Monthly Archives: September 2018

Sometimes Predictable, “The Legend of Georgia McBride” Is a Raunchy, Rockin’ Delight

Review:  The Legend of Georgia McBride

By Perry Tannenbaum

While there may be “Good Rockin’ Tonight” when Elvis impersonator Casey steps up to the microphone at Cleo’s Club down in the Florida Panhandle, there isn’t a big hunk o’ love emanating from the audience. On some nights, there isn’t even an audience, except for Eddie, the super low-key club owner. As we begin Matthew Lopez’s The Legend of Georgia McBride with a bumbling, subdued curtain speech from Eddie, we’re keenly aware that both Casey and his boss are in sore need of makeovers. Our sympathies are mostly invested in Casey in this lip-syncing comedy presented by Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte. He’s younger, and the odds are against him, especially when Casey’s wife Jo informs him that his paycheck from Cleo’s has bounced once again, and they’re behind on the rent. No big surprises on the next complications that Lopez serves up to Jo and Casey’s dismay: Casey has just shelled out considerable dough on a new Elvis jumpsuit, Jo’s home pregnancy kit has just tested positive, and Eddie has been trying to work up the nerve to fire his headliner.

Seedy comedy and outré musicals have become the irreverent essence of the Actor’s Theatre brand. With Lizzie in August revisiting the sensational Lizzie Borden murders to a live heavy metal groove and now with this Georgia McBride jukeboxer, ATC has launched its 30th season – and their first full season as resident company at Queens University – by playing solidly to their strengths. Chip Decker’s set design is hardly wider than those we routinely saw at Actor’s in its old Stonewall Street location, with three distinct spaces side by side. Jo and Casey’s living room and kitchen flanks the Cleo’s proscenium on one side with the club’s dressing room on the other. What the Hadley Theater at Queens also allows is a nice thrust stage performing space where the entire cast can eventually perform Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” for their curtain calls.

Yes, as Lopez’s title telegraphs, that’s where we’re heading. Obeying what his ledger is telling him rather than his own personal inclinations, Eddie brings in a pair of drag queens to strut his stage. Casey can stay on if he’ll tend bar, take it or leave it. Symptomatic of his sunny passivity, Casey takes it rather than daring to blaze his own trail. The new gals, Tracy Mills and Anorexia Nervosa are both more diva-like in standing up for themselves. From the moment they enter the dressing room, you expect that at least one of them will go Bette Davis on us and proclaim, “What a dump!” Rexy is the more temperamental and imperious of the two – when he isn’t so drunk that he can’t stand up. One night, when Rexy cannot be revived – let alone hoisted upon his roller skates – Casey is called on to fill in. Either he dresses up as Edith Piaf, or Eddie really will fire him.

This setup for The Legend offers more than merely the bawdiness of drag. We get to enjoy bad drag and bad lip-syncing as Casey wrestles with a bra, pantyhose, and the French language for the first time in his life. Prodded to forge his own identity in dragdom, Casey swivels his new Georgia McBride persona away from the drag trinity of Judy Garland, Piaf, and Liza Minelli. Cutting up his Elvis jumpsuit to fit his newly bolstered tush, the freshly inspired Casey adds female rockers to the customary Broadway-cabaret drag spectrum, including Connie Francis, Madonna, and numerous others beyond my ken. But even when Cleo’s begins to prosper, the sunny go-with-the-flow Casey still doesn’t have the guts to tell Jo about the transformation that has changed his fortunes. Warning: some very predictable scenes ensue between Casey and Jo.

Under the astute direction of Billy Ensley, Georgia McBride transcends this hackneyed marital turmoil with a cavalcade of winsome and hilarious performances on the Cleo’s stage. They are the springboard for tacky, butch, and saccharine creations from costume designer Carrie Cranford ranging from Nazi leather to Busby Berkeley chiffon. The inspired choreographer goes inexplicably uncredited – but I suspect some needless modesty from Ensley himself, a preeminent triple threat back in his acting days.

