Monthly Archives: December 2016

Moscow Ballet’s “Nutcracker” Brims With Tradition, Grace, and Delight

Review : Great Russian Nutcracker

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By Perry Tannenbaum

Now in its 24th annual North American tour with traditional Russian favorites, the Moscow Ballet is a massive enterprise to contemplate. Three separate tours are currently crisscrossing the US and Western Canada with their Great Russian Nutcracker. So on December 11, for example, when the Central tour came to Ovens Auditorium in Charlotte, the Eastern tour was in Syracuse, NY, and the Western tour was in Albuquerque, NM. And what about back home? We can’t imagine that the cupboard is bare back in the Motherland, where the puissant Putin rules.

So after seeing the new $1 million Charlotte Ballet remount of Tchaikovsky’s holiday favorite, I was curious to see how the Great Russian would compare – with Moscow’s resources and talent spread so far and wide. The negatives manifested themselves pretty quickly. You can’t replace the curtains with proscenium-spanning art at over 100 theaters when you’re only performing there just once, with few exceptions, and you can’t tour with three symphony orchestras playing the beloved score live.

Nor can you take over 200 schoolchildren on tours that last over a month – 54 days, in the case of the mammoth Western tour. This is where the Great Russian also becomes the friendly Nutcracker, for the Moscow Ballet teamed with Gay Porter’s Charlotte School of Ballet to fill over 70 roles: Party Children, Mice, Snowflakes, Snow Maidens, Snow Sprites, and backup dancers for the Act 2 divertissements by Moscow’s Spanish, Chinese, Russian, and French soloists.

So on any given night, over 200 costumes may be worn by aspiring dancers who hail from the towns where Moscow Ballet performs. Talk about outreach. Over 5,000 young dancers are getting to rehearse, perform, and wear those wondrous costumes in through Moscow’s Dance With Me program. Better than Halloween, as the Donald would say, believe me.

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The negatives I’ve spoken of soon recede. I didn’t have to send up a flare to alert the people in the soundbooth that the music was turned up too loud, but I did wish it were potted down sooner. When the curtains parted at Ovens, Moscow’s newly revamped scenery, with new designs by Carl Sprague, was definitely in the same class as Charlotte Ballet’s, with a faux proscenium as ornate as the real one I’d seen the previous weekend.

There weren’t as many scene changes as Charlotte Ballet lavishes on their production. The sleigh that carries Masha – better known to us as Clara – to the Land of Peace and Harmony remains earthbound instead of flying, and did the parade of playful 10-foot-high puppets ballyhooed in the program synopsis really escape my notice? Don’t think so. Most of these beasts were depicted on the imposing backdrop in a style vaguely reminiscent of Henri Rousseau.

Other details that distinguished this Nutcracker from those I’m accustomed to did not escape detection. Though there wasn’t liftoff for the sleigh, it was conveyed to Peace and Harmony by “Ded Moroz,” Russia’s Father Christmas, and Snow Maiden “Snegurochka,” both resplendently attired in Carolina – um, cerulean – blue costumes newly designed by Arthur Oliver. Uncle Drosselmeyer was a jovial gift-giving enchanter, still sporting a cape but more like a ringmaster or a game show host. And imagine, the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier never appear! Instead, it’s Masha and the Nutcracker Prince who dance the grand pas de deux.

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After receiving so many gifts, Masha and her Prince present their dance to – the flowers that just waltzed for them? The synopsis is mum on that point, but Ekaterina Bortiakova is pure delight as our heroine, most adorable when does her simple tippy-toe shtick in the “Dance of Sugar Plum Fairy,” as light as the celesta cuing each step. She’s graceful, demure, vivacious, and youthful enough for us to imagine Nutcracker as a coming-of-age story. Andrey Batalov brings star quality of his own to the role of the Prince, definitely a cavalier partner when he sheds his Nutcracker headgear and brocaded waistcoat, most memorable when he whirls around the stage in his uptempo solo.

