Monthly Archives: July 2018

“Book of Mormon” Remains Spectacularly Hilarious

Review: The Book of Mormon

By Perry Tannenbaum

It’s been quite a run for Mormons over the past 25+ years, beginning with the Pitt family in Angels in America in the early ‘90s and continuing with the Mitt run for the presidency in 2012. Queen City theatergoers had a front row seat for the upswell of Mormon topicality when Charlotte Rep brought Wendy Hammond’s cathartic Ghostman to town about the same time that Tony Kushner’s masterwork was wending its way from LA to London and then to Broadway.

Yet ironically, the most informative emanation from Salt Lake City – the one most fully unfurling the spiritual lineage of Mormon the prophet, the Angel Moroni, Joseph Smith, and Brigham Young – is the most mocking, irreverent, and satirical. Right on schedule for the Romney candidacy, The Book of Mormon hit Broadway in the spring of 2011, instantly affirming that South Park and Avenue Q, the previous successes of its writing team, hadn’t been flukes.

Still running strong at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre in New York, The Book of Mormon is now visiting Belk Theater for the third time in the last five years – and its freshness and outrageousness have hardly faded at all. True, the opening bell-ringing shtick of “Hello!” is starting to lose some of its original sharpness, and the sublime conceit and missionary confidence of Elder Price’s “You and Me (But Mostly Me)” has become less priceless as Romney’s run recedes into memory. On the third time around, the chief pleasure of the “Hasa Diga Eebowai” shtick and the running “maggots” gag is watching them work their vulgar magic on first-timers to the show.

Ah, but that leaves a profusion of vulgarity that still hit me hard on press night. What I see more clearly than ever is that the book of The Book of Mormon was an exuberant explosion of creativity in a writers’ room, when longtime partners in South Park crime, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, teamed up with Avenue Q whiz Robert Lopez for their first mega-collaboration, taking aim at a wondrously vulnerable target. Such a barrage of hilarity doesn’t seem possible from one man alone. This is a trio of jokesters feeding off one another while crafting a storyline that revolves around three fairly rounded characters. A mischievous “what else can we do?” mantra underlies everything.

The Mormon repressions of “Turn It Off” echo the juvenile Avenue Q simplicities of “Hello!” with extra bite, and the first act closer, “Man Up,” conjures up all the signature raunchiness – and bold tastelessness – of South Park. But here’s the thing: the three collaborators layer on a level of pretentiousness that is new to all of them. “Man Up” grows into an operatic trio before the curtain comes down for intermission. Singing over each other, the buffoonish Elder Cunningham primes himself to avoid screwing up for once, Elder Price wrestles with his first failure, and African ingenue Nabulungi longs for freedom, redemption, and Salt Lake.

We get a foretaste of the pretension to come in the illuminated proscenium evoking the stagecraft of Phantom and Wicked, but it doesn’t reach full flower until Elder Price’s “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” fantasia after intermission, topped off with its caffeinated Starbucks symbolism. It’s funny even if you didn’t know that Mormons must abstain from coffee. So much of Act 2 click because of its generous infusion of Mel Brooks incongruity, which ultimately plunges over the edge of political incorrectness when we reach the anthemic “I Am Africa.” The whole bunch of youthful Mormon missionaries declare their identification with the squalor and barbarity of their new Uganda homeland.

Unable to stick to his missionary script with Elder Price’s verve and fidelity, Elder Cunningham, who hasn’t read any Bible, leans on the mythology of Star Wars, Star Trek, and Lord of the Rings to imaginatively make over scripture and convert the heathen. But perhaps the most irreverent desecration of hallowed culture is the takedown of R&H’s The King and I. Instead of darling Thai tykes performing an adorably distorted Uncle Tom’s Cabin, we’re treated to deluded Ugandans disfiguring holy writ in a playlet doused with lewd acts and ailments not readily associated with either Moses or Joseph Smith. We can see disaster looming as the Missionary President sits down to watch this spectacle, and we can’t wait.