Judging from reviews of past productions, I’m confident that Lopez left plenty of latitude in his script for characterizations and song selections. If history is a judge, Elvis can drag either country or rock into drag, and both Eddie and Jo can be more loud, nasty and assertive than they were here. I cannot remember when James K. Flynn was funnier than he was on opening night, inconspicuously evolving from a terse mumbling rube to a glittering ebullient emcee – and beyond. Nor did Juanita B. Green rub me wrong as Jo, improbably remaining slightly adorable even when she threw her husband out. I got the idea that only a preternaturally compliant soul like Casey’s would comply.

Ensley’s casting choices for his drag queens are just as brilliant, especially since two of the three are making their debuts with the company. Over the years, Ryan Stamey has conspired on many of ATC’s wildest musicals as an actor, music director, and instrumentalist, so it wasn’t at all surprising to see him making a grand entrance as Rexy in full diva mode, on heels high enough to require a dismount. Stamey actually did multiple dismounts from those heels, doubling as Casey’s put-upon landlord, Jason, and executing bodacious changes in makeup and costumes. As Rexy, he strengthened the impact of Casey’s climactic crisis with his confessional monologue on what he has suffered to pursue his art form, a topic that Lopez should have explored more deeply. I also suspect that Stamey had a hand in formulating the eclectic playlist. I just wished that Rexy had performed more of those drag numbers.

With his elegant serenity and his razor-sharp zingers, Paul Reeves Leopard’s performance as Tracy reminded me of Coco Peru and Charles Busch, two supreme queens I’ve been fortunate enough to see live. In the midst of Casey’s crisis, he also gets a nice moment of truth at Tracy’s front door, answering Casey’s pathetic apologies and entreaties with makeup, dress, and wig discarded for the night – bathrobe-and-hairnet deglamorized, with all his steely maturity on display. Everybody seemed stronger and more mature than Casey, thanks to the sunny optimism and gentle humility Sean Riehm brought to the role. Anybody, man or woman, would let him be his or her teddy bear! Physically, Riehm is well-sculpted but not intimidating, with legs that can inspire a woman’s jealousy. Riehm’s lithe movements underscore the logic of the Elvis-to-Georgia transition: in and out of the jumpsuit, those swiveling hips are very much a part of his job description. Another warning: if you sit in the front row at the Hadley, you are a prime target for a lap dance from a drag queen. Mine was a first for me, the most memorable moment of a fun evening. You won’t be able to experience that when Jim Parsons plays Tracy in the upcoming Fox 2000 film.

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Hatem’s “Confidence (and The Speech)” Loses Its Way but Delivers a Poignant Ending

Review:  Confidence (and The Speech)

Nathaniel Gillespie, Jonathan Hoskins and Greg Parroff in a scene from CONFIDENCE Sept 2018

By Perry Tannenbaum

Say what you want about Jimmy Carter, he wasn’t about lining his pockets with money or telling other nations what to do, and he certainly wasn’t about cozying up to the Russians. Among his more controversial – and principled – actions, President Carter slapped a grain embargo on Russia in response to their invasion of Afghanistan and pulled us out of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. In the midst of an energy crisis, Carter faced a TV camera inside the Oval Office and, wearing a drab cardigan sweater, urged a nationwide audience to turn down their thermostats to 68ºF. After the turmoil of Nixon, Cambodia, and Watergate, President Carter was barely in office two days when he granted blanket amnesty for Vietnam War draft evaders. Probably his most egregious faux pas was reminding wasteful and self-indulgent Americans that we were wasteful and self-indulgent, that two-thirds of us were so apathetic that we didn’t bother to vote, that there was a growing distrust of government and the press, and that our nation’s self-confidence was slowly eroding. Free spending and trickle-down Reaganomics proved to be far more palatable to our shrewd electorate.