Choreography by balletmaster Stanislov Vlasov adheres to the manner of Tchaikovsky’s original collaborators, Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa, most challenging when we arrive at the Act 2 showcases. Casting in these key spots is predictable, since only one pair of partners is listed for each of the divertissements, but most of the major roles we see in Act 1 are double-cast, including Masha and the Nutcracker Prince. Chiefly worthy of mention here were Sergey Dotsenko, a dashing Uncle Drosselmeyer in his florid purple cape, and Meievsky Vsevelod as the furtive and menacing Rat King.

Four of the six couples who partnered in Act 2 etched themselves vividly in my memory. In the snowy transition between the Stahlbaums’ Christmas soiree and Masha’s final destination, Anna Radik and an unmasked Dotsenko were the most sculpturesque of the couples as the Dove of Peace, each one of the silvery dancers bearing one of the bird’s luxuriant 10-foot-wide white wings, another new Oliver design. Perpetually leaning left with index fingers pointing upwards, Kseniia Stukalenko and Vladyslav Stepanov were the most charming and amusing pair as the Chinese Variation.

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Contrasting marvelously – again – with the perky Chinese, Radik and Dotsenko returned as the smoldering Arabian Variation, with Radik executing snaky contortions that were unrivaled by anything else we saw. Clearly this was the most sensuous couple of the afternoon, but Veronika Melnyk and Michail Botoc as the Russian Variation took us to another dimension – sheer athleticism. Botoc, in particular, astonished with a series of leg-split jumps, a string of somersaults that spanned half the stage, and various gymnastic moves, effectively stealing the latter moments of the show. He even persisted during the curtain calls, unfurling the famed Cossack Kazatsky squat dance, more than sufficient reason why Putin wishes to recover the Ukraine.

The couple sitting next to my wife and me have a daughter who will be dancing with this tour when it arrives in Detroit. They came to Charlotte because one of their kin was a Charlotte School of Ballet student in a similar role at this performance. I could see that they had no regrets at all about making the trip to see a Mouse. Very likely, they and their daughter view the Great Russian Nutcracker as the experience of a lifetime. From the ovation and the swells of applause that spontaneously broke out all over Ovens during curtain calls, it was obvious that hundreds of non-relatives felt the same

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Less Bard and More Beer

Theater Reviews: Every Christmas Story Ever Told (and then some!) and The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical

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By Perry Tannenbaum

Four centuries after William Shakespeare’s death, Charlotte’s own Chickspeare inhabits a parallel universe. Or maybe it’s retribution: while all of the Bard’s works were performed by all-male theatre troupes, all of Chickspeare’s productions since 1998 have been “All women! All the time!” as originally promised. The “All Shakespeare” in the middle of that slogan was gradually blurred and dropped as the Chix added Reduced Shakespeare Company lampoons to their rep and then ventured father afield.

Written by Michael Carleton, James FitzGerald, and John K. Alvarez, Every Christmas Story Ever Told (and then some!) is very much in the spirit of Reduced Shakespeare’s original assault on the Elizabethan titan’s complete works. The parentheses in the title, the quickie romp through multiple classics by three actors playing multiple roles, and the devotion of all of Act 2 to a single extravagant lampoon all follow the Reduced template.

But gender only begins to describe the difference between Chickspeare’s version and the 2010 Actor’s Theatre Every Christmas. The new model is as much an event as it is a theatre production, an experience that begins and ends at the newer NoDa Brewery on N. Tryon Street. In between, there are a couple of shuttle bus rides back and forth from the original Brewery location on N. Davidson Street. You’ll find more brew choices on tap at North Tryon, but the enticement of lifting a mug and participating in the many “To beer!” toasts during the Chix performance at North Davidson is hard to resist.

Few did last Friday night. Besides the brewskis, we had Anne Lambert lubricating the experience with a steady feed of Christmas trivia challenges on the bus ride to the show and the conviviality of the Chix banditas – Sheila Snow Proctor, Lane Morris, and Tanya McClellan – during their performance. But mainly, it was the beer that induced the party atmosphere.

