Monthly Archives: February 2018

Lucia Stetson Brings a Regal, Enigmatic “Evita” to CP

Review: Evita

By Perry Tannenbaum

There isn’t a superabundance of melody in Evita, but when composer Andrew Lloyd Webber’s supply begins to run low, he deftly puts his few song lines, riffs, and strands of recitative into a spin cycle, zigzagging through Spanish, Latin, and jazz idioms. Or he might shift tempos for a reprise, shift the context for a song’s reprise that gives it new meaning, or simply drop in a replay.

More conspicuous is the lack of action complementing Tim Rice’s lyrics for a musical purporting to bring us the life and legend of Eva Perón, Argentina’s first lady during the presidency of Juan Perón. Much of this story is told through the cynical-yet-captivated eyes of fellow Argentinian Ché Guevara, beginning his narrative at Evita’s phenomenal state funeral. What Ché attempts to explain is how an obscure commoner from the boonies could become so beloved and venerated in the space of 33 years.

Less dramatic muscle, bone, and spectacle were baked into this 1976 opus than the sturdier Phantom of the Opera, which would be minted 10 years later. In previous Charlotte productions by Queen City Theatre Company (2010) and Theatre Charlotte (2003), small-scale design concepts reminded us that Evita is closer in Sir Andrew’s chronological development to the episodic Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat than his signature guignol. After all, only four major characters create the whole Argentine tapestry.

CPCC Theatre shoves Evita toward grandiosity at spacious Halton Theater, largely through the design wizardry of Robert Croghan. There is classic splendor to the iconic balcony scene at the Casa Rosada, and when Peronistas demonstrate in the streets for a “New Argentina,” Croghan drapes his set design with massive flags and banners scribbled with slogans that drop down from the Halton’s high flyloft.

Plenty of Croghan’s costume designs are of the peasant variety, but when it comes time for Evita to be dressed to the nines – or for the strongman Perón to luxuriate in the opulence of his bedroom – we can see what South American excess and corruption look like. Actors and audiences love this musical beyond its deserts, so director Tom Hollis could be expected to find a fine Evita to glitter in this excellent Halton setting. In Lucia Stetson, he has struck gold.

Or should we say silver, since that’s what Argentina is known and named for?

Along with her wardrobe, Stetson becomes more and more refined as she exploits one man after another in her climb to the top. The sassy arriviste of “Buenos Aires – Big Apple” turns imperious as Evita supplants Perón’s previous mistress, but we don’t see the first rays of sublimity until after intermission when she appears on the balcony of the presidential palace – aglow in Jeff Child’ lighting design – and sings the iconic “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.” Stetson does majestic even better than she does sass.

From that moment on, it’s up for grabs whether Evita is a saintly benefactor of the poor, Argentina’s beauteous ambassador to the world, or a corrupt, self-indulgent template for Imelda Marcos. Not only is there a tension between Che’s cynical jabs and the Peróns’ official line, there’s also an inscrutable quality to Stetson’s performance that blossoms naturally out of her majesty. Crowning that regality is Stetson’s star-quality singing, which makes everything believable – Evita’s vanity, her savvy, her belief in her own beneficence, and her physical frailty.

Sadly, Stetson was the only singer onstage at the Halton last Saturday night who was consistently intelligible. Whether it was their diction, their mics, or settings at the Halton’s notorious soundboard, Ron T. Diaz as Che and Robert Nipper as Perón struggled to be understood. Diaz started off well enough in the opening funeral scene, but when the orchestra grew loud behind him, the words and the narrative thread got lost, though Diaz’s voice and Che’s gadfly intensity still pierced through. He restores the rock intonations that Ricky Martin rejected in the most recent Broadway revival of 2012, and I recognized them like an old frenemy in all their original gusto.

Thuggish, conceited, and physically imposing, Nipper helps the “I’d Be Surprisingly Good for You” duet to sizzle with restrained sensuality and menace, as good a Perón as I’ve ever seen, with a robusto voice. If they’d fix the audio, his performance would likely join Stetson’s in the not-to-be-missed stratosphere.

Joel King as the crooner Magaldi, Evita’s small-town ticket to Buenos Aires, and Leana Guzman as Perón’s Mistress both satisfy in their respectively comical and pathetic cameos, and music director Drina Keen leads a fine 13-piece band in the pit. We don’t quite hear the volcanic eruption at the end of the symphonic “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” that would give us the lift of a true coronation, but the ensemble is sleek in the Latin-flavored sections of the score, and drummer Kyle Merck makes the military interludes a delight.

At the café where Evita enchants Magaldi and when Evita begins to move to the same music with Perón, choreographer Ron Chisholm makes the company and his principals look good. When the choruses of aristocrats and army soldiers join in berating “Perón’s Latest Flame,” one of numerous spots where we might perceive a disconnect between the music and the intended mood, Chisholm goes with the comical flow. So Argentina’s military struts like a regimented bunch of banana republic bumpkins.

Hardly a minute later, Perón considers running away from these buffoons to Paraguay. Guess he didn’t see them the same way. In that crucial moment, Evita becomes Lady Macbeth to keep him on track.

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Landing the Next LeBron Is Just Step One in “King Liz”

Review: King Liz

By Perry Tannenbaum

Wheeling and dealing, trading on her feminine wiles, sports agent Liz Rico is a dynamic dynamo in Fernanda Coppel’s King Liz. To keep her edge, Liz has to lie and cheat, sweet-talk and scold, soothing some mighty male egos while knowing her shit better than any of them. She must fight tooth-and-claw for every client and every dollar while keeping her calculating cool.

In the heat of an NBA draft session, Liz hopes to land her hotshot high school point guard, Freddie Luna, with the New York Knicks. Playing all the contingencies, Liz makes promises to the New York Nets that she doesn’t intend keep, works the phone further to keep the Knicks interested, and fervently prays that some other team doesn’t mess up her schemes by snatching up her player – and ruining her cred with everybody she’s been dealing with.

Including her boss, Mr. Candy, who has been dangling the prospect of letting Liz take over the company when he retires.

After the draft, Liz’s trials have barely begun. Coach Jones isn’t on the same page as the Knicks’ GM on Freddie’s readiness for the NBA, so the rookie’s place in the starting lineup and his actual playing time are both unknowns. Further threatening Freddie’s marketability are the kid’s impoverished, violent past, his hair-trigger temper, his déclassé friends, and his inexperience in the media spotlight.

The current Three Bone Theatre production at Spirit Square has a couple of extra déclassé elements that don’t chime well with Coppel’s script. The first is Three Bone’s budget, which doesn’t allow set designer Ryan Maloney to come anywhere close to simulating the office at a high-powered sports agency that boasts such big-name clients as James Harden, Kevin Love, and Carmelo Anthony.

