Monthly Archives: October 2017

Bourne’s Stylish “Red Shoes” Misses the Train

Marcelo Gomes

Review: The Red Shoes

By Perry Tannenbaum

When Matthew Bourne decided to adapt The Red Shoes for the stage, he had to confront the fact that the unique film was about ballet but was itself neither a ballet nor a musical. Musicals are Bourne’s métier as a director, but nobody sang in the film except for an operatic soprano in the background for a moment or two. Taking the more obvious route and making a Red Shoes musical would mean putting himself – as a director and choreographer – in the service of largely new score with a leading lady who would have an exhausting load of singing and dancing.

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In practical terms, then, Bourne and his New Adventures company took a more prudent path, turning The Red Shoes into a full-length ballet. That meant scrapping all of the original dialogue from the Emeric Pressburger screenplay and filling out the scant instrumental score. If you’ve seen the film, you know that “The Red Shoes” is the ballet within the story that makes Victoria Page a star for the jealous impresario god of ballet, Boris Lermontov, and his world-renowned company.

When Victoria leaves Lermontov Ballet for the man who composed the “The Red Shoes” – because Boris has decreed that she must choose between the man she loves and the man who will make her a great artist – the impresario refuses to allow the composer, young Julian Craster, to take with him the work he wrote under contract. Boris also refuses to allow the ballet that made Victoria a star to be performed again unless she performs it.

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Shedding the dialogue doesn’t allow Bourne to communicate the niceties of the breakup between Victoria and Lermontov. Nor can he cut away to show us Julian afterwards when he’s about the premiere an opera at Covent Garden while Victoria has snuck off to Monte Carlo to return to Lermontov Ballet and “The Red Shoes.” My wife Sue, who hadn’t seen the film, couldn’t figure out where the train came from – or why – any better than I could before I reacquainted myself with the film.

Confronted with the scarcity of ballet music in the film, Bourne turned to the film music of prolific composer Bernard Herrmann and scores he wrote for Citizen Kane, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and Fahrenheit 451, avoiding his troves of Hitchcock scores. The result seemed very tepid to me in Act 1 as both Victoria and Julian strove to win Boris’s esteem. Nuances of Lermontov’s character, including his seeming indifference to artists he prizes just to make them work harder, were drained from Bourne’s scenario. And that charming episode in the film that inspired the climactic selection moment in A Chorus Line has also been axed.

THE RED SHOES

Lez Brotherston’s set and costume designs compensate for the early drabness of the music and the steamrolling of character contours, but they are ultimately a mixed blessing. The revolving proscenium that Brotherston has framing the action could become a thing in future theatre tech, smoothing transitions between scenes. It is especially effective – and cinematic – when Victoria and Julian are on the skids after breaking with Lermontov. She’s sitting on a bed at some flophouse, quietly bemoaning the career she threw away, while he’s in his posh bedroom lounging in a maroon smoking jacket, brooding over the marquee attraction he pushed away.

Really, it’s after the breakup that the drama and the music perk up, even if we veer towards melodrama. That smoking jacket is also the first strong echo of the film. We never see anything of the suave fedora Boris frequently wears onscreen nor the harlequin face painting that especially distinguishes Grischa, the ballet master who dangles the fatal red shoes. Costumes for Victoria and Julian are a triumph, notably in the blithe seaside scene that starts Act 2, but harlequin excess isn’t the brand of horror Brotherston goes for. When Grischa turns into a dancing Mephistopheles, Brotherston favors the Addams Family type of suit that a Dick Tracy villain might wear. Red pinstripes on midnight blue.

THE RED SHOES

Not all the abridgements of the film plot misfire, and some additions and substitutions make sense for a ballet conversion. My favorite substitution, though it belies Victoria’s aristocratic pedigree and her artistic prestige, is in the degradation she experiences in the sleazy show she hooks up with during her self-imposed exile. The lowbrow choreography that Bourne inserts here, augmented by some lascivious leering from Victoria’s co-workers, makes for a precipitous and affecting fall from grace. But you basically need to know what goes on in the film’s denouement to have a clue about Bourne’s botched staging of it. For no reason that I can fathom, he has both Julian and Boris running out on Victoria.

All of the major roles are at least double-cast, with four different dancers possible for the role of Irina, the ballerina Victoria replaces. Despite the fact that he isn’t allowed to appear even slightly artistic, I was most impressed by Sam Archer as Boris – partly because, for two-thirds of the evening, I thought he was transforming into the Mephisto tempter dangling the red shoes. No, that credit belonged to Leon Moran as Grischa, the ballet master, with a lightning-bolt streak of white through his hair when he turned sinister. Did I mention the Addams Family motif in the design? Or was that Young Frankenstein?

THE RED SHOES

The lovebirds, Ashley Shaw as Victoria and Dominic North as Julian on the night we went, were quite adorable. That says something for the depth of the Red Shoes company, since press night came a day after we attended. Complementing Brotherston’s stagecraft, projections by Duncan McLean were an airy atmospheric counterbalance to the mechanical artifice of the revolving proscenium. Although frequently deflected and derailed from telling its mutated Hans Christian Anderson fairytale in the fashion revered by balletomanes since 1948, Sir Matthew’s new adaptation is always a handsome one.

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Children’s Theatre’s “Mary Poppins” Raises the Bar While Flying Its Star

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Review:  Mary Poppins

By Perry Tannenbaum

It’s a strange proposition when you decide to bring Mary Poppins to Children’s Theatre at ImaginOn, Charlotte’s pre-eminent fantasy palace. Yes, it’s Disney, but it shatters the Children’s Theatre norm of 90 minutes or less, running over 145 minutes. And the story of how Mary Poppins turns the Banks family from bitterness to joy is only half about children.

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Mary P is definitely needed to halt the vicious cycle of bad behavior from Jane and Michael, the Banks siblings, who seem to live for the thrill of defying and driving away their nannies. But there are marital issues plaguing George and Winifred Banks at the same time, some of them rooted in Victorian sexism; and their ideas about nannies, parenting, and the primacy of money could use a reset. George’s basic failures of self-examination and communication are ultimately the prime reasons why his family is so dysfunctional.

Although the problems are nicely laid out, neither of the two rehab stories is told cogently. Yet the re-education of Jane and Michael certainly has sensational episodes. Statues come to life at a park, a beggar lady sings a heartfelt ballad, the sibs frolic with a preternaturally long word, they cavort with all of London’s chimney sweeps on top of their roof under a midnight moon, and most importantly, they get to discard their castor oil regimen in favor of a sugary tonic. Surely, these are experiences that all good moms and nannies can give their children, right?

Well, they can at ImaginOn, where Children’s Theatre has raised the bar for spectacular technical derring-do – a bar that, among local theatre companies, has mostly been theirs during my 30 years on the beat. While the “Feed the Birds” street scene might strike you as saccharine, and you might accuse the magical park scenes of silly pandering to the anklebiters in the audience, it’s difficult for children of all ages to resist the enchantment of the darkling rooftop scene, further elevated and charmingly smudged by Ron Chisholm’s choreography.

