Monthly Archives: September 2017

Angels Provocateur Returns as Conciliator

Preview: The Christians

By Perry Tannenbaum

There’s plenty of history between Steve Umberger and the Queen City, stretching back to 1976 when he founded the Actor’s Contemporary Ensemble. That company became Charlotte Repertory Theatre, which gave us an epic production of Angels in America, Parts 1 and 2, in 1996. On the wings of Umberger’s supreme achievement as Rep’s artistic director came a firestorm of local homophobia and negative national publicity that strafed the cultural landscape of this city like nothing before or since.

Reverberations from that controversy kept rumbling for years afterward, resulting in the eventual ouster of Umberger in 2002, and the self-immolation of the company he founded by a rogue board of directors in 2005. In an acrimonious parting shot in the announcement closing Rep down, board chairman William Parmelee charged that Charlotte had little interest in supporting professional theatre.

Well, Umberger is back, and he isn’t here to stir up any new controversies or settle old scores. He is here to remind us that differences of opinion don’t need to be acrimonious – and maybe, just maybe to prove that Parmelee was dead wrong.

Picking a drama that can achieve those aims wasn’t simple, but Umberger and his PlayWorks Group chose Lucas Hnath’s The Christians, a work that premiered in 2014 at the prestigious Humana Festival in Louisville and went on to win acclaim in Chicago, Houston, San Francisco, and off-Broadway. Hnath made a bigger New York splash earlier this year on Broadway when A Doll’s House, Part 2, his sequel to Henrik Ibsen’s famed feminist drama, picked up eight Tony Award nominations.

Umberger honed in on Hnath before the playwright’s Broadway triumph – at exactly the right moment.

“I first read it right after the election,” Umberger recalls, “when everyone was starting to find everyone else’s viewpoint contemptible. I wondered if there was a play out there that would truly represent everyone fairly and let them tell their side of it in a way that would be heard. Then I found The Christians.”

Set in a megachurch, The Christians fits Charlotte like a glove. After building up his church from a storefront acorn to a mighty oak, Pastor Paul delivers a progressive sermon that proposes to take his church and all who belong to it on a spiritual hairpin turn. Because in a recent conversation with God, God told Paul that there is no hell.

Quite a bombshell for the associate pastor whom Paul has mentored, for church elders who have backed and supported Paul for 20 years, and for his wife Elizabeth, who was blindsided by her husband’s bold new doctrine. So are many members of the congregation, which now numbers in the thousands. They have believed strongly in Pastor Paul, but everyone isn’t ready to be redirected like sheep into strange new beliefs.

It’s as if a Republican were elected President and told his party that they were mean.

Only there’s a bond between these people as they wrestle with their faith amid the fallout from Paul’s sermon. Spiritually, how far is Associate Pastor Joshua willing to bend and still serve his mentor’s church in good conscience? Administratively, how can Elder Jay keep supporting his church’s founder if there are massive defections from the flock? And personally, how can Elizabeth forgive Paul for not consulting her on a move that could have such a dramatic impact on his livelihood and their family?

Yes, there is mutual love and respect between all of these Christians. Yet the issues are substantial, and Paul, the visionary leader, may be the most selfish and inconsiderate in the group.

Umberger gets to reunite with some of the same suspects who worked with him decades ago on Angels – set designer Joe Gardner, lighting guru Eric Windbreaker, and actor Graham Smith, who made Roy Cohen such a demonic firebrand. Two other Rep vets are in the cast, playing the lead couple. Chandler McIntyre last hooked up Umberger and Rep in Wit (2001), and Brian Robinson, playing Pastor Paul, is a two-time CL Actor of the Year who played key roles in three CL Shows of the Year: Malice Aforethought (1992) and Falsettos (1993) for Rep, and Take Me Out (2004) with Actor’s Theatre.

More recently – and more to the point – Robinson gave a fine account of Father Flynn in another religious cliffhanger, John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, playing opposite Umberger’s wife, actress Rebecca Koon. That North Carolina Stage Company actually toured Charlotte with that production in 2008 after Robinson had moved to Atlanta.