Though she undoubtedly has the power and charisma for the full range of King Liz, I sometimes felt that Shar Marlin needed to be more of a smooth operator to completely define her. Having directed Marlin’s stunning performance last year in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, director Corlis Hayes had to be supremely confident that this force of nature was equal to tackling Liz. But Hayes doesn’t altogether curb Marlin’s inclination to carry elements of the blues divas she has played – Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey – over to a more modern powerhouse who has the finesse to wow a boardroom.

I’m not sure that a big wheel like Liz needs to do quite so much yelling working the phones and bossing her assistant. Less would have counted more.

Granted, the streets and the projects loom large in Liz’s background, allowing her to empathize with Freddie, but if Marlin were finding them in Liz rather than Rainey, her manner would be more consistently elegant. Yet we need to acknowledge that Marlin nearly makes Liz a cohesive person despite the fact that Coppel makes her excessively chameleonic. Coppel does have that tendency. If you think Liz flits from persona to persona in the blink of an eye, wait to till you hear about her board of directors’ flipflops in the final scenes.

The script only takes us back to 2015, when Phil Jackson was GM at the Knicks, but Hayes manages to accent the #MeToo elements of the story, encouraging Tim Huffman to remain a blowhard as Mr. Candy while adding a sprinkling of Harvey Weinstein sleaziness. Costume designer Ramsey Lyric puts an exclamation point on Mariana Bracciale’s transformation as Gabby Fuentes, Liz’s ambitious assistant, making sure we see how much more willing she is to play ball with Candy.

Marlin fares better outside the office, strategically captivating Coach Jones without giving in or quashing his desires. Hooking Freddie and keeping him in line requires even more virtuosic hairpin turns from Liz, so Marlin gets to show the agent’s wiliness until Freddie breaks loose from her control, exposing her doubts and insecurities. He can’t control himself, so how can she?

Although Sultan Omar El-Amin doesn’t boast the physicality of a point guard sporting the stats of a latter-day LeBron James, he has proven himself to be a master of youthful roles that require resentfulness and volatility. Once we get past his lack of size, muscles, and tattoos, El-Amin grows on us, sparking empathy and frustration with equal force. Jermaine A. Gamble has played his share of brooding youths recently, so it’s gratifying to see how convincingly he ages here as Coach Jones, adding a hint of a limp to give his mellow pursuit of Liz extra poignancy. His put-downs of Freddie hardly qualify as tough love – kindness is an unaffordable luxury when your job with a perennial losing team is on the line.

The wildcard in Coppel’s scenario is Barbara Flowers, a TV host that Liz is counting on to help her repair Freddie’s damaged image after he goes off the rails at a postgame interview. Disdaining the obvious prompt to do a Barbara Walters imitation, Susan Ballard initially does give us the impression that Flowers will toss Freddie one softball question after another on her show as Liz and Coach Jones sit beside him, holding his hand. But when Flowers discards Liz’s playbook and goes rogue, Ballard makes her a hard-nosed journalist asking tough hardball questions, way beyond Walters cordiality and a fair distance beyond civility.

It’s in these interview scenes that Coppel’s penchant for abrupt surprises works best. Freddie has definite rough edges, but the media can grow cruel fangs when they smell blood. In a stressful stew of crisis and tantalizing ambitions, Liz must reassess the consequences of her goals and who she wants to be.

A Black Female Jerry Maguire Shows Up at a Perfect Moment

Preview: King Liz

By Perry Tannenbaum

Every couple of years, we flip our TV’s to the Olympics and bask in the illusion that women are vital, equal members of the sports world, ascending to the medals podiums and brightening our winters with their exploits in skiing, luge, and figure skating. Then the bubble bursts, the clock strikes midnight, and we exit Fantasyland into the drabness of real life where sports is a man’s world – until the summer games briefly rekindle the torch two years later.

Between Olympiads, women athletes are regarded as unmarketable, except for tennis players, soccer stars, figure skaters, and the elite basketballers of the marginalized WNBA. Couldn’t support a WNBA team here, could we? There are women broadcasting and reporting local sports all around the country, along with the occasional sideline TV reporter on national feeds, but no woman has ever sat behind the desk with the jocks and coaches for a halftime or postgame NFL broadcast – and networks broadcasting NBA games are also exclusive man caves when a game is in progress.

So triple bravas to Three Bone Theatre for opening Fernanda Coppel’s King Liz at precisely the right moment, during the Winter Games when a battery of TV networks is reminding us what women really can do in sports.

Coppel takes us off the NBA court, away from the broadcast booths and studios, behind the scenes and into the sphere of high-powered sports agents vying to represent topnotch b-ball prospects and squeeze team owners for top-dollar contracts. It’s an arena that requires smarts, guile, charisma, quick thinking, and bargaining grit if you want to reach the top.

This is where Liz Rico is making her mark. Coppel, a lesbian Latina, has said that Liz can be portrayed by either a black or Latina actor. After reading the script several times, director Corlis Hayes saw definite similarities between Liz and the strong women at the heart of August Wilson’s cycle of ten dramas chronicling African American life in the 20th century.

“Both playwrights’ women are very complex and independent,” says Hayes. “Liz Rico has a similar feminine power, like Bernice in The Piano Lesson, Rose in Fences, and Molly in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. These women know what they want and get it. All of them are willing to pay a price.”

Only one of them knows hoops.

“Being a NBA fan for years really paid off for [Coppel] because the language and dialogue through the script are realistic and well researched,” Hayes reveals. “When she was a little girl, she was obsessed with the Bulls.”

Although she says that the jury is still out on whether King Liz is a lesbian, Hayes tells us there is no doubt that she’s a feminist and a former athlete – one who had a mean crossover dribble during her playing days at Yale. Liz competes in the Jerry Maguire stratosphere of kingpin agents like Scott Boras and Tom Condon. Her superstar client list puts her in that rarefied air.

“Just as these kings know how to make deals lying, cheating and stealing for their clients so does Liz Rico……. Maybe more??” Hayes says. “She can hold her own against any man in the business and has the tenacity to go toe to toe with her toughest male counterpart to get the NBA deal signed.”

In this drama, Liz has her sights set on Freddie Luna, a high school point guard touted as the next LeBron, with all the stats that make such a claim credible. He’s got the skillset that would make perennial losers like the New York Knicks salivate at the chance of signing him to a multi-year zillion dollar contract. But Freddie has a downside. Keeping him marketable will be as challenging for Liz as landing him.

“He is a young hothead from the Bronx projects with a criminal record,” Hayes says. “Freddie lacks the maturity to handle his quick fame and wealth. Still, in Freddie she sees herself… a young ambitious novice looking for a break in a world that has rarely forgiven those with a tragic past coming out of the projects of urban communities.”

So there’s a bit of a soft spot marinating in there with Liz’s toughness, just not enough to give Hayes any doubts about who she saw in the role. We were as impressed by Shar Marlin as Hayes was when the diva took her latest star turn in an August Wilson play last spring. That performance – directed by Hayes – drew our Best Actress accolades in our Best of Charlotte awards for 2017.

