Monthly Archives: March 2018

Actor’s Theatre Brings The Mountaintop Down to Earth – So It Can Soar

Review:  The Mountaintop

By Perry Tannenbaum

Barely a minute before the end of his final speech at the Masonic Temple in Memphis, supporting striking sanitation workers and hurling defiance at injunctions against their protest marches, Rev. Martin Luther King grew famously prophetic. He told his people, hours before he would be assassinated that, like Moses, he had climbed to “the mountaintop” where he could see the Promised Land, and – like Moses – he might not get there with them when they arrived.

In her 2009 drama, , playwright Katori Hall follows King beyond that pinnacle to Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel where the civil rights champion spent his final night on April 3, 1968. She goes to great lengths to show the iconic Nobel Prize winner as a mundane human being. He’s not above fretting about the size of his audience, frolicking in a pillow fight, bumming smokes from a hotel maid and flirting with her, lying to his wife, and failing to wash his hands after he pees. His socks need darning, and his feet are smelly.

There are things to be admired about this approach when you watch the current Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte production directed by April Jones at Hadley Theater on the Queens College campus. Unlike the Blumenthal Performing Arts production at Booth Playhouse in 2014, which pushed back a little against the notion that King was humdrum, Gerard Hazelton is more comfortable with Hall’s irreverence toward the Reverend, letting us see that King had some personal charm and self-awareness to go along with his oratorical magnificence.

Hazelton’s charm combats the threat of King being upstaged by the housemaid. Certainly an attention grabber, Camae is energetic, nervous, somewhat alluring, and very much in the mold of Clarence in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life: sent – and incentivized – from above. Hall is no less irreverent toward divinity and Christianity than she is toward MLK, allowing the Almighty to take a break from Her busy day to take a phone call from Room 306.

Perhaps afflicted with some real nerves on opening night, Erica Truesdale unintentionally shielded Hazelton further from being upstaged when she first entered, rushing her lines past the point of intelligibility. If you clock the show, you might be shocked to see that runtime is 85 minutes instead of the 105 minutes promised in the playbill, but that is only a minute or two quicker than timings clocked at Booth Playhouse and the 2011 Broadway production. So the big problem isn’t pacing, although repeated rehearsals could have convinced Jones that her players needed to make a beeline through the mundane section of the script to reach the divine and visionary sections as quickly as possible.

You’ll find that set designer Chip Decker and lighting designer Hallie Gray might also be chafing against the drabness of an entire show set in a motel room devoid of luxury. Decker adds a cheesy marquee to simulate a chunk of the motel’s exterior, and Gray brings up the lights way beyond what we’d expect from a couple of lamps, adding some cheer. Toward the end, Decker dons his video designer hat and, working with Andrew Sargent, explodes the action in a manner that still reminds me of Picasso at the Lapin Agile.

By that time, Truesdale had settled in and had long since been operating near the top of her game. We only find out what that is when Hall’s script belatedly reaches lift-off. At that point, it’s quite exciting to see Hazelton and Truesdale hitting on all cylinders. The teamwork pays off from the moment that Martin sees through Camae’s disguise, a moment that came through more clearly for me than it had at Booth Playhouse four years ago.

Hall never plumbs the true depths of King’s character. Nor – as August Wilson might have done – does she contemplate his significance within the totality of the African American diaspora. Yet despite her apparent irreverence toward MLK and accepted gospel, Hall winds up mythologizing her protagonist in very apt fashion.

Everybody doesn’t get an envoy to prepare him or her for the afterlife. King draws a rookie, so the initiation becomes a little slipshod – until the end, when we can see a biblical design. Like Moses, MLK is granted a vision of his people’s progress that his final speech affirmed so confidently and defiantly. He beholds it with us from a vantage point that confirms that he belongs on mountaintops. Like, say, Rushmore.

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After a Disconcerting Alarm, Charlotte Ballet’s “Most Incredible Thing” Runs Like Clockwork

Review:  The Most Incredible Thing

By  Perry Tannenbaum

After watching the YouTube video of choreographer Javier de Frutos’ adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Most Incredible Thing in its original 2011 Sadler’s Wells production, I had to wonder how much of this dazzling spectacle Charlotte Ballet artistic director Hope Muir could deliver at Knight Theater. Although villainous Karl the Destroyer was danced by Ivan Putrov in London with devastating panache, and Clemmie Sveaas as the Princess – offered along with half the kingdom by her father, The King, to the creator of the most incredible thing – was a marvel of spasmodic anguish, I had little doubt that their American counterparts, Anson Zwingelberg and Chelsea Dumas, would shine as brightly. My doubts centered on Knight Theater itself.

