Daily Archives: October 7, 2017

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?

 

“The Christians” Has Much to Say About America Under The Donald

Review: The Christians

By Perry Tannenbaum

When Pastor Paul picks up his microphone at an unspecified megachurch to begin his sermon in Lucas Hnath’s The Christians, he tells his congregants – thousands of them, flocking to the Sunday service – that there is a crack in their church. Describing this crack in a four-part sermon, Paul weaves together a 20-year history of the astonishing growth of his church with two epiphanies, both involving conversations with God.

One of these epiphanies results in Paul’s marriage to the beautiful Elizabeth, who sits proudly next to her husband on the mainstage. The other leads to a new perception of God’s goodness and justice, one that rejects the idea of eternal damnation for all people, no matter how virtuous, who have not accepted Jesus as their savior.

So on the same Sunday that Paul can announce that the vast church property has finally been fully paid for, including its “parking lot that you can get lost in,” he also proclaims that his church no longer believes in hell.

Ironically, the crack that Paul described in his sermon was abstract, not previously perceived by anyone else in the assembly, but by the end of the Sunday service, Paul has created a real, tangible crack. Unable to accept the new doctrine, Associate Pastor Joshua walks out after some spirited disputation from the pulpit. The very visible rifts won’t end there.

As a native New Yorker and someone who takes his Bible seriously – at least the Old Testament – this opening scene combines two of the irritating qualities that I discovered in Christians when I emigrated from Gotham. So many of them converse so regularly with God, a most exclusive privilege in the Bible that I was raised on, that they must believe that their God is handling as many simultaneous personal conversations as Ma Bell.

More irritating is the whole spectacle of Christians who “wrestle” with their faith and feel like other people should care. So when I saw the world premiere at the Humana Festival of New Plays in 2014, I often found the Actor’s Theatre of Louisville production tedious and bland. Later that year, adjudicating the 2015 Steinberg Award as a member of the American Theatre Critics Association panel, Hnath’s script appeared in my Inbox.

Although the panel kept Hnath’s drama among the elite scripts into the final voting, for me, it was definitely middle of the pack among the 27 works we considered. Did I miss something when I read the script? Or perhaps did Actor’s Theatre of Louisville miss something when they brought it to life?

I was hoping so when I entered Booth Playhouse, for Steve Umberger and his Playworks Group were bringing The Christians to town in its local premiere with a cast that evoked Umberger’s years as artistic director of Charlotte Repertory Theatre. In his return to Charlotte, Umberger was also backed by a design team associated with his greatest directorial triumph, the 1995 production of Angels in America, Parts 1 and 2.

From the outset, Umberger’s answer to both of my questions was a resounding yes. The Playworks church choir – “the bigger the better,” Hnath urges in his playscript – is far more energetic and spirited in Charlotte than it was in Louisville, led by Dareion Malone from an electric keyboard and populated with singers who can rock the house when they solo. Set design by Joe Gardner is slicker, more dynamic than the Humana production, with twin projection screens above the action cuing the congregation on the lyrics of the songs and the key points of Pastor Paul’s sermon.

Brian Robinson decisively exorcises blandness from this production as soon as he launches into Pastor Paul’s sermon, slick and confident with the mic and moderately charismatic so that he never becomes a Joel Osteen caricature. There is enough self-confidence and self-absorption to qualify as hubris, yet Pastor Paul’s geniality and approachability keep him far short of Oedipal arrogance. Paul tells Joshua he can leave his church, not that he must. Big difference, and Robinson gets it.

But it’s Chandler McIntyre’s performance as Sister Elizabeth, arguably McIntyre’s best ever, that crystallizes what the Louisville version missed. Embedded in Paul’s narrative about how he met his future wife on an airplane is a theme that is more relevant to us all today than whether hell exists. Here he passes along a note via a helpful stewardess, quoted from an NYU English prof that serves as the play’s epigraph: “I feel an uncontrollable urge to communicate with you, but I find the distance barrier insurmountable.”

It’s a pretty classy pickup line – until it becomes something totally unexpected in a bedroom scene unlike any that you’ve ever seen before. All through this drama, everybody speaks into a microphone, and there are no scenery shifts. Those conditions are only mildly incongruous when we see Elder Jay, representing the church’s governing board, coming into Paul’s office, picking up a microphone, and discussing the repercussions of Joshua’s defection.

Husband and wife picking up mics in the privacy of their bedroom takes the incongruity into comical territory. Sister Elizabeth starts off this climactic scene much as she has seemed before, a loyal, decorous, and diffident pastor’s wife. As Paul airs his suspicions and she reviews his breaches in respect and trust, we watch the quiet pulpit ornament grow into a whirlwind that could intimidate Job, let alone Paul.