“After directing Shar in Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” Hayes confides, “I could not think of anyone else that could bring the passion, power and sensuality that I needed for Liz. Shar is a powerhouse, and she gets the character. She is not afraid of a challenge and willing to put in the work. And who else can deliver those juicy and nasty zingers throughout the play than Shar?”

Marlin has played two blues empresses in recent years, Bessie Smith for OnQ Productions in For the Love of Harlem and Ma Rainey at CPCC Theatre. Playing those roles enabled Marlin to see beyond their bold and brassy fronts – down to the vulnerabilities that afflicted and weakened all African Americans nearly a century ago.

“It’s a wide leap for me,” Marlin maintains. “Being a boss in a more modern day piece makes me feel empowered and stronger than my characters in past performances.”

But that bluesy toughness definitely comes in handy. And so does her sports-savvy family.

“The essence of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith has been carried over into this piece, especially when it comes to being respected for their gift and craft,” Marlin admits. “Their tough exterior and courage, to me, has been the true foundation for Liz Rico. Learning the ins and outs of basketball is definitely out of my comfort zone. I’m a girlie girl. Having a son and husband who know the sport truly has helped me connect to the industry as a whole.”

Freddie turns out to be quite a handful for even the ever-resourceful Liz. She has found how good it is to be the king after she has lied, cheated, gabbed, and called upon her sex appeal to reach that pinnacle. But in discovering a connection with Freddie, Liz reaches a turning point, realizing that she may not be as fulfilled as she thought.

“Her growth is very evident in this piece because you see in the beginning that she is solely about money, power and position,” says Marlin, careful about revealing too much. “Her goal in life is to be on top, but that top position will come with an ultimate price. In the end, a huge wake up call will turn her ideas of success into an unexpected revelation.”

Whatever that revelation is, you can expect Marlin to deliver it powerfully.

A Duke Has Fun, Safe from #MeToo Consequences, in Opera Carolina’s “Rigoletto”

Review: Rigoletto

By Perry Tannenbaum

When he wrote his 1832 play, La roi s’amuse, Victor Hugo lavished a good amount of research on 16th century French king François I and his illicit love for the daughter of his court jester, Triboulet. Giuseppe Verdi and librettist Francesco Maria Piave, who had previously teamed together in transforming Hugo’s Ernani into opera, plunged into La roi despite the fact that its depiction of depraved historical characters had run afoul of French censors. That was something of a miscalculation, for Italian censors were no more lenient.

Verdi and Piave were compelled to move their opera to nearby Mantua and demote Hugo’s king to a duke. Those shifts affect the interrelationships of all three main characters in Rigoletto. A duke’s womanizing is more presumptuous than a king’s, and a jester’s plot to strangle a duke is less of a high crime than assassinating a king. Most important, an Italian daughter’s desire to thwart her father’s vendetta against a duke who deflowered and betrayed her is far less comprehensible than a French daughter sacrificing herself for her king and protecting her family from the stain of regicide.

Adding to the discomfort that has always suffused Gilda’s sacrifice on behalf of the reprehensible Duke of Mantua is watching it in our current #MeToo climate. The notorious Metropolitan Opera production of 2010-11 made Gilda’s adulation toward the Duke more understandable by transporting the action to Las Vegas and turning Gilda’s seducer into a nightclub superstar crooner with ties to the mob. It would be interesting to see what Opera Carolina could do with a more traditional concept, a co-production by Boston Lyric Opera, Atlanta Opera, and Opera Omaha that has had its set design and costumes baked in since it premiered in Boston, under the direction of Tomer Zvulun, in 2014.

   

You couldn’t say that Opera Carolina was ignoring their #MeToo problem, because they brought Jordan Lee Braun aboard to stage direct the Charlotte edition of this production and hired Sara Jobin to prepare the Charlotte Symphony and conduct two of the three performances. It was the first such female tandem in the company’s history.

Most of the Rigoletto rehab was evident before intermission. Conducting the orchestra at the premiere performance, general director and principal conductor James Meena had the Charlotte Symphony attacking the first sforzandos of the prelude with more savagery than we usually hear foreshadowing the curse that falls on Rigoletto from the Count Monterone, leaving less ferocity for the orchestra to crescendo to afterwards. It’s bit more vulgar and in-your-face, which is what Raffaele Abete turns out to be in the opening scene as the Duke, throwing around Monterone’s daughter, his latest conquest, by the hair as if she were a ragdoll – cuing us that he has conquered this beauty with his power and privilege rather than his charm. The other “ladies” in this opening scene, many of them courtesans who entertain the Duke’s courtiers, have been excised from this production, concentrating all malice and decadence on the Duke – and his jester, Rigoletto. Our protagonist certainly earns the Count’s curse by suggesting to the Duke that he execute the nobleman to spare himself that dad’s righteous indignation.

As Rigoletto, baritone Anooshah Golesorkhi wasn’t the most malignant mocker I’ve seen, and though costume designer Victoria Tzykun outfits him with a sizable hump, Golesorkhi declined to stoop over and enlist himself among Hugo’s hunchbacks. So he wasn’t the most pitifully deformed of jesters, either. Humpbacked rather than hunchbacked, this Rigoletto struck me as a stronger, crueler father in his insistence on walling up Gilda against the outside world. We don’t get nearly as much to pity about Rigoletto’s possessiveness. It appears, then, that Braun has elected to make both Rigoletto and the Duke more cognizant of their abusive choices and more repellent. When Gilda hoped out loud that her secret love would be poor and simple, the Duke visibly overheard it, debunking any notion that he was romantically inspired when he masqueraded as the penniless Gualtier Maldè.

Yet after intermission, Abete pushed back against the notion that he was a purely vicious, self-gratifying rogue. In his fervent “Parmi veder le lagrime,” the tenor convinced me that the Duke was feeling the pangs of true love for the first time, and later, when his infidelity would soon be exposed to the worshipful Gilda, he sang the famous “La donna è mobile” with the joy of a world-class hedonist. Returning to Charlotte after a fine turn last fall as Roxane in David DiChiera’s Cyrano, soprano Magali Simard-Galdés wasn’t as impressive in Gilda’s signature aria. The notes of the beloved “Caro nome” were all there – including most of the trills – but the blushes and longing we could have heard, let alone the heavy aches that Maria Callas achieved, were nowhere to be found in a rendition that was hardly middling, and she earned no bravas from the audience.

Called upon to be more confessional and spirited in her subsequent arias, Simard-Galdés plumbed more deeply into Gilda’s soul. She was poignant after Gilda had been dismissed by the Duke at his palace. In the final act, after watching the Duke betray her love with nearly the exact sentiments he professed to her, Gilda is sent off to Verona where, disguised as a man, Rigoletto instructs her to wait for him while his hired assassin, Sparafucile, does his dirty work. This was where Simard-Galdés was at her best, reacting to the Duke’s betrayal as part of Verdi’s great quartet, and implausibly returning later on to take her beloved Duke’s place as Sparafucile’s victim. The soprano’s heartfelt little aria was heartbreaking – and like so many other moments in this opera, absolutely infuriating.