Even that wonder is eclipsed by the flying effects engineered by ZFX, Inc. The only thing I can compare with Mary’s final voyage at ImaginOn are the flying effects I witnessed in the Broadway production of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. Credit Aimee Hanyzewski’s lighting design for enhancing the wonder.

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Swimming against the current of the kid-friendly storyline, Steven M. Levine and Lisa Schacher do their best to stretch fledgling attention spans when they dominate the actionas the elder Bankses. Poor Winifred gets the impression – like we all do – that George reveres his childhood nanny, since he keeps invoking her as a standard, yet Schacher manages to make Mrs. Banks seem credulous rather than stupid, loving rather than meek.

We like her as much as we despise the perversity of George’s parenting ideas, but the simple intervention of Mary – just showing up at his workplace with his children – seems to be enough of an influence for him to do the right thing. All of George’s contradictions and vacillations may seem to be dubious on paper, but Levine makes them work onstage, merging essential morality with a starchy aloofness.

As we get to know Mary better and better, we realize that Bert, her admirer and confidante, is by far the warmest character in the whole crew. Poppins may be able to furlough some statues from their pedestals, but who can muster all the chimney sweeps in London for a midnight frolic other than good ole Bert? Caleb Ryan Sigmon reminds me that Bert is a slightly mischievous and broadly chameleonic creature more than any actor I’ve seen onstage before. Sigmon is also a practicing magician who serves as the show’s magic consultant, so he definitely holds up that end of the bargain.

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Perhaps because of Jill Bloede’s offstage ministrations as dialect coach, I could believe that Janeta Jackson was channeling Julie Andrews in almost every word and note. We probably perceive Jackson as a starchier Poppins than Andrews because she doesn’t arrive with any Sound of Music baggage. Her elegant serenity is hardly sweet at all, even when she sings her signature “Spoonful of Sugar”: she almost makes a point of not emphasizing the sugar, thereby adding weight to the medicine.

The starchier approach helps us to believe in the nurturing distance she maintains with the Banks kids – whom she claims not to love – and in her fundamental capriciousness. Normally, I’m somewhat aghast when “The Perfect Nanny” punishes Jane and Michael by abandoning them. For abusing a ragdoll? Next thing you know, that beggar lady will be wailing “Feed the Toys.”

Jackson comes the closest I’ve ever seen to making this cruel medicine go down, and she has the highest voice I’ve ever heard singing Mary. That extra range pays extra dividends when Olivia Edge enters the fray as Miss Anderson, Mr. Banks’ fearsome nanny of yore. Not only do Jane and Michael flee in terror from Miss Anderson, so does Papa George!

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Edge’s preternaturally high range, fueling her “Brimstone and Treacle” showstopper, pitted against Jackson’s stratospheric soprano – and her “Spoonful of Sugar” philosophy – makes for a climactic showdown of double-barreled power. Since Edge is also fearsomely large in her frilly, funereal gray-and-black dress (designed by costumer Ryan J. Moller), her disposal is specially delightful, a sadistic mix of the witches we loved in Hansel and Gretel and Wizard of Oz.

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Somehow, director Michael J. Bobbitt gets a Charlotte cast that is stronger than the national tour that blew through here in 2010. Getting their equals from the local talent pool of children, 15-year-old Haley Vogel as Jane and 12-year-old Alex Kim as Michael, not only underscores Bobbit’s discernment and directing skills, it also reaffirms what we’ve come to expect at Children’s Theatre: the ability to attract, excite, and mentor the best young theatre talent in town.

Bratty and lovable is a tough balance to sustain, but Vogel and Kim have just the right energy and verve, with a grasp of their character arcs and an appreciation of how the Banks kids might be helping their dad to get his head straight. Like the original Broadway cast and the national tour, Vogel and Kim share their roles with alternates. If Lydia Farr and Ryan Campos are up to the same standard, you will not be disappointed.

First Night at the Knight Succeeds With Rodrigo Concerto

Review: Rodrigo Guitar Concerto

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Christopher Warren-Green has done some new and innovative things since becoming the musical director at Charlotte Symphony: KnightSounds concerts aimed at young professionals, Thursday evening concerts, and live outdoor video broadcasts. But last week’s Rodrigo Guitar Concerto, the first Classics Series concert ever at Knight Theater, was unique, for Warren-Green himself wasn’t there to launch the new venture.

Not to worry, his stand-ins were sensational in their Charlotte debuts. First, there was guest conductor Marcelo Lehninger, who brought with him an engaging program of Latin-flavored pieces written between 1913 and 2003 by five different composers, most of them new to Symphony and to its subscribers.

How many pieces they played is actually open to dispute. There were two different Astor Piazzola selections, “Oblivion” and “Spring” (from Four Seasons in Buenos Aires), but pieces by Alberto Ginastera and Gabriela Lena Frank might be called single multiples. Frank’s 2003 suite was Three Latin-American Dances, each with its own title, and Ginastera’s Four Dances were no less individualized, excerpted from his 1941 Estancia ballet score.

Even the opening piece, Manuel De Falla’s Three-Cornered Hat Suite No. 1, was brimming with titles, four of them. The first, “Introduction – Afternoon,” was bold, brash, and filled with sunny fiesta exuberance, but everyone’s adrenalin onstage was flowing too freely, for the volume level was a little too fierce for the house. One wonders whether the orchestra had rehearsed without the acoustic shell that now surrounded them, since the brass especially needed taming.

While Symphony adjusted to the hall, Classics subscribers habituated to Belk Theater were also acclimating themselves to the greater immediacy of the orchestra sound at the Knight. There were also quieter episodes after the opening trumpet and timpani cannonade where we heard the clarinet, French horn, and oboe carving out space for themselves – even a rare bassoon spot – so the orchestra’s principals could recalibrate how loudly they played. Already the evening promised to be very colorful, with flute, harp, and a muted trumpet joining the symposium before “The Grapes” steered us back to jubilation.

Despite his Madrid concert with Plácido Domingo in front of 85,000 people, I had never heard of Pablo Sáinz Villegas before he strode into Knight Theater for his first Charlotte performance. Unlike the better-known Sharon Isbin, who played Joaquín Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez at Belk Theater in 2009, Villegas didn’t bring any amplification with him.

He didn’t need it. Villegas quickly proved his virtuosity and charisma in the opening Allegro con spirito movement of the Concierto. Almost as quickly, the sound of his guitar became the preeminent reason why the Knight was such a brilliant choice for this music. Warren-Green should have been there, if only to hear his choice vindicated. He might also have joined with the audience in giving Villegas an unusual ovation at the end of the first movement. The strumming and the Spanish tinge that Villegas poured so plentifully into his playing seemed to infuse the strings with a special transparency when they entered.