Soon afterwards the question scribbled more than 20 years earlier on an airplane is reprised, but we see a different slant from Hnath on the insurmountable distance Paul has spoken of. In a way that hadn’t jumped at me off the pages of the playwright’s script nor the Louisville production, I can now see that Hnath is asking this: Can we work, pray, or even live together anymore after we’ve recognized that we fundamentally disagree?

It’s a very American question, transcending theology. Our nation rests on two very contradictory pillars – the narrow “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” dogmatism of the first Puritan settlers and the “liberty and justice for all” openness of the Deists who framed our Constitution. We probably thought the insurmountable distance between these outlooks had been permanently bridged long ago. What Humana and I didn’t see in 2014 was the election of 2016. A serious crack in our society has re-emerged.

We get fine performances from the rest of the cast that further humanize and texturize their disagreements. As Joshua, Jonavan Adams fumbles a bit in his disputation with his mentor – as he should, since the new doctrine has caught him off-guard and he’s explicitly “wrestling” with his mentor’s sermon. But Adams helps us focus on how much he would like to believe there isn’t a hell, for he vividly envisions his mom there.

April C. Turner emerges from the choir as Jenny, a troubled congregant whose questioning of Pastor Paul is even more powerful than Joshua’s – because she’s had the time to write down her thoughts and gather reactions from around the community in the wake of the schism. To a lesser extent than Sister Elizabeth, Turner grows more formidable right before our eyes as Jenny becomes more comfortable behind the microphone in the spotlight. There’s also a gentle hint that she becomes progressively more irritated and emboldened when Pastor Paul seems to be patronizing the seriousness of her concerns.

Before and during this huge turning point, Graham Smith makes his presence felt as Elder Jay. This isn’t the most towering performance we’ve seen from Smith – he was, after all, Roy Cohn, in Angels back in ’95 – but it ranks among his most rusticated. And the man can still make an exit. His private conversation with Pastor Paul, which had been most notable for me in getting across Jay’s practical business anxieties, registered more deeply this time around, for they also discuss Associate Pastor Joshua and bring out more about him than we knew.

Joshua not only harbors that “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” viewpoint, he’s been aggressively talking up hellfire on the streets of town. So Paul may actually have had Joshua in mind when he perceived a crack in his church, and his defection may not have been as sudden and unanticipated as it first appeared. Pastor P may be as cunning and calculating as Jenny suspects.

Needless to say, I found The Christians to be a far more substantial piece the third time around – and it’s not surprising to learn that Umberger first encountered it in the aftermath of the 2016 election. The revitalized impact of a production like this reminds us how important a professional theatre company can be in the cultural life of a city. Response from the audience during the post-performance talkback confirmed that a satisfying cross-section of people at Booth Playhouse can instantly get what The Christians is saying to us now.

We had that extra intellectual jolt in our community far more often during the years that Charlotte Rep became a prominent member League of Regional Theatres (LORT) under Umberger’s leadership. Umberger could possibly build his current Playworks enterprise to similar prominence, if The Christians draws the support it deserves.

A Labor of Rockin’ Love and Face-Melting Fury

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Preview:  American Idiot

By Perry Tannenbaum

Anger, alienation, disillusionment, and frustration were all part of the high-octane fuel that powered Green Day’s punk rock opera, American Idiot, in 2004. The group’s first post-9/11 CD struck a chord, winning awards on both sides of the Atlantic, including Best Rock Album at the Grammys. The targets of the group’s wrath – media, suburbia, Bush Era militarism, and ubiquitous TV – remained fresh enough for Green Day lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong and stage director Michael Mayer to transform the celebrated album into a Broadway musical in 201o.

Starting their second consecutive season in exile from their planned-and-purchased permanent home on Freedom Drive, still tangled up in a red tape mess of zoning, safety, and building regulations – on an existing building, mind you – Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte has a bit of pent-up anger, frustration, and disillusionment of their own. They may be wrapping all of that into their incoming American Idiot grenade.

The Charlotte premiere opens in previews this week on the campus of Queens University, the second consecutive show that Actor’s Theatre has brought to Hadley Theater. Official opening night will happen next Wednesday.

ATC artistic director Chip Decker not only empathizes with the angst of American Idiot, he gets the band.

“I have loved Green Day’s music since the [1991] album Kerplunk,” Decker boasts. “American Idiot dropped in 2004, and I could not listen to it enough. I think we were all reeling still from 9/11, the wars, etc., and this album gave a release valve to many who were angry, scared, lost, disillusioned and looking for hope in a difficult time.”