I sympathized most with Golesorkhi in the final two acts, when Rigoletto told Monterone that he would make sure to see that his curse on the Duke was fulfilled and when he empathized with Gilda at those moments she was seeing the Duke’s true character clearly. Sadly, Golesorkhi’s moping return to the palace, after Gilda was stolen from him, was relatively lackluster. But the volcano of rage welling up in Rigoletto; telling the courtiers that Gilda was his daughter, not his lover, and then cursing the lot of them; was magnificent.

For anyone who has felt that the closing tableau of Rigoletto was dramatically overlong, as Gilda slowly reaches her final breath in Rigoletto’s arms, Golesorkhi and Simard-Galdés were both helped by Opera Carolina’s staging. A nifty sleight-of-hand took place before Rigoletto, alerted by the sound of the Duke’s signature aria, realized that Gilda had been murdered instead of her seducer. Golesorkhi seemed to discover the dying Gilda and to cradle her in his arms, but she was a body double. Simard-Galdés emerged from behind a scrim, radiantly lit in Michael Baumgarten’s lighting design, a soul already in heaven as she sang. The alteration made sense, but I was ambivalent about it.

Unlike Tzykun’s costume designs or Martha Ruskai’s wig and makeup designs, I didn’t find John Conklin’s set design particularly worth preserving, scanty for its palace, lacking a façade for Sparafucile’s tavern, and utterly illogical for the courtship and abduction episodes. Courtiers actually looked down on the garden scene as Gilda sang the final notes of her rapturous “Caro nome,” moments before they climbed up a ladder to abduct her! But it’s utterly fanciful to say that the courtiers climbed anything, for there was nothing substantial for Rigoletto to lean a ladder against, except an invisible fourth wall facing us. That ladder was ridiculously small, and needless to say, no climbing was done.

Overall, the Opera Carolina components of this production were stronger than their borrowings. Ashraf Sawailam reminded us what a plum cameo Count Monterone’s role is with his stern denunciations, and bass baritone Matthew Curran had nearly all of Sparafucile’s sneering machismo, including the long low note he must hold departing from his first conspiratorial parley with Rigoletto. Paradoxically, it was Leyla Martinucci as Sparafucile’s sister and accomplice Maddalena, who best affirmed Gilda’s crazed devotion toward the Duke.

Hired to help take the Duke off-guard, Martinucci simpers, flirts, and vamps with professional self-assurance, yet she also convinces us that Maddelena has fallen victim to his charms when she pleads with her cutthroat brother to save the rascal’s life. Martinucci is an apt subject for the Duke’s “Bella figlia dell’amore” aria, and the mezzo-soprano contributed beguilingly to the climactic quartet that blossomed from his endless appetite for self-gratification. Yes, the Duke was having fun as Hugo’s original title prescribed, but what remained horrifying was that woman after woman could mistake it for love.

Operatic Abuse Yields to #MeToo? Yeah, Right.

Preview: Rigoletto

By Perry Tannenbaum

Poor Gilda. In Giuseppe Verdi’s masterful Rigoletto, the teenager is so jealously guarded by her overprotective father that, except for churchgoing, she is totally isolated from the outside world. The evil Duke of Mantua, who poaches on other men’s wives, has noticed Gilda at Mass, finds out where she lives, and poses as an impoverished student to seduce her. Seeking to satisfy their ruler’s lusts and avenge themselves on Rigoletto, a hunchbacked jester in the Duke’s court, courtiers hoodwink Rigoletto and kidnap Gilda, the widowed hunchback’s precious daughter.

All these degradations merely take us through Act 1! After a night of lovemaking, the Duke tosses Gilda aside as if she were a common slut, spurring Rigoletto to murderous revenge. So what does Gilda do to thwart her father? When Rigoletto’s hired assassin comes calling, Gilda manages to take the Duke’s place as the murder victim.

 

While the Duke is bedding his third different woman in this opera, famously singing that women are fickle, Rigoletto is discovering that the ever-steadfast Gilda has thrown away her life for his boss.

Verdi borrowed his toxic misogynistic plot from Victor Hugo, knowing a hit when he saw one. Back in 1851, the only major change his librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, had to make to satisfy the censors was to change Hugo’s king to a duke.

Flash forward to this coming Sunday, when Opera Carolina presents Rigoletto for the seventh time since 1959. Is it still possible to shamelessly present this unsettling melodrama – this cavalcade of abuse, rape, and teen suicide – in the age of Harvey Weinstein, presidential pussy grabbing, and #MeToo?

Well, sorta. But times have changed, even within the lifetime of this oncoming Op Carolina production, which was conceived in 2011 as an Atlanta-Boston-Omaha co-production and premiered in Boston under the direction of Tomer Zvulun in 2014. Like mighty ocean liners, it takes awhile to turn a grand opera production around.

Yet it’s still significant that, for the Opera Carolina version, Jordan Lee Braun has taken over as stage director while Sara Jobin has been named to conduct – the first such female tandem in company history.

Neither of these women seemed to be particularly comfortable dwelling on this historic landmark, perhaps because neither was comfortable with Rigoletto and Gilda.

Jobin, whose experience of Rigoletto was compounded recently when she conducted a performance in Toledo on the day Dr. Larry Nassar was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for sexual abuse, doesn’t hold back.

“What went through my head as I watched the performances in Toledo,” she says, “including what is my life for, why am I here, what are we doing, a phrase came to me: ‘hospicing patriarchy.’ I am so sick of seeing women being abused, raped, and killed onstage. And yes, that is the tragic story of the last 5200 years. Traditional opera plots –and movies, sci-fi thrillers and everything else – are full of it.”

Jobin and Braun agree that the antidote to the cesspool of misogynistic old opera plots should lie in new contemporary operas that portray strong women who fight back and win. Braun, however, sees value in presenting the oldies unvarnished, despite their horrors.

“What is striking about Rigoletto is how much of the story is still relevant, uncomfortable as it is,” Braun says. “On the topic of [Rigoletto’s] own sexism, that too is pervasive today. How many politicians, Hollywood A-listers, and others have made us think ‘how can you have a daughter and still be so degrading to women?’ As artists, we have the opportunity to spark important discussions, causing audiences to ask questions of themselves and others. Opera is designed to bash you over the head with the emotion, drama, gorgeous visuals, and fantastic music. This production of Rigoletto certainly does that, and I believe that has value – today as much as ever.”

After a fine Charlotte debut this past fall as Roxane in David DiChiera’s Cyrano, soprano Magali Simard-Galdés will sing Gilda, making the transition from a woman who is serially worshipped to a woman who is serially degraded. She’s also fully on-board with presenting Gilda exactly as she has always been, even when she tosses her life away in the final act for the reprehensible Duke.

