Monthly Archives: April 2018

“Rite of Spring” Showcases the Best of Charlotte Symphony and Ballet

Review:  Rite of Spring: Reinvented

By Perry Tannenbaum

As scarce as modern music was in Charlotte Symphony’s classics concerts last fall – or anything that wasn’t by Beethoven – subscribers can be delighted (or appalled) by the cavalcade of moderns this spring. Sibelius, Ravel, Prokofiev, and Bernstein were all beautifully represented at Belk Theater in March, encouraging Charlotte’s staunch traditionalists to discard their modern music trepidations at the beginning of April and come out en masse for Rite of Spring: Reinvented, an evening of Stravinsky.

Further enticement to come and hear Christopher Warren-Green leading the orchestra came from Charlotte Ballet. Newly led by Hope Muir in her first season as artistic director, the company would not only reprise George Balanchine’s setting for Apollon musagète, they would also be premiering a new choreographic setting by Peter Chu for the seminal Rite of Spring.

The proven excellence of Symphony in modern repertoire, the excitement of a collaboration with Charlotte Ballet, and the lure of a world premiere probably all contributed to filling the hall with subscribers and newcomers. Yet there was another element in play. While the Apollon served as a calling card for the company’s magisterial authority in all things Balanchine, the world premiere of Chu’s Rite served as a showcase for their backup Charlotte Ballet II troupe, as well as their company apprentices, youth ballet participants, and students in the Charlotte Ballet Reach program.

Serving children 7-13, Reach is obviously an impressive program with branches at the Ivory Baker Recreation Center, the Albemarle Road Recreation Center, and the Hickory Grove Recreation Center. Of the 67 performers involved in Rite of Spring, 48 were from the Reach program, all performing for the first time at Belk Theater. Some of these kids had never attended any event there before.

Such an event would be a big deal for parents and relatives – as it is when Charlotte Youth Ballet performs Ovens Auditorium or Knight Theater elsewhere in town. Conceiving his Rite of Spring as a community event, Chu didn’t hurt ticket sales at all, for those friends, parents, and relatives certainly came out to see these students perform.

What they saw raised Symphony and Ballet to a higher plateau, even in the Apollon reprise. Because Symphony had been reduced to approximately 30 players for the most recent run of Ballet’s annual Nutcracker, it had been awhile since the full ensemble had performed from the orchestra pit in their collaborative relationship. And because Opera Carolina seats the press down at stage level, this may have been the first time I’d heard them performing in the pit from the vantage point of the grand tier.

From the downstairs level, the sound of the Charlotte Symphony can be slightly constricted from the pit, although our main attention in opera is always on the stage. Up in the grand tier, where my Symphony tickets are, I found that the confines of the pit added a warm glow to the sound, a welcome aura for patrons who might find the Belk’s acoustics too clinical and in-your-face when the orchestra plays from the stage.

Performing Apollon to live music also had a gratifying effect on the Charlotte Ballet performance. Strumming on Apollo’s lyre, Josh Hall seemed to be playing the instrument for the first time, precisely in sync with Stravinsky’s score instead of vaguely going through the motions. The newfound synergy between Balanchine’s choreography and Stravinsky’s helped to make the reprise of Hall’s performance fresh again.

So did the continuing grace and charm of his three muses, Chelsea Dumas as Calliope, Sarah Hayes Harkins as Polyhymnia, and Alessandra Ball James as Terpsichore. Even the iconic sun-god tableau, perhaps the most compelling Balanchine image that Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux and Patricia McBride gave to us when they took the reins of Charlotte Ballet, was freshened by the live music. Hearing the delighted surprise of so many ballet newbies in the crowd to this famous ending freshened it more.

Depicting a human sacrifice, Stravinsky’s scenario was definitely communal – but also barbaric, no more heartwarming than Shirley Jackson’s classic, “The Lottery.” Yet in setting this oftentimes harsh music for a large group of children who hadn’t finished middle school, Chu and costume director Aimee Coleman weren’t aiming to turn this scenario into pure sunshine.