Directing the show, Joanna Gerdy and Andrea King had a healthy disregard for the script. The playwrights labored under a handicap that never afflicted the Reduced Shakespeare collaborators when they chose ancient targets like Hamlet, the Bible, and American history for their merry desecrations. Unlike your seasonal carols, most of our familiar Christmas stories aren’t free-range prey. Copyright law prevents satiric assaults upon Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the Charlie Brown Christmas, and the Yuletide yarns of Truman Capote, Dylan Thomas, and Jean Sheperd.

When Carleton, FitzGerald, and Alvarez lashed out at these restrictions, the result was “Gustav, the Green-Nosed Rain-Goat,” not the funniest sketch you’ll ever see. Morris never plays the mutated venison as if it were comedy gold, so there’s never any deadly straining to make it funnier than it is. We’ll raise a glass, and then we’ll move on.

The premise of the show is that Proctor wishes to proceed traditionally with a presentation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but Morris and McClellan are sick and tired of the same old stuff. Before they’ll allow Snow to read her Dickens and play her Scrooge, she must join them in a medley of other Christmas faves, including Frosty the Snowman, Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, the Grinch, O’Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” and – maybe if there’s enough time – the inevitable It’s a Wonderful Life.

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There isn’t enough time, but that doesn’t deter Morris. While Proctor is on-task as Scrooge, with McClellan visiting her as all three ghosts, Morris keeps insisting that Proctor is George Bailey, inflicting on us a bevy of characters from New Bedford Falls, including George’s guardian angel, his brother, his banker nemesis, and his adoring wife. By the time Lane reaches the wife, it comes off oddly like a female impersonation.

Fortunately, Proctor is the ideal Scrooge in the face of these torments. There’s a bit of Oliver Hardy and Bud Abbott in her forbearance, but we somehow remain on her side throughout her ordeal. At the climax of Christmas Carol, Morris is still bedeviling her, so she finally submits to becoming George Bailey – in a schizophrenic frenzy that finds her shuttling between Scrooge and Bailey as both McClellan and Morris assail her.

In her surrender, Proctor produces a Jimmy Stewart impersonation that’s barely good enough to let you know what she’s doing. It will probably improve during the next couple of weekends as the run continues, but I’m not sure it should. Likewise, Proctor can be a mite slow changing costumes, but McClellan’s patience with her cast mate is so priceless, it would hardly pay for Proctor to hurry.

It’s been a rocky road for Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte since developers forced them out of their longtime home on Stonewall Street last summer. We thought they would resurface on Louise Avenue, but negotiations there collapsed, and the company tacked toward Freedom Drive. City and county paperwork delayed the opening, so their Toxic Avenger was redirected to a nearby church, and the current Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical has been rerouted to the Patricia McBride and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux Center for Dance, Charlotte Ballet’s HQ on N. Tryon Street.

I was curious to see how director Chip Decker and his design team would adapt to studios with so much space and such a high ceiling. With two fair-sized ramshackle trailers, topped by two jumbo projection screens, height isn’t a problem, and the design team fills out the stage with a fence, some Florida flamingo kitsch, an incongruous array of Star Wars memorabilia and, dead center of the stage between the two trailers, a half-decorated Christmas tree.

That odd tree, straddling the borderline between Rufus and Darleen’s properties, triggers Betsy Kelso’s plotline. Rufus loves Christmas and adores Darleen, but mean Darleen snarls “Bah” and “Humbug” to both. She will not decorate her trailer or even allow Rufus onto her property to decorate her side of the tree. That’s a source of huge consternation to Betty, the manager of Armadillo Acres, who has always wanted – but failed – to win the big prize awarded to the best-decorated trailer park. A vague curse plagues Armadillo Acres, and it too will to be exorcised before we reach a happy ending.