But of course an Aranjuez must be judged by how well the soloist plays the familiar middle movement Adagio. The score has such sublimity to begin with that a critic finds it difficult to remember his pen, and Villegas treated this Adagio with no less reverence. Where the solo part touches the stratosphere with high harmonics, Villegas was exquisite, and where the long cadenza later on goes low, he caressed it with a fervid vibrato and a soft touch, providing a long runway to ramp up his intensity. Lehninger and Charlotte Symphony didn’t spoil the magic. Terry Maskin played the English horn’s runs at the melody as beautifully as ever, the ensemble’s answer to the mighty cadenza was never rushed, and the flurry of harmonics from Villegas at the end was the best I’ve ever heard.

Instead of a standing, stomping ovation, the audience maintained a rapt, stunned silence. Two or three people actually walked out, possibly because that music alone was what they had come to hear, or possibly because they didn’t wish to sully their ears with anything that might erase the deep impression lingering there. Not even Rodrigo’s next movement.

Fortunately, Villegas didn’t get the wrong impression himself, for he played the final Allegro gentile as if he were already celebrating a triumph, not the slightest restraint remaining in his strumming. The previously withheld ovation burst forth with equal joy that clearly touched the young guitarist, even if it didn’t surprise him. The first encore he delivered, “Gran Jota de concierto” by Francisco Tárrega, sported tuned percussive effects delivered by hitting the body of his instrument with an open right hand while playing the neck with his left. Another section sounded so dry that it was like hearing the tattoo of a snare drum. Impossible for us to let him go after that display.

So Villegas finished with Tárrega’s melancholy classic, “Recuerdos de la Alhambra,” returning us to Spain for his farewell. The beauty of it is the melody and the tremolo rolling together in wistful waves. Villegas kept the two strands separate and soulful, so it never sounded the least bit like an etude.

If the two encores kept the concert from ending at 9pm as promised in the program booklet, intermission added further delay, for Villegas was out in the Knight lobby signing his CD, and an unusually hefty line formed for the privilege.

Before the lollipops of Piazzolla and the beefier Ginastera, the little suite by Frank assuaged anxieties that 21st century composers are all about chaotic cacophony. Many Americans have now awakened to contemporary works emanating from Europe, Asia, and South America and realized that they are out of step.

After a deluge of mallet percussion, Frank used the violins to build a bridge to tonality in “Jungle Jaunt,” the first of her three dances. “Highland Harawi” was more tranquil in its percussion, most unique for the unusual instrument that Lehninger thoughtfully introduced us to, percussion tubes that produced gentle sounds of rain. Tubular bells, woodblocks, harp, and voodoo piano runs were part of the mystery. As if reaching a clearing, “The Mestizo Waltz” began with the kind of trumpet heraldry that conjured up Mexico and mariachi before settling into 3/4 time as promised.

Uncharacteristically, concertmaster Calin Lupanu began the evening with a paean to live music, confiding in us that nearly all recorded music is fake, edited and doctored by sound engineers before it’s reproduced on the medium and player of your choice. Lupanu’s frank intro, the new venue, and the preponderance of unfamiliar music were all symptoms of a basic urge to break some of the old rules. So nobody seemed to mind the breach of etiquette when the audience applauded Villegas two movements early.

It was all good, exciting, youthful and fresh, without the slightest hint of dumbing down or condescension. The exhilaration in the lobby at intermission carried over to the end of the concert, because new discoveries kept coming.

 

Gunderson’s “Revolutionists” Reminds Us That 1793 Wasn’t a Very Good Year

Review : The Revolutionists

By Perry Tannenbaum

It’s easier to enjoy Lauren Gunderson’s The Revolutionists, a finely polished comedy gem from PaperHouse Theatre, than it is to find it. My GPS app resisted the 1776 Statesville Avenue address that was on my smartphone calendar, forcing me to choose between a Camp North End and a Goodyear Arts destination nearly 100 address numbers apart. Choosing the 1824 Statesville address got me to the Camp North End gate well enough after dark, and there was a PaperHouse emissary at the gate to tell us how to proceed. But as we navigated through a desolate concrete-and-asphalt landscape of vast warehouses, it was definitely an uh-oh episode for Milady GPS, who spun around from “Recalculating” to “Turn Right” in her instructions like a dog chasing its tail.

Following traffic wasn’t a reliable remedy, and I apologize to anyone who followed our lead on opening night and wound up parking a wilderness away from the PaperHouse performing space. Within sight of what looked like the building entrance – and another PaperHouse emissary – I still probably walked nearly a quarter of a mile after thinking I had sufficiently improved my parking spot. You walk through that building to another one.

Fortunately, PaperHouse is much better at producing plays than at getting you to them. (They will deploy more guides for future performances, I was assured.) Once you do arrive a the site of the action, with scenery by Jordan Ellis that strikes us as much with its simulated blood-spattered walls upstage as it does with the ascending scaffold in front of them, you can start to believe you’ve really reached the French Revolution during the Reign of Terror. You’re a bit of a pioneering revolutionary yourself if you’ve persevered and reached this secluded spot.

In the meta-world of her own – and history’s – making, The Revolutionists is Gunderson’s play, and it isn’t. We seem to be watching French feminist playwright Olympe de Gouges battling an onset of writer’s block as she ponders her next response to the rampaging Reign of Terror in the seclusion of her study. She is much in demand, for while Olympe is thrashing around, trying to settle on her message and her medium – shall it be another play? or perhaps a pamphlet? or a manifesto? – in walks Charlotte Corday, pressing the writer to compose a memorable line she can declaim when she assassinates the rabid revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat in his bathtub.

Olympe isn’t in advertising, so one-liners and slogans aren’t her forte. She hopes to come up with the right zinger during the course of composing a longer work, a plan that doesn’t jibe well with Charlotte’s mad impatience. Just when you think that the comedy will crest with the standoff between Charlotte’s insane homicidal urgency and Olympe’s many artistic hesitancies, in walks Marie Antoinette, dressed to the 17’s by costume designer Barbi Van Schaick. Her Highness wants a rewrite, a play by Olympe that will rebrand her tarnished reputation.

Everything seems to become absurd and almost surreal at this point – and likely stays that way with Marie’s queenly vanities and Olympe’s nervous vacillations. But if you go home and Google, you find that Olympe de Gouges really did embark on writing a play to rehab Marie Antoinette’s reputation, and that the playwright really did put herself in that work as an enlightened agent who reconciles the queen with the revolutionaries. If that weren’t enough, it’s also true that de Gouges wrote the courageously feminist Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, thereby punching her ticket to the guillotine.

In the play, Olympe writes her manifesto in response to some principled prodding from Marianne Angelle, a Haitian revolutionary seeking independence from France, the one fictitious character in Gunderson’s script. In the real world, de Gouges seems to have had no problem standing up for herself – and against the Revolution’s bloodthirsty zealots.

So you might take the layered-on comedy a couple of ways. Gunderson may be telling us that she prefers her feminist heroes to be more fallible and true-to-life rather than impossibly glorified. Or she might be substituting herself for Olympe and showing us how far short of the French revolutionary’s greatness she falls.