On the contrary, the most haunting images Chu and Coleman created with their large cast was of waves of migration – poor peoples under stress, fleeing war and tyranny, caring deeply for their children, and looking for a peaceful homeland. Exactly the kind of people that America’s ruling party doesn’t want to think about, let alone welcome. Chu and his large cast, to put it another way, turned the primitive barbarity of Stravinsky’s original scenario for the Ballet Russes in 1913 into a more modern barbarism – showing the effects of tyranny, war, and callous indifference upon unmistakably good people.

I’m not sure Chu’s scenario needed to be quite as inchoate as the refugees’ lives that he depicts. Showing us the tyrants, the jackboots, or the marauders that the good folk were fleeing might have given a more substantial shape to what we were witnessing. Nor did I feel that the Charlotte Ballet II dancers were stretched anywhere near to their fullest. Yet Chu’s images of mass migration and parents fretting their children’s survival were more than sufficiently powerful to make the big audience at the Belk feel involved in this community happening.

The event also seemed to be special for Warren-Green and the Symphony musicians. Apollon is more sedate than you expect Stravinsky to be, and the ensemble called forth all its beauties. But when we reached barbarities of Stravinsky’s Rite, nobody in the pit was holding back, and the essence of the music came through with all its primal force.

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“On Golden Pond” Is Still Sugary at CP, but Never Cloying

Review:  On Golden Pond

By Perry Tannenbaum

Although I had not seen the original 1979 Broadway production – and had staunchly avoided playwright Ernest Thompson’s 1981 Hollywood adaptation – I thought I knew all I cared to know about On Golden Pond when it finally caught up with me at Theatre Charlotte in 2006. Through unsolicited excerpts flashed at me on TV, I had become all-too-familiar with Henry Fonda’s crustiness as Norman Thayer Jr., Katharine Hepburn’s gritty steadfastness as his wife Ethel, the whininess of Jane Fonda as their daughter Chelsea, and the gooey honey that bound them all together.

Were there other characters in the script? That was one of the unexpected delights I discovered as my first full encounter with On Golden Pond, like so many others with The Sound of Music, turned out to be better than I feared. Yet as I also find with that Rodgers and Hammerstein evergreen, there’s a recoil effect that comes with intervening years, and I was dreading On Golden Pond once again as it opened at Central Piedmont Community College.

Directed by Marilyn Carter, the stage version proved to be somewhat sweeter than the film; largely because Elyse Williams gives a sunnier, more domesticated rendering of Ethel; dispelling the hardy Yankee, outdoorsy Hepburn effect. Williams and Tom Scott are less iconic and godly as the elder Thayers than Hepburn and Henry, so Amy Pearre Dunn as Chelsea seemed far more sensible and far less petulant than Jane. Toss in the other people who enter the Thayers’ summer home in Maine, and the story seems less about age-old family animosities and far more mundane.

After many years of estrangement, Chelsea, with her dentist fiancé and his son, arrive to celebrate the dour Norman’s 80th birthday. The betrothed couple presumes to impose twice upon their hosts’ hospitality, sleeping together in the same bed and then – with Norman’s grumbling permission – dropping off Billy Jr. for a month while they fly off to Europe. The Billy invasion has unexpected results, shifting the story away from centering exclusively on the Thayers and their parenting. Ultimately, it also takes in the tribulations of Norman’s aging, his surprising capacity for growth, Ethel’s sweet forbearance, and the realities of a successful marriage.

This is the penultimate show at Pease Auditorium, which will be demolished after Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap plays there this summer. It’s hard to think of any script that has ever fit Pease’s squat stage better than Thompson’s rustic yarn, for James Duke’s set design takes fine advantage of Pease’s panoramic width, and the dwarfish staircase up to the Thayers’ bedrooms hardly seems to matter. I can’t remember if there ever was a curtain drawn across this epic stage, but a curtain would have been largely redundant when the elderly couple arrived, for all the furnishings were covered in drop cloths until, one by one, the Thayers lifted and folded them. Thompson showed a fondness for such elaborate episodes of stage business to kick off his scenes, but it grew less effective in subsequent scenes, where the scurrying business veered toward farce.