“When I lived and worked as an actor here from 1988 until 2008, the city was teeming with homegrown theatre. It’s certainly not all gone, but it is certainly greatly diminished,” says Robinson. “Rebecca and I had done Doubt together, and our friendship became quite close. In August 2016, I was exploring the idea of creating some theatre. Steve was the one of the first people I thought of when considering with whom I would want to partner. I asked Rebecca what he was up to. Her response was, ‘I think he’s in a similar place. You should call him.’ And now here we are, one year later, about to unveil the fruits of this first collaboration.”

Burnt by the lackluster support from the CharMeck Arts & Science Council after the Angels flap when he led the Rep, Umberger is relying on a more conservative, self-sufficient financial model with PlayWorks Group.

“Even though [The Christians] is a single production, it’s set up so that it could actually pay for itself, if enough people come,” Umberger explains. “That could also conceivably be expanded to multiple plays in some sort of season that looks like a company. It doesn’t require massive corporate sponsorship or grant funding or big giving. It only takes enough people buying a ticket.”

Umberger is also tapping into homegrown talent he hasn’t worked with before in mounting his new venture. He saw Jonavan Adams in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom this past spring and has tapped him to play the schismatic Pastor Joshua. Strangely enough, Umberger had never met playwright/actress/director April C. Turner until Christians auditions, though her C.O.T.O.: Chocolate on the Outside drew a Loaf nomination for Best Drama back in 1997.

Turner turns up as Jenn, the truth-seeking congregant whose questions wreak havoc among Paul’s flock. Just as convinced as Hnath must have been in 2014 that Hitler was synonymous with evil, Jenn asks if Der Fuhrer is earmarked for hell.

“Steve is a pro,” says Turner of her first Umberger experience. “He is passionate about his work, and he owns his voice as a director. He’s a gentle director, yet firm in his vision. We spend a lot of time asking and answering questions about ‘what’s really going on’ and digging into the details of the needs of each character.”

Adams, who came to understand who Umberger was only after he was cast as Joshua, also chimes in with a glowing review.

“It’s surpassed my expectations in every way,” says Adams of the rehearsal process. “This play calls for a uniquely gifted director to be able to explore its nuanced complexity.”

But we still need to wonder whether Parmelee was right more than 12 years ago – whether Charlotte really is fertile ground for professional-grade homegrown theatre. Since Rep died in 2005, Charlotte hasn’t had an Actor’s Equity company that was part of LORT, the top-tier League of Regional Theatres.

It’s sad, says Robinson: “The citizens of Charlotte deserve and need a thriving professional theatre scene that is locally produced.”

Will we turn out to help make it happen? This may be our last best chance.

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Triumphant AÏDA Cast Slogs Through Tedious Sir Elton Score

Review: AÏDA

By Perry Tannenbaum

Strip away the triumphal march, the trumpets, and the whole processional parade – complete with elephants, if you’re lucky enough to see the famed outdoor productions in Verona – and we discover that Verdi’s AÏDA is a rather compact story. The captured Ethiopian princess is at one corner of the love triangle, opposite her slavemistress, Princess Amneris. Both of them love Radamès, the dynamic Egyptian general who is ordained by the goddess Isis to lead the Pharaoh’s army against the forces led by King Amonasro, Aïda’s father.

Pulling against the strong Aïda-Radamès chemistry are their loyalties to their warring countries, the jealousy of Amneris, and the obedience that Aïda owes to her father. Sealing their fates, Pharoah rewards Radamès for capturing Amonasro in battle by promising his daughter’s hand in marriage to the victorious chieftain.

It’s fascinating to watch how Linda Woolverton modernizes the 1871 libretto in her book for the Disney version currently running at Theatre Charlotte – with a couple of deft feminist touches layered on.

Raised on soaps and romcoms, modern audiences could never abide a torrid relationship between romantic leads already established before the curtain rises. So Woolverton efficiently wedges a mini-courtship into her storyline, with Radamès giving Aïda to Amneris as a gift to lighten his beloved’s sufferings in captivity.