Actor Jo Hall plays President Jimmy Carter in CONFIDENCE Sept 2018

Using the pivotal “Crisis of Confidence speech of 1979 as her ground zero, with occasional traces of animus from the shocking 2016 election result, playwright Susan Lambert Hatem reappraises Carter’s leadership and courage in Confidence (and The Speech). Hatem’s sister, producer Anne Lambert, is directing a workshop production of the new play at Spirit Square with the company she founded, Charlotte’s Off Broadway. Taking us to Camp David, where Carter took an extra 10 days to refine his address – convening a domestic summit where he gathered ideas from “business and labor, teachers and preachers, Governors, mayors, and private citizens” – Hatem also trains a critical eye on how much input and impact women had on the deliberations. Seven years after Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman,” it wasn’t exactly a roar.

To look at the Camp David process pointedly from this outsider’s angle, Hatem erects an unusual framework. For her eyes and ears, the playwright recruits a somewhat disillusioned history professor, Cynthia Cooper, who served as a White House intern when Carter’s national address was being crafted. We’re not exactly sure when young Jonathan Rollins approaches Cooper after one of her lectures (not until the end of the evening, anyway), asking her for her reminiscences on Carter, but his persistence is rewarded. There is one catch: Cooper will take us behind the scenes at Camp David only if she portrays President Carter in the retelling. Rollins will need to switch genders as well and portray the young Cynthia.

Josephine Hall takes on the challenge of rekindling our affection for Carter, and she captures 39’s dignity, determination, and quiet uprightness rather well, but the hours she presumably spent watching YouTube videos of Carter have been wasted. She hasn’t listened well enough to produce Jimmy’s distinct Georgia sound, producing a generic drawl that London and New York would deem adequate for their most pallid Tennessee Williams revivals. Nor does Hatem take the opportunity to shine a bright light on the difference a woman in a pantsuit and heels might have made if she had been standing in Carter’s shoes. Unexpectedly, Hall does her best work during her technically impossible private scenes with Rosalynn Carter and in the equally impossible town hall segment when Jimmy listens to the voice of the people and responds. These responses are improvised at every performance, for three audience members will be chosen to give input to the President on key questions facing the nation.

Berry Newkirk, Greg Paroff, Paul Gibson, Maxwell Greger and Josephine Hall in a scene from CONFIDENCE Sept 2018.JPG

Subjected to unwanted advances when he becomes Young Cynthia – and relegated to typing up notes and brewing coffee – Jonathan Hoskins drew a more revelatory role as Rollins. The harassment and abrasive sexism come from pollster Pat Caddell as Cynthia gathers information and works with speechwriter Hendrick Hertzberg. Hoskins gave us enough prissy drag comedy mincing around in heels to effectively contrast and underscore those serious moments when Young Cynthia was being ignored, patronized and disrespected. Another fine episode lies in wait for Hoskins at the end when Rollins sheds his importunate and demure pretenses to reveal his true identity. These are the moments when Hatem is most successful.

Focusing on the polls, the process, and the pragmatism of aligning the speech with Carter’s re-election prospects, Hatem neglects the content of the speech and how it responded to the crises it addressed. It all seemed so promising and convincing in the playwright’s rendering of the first staff meeting at Camp David. In addition to those already named, press secretary Jody Powell, chief of staff Hamilton Jordan, communications director Gerald Rafshoon, and Vice President Walter Mondale all seemed professional, intelligent, and capable. All were agreed that the speech originally for July 4 had been a disastrous snooze and that Carter had been wise to postpone it at the last minute and regroup. The thrust of the message, the stakes, and the pitfalls were briskly and excitingly laid out.

After we grasped Carter’s motivations, process and practicalities stifled the flow of ideas vying for inclusion in the final draft. Rafshoon and Jordan remained thinner than cardboard and as Mondale became little more than an ominous negative voice, Powell became a glib appeaser to a press corps hungry for substance. The play veered along a similar path for us with its gender-bending protagonists, sidestepping the meat of the speech. Deepening the portraits of Rafshoon, Jordan, and Mondale would be one way for Hatem to go – leaving Maxwell Greger to ably provide comic relief as the unctuous Powell. But I suspect the better path might be for her to parade more fleetingly developed characters into the mix – those teachers and preachers and businessmen and politicians that Carter talked about in his speech.