Gunderson nudges us to that second, self-effacing hypothesis with little anachronisms that she occasionally drops into the dialogue, like Marie’s rebranding and rewrite ideas. PaperHouse artistic director Nicia Carla takes the anachronisms beyond what Gunderson specifies in her stage directions, and she doesn’t waste any time about it. Lydia Williamson makes her first entrance as Marianne carrying a garish, polka-dotted plastic suitcase, and when Shawna Pledger as Olympe begins writing at her escritoire, she quickly switches from a quill to a BIC ballpoint.

So Pledger is only superficially presiding over a play that Olympe has written for her queen with a plum role for herself. She is actually channeling Gunderson writing a dark comedy about herself, and if you saw Pledger last season as the fretful Sister Shelley who runs the soup kitchen in Grand Concourse, you already know that she excels at stressed-out indecisive women who are so eager to please. Surrounded by this madhouse, Williamson as Marianne doesn’t get as many comedy opportunities as the true historical figures, but she does loosen up from time to time, on temporary leave from her hectoring. Cumulatively, she leaves us with the impression that the French, whatever their politics, have no special call for commanding an empire.

Au contraire.

Sarah Woldum has now haunted PaperHouse productions for two consecutive Octobers, last year as Sheridan LeFanu’s vampire Carmilla and this year as the notorious Corday. This time, she can milk a laugh or two from the assassin’s irrational zeal and her PR impulses, but she’s unmistakably insane. I’m not sure she ever blinked.

As for Caroline Bower, she does enter as an overdressed Barbi doll with some truly vain, insensitive, and bubbleheaded lines to delight us with. But Marie Antoinette’s grand gown, the ribbons she loves so frivolously, and the ridiculous piled-high wig and feathers all do come off as the Reign of Terror sweeps its scythe through our women, and its Bower’s humbling – still cohering with the incredibly spoiled brat we first saw – that brings home how monstrous the French Revolution turned out to be.

In the end, we might realize that our man’s world of today is hardly less bloody than it was in the fatal year of 1793 – and that Gunderson isn’t entirely playful or self-critical when hinting that she trembles in the face of such brutality.

 

Bach and O’Carolan Mesh in a Genial Robin Bullock Recital

Review:Music @ St. Alban’s with Robin Bullock

By Perry Tannenbaum

Guitar, mandolin and their kindred are among the earliest classical instruments, so finding them up in Davidson at a Music @ St. Alban’s concert wasn’t exactly shocking, but when I sat down at the Episcopal Church and noticed that Robin Bullock’s instruments would be steel-stringed, I began to expect something unusual. There was also a network of electrical wires snaking across the platform, a small speaker lurking behind the chair where Bullock would sit, and the cittern that rounded out his arsenal – an oversized “octave” mandolin, he would later explain – was double-strung like a 12-string guitar.

Program booklets handed out as we entered St. Alban’s didn’t reinforce my faith that a classical concert was about to begin, since no musical selections were listed, but the personable Bullock allayed my misgivings with his opening remarks. Yes, a couple of these instruments would be stretched into the realm of J.S. Bach, but more often, they would be deployed in the more predictable confines of Celtic and Americana.

Virtuosity was certainly plentiful as Bullock launched into “Riding the Road,” a piece he has played with fellow guitarist Alex de Grassi. The admirable density in Bullock’s playing was not coupled with sufficient variety or beauty to sustain my interest. More to my liking was the second guitar selection, “Lord Inchiquin” by Turlough O’Carolan, an Irish composer who has become a longtime crusade for Bullock.

A contemporary of Bach’s, O’Carolan’s interest in music was a survival tool when he was blinded by smallpox at the age of 18. With the aid of a horse, a guide, and three years of musical training, he set out as a roving composer/harpist, and his tunes are often named for the patrons he found during his travels across Ireland. There were some dulcimer glints in Bullock’s adaptation for guitar – and obvious affection.

The most comical and risqué song of the concert was the only one that Bullock actually sang (in a folksy winsome style that certainly warranted an encore), and the only one he played on cittern, “The Fair Maid of Northumberland.” Its plucky heroine from England’s northernmost county devises a modest stratagem to avoid becoming a serial murderer-rapist’s seventh victim, clearly the primary spark for the audience’s enthusiastic response, but the two instrumental breaks that Bullock tossed into the middle and end of the song added to the heat – and of course, the suspense.

Switching back to guitar, Bullock made his first foray into Bach with “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” which he described as Bach’s “greatest hit.” Naturally, this hit has been done on guitar before, by Leo Kottke with steel strings and Christopher Parkening in his arrangement for classical nylon. Bullock made more of an attempt to point us toward the original Cantata 147 experience that Bach intended, once again impressing me with the sheer density of his rendition. The sound on steel strings was noticeably crisper than you would hear on my vinyl Parkening Plays Bach LP, and Bullock snuck in a wisp of rubato as the piece wound down, very gracefully done. The speaker Bullock hooked up to with his guitar was no bigger than eight-by-eight inches, smaller than the rig classical soloist Sharon Isbin tours with, so there was no degradation in the sound quality.

As a result, I was more eager to hear what Bullock would do with a Bach cello suite on mandolin, but first the guitarist reverted to folk mode with a coupling of “Shaker Hymn” and “Salutation,” a combo that appears on his Alone and Together CD from 2015. Around the corner from WDAV, the college FM station that touts itself as “your classical companion for relaxing,” this piece was right at home, slightly more engaging than elevator or station break music. Programmatically, we had been offered a palate cleanser before the main dish.

It was a little odd to see the wee mandolin chosen for the lordly Bach Cello Suite No. 1, part of an ongoing project which will culminate with Bullock transcribing – and subsequently recording – all six of the suites. Even as Bullock tuned the instrument, it sounded tinnier than the guitar, and when he launched into the opening Prelude movement, the tinny quality remained. If you knew this music through the classic cello recordings of Casals or Rostropovich, rather than the guitar transcriptions played by John Williams, the absence of legato would strike you as forcefully as the higher pitch of the mandolin. Knowing the Williams version, I also picked up on the whinier, sometimes twangy sound of the smaller instrument, though this still wasn’t bluegrass Bach.

In the livelier movements, Bullock took advantage of the mandolin’s graceful way with triplets and strummed chords; and in the slower middle movements, he discreetly added harmonics, underscoring the higher pitch rather than attempting to minimize it. In the concluding Gigue, Bullock showed us that he was not to be confined by the top speeds we associate with cello or guitar, making for a very invigorating finale that metabolized like a hummingbird while maintaining a driving 3/4 pulse.

The O’Carolan that followed, “Bishop John Hart,” was more satisfying than the first by the Irish bard – and more like Bach, with a sunniness that faintly resembled the previously heard “Jesu.” What followed is part of a project that is taking shape alongside the Bach cello initiative, a compilation of folk instrumentals with a blues tinge. The proffered pairing, “My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains” and “Poor Boy a Long Ways from Home,” reached an intensity and funkiness from Bullock that we hadn’t heard before, at a speed even brisker than the Bach Gigue when the guitarist crossed over to the second tune.