The sweeter Ethel in the CPCC Theatre production allows Scott, as a retired Penn professor, to venture close to maximum orneriness – because he’s the one formidable figure onstage. His words stung when Norman and Chelsea had their long-delayed showdown, but part of their impact came from Dunn’s stunned reaction, so I could believe that Norman was being almost casually honest rather than intentionally hurtful. Spoken by Scott instead of a cinematic icon, Norman’s inbred racism also counted for more.

The big dramatic moments of On Golden Pond, as well as most of comedic moments, come because Norman is such a thorny force to be reckoned with – and so insistently morbid. In his confrontations with Chelsea, her fiancé, and Billy, Scott not only wore Norman’s armor well but also showed that it could be pierced. With Ethel, he could be more vulnerable and yielding, which made the climax of the final scene very moving.

Williams was more than sufficiently cheery as Ethel for Norman to spout all his morbid thoughts in self-defense. Sugary, yes, but never cloying. What surprised me most about Williams’ performance opposite Scott was her consistent strength paired with one of the most robust acting voices in town. She was not only as audible as Scott in combat with Pease’s wayward acoustics, she was more consistently intelligible, for Scott occasionally softened his projection or toyed with a regional accent. There was easily enough force from Williams for us to grasp that Ethel was the decider of where things belonged in the house, yet the nuances of her deference toward Norman and its impact upon her relationship with Chelsea were also preserved.

I didn’t get the impression that Dunn was in her early forties, so I missed the overlay Chelsea’s missing her child-bearing years in her bitterness. Unresolved issues with her parents seemed nettlesome rather than crippling, with Scott taking on more of the animosity between father and daughter. Chelsea’s grudges against Mom and Dad were more evenly split here. At her point of aging, Dunn didn’t seem as desperately in need of healing as Norman did, facing the deterioration of his memory. Paul Gibson as Bill really did seem to be the adult upgrade Chelsea needed for her second marriage, showing his mettle when Norman tested it, tellingly enriching our portrait of his perspective father-in-law.

We would hardly miss mailman Charley Martin if Thompson had surgically removed him from his scenario, but Todd Magnusson makes him winsome enough, a garrulous exemplar of local color and a longtime admirer of Chelsea, though he could have been a tad surer in picking up and remembering his lines. Stepp Nadelman has more onerous difficulties to overcome in his first big Charlotte outing as Billy, and the youngster made himself better heard than many older actors have at Pease Auditorium, especially when it counted. Nadelson is no longer at an age where merely standing there and smiling would make him appealing, yet Thompson lavishes a considerable amount of texture upon Billy, commensurate with his ultimate importance to Norman. Although there were occasional drop-offs in his projection, Nadelson’s acting never flagged.

Spanish Gold in a Rat Pack Update

Preview: Life Is a Dream

By Perry Tannenbaum

With a king who tries futilely to outwit fate and a wrongfully imprisoned prince who has time – and fate – on his side, Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s Life Is a Dream hearkens back to a couple of revered Greek tragedies, Oedipus Rex and Prometheus Bound. First produced in 1636, the script also bears earmarks of Shakespeare’s most mature dramas, works like The Tempest and King Lear, where the Bard ponders questions about nature vs. nurture and “elemental man.”

Mixing in a faceoff between free will and predestination, Life Is a Dream stands as one of the two most-anthologized plays from Spain’s Golden Age. Anthologists casually refer to the piece as a drama, but the more thoughtfully considered entry in the Reader’s Encyclopedia of World Drama describes Calderón’s masterwork as “a metaphysical problem play.”

Screw that, says Shakespeare Carolina director S. Wilson Lee. He will tell you – and remind his cast of actors emphatically – that Life Is a Dream is a COMEDY.