Actor Josephine Hall as President Jimmy Carter and Actor Lane Morris as First Lady Rosalynn Carter in COB's CONFIDENCE Sept 2018Yes, I’d advise doubling and tripling the roles of the staffers. Then Josh Logsdon would have more to do than Mondale’s brooding fatalism, the criminally underused Berry Newkirk could more fully display the full spectrum of his talents, and Paul Gibson as Jordan could flub a more interesting variety of lines. That tack would also present ways of sneaking in more background info about 1979 America and let us outside of the White House West Wing bubble that Hatem creates. With those enrichment opportunities missed, Greg Paroff as Hertzberg, both avuncular and ambivalent, emerged as the most compelling performer in a supporting role while Nathaniel Gillespie was convincingly cringeworthy as Caddell.

Technically, the Charlotte’s Off-Broadway production also disclosed its workshop status. The upstage screens weren’t utilized nearly enough for projections, furniture occasionally boomed or rattled backstage, and on one unfortunate occasion, a folding table failed to become Young Cynthia’s bed for a bedroom scene. But the Lambert sisters’ efforts eventually made a favorable impression on me with a new resolution that Hatem wrote in response to the catastrophe of Election Night 2016. I really shouldn’t reveal what happens, but I will say that it brought tears to my eyes – for a poignant reason I’ve never experienced before: knowing that what I was seeing and hearing onstage couldn’t possibly be true.

 

New Horror and Grotesquerie as Phantom Moves to Coney for “Love Never Dies”

Review:  Love Never Dies

By Perry Tannenbaum

Your knees won’t buckle when you enter Belk Theater to see Love Never Dies, Anthony Lloyd Webber’s long-awaited sequel to The Phantom of the Opera. There’s no gleaming chandelier looming ominously over ticketholders in the front rows, nor will you see any nooks or gargoyles spanning the stage proscenium. Until the curtain rose, about the only aspect of the new Lloyd Webber melodrama that reminded me of its predecessor on opening night was the size of the crowd who had come to see it. A near sellout – not too shabby for a musical that has never played on Broadway.

Compared with recent tours that stopped at the Belk – Lion King, Book of Mormon, Something Rotten! or even the homespun Bright Star – this new Lloyd Webber juggernaut looks rather drab before the lights go down. We find ourselves… wait, in Coney Island? Yes, the macabre Madame Giry and her bubbly, high-strung daughter Meg have spirited The Phantom far from the ill-fated Paris Opera House without telling the songbird he still obsesses over, Christine Daaé. It’s 10 years later, and The Phantom has grown fabulously wealthy as an amusement park tycoon.

So wealthy that when Oscar Hammerstein offers Christine a fortune for her to cross the Atlantic – with her husband Raoul, the Vicomte de Chagny, and her son Gustave – to make her stage comeback, The Phantom is able to double that offer without hesitation.

If only she will SING for him again!!

Now how The Phantom became so rich and why Madame and Meg Giry have been so deeply committed to him are details you will need to ferret out in Frederick Forsyth’s 1999 page-turner, The Phantom of Manhattan. Ben Elton’s book is very loosely based on the Forsyth sequel, changing nearly as much as he left out. Specifically where The Phantom expects Christine to sing is rather vague, and the chief reason for his having a subterranean lair is to echo his old Paris Opera surroundings.

Elton changes Lloyd Webber’s previous work with hardly less impunity. If you remember Phantom well, you’ll be surprised to learn that Gustave is the lovechild of The Phantom and Christine – and that Christine feels spurned, jilted, and cruelly deceived by her former kidnapper. Many things must change in the sequel simply because there is little compulsion for Christine to be at The Phantom’s park, his hotel, his theater, or whatever. Opera was Christine’s life and soul back in her Paris days. Yet he hasn’t even written a new opera for her. Just one song. The nerve!

You’re forgiven, then, if you feel disoriented in the world of Lloyd Webber’s Phantom sequel. But there are vivid echoes of the past in the music and the love triangle at the core of the story. The most exciting new wrinkle is the five-way tug of war over Gustave. Not only are the lovers fighting over the boy. Less forthrightly, so are the Girys, who see him as an obstacle between them and The Phantom’s estate. It’s borderline comical how the good people who love him repeatedly lose track of poor Gustave. It’s a high proportion of the melodrama.