Verdi and librettist Antonio Ghislanzoni were perfectly content to portray Amneris as a cunning, vicious shrew from beginning to end. Not Woolverton. She gives the beautiful princess a slick character arc in a thorough makeover, starting her off as a vain and pampered clothes horse on loan from Legally Blonde. Amneris evolves into a peace-loving reformer who not only empathizes with the martyred lovers but also narrates their story, three or more millennia later, returning in mummified form, a shining presence in a gooey stew of museum mystery and reincarnation.

If composer Elton John and lyricist Tim Rice had done their jobs as well as Woolverton, Aïda would be a masterwork. It’s often amusing to see what John, Rice, and Theatre Charlotte do to compensate for the absence of Verdian spectacle – but it’s never thrilling, despite the collection of talent that director Corey Mitchell has assembled at the Queens Road barn. John’s parade of power ballads grows tedious as the evening wears on, and the longueurs are compounded by unnecessary outbreaks of dance that, notwithstanding choreographer Ashlyn Summer’s exertions, display little precision and less sensuality.

Mitchell previously directed this show for Northwest School of the Arts with a little more sparkle, orchestra, and budget – a production that ran briefly at Booth Playhouse in 2009. Maybe Sir Elton’s Aïda works better in the hands of high schoolers. The one holdover from the NWSA edition, Emily Witte as Amneris, is even more stunning this time around, most notably when she hits us with the full force of her arrogance in her “My Strongest Suit” showcase. It’s the kind of superficial villainy that will deeply satisfy fans of Wicked, Glee, and Kristin Chenoweth.

There is a slight country twang to Witte’s singing that would have added a bit of unique abrasiveness to Amneris, but music director Zachary Tarlton encourages the same style from Ron T. Diaz as Radamès, so that twang becomes an Egyptian trait – as if, in Disneyworld, everybody who hails from Memphis, whether it’s Egypt or Tennessee, sounds alike.

Further detracting from the gravitas Diaz should be aiming for is Radamès’ bizarre confrontation with his father, the evil priest Zoser. You wonder just how seriously we can take either adversary when costume designer Hali Hutchison seems to be mimicking Disney’s Aladdin in designing the mighty general’s costume and Zoser’s ministers brandish glowing fuchsia staves.

Diaz never gets a shot at a passionate solo, so he shines brightest in “Elaborate Lives,” sharing the best of the power ballads with his darling Aïda. They sing it full out, face-to-face, no frills, near the end of Act 1, Victoria Fisher’s lighting dimming around them to augment the drama. Maya Sistruck does nearly the whole evening as Aïda with a simple resolute dignity, allowing herself the luxury of discernable facial expressions only at peak moments when she is romantically consumed or royally pissed.

Other than taking radical precautions not to reveal her royal origins, I’m not sure what justifies Hutchison’s humble sackcloth design for a captive princess. We do upgrade to red in the palace, but why Amneris would tolerate such a plainly dressed servant is still baffling. Yet the illogic does pay off in an enduring dramatic contrast, first in the climactic tête-à-tête duet before intermission and shortly afterwards in the “Step Too Far” trio, the most self-consciously operatic moment in the John-Rice score.

Aïda is simply better and purer than these Egyptians are – not Memphis or Nashville at all! – and just knowing her ultimately makes them better and purer.

While Josh Webb’s set design is no more impressive than the costumes or the choreography, budgetary constraints may have been holding him back. The cut-rate budget and the lackluster score might obscure the fact that the excellence of the cast runs deep. Aside from most of the dancers, Howl Cooper makes the only inauspicious debut as Amonasro, though he definitely has a warrior’s demeanor.

Jason Hickerson makes a wonderfully scruffy Pharaoh, a Charlotte debut only slightly eclipsed by Carlos Jimenez’s usefully cheerful depiction of Mereb, the perfect Disney servant. Implausibly, Mereb draws more solo spotlight than Radamès, yet Jimenez is decisively upstaged among the supporting players by the steely-voiced Paul Leopard, fulminating melodramatically as the murderous, conniving Zoser.

Thank heaven for vampires, witches, and pagans. Otherwise, there would be no class of people left for all of us to wholeheartedly hate.