There’s a certain amount of respectability in Betty, so we’re fortunate that it is more than counterbalanced by the trashiness of her other tenants, Pickles and Lin (short for Linoleum). They also come in handy when ghosts are needed to populate Darleen’s Dickensian dream sequence. Rufus’s romantic fantasies and Betty’s hopes of nabbing top kitsch honors are revived when Darleen, in an effort to pull the plug on the park’s Christmas lights, gets electrocuted by Rufus’s déclassé cable-splitter and wakens with amnesia. That enables her to forget what a Scrooge she is and the fact that she belongs to Jackie, owner of a slutty pancake joint.

If you missed the first and second comings of this trashy romp, it’s good for you to know all the basics I’ve detailed. Although Actor’s Theatre has done well with the Charlotte Ballet space, they have thoroughly failed to conquer its acoustics. So the songs and lyrics by David Nehls are more crucial to your enjoyment than usual – but often unintelligible over the four-piece band led by music director Brad Fugate.

Tommy Foster isn’t as rednecky as Ryan Stamey was as Rufus, but he’s a tad more pathetic and lovable. Karen Christensen is more than sufficiently bitchy as Darleen, and we often forget that Matt Kenyon is in drag as Lin. (So does he, I suspect.) But Jon Parker Douglas nearly steals the show as Jackie when he is possessed during the climactic exorcism. It’s an epileptic farting fantasia that isn’t quickly forgotten – and the kind of broad physical comedy this acoustically-challenged show desperately needs.

 

Charlotte Ballet’s New $1 Million Nut Is Everything It Was Cracked Up to Be

Dance Review :  Nutcracker

By Perry Tannenbaum

Many of the people who jammed into Belk Theater on Saturday afternoon, nearly filling the top balcony to the rafters, were wondering the same thing as I was. Just how much can $1 million do to improve Charlotte Ballet’s already stellar production of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker? There weren’t any gaping holes that needed to be filled in when it came to the live music. Charlotte Symphony has played the ballet score beautifully ever since Salvatore Aiello transplanted the dance troupe, originally known as North Carolina Dance Theatre, from Winston-Salem in 1990.

Many of the musicians – and many of the orchestra’s principals – who accompanied Aiello’s setting for Nutcracker in the early years have played on through the many iterations of Jean-Pierre Boonefoux’s choreography, which premiered in 2006. Every one of the players works up the same zest for the music as the year before. Nor can money buy a much finer array of dancers to fill the stage with agility and grace. Calling the dancers in Charlotte Ballet and Charlotte Ballet II – not to mention the various levels of apprentices, trainees, and students from the company’s Academy – the best in North Carolina may actually be an understatement.

Of course, the unprecedented gift had garnered plenty of positive publicity for the donors, the McColl family of Bank of America fame, and the worthy recipients. Unless you had completely ignored the Charlotte Observer for the past three months, you already knew that the McColl makeover would bring new Nutcracker costumes and new scenery to the Belk stage – and to lavishly renovated Gaillard Center in Charleston, where the Christmas classic will sojourn on December 10 and 11 before returning to Charlotte on December 13-23 for an additional 13 performances. I probably wasn’t alone in bringing a show-me attitude to the unusual matinee premiere, for the costumes, the scenery, and the spectacle of Bonnefoux’s Nutcracker, incrementally upgraded in its early years, had already proven to be quite formidable in their elegance and wit.

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Holly Hynes’s new set of costume designs gobbled up most of the prepublicity. Taking her inspiration from the Belle Epoque (1871-1914), Hynes and a team of 300 dressmakers in 15 states created 208 new costumes, each one costing as much as $6000. As she confessed in one of the two infomercials I’ve seen, Hynes often had to rely on a bunch of polyester to offset the extravagance of the dancers’ silks. The new scenery by Alain Vaës obviously took its inspiration from Bonnefoux’s traditional Nutcracker scenario and Steven Rubin’s set designs, seeming to depart more radically from Rubin’s concepts as the story moved from the Stahlbaums’ Christmas party to Clara’s dreamy fantasies, developing a whole new motif of whimsy – lifesize cutouts! – along the way.

