Monthly Archives: March 2017

Broadway Enters a New Age

Reviews: Broadway – Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812; Hamilton; A Bronx Tale; In Transit; Cirque du Soleil’s Paramour; On Your Feet! Off-Broadway – The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, Spamilton, Cagney

By Perry Tannenbaum

Our new POTUS was already impacting Broadway before he took the oath of office, and it’s quite possible that he’ll have further impact during his coming years in the Oval Office, either as the Tweeter-in-Chief on new and controversial shows or as their subject. In the wake of President-elect Trump’s salvos against Hamilton and its cast, Broadway capped a record year with an all-time record week to close 2016, and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s megahit became the first Broadway show to top $4 million in ticket sales for a single week – not counting the scalpers’ profits.

If President Obama’s imprimatur, Michelle’s extravagant praise, and 11 Tony Awards hadn’t already made it abundantly clear, the Pence-Trump flap and its aftermath engraved it in stone: we can now talk of the Age of Hamilton on Broadway with the same casual assurance that we speak of the Age of Trump in Washington. But The Donald brings up a valid question. While the importance of Hamilton is beyond dispute, how good is it really?

My wife Sue and I went up to New York, as we do every year for my roundup of Broadway and off-Broadway shows, with the intent of bringing the answer back to Charlotte. Miracle of miracles, I actually landed press seats for Hamilton! Something really had changed since the days I’d been routinely spurned by producers of Book of Mormon, Wicked, and Lion King, blockbusters of bygone seasons.

Since I found a pair of new musicals that I enjoyed as much or more than Hamilton, I’m sure that my verdicts will be received back home as “alternative” truths. But now that the era of alternative facts has arrived, there’s no reason for me to be shy.

Broadway

Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 (♥♥♥3/4 out of four) – Hailed as the best American musical since Hamilton, Dave Malloy’s adaptation of Part 8 of War and Peace actually preceded Miranda’s work to the off-Broadway stage by over two years. The Great Comet was a hot ticket back in 2013 when it was restaged as a uniquely immersive experience in the meatpacking district of Manhattan’s Lower West Side – under a massive tent with a full Russian dinner included in the ticket price.

There’s no denying that Hamilton is the more American musical, but unless rap has been your lifelong backbeat, you’ll likely find The Great Comet to be far more musical. On the other hand, transferring the uniqueness of the dinner experience from a big top to Broadway must have been far more daunting for Malloy’s production team.

The response to the Imperial Theatre’s proscenium has been anything but timid. What normally serves as the stage has been built up to a soaring five-level supper club with three pairs of staircases and four onstage seating sections, outfitted with tables and banquettes. Two runways bring the action out into the audience, where additional tables and lamps are strewn, and two additional staircases bring the actors – and the musicians – up into the balcony. A whole galaxy of starburst chandeliers hovers above, the largest of which will transform into the Great Comet when its moment comes.

Two hundred seats have been reportedly removed from the Imperial’s orchestra section to make all this happen.

If you’ve read War and Peace from cover to cover, you come in knowing that Natasha Rostova and Pierre Bezukhov are destined for each other, but that’s over 700 pages after Pierre has his comet epiphany. So that part of Leo Tolstoy’s original story is only faintly budding where Malloy concludes. When we first meet Pierre, he’s imprisoned in a humiliating marriage to Hélène. Natasha is deeply in love – and betrothed to – the dashing Prince Andrey Bolkonsky. We only get fleeting glimpses of Andrey here, for he is away in the battlefield defending Mother Russia against Napoleon, while Natasha is partying in Moscow and bewitching all who see her youthful vibrancy.

112858 Josh Groban and Denée Benton in NATASHA, PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET OF 1812 - Photo by Chad Batka

Denée Benton is a dazzling comet in her own right as Natasha, and Josh Groban is sensationally woebegone as the clumsy, contemplative Pierre. But their intersecting fates are set in motion by the wicked machinations of the wanton Hélène and her charismatic, libertine brother, Prince Anatole Kuryagin. Being secretly married doesn’t inhibit Anatole’s roving, salacious eyes, and Hélène gets him to train them on Natasha. So these sibling schemers are enormously juicy roles – and unquestionable triumphs – for Amber Gray and Lucas Steele.

Hélène’s cynicism and Anatole’s conceited recklessness ultimately bring out in what we treasure most in Natasha and Pierre: her vulnerability and innocence and his moral outrage and empathy for his brother-in-law’s victim. So Gray and Steele actually enable Benton and Groban to raise their levels. Malloy’s music also allows the protagonists’ emotions to grow in depth as they’re dinged by experience. In style, Malloy’s music seems at times to be the kind of pastiche Andrew Lloyd Weber created, but the precision and wit of his lyrics are more in Stephen Sondheim’s realm.

A few times during this enchanting work, I found myself feeling that The Great Comet was far more like what contemporary opera should be than it usually is. Yet the piece is not at all old fashioned. At the outset in his “Prologue,” Malloy acknowledges that the number of characters and their triple Russian names can be daunting, so he fortifies the synopsis and “Family Tree” printed in the playbill with individual intros of all the major players. Malloy and director Rachel Chavkin also play loose with polite decorum as we move along. The handsome Anatole, for example, isn’t merely a villain. Steele’s strut and platinum-spiked hair mark him as a rockstar.

Hamilton (♥♥♥1/2) – Whether you swallowed the hype and waited for months, impulsively paid through the nose to scalpers, or simply won the daily $10 ticket lottery, you will likely be thrilled to find yourself at the Richard Rodgers Theatre awaiting the start of Miranda’s megahit. Fueled by the aura of Obama approval and the notoriety of the Pence controversy, enthusiasm for this show is like nothing I’ve ever witnessed at a Broadway theater. Likewise, the buzz: Sue and I overheard people who had returned three or four times to see various Burrs and Hamiltons. Knowing a friend who could compare one Burr’s performance to another’s was reason enough to brag.

Expectant electricity was so hot that when Jevon McFerrin made his first entrance as Alexander Hamilton, there was a thunderous response. Now McFerrin isn’t the actor who succeeded Miranda in the title role or the former alternate, Javier Muñoz, who is starring now – or even his alternate. No, McFerrin was actually the standby for Miranda’s replacement’s replacement and his current alternate (on Sundays), Michael Luwoye. Yet the ovation that greeted McFerrin would have satisfied Miranda himself, a response traditionally reserved for established stars and Tony winners.

Don’t get me wrong: McFerrin was wonderful, bringing a Jimmy Smits manliness to our nearly-forgotten Founding Father – not unlike what I read about Muñoz back when he was doing Sundays. The ladies’ man aspect of Hamilton sits well on McFerrin’s shoulders, and there’s a faint physical resemblance to the man on the $10 bill.

That could hold him back from taking over the lead full-time on Broadway or on tour. Hamilton is so resolutely against the grain in its hip-hop score and ethnically diverse casting that McFerrin may not shake things up enough for Miranda and director Thomas Kail. In this fresh retelling of the birth of our nation, Thomas Jefferson is portrayed as a dandified dilettante, John Adams is reduced to a non-entity, and Aaron Burr becomes a wily fence-straddler with no real principles of his own.

Of course, our hero stands out amid such preening jive turkeys. While David Korins’ set design takes some of the starch out of colonial times with its fluid warehouse-loft cool, Paul Tazewell’s costumes leave plenty of retro frilliness in place. Yet Hamilton’s concept of our treasury and monetary system prevails over Jefferson’s in a cabinet meeting that is nothing more than a two-minute poetry slam.