Fire, Fury, and Painful Memories Drive Wilson’s JITNEY

Review: Jitney

 

By Perry Tannenbaum

Allowing for inflation and cost-of-living increases since 1977, fares at Becker’s Car Service seem to be fiercely competitive – so competitive that the five cab drivers at the core of August Wilson’s JITNEY all seem to be barely scraping by. The drivers’ lounge, adorned with a decaying Ali-Frazier poster, has a ramshackle look to it with a dust-colored couch held together by generous swaths of duct tape.

We never see whether the drivers’ jitneys (slang for gypsy cabs) are in any better repair than this crumbling HQ, but the idea seeps in that the struggling black customers in the Hill district of Pittsburgh are in no position to press the point. Early on in this fine BNS Productions effort at Spirit Square, director Corlis Hayes pushes the pace hard enough for us to assume that we’re in the midst of an urban rush hour.

These are men in a hurry – who aren’t necessarily getting anywhere. Pretty much the same can be said for Wilson’s story until Becker himself arrives. He takes off a fedora hat and lays down a satchel, signs that he’s better off than his employees, but he takes turns answering the phone – a pay phone – and giving rides. Still not rushing his story along in his flurry of driver entrances and exits, Wilson has Becker announcing two key strands of the plot.

After keeping it from his drivers a little longer than he should, Becker tells Doub, his steadiest driver, that the city has earmarked the property for urban renewal. The Car Service office will be boarded up in a matter of weeks. If that weren’t enough upheaval, Becker’s son Booster is getting out of the slammer after serving 20 years for murder. Becker never visited his son even once during his incarceration, so this does not figure to be a joyous reunion.

 

If you’ve seen Wilson’s Fences recently, you will likely find echoes of Troy Maxson in the elder Becker’s sternness and stubbornness. If anything, the father-son chemistry will prove even more important here. But Becker is more of a people person, as he would need to be in running a business, and he has a few soft spots beneath his tough hide.

We see one of those when he gives Fielding, a former tailor who has destroyed himself with drink, yet one more chance to come back on the job and straighten himself out. Becker also shows strength and courage defusing a heated confrontation between Vietnam War vet Youngblood and the gossipy Turnbo, who has meddled in the younger driver’s domestic affairs, frustrated at not stealing his girlfriend Rena.

There’s a fascinating range of personalities and back stories among the core quintet of drivers plus the boss’s son. Baring their souls – and their motives – everybody seems to get a monologue. Nor do Hayes and lighting designer Tony Wright veil the kinship between these monologues and long, lyrical jazz solos. Hayes usually directs her actors to blow their solos straight into the Duke Energy Theater audience, while Wright intensifies the light where they deliver.

During the passionate showdown between Youngblood and Rena, where both have been right and wrong, each of the combatants has a heartfelt monologue. Yet Wilson had even more pure audacity in a casual scene where the often-comical Fielding meets the tightly-wound Booster. The playwright brashly showcases his virtuosity by unleashing two consecutive monologues, one by the rueful Fielding recalling his better days when he tailored suits for Billy Eckstein and Count Basie, followed by Booster’s recollection of his first hard lesson in life when, as a child, he had a vivid dream about riding a red bicycle.

With so many monologues so evenly distributed, you need a cast that’s strong, deep and – when Wilson digresses – engaging. Hayes and producer Rory D. Sheriff have definitely produced with this ensemble. Though he isn’t given free enough rein in the opening scene as Fielding (we should be sure that the $4 he borrows from Doub will go toward refilling his whisky flask), Gerard Hazleton shoulders enough of the drunkard’s comedy without letting us lose our warm feelings toward him.

There’s a little more comedy squeezed from the gossipy Turnbo by Tim Bradley, probably because his sleaziness and nosiness are so outrageous, but he also forces us to take him seriously when he goes ballistic on Youngblood. More on the periphery, James Lee Walker II gives the local numbers runner, Shealy, a dandified flair though we still empathize with his romantic difficulties. On the other end of the cunning spectrum, Danius Jones makes Philmore a singularly quirky and clueless passenger, attaining full dopiness only when he returns in his bellhop uniform.

