would have been to underscore the title of the first movement, Serenade, as the translation of the opening “Ständchen” he had played with Murray. Certainly, there was something to say about how different a serenade this was. No wooing here. On the contrary, after the preliminary pizzicatos and soft tapping of the wooden side of the bow on the strings – a soft knocking on milady’s door? – the knocking grew more violent after a gentle section of conventional bowing, hinting at a growing desperation. The ensuing Scherzo movement (Fung only played two of the three listed on the program) was less playful than the Serenade was tender, quickening the pace and hurtling into chaos with furious double bowing, leavened only with a sprinkling of harmonics. This was the most startling display of Fung’s virtuosity that we would see but definitely not a piece that I would expect Yo-Yo Ma to record soon.

Completing the “posthumous-ness” of the Schubert selections, Fung and Murray played the “Arpeggione” Sonata in A minor after a brief intro from the pianist that chiefly described the instrument. The six-stringed guitar-like cello with its fretted fingerboard passed out of vogue not long after Schubert wrote his sonata, perhaps because this piece wasn’t published until 47 years after it was written in 1824. My late father introduced me to the work many years ago when he asked me to buy him a recording of it for Hannukah, and I was fortunate enough to hear Mischa Maisky play it live to a standing-room-only audience at the Verbier Festival in 2004.

In this more sedate museum setting, Fung’s adrenalin didn’t seem to be pumping nearly as hard as Maisky’s when he took the fast outer movements, the opening Allegro moderato and the closing Allegretto, at a dangerous clip. At a more prudent pace, I did detect one little scrape as Fung sped along, but there were none of Maisky’s intonation errors marring his celebratory virtuosity. Fung’s heavenly tone was showcased once again in the middle Adagio movement, and there was a nice clearing in the closing movement for Murray to shine in before Fung made his most intensely joyous entrance. Such a rousing ending deserved a mellow encore, and the duo obliged with an eloquent transcription of “An die Musik,” another Schubert favorite. The translation of that title, “Ode to Music,” could accurately be applied to all we heard.

The Nerd Who Terrorized New Jersey

toxic-press-5

Theater Reviews:  The Toxic Avenger and Pride and Prejudice

By Perry Tannenbaum

I’m not sure how or when such epithets as “Armpit of the East” or “Scrotum of the Nation” rained down on New Jersey, but they were certainly commonplace before the onset of The Sopranos or Chris Christie. It’s also clear that when Lloyd Kaufman and Joe Ritter cooked up their 1984 screenplay for The Toxic Avenger, they weren’t intending to prettify the Garden State’s battered image. About the only love they showed for Jersey was shooting the film there.

A mere 24 years elapsed before Joe DiPietro and Bon Jovi keyboardist David Bryan, following their successful collaboration on Memphis, hooked up on a Toxic musical adaptation. The record-breaking reception of the show in New Brunswick, before its off-Broadway transfer in 2009, only underscored how highly Jerseyites cherish their notoriety.

DiPietro liberally refashions Kaufman’s original plot, but political corruption, organized crime, unconscionable pollution, and unchecked violence are still among its hallmarks. Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, newly resurrected on Freedom Drive after its recent homelessness, embraces all of these horrors with the merry glee it applied to Evil Dead The Musical seven years ago. Billy Ensley directed that 2009 gorefest on Stonewall Street, but ATC artistic director Chip Decker takes the reins here, reminding us that crass sci-fi musical parodies are at the core of this company’s DNA.

toxic-press-1

Journeying from screen to stage, Melvin Ferd the Third has lost his signature janitorial mop, but he’s still a hopeless nerd and still smitten by the blind Sarah, who is now a librarian. The new Melvin is an environmental crusader from the get-go, and his plunge into an oozing drum of green toxic goo is far more malignant, ordered by corrupt Tromaville mayor Babs Belgoody. Where does Melvin find the goods on Mayor Belgoody’s polluting schemes? At the library, of course, cleverly filed away by Sarah where they are least likely to be found: among the important policy speeches of Michele Bachmann.

toxic-press-7

Something underhanded seems to have occurred here, since Bachmann didn’t achieve her peak infamy until the 2012 election cycle. Suspicion falls on the prankish Decker, who compounds his violations of DiPietro’s script by introducing the image of Donald Trump later in the evening. Hopefully, that glorified groper will be forgotten by the time the Avenger concludes his rampages on November 12.