“If Act 3 doesn’t make you gnash your teeth,” she states, “I think I will have failed at my job.”

Braun cites Lori Laitman’s The Scarlet Letter and Hilary Blecher’s Frida as contemporary operas with “girl power,” and she points to As One, a chamber opera by Laura Kaminsky with a transgender woman protagonist, that was the 14th most produced opera in the US and Canada in the 2016-2017 season. Early in the evolution of Opera Carolina’s Rigoletto, the decision was made to eliminate the courtesans from the opening scene at the Duke’s palace. Enough with the mistreatment of women!

But not much else has been done to dilute the original, even in the age of The Donald and #MeToo.

“Having said that,” Braun remarks, “I’ve definitely noticed that the behavior of both men and women in rehearsal rooms has changed since the #MeToo movement – we are more specific in our intention of looking after one another, regardless of gender. Perhaps having a woman at the helm does make the cast and crew think and talk about the piece in a different way than they might otherwise, and that’s a good thing. We talk about making sure everyone is comfortable with the physical action, which any director will do, but maybe it is different somehow with a female-led team?”

The problems of dealing with the Carmens, the Butterflys, and the Gildas in classic operas will linger well into the future, but there are contemporary directors who take a less passive approach to Piave’s libretto. At about the same time that Opera Carolina’s production was still in concept stage, the Metropolitan Opera in New York transported Rigoletto from 19th century Mantua to 21st century Las Vegas, changing the predatory Duke into a superstar nightclub singer with ties to the mob.

That actually made Gilda’s inextinguishable adulation for her promiscuous seducer more understandable. Returning to Verdi’s original idea – remember Hugo’s play was titled Le Roi s’amuse – might also help, for killing a king is a far more cosmic crime than merely offing a duke.

A new version that opened last month in London evidently restored all the buxom courtesans to the Duke’s court – and doubled down on the blood. It all had one London critic shaking his head and wondering how an opera dad can take his 14-year-old daughter to such a hedonistic, misogynistic bloodbath.

We posed a similar question to Braun, Simard-Galdés, and Jobin. What does an opera mom say to her daughter about Rigoletto and Gilda? Jobin probably had the most erudite answer:

“If I were a mom and my daughter was watching the opera with me, I would say, ‘Honey, this is a really old fashioned opera plot and illustrates the Italian word rapir which means to steal. They steal the woman, and the word rape actually originally meant to steal someone else’s property. We don’t think that way anymore . . . but some people still do. I hope that you will write an opera where the girl fights back because she has a black belt in judo, and puts everybody in the hospital, and then goes on to become President or whatever it is she wants to do, because it’s about time.’”

Yes, it is.

Celebrity Pistol-Packing Rogues Deliver Guilty Pleasures in “Bonnie & Clyde”

Review: Bonnie & Clyde

By Perry Tannenbaum

Since the days of his greatest successes, with Jekyll & Hyde (1997-2001) and The Scarlet Pimpernel (1997-2000), most of Frank Wildhorn’s Broadway musicals haven’t run more than a month. That includes a revival of Jekyll, Wildhorn’s longest-running show, in 2013 and Bonnie & Clyde, which somehow couldn’t make it through the end of December – the highest grossing month of the year – in 2011. Hearing that the short-lived Bonnie & Clyde was coming to Matthews Playhouse of the Performing Arts roused a morbid curiosity for me: how could a notorious story that won six Oscars in 1968, including Best Picture, flame out so spectacularly in a musical adaptation? Knowing that Billy Ensley, one of Charlotte’s best, would be directing sealed my resolve to investigate.

With the appearance Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow as children at the top of the show, it quickly became apparent that Ivan Menchell’s book was not an adaptation of the sensational film. Unlike the Bonnie portrayed by Faye Dunaway, Menchell’s is a ravishing redhead rather than a blond. There’s never really a Barrow Gang, and though this Clyde aspires to fancy clothes, his dream didn’t come true in Matthews. Most puzzling of all, we don’t see Bonnie and Clyde snapping photos of each other – their most modern trait! – although the authentic period projections go way beyond mugshots. So it’s plausible to me now that the Broadway version of this musical didn’t strictly flop on its merits. Boomers expecting to see the style and gore of the iconic film were disappointed, while it’s very likely that younger theatergoers had never even heard of Bonnie and Clyde.

Armed with a reported $6 million budget, there were presumably more costume changes up in New York than Matthews designer Lisa Altieri provides for Bonnie, but with 20 people in the cast, four of them in multiple roles, Altieri is far from idle and contributes some very fine work. What really made this community theatre effort look like a million bucks was the scenic team of designer John Bayless and scenic change artist Beth Aderhold. Weathered wooden slats span the Fullwood Theatre stage, trisected by two sturdy vertical beams. The columns of slats can be raised like window shades, keeping the flow of action going cinematically as the slats rise to reveal new scenes – or slide back downwards to serve as rustic screens for the old-timey projections, mostly of newspaper headlines, mugshots, and snapshots of our celebrity public enemies. At critical moments, a two-seat jalopy showed up in the middle of it all, no less realistic than the photos I’ve seen of the Broadway roadster.

Not only did Ensley brilliantly contrive to keep the action moving, he brought ace talent to the lead roles and beyond. Joe McCourt, who plays Clyde’s vacillating older brother, Buck Barrow, has starred in numerous musicals at Theatre Charlotte in recent years, including Memphis and Avenue Q. Embittering Buck’s every breath, Emily Witte is his very Christian wife Blanche, after playing a similar spoiler role as Amneris in the Disney Aïda at Theatre Charlotte last fall. This bickering pair would have upstaged the title players if Ensley hadn’t found such strong protagonists as Steven Buchanan and Lindsey Schroeder.

Buchanan was definitely in his comfort zone performing edgier fare, for he played prominent roles in Queen City Theatre Company’s The Pride and Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte’s American Idiot last year. Here he sported a hairdo that was halfway between Hitler and punk, looking lean, Brando mean – in a tank top undershirt – and dangerous. Scene work with Bonnie is a tasty mix of tender and raw, but Buchanan is somewhat monochromatic under arrest or during his larcenous, murderous rampage, barking his commands and forsaking the Warren Beatty charm offensive of the film. Ensley should have occasionally reined him in a bit and reminded him that he’s wearing a microphone as well as a pistol.

Opening in the ensemble of Evita at CPCC Theatre the weekend after her last performance as Bonnie Parker, Lindsey Schroeder is the one new find among the principals. She takes to every aspect of Parker, most especially to her thrill-seeking, her narcissism, and her lust for Hollywood and pinup fame. Schroeder can belt too, so watch out for “How ‘Bout a Dance” and “Dyin’ Ain’t So Bad.” Overall, Wildhorn’s score wasn’t nearly as bothersome as you’d expect from an epic Broadway flop, but there are noticeable stretch marks on its beauty. Witte does a fine job on behalf of homebodies with “That’s What You Call a Dream,” but Blanche’s Christianity opens up a whole new sector of Gospelized expression that I didn’t recall from the movie. Church scenes are essentially extraneous to the main storyline, but it gave Wildhorn an excuse to widen the variety of his score. Off my radar since 2009, Phil Fowler came to the rescue for a couple of doses of “God’s Arms Are Always Open.” Even if it was a narrative detour, it was a rousing showstopper in the positive sense of the word.