We hear so much about Miranda’s inclusion of the Schuyler Sisters in his script, but the women in Hamilton’s life don’t really impact upon his political fortunes until his extramarital affair with Maria Reynolds becomes a torrid scandal. So I valued Syndee Winters’ turn (subbing for Alysha Deslorieux) as the abused and seductive Maria more than her prior appearances as Peggy Schuyler – and certainly more than Lexi Lawson as the perpetually deluded Eliza, the Schuyler that Hamilton married, or Mandy Gonzalez’s stoical Angelica, the sister Hamilton truly preferred. For me, Hamilton doesn’t become exciting until the Schuylers stop dominating the stage.

What we don’t hear so much about is Miranda’s towering portrait of George Washington – as leader of the Continental Army and as our first President. Nicholas Christopher gives such a monumental portrait of Washington that he largely upstaged the other George in our nativity story, King George, ably played for laughs by Rory O’Malley with patrician foppery. The momentous stamp that Christopher puts on “History Has Its Eyes on You” certainly outshines O’Malley’s comic relief. After mucking around, Hamilton gets its drive and substantiality from Christopher’s solo.

After his light sprinkling of Gallic charm as the Marquis de Lafayette, it’s certainly fitting that Seth Stewart returns as Jefferson. There’s both humor and pizzazz in Stewart’s jazzy “What’d I Miss” to start Act 2, but Brandon Victor Dixon as Burr is more conniving than commanding. Dixon’s big showpiece, “The Room Where It Happens,” comes to a spectacular froth with Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography, but we should be getting a more vivid sense of Burr’s incipient menace.

At a certain point, the sheer energy of the cast meshes with the rising drama of Hamilton’s sex scandal and his fatal feud. Combine that with the white-hot electricity that crackles through the house and the experience of Hamilton is still unique and unforgettable.

A Bronx Tale (♥♥♥1/2) – Full disclosure: through kindergarten, I grew up in the Bronx, so the mean streets of New York’s grubbiest borough are a key reason why this Chazz Palminteri story resonates with me especially deeply. Miranda’s In the Heights had almost the same effect on me when I saw it, the 181st Street subway station and the distant George Washington Bridge taking me back to my daily high school commute into upper Manhattan. Palmentari’s story takes us further back, beginning in childhood and further deepening my response.

Young Calogero (which is Palminteri’s real given name) is the Bronx kid whose life changes in the blink of an eye. I mean that literally, since everybody blinks – and winces – in response to the first gunshot they ever hear, particularly when it kills someone ten feet away from you and the front steps of your tenement home. The killer is Sonny, equivalent to a precinct captain in the mobster world, feared throughout the neighborhood. Calogero’s father, Lorenzo, is a strong and principled city bus driver, but he knows full well who Sonny is and how to play by the neighborhood rules.

When the police come to investigate, Lorenzo wants to protect his son and keep him out of it, but Calogero boldly insists he is a witness. In a tense scene at the police station, Calogero walks in front of an imposing lineup of thugs, clearing them all until he reaches Sonny. It’s almost comical when tall, menacing Nick Cordero as Sonny and Hudson Loverro as the nine-year-old Calogero stand toe-to-toe looking each other in the eye. Calogero turns calmly to the cops and, instead of fingering Sonny, clears him. A bond is formed between Sonny and Calogero – one that his straight-arrow dad absolutely disapproves of.

Ah, but the fringe benefits of Sonny’s favor are irresistible, including instant respect and deference from schoolmates and stacks of easy money. When we flash forward to Calogero’s teen years, Bobby Conte Thornton eases his way from his stint as our narrator into the conflicted, sensitive tough guy our protagonist – nicknamed C by Sonny – has become. Both Lorenzo and Sonny dislike the gang of friends that C is prowling the neighborhood with. Otherwise, the two paths personified by Lorenzo and Sonny diverge, the father modeling a respectability that’s steady, traditional, but unsatisfying, Sonny offering an attractive pragmatism drenched in danger.

C’s path becomes even more perilous in Act 2 when he ranges outside his Italian Belmont Avenue turf and tries to date a black schoolmate from the Webster Avenue neighborhood, because she might be “one of the great ones.” With both Jane’s and C’s friends and families against the liaison, the situation quickly mushrooms into West Side Story explosiveness, since Jane’s brother also runs with a gang.

There’s definitely an all-star team behind the scenes, beginning with the co-directors: Robert De Niro, who directed the 1993 film adaptation of Palminteri’s 1989 one-man show, co-starring with the playwright/screenwriter (who snagged the plum role of Sonny); and four-time Tony Award winner Jerry Zaks, who piloted the 2007 Broadway premiere of the play. Helping Palminteri to flesh out his solo vehicle to Tony contender proportions are hall-of-fame songwriter Alan Menken and his frequent collaborator, lyricist Glenn Slater.

They’re savvy enough to give the best songs to Sonny, and Cordero cashes in on both of them. First he imparts his sage “Nicky Machiavelli” advice, comically backed by his colorful public enemy flunkeys. Then he tugs at our heartstrings with “One of the Great Ones,” passed along later in Act 2 to Thornton, who proves to us that this advice is in good hands. Richard H. Blake also gets to sing some valuable words to his son in the opening act as Lorenzo before his influence wanes. What deepens the counsel of both these father figures is the tinge of regret that colors their ballads. Ultimately, that threat of missing lost opportunities looms larger than the dangers of the mean streets.

In Transit (♥♥♥1/4) – The first a cappella musical to run on Broadway, this isn’t the follow-up you would expect from Kristen Anderson-Lopez after co-creating Disney’s Frozen and writing its songs. She and three other co-writers interweave four stories about New York subway commuters. All of the key characters are fast-paced Millennials: Judy, an aspiring actress; Trent, her gay agent; Nate, recently let go by a Wall Street firm; and his sister Ali, newly arrived in the city after a breakup.

My trepidations about a full evening of a cappella quickly evaporated when, after a pre-show advisory that all sounds would be produced by human voice, Chesney Snow added his to the mix as Boxman. From the opening “Deep Beneath the City,” we knew that Snow would supply ample percussion. Electronics are definitely not verboten, and he is a wizard behind his mic. Arrangements by Deke Sharon, of Pitch Perfect fame, further assured that instrumentation wasn’t sorely missed.

Filling in for Margo Seibert as Jane, Laurel Harris almost delivered star quality to her lead vocals bookending the show, but the bigger hurdle for me was Jane herself, wrestling with the dilemma of whether to chuck her job after nailing her big audition. Deserving actresses who suddenly catch a break aren’t exactly a novelty in Broadway musicals – and of course they go for it! And a gay guy struggling to come out to his Red State mom was groundbreaking back when these lovebirds were toddlers.

So while Justin Guarini as Trent and Steven Robinson as his understanding boyfriend were quite winsome, I found myself more drawn to the fumbling and bumbling of James Snyder as Nate. Hurrying to get to an interview on time, he inadvertently swipes his MetroCard wrong, emptying its remaining balance before clearing the turnstiles at his subway station. Moya Angela is pure New York as the lady in the cash booth who issues or replenishes MetroCards – no empathy whatsoever and certainly no mercy.