Yes, if you didn’t already know, what doesn’t kill Melvin makes him Toxie, the avenging mutant monster. This is exactly where Actor’s Theatre upstages the off-Broadway production once again. In 2009, Ensley simply had the luxury of a better pool of actors to choose from for Evil Dead. This year, Decker enjoys no luxuries whatsoever. ATC and City Hall couldn’t dot all the i’s on permits for the new location at 2219 Freedom Drive in time for opening night last Wednesday, so Decker & Co. were obliged to move next door to Center City Church & The Movement Center at 2225 Freedom.

toxic-press-3

On very short notice. So the set designer is listed as Dire Circumstance in the playbill while other members of the design team have vanished altogether. Whether by accident or design, then, Decker doesn’t make the mistake that plagued the off-Broadway show: overproduction. In the New York version, when Melvin emerged from the chemical dumpsite as Toxie, the green carbuncled mask that covered his head was not only horrific, it robbed actor Nick Cordero of all further facial expression.

Jeremy DeCarlos doesn’t have to combat that handicap. As cool, graceful, and intelligent as DeCarlos has always seemed onstage, I expected both the nerdy Melvin and the homicidal Toxie to be difficult stretches for him. Clearly, I had no idea how well DeCarlos could channel the dopey sound and body language of Jerry Lewis as the socially inept earth scientist. When he emerged from the flimsy façade of chemical drums as Toxie, there were some wrappings on his arms to offer a semblance of might, but it was Decker at the soundboard who offered the more telling boost, amping up DeCarlos’ voice and synthesizing his monster roar.

No, the wrappings and the roars don’t close the gap between DeCarlos and fearsomeness – but that’s another reason why his Toxie is so much more hilarious than the more technically polished off-Broadway version, which often forgot it was a spoof. Leslie Giles certainly isn’t forgetting her spoofery as Sarah, helpless ingénue or aggressive vamp as the occasion demands – and her blind stick shtick with the hapless Melvin is a corny gift that keeps on giving. Sarah’s big number, “My Big French Boyfriend,” struck me as the best in the show.

toxic-press-4

Lisa Hugo, who was so precisely calibrated in the complex leading role of Stage Kiss earlier this year, the last ATC production at Stonewall Street, gets to loosen up in multiple roles. When she isn’t the melodramatic, megalomaniacal Mayor, she’s usually Melvin’s disapproving Mom. These two nasty women turn out to be old enemies from their school days, so their “Bitch/Slut/Liar/Whore” confrontation deep in Act 2 was a manic reminder of a similar duet in the Jekyll & Hyde musical. Ma Ferd also gets an effective “All Men Are Freaks” duet with Sarah.

Ryan Stamey and Dominique Atwater divvy up nearly all the remaining roles, more than I could keep track of, with Matthew Blake Johnson subbing for Atwater on opening night. Somebody needs to terrorize Sarah, toss Melvin into the toxic goo, get their asses kicked by Toxie, scurry around with missing limbs, and represent the hordes of Tromavillians who idolize the grotesque mutant. Stamey and Johnson performed every one of these worthy missions, and more, with the suave sophistication you would expect.

Yes, the middle school auditorium atmospherics of the Movement Center hall are somewhat against the grain of the gorey Toxic Avenger irreverence, but it served better than expected for what turns out to be a unique guerilla theatre project. If you arrive early for one of the remaining performances, you might get a brief tour of the new ATC space next door. What’s going on now on Freedom Drive bodes well for the company and the resourceful artists who make it go.

14657273_1592031430816445_6330787092415780744_n

Jon Jory is best known as the artistic director who brought renown to the Humana Festival and the Actor’s Theatre of Louisville – and widely believed to have penned Keely and Du, Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage, and Anton in Show Business under the penname of Jane Martin. When it comes to adapting Jane Austen, whose Pride and Prejudice is currently on view at Pease Auditorium in a CPCC Theatre production, Jory is no dilettante. He has also adapted Sense and Sensibility and Emma.

Even if all the subtleties aren’t always pointed under Heather Wilson-Bowlby’s poised direction, it becomes obvious that Jory’s adaptation preserves the style and thrust of Austen’s liveliest masterwork. Most of the credit goes to Moriah Thomason as Austen’s prejudging heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, though it’s hard to deny she is amply counterbalanced by the hauteur of Brian Logsdon as Fitzwilliam Darcy. Thomason unveiled her elegance in the ATC production of Stick Fly back in February. Here she adds vivacity and wit, so I couldn’t get enough of her.

14639612_1592031587483096_6752582616922785572_n

We see where Elizabeth gets her wit from in Tony Wright’s slightly jaundiced portrait of her father, and Anne Lambert’s rendition of Mrs. Bennet has more than enough vanity, giddiness, and silliness to distribute among the younger Bennet sibs. My chief disappointment was the hoarseness that afflicted Lexie Simerly as Liz’s elder sister Jane. If only she could have borrowed some extra decibels from Iris DeWitt, whose towering presence made the imperious Lady Catherine De Bourgh a perfect victim of Elizabeth’s punctiliously polite sass.