Monthly Archives: June 2018

Long Sufferings Redeemed by Pure Longings – and Bluegrass Music – in Bright Star

Review:  Bright Star

By Perry Tannenbaum

There are plenty of things you can carry in a basket, a handbag, or a satchel, but one of the last you might consider is a baby. Apparently, some moms have gravitated toward the idea without dire consequences. Moses seemed to turn out okay, and the pseudo-title character in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest weathers the indignity on a slightly bumpy ride to comedy bliss.

In Bright Star, a rustic musical written by Steve Martin with Edie Brickell, Alice Murphy watches this inhumane transport just moments after she has given birth – despite her furious efforts against the more powerful men in the room. It’s the last time she sees the baby, and it becomes a moment that haunts and sours her life for a long, long time afterwards. As vivid as this image is by itself, Martin finds ways to make this satchel moment even more vivid afterwards.

Music and lyrics, mountain-and-bluegrass tinged, sustain this wide-arcing storyline, even if they don’t quite equal it. The way things work out for Alice resembles some of the less popular late Shakespeare plays – The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, and The Tempest – where there is too much suffering and regret spread over multiple decades for their happy endings to be giddy and gleeful.

We mostly see Alice during the two main crises of her story, both of them dramatic encounters with Jimmy Ray Dobbs. The first is when they meet in Zebulon, NC, in the early ‘20s, when he becomes her beau – until the spectacular baby-in-the-satchel catastrophe – and the second is after WW2, when they reconnect by fortuitous accident in Raleigh. Jimmy Ray is the mayor’s son, so we readily understand why Mayor Dobbs would object to Alice on greedy, plutocratic grounds. Daddy Murphy’s objections are harder to divine, but they seem virulent and religious. The cogs of Martin’s plot wouldn’t fall perfectly into place if Josiah Dobbs and Daddy Murphy weren’t briefly on the same page.

Daddy is a man of conscience. Mayor Dobbs is a rich politician. Huge difference ordinarily.

All the circles of misfortune begin veering back to bliss when Billy Cane, fresh home after serving in the war, shows up at Alice’s office, where she edits the prestigious Asheville Southern Journal. Even local icon Carl Sandburg finds it difficult to get published there, though Alice admits that Tennessee Williams shows some promise. If Billy can sufficiently polish up just one of the manuscripts he has brought with him, enough that it gets published in the Journal, it will validate him as possessing the gifts – and the individual voice – of a significant writer.

Bitterness has made Alice a stern judge. Yet because of her toughness she’s a valuable mentor if she believes in you. A weirdly powerful alchemy begins to brew as Alice offers Billy scraps of encouragement. It’s something to write home about, and Billy’s correspondent is Margo Crawford, the girl he left behind twice – to soldier in a war and to make his way in the literary world. Finding his voice will bring Billy back home. Improbably, Alice will follow, and she will find that this was the place she needed to be.

There’s plenty emotional territory for Audrey Cardwell to cover as Alice: genial hostess, tough-love mentor, and dad-crossed lover. Yet the only traces of charisma that I found was from the embittered, autumnal woman behind the editorial desk. Her other selves were relatively generic, never really vivacious, as if tragedy had tainted her slightly before it really struck. I liked Henry Gottfried more fully as the slightly naïve, slightly quixotic, slightly self-absorbed and oblivious Billy, an easier role to fill out.

In an old-timey, rusticated story the melodramatic dads played as well as the bluegrass music. John Leslie Wolfe as Daddy Murphy and Jeff Austin as Mayor Dobbs ably demonstrated that a wide spectrum of righteous, indignant, and utterly vile ranting can be plausible reactions to pure innocence. Against these intimidating infernos, the good folk were somewhat overshadowed, but you won’t find Patrick Cummings as Jimmy Ray, Liana Hunt as Margo, or David Atkinson as Daddy Cane hard to like at all.

Of these, I probably enjoyed Daddy Cane the most because he doesn’t take himself seriously up yonder in the backwoods. Allison Briner-Dardenne does well with Mama Murphy, the most conflicted person we see. Strewn through Martin’s story are several hard choices that folks get wrong, but while Martin is gracefully completing circles of love and birth that span decades, he also renders regret, forgiveness, reconciliation, and kindness in fine style.

 

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Spoleto Festival USA Widens Its Jazz Playing Field

Reviews: Jon Batiste & The Dap-Kings, Jazzmeia Horn, Artifacts, Trio 3 Plus Vijay Iyer, and Chucho Valdés Quartet

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By Perry Tannenbaum

Two years ago, there was a changing of the jazz guard in Charleston as Spoleto Festival USA swung into its 40th anniversary celebration – with a revival of Porgy and Bess distilling the essence of the city and the festival, bringing jazz to the forefront. With Wells Fargo jazz director Michael Grofsorean replaced by jazz advisor Larry Blumenfeld, the lineup turned noticeably toward more domestic, New World performers, and the trend has continued for the two seasons after the big celebration.

Meanwhile Blumenfeld’s programming is pushing the envelope in two directions away from Spoleto’s former mainstream, straight-ahead groove. With Jon Batiste and the Dap Kings, we moved to the pop music realm. At the other end of the spectrum, the Artifacts ensemble’s tribute to AACM repertoire spearheaded by Nicole Mitchell and the set by Trio 3 + Vijay Iyer threw the doors wide open to off-the-rails experimental jazz. Wells Fargo hung in with their sponsorship, but they didn’t increase the number of jazz concerts to accommodate Blumenfeld’s push. Seven remained the magic number, leaving the Fred Hersch Trio, Jazzmeia Horn, the Chucho Valdés Quartet, and Craig Taborn in the mainstream, a noticeable shift in the balance.

Of course, there was a move towards pop last season, seemingly unanticipated, when Dee Dee Bridgewater strode onto the stage at Cistern Yard with the Memphis Soulphony and declared that we were out of luck if we expected a jazz concert from the newly anointed NEA Jazz Master. But there was nothing coy or unanticipated about Batiste appearing with the Dap-Kings on the first weekend of the 2018 festival, teaming up with the funk royals on the second night of his two-night stand at the Cistern.

Contrasting with his solo gig the night before, when Batiste included “St. James Infirmary,” “What a Wonderful World,” and Monk’s “‘Round Midnight,” on his set list, the Daps turned the Cistern into a no-jazz zone. Fats Domino’s “Ain’t It a Shame” and Ray Charles’ “Hallelujah I Love Her So” took me back to my youth, and “I Don’t Need No Doctor” was the bluesiest selection from the bandleader on The late Show With Stephen Colbert. Keenly ruing that I’d missed the solo concert, I found sizable solace in the revelation of Batiste’s singing prowess, which I’d never stumbled across during my occasional viewings of Colbert. If you thought “Sunny Side of the Street” from his Jazz Is Now CD was anywhere close to Batiste’s outer limits, guess again.