Partly because they subtly echo the central father-son relationship, Doub and Youngblood are closer to the heart of Wilson’s drama than the men who garnish it with comedy or the colorful aspects of city life. Both of them are war vets, but Youngblood – if not as senseless as Turnbo makes him out to be – has been slightly warped by his Vietnam experience. Doub, traumatized and shaken to his core in the Korean War, has retained a stone-cold outlook beneath his cheery, avuncular demeanor.

With Keith Logan delivering Doub’s Korea monologue, it becomes the warmest moment of the evening, transcending its payload of advice for Youngblood. In its tacit acknowledgement of Youngblood’s essential goodness – and his confidence in Youngblood’s ability to benefit from sound advice – he’s a perfect model of the parenting skills that Becker lacks. Ironically, there are times when Logan’s acting is similarly exemplary for Jonathan Caldwell. While Caldwell brilliantly projects Youngblood’s immaturity and confusion, he could use a tip or two on either quickening his cue pickup or timing his delayed reactions.

Caldwell’s occasional awkwardness may slightly mar Youngblood’s scenes with Doub and Turnbo, but it meshes very well with Juanita Green in the confrontations with Rena. Hayes decrees a more conciliatory rapport between the lovers when we last see them than you might find in other productions, but Green keeps this becalmed closure from becoming saccharine.

 

Although Becker isn’t quite the perfect boss, he deals empathetically with his drivers, so there needs to be a powerful reason why he is so cold and cruel toward his son. John W. Price provides it indelibly in the most electrifying monologue of the night. The fire and thunder from Price as he’s excoriating Booster are unlike anything I’ve seen or heard from him before, fueled by white-hot fury and pain.

It’s an earthquake, and you can see Jermaine Gamble as Booster trembling amid the seismic shock. We get the idea from Gamble that Becker’s boy has grown up, hardened by prison, a fully formed yet scarred individual. Booster does fire back at his dad, but Gamble acutely calibrates the restraint and the hope that are wrapped into his resentments, almost like he’s still an adolescent in his father’s presence. It’s simply respect – all the more moving for its futility.

Within the space of two weeks, we’ve heard from two playwrights, Jeff Talbott in The Submission and August Wilson in JITNEY, who have ignited their peak moments with the N-word. This one is far more unexpected – and shattering.

Calouche and Crossroads Take Flight Outdoors

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Preview: Crossroads Festival

By Perry Tannenbaum

A new dance festival is leaping into the QC, touching down at First Ward Park for the Labor Day weekend, September 1-3. Pretty interesting idea, right? But the new Crossroads Festival isn’t merely an outdoor dance festival. It’s free, it features aerial dance classes and performances, and the main event starts just after sundown.

Now that’s pretty wild.

Caroline Calouche has been the queen of aerial dance in Charlotte for more than a decade. Her usual haunts have been Booth Playhouse; where Caroline Calouche & Co. offers its annual Clara’s Trip, an aerial Nutcracker; and Spirit Square, where she organizes a festival in early spring.

So what lured Calouche to the great outdoors?

“I was inspired by many great outdoor shows like Boston’s Shakespeare in the Park and Montreal’s Annual Circus Festival,” Calouche says. “Creating an outdoor show for the Charlotte community that reflects who we are has been a dream of mine for quite some time. Thankfully, the Knight Foundation helped make this dream come true.”

Though there are precedents in San Francisco, Boulder, and Victoria, bringing aerial dance outdoors – along with the Cirque du Soleil flavorings Calouche sprinkles into her choreography – is a fairly unique undertaking. Even Cirque doesn’t go all the way, opting for a bigtop on its famous tours.

“I did look into a circus tent so we can have the show rain or shine, but – whew! – that was crazy expensive!” Calouche confides. “Plus I would like the performance to take place under the stars with Uptown Charlotte as the backdrop to connect more to the location.”

Connecting with Charlotte was clearly a major factor in Calouche & Co.’s winning support from the Knight Foundation. Buy-in from Charlotte Center City Partners was also key before moving on to Mecklenburg Parks and Recreation to secure the festival’s location. Calouche’s Crossroads concept digs deep into Charlotte’s historical DNA.