Lloyd Webber’s music is in the vein of Phantom, but not nearly as good – nor as memorable as either Sunset Boulevard or The Woman in White, his most successful follow-ups before his School of Rock comeback. “Till I Hear You Sing” gets us off to a promising start, extensively echoing Phantom as the masked composer bemoans his ten long years without his angelic muse, but until we reach the title song deep in Act 2, there was little rhapsodic flamboyance to fulfill the early promise.

Sung by Jake Heston Miller on opening night, Gustave is a bit of an angel himself, and his duet with Mom, “Love With Your Heart,” is an ingratiating waltz. The barroom confrontation between The Phantom and Raoul has an eerie early morning edge to it, spiked with the animus of their “Devil Take the Hindmost” duet. You’ll also find a thrilling éclat in a couple of The Phantom’s entrances, for Lloyd Webber has replaced the organ, his formerly favored instrument, with pounding drums in his sequel.

Scenic and costume design, both by Gabriela Tylesova, mesh beautifully, especially effective in evoking the lights of Coney Island and Christine’s posh hotel suite. And does she also take credit for the wonderfully saturnine carriage that whisks Christine and family off to Coney? Our unofficial greeters or coachpersons – Stephen Petrovich as the gangly Gangle, rotund Richard Koon as the clownish Squelch, and the super-diminutive Katrina Kemp as Fleck – perfectly cue the phantasmagoria to come with their garish attire. Okay, they are the phantasmagoria to come, especially the Little Person.

This tour has been on the road for almost exactly one year, and the core of major players, even Miller as Gustave, has remained nearly perfectly intact. Obviously we’re seeing a solid unit that has completely jelled. Bronson Norris Murphy as The Phantom is the only interloper, rising up over the course of the tour from ensemble roles and proving to be an excellent fit from the moment the curtain first reveals him. Perhaps most indispensable is Meghan Picerno, whom I saw early last year, glittering and gay as Cunegonde in the New York City Opera production of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide.

ALW doesn’t write nearly so well in Love Never Dies, but he seems to write as stratospherically high, so I suspect a voice like Picerno’s is welcomed here for as long as she wishes. She not only nails the high notes, she also immerses herself in the passion. You’re not listening to great music when Picerno and Murphy tear into their “Beneath a Moonless Sky” duet, but you’re witnessing some riveting theatre as they lash out at each other.

Grown destitute and dissolute, Raoul isn’t the matinee idol of yore, but Sean Thompson puts some gravity into his drunken brooding, so his self-pitying “Why Does She Love Me?” acquires a Sinatra-like maturity. Madame Giry is quite the callous, grasping harpy now, but with Karen Mason so implacably dark and wicked in the role, it’s a pity that Elton and Lloyd Webber haven’t given her more space to spew her venom. On the other hand, to see Meg so debased and preoccupied with her cringe-worthy “Bathing Beauty” earns a purple heart for Mary Michael Patterson, who soldiers through these indignities every night. The spotlight does fall on her in the frantic denouement, a rather startling transformation.

While it’s difficult to forgive how thoroughly Elton and Lloyd Webber botch the Girys, my biggest beef may be with the instrumentation of Love Never Dies. If you’re going to Coney Island to evoke circus horror and grotesquery, the sound of a calliope is a must. Please fix that instantly, Lord Andrew. It’s a start.

Fleet Buffoonery Conquers Enchantment in “Peter and the Starcatcher”

Review: Peter and the Starcatcher

By Perry Tannenbaum

As a fairly frequent reader of Dave Barry’s newspaper work, still recycling in Miami Herald newsletters a full 13 years after he left, I’ve developed a healthy skepticism about whether the humorist is capable of being serious about anything. I was optimistic that I might witness a breakthrough back in 2012 when I realized – as I was preparing to review the original Broadway production – that Rick Elice’s Tony Award-nominated Peter and the Starcatcher was adapted from a novel by Barry and Ridley Pearson.