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No such surprises were forthcoming when Jazzmeia Horn took the stage at Gaillard Center, mostly singing tunes from her scintillating debut CD, A Social Call. The opening song on both the 2017 release and the concert was Betty Carter’s “Tight” – in pretty much the identical arrangement, with Victor Gould leading the rhythm section and Marcus Miller stepping in to supply the alto sax solo. Both Gould and Miller traded potent 4’s with Horn before her outchorus. When she veered from the studio versions, she expanded on them. “East of the Sun” gave space to bassist Barry Stephenson for a solo, an opportunity for drummer Henry Conerway III to return fire during after extra scat volleys from Horn, and for the audience to go “East” and “West” in further exchanges.

“The Peacocks (A Timeless Place)” and “I Remember You” followed the same order as the album, but with trumpeter Josh Evans on hand to reprise his spots on the Jimmy Rowles line, he lingered onstage to add some extra tang to the Johnny Mercer tune, where he’s absent on the studio cut. With all hands on deck, including Corey Wallace on trombone, Horn’s live rendition of “Lift Ev’ry Voice/Moanin’” was the most enhanced – and improved – sampling of A Social Call. For starters, the James Weldon Johnson anthem wasn’t as lame and humdrum as it is on the recording, but it was the Bobby Timmons standard, with the late Jon Hendricks’ lyrics, that really perked things up, drawing lively solos from everyone, including a bowed gem from Stephenson.

The cumulative excellence of the band prodded Horn to surpass herself, no mean exploit, as she weighed in on the last of the horn solos by Wallace and jubilantly traded licks with him. Nor was she done after this crossfire, for after the rhythm section folk took their solos, Horn did special things with the “Lord, I’ve tried” release in the Hendricks lyric, playing with it, ascending to the stratosphere of her vocal range, and turning it into a personal chant that hearkened back to the “Lift Ev’ry Voice” theme. It was quite stunning. Uplifting.

Three things seemed to incline my wife toward favoring Artifacts above all other jazz groups we saw at Spoleto this year: the trio was mostly women, they brought music stands with them to the Simons Center Recital Hall, and we had front row seats. After watching their Jazz Talk with Blumenfeld, also from front row seats, we could also feel a rapport with the artists before they played the last of their six concerts in this cozy, somewhat clinical space.

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Interaction between the trio members was quite special, Nicole Mitchell on flute the benevolent leader, drummer Mike Reed the earnest provocateur, and cellist Tomeka Reid the serene mellowing agent. Or so you might have described their chemistry after witnessing their symposium with Blumenfeld. At the beginning of their set, each of the players had a chance to sparkle, Reid setting the tone for Reed’s “Pleasure Palace” with a plucked intro, Mitchell navigating the tune, and Reed returning friendly fire before the leader had the final say. Reid pulled out her bow for the next tune, playing together with Mitchell at the outset, and the hypnotic vamp that ensued might be the primary reason Mitchell named this composition “Reflections.”

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Reid’s “Song for Helena” had the most interesting texture in the set, the composer partnering with Mitchell in laying down a medium groove and later shedding her bow. Meanwhile Reed shuttled from brushes to sticks, winding up with one in each hand. Steve McCall’s “I’ll Be Right Here Waiting,” more fully explored here than on the 2013 Artifacts recording, also brought out some interesting texturing as Mitchell vocalized while she played, both Reid and Reed agitating against her tranquility to poignant effect. They closed with Ed Wilkerson’s “Light on the Path,” the same infectious line that was the Artifacts finale, with Mitchell exploring her mix of flute and vocalese far more extensively. Intensity ricocheted between the musicians, Reed working himself into a lather and pushing tempo behind his kit and Reid radiating the joy that bound them all together.

The initial vibe at Gaillard Center as Trio 3 Plus Vijay Iyer strode onto the stage might be described as defiance. Not only did the group start late, they had no intentions of easing us into venerable saxophonist Oliver Lake’s toolbag low barks, midrange squonks, and high squeals. Although the Charleston City Paper rightly railed against walkouts at a wide spectrum of Spoleto events, I have to admit that fears of a mass exodus began mushrooming in my gut after just 20 seconds of listening to Lake on “Flow.” Pounding on the keyboard after Lake desisted, Iyer seemed intent on being equally offputting at the piano.

Maybe the leaders were disgruntled because of the sound setup. There are grating moments on the group’s 2014 Wiring recording, to be sure, but the sound captured in the studio was far sweeter and better balanced. Reggie Workman’s bass, so forward and integral in the studio, was virtually lost in the hall, treble was on leave at Andrew Cyrille’s drums, and the overmiking of Lake’s sax was further underscored because Iyer was relegated to the background, volume and flavor not picked up from his keyboard. Acoustically speaking, Simons Center would have been much kinder to this group.

The assault didn’t let up, for the most strident track on the Wiring CD, Workman’s “Synapse,” would come third on the playlist, a performance that triggered the first sizable defections. “Ode to Von” was more quietly weird, Lake at his most fluid so far, Vijay reaching under the piano’s lid, with Reggie and Andrew thoughtfully taking time off from timekeeping. With Lake laying out, “Navigator” abruptly sounded rather tame, as Iyer inserted something different at the start – chords!

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Accessibility was back for the remainder of the evening as the quartet meditatively leaned into Workman’s “Willow Song,” inspired by Desdemona’s lament in Othello. Iyer was relatively quiet, layering onto a Cyrille solo, Lake showed his soulful side at last, and the composer eloquently used the space carved out for his bass solo. The stage belonged entirely to Cyrille as he played his drum fantasia, “For Girls Dancing,” further reviving audience enthusiasm. Then Vijay stepped forward and introduced what would be the pinnacle of the evening, the third movement “Adagio” from his Suite for Trayvon (and Thousands More). This time, Iyer struck a chord within the audience, referencing the carnage perpetrated by a white supremacist at the A.M.E. Church, just a block away, in 2015. The performance must have struck many as a peace offering, sanctifying what had often been a raucous program.

Too bad so many who came, perhaps hoping for such balm and healing, had bailed and wound up missing it.

Founder of the seminal Irakere band in the early 1970s, Chucho Valdés was way overdue for a Spoleto debut, whatever musical category you might pigeonhole him in. All those voices, all those horns, all that percussion, and all that jazz/rock electric guitar and bass on the early Irakere CDs tended to conceal the prodigious beast who sat at the keyboards. Valdés’ own talents as a composer and arranger were additional diversions, along with his light touch on electric piano. A brief glimpse of the monster occurred in Chucho’s “Misa Negra (The Black Mass),” when the composer dug in for a solo at the acoustic piano.

Without the likes of Arturo Sandoval’s trumpet on hand – or Paquito D’Rivera’s reeds – Valdés was inclined to fill in the blanks as he led the Chucho Valdés Quartet into Gaillard. Any expectations of a purely Latin-flavored evening or of frequent rock infusions were swiftly dispelled in the opening “Obatala.” After a meandering intro, Valdés built to a dense fantasia with textures worthy of McCoy Tyner before cuing the drums, finishing later with a snatch of Brubeck’s “Blues a la Turk.” In between, there was a light-fingered rumination that could remind you of Red Garland’s treble delights – except that Valdés had a second melody line percolating at the same time in his left hand.