There could be no more perfect moment for Bullock to turn to the Gavotte from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 3 for its calming effect, augmented in this church setting. Reaching in a more overtly spiritual direction, Bullock played what he called “the American folksong,” the traditional “Oh, Shenandoah,” though the memorable notes of the melody at “you rolling river” and “Across the wide Missouri” were all but submerged in this arrangement. Nonetheless, the sanctified tone was unmistakable and heartwarming.

Levi, Hope and Pope Triple-Team Cole Porter

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Preview: Charlotte Ballet’s Fall Works

By Perry Tannenbaum

Over the past 20 years, Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux and Patricia McBride have left an indelible mark on dance in Charlotte. Principal dancers when they worked together at New York City Ballet, the couple brought their invaluable experience with legendary choreographer George Balanchine to our own NC Dance Theatre, eventually re-branding the company as Charlotte Ballet.

When Knight Theater opened in 2009, their troupe became the resident company, and when Charlotte Ballet dedicated a stunning academy for dance at their new HQ on N. Tryon Street, their names were engraved on the building. Bonnefoux and McBride brought nationwide recognition to the Queen City with repeat performances by Charlotte Ballet at the Kennedy Center in DC, where McBride was decorated with Kennedy Center Honors at their 2014 gala.

Now that Bonnefoux has retired, Hope Muir is the new artistic director as Charlotte Ballet launches their 2017-18 season this week with Fall Works at the Knight, October 19-21 at 7:30, plus a 2pm matinee on October 21. If you look at the dance card, you’ll see Muir signaling her intentions loud and clear: honoring the past while venturing forth in bold new directions.

Bonnefoux and McBride will both be on the dancers’ minds as the company performs Balanchine’s seminal Apollo for the first time since 2010. Bonnefoux was one of the City Ballet principals that Balanchine chose to dance the title role, and McBride, still associate artistic director at Charlotte Ballet after her husband’s retirement, is staging it once again.

Apollo also makes sense because it’s referenced in Elsa Canasta by Javier de Frutos, the first major work that Muir is premiering in Charlotte. It’s personal for her. Muir was one of the dancers onstage in London with Rambert Dance Company when the piece was first performed in 2003. And when Elsa was recently restaged – in altered form – at Scottish Ballet in 2015, Muir was serving as assistant artistic director until Charlotte Ballet came calling.

There are new wrinkles for the Charlotte debut, too. Benjamin Pope has freshened his orchestrations, transposing keys and rearranging transitions, and for the first time, Pope will be conducting his own score live. Three Cole Porter songs are integral to the de Frutos scenario, “So In Love,” “Down In The Depths,” and “Ridin’ High.”

De Frutos had the Ethel Merman recording of “Ridin’ High” in mind when he conceived his choreography, so a female singer delivered the Porter songs at the London premiere. Not anymore. Levi Kreis will be the vocalist this time. If that name sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because Kreis won the Tony Award in 2010 – as a sensational Jerry Lee Lewis in Million Dollar Quartet, replicating all The Killer’s piano pounding, stool kicking, mic straddling antics.

When he isn’t mimicking the iconic rocker, Kreis can do jazz.

Levi Kreis

“I personally love singing jazz,” Kreis says. “I thought it was a very exciting and bold move for Javier and the Charlotte Ballet to bring me forward for this part. There is no way for me to accurately express how fulfilling it is for me to wrap my voice around this material. I think most actors enjoy taking on roles that are outside the narrow box the industry tends to put us in.”

Kreis isn’t just coming to the Knight for a singing gig. There is acting for him to sink his teeth into as he interacts with the dancers. The lyrics Kreis sings are key elements of the scenario, and there is no mystery now about the role de Frutos is casting him in.

It’s the composer himself – Cole Porter. The back-story behind the choreography tells us how.

Back in the 1920s, when Porter would rent a villa in Venice, the Ballet Russes and its famed impresario Sergei Diaghilev were caught trying to skip out on their bill at a swank Venetian hotel. Jump out, actually, for they all rented ground-floor and second-floor rooms so they could jump out together on cue.

Didn’t work this time, and Porter bailed them all out – with one condition, that they give a private performance in the villa’s ballroom for their benefactor and select friends. Then the composer ventured further, thinking that this might be a chance to be taken seriously in the symphonic realm. He presented Diaghilev with a brand new ballet score, “Within the Quota,” groundbreaking because it fused classical music with jazz, and it was still four months before Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue saw the light.

The Russian didn’t see it as an offer he couldn’t refuse. Here’s how de Frutos summed it up, writing to Kreis:

“And famously Diaghilev said, ‘Thank you! But I don’t like jazz!’ So, this is the back story of Elsa Canasta. The singer is sort of a modern day Cole Porter. Gifted in so many ways and musically a triple threat as a singer, songwriter and lyricist.”

As the title implies, evoking the canasta parties thrown by famed hostess Elsa Maxwell (who indeed lured Porter and other celebs to the Lido in Venice), de Frutos took an unexpected path in bringing his back-story to life. Switching from an Ethel Merman vocalist to a Cole Porter persona takes us emphatically back on course. Getting a Broadway star to take on the role has Muir enthused as she takes charge at Charlotte Ballet.

“Each new cast member brings with them a new focus to the narrative of the ballet,” Muir was saying last week. “Levi brings a freshness and new perspective that we are still negotiating in the rehearsal process. His input as a cast member is essential to the core of the piece.”

So is “Within the Quota,” of course. But the original orchestral score has remained elusive. De Frutos tells us that the jazz ballet was staged by a less prestigious company than Diaghilev’s, but only a piano score survived with few details on tempo. Pope was called upon to do the detective work – and for his arranging skills, since Rambert Dance needed a trim score that could play in London and on tour.

Pope tracked down the original manuscript a long way from Venice, in the archives at Yale University, Porter’s alma mater.

“I worked directly from printouts of the microfiche,” says Pope, recalling the thrill. “Porter wrote for piano, and if he needed more notes than could be comfortably written on one piano part, he’d add another! So some pages had three or four pianos, and the next page it would drop back to one piano, then to two, and so on. I was fascinated by his musical language, quasi-minimalist but way before its time, mixed with Gershwin-meets-Darius Milhaud.”

The current score, marked “Charlotte Ballet 2017” on the front page of the sheet music, will feature piano, string quartet, two woodwinds, three brass, and percussion. Those woodwind players need to be fluent on three instruments apiece, and the percussionist needs to play at least two different pairs of instruments simultaneously at different points. The Merman recording of “Ridin’ High” – or just the Porter lyric – hints at what we’ll be hearing. And when.

Pope is obviously excited about conducting his score for the first time, but other firsts factor in – collaborating with the musicians of the Charlotte-based Jazz Arts Initiative, and interacting with the dancers. Each live performance is unique, after all, so the dancers will feel the music slightly differently each time they perform.