Scorning complexity, Lee explains: “My theatre education regarding classic drama planted this nugget into my brain: Drama is divided into two categories, TRAGEDY and COMEDY. The difference? In TRAGEDY, central characters end the show dead; in COMEDY, central characters end the show married! Life Is a Dream ends with marriage.”

If that ending is real.

At a key turning point in this “comedy,” King Basilio of Poland allows his son Prince Segismundo, imprisoned since birth, to come to the royal court. It’s a test of an astrologer’s prediction that Segismundo, if allowed to live and reign, would be the ruin of the kingdom. Brought up as an isolated savage, perpetually in chains and dressed in animal pelts, Segismundo is a fairly sure bet to fail any test of readiness to rule.

Basilio has planned well what he would do if his son misuses the reins of power. He’ll see to it that Segismundo is drugged, transported back to his mountainside dungeon, and assured that his royal misadventures were nothing more than a dream. Whether that’s cruelty or comedy, this whole truth-or-illusion strand that runs through Calderón’s script is very modern.

Lee is taking it further. The “dream-state” aspects of Segismundo’s journey will serve to heighten the comedy. “Living the Dream or Dreaming the Life …whatever” will be more than a mantra for ShakesCar’s production when it opens at Spirit Square on April 19 – it will rule Lee’s design concept. King Basilio will be living the life with a modern flair, crowned with the Rat Pack aura minted a generation ago by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr.

“The look of the piece,” Lee says, “is a kind of ‘Wild Ones Meet the Rat Pack.’ Most of the locale of the production takes place in Basilio’s Place… a happenin’ lounge in Poland, Nevada. Also, the strangers, Rosaura and Clarin, come from Moscow, Pennsylvania. King Basilio is in the process of handing over his rule to the next ‘head of the Family.’ Remember, though, this could all be Segismundo’s dream!”

Lee intends to bring the audience into the dreamy action at Duke Energy Theatre. Cast members will address the audience during the show, and special seating will be available onstage at four lounge tables that will put eight of ShakesCar’s guests – two per table – in the middle of the action.

In this royal tale of turmoil, father and son are both attention-grabbers. Though brought up in a cave with the humblest clothing, Segismundo isn’t exactly a clone of Shakespeare’s Caliban. He has a caretaker, Clotando, who tutors him a bit, and it’s Segismundo’s natural depth and probity that sets him heroically apart. In the first speech he utters, he tells us that mankind’s greatest sin is being born, a line that endeared Calderón to no less of an absurdist playwright than Samuel Beckett himself.

Veering from savagery to such sublime speculation – the prince soon questions whether he was born – Segismundo spans an astonishing range of moods.

“This was easily the hardest role I have ever prepared for,” says David Hayes, a ShakesCar mainstay since 1998. “Segismundo is dancing back and forth across a very fine line between madness and sanity – to the point where my own perception got a little skewed during this process. Stan [the director] has been a key component to reining me in or removing my ‘chains.’”

To a certain extent, Hayes must not only take ownership over the full range of Segismundo, the dreamer, but our experience as well.

“Isn’t that what a dream really is?” Hayes hints. “A chaotic onslaught that blurs the lines of reality. That’s what this is.”

Counterbalancing this Marlon Brando biker persona is King Basilio as Vegas slickster. The closest role Russell Rowe has done with ShakesCar to this cruel Basilio was King Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, who renounces his wife and daughter, but Lee is telling him to think Frank Sinatra here.

Enjoying life at the top and thinking he has outwitted fate, Basilio isn’t ready to let go. Rowe doesn’t see much of a character arc in this swinging king.

“It is more of a slope,” he says, “a descent from an exalted state to a more humbled one. This downfall encompasses both roles as king and father, since the threat to his kingship is coming from his own son. After the descent, of course, there is the brief but powerful upturn at the end, as Basilio learns the difficult lesson that he can only get what he wants by giving up trying to get it.”