“Son 21” took an approach that we’ve seen from European artists at past Spoletos, moving from one tune to another during the space of a single piece. This medley was of styles as well as melodies, starting off in a jazz groove and, after a Slam Stewart-style bass solo from Yelsy Heredia (accompanying himself vocally an octave higher than he played), returning in a classical rhapsodic vein that flowed into Latin territory. In both of these latter modes, Valdés showed the chops to turn up the heat and make them more torrid and turbulent.

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“Ochun” started out a bit like a gospel tune or a jazzy spiritual, and Valdés’ “Chopin Adaption” further widened the palette, veering towards a samba sway before circling back to classical, more like Rachmaninoff than Chopin, over Heredia’s bowed bass. “Mambo in Heaven” was as Latin as you could ask from its opening keyboard vamp onwards, moving towards a pounding piano solo and culminating in a pitched percussion battle, with drummer Dafnis Prieto and percussionist Yaroldy Abreu Robles both getting lathered up at the kit and on the congas.

Our true jazz audience with Valdés came in the concert finale as the 76-year-old treated us to his personal Tin Pan Alley travelogue. We didn’t land at “But Not for Me” until Chucho spent some quality time with “If I Should Lose You,” “Night and Day,” “My Foolish Heart,” and “Waltz for Debby.” Even when we kicked into the Cole Porter tune with full rhythm, there were cameo appearances from Duke Ellington’s “A Train” and Jimmy Van Heusen’s “Swinging on a Star.” For anyone who felt he or she hadn’t heard enough Latin sounds, the “El Cumbanchero” encore provided plentiful consolation, with one more epic drum battle.

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With Arturo O’Farrill, Pedrito Martinez, and now Chucho Valdés, there has been a welcome infusion of Afro-Cuban rhythms into the jazz lineup at Spoleto, and with Artifacts and Trio 3, there has been what some might view as an unwelcome addition of experimental jazz. Taking the long view, however, I have to say it’s about time – even for people who hated the new sounds. Ever since the festival began in 1977, there have been many theatre, dance, chamber music, opera, orchestral, and contemporary music performances that have drawn the ire of audience members and sent people fleeing to the exits. Perhaps because festival founder Gian Carlo Menotti was so famously jazz-averse, programming has hewn to a safe mainstream, occasionally pushing the envelope but never too hard.

Not anymore. At Spoleto, jazz has joined the club.

 

Break Out the Mindless Nostalgia With CP’s Re-Engineered “Grease”

Review: Grease

By Perry Tannenbaum

People forget that Grease was a huge smash on Broadway for over eight years, the incubator for such hunks as Patrick Swayze, Richard Gere, Barry Bostwick, Peter Gallagher, Treat Williams, and that John Travolta guy. The 1978 film starring Travolta and Olivia Newton-John not only eclipsed the 1972 original, it radically altered the Jim Jacobs and Warren Jacobs book and score. By 2007, the last time it was revived on Broadway, Grease couldn’t be Grease without the two hit songs created for the movie, “You’re the One That I Want,” one of numerous #1 hits that John Farrar wrote for Newton-John, and Barry Gibbs’ “Grease (Is the Word).”

The result at CPCC Summer Theatre, with Carey Kugler directing that 2007 version, will often play like a blurred – or cut – version of the movie. Our summer romance at the beach with its poignant farewells, the second beginning devised for the show, now gives way to a third. Sandy Dumbrowski’s nemesis, Rizzo, is more like a spider lady than a tough punk. Stockard Channing delivered. Sandy’s quest to become part of the Pink Lady clique is forgotten, and there’s no climactic drag race when Danny Zuko reasserts his heroism behind the wheel of Kenickie’s Greased Lightnin’.

With one of the actors absent for the Sunday matinee, confusions compounded. Justin Austin smoothly replaced Aaron Coulson as Teen Angel, singing “Beauty School Dropout” to the disconsolate Frenchy, Sandy’s staunchest ally. But Coulson was also supposed to portray deejay Vince Fontaine at the high school sock hop. Touchy situation. Megan Postle, who terrorized one of Danny’s T-Bird chums as Miss Lynch, his English teacher, had to reappear as the fulsome emcee of the hop, and Ashton Guthrie, who was just learning the rudiments of guitar at the top of Act 1 as Doody (a pretty lame “Those Magic Changes”), now gets to sing Vince’s “Born to Hand Jive,” one of the best numbers in Act 2.

Unless you had recalculated based on CP Theatre Dept. chair Tom Hollis’s pre-show announcements, these were additional head-scratching moments.

Perhaps the most charitable way of looking at the Jacobs-Casey book, substantially overhauled by Allan Carr and Bronte Woodard for the film, is to presume that they were trying to flip Manhattan’s West Side Story into a vaguely Chicago comedy – if they had any idea of what they were doing at all. Otherwise, it’s hard to explain the botched, crisscrossed contretemps at the prom and the abruptly scheduled rumble between the T-Birds and the Scorpions that never happens.

Kugler never seems compelled to plug up any of the plot holes, so Philip Stock as Danny acts like a jerk without any qualms or hesitation. Stopping one time while making your exit doesn’t quite cut it. Robin Dunavant gets more to work with in baring Sandy’s heart – including twice as many songs – but with Danny wavering so capriciously in his affections, her “Hopelessly Devoted to You” feelings seem downright stupid. While Jason Estrada’s costume designs could be more rugged for the T-Birds, the megawatt blond wig he saddles Sandy with throughout her pre-makeover scenes (I’m not sure a single hair moves) made me wonder whether or not a beautiful teen lurked underneath.

Despite these teetering foundations, Stock does project a hard James Dean-like edge and – keeping in mind that this is Rydell High – a lean, sneering arrogance that recalls Bobby Rydell. There really are sparks when Dunavant finally crosses over from Sandra Dee-land to the leather-clad tramp that Danny wants, but the gulf between the two Sandys is so wide that it’s hard to shake the notion that her latter-day self is her creators’ wet dream. The masculinity takeaways from GREASE, that gangster toughness gets you girls and that unprotected sex is cool, are pure ‘50s bull, never questioned.

Amid Danny’s vacillations and Sandy’s pathological primness, the bitchy, predatory Betty Rizzo stands taller with the steadfast power of her slutty convictions. Don’t you dare feel sorry for her! Lindsey Schroeder further accents Rizzo’s outlaw chic with a self-assured swagger that gives her dominion over every scene she appears in, singing or not. The astonishing dancing jolts that Treston Henderson brings to Kenickie’s “Greased Lightnin’” are totally worthy of this spitfire Rizzo, his usual girlfriend. But the garbled speaking parts? Not so much.

Coupling and uncoupling are so unmotivated that the remaining T-Birds and the Pink Ladies threaten to devolve into stock characters. Among the guys, Guthrie as Doody is the only other gang member to leave an impression. Ava Smith as Frenchy is the only Pink aside from Rizzo that I could care a little about, but a beauty school dropout warrants a far more frightful wig. Outside the Pink clique we do better, with Alexis Harder showing some flair as Cha-Cha DiGregorio, the outsider dancing ace that Kenickie brings to the sock hop to spite Rizzo. Patty Simcox is no more scheming or manipulative than Rizzo, but Susannah Upchurch manages to make us dislike her chiefly for her wholesome veneer – and because she doesn’t seem to be enjoying her own wickedness nearly as much.