Long before Charlotte became the crossroads for America’s most corrupt megabanks, it was a crossroads of commerce. If the Cherokee or Chippewa had named our city instead of the British, that name would likely mean crossroads. While the Uptown’s main crossroad is on Trade Street, Calouche’s event and choreography will remind us how Charlotte has also evolved into a crossroads for culture as well.

Each of the festival’s three days will begin with a potpourri of free dance and fitness classes. You can browse the online schedule and choose from hour-long sessions in samba, salsa, tap, hip-hop, capoeira, or aerial silks. Fitness freaks can contort themselves into the yoga and Pilates they truly deserve.

At 6pm, the pre-shows begin, also with various lineups of performers each evening. Constants in the lineup will be the MILA Dance Team, Mrudani School of Performing Arts, and the CC&Co. Youth Ensemble. If you’re itching for the NC Brazilian Arts Project, No Limits Dance Company, Hope of Israel, Maha’s Dances of IndiaHope of Israel, MufukaWorks Dance Company, or the Jazz Arts Initiative TrioMufukaWorks Dance Company,, consult the same handy webpage to see who’s up Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

All of those evenings will conclude with Crossroads, starting at 8pm. Yes, it’s also free, and Calouche promises that there will be no letup in variety when she and her company take to the air. On the contrary:

“The show includes contemporary dance, breakdancing, tap, zapeando, shag, capoeira, aerial silks, trapeze, bungee, partner acrobatics, aerial rope, Cyr wheel, and aerial hoop,” Calouche reveals. “My artistic idea is to either cross history with dance and/or circus arts or cross cultural dances that are represented in Charlotte’s community today. Crossroads is designed as an event for unity and the opportunity for people to learn about Charlotte’s history and culture.”

Guest unifiers will include artists from an exciting mix of disciplines, including actress Iesha Hoffman, percussionist Tim Scott, and slam poet extraordinaire Boris “Bluz” Rogers. Hoffman will narrate, knitting the various segments together and maybe providing cover during aerial apparatus changes.

Scott will be featured during the segment where tap meets zapeando dance and during what promises to be a wild breakdance battle on aerial rope. Rogers takes Calouche’s unifying fantasia to a whole new dimension with an original poem inspired by a great unifier, Thaddeus Tate. During Rogers’ spot, he’ll connect with the entire Crossroads cast on the floor.

Tate was an African American leader in Charlotte from the 1880’s to the 1940’s. Instrumental in establishing a library branch, an insurance company, and the Grace A.M.E. Zion Church – while rubbing elbows with the Uptown elite as owner of the Uptown Barber Shop – Tate is particularly pertinent because he resided on the block that is now First Ward Park. So Rogers’ tribute will definitely strike home.

With its unifying and educational components, Calouche tells us to expect a casual atmosphere rather than a carnival one, more like Symphony in the Park or Shakespeare on the Green than Speedweeks. There definitely will be food trucks, and D9 Brewery will be on the scene to help keep beer bellies properly bloated.

Like Clara’s Trip, which tends to shuffle its Nutcracker mix from year to year, Calouche expects to vary the content of Crossroads each time the festival rolls around. It’s not just a title – it’s a theme.Dominique jump color Michael Church

“Crossroads is the name of the event, and the theme will remain the same,” Calouche explains. “There might be some scenes that stay the same, but there is still more research I can do and other collaborators I would love to work with.”

Aerial dance is difficult enough to stage indoors, requiring a fly loft (ordinarily used to drop scenery from above) that’s sturdy enough to suspend up to four dancers on a dangling apparatus. Don’t try this at home. Or at Theatre Charlotte or Pease Auditorium.

So how exactly do you stage aerial dance outdoors? It sounds like CC&Co. will borrow from the big top concept and strip away the canvas.

“JHE is our production company who is building our stage, trussing, audio and lights,” Calouche says. “The stage will two feet from the ground on the grass near the 7th Street side of the park with four legs of truss crossing in the center at 25 feet high. Essentially we are building a theater in the round outside.”

Visualize a one-ring circus where 20 dancers, circus artists, musicians, and poets will perform under the stars – if the weather holds. So what happens if it rains?

“We wait it out and start when it passes,” Calouche replies.

Come to think of it, when most of your dancing is up in the air, you really don’t have to worry as much when the dance floor gets slick.