Angela moonlights as Trent’s impassive Texas mom and as Jane’s boss, singing perhaps the catchiest song in the show, “A Little Friendly Advice,” encouraging her to quit. So Angela’s scene-stealing abilities get repeated play. I warmed up to Jane largely because she opened herself up to the floundering Nate, and Erin Mackey became more than two dimensional for me as Ali when David Abeles as her old boyfriend Dave bumped into her. Underground, of course. For them – and for Nate and Jane – MetroCards are tickets to romance, rightfully replicated in the logo and the costuming of In Transit.

Cirque du Soleil Paramour (♥♥1/2) – Disney and Oprah have done it and, critics be damned, Marvel Comics has done it no less spectacularly. So after flirting with tent shows across the Hudson in the Meadowlands and tailoring shows for Madison Square Garden, it was inevitable that Montreal entertainment juggernaut Cirque du Soleil would make their own assault on Broadway, in hopes of a long-running megahit. Looking at what Marvel had done before their abortive leap and what they hadn’t done – music and Vegas – Cirque must have felt that producers of Spiderman had snuck ahead in line.

What I’d never seen Cirque do before, though I’d seen theatrical characters and singing in their shows, is either story or language. Interspersed with acrobatics and clowning in Cirque-taculars I’d seen were the most heartfelt gibberish ballads you’ll ever hear. Those gaps Cirque needed to leap over to land in the frontier of a genuine Broadway musical figured to be miniscule when Paramour opened for previews last April, but they’ve proven to be a chasm.

The show’s e-program lists Philippe Decouflé as director and conceiver of the show, but despite assurances that Paramour is “written with the utmost respect for the traditions of Broadway, by way of Busby Berkeley,” there’s no professional writer aboard a production team that includes four creatives and 11 designers. Small wonder that the three-character story is fairly well buried in its circus derring-do and Golden Age of Hollywood designs.

The most interesting speaking character we encounter is our narrator, AJ, a driven Hollywood producer/director who prowls LA in search of new talent. Jeremy Kushnier attains a sleazy carnival charisma as our mogul host after he finds inspiration at an outré nightclub where he is captivated by Indigo, a chanteuse who performs with her songwriting partner – surrounded by a flying flurry of acrobats.

Ruby Lewis as Indigo absorbs some of the exotic allure of her glittery surroundings, and Kushnier’s leering adoration pushes her up another notch as he promises to make her a movie star. Keeping the topics of love and marriage on the back burner, AJ brings the piano player, Joey, along for the ride so Indigo will believe that his motives are purely commercial and artistic. Trouble is, Lewis finds it impossible to shine when saddled with the music by Bob and Bill (forgettable lyrics by Andreas Carlsson), either at the club or in front of the camera.

Ryan Vona’s predicament as Joey actually becomes laughable as AJ keeps prying his partner away, making her a star while he languishes in obscurity. The presumption is that Indigo’s true love must be a songwriting genius that AJ is cruelly holding back, telling him over and over that nothing he has written is good enough. But it’s obvious that Cirque’s team couldn’t write a breakthrough song for Joey if they tried.

With the story sputtering into clichés on loan from 42nd Street and other showbiz sagas, we find ourselves longing for those famed Cirque acrobats to return and obliterate our principals all they wish. Swinging out from the stage and over the audience, identical twins Andrew and Kevin Atherton are the most compelling of the aerialists, their choreography combining sensuousness, skill, daring, and grace.

But they don’t exemplify best what Paramour could be if circus and story and music were truly integrated. That happens near the end when Indigo eludes AJ’s clutches and runs away with Joey – implausibly to the roof of a hotel. Suddenly a chase fantasia breaks out with the reprise of “Everything (The Lovers’ Theme).” Both the hunters and the hunted bounce prodigiously up and down in a dizzying blur. Sometimes they’re perching on the surrounding rooftops, and sometimes they’re walking on the walls in their upward trajectory before plunging down to unseen trampolines. Spectacular, exhilarating silliness.

The follow-up text message to the one that links to the e-program rightly asks, “Head still spinning?” before seeking a 1-10 rating. Mine was 6. (Through April 16)

On Your Feet! (♥♥1/4) – So intense was my aversion for Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons that it took my wife almost four seasons before she could coax me into seeing Jersey Boys. And guess what? While I didn’t totally warm up to the falsetto of Frankie’s Broadway clone or the music written for him by Bob Gaudio, I unexpectedly found myself very impressed with the show.

After assuming that it had closed months before, I stumbled upon this musical not knowing a tenth as much about the pop oeuvre of Emilio & Gloria Estefan & Miami Sound Machine. If Alexander Dinelaris, winner of the Oscar for his Birdman screenplay, could deliver an equally fine book for this jukebox musical, then it might soar far above Jersey Boys, which somehow navigated “Sherry” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” the Scylla and Charybdis of bubblegum music.

I was counting on the Estefans to have produced something else among their hits as infectious as their “Conga,” and I was expecting Dinelaris to bring out some moving conflict, compelling drama, or fascinating characteristics in telling their story. Neither hope was fulfilled. Christie Prades filled in for Ana Villafañe on the Friday night we attended, so we may have missed the maximum voltage of the Estefans’ sizzle when Ektor Rivera as Emilio beholds his usual leading lady.

With nothing but endless tepid love from the leads – only occasionally amped up by the Estefans’ spicy Latin orchestrations – the drama mostly comes from the strife in Gloria’s childhood household. Both her mom and her grandma perceive Emilio’s talent and appeal, but Doreen Montalvo (subbing for Andrea Burns) as Mom wants to protect her daughter from this Don Juan while the wiser Alma Cuervo as Consuelo appreciates Emilio’s potential and cojones. She rightly sees Emilio as sincere in his affections and helps Gloria in getting up the nerve to audition for him.

The eventual estrangement between Gloria and her mom is as heavy as things get, the only aspect of our heroine’s life that threatens not to work out. Flashy, sassy choreography from Sergio Trijillo seemed sufficient to work the throngs of true fans in the house to orgiastic enthusiasm despite the drama deficit, but the magic was lost upon non-believers like me who had seen genuine Broadway pizzazz before.

My post-show Spotify search for what I was missing about Estefan’s allure only cemented my indifference. But I did find one other Miami Sound Machine hit that I was familiar with: “Bad Boy.” It isn’t in the show, but if Dinelaris had worked that song dramatically into his storyline, he might have discovered the path to riveting my attention. Yes, Mom was wrong about Emilio and Gloria – too wrong. If their chemistry was more like that song – and less like Barbi and Ken – I wouldn’t have come away thinking that maybe the image-conscious Estefans simply tied Dinelaris’s hands.

Off-Broadway

The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart (♥♥♥1/2) – Since the opening of Sleep No More in 2011, the reclaimed McKittrick Hotel has established itself as a hip nightlife destination, with theatre and music as its main calling cards. Multiple events are staged every night in this spooky old building, and I’m not sure I’ve detected any previous European imports on the McKittrick’s weekly mailings. But this National Theater of Scotland production is certainly a winner, far outshining McKittrick’s staple Scottish Play fantasia.

There are whiffs of the supernatural in Prudencia, too, combined with a down-to-earth presentation style and a winsome mockery of academicians. David Grieg and Wils Wilson, both mainstays at Theatre of Scotland, conceived this cosmic yarn of a frumpy academic whose ideas about folkloric ballads don’t square with the notions of her stodgy colleagues at a scholarly symposium – in a wintry wilderness where Sir Walter Scott and his forbears may have set fictions.