Connor Peirson is as shambling, slovenly, and clingy as any Elder Cunningham we’ve seen before. What sets this pudgy wonder apart are his lightning-fast dance moves, limber feats that disdain gracefulness. His unabashed nerdiness marks him as emphatically as his untucked, wrinkled shirt. His initial puppydog worship of Price and his suggestive shyness toward Nabulungi in the modestly veiled baptism scene would both be so precious and adorable were it not for Pierson’s intractable disorderliness. In the end, it really does take a giant leap of faith to believe in him as a religious leader.

And in the end, with the onset of humility, Kevin Clay as Elder Price turns out to be almost as good as he thinks he is. He’s a bit blander at times than the Romney and Rubio types we’ve seen previously, but he is also the best dancer we’ve seen in this role. Breaking through to individuality in “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,” Clay’s moves were the key to keeping the ornate nightmare absolutely fresh.

Although I found Kayla Pecchioni’s syllabification of “Sal Tlay Ka Siti” to be a work-in-progress that muted Nabulungi’s warm comedy, she came through nicely in both the mock tender Act 2 “Baptize Me” duet and the more broadly comical “Joseph Smith American Moses.” Other characters are cartoon thin, but there’s often enough there for an actor to excel. Andy Huntington Jones certainly capitalized on his chances as the semi-closeted district leader, Elder McKinley; Jacques C. Smith as Mafala radiated a sunny geniality leading the “Hasa Diga Eebowai” before lowering the boom on its profane meaning, and Corey Jones brought fearsome credibility to warlord General Butt-Fucking Naked.

Wielding the golden tablets handed down to mortals by the Heavenly Father, Ron Bohmer looks appropriately Mosaic as Smith in a costume designed by Ann Roth. If you’ve seen Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments, you’ll recognize the wig that Bohmer gets to work with. Scenic designer Scott Pask achieves an Emerald City aura at Latter Day’s HQ in Salt Lake before targeting The Lion King for a vicious takedown with his squalid African village.

My most enthusiastic behind-the-scenes kudos are reserved for Casey Nicholaw, who co-directs with Parker and consecrates the spectacle with his zany choreography. Just when I began to find a nick or two in the comedy chassis of The Book of Mormon, the ensemble’s dance exploits helped me discover the polished chrome in the grillwork.

 

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Earthbound “Newsies” Charms With Punk Hero and Youthful Fervor

Review: Newsies The Musical

By Perry Tannenbaum

It wasn’t long after music director Drina Keen cued the opening bars of Newsies that I already knew. This Disney musical fits the CPCC Summer Theatre program like a glove. Largely fueled by singing, acting, and dancing talent fresh out of college and grad school by way of regional Southeastern Theatre Conference auditions, CP’s youthful summer company is exactly what you want for a story about underpaid New York City newsboys who dare to strike against newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer.

Look at the scaffolding that rises across the stage at Halton Theater, representing the tenements where the raw, gifted Jack Kelly and his fellow newsies are holed up, and you might also suspect that Robert Croghan’s set design measures up well against those of the Broadway production and the national tour. Having seen both, I can add that Croghan’s costumes and Gary Sivak’s lighting also reach those lofty levels. Differences only begin to emerge when the ensemble of paper hawkers starts to dance.

Whether constrained by the limitations of his dancers or the liability limits of CP’s insurance coverage, Ron Chisholm’s choreography doesn’t begin to compare with the high-flying exploits that brought Newsies a best choreography Tony Award in 2012. I found it illuminating to see how that shortfall reverberated through the rest of the production. Music played by the CP Orchestra seemed less vibrant behind more earthbound dancers, draining the Alan Menken score of a bit of its punch. Even the Harvey Fierstein book seemed thinner, plotlines and characters less fleshed-out.

Of course, director Tom Hollis hasn’t trimmed the script, so I’d presume that first-timers may be surprised to discover how mature this Disney product truly is. Sure, the history of the 1899 strike has been tidied up and moved to Manhattan, while the financials are fudged to amp up the drama. Kelly has been installed as the single organizer and leader while Katherine, modeled on an actual newsperson who backed the strike, has been extensively re-engineered, predictably becoming Jack’s love interest.