Of course, Segismundo doesn’t really know what he wants when we first meet him, because he has no idea yet who he is. The action is kickstarted with the arrival of Rosaura at his secluded prison, a woman who very much knows what she wants – disguised as a man. She is fiercely in pursuit of the man who jilted her, but we soon realize her similarity to Segismundo. Rosaura has also lived a long time without being aware of her true identity.

It’s a twisty plot when we arrive at Basilio’s lounge, with l-o-o-o-n-n-g speeches every step of the way. Lee is confident that the new translation eases the complexity and floweriness of Calderón’s text, helping to pave the path toward his intent of imposing a comedic style on the action. The transgendered translator, Jo Clifford (nee John Clifford), was presumably most enamored with Rosaura, who openly speaks of herself as a man and as a woman in the same speech during the Act 3 climax.

In her disguise, Teresa Abernethy gets to be one of the boys from the outset. But she doesn’t have to arrive on horseback. Nor is her opening line “Dash off, wild hippogriff!” as it was in an older translation.

“I’m still bursting out calling my horse – ride, bike, Hog – a Hippogriff!” Abernethy reveals. “Damn thing gave false promises of forever through rough terrain!”

The roughest ride for Rowe and Abernethy has been reining in the tempestuous temperaments of their characters.

“Rosaura is fueled by passion,” says Abernethy, “which propels her inner conflict. Emotion is a beast that can drag us to all sorts of domains, but for Rosaura, she is ALL IN – willing to die for her honor. My own conflict is not floating away to Rosaura’s coursing elements of shame and still participate in this play that is a comedy.”

Lee is pulling hard to keep it that way. The director wants this Shakespeare Carolina production to engage us in the bigger questions that Calderón plays with – without bogging us down in them.

“I do want the audience to think about long term abandonment and the toll it takes upon one’s psyche and cognitive process. I want the audience to relate to Rosaura’s sense of loss and dishonor. I also want the audience to ponder Basilio’s reasons and explanations regarding his treatment of Segismundo. By all means, do that. However, none of those questions will be pondered if the audience has not had a good time exploring along with the characters. Have fun!!”

 

Much of the Ambiance Is Trimmed from “A Time to Kill,” but the Mississippi Murder Trial Still Sizzles

Review:  A Time to Kill

By Perry Tannenbaum

Rupert Holmes has built a distinguished theatre career – and carved out his own special niche – by crafting mysteries for the Broadway stage. His Accomplice won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America when it played on Broadway in 1990, and after his Thumbs premiered successfully in Charlotte, it seemed Broadway-bound in 2001. Holmes’ most unique accomplishments are his two mystery musicals, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, adapted from Charles Dickens’ unfinished novel, and Curtains, a Holmes original. So it’s not at all surprising that Holmes would be the first playwright to adapt a John Grisham bestseller for the stage when he brought A Time to Kill to the Great White Way in 2013. As the current Theatre Charlotte production demonstrates, adapting Grisham’s first novel for the stage was a tall order.

Admitting that film would be a more comfortable medium for this story, director Dave Blamy conspires with set and lighting designer Chis Timmons to wedge in some clips, prefacing the action with evocations of a horrific rape of a 10-year-old girl and, deep in the story, flashing the handiwork of the Ku Klux Klan on the darkened upstage wall. From the outset, you can presume that Timmons’ design for Judge Edwin Noose’s Mississippi courtroom isn’t going anywhere. It is so sturdy and stately that you may be tempted to rise when the judge enters to launch Act 1. But Timmons manages to swivel the entire courtroom 90° during intermission, adding a sidecar to the judge’s bench that serves – somewhat shakily – as a witness box. When we adjourned to the judge’s chamber, other parts of the courthouse, or defense attorney Jake Brigance’s home, there were discreet furniture shifts while the lights were dimmed. They worked well enough.