Surely a prequel to Peter Pan, the most adulated and beloved story of the 20th century, would give Barry the incentive to see beyond his next one-liner, especially with a collaborator on board to keep him from jumping the rails. The giddy acclaim buzzing around the show and its five Tony wins for acting and design further fueled my optimism. On a July evening, I entered the Brooks Atkinson Theatre with the wild expectation of seeing a play that artfully, joyfully, and humorously dovetailed with James M. Barrie’s indelible fantasy.

My expectations were badly misaligned with the clever deconstruct of storytelling that I saw. Elice and Barry were equally tone-deaf to the sense of enchantment that Barrie brought to Peter Pan and to the Englishman’s flavorful zest for the primitive. In its belated rush to chime with the story so many of us grew up with, Starcatcher plopped Neverland in the middle of the ocean rather than up in the stars, Peter remained far from the heartless arrogant joy we all remember, and we were left to figure out that Barry’s Molly was Barrie’s Mary, Wendy’s elegant mom.

Unhindered by my former expectations, I found the touring version of Starcatcher far more enjoyable than the Broadway version when it came to Charlotte in 2014. A lot of credit went to the players. There was more chemistry at Knight Theater between Peter and Molly than I saw on Broadway, therefore more heart emerging from Elice’s script, and unlike the fellow who tried so hard to please as Tony Award winner Christian Borle’s replacement, John Sanders seemed to be having a great time as Black Stache, alias Captain Hook.

Yet I must have still been searching for Barry-Barrie links that I might have missed two years earlier, because I found myself even more pleased last week when Theatre Charlotte opened their 91st season with Jill Bloede directing a strong cast in Peter and the Starcatcher. Adept at zany comedy and slapstick, Bloede knows what this piece is – and what it isn’t. She has prodded Dave Blamy to the top of his game as Stache, no less funny here than in his award-winning turns at Actor’s Theatre in The 39 Steps and The Scene, eight years ago and more. How far can Blamy go over-the-top? The climactic amputation scene will be your delightful answer. Part-time foil and part-time torment, Jeff Powell as Smee outbumbles his master, perpetually aflutter and the perfect complement for Blamy,

Prime yourself for buffoonish villainy rather than hapless wicked cunning to get the full effect of Blamy Stache. The other wicked captain onstage, Tim Huffman as Captain Slank, takes up some of the slack on wickedness and menace – not a surprise if you saw Huffman in his Queens Road debut in The Crucible. Two piratical seamen have gotten wind of the treasure that Lord Leonard Aster is transporting to India. Getting both vessels to sea obliges us to accept that Lord Aster would want her Molly to sail separately from her father with one of the two treasure chests.

With Troy Feay making his Theatre Charlotte debut as milord, there was plenty starchy British propriety on board one of the ships, and with Johnny Hohenstein crossdressing as Mrs. Bumbrake, there was plenty of bawdy bustle aboard the other. Bowen Abbey woos her with intermittent success as Alf, allowing Hohenstein some comical vacillations – and partially explaining her slack supervision of Molly. Hey, they’re all kidnapped anyway, so Mrs. B has some cover for her negligence.

Also kidnapped – sold into slavery, if you want to get picky – are three orphan boys whom Molly befriends. By the process of elimination, we can figure out that the urchin with no name, played with a soft chip on his shoulder by Patrick Stepp, will eventually emerge as Peter. In the spirit of adventure, Molly seeks them out in the bowels of the pirate ship, and in the spirit of Barrie’s Wendy, she takes on the burden of educating the Lost Boys. Fifteen-year-old Ailey Finn is more than sufficiently precocious to portray both the tomboy and maternal dimensions of Molly. Why not? She was Rose of Sharon nearly a year ago in Theatre Charlotte’s Grapes of Wrath!

Stepp and Finn both render their roles like they’re on the cusp of puberty, so their mutual awakening comes moments before they must part forever. With Bloede at the helm, this is the most poignant ending I’ve seen in any Starcatcher production.