Incorporating so many movable set pieces by Katrina Lindsay (who also designed costumes), studded with challenging video installations to accommodate film and animation by Tal Rosner, The Most Incredible Thing would test the Knight’s capabilities beyond anything I’d witnessed there since the facility opened in 2009, including The Aluminum Show, Momix, Avenue Q, and Peter and the Starcatcher. To be honest, The Most Incredible Thing is more collaborative and ambitious than most full-length ballets or even new operas, for it has so much more baked into it than the de Frutos choreography and an original score by the Pet Shop Boys, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe. Film and animation have to be delivered – onto screens and scrims – with even more pinpoint accuracy than the dancing.

Ominously, the opening night performance and the ensuing Saturday matinee were canceled “due to mechanical failure.” Announcements appeared at the Charlotte Ballet website, on the company’s Twitter account, and on their Facebook page – the latter time-stamped at 5:07pm on the evening of the performance. So until I took my seat at the Saturday evening performance, I really hadn’t known that I was attending the opening night of the American premiere of The Most Incredible Thing. An usher delivered the news instead of Charlotte Ballet’s PR rep. There was a bit more tension and drama to this performance than I had anticipated!

As it turned out, the most significant modifications that I noticed in Act One appeared to result from deliberate changes by de Frutos to his choreography and Zwingelberg’s approach to Karl. In contrast with Putrov’s charismatic take on Karl, reminding me of vintage Baryshnikov and Lucas Steele’s recent Broadway portrayal of Prince Anatol in Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, Zwingelberg was more angular and Machiavellian, his eyes blackened to emphasize his menace. Yet perhaps nodding to the fact that his piece now occupies a slot in Charlotte Ballet’s season normally filled by such fairy fluff as Cinderella and Peter Pan, de Frutos has softened Karl somewhat so that he no longer brutalizes his henchmen before his abortive attempt to seduce The Princess.

Instead of a talking TV emcee entering with a hand-held microphone, the Charlotte Ballet version has Sarah Lapointe mutely dancing the role in sync with the Emcee’s prerecorded patter. The entire staging of The King’s contest is radically altered, with silhouetted contestants projected on a centerstage scrim and new video supplanting some of the original views of the judges (carried over from the Sadler’s Wells version in its quaint silent film black-and-white). Instead of hundreds of hopefuls vying for The Princess’s hand, the cosmic number of contestants rises well past 10 billion as the video fades out.

All of these alterations work remarkably well, but what brought us more grandly to intermission was the decision to delay the break until after Leo the Creator, already backed and beloved by The Princess, demonstrates his miraculous watch. As the watchmaker, Josh Hall abandons the tortured artist mien of the London protagonist in favor of a more wholesome interpretation – the miraculous watch springs to life from his hands as a phenomenal wonder even to himself rather than as an agonizing pang of giving birth. And the Rosner video, interspersed with live dancing, is an undeniable wonder.

Rising and falling while constantly displaying the steady flow of animations, the huge clock proves to be an electronic video screen rather than a cloth projection screen, maybe the largest circular TV that I’ve ever seen, including the movie version of The Wizard of Oz. Blowing away at least half of Andersen’s concept of what each digit on the clock represents, de Frutos and Rosner make it a retrospective of all human history, beginning with Adam as 1 and Eve as 2. Lindsay gets into the act here with skimpier costumes for Adam and Eve that paradoxically supply their full names instead of their initials, and when we reach 4 o’clock, she abets de Frutos’s altered choreography by labeling the dancers’ slacks with the names of the four seasons, adding clarity to the previously abstract episode.

Even as de Frutos contrives to make this Charlotte Ballet version more family-friendly, the watchmaker’s demo grows majestically in power during its second half. Echoing the “Big Spender” number from Sweet Charity, the depiction of the Seven Deadly Sins, also newly labeled, featured seven sultry female dancers – some of whom were actually men in red wigs – with white-gloved “Fosse hands.” Eight was a play on the musical octave that not everyone will catch onto, and 9 o’clock signaled the presentation of prenatal video, referencing the months of pregnancy.

Ten was the last borrowing from Andersen, presenting the Ten Commandments, with ten dancers splayed around Moses shifting their formations as an overhead view of them flashed on the clockface. From there, we blasted off to video of Apollo 11 and man’s first walk on the moon. With a Zarathustra-like swell in the musical score, 12 climaxed Leo’s demonstration by summing it all up – with some 300 names of great artists flashing onto the screen to underscore the overall theme of creation.