Unfortunately, Grisham’s canvas is larger. Though we watch Billy Ray Cobb and Pete Willard confess to the rape and attempted murder of little Tonya in vivid Mississippi detail, we never see her father, Carl Lee Hailey, taking vengeance upon these perverts. Thanks to Christy Edney Lancaster’s sound design, we can hear the chants of protesters outside the courthouse when Carl Lee goes on trial for murder, but we cannot see the mob’s fury. When hostilities break out between black supporters of the defendant and KKK racists, we’re shielded from the riot, and when the National Guard moved in… I wasn’t sure that was even mentioned in the script.

Clocking in at a hefty 2:17, plus a 20-minute intermission, the production won’t seem skimpy at all. Instead of any prolonged attention to the KKK, Holmes takes us more intently into Jake’s defense efforts behind the scenes, bringing extra emphasis to whip-smart legal assistant Ellen Roark, disbarred attorney Lucien Wilbanks, and the pillar of the defense’s case, Dr. W.T. Bass. The psychiatrist is recruited for the purpose of confirming that Carl Lee committed the double murder while suffering from temporary insanity, but it quickly became apparent that Wilbanks had made Bass’s acquaintance in a barroom during one of his frequent sprees. For better and worse, suspense and thrills now rest on the outcome of the trial, not on the survival of Carl and Jake in the face of KKK mob mentality. We’re also called upon to hate district attorney Rufus Buckley a little bit more, for his smarmy courtroom confidence and his undisguised political ambitions.

A slick, relatively bloodless package like this would have worked better if it were performed more slickly. Blamy pushes in that direction, but Grisham’s main characters are defined by their back-stories, and their development is further hampered by the formality that legal proceedings – arraignments, pleadings, motions, and trials – impose on dialogue. All combined, the length, formality, and pervasive legalese of A Time to Kill may account for the fact that actors were stumbling over their lines more frequently on this opening night than at any show I can remember at Theatre Charlotte.

Best at handling it was Jim Greenwood, who managed to add a bumbling element to Judge Noose’s crusty old persona. The opposing attorneys, both superbly cast, didn’t break character when struggling for their next phrases, but I could detect definite cracks. Tasked with sustaining a villainous patina, Conrad Harvey was more afflicted by these lapses as the DA, but all was well when he hopped back onto the rails and he flashed his Trumpian smile to the jury. Wonderfully loathsome. Costume designer Chelsea Retalic probably had Atticus Finch in mind when she drew up Jake’s courtroom attire for Tim Hager and the analogy was often apt when Hager grew simply eloquent. But he’d be better off drawing upon Jake’s fallibility when he falters.

Hager was at his best when Jake in maneuvering behind the scenes. Wheeling and dealing are not his style. Steadfast in his beliefs, Hager seemed to get that Jake wasn’t as comfortable in his skin as those surrounding him. As the brainy, beautiful, and ambitious Roark, Jennifer Barnette knew exactly what the legal assistant wants from her gig with Jake and why she finds him attractive. Both Tom Schrachta as Lucien and Rick Taylor as Dr. Bass projected their dissoluteness without too much exaggeration – but more than enough to merit Jake’s alarm – and both of them get tasty opportunities to sober up. Neither of them missed the comical lagniappe that came with their changes.

With so much of the Mississippi ambiance trimmed away like so much gristle, it was a godsend that the black players were all so right. Ronald Jenkins registered Sheriff Ozzie Walls’ conflicted loyalties beautifully, as committed to protecting Carl Lee and seeing that justice is done as he was to keeping his prisoner in custody. As a vengeful father, thoughtless husband, and a somewhat immature man, Jonathan Caldwell had a lot of different feelings to navigate as Carl Lee, from savage rage to sheepish regret, but he wisely stayed steadfast in his belief that murdering those two bragging racists was the right thing. Yet there was deep understanding in Tracie Frank’s portrayal of Gwen Hailey, Carl’s wife. Carl defies her when he chooses Jake to defend him instead of the NAACP, who are willing to come in and do it without a fee. Frank was out there alone to give Carl Lee’s defiance substantial weight. Without Frank’s steely strength, Jake’s victory – and Carl Lee’s vindication for choosing him – wouldn’t have been as sweet. Her quiet acknowledgement seals the verdict.