Vaës wasn’t working with a paltry budget, either. A whole new trim, teeming with red, covered the entire arc of the proscenium. The backlit scrim of the Staulbaums’ town, more brightly lit by the lamplight gleaming through the windows of the homes than by the moonlight, greeted us like the frontispiece of a storybook.

In its nocturnal grayness, the first exterior view of the Staulbaum home was very similar to Rubin’s, but we were looking from a greater distance, seeing all that can be seen instead of merely the front façade. There was a little more humor in the gradual reveal of the magnificent interior, for the first of the new cutouts, a housemaid, was wheeled out to centerstage to greet the guests. Onto its outstretched arms, the parade of guests flung coats, stoles, and scarves until this cunning portable closet was rolled away.

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Imagery in the new Vaës scenic designs is bolder, more calculated to appear colossal, and the designer’s drawings evoked for me two of the great masterworks of the Belle Epoque, War and Peace and Alice in Wonderland. Probably by sheer accident, the bold muscularity and the florid curves in some of the scenery reminded me of Fritz Eichenberg’s memorable illustrations for the Heritage edition of Tolstoy’s epic. But the evocation of Alice was quite intentional. After the party, when Clara nodded off, the Mouse King entered the scene on a broken teacup for his royal battle with the Nutcracker. Once Clara assisted her champion in his victory, the set changed briefly to a surreal and magical toyland, where the head of Clara’s doll was as large as the castle. Very Alice.

The new scenery also brings fresh emphasis to numerous arrivals. Drosselmeyer’s amazing gifts, Clara’s Toy Doll and her brother Fritz’s Toy Soldier, arrive on carts where each of them is flanked by two lifesize cutouts of the same toy. Instead of lifting her massive skirts to reveal her periwigged Marzipan brood, Mother Ginger arrived on the second floor of her own gingerbread house, opening the front doors to let them out. But aside from the Mouse King’s teacup and the flying balloon-boat that carries Clara off to the Land of Sweets – a galleon now large enough to transport two honeymooning couples – the most significant entrance was created for Herr Drosselmeyer. He arrived at the Stahlbaum soirée in his own clock tower!

Mark Diamond may hold onto his annual stint as Drosselmeyer even after he’s forced to arrive clutching a walker, for he still revels in reminding us with his comical antics that he himself is program director of Charlotte Ballet II and, more importantly, one of the company’s potent line of resident choreographers. The Drosselmeyer shtick always looks like Diamond is doing his own thing, altering the routine every year – maybe every performance.

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The new clock draws the spotlight in Mary Louise Geiger’s new lighting design when Tchaikovsky’s score tolls the midnight hour chez Stahlbaum. Using his new cutouts, Bonnefoux completely alters this segment in his choreography. In past years, spotlights flashed on a different costumed kid each time the bell tolled, unpredictably scanning the full width of the stage. Now there was simply a single-file parade of various cutouts, their manipulators hidden behind them. As we approached the final chiming, we had our first glimpse of the lifesize girl doll that would enlarge to supernatural Alice-size in the yet-unseen scenery.

Geiger also teamed up with Hynes on some of the new magic. Like the opening cityscape, Vaës’s new Land of Sweets builds on Rubin’s previous concept of candy canes and gumdrops by putting us at a greater distance and increasing its scale. We could now see a huge skylight window in the rooftop dome opening up on a starry evening sky. At floor level below, the view also opens up to the outdoors, directing our gaze toward the horizon. Initially, there was a marked difference between the two views: it was still twilight on the horizon while it was already evening above.

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In this unflattering light, we had our first glimpse of the newly minted backup dancers for the Coffee segment. Their bright red skirts, contrasting sharply with their dark blouses, seemed garish under the bright light between the little Marzipan and Candy Cane groups. But Geiger would dramatically lower the lights for Raven Barkley and Ben Ingel, so it was now (briefly) nighttime both on the horizon and above when they performed their sinuous Coffee pas de deux – and the perfection of the six backup dancers’ glowing red skirts in this dimmed light redeemed them from the first impressions they had made. Their pink capes also made a difference.