We seem to get there at warp speed, even though Bloede manages to sharpen Captain Slank and Mrs. Bumbrake more than I’ve previously experienced. Yet the sensory bombardment is so constant that I can admit without shame that, while I can tell you that Jesse Pritchard and A.J. White played the orphans creditably, I can’t say for sure whether Prentiss was the ornery one or Ted. Likewise, a peep into Wikipedia was necessary to nail down which character wooed Mrs. B.

Somebody remarked to me in the lobby at intermission that Peter and the Starcatcher is like children’s theatre for adults. If you’ve seen ensembles in children’s productions who break away from their characters and directly narrate to the audience, you’ll see the truth of that comment hand-in-hand with Elice’s deconstructing mischief. We are taking in a lot of information here. Listening to the players is often a more reliable indicator of where we are than following the changes in Chris Timmons’ spare set design, nicely coordinated with Gordon Olson’s lighting.

Keeping pace with all that happens is hard enough without worrying how Elice’s play connects with Barrie’s. So don’t. It was only on my third go-round that I realized how important the sound designer’s contributions are to making Starcatcher work. No sound designer is listed in the Theatre Charlotte playbill, so I’ll cite Ben Sparenberg and Rick Wiggins, listed jointly as light and sound board operators. Bloede and her cast certainly keep them busy, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that both of them might be cuing sounds together when tensions intensify.

You won’t find much enchantment in this 91st season launch, but there’s some magic aboard one of the ships when we land in Neverland. The journey is roaring good fun at its best, and it’s running with professional polish and precision.

A Georgia-Born Playwright Reappraises Carter – in the Age of Trump

Preview: Confidence (and The Speech)

CATS cast photo + Anne + Susan #1[4]

By Perry Tannenbaum

Oceans are rising. California keeps burning. Women are still facing stalkers, abusers, detractors, and depressed wages. Innocent blacks are beaten and shot in the back by rogue cops – or point blank by vigilantes. Wouldn’t it be great to be led by a President who cares? While Obama nostalgia and Hillary regrets are keenest, all other past commanders in chief and presidential hopefuls – except maybe Bush 43 – seem to be more palatable alternatives than the racist boor who now sits so empty-headedly at his empty Oval Office desk.

Even Jimmy Carter? Why yes, says playwright Susan Lambert Hatem, whose Confidence (and The Speech) premieres at Duke Energy Theater this week. Growing up in Decatur, GA, a three-hour drive from the famed Plains presidential peanut farm, Hatem has been fascinated by the Carter presidency and his exceptional post-presidency since childhood. Her impulse to reappraise Carter began before the 2016 election.

Among Carter’s signature achievements were establishing the Departments of Education and Energy and successfully bringing Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat together to the peace table for the Camp David Accords. Hatem has made a pilgrimage to attend Carter’s Sunday preaching at his plain Plains church and has extensively researched the record.

“He appointed more women justices and more minority justices than all previous administrations – put together,” she points out. “Carter paved the way to something. There is no Obama presidency without Carter’s presidency. His administration never dropped a bomb. Never started a war. Eight American soldiers were killed on his watch.”

When Confidence began taking shape in 2015, Hatem had good reason to expect that she would also be able to claim that Carter’s presidency paved the way to Hillary Clinton. Equipped with sound theatrical sense, Hatem knew that showing Carter establishing government agencies or appointing women and minorities wasn’t a dramatic pathway to resuscitating his stature.

Instead, she decided to focus on his pivotal “Crisis of Confidence” speech of 1979 addressing America’s energy crisis. She learned that Carter had cancelled the energy address he had originally scheduled for July Fourth and sequestered himself at Camp David for 10 days before emerging with what Hatem calls “The Speech.” Those 10 days were an attempt to change the course of our history.

“I discovered that the initial reaction to that speech was intensely positive,” Hatem recalls. “It was the best public reaction to a speech the White House had ever seen – there were phone calls and letters praising the speech. Later, the speech was used against him and became known as the ‘malaise’ speech – though he never said malaise.”

Before moving into his policy decisions and recommendations, Carter described an ingathering and reaching out.