Holiday Grow and Donavan Abeshaus were both excellent in introducing us to the young Bonnie and Clyde. Carol Kelly and Scott C. Reynolds were winsome as Clyde’s rusticated parents, and Carol Weiner was prim yet warm as Bonnie’s mom, quietly urging her daughter to come to her senses – and choose the hometown sheriff who clearly adores her. Andrew Tarek plays that role beautifully, with seething jealous fury toward Clyde and tender hat-holding deference toward Bonnie. I found myself hating this Sheriff Hinton without a good reason why, and I surprised myself once again by rooting for Bonnie and Clyde here almost as fervently as I did in the 1967 film, despite the trail of crime and bloodshed they insouciantly left in their wake. Celebrity pistol-packing rogues are likely unique to America, more to our shame than our glory.

“The Greatest” Grows Up

Preview: And in This Corner: Cassius Clay

By Perry Tannenbaum

Adam Burke came to Charlotte because of his passion for youth theatre and education. After a stint as founding artistic director of Chicago Theatre for Young Audiences, Burke took a five-year detour into academia at a San Antonio university. When the artistic director position at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte came open, the ImaginOn theater facilities and the strong link with the CharMeck Library system became irresistible lures.

He took over at ImaginOn at the start of the 2013-14 season, concentrating his stage directing efforts on new works. Big new works like The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical and Ella’s Big Chance: A Jazz Age Cinderella – and richly entertaining extravaganzas like The Reluctant Dragon and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.

Now in his fifth season of overseeing Children’s Theatre’s programming, Burke knows better than ever that he’s speaking to the community as well as its children, a community that is visibly changing. Or maybe waking up to its true image in the mirror after years of blind complacency.

Opening this week, And in This Corner: Cassius Clay, directed by Aaron Cabell, is the second biographical study of its kind to play at ImaginOn in the past three years. Jackie & Me, about baseball great Jackie Robinson, opened in February 2015. Burke reflected on the challenges of presenting meaningful, impactful plays in our current climate.

Creative Loafing: Children’s Theatre presented Jackie & Me almost exactly three years ago, not long after And in This Corner: Cassius Clay premiered in Louisville, Muhammad Ali’s hometown. So was there discussion at that time about following up Jackie with Cassius, or is this series of Children’s Theatre productions about pioneering black athletes more accidental than intentional?

Adam Burke: We did not specifically intend to follow Jackie & Me with another piece about a pioneering black athlete. I was aware of this play being developed in Louisville when it was happening and was hoping that it would end up being a strong script that we could eventually produce. And in This Corner: Cassius Clay asks some big questions about the world that Cassius Clay lived in during the 1950’s and 1960’s – and equally about the world that we live in today.

In the current local climate, how are you hoping parents and children will process this story? How confident are you that the community will pass the test of hearing the N-word spoken at Cassius Clay?

We live in a very different world today than we did when we produced Jackie & Me three years ago. Both plays, Jackie & Me as well as And in This Corner: Cassius Clay, contain the N-word as written by the playwrights. Three years ago we proactively informed every school that intended to bring students that the playwright had included the word in the script. We did the same this season with And in This Corner: Cassius Clay.

Three years ago, we didn’t have any schools withdraw from coming to see the show due to the use of the N-word by the playwright. To date this season we’ve had several. We as parents, as teachers, and as a community, can’t be afraid to bring students to a play that deals with civil rights issues because of the use of the N-word. It’s a painful word to hear, and we abhor its use in everyday life, but pretending it doesn’t exist won’t help make anything better.

Cassius Clay, before and after he became Muhammad Ali, was brash, boastful and divisive before validating himself as “The Greatest.” How much does Idris Goodwin’s script filter out Clay’s not-so-role-model youthful traits?

In this play, Cassius Clay absolutely is a role model. This is a play about a young African-American boy who is learning some truths about the racism that exists in this community. He speaks his mind openly and confidently and asks big questions. I hope this play inspires all of our young audience members to live with their eyes wide open and to question everything.

Casting Cassius, how locked in were you to Clay/Ali’s signature physical traits? Were you able to find such an actor in Charlotte’s talent pool, or were you forced to reach out regionally or nationwide?

Ideally we wanted someone who looked a lot like Cassius Clay and had the ability to capture the spirit of the man. The director found an actor, Deon Releford-Lee, at our season auditions who he strongly felt could play the role. The directors at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte cast their own shows whenever possible.

Considering how important Children’s Theatre’s voice is in this town, do you feel a certain obligation to continue this series of historical dramas?

It is important that Children’s Theatre continues to support our community and tell stories that reflect our social, cultural and political climate. We have a lot of “irons in the fire” so to speak that we believe speak to our young audience and the world in which they live. We are currently deeply invested in The Kindness Project where we’ve committed to commission, create and produce three new plays based on books that all speak to themes of kindness. They each, in their own way, discuss the difference between feeling sympathy or empathy and committing an act of kindness. You can’t feel kind…you have to actually do something in order to be kind.

People Messing With Other People Keep “The Luckiest People” Lively

Review: The Luckiest People

By Perry Tannenbaum

“Grow old along with me, The best is yet to be,” Rabbi Ben Ezra famously says in a Robert Browning poem, but tragic heroes King Lear and Willy Loman would probably have sided with my mom. She keeps telling me: “Young is better.” At Hadley Theatre, tucked away on the Queens University campus, playwright Meridith Friedman significantly compounds the controversy in The Luckiest People. In this Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte production directed by Sidney Horton, Friedman’s charming comedy-drama revolves around Oscar Hoffman, who is stranded by the death of his beloved wife, Dorothy, in a California assisted-living community, deeply lonely with myriad aches, pains, and complaints.

Most of these complaints, some fairly hilarious, are poured into his son Richard’s ears – plus the insinuation that he was responsible for letting his mom die. Oscar’s other child, Laura, has managed to distance herself from the fray, living in Shanghai and delaying her arrival until the funeral because she couldn’t stand to face her mom during her final hours.

So yes, Friedman sometimes seems to hint that caring for your parents as they journey toward their final transition might be at least as agonizing as experiencing it. That impression, however, is undercut by another perspective.

Layered onto all the love-hate friction between Oscar and his children is Richard’s relationship with his partner David. Richard and David are close to adopting a son when Oscar, ignorant of these plans, decides that the time has come for him to leave his place and move in with his son.