But for the orchestrator who has undoubtedly seen this dance, it’s the drama – and what Kreis brings to it – that will be most revelatory.

“Each singer has brought something of themselves to the production,” says Pope.  “The role, though, has grown in dramatic importance, and Javier always wanted it to be more integral to the drama, rather than just someone singing songs on stage while dancers dance. Levi’s voice, and his acting and physicality will bring a totally different perspective to this piece.   Charlotte really does have its own Elsa Canasta.”

Actor’s Theatre Makes “American Idiot” an Immersive Face-Melting Experience

Review: American Idiot

By Perry Tannenbaum

Young love and the ills of the world are so frequently the focus of rock musicals that we sometimes feel little need to decipher the words that jangle together with the actions and emotions we’re seeing onstage. This week is a particularly rockin’ and raucous week in Charlotte, with the 20-year revival tour of Rent and the new Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte production of American Idiot opening on consecutive nights.

The original premiere of the Jonathan Larson musical and the 2004 Green Day album were separated by a mere eight years. While the young adult angst lived on, the world had completely changed: the old preoccupations with AIDS and AZT were supplanted by post-9/11 disillusionment and a scattershot scorn for suburbia, corporate America, the war-mongering George W, and the powerlessness of teens to change any of it.

Actor’s Theatre certainly knows powerlessness. Scheduled to open their new location on Freedom Drive last October, they had to be content to offer tours of their production-ready facility. Governmental regulations, foot-dragging and red tape have pushed back the opening to a still undetermined date in 2018. For a second consecutive show, Actor’s Theatre is relying on the kindness of Queens University and their Hadley Theatre, a facility they share with Myers Park Traditional School. Once you get past the decorous entrance and the antiseptic hallway, the black box venue actually possesses much of the off-Broadway feel we’ve come to expect from this company.

At the core of this production are a stage director, music director, choreographer, and a couple of lead actors who have figured prominently in past Actor’s Theatre productions at their demolished former home on Stonewall Street. They may be taking their exile from a permanent home personally, now that it’s prolonged to nearly 18 months, with an understandable urge to scream. Producing artistic director Chip Decker didn’t appear to be worried about reining any of them in, especially music director Ryan Stamey and choreographer Tod A. Kubo.

Stamey stands behind a keyboard at the edge of the stage, looking up at a six-piece band perched above the middle of the stage, occasionally leaning into a microphone and joining the vocalists. There’s a cellist embedded in the sextet whom I never heard. Likewise, the tropical strains of steel guitar, so clearly soothing in the background of the Broadway cast album on “Give Me Novacaine,” has been almost completely sandpapered away by Stamey’s heavy-metal approach.

The storyline, not exactly robust on the Grammy Award-winning concept album, has been somewhat bolstered by lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong and stage director Michael Mayer in their book. Instead of a single Jesus of Suburbia, the musical has three. We have the original Johnny, who escapes the burbs only to encounter his hipster, heroin-shooting alter ego, St. Jimmy, and the possible love of his life, Whatsername.

At a neighborhood 7-Eleven, Johnny meets two other chums who have been crucified by suburbia – and turned into American Idiots – Will and Tunny. Only one of those two will use the bus tickets Johnny has purchased for the trio’s glorious breakaway. Will’s girlfriend, Heather, shows up and places his hand on her belly, obviating the need of saying to him that she’s pregnant. Apparently, punk rockers aren’t very articulate, for Tunny doesn’t do much of anything in the big city, mostly lying face down on a bed until lured by a US Army commercial to go off and fight in an unspecified foreign war.

With two more self-pitying saviors and two additional girlfriends worked into the story – Tunny eventually finds The Extraordinary Girl – Armstrong added more Green Day music to his score, conveniently taken from 21st Century Breakdown, the follow-up album to American Idiot. Their decibel level tamped down to barely bearable, the band is so face-meltingly loud that you have to admire the singers’ will to prevail. Decker doles out the most expressive and outré action to Johnny and St. Jimmy, keying electrifying performances from Matt Carlson and Jeremy DeCarlos respectively.

From his defiant and rebellious posturing in suburbia, Carlson became pure decadence in the city, simulating casual sex, shooting dope, and reeling around in a stupor as he sang. To contrast with this charismatic dissipation, DeCarlos had to take extreme measures to strike us as Johnny’s inner Beelzebub. There has always been a physical resemblance between DeCarlos and Jimi Hendrix, and I had to suspect that St. Jimmy would be the role to set it loose. Costume designer Carrie Cranford audaciously joined in the conspiracy, supplying a flamboyant jacket that evokes the Hussar military jacket Hendrix sported back in the late ‘60s. There wasn’t a headband or a Mexican bandit’s sombrero in the outfit, but the outrageous hairdo more than compensated, so puffed and straightened that I didn’t notice the thin dangling braids at first.

Coupled with this look were spell-casting gesticulations that went beyond the Wicked Witch of the West and World Wide Wrestling in their shamelessness, and I’ve never heard DeCarlos sing with such ferocity before, though there are also seductive and manic moments for St. Jimmy. Where exactly in this charismatic performance the ministrations of Kubo’s choreography began was difficult for me to divine, but the choreographer should definitely get a large proportion of the credit for making this American Idiot such an immersive, visceral experience. Like Actor’s Theatre general manager Martin Kettling told us in his curtain speech, the ensemble frequently used the platform looming above the stage as a jungle gym, often joining the musicians at the top. Over and over, I saw daring dance moves that must have come after Kubo hopefully asked, “Can you try this?” in rehearsals.

Some of the most arresting action came from the women, differentiating the Charlotte American Idiot from the Broadway edition, where hard rock seemed to be the exclusive playpen of macho sexist louts. Nonye Obichere was particularly stunning as Whatsername, all Johnny could handle and more, singing and dancing with a dominatrix edge. As Heather, Lizzie Medlin was more bitchy and Gothic, upstaging Steven Buchanan, who was mostly confined to the vicinity of a sofa once Will grudgingly chose domesticity as his direction in life.

Grant Zavitkovsky was underpowered, undermiked, and largely unintelligible as Tunny in the early going, but those problems thankfully vanished by the time he enlisted. While the budgetary concessions Decker made in his set design worked well, the technical economies he adopted meant that Tunny’s wartime travails were far less catastrophic. No matter how well Grant Zavitkovskyperformed the role, The Extraordinary Girl couldn’t be nearly as extraordinary in her devotion.

There’s a self-critical bent in Armstrong’s leading men that is totally at odds with the striving, sentimental nobility and martyrdom of the Rent heroes and heroines. Lyrical and melodic takeaways from American Idiot aren’t as vivid or memorable as those you might find in the sassy “Out Tonight” or the anthemic “What You Own” that Larson crafted for his glorified squatters. I didn’t find myself nearly as much on the side of Armstrong’s troubled American Idiots, but I did feel they should be listened to. Even if I hadn’t known how passionately Carlson and DeCarlos felt about this music, I would have heard it in their voices and seen it in their actions.