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The leading men feel at least as deeply about the music as their director. In fact, you can gauge their respective ages by when they climbed aboard the Green Day bandwagon. Matt Carlson, who plays Johnny, the Jesus of Suburbia hero from the album, says he latched onto American Idiot when he was about 14, and that it was the first album he learned to play on guitar from beginning to end.

Jeremy DeCarlos, a mainstay in the finest Actor’s Theatre productions since 2004 –onstage or thrashing his guitar – plays Johnny’s alter ego, St. Jimmy, leading the suburban Jesus into citified debaucheries. He says he got the Green Day bug during the summer of 1994, when “Basket Case” was a hit single off the Dookie album.

“I felt like Billie Joe wasn’t just singing to me, but as me in a way,” DeCarlos recalls. “I ran out and bought the album and wore a hole into it. When my mother presented me with my first guitar, I told myself that if I ever learned how to play one song on it, it would be Green Day’s ‘Good Riddance (Time of Your Life).’ It took me roughly a month, but the first song I ever learned on guitar was a Green Day song!”

So how does a punk rock opera with three characters become a musical that can fill a Broadway stage? Well, Armstrong and Mayer added new characters, and Green Day chipped in with more music, conveniently ripped off from 21st Century Breakdown, the follow-up album to American Idiot.

Now instead of one disgruntled Jesus itching to escape suburbia, there are three – Johnny, Will, and Tunny – along with three women. Johnny and Tunny do escape, respectively to the wicked city and the US Army, but Will won’t, dutifully staying behind when he learns that Heather (the only woman in the show with a name) is pregnant with his child. So yes, we get three depressing outcomes to wail over.

“The book is wafer thin, single ply generic toilet paper thin,” Decker admits, “but I feel like that was a very intentional choice. I was able to find my own voice and feelings in the album, and I think that is what the story lines do in this. They present a thought and feeling, but do not try and insist that the viewer (or listener) accept that view as the truth.”

And just because he reveres the music doesn’t mean that Carlson worships the suburban Jesus he’s delivering to us as the leading man. Johnny actually comes off as something of a jerk when Carlson describes him, and he isn’t sure we’ll like him: “He is the edgy, cocky punk guy you knew in high school who never did anything with his life.”

But the music! That draws a different reaction from the young rocker. Like many of Green Day’s faithful, Carlson was a bit leery and disappointed when he first heard that the punk band was taking their act to Broadway. Had to be an artistic sellout, right?

When he eventually encountered to final product, Carlson was pleasantly surprised. “The American Idiot album is so different versus the stage score,” he opines. “I love the simple punk rock sound of the album, but maybe because I’m into musical theatre, I like the stage version even better. On stage, the concept album is made more complete with the play script and music.”

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There’s more music in the musical, but all of it remains guitar-and-drum driven. Instead of muscling up with strings, winds, and brass, Broadway orchestrator/arranger Tom Kitt beefed up the sound with more voices and harmonies. You’ll hear a pronounced difference, to take just one example, if you listen to the Broadway cast album version of “Give Me Novacaine.”

The lyrics come through just a tad more clearly, as if we’re in a theater rather than concert hall. The sound of the steel guitar is noticeably richer, with a more relaxed Hawaiian flavor. With the onset of the thrashing section, the crescendo is more dramatic, louder drums and added male voices yield an anthemic thrust. Reaching the soothing outro, we hear – can it be true? – a group of female backups caressing our ears.

But hold on a second. The prospect of seeing ATC musical director Ryan Stamey lead a Broadway-sized band into Hadley Theater isn’t any more likely than the possibility we’ll see over three dozen flat-screen TV monitors stuck up on the back wall. One violin and one cello are promised, but the instrumental congregation will be trimmed from eight to five, a definite U-turn toward true punk rock intimacy.

Yes, we’ll see two guitars, just like on Broadway.

Decker has been known to strap on a bass guitar himself, and he often lurks in the wings as a sound designer when he isn’t acting or directing. One of the most admirable Actor’s Theatre achievements over the years has been their ability to deliver the youthful energy of such high voltage musicals as Hedwig and Rock of Ages without repulsing their graying subscribers who prefer decibel levels below triple digits.

“You know, this is always a tough balancing act,” Decker says, “because our bands are legit power musicians who want everything to go to 11! But there is so much story in the lyrics of musicals, that if you can’t hear the words, you don’t know the story. So yeah, keeping it balanced and rocking is the challenge. Our cast is doing a great job telling their story, and I think people will dig it. Or you can just go and rock the fuck out. Either way, your face will be melted.”