One transitioning child is enough for Richard and David to handle in their household, but David watches as Richard uses his father’s needs – and the possibility of his moving in – as excuses to drag his feet on the adoption. Although he himself becomes the target of Oscar’s testiness, David also sees that Richard is more than a little hypertense in dealing with Dad’s needs, complaints, and accusations. Oscar and Richard were born and raised as New York Jews while David is a comparatively mellow California Christian, apparently unacquainted with weaponized guilt.

Because Laura must return to Shanghai, Friedman compresses the bulk of her action into just a few days. That’s long enough for David – and us – to get the notion that Richard and Laura aren’t suffering so much because their dad is really tormenting them. They’re suffering because neither of them is really a grownup. Maybe Richard isn’t ready for parenthood after all.

Leaning over to that point of view can happen if we forget what a handful Oscar can be. Or we can catch ourselves laying the blame on Oscar for his children’s stunted growth. It’s complicated. Fully drawn dramatic families usually are.

Clearly reveling in the height of the Hadley, where Actor’s Theatre has recently inked a deal to be Queens U’s resident theatre for the next five years, executive director Chip Decker has put on his scenic designer hat and built two adjoining rooms at different levels. One of them is Oscar’s modest living room and the other, tellingly larger, is Robert’s kitchen. Of course there’s room for everybody!

Horton has a great sense for how Friedman’s comedy and drama should mix and how the Hoffman family’s humor and anger should suddenly erupt – and there’s a pretty wonderful cast at his command. In this rolling world premiere, Dennis Delamar gets the chance to reprise and further develop his Oscar, a role he originated in staged readings at the NuVoices Festival of 2016. Stooped over, stubborn, selfish, whip smart, and half blind, he is a thorny person to deal with. He’s still holding a grudge over transplanting from Great Neck, New York, to sunny California; yet late in life, Delamar shows us very naturally that Oscar still has possibilities for personal growth.

On the other hand, we might resist the notion that the perpetually tentative or exasperated Richard will ever loosen up, for until the final scene, in a nuanced performance seething with hidden fire, Tim Ross keeps him looking stressed or depressed. Some of that anger even carries over from his scenes with his father and his lover to his scattered tête-à-têtes with his wayward sister. Huddled with little Laura, Ross makes sure we also see an older, wiser brother, with glints of maturity, responsibility, and an aptitude for parenting.

Eventually, both Oscar and Richard emerge as our protagonists. When that happens, we’re likely to realize that Laura and David have both been part of the alchemy. Susan Stein makes an auspicious Charlotte debut as Laura, obviously the loosey-goosey sib from the moment she first enters. Laura is the one who has taken all the leaps into matrimony, motherhood, and now infidelity that Richard is wary of, and Stein makes her self-justifying zingers nearly as memorable as those Oscar aims at his caregivers and over-the-hill neighbors.

All of Friedman’s illuminating edifice probably wouldn’t have collapsed if she had made David a little less perfect, but Scott A. Miller, one of our best, finds a way to texturize him. Mostly, we empathize with David because we see how hurt he is by Oscar’s slights and Richard’s failures to commit, smiling weakly yet persevering with firm resolve. He also has a tête-à-tête or two with Laura, but you can count on Miller to make these more relaxed, conspiratorial, and gossipy.

My only disappointment on opening night was the size of the crowd. The place on Radcliffe Avenue can be a little difficult to find the first time out, but a show this warm and rich is definitely worth the trouble. These are, as the relevant song says, “people who need people,” and you’ll likely never see Delamar or Ross in better form than at the Hadley in The Luckiest People.

The Other Shue Drops at Theatre Charlotte With “The Nerd”

Review: The Nerd

By Perry Tannenbaum

It’s only infrequently that playwright Larry Shue’s name crops up on the Charlotte theatre scene. The New Orleans native, whose comedies were all premiered at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, died in an airplane crash at the age of 39, while his most familiar work, The Foreigner, was still playing off-Broadway. Charlotte Repertory Theatre staged that backwoods farce during the same year that Shue died, 1985, and it was a huge hit, so huge that when Rep marked its 25th anniversary in 2001, a revival of The Foreigner was part of their celebration.

Yet Shue’s “other” comedy, The Nerd, also figured significantly in Rep’s history, for when the company went from a summertime schedule to year-round status in 1988, The Nerd was the company’s first non-summer production. Thirty years later, the current Theatre Charlotte presentation of The Nerd is actually its Charlotte premiere, for Rep staged this wacky comedy at Davidson College.

Wacky might be considered a gracious description of The Nerd, which premiered in Milwaukee two years before The Foreigner and arrived on Broadway two years after its worthier sibling. Silly, over-the-top, and unfocused might be better ways to describe this belated coming-of-age story of young architect Willum Cubbert. We first encounter the low-key Willum as he’s insufficiently surprised by his 28th birthday party. The surprises have hardly begun, for the party is wildly impacted by the unexpected arrival of the title character, Rick Steadman, who retains Willum’s undying gratitude for saving his life in Vietnam.

Thanks to other guests, excesses abound before Rick’s bodacious entrance. Not only is Willum’s current client, Warnock Waldgrave, insensitive to the niceties of Willum’s architectural drawings, he comes to the party with a neurotic wife and a fiercely obnoxious daughter. The little brat has thrown two or three tantrums, assaulted her dad and other adults, and locked herself stubbornly in the bathroom on multiple occasions a sedate warmup compared to the action after Rick arrives. As you might presume, the extremely starchy Warnock and the preternaturally eccentric and irritating Rick are not destined to get along.

Aside from Willum, whose gratitude toward Rick and dependence on Warnock prevent him from taking a hard line, two of Willum’s friends, Axel Hammond and Tansy McGinnis, try to mediate as the party spirals further out of control. Tansy is particularly sympathetic toward Willum. She’s his girlfriend now but will soon be breaking his heart when she moves from Terre Haute, Indiana, to DC, where she has a job waiting for her as a TV weathergirl. Axel is a drama critic, so he’s more inclined to crack wise than be helpful.

Just when it seems that Willum’s evening can’t get any worse, Rick makes his second entrance, suitcases in hand, intent on moving in. It’s here that Shue begins to misdirect us or lose focus, for everyone onstage except Rick becomes intently preoccupied with expelling Willum’s noxious visitor. We’re likely to forget that Tansy has really set the agenda early on in a conversation with Axel.

With set and lighting by John P. Woodey, this Theatre Charlotte production has a very sharp and detailed look to it, augmented by Sabrina Blanks’ splendid costume designs. Mom Clelia and daughter Thoralee clash like crazy in their party outfits, and Rick, dogged in insisting that this is a Halloween party, is positively unearthly when he arrives. Directing this mayhem, Jill Bloede takes a sensible approach, drawing outré performances from her three most noisome players, Trulyn Rhinehardt as the incorrigible Thoralee, Simon Donaghue as a perpetually outraged Warnock, and Jonathan Slaughter as The Nerd.