“I invited to Camp David people from almost every segment of our society,” he told the nationwide TV audience, “business and labor, teachers and preachers, governors, mayors, and private citizens. And then I left Camp David to listen to other Americans, men and women like you. It has been an extraordinary ten days, and I want to share with you what I’ve heard.”

Hatem not only examines the domestic summit that Carter held at Camp David, she flips the script with her narrative structure. Young Jonathan Rollins approaches 60-year-old college professor Cynthia Cooper, a former Carter aide, and asks her to recall the leadup to the “Crisis of Confidence” speech. Cooper consents – on condition that Young Jonathan plays Young Cynthia in the retelling. Professor Cooper will play President Carter.

Why? Because Hatem is not just interested in how history is made. She’s concerned with who gets to make it. Set in 2019, when President Hillary would presumably declare her candidacy for a second term, Confidence (and The Speech) would be a look back at how we began to evolve toward this landmark of feminist progress.

And then came the shock of Election Night, November 8…

“After the 2016 election – I didn’t know what to do,” Hatem admits. “I had to put the play down for a bit. I couldn’t work on it. I didn’t know how the play would make any sense any more. Then January 2017 was the Woman’s March, and I was re-inspired. I knew I had to finish it. So many women were stepping up. So many LGBTQ activists. So many black women and men. So many voices were rising. I wrote a new ending – a cathartic ending to me. An ending that I think will excite some, and confuse others. It is purposefully somewhat ambiguous… and not.”

The road from re-inspiration to this week’s Charlotte premiere ran through Hatem’s sister, Anne Lambert, who already had two significant production projects in the works during 2017. Last summer, she was on the producing team at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte that presented a staged reading of Bend in the Road, a musical adaption of the beloved Anne of Green Gables. Then in late fall, Lambert’s own company, Charlotte’s Off-Broadway, presented a fully professional local premiere of Richard Greenberg’s Three Days of Rain.

Lambert had co-founded the all-female Chickspeare theatre troupe at a local brewery 20 years ago, so her sister’s gender-bending concept was right up her alley. Confidence was one of six plays that were read at Camp North End this past winter as part of the Charlotte’s Off-Broadway “Page to Stage 2018” series. Of the six works read script-in-hand from February through March, Hatem’s will mark the third to receive a full production.

This time around, Lambert is wearing two hats, producing and directing. Hatem especially values her sister’s experience with dark Shakespearean plays – where the Chickspeare gender-bending wasn’t done for cheap laughs or sexual effect.

“What I’m trying to do is explore how the cross-gendering can reveal another layer to the play’s themes,” says Hatem. “That’s where Anne and her direction have been so great.”

The Lambert Sisters tapped Josephine Hall for the challenging roles of Professor Cooper and President Carter – in an unusual three-way FaceTime audition with the playwright in LA, the producer in Charlotte, and their star in Greensboro. We haven’t seen Josephine Hall in a local production since she prowled Stonewall Street in Cougar: The Musical, the last of her three Actor’s Theatre appearances during the 2014-15 season. Though she teaches acting and voice at Greensboro College, Hall hasn’t totally disappeared from view. Some of us saw her at Belk Theater when the first national tour of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time came to town in February 2017.

Hatem knew some people who had worked with Hall on that tour, and Lambert had been impressed with her performance in Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike at Actor’s Theatre. You could say they were pre-sold before they hooked up via their iPhones.

After starring as the discontented daughter of a former Reagan ambassador in the 2014 Actor’s Theatre production of Other Desert Cities, you also might say that Hall was serendipitously unsold on President Ronald Reagan. The Hollywood actor successfully pinned the malaise label on Carter’s watershed speech and wrested the presidency from him in 1980.

“I believe The Speech is a missed opportunity,” Hall says after living with it through months of study and rehearsals. “Most people – not just Americans – don’t want to think too deeply or like to change their daily habits. Carter was asking for both. It’s really no wonder that most people chose the ‘all is well, just spend more’ approach offered by Reaganomics. It is very sad, however. I try to imagine a world where America had paid attention and led the world down a more sustainable path.”