Davidson Takes Astonishing Flight on “Neverland” Tour

Review:  Finding Neverland

By Perry Tannenbaum

So wait a second: John Davidson – the Hollywood Squares host and the incurably wholesome crooner on too many variety shows to completely avoid – is far better now as an actor than he ever was as a TV personality or a singer??!? Capable of savagery and raw power? Watching the Charlotte premiere of Finding Neverland at Belk Theater earlier this week turned my long-held convictions upside-down.

Davidson takes on the role of Peter Pan playwright James M. Barrie’s implacable theatre producer, Charles Frohman, becoming the inspiration for Barrie’s most famous villain, Captain James Hook. While Billy Harrington Tighe stars as Barrie alongside Christine Dwyer as Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, the mother of four adorable boys who help liberate the playwright’s inner child, it’s Davidson who dominates. Since the current Charlotte engagement is the first of a 24-city tour through April 2018, theatergoers across the US from Rhode Island to Arizona should be on the lookout for Davidson’s bravura.

Maybe “dominates” isn’t the right word for what Davidson accomplishes, for he rescues a show that flounders rather pitifully through nearly the entire first act, despite the sometimes strained efforts of Tighe and Dwyer, the hyperactivity of the purportedly inspirational kiddies, and assorted meaningless outbursts of spectacle that end up pointing up what they’re intended to hide – a total absence of imagination, magic, and enchantment. Adding to this strain to entertain, amid a moribund book by James Graham paired with tepid music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, sound designer Jonathan Deans seems to have potted volume levels some 15-20 decibels above those I experienced at the 2015 Broadway production.

Deans’ ministrations, however, prove to support a key strategic aim of director Diane Paulus as we sail into intermission. The final two songs prior to the break, “Hook” and “Stronger,” almost literally explode, undergirded by thunderous volleys of percussion that seem to shake the walls of the theater. Here is where Frohman, after throwing a portentous shadow of a hook onto the upstage wall, transforms into Captain Hook and Scott Pask’s mix of Victorian and Kensington Garden settings suddenly turns dark, swarming with pirates.

It’s a thrusting nautical moment that echoes the thrill of Douglas Sills singing “Into the Fire,” when the foppish Sir Percy Blakeney, exhorting his marauding band of revolutionaries, showed his true heroic self for the first time in The Scarlet Pimpernel. It’s Tighe latching onto Davidson’s lurid coattails to become stronger. But Hook doesn’t materialize out of thin air – or that comical silhouette. He explains that he is actually a part of Barrie that the playwright has kept repressed.

The Davies siblings have liberated Barrie’s inner child, but it’s Hook who unleashes the beast. After intermission, he even prods the unhappily married Barrie to give the widowed Mrs. Davies a kiss.

So it’s almost accurate to say that Davidson co-stars with Tighe as Barrie, for there are times when he’s clearly sharing the role. Yet even when Davidson is aboard with all of Frohman’s orneriness, all is not well. Confronted with Barrie’s script for Peter Pan, the first rehearsal scene that Frohman presides over is fairly lame; and when the conceited, over-refined acting troupe adjourns to a pub, where Barrie and Sylvia encourage them to “Play” more like children, the regression humor falls even flatter. Graham would like us to believe that legitimate actors are familiar with King Lear and not A Midsummer Night’s Dream – and that Barrie’s previous masterwork, The Admirable Crichton, was a clichéd drawing room comedy.

Graham’s book improves slightly when the four boys prepare to entertain their mom and Barrie with Peter Davies’ new play. But if the boys’ “We’re All Made of Stars” nearly rises to that festive backyard occasion, we must endure the lackluster “When Your Feet Don’t Touch the Ground” when Barrie and Peter (Connor Jameson Casey on the night I attended) have their most dramatic father-son exchange. With more touching emotional power, the musical ascends from there as Peter Pan premieres and triumphs while Elizabeth expires.

Somehow it doesn’t matter that Dwyer hasn’t given us any indication of Elizabeth’s frailty until moments before she exits to her deathbed. Graham finally mixes some magic into the personal transformations of Barrie and Peter, Daniel Wurtzel sprinkles in some enchanting air sculpture from Fairyland, and a little glint of that fairy dust begins to gleam in Frohman’s child-hating soul.

Maybe when Kelsey Grammer growled as Hook and softened as Frohman in the original Broadway cast, the ending had more emotional power than this. I seriously doubt it. I can only say that the leaden ending I experienced when an understudy took over the role at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre did not begin to compare with the climax that brought a nearly full house to its feet at Belk Theater on opening night. Barlow and Kennedy never seem to even search for Neverland, let alone succeed in finding it, but Davidson certainly does with his astonishing Phoenix-like rebirth.

Candle Burns More Brightly in “Rent” After 20 Years

Review:  Rent

By Perry Tannenbaum

Twenty years – or as Jonathan Larson would have phrased it, 10,519,200 minutes – is a long time to expect a trend-setting, very much of-the-moment musical to retain its currency. Rent actually did quite well, lasting over 12 years and 5,000 performances on Broadway during its singularly funky run. During those first hot box office years, I remember deploying my daughter to the Nederlander Theatre on 41st Street in hopes of snagging a couple of rush tickets while I kept my place on a long Times Square TKTS line in case the Rent raid didn’t pan out.

It didn’t. Rent fans were a multitudinous rabid cult, so we went to Plan B for that evening’s discount tickets.

Like AIDS, AZT breaks, answering machine beeps, and young lives structured around demonstrating and protesting, rush tickets to Rent was a rite of passage that slowly faded away. Since Rent premiered in 1996, the 20-year tour presumably began last year – before it seemed like demonstrating and protesting just might be coming back full force.

The current tour at Belk Theater does occasionally look like a period piece. Mark Cohen, our narrator, walks around with a film camera taking movies, and he shows them on a contraption called a projector. Cordless phones haven’t become ubiquitous, settling in an abandoned building hasn’t become an outré idea, a power outage brings city life to a standstill, and young people seem capable of surviving without TV’s and video screens glowing in their faces (by contrast, take a peep at the TV saturation in the current Actor’s Theatre production of American Idiot at Queens University).

What turned me off to the first tours I saw was the rock ‘n’ roll arrogance of the lead players, who seemed to take the adulation of their audiences as a license to strut and preen instead of actually doing their jobs. Ironically, it was the “Farewell Tour” that brought the original Roger and Mark to town, Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp, and showed me what actors could do with the roles that wannabe rockstars couldn’t. With a bit of commitment from the players, I also saw the gay romance between Tom and Angel come to life as more than a comical sideshow.

But although the drug-addicted, AIDS-afflicted Mimi on that tour could rock an ultra-tight pair of glittery turquoise pants, she didn’t bring enough romantic fire to her “Light My Candle” duet with Pascal to set it ablaze. Even more icy and moribund were slumlord Benny and lawyer/community organizer Joanne. There was plenty of room for improvement.