Living in more modern times, Prudencia seeks solace at a karaoke bar near a Costco parking lot. But in a fierce blizzard, she loses the true path in a very old-fashioned way, finding shelter at a B&B that turns out to be the eternal house of Beelzebub. Satan is very welcoming, with a handsome library and a liberal lending policy, but he’s also very possessive. After the calendar flips to the year 3816, the next cue card has the simple mathematical sign for infinity.

All of this unfolds around us in a space that conjures up a Scottish pub, flanked by a whisky bar on one side and a staging area on the other, where cast members pick up their instruments and find their props. Of course, there’s plenty balladeering as the story unfolds, but the intimacy and friendliness of the atmosphere is enhanced by the actors mingling with the audience, standing on our tables, maybe sitting in our laps, picking on the bald guy, and giving us homework. We all get little sheafs of paper to shred into snowflakes for the great blizzard.

Inevitably, centuries and centuries hence, Prudencia will have her awakening, so the autumnal quality that Melody Grove bestows on her is a thing of beauty, Sleeping Beauty in its fairytale rightness. There’s a sybaritic likability mixed into Peter Hannah’s Satan, as if the Prince of Darkness were actually Sebastian Cabot playing the Ghost of Christmas Present. The free shot of Scotch doled out at the beginning of festivities – plus assorted beverages you can fetch from the bar at any time – may help to lubricate this unique McKittrick experience. Even cold sober, I found this five-person troupe utterly charming. (Through March 26)

Spamilton (♥♥♥1/4) – No doubt about it, Gerard Alessandrini, perpetrator of many fine Forbidden Broadway revues, is on-target once again as he skewers Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and the whole mania surrounding his megahit. Even the cheap shots land solidly – if that’s the right category for “Can you believe you paid 800 bucks for this?”

But it turns out that Spamilton is also a revue, unable to keep the show everyone is talking about in its crosshairs for a full 80 minutes. Instead, we wander off to Lion King, Avenue Q, and Book of Mormon, blockbusters that were demolished by Alessandrini in previous Forbiddens, along with his penchant for using puppets to mock shows that use puppets. Or he wanders further off with guest diva Gina Kreiezmar reprising her priceless send-ups of Bernadette Peters, Liza Minnelli, Patti LuPone and either Carol Channing or Angela Lansbury begging on the street for Hamilton tickets.

Dan Rosales maintains quite a bit of Miranda’s I-can’t-believe-all-this-is-happening charm, even as he mercilessly roasts him and his hero. Cameron Amandus stood in for Chris Anthony Giles as Burr, and Lauren Villegas did fine work taking us off-track to J-Lo, Gloria Estefan, Beyoncé, and beyond – obliquely proving that all three Schuyler Sisters in Hamilton put together provide too little meat to pick apart.

Alessandrini remains the king of on- and off-Broadway parodists when he has Miranda insisting “I will not throw away my pot,” when Burr speculates on who’s “gonna be in the film when it happens,” or when he turns “Aaron Burr, Sir” into this choice barb: “Be terser with your verse, sir – you ain’t no Johnny Mercer.” But there is one big lesson that Alessandrini could have taken from his victim. Beginning with the famed mini-sample performed at the White House, Miranda built up his full-length blockbuster gradually, giving the public cumulative glances before the final reveal.

That’s what Alessandrini should do. As a Dickens hero once begged, “More, please!” (Through April 30)

Cagney (♥♥♥) – Even after he showed his aptitude for comedy One, Two, Three, it was difficult for me to comprehend how universally James Cagney was beloved in Hollywood, affectionately called Jimmy by all who spoke of him. From the beginning of his career, when he made his splash in a series of gangster films, his barking machine-gun delivery marked him as a gangster on speed.

Ah, but then I caught up with Yankee Doodle Dandy, where Cagney played patriotic showman George M. Cohan. The man could dance! Still maintaining his famed “you dirty rat” cadence, he could also sell a song. And though I only recently learned that Cagney spoke a fluent Yiddish, when he accepted the Congressional Gold Medal in the closing sequence, he reminded me of my dear departed zayde – except when, in an inspired flourish, he danced down the stairs on his way out.

There’s no denying that Robert Creighton has made a thorough study of Cagney, for he not only takes on the role of the Tinseltown terror, he chips in three of the songs and lyrics. Christopher McGovern has written most of the functional score, and a Cohan classic brings the curtain down on each of the two acts. Curiously, no photo or video I’ve seen captures how thoroughly Creighton has mastered his subject. Seen live, he has the sound of Cagney’s voice, the scornful curl of his upper lip, and – most important for me – the stiff, forward-leaning marionette style of his dancing.

Peter Colley’s book starts out like a biography, but it isn’t long before the chronological cavalcade coalesces into Cagney’s longtime artistic relationship and antagonism with studio chieftain Jack Warner. Colley makes it quite clear that Cagney had already become a solid and versatile leading man on Broadway before Warner gave him a call. Close up and in person, Warner isn’t nearly as impressed with Cagney’s presence as he was with his clippings. It’s only when the mogul sees the rushes of Cagney’s first film that he grudgingly elevates him to a leading role.

Bruce Sabath slickly personifies Warner’s autocratic arrogance and shrewd, cocksure intelligence from his initial faceoff with Cagney. There’s plenty of friction to come. Cagney not only chafes against being typecast as a gangster, he also champions the cause of actors and studio professionals who were exploited by execs who reaped the profits of their labors. And he was a staunch supporter of labor unions, which landed Cagney in hot water with both the studio and Congress.

Ding! That must be the real reason Jimmy was so beloved in Hollywood.

All the major signposts are touched: the famed grapefruit scene in The Public Enemy, “Top of the world!” in White Heat, and the climactic Yankee Doodle Dandy tap dance. To Colley’s credit, it’s not all black-and-white between Cagney and Warner. After decades of squabbles, breakups, and reunions, Cagney can acknowledge his boss’s business acumen and Warner can respect Cagney’s talent and pugnacity. They reach a somewhat sullen détente at the end when Warner performs the honors in presenting Cagney with a Lifetime Achievement Award – from the Screen Actors Guild!

So what’s missing? In a word, scale. Everything I witnessed at the upstairs West Side Theatre – the cast, the scenery, the instrumental arrangements, and the choreography – cried out for bigger Broadway dimensions to fit Cagney’s outsized talents and personality. If you’re taking on a whole industry, the stage should be more than 18 feet wide. Warner, Cohan and Cagney were entertainment giants, but in a little upstairs venue, they’re more like sideshow hustlers. Hire more actors, an orchestrator, and let the great work begin.

Photo Credits: Chad Batka, Joan Marcus, Richard Termine, Matthew Murphy, Jenny Anderson, Carol Rosegg

 

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Sizzling Satire and Seething Inner Turmoil

Review:  Bootycandy

By Perry Tannenbaum

Weird black mothers roam the Mint Museum stage at the Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte’s latest migratory production. One mamma refers to her son’s genitalia as bootycandy, while another mamma actually names her daughter Genitalia. The weirdness of Robert O’Hara’s Bootycandy only begins there, for I don’t think either of these mothers – or their children – ever meet, though the bootycandy boy emerges as our antihero, Sutter. Presumably, this mildly sadistic gay man was messed up by his mom.

Perhaps all of the above have fallen under the influence under the flamboyant influence of Reverend Benson who strides to his pulpit in priestly black robes and exits in a flaming red formal dress and white high-heeled shoes. Or perhaps none of the others knows him, because Rev. Benson preaches directly to us, not at all happy about the intolerance and homophobia we’re spreading around the neighborhood.