Jack gets a Jewish newbie named Morris as a sidekick who handles the practicalities of organizing and publicizing the strike, another vague nod toward history; and up in his office, Pulitzer does entice Jack to recant his strike support with a tempting offer. Teddy Roosevelt, then Governor of New York, makes a couple of cameo appearances, adding extra period flavoring, though not nearly as crucial as cousin Franklin was in Annie.

Other factors come into play that could deflect Jack from plunging into full-bore labor agitation. At the top of the show, he and his crippled crony stand on top of their roof, mooning over an escape from the tenements to a cleaner life in “Santa Fe.” Later on, the police raid a newsie gathering and haul Crutchie (what else does a city kid call a crippled crony?) off to jail. Jack feels responsible – and he’s on the lam from the cops himself.

Above all else, our Jack has talent. He could become a visual artist or, more to the point, an illustrator at the newspaper he’s been selling all this time. Jack’s artistic aptitude and the introduction of Katherine are the chief alterations Fierstein makes to the 1992 screenplay by Bob Tzudiker and Noni White. You may shake your head a bit at the end after watching Jack take advantage of both of these exciting opportunities. He’s still waltzing off into the sunset as a newsboy.

With awesome gravity-defying dancing in the jubilant Newsies package, you might easily ignore this gauche resolution, but at Halton Theater, we must fall back on the excellence of Ashton Guthrie as Jack. C’mon, this is all about Jack, isn’t it? Happily, Guthrie delivers. I’ve been watching Guthrie on local stages since high school when he was the evil Zoser in Aïda (from Disney to Disney, right?), and I greeted him back then in 2009 as a triple threat to watch – and keep in Charlotte.

His command of all those skills is fuller now, and the professional polish of his Jack is a constant joy to behold whether he’s speaking, singing, dancing, or simply listening to others onstage. Smoothly, he combines the poise of a natural leader with the roughness of the streets, stirring in the rebellious hormones of a teen. Familiar with much of his past work, I had to chuckle a bit at his pugnacious punk mannerisms.

The elders are so good in this cast that I have to cite them as being the other key reasons why this CP production so enjoyable. Hollis gives every one of these vets free license to give performances that are a wee bit outsized. As Pulitzer, we find that Rob Addison adds a pinch of melodramatic villainy to the brass tacks businessman, and springing off Mount Rushmore as Teddy Roosevelt, Craig Estep adds a Jerry Colonna twinkle to the Rough Rider’s vitality.

Presiding over the newsies’ hangouts, Brittany Harrison and Jonathan Buckner bring us some Big Apple diversity, Harrison as a diva nightclub hostess and Buckner as a deli owner who opens his doors to the boys even when they’re nigh broke from striking. Among the newsie gang, only two pairs of brothers really stand apart to leave as much of an impression as Treston Henderson’s Crutchie. Jalen Walker is just slightly nerdy as Morris Delancey and Patrick Stepp is precociously adorable as little brother Oscar. Collin Newton and Alex Kim are the other bros, Jack’s most enthusiastic boosters and the staunchest militants in his roused rabble.

Looking quite serene and elegant in her prim business attire, Robin Dunavant does get to sketch out a modest storyline of her own, trying to prove that women can be serious journalists long before the suffrage movement prevailed. She’s cool to Jack’s advances at first. Only when she realizes that this déclassé Jack is an upstart labor agitator does she see him as a stepping stone toward professional respectability. And we eventually learn that Katherine isn’t a nobody from nowhere. So that’s why Fierstein has added on Jack’s talents! To justify her affections.

Whatever the right degree of warming up to Jack is required, Dunavant reaches it demurely. She could have turned up the heat a little without endangering Guthrie’s dominance, but this will do.