Under the direction of Evan Ensign, the 20th anniversary edition has become off-limits for self-absorbed posturing and strutting – and nobody is s-o-o-o cool that he or she threatens to freeze before our eyes. The chief heat source is Skyler Volpe as Mimi Marquez, not only scorching her “Out Tonight” showpiece but also igniting the whole evening with her suggestive “Light My Candle” seduction.

With Marcus John restoring life and force to Benny, there’s suddenly a reason why Mimi would forsake Roger for him besides money and a warm place to crash, and with Jasmine Easler as Joanne, we begin to see why she’s even in the show. Kaleb Wells and Sammy Ferber, if not the equals of Pascal and Rapp, play to their castmates and us without ever basking in their own I’m-starring-in-Rent awesomeness.

Aside from the dynamic Volpe, the biggest improvements here are Aaron Harrington as the woebegone Tom Collins and Aaron Alcaraz as the frail and flamboyant Angel, the quirky transvestite who briefly lights up Tom’s life like a meteor. The warmth between them is there almost from the moment they meet. Instead of a flash of comic relief that suddenly turns serious – and sentimental – at the end, the denouement of the Tom-Angel romance can now legitimately substitute for the tragedy that doesn’t happen between Roger and Mimi.

Notwithstanding the candle scene and the electric reprises of “Musetta’s Waltz” on Roger’s guitar, the shadow of Puccini’s La Boheme doesn’t seem to hover over Rent so heavily after 20 years. Nor is it quite as agonizing to hear the jejune repeats of “525,600 minutes” throughout Act 2. We are now more likely to look back and see that the two theatre pieces that best captured “living in America at the end of the millennium” were Angels in America and Rent. Both seem more worthy of their Pulitzers than ever.

 

Family and Romance Tug at an Iowa Housewife in “Madison County”

Review:  The Bridges of Madison County

By Perry Tannenbaum

When the touring production of The Bridges of Madison County came to Knight Theater in the spring of 2016, I can easily imagine CPCC Theatre set designer James Duke watching the rusticated wooden bridge as it descended from the fly loft. “We can do that!” he would be thinking to himself. And nearly 17 months later at Halton Theater, he has done it, in a spare, taciturn design style that works well with the Midwest – in this case, Iowa – ably complemented by Jeff Childs’ lighting design.

One additional inverted V goes a long way to simulating the lonely Johnson homestead where roaming National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid falls in love with Francesca, a stoically transplanted Italian housewife marooned on the prairie after raising a wholesome 4H family. Scenery pieces at ground level aren’t quite as mistakable for the touring version, largely because crew and cast shuffle them in and out of the wings with conspicuously less professional polish.

Once everything is set in place, the sound of the current CPCC Theatre production consistently overachieves. I can also imagine Rebecca Cook-Carter, CPCC Opera Theatre’s artistic director, looking at the touring version of Madison County and saying, “We can do that!!” Look down in the orchestra pit at the Halton and you won’t find brass, woodwinds, and batteries of electric guitars and keyboards. Musicians are overwhelmingly classical string players, and their conductor, Craig Estep, has made valuable contributions to both theatrical and operatic productions at CP in the past.

In adapting the wildly popular bestseller by Robert James Waller, James Robert Brown’s score does occasionally soar toward opera in its ambitions when we listen to his melodies and orchestrations, both of which won Tony Awards. But there’s a very relaxed vibe to the roving photographer that contrasts with Francesca’s operatic frustrations, swooping toward chamber and country music. When the storyline detours toward the nosy neighbors and the raucous State Fair, velvety classical violins are likely to mutate into bluegrass fiddles.

If she hadn’t been on my radar in 2011, playing a supporting role in the CPCC Summer Theatre production of Hello, Dolly! I would have thought that Sarah Henkel was a genuine Italian neophyte as Francesca. Hand movements were shy, awkward, and clichéd at first when we looked at the opening wartime scene that tied Francesca’s fate to the uniformed Bud, who pales to humdrum farmer by the time we see him again in Iowa.

With Robert’s arrival, the shy awkwardness begins to work for Henkel, and as the couple’s intimacy increases, the fumbling and tentativeness dissolve, so there’s no longer a disconnect between Henkel’s actions and her soaring mezzo-soprano voice. I still missed a lot of the lyrics she was singing, but as passion took the place of preliminary exposition, that difficulty mattered much less. Compared with the virtually indecipherable Elizabeth Stanley on the national tour, Henkel was clarity itself.

Since I raved about Andrew Samonsky as the lanky dreamboat who captivated Francesca on tour, its no small compliment to say that Ryan Deal is nearly as fine as Robert. Deal may even be better at getting into the vagabond country lean of the music. As passionately as many local theatergoers might feel that he will never surpass his previous autumn exploits in Phantom of the Opera and Les Miz at the Halton, Deal delivers here, seemingly more comfortable in this music.

While Deal is not likely to be mistaken for a lean, rugged Marlboro man, the gap between him and Samonsky might have been bridged at least partially if Deal, along with director Cary Kugler and costume designer Rachel Engstrom, had seriously considered what a hippie looked like in 1965. To get instantly labeled as a hippie by a provincial Iowan, more hair and looser, more casual clothes are required. An untucked sport shirt just won’t do.

Politeness and consideration, mixed with a heavy sprinkling of artistic intensity, are also part of Robert’s appeal, and Deal conspires very nicely with Henkel on the chemistry of the mutual seduction. Looking at how Kugler directs and how Engstrom dresses the townsfolk, you will likely think that Marsha Norman borrowed heavily from Meredith Willson’s Music Man in crafting the Iowans in her script.

Next door neighbors, Taffy Allen as Marge and Jeff Powell as Charlie, are exactly as you would expect. She’s unsatisfied unless she’s ferretted out every spec of scandalous gossip while, even when she’s most annoying, he can be mollified with a fresh slice of pie. Closer to the vortex of the central romance, Francesca’s family is humdrum rather than silly. Steven Martin as Bud, the husband, is a solid and confident blockhead, but we get the hint from Martin that some of his cocksureness comes from Francesca’s support.

Yet Bud is the primary reason that the kids need Mom. Gabe Saienni as Michael needs Mom to help him convince Dad that there is an alternative future for him that doesn’t include taking over the farm. Sharing the role with Olivia Aldridge from night to night, Leigh Ann Hrischenko convinces us that Carolyn’s needs are even more acute and poignant. Mom stands as buffer between Carolyn and her father’s brusqueness, and despite the fact that she may have raised a prize-winning steer, it’s Mom who must bolster the younger sib’s determination and self-confidence.

As the romance heats up, Francesca must choose between her inner drive to break free and globetrot with Robert or the tug of her loyalty, calling upon her to remain in Iowa with a family that needs her. After two hours and 18 minutes, plus a 20-minute intermission, you wouldn’t want the choice to be easy, would you?