In little ways and in big ways, Bonnefoux and his design team have heightened the wow factor in staging their spectacle. Just for the Tea segment in Act 2, a Chinese dragon drops down from the flyloft for a visit, and the Stahlbaums’ Christmas tree no longer stops it miraculous growth when its piney peak hits the ceiling. Now when Drosselmeyer cast his spell, that growth continued on the upstage backdrop until the entire upstage wall was filled with what we imagined was a wee portion of the fabulously gigantic tree. You need not worry that such awesome stagecraft at all diminishes the exploits of the dancers. Aided by their revamped costumes, Charlotte Ballet still measured up to the superabundance surrounding them.

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Rosie Morrison as Clara and Clay Houston as Fritz may be the most personable Stahlbaum kids I’ve seen. The precision and perfection of Sarah Hayes Harkins as the Sugar Plum Fairy will surely inspire little ballerinas who see Nutcracker for the first time. Harkins hits every beat with her elegant movements exactly on the nose, and her new partner, Drew Grant, is the picture of chivalry as her Cavalier, though the rookie needs to loosen up a bit. Chelsea Dumas and Ben Ingel were a similarly ideal couple at the premiere as the Snow Queen and King, and Alessandra Ball James was luminous in her musicality as Rose in the “Waltz of the Flowers.” Below tea green tops, Rose’s dozen dancing flowers sported frilly three-tiered skirts, each tier a different tint of pink or fuchsia. Even a child could recognize the stems and petals of the flowers for what they were.

Except for Fritz, who is merely doublecast, there’s a dizzying rotation of four dancers for each of the major roles I just named. It would take an astronomer to predict when, where, and if this exact alignment will occur again, so let me merely add the names of the other dancers who will figure in the dizzying mix: Jamie Dee Clifton, Elizabeth Truell, and Sarah Lapointe among the ladies, James Kopecky and Juwan Alston among the gentlemen.

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The athleticism of the Charlotte Ballet men did shine through during the Act 2 procession of divertissements, counterbalancing the dominance of the ballerinas. Newcomer Peter Mazurowski sparkled in the Gopak section and, under that dragon, Humberto Ramazzina from the II troupe served charmingly – and deferentially – in Tea. Both of these men are in a rotation of three men who will dance their roles. So will Ryo Suzuki, whom I wasn’t seeing for the first time as Candy Cane. I don’t think I’ve seen Ryo’s match in performing Candy’s joyously asymmetrical leaps, but I’m sure parents and children of all ages will be satisfied when Suzuki rotates to Tea and Gopak.

Spirit of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever Peeps Through at Matthews Playhouse

Theater Review: Matthews Playhouse of the Performing Arts: The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

By Perry Tannenbaum

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A week after reviewing the world premiere of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical, commissioned by Children’s Theatre of Charlotte and staged at ImaginOn, I found it easy to imagine that the Barbara Robinson stage play it was based upon could be headed toward oblivion. Driving along I-485 toward opening night of the current Matthews Playhouse production of the non-musical, I had a poignant realization that this could be the last time I’d see the infamous Herdman siblings – “the worst kids in the whole history of the world” – without the new music by Jahnna Beecham and Malcolm Hillgartner that accompanies their superb adaptation.

Directed by June Bayless with a cast of over 40 children and adults, the Matthews production mightily reinforced my impression that the Beecham/Hillgartner musical boasts more vivid storytelling than the 1982 playscript, adapted by Robinson from her own 1971 young adult novel. Not always embracing the challenges – and rewards – of dramatization, Robinson often delivers her story to us second-hand through her narrator, Beth Bradley, a young girl who has a great vantage point for the unfolding events but doesn’t play a key role.

Instead of seeing her younger brother, Charlie, getting in trouble for saying that the best thing about Sunday school is its welcome refuge from the Herdmans, Robinson is content to have Beth telling us about it. Where Beecham and Hillgartner show us how the six Herdmans terrorize Charlie and his schoolmates in the lunchroom – with a dynamically choreographed, hard-rocking “Take My Lunch” production number – Robinson carries out that chore by having Beth confide in us or by Charlie whining about it to his dad.