Rhinehardt misbehaves with such savage zest that you’ll want to take a stick to her. I don’t mind saying that I most delighted in Thoralee when she fainted from fright. Even if Bloede hadn’t changed Thoralee’s gender – Shue originally saddled Warnock with a Thor – I don’t think that a fainting spell by a bratty boy would have been any more satisfying. Donoghue’s powerful take on Warnock seemed to be the only misguided aspect of Bloede’s approach: why didn’t he take a stick or a belt – or a machine gun – to his unruly daughter, and why didn’t he simply fire Willum on the spot for ruining his day? Whatever softness accounted for Warnock’s forbearance wasn’t visible.

Slaughter’s way with Rick, not far distant in its absurdity from the sound and awkwardness of the Nutty Professor minted by Jerry Lewis, always bordered precariously on the unbelievable. There were times when Rick seemed to be trying to irritate everyone in sight, exactly the impression that Shue would have approved of. A tad too young to be playing Willum, perhaps, Cole Pedigo was a near-perfect foil for Rick’s nuttiness once he conquered his opening-night jitters. Shue wanted us to see a talented desirable man who is kind, grateful, and accommodating to a fault. That was exactly how we saw Pedigo.

Shue’s women weren’t as well drawn here as they would be in The Foreigner, but Bloede probably could have pushed Allison Kranz as Tansy and Audrey Wells as Clelia further toward farce. They also suffer at the epic birthday party from hell, Tansy especially after she slaves over a custom-made dinner and Clelia most memorably when she quizzes Rick about his love life. Perhaps if Shue had made her more decisive, Tansy would have seemed less vanilla as the would-be weathergirl, so Kranz definitely needed to pick her spots to show us that she was worthy of Willum’s adoration. Mostly, Shue and I forgot about her. Of course, Clelia was as much generic comedy material as her child, but Shue gave her some bravura business to perform in her reactions. Bloede should have lit the fire that would have made these diva moments for Wells. We weren’t as close to Carol Burnett as we should have been.

Deep in the weave of Shue’s plot is Axel, whose scheme to exorcise Rick in Act 2 is approximately as disastrous as the birthday party was before intermission. Chip Bradley is sufficiently urbane and snarky as this theatre critic, but I sometimes got the impression that he was a late addition to the cast. Along with a few instances of slow cue pickup, Bradley fumbled a few lines before getting them right. I’ve seen him do better in productions just as fast-paced as this one, so I’m expecting better performances in the nights ahead.

Coping with so many moving parts and quirks, Charlotte Rep also had some rough edges in its opening night performance of The Nerd 30 years ago. You wouldn’t want to tame all of this volatile ball of energy, but a little more energy here and a little sharpening there would help Theatre Charlotte’s production to snap into better shape.

 

Two-Thirds of Charlotte Ballet’s “Innovative Works” Are Truly Innovative – and Mesmerizing

Review: Innovative Works

By Perry Tannenbaum

What I especially love about Hope Muir’s first season as artistic director of Charlotte Ballet is the new blood she has infused into the choreography, bringing works by Javier de Frutos and Johan Inger to the city for the first time. So it was with considerable excitement that I went to see the 2018 edition of Innovative Works, premiering pieces by Myles Thatcher and Robyn Mineko Williams, choreographers we haven’t seen here before.

Staged at the McBride-Bonnefoux Center for Dance, where Innovative runs through February 17, both of these new imports triumphed – not only with their bold concepts but in the bravura performances that brought them to life. In between, however, we were subjected to the premiere of “The Weight of Darkness,” a lugubrious and monochromatic work by Sasha Janes that struck me as more inert than innovative. Murky lighting by Burke Brown and all-black costume designs by Aimee j. Coleman didn’t perk things up.

Usually, we can count on Janes to engage us with the sensuous, lyrical, and romantic elements of his work, often with a soupcon of eroticism. But here, commissioned by Angela and Robert McGahan to memorialize Angela’s sister, Irene Ross, Janes goes astray outside his comfort zone. Instead of celebrating Irene’s life, he uses the idea that 4am is the “death hour” as the starting point for his five-part broodings. Of course, the music he has chosen by Nico Muhly and Nico Muhly is neither uptempo nor uplifting.

Chelsea Dumas and Ben Ingel were an attractive couple in the first pas de deux that Janes created for this piece, and the pair of Alexandra Ball James and Josh Hall brought their nonpareil elegance to the second. Trouble was, there was nothing I haven’t seen before in the sequences of ballet moves that Janes doled out to these couples and nothing I’d clamor to see again. In the segments that framed the piece, the four couples of the ensemble only multiplied the tedium.

Perhaps “The Weight of Darkness” wouldn’t have seemed like such a thudding bore if Williams’ “To Clear” hadn’t been so utterly fresh and original. The language of dance movements and the vocabulary of the dancers’ interactions were both striking and new. At the heart of the asymmetrical structure Amelia Sturt-Dilley personified the angularity, restlessness, and urgency of Williams’ concept, appearing at the outset in the most outré of Coleman’s defiantly drab and casual costume designs.

When we first notice Sturt-Dilley perched on a chair, we’re not sure if she’s cautiously settling into it or getting set to flee in terror. Six other dancers, less vividly characterized, ride the wave of the original music score composed by Robert F. Haynes and Tony Lazzera. You might find their synthesis of organic flow with the mechanized pulsations of machines and hip-hop to be a little disconcerting. Fused with the unnatural, yet irresistibly fluid and rhythmic movement of the dancers, it’s just as likely that you will find it mesmerizing and utterly persuasive.

This is who we are, what we’ve become. That’s a strange takeaway from a piece that Williams says started with a thoughtful Bryan Ferry-styled contemplation of a woman, but something else in the choreographer’s filmed intro strikes closer to home. The close, not-quite-connecting interactions between the dancers always seem to deflect them in directions they had not anticipated taking. Totally involving and fascinating.

Concluding the program, Myles Thatcher’s “Redbird” remains abstract, but with Sarah Lapointe brilliantly dancing the title role, there are tantalizing suggestions of a storyline. Coleman dresses Lapointe in a bright red blouse – plus red hoodie, completing the cardinal evocation – that distinguishes her from the other seven dancers until the end when she sheds this plumage. In his intro, Thatcher shares that his choreography was a reaction to “a loss,” a way of processing grief.

Lanterns solemnly brought forth by the other dancers toward the conclusion of the piece may be signaling empathy, so when the redbird sheds her plumage, it’s quite possible she’s accepting their consolation and returning to the fold – and to what she looked like before she was aggrieved. Yet as Lapointe lets herself be absorbed into the group, in a gorgeous ritualistic tableau, there’s no telling for sure whether she has been consoled or coerced. Her outsider color may be unacceptable to the others. Or perhaps it is acceptable for a period of time mysteriously established by tradition.

The process may not work perfectly, but there’s comfort in knowing that you and your tribe are honoring it. And maybe an echo of the agony lingers.