Late in Act 1, we get a delightfully specious explanation for all this disconnection. The only white person in the cast seats himself on a chair upstage, seemingly prepared to lead a group therapy session. No, he is actually moderating a symposium where three of the four black cast members have gathered – excluding Sutter. After their previous trashy or swishy turns, they are now the three different playwrights who have written all the action we’ve seen so far. Sophisticated, intellectual, and artsy, they give the Moderator a really hard time.

That veiled hostility toward white people is the underbelly of what mostly seems to be a sharply satirical look at black folk. Mostly we’re looking at hilarious set pieces. Friends try to dissuade Genitalia’s expectant mom from committing her folly while gossiping lustily about it. Or years later, we see Sutter’s mom absolutely putting her foot down on his participation in a sissy high school musical, insisting that he take up a sport while his disengaged stepdad mostly buries himself behind a newspaper.

And of course, the remedy for somebody repeatedly stalking Sutter on the way home from the library isn’t to call the cops – it’s to stop reading those damn Jackie Collins books. The Michael Jackson Thriller jacket continues to fly under Mom’s radar.

More bizarre and surreal is the grownup Genitalia, in a white bridal gown, un- or dis-marrying Intifada in a formal ceremony, complete with increasingly antagonistic vows, ending with bitch slaps from both lesbians. So when Sutter and his boyfriend Larry agree on an assignation with a lonely white guy, what could go wrong?

Kevin Aoussou, who has played a variety of dark roles for Shakespeare Carolina, including Dorian Gray a couple of years ago, mixes it up a little bit more for us here as Sutter. He’s in much lighter scenes now as the younger Sutter, subjected to the bootycandy and compulsory sports indignities inflicted upon him by his mom, more vulnerable and less arrogant. He’s also capable of insight and regret here, delivering a more fully rounded portrayal here than we’ve seen from him before.

Yet the show largely belongs to Jeremy DeCarlos from the moment he tosses off Reverend Benson’s black robes and applies his lipstick. Equally satisfying after his low-key and sympathetic episodes as Step Dad and Larry (the boyfriend), he reappears as Old Granny at an old age home, where she serves up solace to Sutter (and flashbacks for us) when he visits her. All this wisdom and warm reminiscence are bartered for contraband edible eats.

Lydia Williamson and Ericka Ross sinuously intertwine throughout the two-hour evening as mothers, daughters, and playwrights. As the immature mom insisting on naming her daughter Genitalia and later as the more butch daughter Intifada, Williamson certainly lays down a credible case for being the more incorrigible of the two. But while Ross is purposely overmatched as Genitalia, her insensitivity and homophobia as Sutter’s mom are as chilling as they are hilarious.

Directing the show, Martin Damien Wilkins gives all his black performers license to take it far enough over-the-top to remind us occasionally of The Colored Museum, George C. Wolfe’s hilarious 1986 subversion of honored black theatre traditions. Relying primarily on projections, set designer Chip Decker comes fairly close to convincing us that The Mint is Actor’s Theatre’s permanent home. Certainly the acoustics here are far more hospitable than the disastrous holiday sojourn at Charlotte Ballet’s McBride-Bonnefoux studio for The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical.

Maybe the niftiest touch from Wilkins, restoring some of the distance between Colored Museum and this 2011 satire, is the consistently natural work he calls forth from Chaz Pofahl in five different roles. Except as the fulsome officiator at the Genitalia-Intifada breakup, Pofahl is consistently life-sized and somewhat pitiful as our white guy – even when he turns up as the pervert stalking the teen-aged Sutter from the library. Instead of shocking me as Sutter and Larry’s victim later on, when he came out to the hallway outside his hotel room completely naked, he broke my heart a little bit.

Arguably, he’s the only player who bares body or soul all evening long.

Wild as it is, Bootycandy is an autobiographical piece by a black gay playwright with an incongruously Irish name. A portion of O’Hara’s animus is directed intellectually toward his own black community, and another more visceral portion is directed reflexively toward white people. Most poignant of all is the remaining scrutiny that O’Hara directs toward himself and his own shortcomings.

The Ghost of “(I Hate) Hamlet” Returns – With a Vengeance

Review: Women Playing Hamlet

By Perry Tannenbaum

Written and premiered in an era when only men could perform on stage, Hamlet has been performed many times with the finest actresses of their day in the title role. Poetic justice, playwright William Missouri Downs will tell you in his Women Playing Hamlet, since Shakespeare’s magnum opus is a revenge tragedy. Compounding this revenge – and attracting the notice of Charlotte’s Chickspeare banditas and Donna Scott Productions – Downs has decreed that all roles in his comedy, regardless of gender, shall be played by women.

Braininess and silliness play well together at Charlotte Art League, where Donna Scott Productions previously mustered the oddball Civil War re-enactors of Shiloh Rules and the eccentric Amish of The Book of Liz. Most of the cast gathered by director Tonya Bludsworth have performed with both Donna Scott and the Chix before.

Oddballs abound here as well. The most stressed, conflicted, and self-doubting of these is Jessica Ostergaard, who has had the awesome role of Hamlet unexpectedly thrust upon her – despite a résumé that includes a killed-off character in the Young and the Restless and a flicker of a cameo in a Tarantino film (also dying). Everyone in New York who advises Jessica on this prodigious undertaking, whether the advice is solicited or not, tells her that she is too young to play Hamlet. And every one of these opinions has a certain amount of credibility, since everyone on Manhattan Island has an MFA in Acting, from your lowly Starbucks barkeep on up to your legendary acting guru.

Glynnis O’Donoghue has always had a look that mixes determined pluckiness and confused vulnerability, so she is always as perfect a Jessica as director Bludsworth could hope for. She soaks up the pithy pointers with the eagerness of a puppy and absorbs discouraging words with the most endearing and pathetic pout, one that still retains a glint of chin-up determination.

Downs layers on interesting reasons why Jessica should identify with the brooding Danish Prince. At her father’s funeral, we learn that Jessica’s mom announced her intent to marry her uncle. Somehow that doesn’t sound quite so sinister when the announcement is made in a folksy Minnesota accent, don’t-you-know.

That tawdry revelation allows Sheila Snow Proctor, as Minnesota Mother, to steal one scene from O’Donoghue in a flashback. More often, Proctor regally sports a turban, à la Norma Desmond, as Jessica’s acting guru. This imperious Gwen terrifies Jessica with her frank appraisals and such rigid dogmas as “Hamlet is the ‘Mona Lisa’ of plays.” If this formula reminds you of the TV actor haunted by John Barrymore in Paul Rudnick’s I Hate Hamlet, a very popular comedy in the early 1990’s, then you have the gist.

Nonetheless, Snow gets maximum mileage out of her scenes with the cringing O’Donoghue, because she maintains a stony hauteur that defies contradiction. And she is far from Jessica’s only tormentor. Tania Kelly, Vivian T Howell, and Andrea King all play five different roles along Jessica’s bumbling odyssey – with at least two apiece that are standouts. Howell is best as the Starbucks know-it-all and as Gwen’s other student, a ditzy model content to be patronized.

King and Kelly draw more eccentric assignments. As Jessica’s young niece Emily, a very immature Pippi Longstocking-ish Minnesotan, King unwillingly accompanies Jessica to the theater and gets the aspiring actress in trouble with Patrick Stewart during the movie star’s attempt at Hamlet. After disrupting the performance, damage control doesn’t go so well for Jessica at first, compounding Stewart’s rage against texting and tweeting. King’s other triumph is Lord Derby, a renowned Shakespearean scholar in his dotage.