Fun-loving mindlessness is as much the word at CP as GREASE is. At Rydell High, you are so uncool if you can’t sustain enthusiasm through all the many ram-a-lam-a-ding-dong nonsense phrases that “We Go Together” provides for the ensemble at the end of Acts 1 and 2. The old folk at Halton Theater on Sunday, bobbing their heads to the beats until the lights came up, weren’t looking for any meaning at all in GREASE. They were looking for the sheer joy of youth, and they were finding it.

 

Three Nights of Resounding Sermons Hit Spirit Square

Preview:  God’s Trombones

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By Perry Tannenbaum

OnQ doesn’t usually perform at McGlohon Theater in Spirit Square, but when it does, it’s big, big, big. So shall it be, brothers and sisters, when God’s Trombonessounds big, doesn’t it? – comes wailing, praising, shouting, and testifying into town next week for a three-night run, beginning next Tuesday. Capping OnQ’s “Redemption Song” season 11, the cast is among the company’s biggest ever, with around 25 actors, singers, dancers, and musicians performing onstage.

And if you’ve ever attended an event at McGlohon, or you know its recent history as the home of Pastor Stephen Furtick’s Elevation Church – or Spirit Square’s origins as the First Baptist Church – you’ll realize that OnQ has chosen the right place for James Weldon Johnson’s “Seven Negro Sermons in Verse.” McGlohon retains its stained glass, Sunday church vibe to this day.

Johnson was a seminal figure in African-American literature as a poet, novelist, essayist, critic, anthologist, songwriter, and collector of spirituals. Oh yeah, he also served as US consul in Venezuela and Nicaragua under Teddy Roosevelt and as executive secretary of the NAACP. He is best remembered for writing the lyrics to “Lift Ev’ry Voice,” for The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, his novel, and for his most anthologized poem, “The Creation,” from God’s Trombones, first published in 1927.

OnQ artistic director Quentin Talley hasn’t wanted to present this classic for quite that long, but he has loved the piece since he was around 12 years old. That’s when his youth choir participated in a production presented by an association of black Baptist churches in his hometown of Greenwood, SC. It was one of Talley’s formative theatre experiences, and by the time he reached college age, it was foundational.

“I even ended up doing the ‘The Crucifixion’ as my dramatic monologue audition piece for Winthrop [University] and received a First Night Scholarship.”

In his original preface, Johnson said that he’d prefer his verse sermons to be spoken aloud – or “intoned” – so it’s natural that singing and dancing should be added to the package. Costuming will remind us where we are, a mix of pastoral robes, choir robes, and Sunday best.

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“We begin like we are in a church service,” says Talley, “and once the sermons build, we take on various locations and time periods. Our choir is absolutely amazing, and the audience will probably want to stand up, sit down and say amen. All are encouraged to do so, but it’s not mandatory.”

Leading the choir in his first stint with OnQ is Dennis Reed Jr., whose GAP singers have worked with such notables as Fantasia, Bebe Winans, New Kids on the Block, and Shania Twain. On this gig, Reed is also auditioning the singers, picking the songs, and penning the arrangements. So does Reed fire up his newly-formed choir with righteous gospel music played on a hallowed Hammond B3 organ?

“Hahahahaha!” Reed responds. “That’s correct! You’ll hear the B3, piano, bass, and live drums. Much of the black church tradition is rooted in live music. What’s really cool is that we are taking a little liberty with song choice. We will fuse traditional hymns, Negro spirituals, and even new elements of music such as hiphop loops! As far as choreography goes, we’ll see a lot of it come together in practice and much of it happens organically.”

Though he’s never worked with Talley before, Reed is a fan of his work. A proud grad of NW School of the Arts, Reed has numerous musician and singer friends who have collaborated with Talley and OnQ – and his ties to Charlotte are not at all tenuous. He founded Inspire the Fire here more than 15 years ago, when he was 17, to bring the arts to young people between the ages of 10 and 21, earning Community Leader of the Year honors at the 2015 Queen City Awards.

GAP stands for God’s Appointed People, so gospel music and God’s Trombones should as much up Reed’s alley as Talley’s.

Johnson pieced his sermon suite together using “vague memories” of sermons he had heard or collected, and their subjects are familiar church staples. The typical old-time Negro preacher, Johnson recalled, “preached a personal and anthropomorphic God, a sure-enough heaven and a red-hot hell. His imagination was bold and unfettered. He had the power to sweep his hearers before him; and so himself was often swept away.”

Aside from “The Creation,” the poet hearkens back to the Old Testament in sermons on Noah and Moses. Christian themes include the Prodigal Son, the Crucifixion, Judgment Day, and a non-scriptural funeral sermon.

“Each sermon will have a different approach,” Talley promises. “Most are recited, some acted out or sung, some are poetry slam form, but all have down-home preaching undertones.”

A mix of OnQ ensemble regulars – and authentic preachers – will deliver the sermons. Familiar OnQ faces will include Omar El-Amin for the Prodigal and Ron McClelland for the Crucifixion. Slam poet extraordinaire Bluz leads us aboard Noah’s Ark and Q himself orates “The Creation.” Preacher Yolanda Bynum launches the show with Johnson’s “Listen Lord” prayer, and Rev. Madeline Salder leans into “Let My People Go.”

Johnson intended us to hear trombones when his verse was read aloud – if they authentically replicated the preachers he heard in his youth. Listening to the trombone, Johnson heard expressive capabilities beyond any other instrument, approximating “the varied range of emotions encompassed by the human voice – and with greater amplitude.”

Of course, it’s fascinating that Talley, in reviving this Johnson gem, is hearkening back to his own youth, positioning himself to capture some extra flavors of its spirit.

“This show has been on our list for years,” Talley affirms, “but never really fitted with themes we’ve had in the past couple of years. With this season’s theme being ‘Redemption Song,’ it fit perfectly. As artistic director after 11 years of producing ups and downs, this show is a reminder to keep the faith. Running an arts org is taxing physically, emotionally, financially and spiritually, and sometimes you need a reason from a higher power to keep going, especially at the end of a season.”

Sometimes we also need to check out a worthy writer like Johnson who has unjustly fallen from his loftiest esteem, perhaps because he led the NAACP or perhaps because of the folksy, down-home flavor of God’s Trombones. Or perhaps because we prefer to say black or African-American instead of Negro. All these trivial reasons evaporate when you delve into Johnson with any depth.

You could start with The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, or you might begin with Johnson’s actual autobiography, Along This Way. Here is something trenchant that he observes there:

“On occasions, I have been amazed and amused watching white people dancing to a Negro band in a Harlem cabaret; attempting to throw off the crusts and layers of inhibitions laid on by sophisticated civilization; striving to yield to the feel and experience of abandon; seeking to recapture a taste of primitive joy in life and living; trying to work their way back into that jungle which was the original Garden of Eden; in a word, doing their best to pass as colored.”