A huge turning point in the plot, triggering the complication of the marauders invading the church pageant, comes when Charlie claims not to care about surrendering his lunch to a bullying Herdman, because even more enticing goodies are doled out to him after Sunday school. In the musical, this happens in the midst of total lunchroom pandemonium. In the play, it’s merely a dialogue that Bayless can stage in front of the curtain to mask a scene change. Time after time, watching the Robinson version just five days after the new musical demonstrated how deftly upsized the new version is and how static the old one was.

The disparity was magnified, of course, by the intrinsic differences between a generously budgeted professional effort and a more modestly funded community theatre production. But watching less polished performers at a more rudimentary facility also offers insight into why this clunky script is so beloved, mounted at least a dozen times over the past 14 holiday seasons in the Charlotte metro region. Rambunctious and rowdy as they are, the Herdmans are hard roles to mess up. Even when the savagery of the roles goes visibly against the grain of the young actors, the result remains very entertaining. The climactic Christmas pageant, dominated by the kids, is even more foolproof. At a church or school play, stiffness and self-consciousness are the norm, so any glints of talent and naturalness are gravy.

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I wasn’t always sure that Bayless really wanted to transcend the awkwardness of school theatricals. Every actor and actress under the age of 21 faced the audience directly at an angle of zero degrees throughout the 68-minute performance, assuring the same degree of spontaneity for much of the dialogue. When we reached the most chaotic scene, in fact, as firemen ran through the audience in response to an alarmist distress call, panicky children were herded into a circular cluster – and every single child was facing in the same direction, toward us!

The imaginativeness of the staging can be gauged by the beginnings of the two pageant rehearsal scenes. In the first, the kids were curiously quiet and inert before Grace Bradley arrived, but in the second, there were all kinds of noise and commotion. Why the difference? Very logical: in the second scene, the script calls for Mrs. Bradley to demand that the kids quiet down.

No doubt, this style of staging can be adorable. In the actual pageant, all of the heavenly angels came downstage and filled the space from wing to wing as they sang, the littlest angels on the outside flanking a perfectly symmetrical phalanx, with the tallest at the center – like a snowcapped mountaintop crowned with glittering haloes. Trouble was, this angelic row almost completely blocked our view of the Herdmans behind them, getting miraculously wrapped up in the spirit of the Nativity scene they were acting out.

Somehow the impulse to gratify parents and relatives in the audience – those whose kids were in the choir – took precedence over giving the story its maximum impact when it mattered most. The artistry of Evan Kinsley’s lighting design, isolated the Herdmans from the surrounding shepherds, villagers, and wise men, was largely wasted here, for the transformed kids emitting this unexpected glow were almost totally obscured from view. The three busybody gossips, Grace’s implacable detractors, entertainingly sat themselves among us to watch the pageant. They could pretend to have been amazed at the Herdmans when the holiest moment arrived, but I was frustrated by it.

Not having seen such a large cast of unpolished actors in a long while, I found myself tickled at the rich variety of shy, stiff, and promising performances, some of which were brimful of oddly channeled energy. It’s best to dwell on the standouts, I think. While there was a nice shambling quality to Michael Smith as Mr. Bradley, who would rather not see the pageant even if his wife and kids were going to be in it, Nicole Cardamone Cannon as Grace was easily the best of the adults, almost radiant in her forbearance as she dealt with the Herdmans and reassured their victims.

JJ Twer as Beth had a winsome personality as our narrator – and her mom’s prime defender – but Thomas Mink as little brother Charlie pleased me a little more, high-spirited despite all his grievances and more consistently intelligible. Among the Herdmans, the girls have the plumiest roles, and Bayless has cast well here. Ella Osborn as Imogene is a snarling wildcat until the role of the Virgin Mary domesticates her, and Grace Ivey remains implacably exuberant as Gladys, even after landing the role as the Herald Angel. A day after the show, Ivey’s “Shazzam!” is still ringing in my head.