Kelly hardly needs to do more than walk onstage to draw laughs, but she is especially memorable as a more shambling and déclassé academic, Jessica’s Humanities Professor, a veritable fount of dubious information. But Kelly surpasses herself as the Gravedigger, a scene where Downs gives us glints of Shakespearean depth. For a brief moment, we’re outside the hustle and bustle of Broadway and the ephemera of actors’ pretensions.

Chuck Bludworth’s projection slides underscore the web-based slickness and superficiality of the city. With no lack of self-esteem whatsoever, Gwen and the two academics manage to amuse us while educating us about the melancholy Dane and the women who have played him. But the dimly lit graveyard scene is something different. In this wilderness, Downs’s comedy and Shakespeare’s tragedy intermingle, for the two gravediggers in the Bard’s script were actually called Clowns in the dramatis personae. Somehow, Kelly’s portrayal makes me wish to see her tossing Yorick’s skull one day.

 

Sex, Drugs, Homophobia, and HIV Keep Today’s Youth in Turmoil

Review: Jermaine Nakia Lee’s A Walk in My Shoes

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By Perry Tannenbaum

After the Afro-American Cultural Center moved to Uptown Charlotte and became the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, I wondered whether I’d ever review a show at the old Attic Theatre again. In my early years on the job, I might climb the stairs at 401 Myers Street as many as three times each season to see such works as Bubbling Brown Sugar, Salomé, A Raisin in the Sun, or To Be Young, Gifted, and Black staged by Defoy Glenn and his GM Productions.

Nowadays, the old Afro-Am building functions as the Little Rock Community Development Center, taking advantage of a block-long entrance to their parking lot to change their address to 401 N. McDowell Street. As far as I know, Little Rock’s portfolio still doesn’t include theatre, so it’s fortunate for me that Jermaine Nakia Lee and the Johnson C Smith University C.H.I.P. Project decided to stage the premiere of Lee’s new A Walk in My Shoes at the Attic – especially since a workshop version of the musical had previously been presented on the JCSU campus in 2013.

Just walking up the flights of stairs to the Attic – and then, once inside the theater, walking down the steeply sloped orchestra section to the front row – brought back memories of Glenn and the stellar actors who once graced the Attic: Margaret Freeman, Wayne DeHart, Sandra Beckham Lewis, and Michael D. Lowe. The house was packed to near-capacity when I arrived, and it was instantly apparent, from the activity of the light booth to the functionality of the narrow seats, that Little Rock has kept the Attic in fine repair.

Still, fine repair and state-of-the-art are not the same. There is no roof in sight looking up, so there is no fly loft. Entrances must all come from backstage since there are no wings, and it’s obvious that the Attic wasn’t conceived with musicals in mind. The trio led by musical director Kevin Staley was lined up against the right-hand wall of the stage, visible to audience and actors alike throughout the performance. Staley’s other option, to camp upstage behind the Attic’s curtain, would have required a video setup to cue the cast, with one or more monitors facing the stage. Reality presumably collided with that possibility and quashed it.

Yet the budgetary constraints of the Lee/JCSU collaboration were still apparent from the moment the core members of the cast began to sing. To be heard above the band, all of them needed to be singing in the sweet spots of their range, so body mics wound up as the actual necessities that the budget couldn’t cover. Notwithstanding the artistic merits of Marius James’s freestanding mural, split and separated to opposite thirds of the stage, scenery was fairly rudimentary, usually rolled onstage by the crew and the players themselves. When the trouble-prone addict Maceo was hospitalized early in Act 2, they didn’t dare wheel him onstage already in the bed, sparking some unintended laughter from the crowd as he carefully climbed on.

Played by newcomer Quinn Marques, Maceo personifies the population that JCSU wanted to address when they first approached Lee and sought his help in applying for a federal grant: substance abusers who engage in risky sexual encounters. Before he climbed into that hospital bed, various scenes of A Walk in My Shoes gave ample evidence of Maceo snorting, shooting up, and drinking to excess. Maceo says that he would like to be up-close and sexual with longtime buddy Bonnie, but the effects of various drugs seemed to be tamping down his libido when it came time to take action, which enabled Bonnie to keep pushing him away. Bonnie, portrayed by newcomer Tiffanie McCall, hasn’t been straightforward with her friends, hiding the fact that she was born HIV-positive. Keeping her distance from Maceo was a responsible thing for Bonnie to do while she kept her HIV secret, but as the action unfolded, she learned another reason for maintaining restraint.

So it’s the transvestite Ms. Kara, portrayed with queenly gusto by newcomer Tara Anderson, who wound up drawing Maceo into dangerous sexual activity. She’s the member of the crew who is always flush with cash, earning it by running a escorting service online and on her handy cell phone. After taking a call from Marques (an unseen baddie, not the actor), Kara gets a warning from Travis, the supervisor at the LGBT center, that she shouldn’t be making assignations with this Marques. But divulging the fact that he was actually raped by Marques and his cronies would cost Travis his job, so he left that info out. As a result, Kara had no idea of what the full consequences would be when she cut Maceo into the action.

Completing the crew is Keon Sunkins as the local preacher’s closeted son, O’Neal. His troubled relationship with his homophobic dad and mom, Bishop Rutherford and First Lady Shirley Rutherford, was the first of four tableaus in the opening title song, but there really wasn’t any meaningful sequel until deep into Act 2. So Lee, who wrote the book as well as the music and score, missed an opportunity to fully develop what could have been his most significant character. As Lee said in his genial curtain speech, this is a “long-ass” show, so audience members may give up on ever returning to the church – or wonder why O’Neal doesn’t hang out with a secret boyfriend instead of refereeing Bonnie and Maceo’s squabbles.

Fortunately, Lee has made some important progress as both a writer and as a composer. Dialogue between Maceo, Bonnie, Kara, and O’Neal is far more natural than Lee’s previous musical, For the Love of Harlem, which introduced us to Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, and other notables of the Harlem Renaissance. A former program director at the PowerHouse Project, where he counseled HIV-positive youth and other at-risk populations, Lee doesn’t always resist the impulse to giftwrap teachable moments for us or to double-underline the fact that the four besties and Travis are an ongoing support group for each other. He’s at his best when he keeps it real between the friends – and when his songs usher us into his musical world. Too often, Lee gave in to his penchant for writing soul ballads in For the Love of Harlem. There is more variety in A Walk in My Shoes – jazz, hip-hop, R&B, and gospel all get their turn – and more consistent quality. “I Will Never Leave Your Side,” closing Act 1, was the only letdown.

Stage directing isn’t Lee’s forte, and an inexperienced cast might have sustained more compelling dramatic tension in between songs with more detailed, nuanced, and polished guidance. In casting his production, Lee clearly got what he was looking for from a vocal perspective. Anderson and Marques scorched their “Trouble” duet at the LGBT. With co-composer Tyrone Jefferson, Lee has written a cluster of memorable songs for his more peripheral characters. Shuffling around with a teeming shopping cart, Kyran McShaw as the homeless Mr. Jimmy teaches the young folk a different beat with “Jazz,” scatting along the way.

After serving mostly as comic relief with her irresistible cooking, Gail Ford (an oasis of splendor when I last wrote her up at the Attic in the 1997 edition of Bubbling Brown Sugar) gets to cut loose at Maseo’s bedside with “Ms. Wynetta’s Lullaby” before blushingly receiving some rusty romantic moves from Mr. Jimmy. Among the younger players, Elijah Ali stands out as Travis, as a singer and an actor – a good thing, since he was charged with bringing Lee’s most moribund character to life.