Now that’s not folksy at all, but it is the keen intelligence embedded in God’s Trombones. More than 20 years ahead of Norman Mailer’s The White Negro and Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock.”

A Bach Big Bang Hits the QC

Preview:  Charlotte Bach Festival

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By Perry Tannenbaum

Bach celebrations aren’t totally alien to the Queen City. Charlotte Symphony played with the idea for a few years at Knight Theater with Bachtoberfest, pairing Bach and beer, preferably bock. BachFests have bloomed annually – if only for a day – at St. Alban’s Episcopal in nearby Davidson; and last March, the North Carolina Bach Festival landed modestly for one evening at the Steinway Piano Gallery on the outskirts of town.

None of these foretold the Bach Big Bang that begins this Saturday. The first annual Charlotte Bach Festival splashes down with eight concerts in nine days – predominantly in the QC but in churches ranging from Gastonia to Winston-Salem. Unlike the Bachtoberfest brew, which might mix in some Mozart and Wagner, Charlotte Bach kicks off with an all-Johann Sebastian lineup.

And unlike the chamber offerings at St. Alban’s and Steinway, Charlotte Bach is mostly big Bach: multiple cantatas, a trumpeting Orchestral Suite, a motet, and the mighty B Minor Mass. Ambitions are not at all small at Bach Akademie Charlotte, the non-profit producing company that sprouted up last October – at St. Alban’s with two cantatas and a motet – with no word about the Big Bang to come.

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Plans are not only firmly in place to stage Charlotte Bach annually but also to possibly grow the festival to a third weekend. That would put a fully-bloomed QC festival in the same elite class as the Oregon Bach Festival, the Big Kahuna among Bach fests in America.

Seeds for this astonishing phenomenon were first planted late in 2013, when Charlotte Symphony presented Bach’s St. Matthew Passion under the direction of Scott Allen Jarrett. Singing tenor with the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte at these sacred concerts, Mike Trammell had an epiphany: this was what he wanted to do in life.

“Bach always makes you look beyond the page,” says Trammell, “and I was captivated by the context of the piece – the history, the texts chosen, and its structure of arias, recits, and chorales. I finally found some classical music that I could connect with beyond the way it sounded to my ear.”

But to live by singing Bach in Charlotte – the land of Speedweeks, tailgate parties, and b-ball?? Of course, not. So he went off and sang Bach in Stuttgart and then Weimar with Helmuth Rilling, the revered conductor and choirmaster who founded Oregon Bach in 1971.

Eventually, Trammell got to thinking, why not Charlotte? With other like-minded locals, he founded the Bach Akademie Charlotte, and then he reached out to Jarrett to become its first artistic director.

“You have to hear Scott speak on Bach,” says Trammell, “and you have to hear what he does with the music for me to tell you why he’s the best. He’s recognized by his peers as a leading Bach scholar in the country. He knows our city, he knows our people – he speaks our language and the language of Bach.”

Trammell flew up to Boston to make his Bach Akademie pitch to Jarrett. Getting Jarrett to sign on was the key to bringing what Trammell calls a “rockstar” staff aboard, including Adam Romey, the Festival’s managing director. Romey’s mom is Rilling’s longtime assistant, and his grandfather helped Helmut in founding Oregon Bach.20170810_Bard_TONE_SM_418_Touch_UP

No doubt Jarrett helped in selling Romey on Charlotte. A native of Virginia who went to college at Furman University, Jarrett was already at home in the region when he served as assistant conductor at Charlotte Symphony from 2004 to 2015 and music director for the Oratorio Singers.

“So it was a real happy 11 years working for the Oratorio and the Symphony, coming weekly to Charlotte for more than a decade,” says Jarrett. “I find the spirit behind people wanting to do this music is really thrilling, and I think it’s brilliant for [the Bach festival] to be in Charlotte. Charlotte is a perfect place for it!”

It’s doubtful that anything less than a Bach festival aspiring to national prominence could have lured Jarrett back.

Down in Miami, Jarrett was the first guest conductor to lead the Seraphic Fire ensemble, contributing to their Grammy-nominated recording of Brahms’ Requiem in 2012. Up in Boston, he is resident conductor of the Handel + Haydn Society, and music director of the Back Bay Chorale. At Boston University, he is director of music at Marsh Chapel, where weekly Sunday services are broadcast live. He has also piloted a Bach cantata series at the University for the past 12 years.©Michael J.Lutch _May 10, 2017_150.jpg

 

More importantly, Jarrett brings more precious DNA to our budding festival from the Oregon Bach Festival, where he has been a fixture since 2010. Last year, he kicked off the season conducting the Matthew Passion, making him the only person besides Rilling ever entrusted with that masterwork. This season at Oregon, he presides over another Rilling preserve, the Discovery Series, a unique set of lecture-demonstration concerts that take listeners inside the craftsmanship and the theology of the music.

Here in Charlotte, it will be called The Bach Experience – as it has been on Jarrett’s home turf at Boston U. The two themed concerts, “Summer in Leipzig,” will be offered at Myers Park United Methodist Church next Tuesday and Thursday at 12:30pm. Jarrett has chosen Cantata 75, “Die Elenden sollen essen” (“The Hungry Shall Eat”), and Cantata 76, “Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes” (“The Heavens Are Telling the Glory of God”), to take us back to 1723 and Bach’s first two weeks of work as cantor of the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig.

Jarrett, the Akademie | Charlotte Cantata Choir, the North Carolina Baroque Orchestra, singers from the Akademie’s Emerging Artist program, and special guests will all be upfront performing – and demonstrating. Besides the quality of the singers and musicians, who hail from as far away as California and Canada, Jarrett is enthused about the caliber of the QC’s audience.

“One of the things that always inspired me about Charlotte is that people here go to Sunday school, they are interested in learning,” Jarrett declares. “It’s not like they go to a concert to get their card punched. They want to know why the music matters. They want to know what the music has to say. And basically, they are curious people, and this is the perfect music for them!”

Festivities are bookended by two blockbuster concerts, leading off with the Festival Opening Celebration on Saturday evening at Christ Church Charlotte on Providence Road. Ordinarily, you don’t expect the trumpeting of Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 1 to be upstaged. This time, the brassy suite might be less dominant than usual, flanked by the “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied” (“Sing to the Lord a New Song”) motet, which Jarrett describes as the “Brandenburg Concerto for voices,” and the Cantata 147, which includes the beloved “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” – twice.

“That cantata is very dear to me,” Jarrett confides. “It’s one of the first cantatas I ever heard and learned, and Bach has a wonderful concertante opening movement with voices and trumpet, a real brilliant feature for voices and players.”