Emerging from Knight Theater for the single intermission (three acts have been reconfigured into two), I had no doubt that what I’d already seen far eclipsed the technical sophistication of any show previously presented at that venue. In fact, Matthew Bourne’s ballyhooed adaptation of The Red Shoes, which toured Charlotte back in October at Belk Theater, seemed puny in its technical ambitions by comparison and clumsy in its storytelling. Everything ran with nearly absolute precision at Knight Theater, so it was reasonable to assume that all “mechanical failure” had been conquered. Nor were there any indications that last-minute alterations were necessitated anywhere in Act Two, when Leo’s happily-ever-after victory in the contest was dramatically detoured – but not ultimately destroyed – by Karl the Destroyer. Karl ambushes the lovebirds backstage, seizes and destroys Leo’s miraculous watch, and the contest judges, consulting their rules, have to declare that destroying the most incredible thing is more prizeworthy than creating it.

When the kingdom falls into a desperate gloom after this twist of events, the lighting motif by designer Lucy Carter is still a lurid red, but most of the bloody elements of the video depicting the devastation have been discreetly muted or removed. On the other hand, when the Three Muses who helped inspire the marvelous clock return to rebuild it, they now have supersized scissors to cut the villain into bits and spring Leo from prison. All of this magic and good fortune – with encore video on the big clock – is crowned with a joyous wedding celebration. The regimented citizens who had previously danced robotically back and forth to their places at a long table now tossed confetti with equal precision at the wedding. On Saturday, that was the only hazardous scene in the entire show, for Hall nearly slipped on the confetti afterwards when he trotted out to take his bows.

The battle between divine creativity and brute force plays out beautifully in this edgy extravaganza, the Tennant-Lowe score nearly as nuanced as the de Frutos choreography. In her starring role, Dumas mostly dances hostile pas de deuxs with Karl or her father, relaxing and showing her potential for joy only intermittently with Leo. Her black wedding with Karl is the deepest thing in the piece, for it is here that de Frutos taps into the heart of his scenario, linking the robotic citizens of the despotic kingdom with the incredible watch that might ultimately liberate them. In this black wedding, there are moments when the women circle around the men like arms of a clock, Karl towering above them all, and there’s a sequence when we see couples dancing in place, moving around each other like wooden brides and grooms on a medieval town clock tolling the hour. We were not only seeing a somber variant on the townspeople’s precision movement but a foreshadowing of the miraculous return of Leo’s clock.

The supporting roles were all superbly danced, including Sarah Lapointe as Emcee, Drew Grant as Adam, and Raven Barkley as Eve. Anyone seeing Charlotte Ballet for the first time will not be surprised to learn that each of the Three Muses – Amelia Sturt-Dilley as Concentration, Sarah Hayes Harkins as Love, and Alessandra Ball James as Courage – has danced leading roles for the company in the past. As the kingdom’s drones, Karl’s henchmen, and numerous other cameos, 18 other members of Charlotte Ballet and Charlotte Ballet II also populate the stage. Almost as impressive in this complex collaboration, they frequently act as stagehands, setting up, disassembling, or merely reconfiguring scenery pieces and scrims so that this sensory assault never drifts out of sync with the Pet Shop Boys’ prerecorded soundtrack. The Most Incredible Thing may be the most hyped title you’ll ever encounter, but this Charlotte Ballet production often made it seem like a casual description. Despite the alarm of its sudden opening night cancellation, it was running like clockwork the following evening, far more vivid and moving in live performance than on YouTube.

©2018 – CVNC.org

“Waitress” Frequently Betrays Its Southern Heart With Loudness and Silliness

Review:  Waitress

Waitress the Musical

By Perry Tannenbaum

Like the gentle raindrop patter of its opening song, “Sugar… butter…water,” the musical adaptation of Waitress promises a delicious, delicate, and transient chemistry that sensitively parallels the formation and breakup of romantic relationships. As the motif repeats in the music and lyrics of Sara Bareilles’s score, we get some extras from its troubled protagonist. Jenna not only waits tables at Joe’s Pie Shop, she also bakes the pies. And she not only falls in and out of love, she also experiences personal growth through the alchemy of motherhood.