When we finally return to the church, there’s plenty to see and hear. Following up her rousing sermon as the church’s First Lady Rutherford, Myrna J. Key-Parker struck up the most infectious song of the evening, “Wait Don’t Mean No.” I finished worrying whether Key-Parker’s bravura could be equaled, let alone topped, when the Bishop stood up to deliver his sermon, for Clifford Matthews, Jr., left no doubt. A gay senior pastor at the St. Luke’s Missionary Baptist Church in real life, Matthews spits fire and stomps thunder as the Bishop, quoting ominous Scripture into his son’s face after O’Neal has had the nerve to answer his father’s altar call for all those in the congregation suffering from the “affliction” of homosexuality.

Although it’s more compartmentalized than in most musicals I’ve seen, the dancing in A Walk was consistently topnotch. In addition to a trio of voguers, one of whom danced in high heels, there were two hip-hop artists to wow us. The Reliable Brothers, identical twins who were featured at the prestigious Breakin’ Convention dance festival, danced to poetry by L’Monique King. Although they are identical twins, the Reliables didn’t always dance identically, occasionally going their separate ways and occasionally partnering as they choreographed their own spots. The fascinating part was watching each the Brothers as they expressed King’s words with their bodies and gestures. There could be no doubt that Lee and King had plenty to say.

A Dream Remembered… and Still Deferred

Preview: A Raisin in the Sun

By Perry Tannenbaum

When Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York on March 11, 1959, it was unquestionably a historical milestone. Hansberry was the first African American woman to write a play produced on Broadway, and Lloyd Richards was the first African American man to direct.

Although it lost the 1960 Tony Award to The Miracle Worker, Hansberry’s drama was destined to become a cultural touchstone, sprouting two notable offshoots. It was the most memorable target for George C. Wolfe’s 1986 satire, The Colored Museum, where the Younger family matriarch, Lena, was hilariously lampooned in “The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play.”

Then in 2010, Bruce Norris wrote the sobering Clybourne Park, which opens on the same day as the Act 3 climax of Raisin and then, after intermission, takes us back to the home that the Youngers bought 50 years later, when the all-white neighborhood has become all-black. Posthumously and indirectly, Norris’s play honored Hansberry by taking the Tony Award – and the Pulitzer Prize – for drama.

Through it all, Raisin has continued to speak to audiences. Since the last time Theatre Charlotte brought the Youngers to Queens Road thirteen years ago, the sturdy script has been revived twice on Broadway, heaping more posthumous Tonys on Hansberry’s masterwork.

Kim Parati, directing for the first time at Theatre Charlotte, sees the play as more than a milestone or a touchstone.

“It’s a litmus test of our progress,” she observes, “or lack thereof, over these last 50 years. We’re still debating the infrastructure of the decaying conditions in the poor and segregated South Side of Chicago. We’re still lamenting the pain of the black male when it comes to dealing with THE MAN, and we’re still examining the conditions that rob poor people – and in this case, poor blacks – of their dreams.”

Hanberry’s drama actually had its roots in litigation her family was involved in 25 years before she wrote it, a case that fought Chicago’s “restrictive covenants” enforcing segregated neighborhoods through agreements by all-white property owners’ associations. You don’t forget such things when your mother patrols the house with a loaded gun at night to protect the family, or when your case – eventually adjudicated in the family’s favor by the Supreme Court – gets you spat upon on your way to school.

No wonder, then, that the home sold to Hansberry’s father in 1937 became officially recognized as a historic Chicago landmark. But while the confrontation with the emissary from the Clybourne Park Improvement Association is at the core of the drama, the young playwright, not yet 29 when Raisin premiered, layered on so much more. When Lena receives the $10,000 check from her late husband’s life insurance policy, only a portion of it goes toward a down payment on her dream home.

A third will go toward fulfilling her daughter Beneatha’s ambitions to attend medical school and become a doctor. The rest goes to Lena’s bitter and discontented son Walter Lee, who wishes to shed the daily humiliations of a limousine driver and open a liquor store. Meanwhile, Walter Lee’s wife Ruth has just learned that she is pregnant with another child that her family cannot afford.

So there’s a whole swirl of racial, societal, and women’s issues percolating throughout Raisin, with extra splashes of conflict supplied by Beneatha’s two suitors, the well-to-do George Murchison and Nigerian exchange student Joseph Asagai. Maybe Beneatha, immersing herself in African culture, should just forget this America thing and run off with Asagai to his homeland.

Amid all these conflicted and bickering folk, one non-combatant emerges with a pivotal role: Travis, Walter Lee’s son.

Parati takes on the task of shaping all these turbulences, crosswinds, and the crystallization they lead to with less than two years’ experience in directing. But Parati’s debut as director came a full 16 years after a young Kim Watson made her Charlotte acting debut in the long-forgotten Naked Navigations at a 5th Street art gallery where her turn as Madonna was interrupted by a passing freight train.

Her other role as Star, an Oscar recipient, was more indicative of things to come. By 2001, Parati had made her debut at Children’s Theatre as an unexpectedly active Annabel Lee in Tales of Edgar Allen Poe, before winning CL’s Best Cameo award in 2002 with walk-ons in The Vagina Monologues and Jungalbook and making her Charlotte Repertory Theatre debut in 2003.

Asked what her favorite roles were in her acting days, Parati cites her roles as Kaa the snake in Jungalbook, Janet in the rolling world premiere of Steven Dietz’s Yankee Tavern (2009), and multiple roles in Charles Randolph Wright’s Blue (2009). Recalling each of these productions, Parati offered customized kudos for each of her directors, respectively April A. Jones at Children’s Theatre, Dennis Delamar at CAST, and Sidney Horton at Actor’s Theatre.

Curiously, it was none of the above – nor her stellar turn in Intimate Apparel (CL Best Actress, 2007) nor A Lesson Before Dying or Bug (CL Best Supporting Actress, 2005) – that turned Parati toward directing. Her “aha” moment happened at Spirit Square in the Collaborative Arts Theatre production of Bad Dates, the one-woman show written by Theresa Rebeck.

“After all,” she recalls thinking, “I’d managed to carry a show on my shoulders for more than 80 minutes each night and not only survive it, but grow in the confidence that I might have the vision and fortitude to manage an entire production. That’s when I began thinking about directing.”

It took three years before Parati got her chance from Nicia Carla at PaperHouse Theatre to direct A Woman of No Importance. The site for this Oscar Wilde revival was unlikely, the first time The Frock Shop on Central Avenue was used for a theatrical production. Yet the triumph was undeniable: We picked the sophisticated PaperHouse frolic as both our Best Comedy and Show of the Year for 2015.

Other recent career moves for Parati have included resigning from WFAE after 10 years, delivering her own story on The Moth Radio Hour, and obtaining her realtor’s license. Keeping her hand in directing, she also piloted Motherhood Out Loud for Three Bone Theatre and The Bluest Eye for On Q Productions.

So it wasn’t a huge surprise when Theatre Charlotte executive director Ron Law called on Parati for A Raisin in the Sun.

“Ron and his team have worked hard to create a theatre that celebrates diversity and thought it might be wonderful to have a black woman direct a show written by a black woman!”