“Appropriate” Sports Multiple Meanings and Graveyards

Review:  Three Bone Theatre’s Appropriate

By Perry Tannnenbaum

Two graveyards flank the Lafayette home in southeast Arkansas, dating back to its antebellum plantation days. One of these cemeteries preserves the remains of the former owners’ family and the other, receiving less upkeep perhaps, the bones of their slaves. Yet it seems, as we become more and more familiar with the Lafayette siblings in Branden Jacob-Jenkins’ Appropriate, that there are also – figuratively, anyway – at least two more graveyards inside the home. And a malevolent ghost.

As the sibs gather at the old homestead, poring over their dad’s possessions a few months after the funeral, prepping the place for a scheduled auction and liquidation, it’s obvious that the home is a graveyard for blurred childhood memories that don’t align with each other. Old grudges and animosities rise freshly out of their tombs. Just as dramatically, there are damning objects buried among Dad’s salable possessions.

He could have been a virulent segregationist, a KKK member, or even part of organized lynch mobs. Or he could have merely been a collector of such grisly artifacts. Or they may have simply come down unnoticed from the original plantation owners.

Ambiguities abound, and in the Three Bone Theatre production now at Spirit Square, they aren’t shying away from the confusion. If anything, these tantalizing uncertainties are sharpened by director Sarah Provencal and her cast. On the title page of the playbill, definitions for “ap•pro•pri•ate” are offered for both the adjective and the verb, inviting us to be unsure about even how to pronounce the name of what we’re watching.

Thanks largely to Rachael, “Bo” Lafayette’s annoying and judgmental Yankee wife, and Franz his black sheep younger brother, we’re scrutinizing the inheriting generation as much as the deceased. Is the elder sister, Toni, showing her racist colors when she denies knowing of any evidence of Daddy’s bigotry? Or how about when she presumes that River, Franz’s fiancée, is Native American on the basis of her braided hair? Does it count as denial that Bo has been oblivious to the second cemetery outside?

Thanks again to Rachael’s stridency, we also occasionally wonder, as we sit watching this venal spectacle, whether we ourselves are too quick to judge, victims of our own prejudices. Certainly that is a strong component of Jacob-Jenkins’ intent. After we reach preliminary conclusions, we may have to recalibrate when we discover that more than a couple of these people are capable of keen reflection and insight.

What fascinated me even more was what none of the lively folks onstage perceived, for amid the squabbles, the stressing, the venting, the scheming, and the violence, Jacob-Jenkins is exploring what makes families tick or malfunction. The easiest part of all this to convey is the diverging narratives we build from different perspectives – as basic as I-was-there-and-you-weren’t in some cases – and from simple misperceptions, sometimes as simple as taking our eyes off the ball. Or a photo album.

These differences can explode. But more subtly, we can fail to communicate – or screw up when we try.

That’s why it’s tough for me to choose among the three most stellar – and introspective – performances currently on view at Duke Energy Playhouse. For sheer octane and horsepower, nobody surpasses Becca Worthington as Toni for keeping hostilities blazing hot. Toni hates everybody for leaving all the caretaking and dirty work to her (a staple gripe in family sagas like these), but despite all the venom she spews at everyone in sight, she’d like somebody to love her. Quite funny if you think about it, because Toni doesn’t come off as anybody’s doormat.

On the other hand, Leslie Giles actually seems to believe she’s in a comedy as Rachael, jarringly shrill in her perpetual alarm, taking offense so readily that she eventually earns it, and parenting as if every moment were a dire emergency. Things don’t go well between the chronically caustic Toni and the high-strung Rachael. You’ll strain to determine who’s more in the wrong – or more sincere in her self-loathing.

Of the two brothers, I find Franz far more significant, textured, and engaging than Bo. Yet you’ll see that Dan Grogan has plenty to chew on as Bo, trying to fix his siblings’ messes and get the maximum return on the family estate while maintaining peace with his virago wife. He treads fine lines with his steamrolling missus, who feels she has been targeted for anti-Semitic bias by Toni’s precious dad. Bo strives to prevent the inevitable explosions when Rachael pushes her sister-in-law’s limited patience too far. We probably dislike Grogan most for seeming so pragmatic, grounded, and occasionally spineless.