The closing concert in Charlotte on the following Saturday, June 16 at Myers Park Presbyterian, is simply called The Masterwork – because Jarrett can find no words to overpraise the monumental B Minor Mass. Both the opening and closing concerts get Sunday afternoon encores that will expand the Charlotte Bach Festival’s reach. The Opening Celebration travels to First United Methodist in Gastonia this coming Sunday, and The Masterwork journeys to Centenary United Methodist in Winston-Salem on June 17.

image-2At the other end of the Bach spectrum, the Leipzig cantor is the unchallenged master of solo works written for violin, cello, and organ. The Visiting Artist Recital Series at the Charlotte festival checks that Bach box as well. Highlighting the series, Bálint Karosi reigns at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church on Friday, June 16, when he will give the new Fisk organ a workout – with pieces inspired by Bach’s name, written by Schumann, Liszt, and others.

Two kings collide as Karosi, a Hungaraton recording artist and winner of the 2008 International J.S. Bach Competition, displays his skills on the king of instruments.

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But don’t skip Guy Fishman, principal cellist of the Handel + Haydn Society, who comes to Christ Church Charlotte next Monday evening to play selected Bach Cello Suites. There won’t be many quiet moments when the Bach Big Bang hits Charlotte, but this will be among the most beautiful.

“He is an Israeli-American musician,” Jarrett points out, “and just one of the most extraordinary cellists that I’ve ever met, and I’m so grateful to be able to work with him often.”

For tickets and full details, go to bachcharlotte.com.

 

The Queen City Has a Regal New Bach Festival to Call Its Own

42857183534_3fc07101fe_kReview: Charlotte Bach Festival~Opening Celebration

By Perry Tannenbaum

Boasting unmistakable DNA from the Oregon Bach Festival, at the podium and in its administrative offices, the new Bach Akademie Charlotte has launched its first annual Charlotte Bach Festival in grand style, heralding national ambitions. The Festival Opening Celebration filled the chapel at Christ Church Charlotte with listeners eager to hear Bach’s vocal music performed by a professional choir and to see Johann Sebastian’s orchestral music played on authentic baroque instruments. Conducted by Scott Allen Jarrett, the combined forces of the Akademie’s Cantata Choir and the North Carolina Baroque Orchestra obliged, filling the room with robust, cleanly sculpted sound. All hands were on deck for Cantata 147, “Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben” including guest instrumentalists and vocalists. This centerpiece was preceded by the Orchestra Suite No. 1 in C Major, where we made the acquaintance of the fullest assembly of the NC Baroque Orchestra that I’ve ever seen. Concluding the concert, the “Singet demrrn ein neues Lied” motet showcased the Choir with light accompaniment from keyboardist Nicolas Haigh, violone player Sue Yelanjan, and NC Baroque executive director, cellist Barbara Krumdieck.

Jarrett is not merely a guest conductor at Oregon Bach Festival. He directs the Vocal Fellows Program there, and he is slated to deliver the lecture concerts of their Discovery Series this summer. Adam Romey, the new managing director, is the son of Kathy Romey, longtime assistant of OBF founder Helmuth Rilling; and the Bach Akademie president, Michael H. Trammell, has sung with Rilling at festival in Europe. In welcoming the audience and in introducing the pieces, Jarrett reminded me of how Helmuth Rilling engaged his OBF audiences when he was artistic director there. He isn’t as sparing, concise, gnomic, or orotund as Charlotte Symphony’s Christopher Warren-Green in making his remarks. There is a more relaxed informality and a gentle pedagogical touch. Jarrett didn’t walk off into the wings between pieces and, since he had served as music director of the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte from 2004 to 2015, he could address us with a familiarity that must have taken Rilling years to achieve in Eugene, Oregon.

Intimacy between the audience and the musicians was sustained by the compact size of the ensembles, a mere 14 musicians taking the stage for the Orchestral Suite. Yet it did not take long for these members of NC Baroque to prove they could produce a roar in the opening Ouverture movement. Deceptively stately, for the oboes are doubling and quadrupling the pace with embellishments, the movement is far longer than any one of those that follow, with a slow-fast-slow-fast-slow structure that is most satisfying when the tempo contrasts are emphatic. Not only were the wind players on point – oboists Margaret Owens and Sung Lee backed by bassoonist Allen Hamrick – but the string players, led by concertmaster Martha Perry, were also up to the task, sounding effortless in the swift episodes. There was a nice balance later on in the Gavotte movements when strings and winds veered off in different directions and a delicious blend afterwards between the sections in the Menuets. The paired Bourées were also impressive, the strings showing their nimbleness in the fleet outer portions of this movement and, in the middle, Owens and Sung interweaving nicely over Hamrick’s continuo.

Glorious was a better description of the Cantata 147 performance than merely impressive, for all of the forces at Jarrett’s command were at their shining best – and the music includes the familiar “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” one of Bach’s greatest hits, played twice to conclude each of its two parts. Here Josh Cohen made his first appearance with his valveless natural trumpet, launching the cantata with some stunning flourishes. Most of the vocal soloists were drawn from the Charlotte Cantata Choir, underscoring the fact that Jarrett has chosen the crème de la crème of Charlotte’s plentiful choral talent. I was most delighted by Edmund Milly’s renditions of the bass recitative (“Stubbornness can blind the mighty”) and the bass aria in the penultimate song (“I shall sing of Jesus’ miracles”), both ringing with power and authority, yet there was also considerable power from soprano Margaret Carpenter Haigh in her aria (“Prepare now, O Jesus, the way”).

With native talent of that caliber, the imports figured to be outstanding, and they were. Countertenor Charles Humphries was definitely a highlight in the alto aria (“Be not ashamed, O soul”), with a lovely obbligato from Owens over Hamrick’s bassline. Tenor Patrick Muehleise had the earnest warmth that his aria demanded (“Help me, Jesus, to acknowledge Thee”), giving Krumdieck, who is so often relegated to continuo at local concerts, a chance to show her true mettle in the cello obbligato. Among the obbligatos, I don’t think any outshone the paired oboes of Owens and Sung behind alto Elizabeth Eschen’s sweet recitative (“The wondrous hand of God’s omnipotence”). For sheer luminosity, however, nothing could compare with the live performances of the “Jesu” movements, numbers 6 (“I am blest to have Jesus”) and 10 (“Jesus remains my joy”). The familiar melody is played by the orchestra, but it’s the stately choral singing that elevates the music heavenward. Which melody is accompanying the other? Part of what nearly brought me to tears, besides the sheer beauty of the performance, were the realizations of how rarely such music is heard in a live concert and the foretaste of how much this new festival could mean to this community. Jarrett delivered an additional foretaste in his introduction to this cantata, explaining its architecture, a glimpse of what he would be doing later in the Festival when will clone his work at OBF’s Discovery Series and bring it Charlotte as The Bach Experience, exploring and then performing Cantatas 75 and 76 at Myers Park United Methodist Church in separate midday concerts.