This black woman, as you may have surmised, is well-connected – and in demand. More than 50 actors showed up for auditions, and Parati found herself calling back 30. Better yet, she didn’t have to scout beyond this talent pool to fill any of Hansberry’s roles. Parati is excited about the new faces in the cast, and she’s also planning a couple of surprises, restoring one of the scenes – plus a telling moment – that were cut from the original 1959 premiere.

Yet Parati pushes back against the notion that A Raisin in the Sun has become newly relevant after the Obama presidency and the Trump election.

“In 2008, I – like a lot of Americans – celebrated the fact that our country had elected its first black president,” Parati recalls. “Yet, the disparities between blacks and whites in education, healthcare, mortality rates and income continue to widen. I’m not convinced there was an ascent and subsequent descent for African Americans from the Obama era to now.

“Sure, our conversation since Trump has changed because the optics and rhetoric seem drastically different, but the stats about the lack of equity between blacks and whites have continued along the same trajectory.”

 

Drugs, Homophobia and HIV Collide in Lee’s New Musical

Preview of A Walk in My Shoes

By Perry Tannenbaum

Sunkins (from left) with Tara Anderson (who plays Ms. Kara), Tiffanie McCall (Bonnie), Quinn Marques (Maseo) and Elijah Ali (Travis).

 

Playwright, poet, actor, director, songwriter, and community activist – it’s no wonder that multi-talented Jermaine Nakia Lee was once hired a community center called the PowerHouse Project. Or that he would be premiering his second new musical in the past five seasons. The first one, For the Love of Harlem, spotlighting key figures of the Harlem Renaissance like Zora Neale Hurston and Countee Cullen, was popular enough in 2011 for On Q Productions that they reprised it in 2014.

You can understand why there would be a clamor, in the Black community and beyond, for a new Lee musical. But you might not have expected Lee’s new A Walk in My Shoes to focus on HIV/AIDS. Isn’t that so yesterday?

Not at all, Lee will tell you. “In NC and in the country, African-American and Latino 13-24 year-olds are disproportionately living with HIV/AIDS,” he says. “In Mecklenburg County, African-Americans make up 70% of all new HIV infections. In most metropolitan U.S. cities, two out of four Black gay men are living with HIV/AIDS. As a Black gay man, these statistics alarmed me to action.”

And he had more than statistics for expressing his alarm. Each of the major characters is based, singly or as a composite, on the clients Lee met as program manager at PowerHouse. Located across the street from Northwest School of the Arts on Beattie’s Ford Road, not far from Johnson C. Smith University, PowerHouse mostly serves “young adult queer men and women living on or below the poverty level,” according to Lee.

Funded by the Center for Disease Control, a primary PowerHouse function is offering free, rapid, and confidential HIV testing. A lot of juicy confidences came Lee’s way – as soon as he was hired.

“After my first month at PowerHouse,” he recalls. “I was so moved by the lives of my clients, I began writing songs about their experiences. Then that led to poetry. And that lead to the first draft of A Walk in My Shoes.”

All the key members of the My Shoes crew boast stories to sing about, though they’re not always happy tunes.

Bonnie was born with HIV, but she’s still keeping the secret from her three besties, one of whom is Maseo, who has developed a mad – and dangerous – crush on his childhood friend. Overachieving O’Neal is the closeted son of the beloved Pastor Rutherford, a staunch homophobe who gets a rude shock when he issues an altar call for those in his flock who are wrestling with the “Spirit of homosexuality.”

The most serious drama centers on the most sensational character, Ms. Kara. Lee describes her as “a transgender female who can slay you with her sharp tongue or her killer eye for fashion. Those designer digs are afforded by her latest venture, online escorting.”

Problem is, Ms. Kara has just set up a rendezvous with Marques, a bona fide charmer – and a dangerous sexual predator. Apparently, Marques is a bisexual with a ravenous appetite, so you can bet he drives plenty of the drama.

Johnson C. Smith U, co-producers of A Walk in My Shoes, approached Lee during his final year at PowerHouse to help them with a federal grant to draw attention to the correlation between substance abuse and risky sexual behavior. The grant came through just before Lee resigned in 2016, and it was then that he committed to creating a community-based event with JCSU. The character of Maseo definitely targets the connections JCSU has sought to address.

With the backing of JCSU and its Collegiate Health Improvement Project (C.H.I.P.), Lee could aspire to far higher production values than the workshop version of A Walk in My Shoes that premiered in November 2013.

A Walk in My Shoes 2013 was a poorly funded, community theatre effort,” Lee admits. “The intent was to cast ‘the community’: People living with HIV, people in high risk groups for HIV and inspired LGBTQ peeps. A Walk in My Shoes 2017 is a professional theatre production with a working budget, comped cast and crew, seasoned singer/dancer/actors and a grassroots marketing strategy.”

Right. This time, the press was actually informed that Lee was involved.

This week’s three-performance run at the Attic Theatre marks a homecoming for Lee. Before it became the HQ for Little Rock Community Development Center, 401 N. McDowell Street housed the city’s Afro-American Cultural Center, which was reborn as The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture.

Lee was a resident teaching artist at the old Afro-Am – after graduating from UNC Charlotte, interning for the urban division of Arista Records in Atlanta, and performing on Disney Cruises for two years. So he knows the Attic well. In fact, he workshopped Love of Harlem up yonder, and directed Cheryl West’s Before It Hits Home there seven years ago.

“It’s the perfect intimate venue for a show like A Walk in My Shoes,” Lee says, “where I desire the audience to feel like players in the story…bystanders watching it all go down.”

Lee won’t specify exactly where his musical takes place, other than to say it’s in a Southern metro area “like” Charlotte. Or Atlanta. Or Houston. He also slipped the question of whether Pastor Rutherford was based on a particular local cleric or political figure, choosing instead to make a stunning statistical revelation: “More than 50% of the clients I referred to psychosocial care were wounded, sometimes suicidal, due to religious oppression.”

There is, however, an unexpected local tie-in to the new production of A Walk in My Shoes. Pastor Clifford Matthews Jr., spiritual leader of the St. Luke’s Missionary Baptist Church, came out to his congregation and withstood an exodus of his flock, most of whom have since returned. This gay pastor will be playing the role of the homophobic Pastor Rutherford!

“It was important to him that affirming pastors and churches like his be highlighted sometimes,” Lee explains. “Respectfully, I told him my conviction was to give light to the most common truth, which is most traditional Black congregations are homophobic. His church and others like it are the anomalies.”

And it might be mentioned that Black churches are the wellspring of some mighty rousing music. Gospel is one of the prime elements of Lee’s score, co-composed with Tyrone Jefferson of A Sign O’ the Times Band. The music also roams into the realms of pop rock, R&B, and jazz.

For the pair of hip-hop song lyrics, Lee called upon local poetess L’Monique. Lee is nothing if not connected in this town, so he could also call upon the Reliable Brother dance group, who performed at Breakin’ Convention CLT in both 2015 and 2016, to make the hip-hop dancing world-class. Mesmerizing, Lee promises.

Back in 2014, when we last saw For the Love of Harlem, Lee was at best when his music was big and brash – as it was in the opening title song, presented with the added sizzle of splashy ensemble choreography. Expect more of the same for the opening title number up at Attic Theatre.

Later on, a funky R&B tune, “Trouble,” proved to be an audience favorite at the workshop production three years ago. Another big number brings out the dancers.

“The weekend anthem ‘Friday Night’ and the vogue dance ensemble are unforgettable,” says Lee. “People stop me in the grocery store singing that song.”