Home after many years of being on the road and out of touch, showing up months after Dad’s funeral just in time for the auction – with a youthful New Age fiancée on his arm who adores him – Franz is the object of suspicion, resentment, and envy. So why did I find myself liking him in spite of his past as a sexual predator? I guess I was as captivated as River was by his mellow, slightly dopey earnestness.

What drills down to the essence of Jacob-Jenkins’ dissection of family life are Franz’s repeated efforts at meaningful communication. Ignoring his sibs’ suspicions, Franz tells the family that he has come home to apologize to them, not completely sure he believes it himself. But he makes a big deal out it, clumsily reading a handwritten apology that is more than a cursory couple of sentences. Tim Hager gets the awkwardness of this man down to the bone, trying to believe he has finally turned the corner to personal redemption. Even more pathetic are Franz’s incoherent efforts to mentor his nephew Rhys – at a vulnerable moment when it might be more prudent to just leave the embarrassed teen alone.

Maybe well-meaning inarticulateness is Franz’s true inheritance from his father and the true reason why his life has so frequently jumped the rails. Very American, this Franz. We’ve had a couple of inarticulate presidents during this blundering century, one of them fairly likable. Hasn’t worked out so well.

The younger Appropriate generation does seem to include River, and all four of them seem to offer us rays of hope. Despite her hippy-dippy spiritualism, Joy White doesn’t gloss over River’s inclination to look after Franz’s financial interests, becoming a rounder, savvier adventuress than we first surmise. There’s a modicum of chemistry between Sean Riehm as Rhys and Siri Patterson as his cousin Cassie, Rachael’s daughter. Clearly, the teens’ parents worry about them more than is necessary. Jamey Helm completes the cast as Cassie’s younger brother, not so much bratty as speedy. His darting sprints from one end of the stage to the other heighten the overall sense of turmoil, clutter, and chaos.

You may be troubled by this Three Bone production, but you won’t be bored. Special perk: Jacob-Jenkins devises a stunning way to end a family brawl.

Lips Are Sealed on Whodunit at CP

Preview:  The Mousetrap

By Perry Tannenbaum

Between the time that Queen Elizabeth II began her reign and the official date of her coronation in 1953, another queen began her ascent to a regal London throne. Late in November 1952, Agatha Christie brought her murder mystery drama The Mousetrap to the Ambassadors Theatre. By the time the show transferred to the larger St. Martin’s Theatre in 1974, Dame Agatha had long since worn the crown for the longest running show in London’s fabled West End – for both plays and musicals.

It’s been there ever since, making St. Martin’s a London landmark.

This week, The Mousetrap returns to CPCC Summer Theatre after a hiatus of 37 years. Paula Baldwin, who directs the whodunit, says she saw a production a few years ago in Mint Hill. Scarcely as popular in Metrolina as it is in the UK, productions have only appeared on the outskirts of Charlotte since the turn of the millennium, popping up in Davidson during the summer of 2004 and again at Fort Mill in 2008.

“I love the script!” says Baldwin. “The characters are well developed and they all have a secret. In many murder mysteries, the audience knows who the killer is and watches for the climactic moment, but in The Mousetrap, the audience makes discoveries as the characters do, and all of the characters appear to be guilty at one point or another.”

That includes Giles and Mollie Ralston (Andrew Tarek and Lisa Hatt), our hosts at Monkswell Manor. On a snowy night, after listening to radio reports of a murder and a police manhunt, the Ralstons welcome four anticipated boarders to their isolated guesthouse – plus two people they hadn’t bargained for. Mr. Paravicini (Charles Laborde) seeks shelter from the storm after his car has overturned in a snowdrift. That’s his story, anyway. After that, Detective Sergeant Trotter (Cole Pedigo) arrives to investigate, believing that the murderer is somewhere in the house.