Concluding the Opening Celebration, the Cantata Choir sounded relaxed and celebratory in their motet after scaling to the pinnacle of this concert. Jarrett didn’t let up on the ensemble in the opening movement (“Sing a new song to the Lord”), calling for a slightly brisker tempo than I’ve usually heard, and I’ve certainly encountered more hushed and reverent accounts of the choruses in the middle movement. Yet there was still a definite éclat when the ensemble lit into the final “Lobet den Herrn in seinen Taten” (“Praise the Lord in His works”), similar to the opening movement in its ecumenical return to the mother of us all, the Psalms of the Old Testament. Once more, Jarrett and the Choir accelerated with effortless speed, producing satisfying layers of melody, rich textures and counterpoint, building to what many people would call a cathedral of sound. Less pretentious folk could simply – and rightly – call this concert a grand opening.

“Flying Lovers” Tops 2018 Theatre Offerings at Spoleto Festival USA

Reviews: The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, Borders, and The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk

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By Perry Tannenbaum

Theatre has gotten a looser, more guerilla feel to it at Spoleto Festival USA now that Woolfe Street Playhouse has established itself as one of the festival’s main venues. Unlike the storied Dock Street Theatre, where a flagship production gets 17 performances each season – plus a preview night – Woolfe Street can be reconfigured to accommodate cabaret and theatre-in-the-round presentations. For one-person shows, like a Taylor Mac extravaganza, it’s a better fit than the Emmett Robinson Theatre at College of Charleston.

So it figured that National Theatre of Scotland’s The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart would transfer from its off-Broadway haunt at the McKittrick Hotel to Woolfe Street with ease. There’s even a bar at the rear of the Woolfe, so the audience could self-lubricate in the same casual manner they did on W. 27th Street.

But somehow, it didn’t quite work.41872032304_9ec3a7fd92_k

They did apply the cabaret treatment in Charleston, but in New York, the vibe had been more like an Irish pub with sturdy rough-cut tables for the audience. The cocktail tables were smaller, but the larger dimensions and the higher ceiling at the Woolfe conspired to make even Peter Hannah, who repeated his off-Broadway stint as Satan, less audible and intelligible. Worse yet, Melody Grove and her starchy, autumnal, spinsterish charms weren’t aboard for the reprise, replaced by the youthful Jessica Hardwick, who diluted all three of those dimensions.

Prudencia’s starchiness is rather complex because, in her musty academic field of folk ballad studies, she’s a retro romantic. David Grieg’s fanciful script, written substantially in retro rhymed couplets, compounds the complexity by portraying the trendy men who dominate the academic conference Prudencia attends, spouting all sorts of deconstructionist quibbles with the ballads’ sincerity and authenticity, as rather backward in their patronizing, lecherous attitudes toward women.

As a rebel against hidebound orthodoxy, Hardwick’s youth serves her well, but when a historic blizzard impacts the action, and the front door of an Airbnb turns out to be a gateway to Beelzebub and eternity, the poignant dimension that Grove brought to Prudencia – of a woman who has missed out on her life – gets buried. The snow, after all, is pieces of paper that the audience has shredded and tossed into the air, and the twilight zone where Pru departs overlooks a Costco parking lot. So comedy is muting the pathos of Prudencia’s strange undoing as well as the National Theatre’s spectacle – which includes a generous helping of bonny Scottish folksinging. At the critical moment that delivers her back to Costco, I missed the strong sense of Hardwick as a late-blooming flower in Hell.27724906267_9642754db7_k.jpgFor the second season in a row, I needed my wife Sue’s assistance in deciphering what Avital Lvova was saying onstage at Woolfe Street in a Henry Naylor drama. Last year, it was Angel, the story of the life and death of a Kurdish sharpshooter, where I was able to move closer to an empty seat near the stage and salvage some of Lvova’s performance. Lvova was back this year in Borders as another action hero, Nameless, a Syrian graffiti guerilla. No closer seats were available this time, so I struggled to comprehend even the basics of Nameless’s narrative as she lurked in a hoodie and thrashed on the floor in evasive actions.

Abandoned by her father, raised by Mom, encouraged and deployed by a paint store patron, ambiguous relationship with boyfriend, unwanted pregnancy, and flight to safety. That was the gist I was able to catch unassisted.

Thankfully, Naylor provides a second narrative that alternates with the Syrian graffiti artist’s – and ultimately converges with it in a fraction-of-a-second shutter snap. If Lvova is showing us the desperate primitive lives of the noblest people enmeshed in the perpetual turmoil of the Middle East, then Graham O’Mara as celebrity photographer Sebastian Nightingale mirrors both the commercialization by the West of that endless strife and our smug indifference to it.

O’Mara, pretty tall and glamorous himself, gave a stunning account of this LA slickster who’s occasionally afflicted by conscience and remorse, maybe just enough to add the gravitas of a three-day beard to his image. Listening to Sebastian’s account, particularly his climactic confrontation with a burnt-out photog who had persisted in Syria, I had a taste of what Naylor’s dramas could be if they were adequately cast.

Directed by Emma Rice, The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk started out by bringing a wisp of nostalgic cabaret ambiance to Dock Street Theatre – eminently appropriate, because Rice had starred in the original production over 25 years ago when she and her newlywed husband, playwright Daniel Jamieson, portrayed over-the-moon lovers Marc and Bella Chagall. Marc Antonin as the beloved painter, entered the darkened theater from the rear serenading us and his bashert – Daisy Maywood, rapturously awaiting him as Bella.

The Kneehigh and Bristol Old Vic remount of what Jamieson originally titled Birthday sported an ultra-versatile band that included James Gow and composer James Gow. Cementing its kinship with Kneehigh’s Tristan & Yseult, directed by Rice at Spoleto in 2006 with bushel baskets of old music, Sophia Crist designed a severely raked set of weathered wood with scaffolding that didn’t look strong enough to hang either of the principals. Like the Chagalls’ love, its survival looked dubious in a storm-tossed world.24877435838_fabbc46c7d_kAll that separates The Flying Lovers from ascending to the pinnacle of towering drama are length, conflict, complications, and plot. Instead, the blissful couple navigates upheavals that decimate their obscure hometown (ironically best known today as Chagall’s birthplace) and threaten to incinerate the Jewish people. Pogroms, the Russian Revolution, and the Holocaust toss the couple back and forth across Europe until they reach the safety of the US. More vividly than these obstacles, we remember the purity of the love that binds Marc and Bella together. This love helps them to soar above the troubles of our world – higher, they seem to levitate, because there are no plots or complications pulling them down.

Both Antonin and Maywood cavort like newlyweds, often replicating those endearing, impossible, gravity-defying poses that Chagall painted of his love. They also sing with that simple, intimate sincerity ushered in by microphones, radio, Crosby, early Sinatra, and Margaret Whiting. Then you realize what distinguishes Chagall’s best work. It’s not the invention of surrealism, which is disputable. It’s the way that joyful music is forever singing in the colors and the flowing design of his paintings.

 

Confused and Abused Teens – With Unmistakable Talent

Preview:  Spring Awakening

By Perry Tannenbaum

For over a century, playwright Frank Wedekind was best remembered as the creator of Lulu, the libertine protagonist in two of his erotically charged dramas, Earth Spirit (1895) and Pandora’s Box (1904). Alban Berg combined the two works into one Lulu (1937), an opera that stands as one of the sexiest of the 20th century.