Unfortunately, delicacy and sensitivity pretty much run dry in Jessie Nelson’s adaptation of Adrienne Shelly’s screenplay after they’ve been lavishly applied to Jenna. Earl, Jenna’s husband, is about as toxic a redneck as you could imagine, a brutal grungy sponge who gets one song to match his one dimension. Jenna’s two waitress cronies are sunnier, to be sure, but hardly more rounded: Dawn is kooky, mousy, and shy, contrasting with the swaggering and smart-ass Becky.

Waitress the Musical

All three waitresses have man problems, and all three will wind up with new men. Along the way, Jenna and Becky can commiserate on the folly of having sex with your husband while Dawn is hooking up with Ogie, who is even weirder than she is, presumably because she has cured his shyness in five minutes or less. As Ogie, Jeremy Morse draws the liveliest song of the evening, “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me.” But as if to punish Morse for this goofball showstopper, Bareilles later saddles him with “I Love You Like a Table,” which is every bit as silly as its title.

The folly of having sex with her husband sends a ready-to-puke Jenny to the ladies’ room, where she and her co-workers await the results of a store-bought pregnancy test. Gloomy with the news that she’s having Earl’s child, Jenna soon appears at her gynecologist’s office bearing one of her most special pies as a gift – only to learn that the woman has retired, replaced by Dr. Pomatter, an agreeably awkward new man in town. We know what will happen between the two of them before they do, and Maiesha McQueen, in a comical cameo as his Nurse Norma, gets to swipe a couple of Jenna’s subsequent gift pies.

Waitress the Musical

Although Earl berates her pie-making, Jenna schemes to escape him and his bullying, tucking away some of her tip money so she can take the train to a statewide baking contest where her pies could win her a $20,000 prize and a new life. Dr. P and Nurse Norma seem to be the biggest fans of Jenna’s daily specials, yet she also gets encouragement from her best customer back at the shop, Joe himself. But the backbone she needs to finally stand up to Earl must come from within.

Desi Oakley manages to keep Waitress grounded even when Bareilles’s songs and Nelson’s outré characters take us away from the story’s countrified Southern heart. After extended absences, an irresistible country twang enriches Oakley’s voice and we’re back home. Maybe she’s a tad too beautiful for this pie-making savant, but when Oakley sings “She Used to Be Mine” deep in Act 2, Jenna’s journey is laid bare and she sounds genuinely fed up with her recurring mistakes.

Among the other characters, only Joe sounds capable of comparable introspection, and Larry Marshall makes the pie fancier’s “Take It from an Old Man” another highlight. Dr. Pomatter reaches maximum depth when he urges Jenna to teach him the rudiments of making pies. More often, Bryan Fenkart is called upon to emphasize the furtive and fun-filled regions of romance, light on the comedy because he’s a physician and light on the intimacy because he’s married.

Bryan Fenkart and Desi Oakley in the National Tour of WAITRESS 1 Credit Joan Marcus 0054r.jpg

The first of Fenkart’s three duets with Oakley, “It Only Takes a Taste,” is undoubtedly the best, but none of them match the country flavor of the three waitresses when they harmonize. “Opening Up” is the yummiest of these trios, but Lenne Klingaman as Dawn and Charity Angel Dawson as Becky each gets a chance to shine alone. Nervous before first date – in approximately forever – Klingaman has a better vehicle in Dawn’s “When He Sees Me” than Dawson’s defiant “I Didn’t Plan It” when she slips into an extramarital romance.

Of the two brutes in the story, Ryan G. Dunkin was by far the most benign as Cal, the pie shop manager. After fuming about his crew’s tardiness and threatening to fire Becky, the biker beast turns out to have a soft side. Though Earl begs Jenna not to leave him at one point, it’s an inexplicable lapse in his customary physical intimidation and verbal abuse, so I quickly found myself dreading every scene where Nick Bailey showed up as Jenna’s noxious husband.

The heavy-handedness of this touring production doesn’t altogether vanish when Bailey exits, for the soundbooth, more often not, overmikes the singers onstage, especially the women. When there was actual exposition involved, as when Jenna reminisced about her upbringing in “What Baking Can Do,” I couldn’t get the gist live and needed to catch up at home with Spotify. On the other hand, the six-piece band led onstage by John Miller was very tight, and while the lighting by Ken Billington could have benefitted from more variety, set designs by Scott Pask whisked us smartly from one smalltown location to another.

Before curtain-rise, a huge cherry pie with crisscrossed dough on top filled the stage at Belk Theater all the way up to the proscenium, and the near-capacity crowd on opening night was inclined to eat it all up. Waitress will hit your tastebuds with down-home delight if you downsize your expectations.