Don’t bet against it. Nor should we assume that all the killing is over, especially since – hey, we’re back in the ‘50s, and it’s been snowing! – the lights and the phone might go out.

So is it murder and suspense that account for the uncanny success of The Mousetrap? Probably not. Nor is the notorious pact with the audience not to reveal the final plot twists unique to this mystery thriller.

Ticket sales aren’t completely on autopilot midway into the show’s 67th year. Marketing continues long after some might see its necessity. “The mystery lives on!” proclaims the current poster, evidence that somebody might be up late at night worrying about the future.

Truth be told, reputation and tradition are likely more pertinent to the endless run than mundane marketing. Next to Shakespeare and the authors of the Bible, Christie has sold more books than anyone one else in the history of the planet, the best-selling novelist of all time. We can safely declare that Dame Agatha benefits from a build-up of goodwill and adoration. Nor was the Queen of Crime a one-hit wonder on the stage. Productions of Witness for the Prosecution and Ten Little Indians are still done.

If there’s a secret ingredient to the success of The Mousetrap, it’s Christie’s charm.

“Agatha Christie had a lot of fun with this particular play and really pokes fun at murder mysteries with some of the dialogue and actions within the play,” says Baldwin when asked to detect its secret sauce. “I do think that seeing the show in London has become a tradition for tourists, very much like American tourists flock to see shows like Phantom of the Opera or Wicked when they go to New York. Londoners go to see the show when the cast changes or to take their children and later their grandchildren.”

Of course, 37 years after the last CP Summer Mousetrap, people who saw the 1981 production might just come back to refresh their memories – with or without kids and grandkids. Baldwin has no intentions of layering on any updates or retrospective condescension, planning to preserve the suspense built into the script and present the snowbound mystery as a period piece.

The new CP production will sport a not-so-secret sauce of its own, the 15th collaboration between Baldwin and LaBorde since the two met up at Carolina Actors Studio Theatre in 2008 in the CAST production of Foxfire. It was Baldwin’s Charlotte debut and LaBorde’s first acting gig after retiring from his position as principal of Northwest School of the Arts.

“I feel we clicked immediately,” LaBorde recalls. “We each liked the other’s professionalism and commitment to hard work on the process. She is quite firm but nice. She’s often been a strong positive character in shows we have done together – Foxfire, Metamorphoses, Death of a Salesman, To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Ah yes, but then there are all of Baldwin’s mean and nasty roles in Streetcar Named Desire, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Actress. Maybe meanest of all was August: Osage County, where she usurped the leadership of the Weston family and yelled out at the end of Act 2, “I’M RUNNING THINGS NOW!”

LaBorde has directed Baldwin eight times, if we count Angels in America twice for Parts 1 and 2. Mousetrap really will be the first time in their professional relationship that Baldwin is turning the tables and running things.

“It has been an easy transition to acting for her and being bossed around by her,” LaBorde tells us, diplomatically. “I’ve had the good sense to learn my lines, do the blocking she gives me, and keep my mouth shut at other times.”

After getting cast by LaBorde as Blanche DuBois in Streetcar and Martha in Virginia Woolf, Baldwin couldn’t be blamed if she retaliated by casting LaBorde as Christie’s killer. But did she? Baldwin won’t say.

“Everybody is a suspect!” she exclaims.

We don’t get a full confession from LaBorde, either.

“Paravicini is a mysterious character to be sure,” he evades. “He drops in out of the storm unannounced, he speaks with a French accent – peppering his speech with oui’s, charmante’s, and even soupçon. But he has an Italian name, which he appears to make up on the spot. He is clearly worried about the arrival of the police, but his more obnoxious self gets the better of him and sets him in a battle of wits with the detective.”

Cross-examination proves to be fruitless. Even when we ask a trick question, how many people did Paravicini murder, LaBorde answers ambiguously. Asked whether there’s anything we will like about Paravicini, the wily LaBorde finally divulges some poop.

“He seems to have perverse fun with the subject of murder,” he says wickedly, “always a crowd-pleaser in an Agatha Christie play.”