Then came 2006.

Wedekind’s notoriety was refueled for a new millennium when Steven Sater adapted the German’s first script, Spring Awakening, for an off-Broadway production. If Lulu was risqué and amoral, Spring Awakening was angry, raw, and a bit shocking – teen chaos rather than salon decadence. The score, composed and orchestrated by Duncan Sheik, certainly wasn’t opera. It was a wicked mix of sensuous, anguished ballads like “Touch Me” and “The Word of Your Body” juxtaposed with raging frenetic rockers like “The Bitch of Living,” “My Junk,” and “Totally Fucked.”

Schoolkids standing up rebelliously on their desks, dancing and stomping catatonically. Vilifying parents and teachers. Ecstatically screwing just before intermission. Even liberal newspapers had to tiptoe around the song titles, lyrics, and actions.

The Atlantic Theatre Company production was an instant sensation, picking up an armful of awards before transferring to Broadway that same year. Eleven Tony nominations and eight Tony Awards were added to the haul, including Best Musical. Somehow the Victorian repression, the withholding of sex education, and the perils of unprotected sex, backstreet abortions, and teen suicide of Wedekind’s 1891 script had leapfrogged into the 21st century in a theatrical triumph – with no mealy-mouthed concessions whatsoever to the older generation.

Underscoring the generic, unsympathetic nature of Wedekind’s adults, all 14 of them were portrayed by one male and one female actor. This was not merely a tragedy of star-crossed lovers. It was an explosively presented nightmare scenario of what can go wrong when adults refuse to discuss sex with their children.

And now this scorching musical hits Charlotte this Friday, barreling into our community theatre for a three-week run – including three Sunday matinees and two Saturday performances on June 1 at 8:00 and 11:30pm. Somebody at the Queens Road barn believes they’re going to sell a whole bunch of tickets. Nobody seems worried that we’ll experience a repeat of the Angels in America uproar that rocked the city in 1996, with aftershocks that ultimately capsized Charlotte Repertory Theatre in 2003.

“We have no trepidation about Spring Awakening being a bridge too far,” says executive director Ron Law. “Many young performers and audience members have lobbied for it, and it has always performed strongly in our show selection survey.”

Touring versions of the show came here in 2010 and 2011, but of course, these weren’t shows with local artists funded by local dollars. The feeling was, even then, that the city had changed and audiences had matured since the Angels debacle. But there is likely another factor at work. Theatre Charlotte has better prepped its audience than Rep.

Oleanna, Falsettos, and Miss Evers’ Boys were as far as Rep pushed the envelope before fielding Tony Kushner’s gay fantasia. At 501 Queens Road they’ve pushed further with its more diverse audience, bringing us The Full Monty, Rent, Hair, and La Cage aux Folles in recent years. One way or another, the unholy trinity – nudity, foul language, and homosexuality – have all been addressed.

“All those shows were huge box office successes for Theatre Charlotte, with little pushback,” Law reports. “For this show, we even offered season ticket buyers the opportunity to buy a package that did not include Spring Awakening. A very small number took us up on this.”

Caution was not altogether thrown to the winds in scheduling this potential powder keg. Some niceties were also observed on the production end, beginning with auditions for the roles of the kids crossing the threshold of puberty. Nobody was allowed to audition unless he or she would be 18 on opening night.

“There were many disappointed 15 and 16 year olds who love the show and couldn’t audition,” Law confirms.

Most of the teens who did audition were savvy theatre students, according to Law. Some have participated in Theatre Charlotte’s youth-oriented summer stock productions, and others have been groomed in the robust theatre programs of our local high schools.

Nominated for the prestigious Blumey Awards for high school musicals across metro Charlotte, three of the major players in Spring Awakening are so accomplished that they put a major crimp in director Billy Ensley’s rehearsal schedule.

Seniors at NW School of the Arts, Renée Rapp (Best Actress), Liam Pearce (Best Actor), and Maya Sistruck (Best Supporting Actress) all earned Blumey Award nominations for their work in the school’s presentation of Big Fish, which is nominated for Best Musical honors. As finalists, all three were spirited away to Belk Theater, rehearsing for multiple segments of last Sunday night’s award ceremonies, where they performed individually and together.Rapp first landed a role at Theatre Charlotte when she was 10 and transferred to Northwest in her junior year. “They are both truly such talented and good-hearted human beings,” she says of Pearce and Sistruck. “Working amongst them all these years has helped me grow as a performer watching the dedication they put into what they do. We have so much love amongst the three of us that even in this especially stressful time with the Blumeys, Spring Awakening and graduation, they make every day and every rehearsal feel like a celebration for me.”

As Wendla Bergmann, Rapp launches the horrific scenario of Spring Awakening when she asks her mom how babies are made and gets a bogus answer. The only teen around who seems to have the lowdown is Melchior Gabor, a voracious reader who quietly shares the news with his shy neurotic bestie, Moritz Steifel – with explicit illustrations and written descriptions. But the atheistic, amoral Melchior does not share the facts of life with Wendla before he deflowers and impregnates her.

Dire consequences all around.

“Melchior has many layers to him,” says Pearce of this charismatic troublemaker. “He clearly wants to experience all of these activities he has read about but may not necessarily be ready to deal with the aftermath of what they may lead to. While he is extremely intelligent, he is still a teenager who has not completely grasped all of the knowledge he needs to be a functioning adult in society.”

Pearce isn’t altogether sure why he landed this plum role, but he has worked with Ensley – and choreographer Lisa Blanton – before at Theatre Charlotte in Jesus Christ Superstar. Ensley saw Pearce as a clear choice at his auditions, both as a singer and as an actor.

“Melchior needed to be a double threat actor singer,” Ensley says, “who could understand the commanding ‘big man on campus’ ego and the broken-hearted lover.”

In love with the misfit Moritz and abused by her father, Martha Bessell takes us to other dark regions of Wedekind’s story. “I always thought that her character arc was one of the strongest and most complex of the girls in the show, and I thought it’d be a wonderful challenge for me to take on,” Suskind says of Martha. “As for being nominated for Blumeys, it was quite nice to be able to link up our busy schedules and have a little ‘buddy’ looking out for any missed rehearsals or information. We were always on the same page.”

All three are also on the same page about delving into their troubled teen characters. They all give props to Ensley. Rapp offers the most detailed insights.

“I have heard countless people tell me how amazing working with Billy is,” she begins, “but it wasn’t until I had a one-on-one with him that I truly understood the depth of what they meant. He puts his heart into this production 100%, and that is so evident and inspiring for me. We sat and talked about myself and my character, and he really helped me break down what this show will mean. His direction is unmatchable. He works and tweaks things with such a specific eye, and I absolutely love it.”

Update: Renée Rapp took honors for Best Actress at the Blumey Awards on Sunday night, winning a trip to Broadway with Ethan Holtzman from Charlotte Latin School for a chance the national Jimmy Award on June 25. So who else won? Check it out here. Ceremonies will be rebroadcast on WTVI on May 29 at 8:00pm.