Review: Arts at the Abbey concert featuring pianist Thomas Pandolfi
By Perry Tannenbaum
Driving out to Belmont Abbey College for an Arts at the Abbey concert featuring pianist Thomas Pandolfi, I seemed to have a previous memory of the name from my CD collection. Later that evening, I found Giovanni Antonio Pandolfi Mealli among my CDs, nestled between music of Paganini and Panufnik. The recording of his violin sonatas by Andrew Manze, which I heartily recommend, was released nearly 20 years ago when Manze could do no better than narrow the composer’s birthday to somewhere between 1620 and 1634 in Umbria. A search of Spotify unearthed three subsequent albums after Manze’s 1999 excavation – plus a new disc by the pianist that includes three of the pieces I had just heard at the Abbey Basilica. At Amazon, Thomas is better-represented than Giovanni, with a selection of CDs dating back to 2006. Scanning the extensive biography in the Arts at the Abbey program, I didn’t find a family connection between the American pianist and the Italian composer, but an artistic connection emerged while Thomas played: these are both musicians who deserve to be better known.
Pandolfi has technique to spare and the strength to punish a piano. His program showed a predisposition toward the tried-and-true, Manuel Ponce the only composer he needed to introduce. Leonard Bernstein, frequently performed during his centennial year, was the first of the familiar names to get a hearing with “Rhapsody of Themes from West Side Story,” Pandolfi’s arrangement of Lenny’s most famous score. Very much like Bernstein’s orchestral overture, but with a different mix of melodies, Pandolfi’s arrangement gave him a chance to show his prowess with splashy, spicy tunes as well as tender lyrical ballads. Playing loose with the sequence of the show, Pandolfi seized upon “Tonight” for his first subject and used the familiar theme from the “Prologue” and “Jet Song” to transition to the festive “I Feel Pretty,” which became a rather grand march before a minor-key meditation flowed into “One Hand, One Heart.” A second slow-fast-sequence intensified the rhapsodic mood of the piece with florid treatments of “Maria” and “Somewhere” bookended around a sprightly “America.” With Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue looming at the end of the program, this was a truly auspicious beginning.
A trio of fine Chopin showpieces followed, building gradually in intensity after the placid Nocturne No. 2 in E-Flat. Playing a little too quickly to plumb the full depths and beauties of this piece, with dynamics that didn’t make the most of its dramatic contrasts, Pandolfi was impeccable in his technique, teasing out the Nocturne’s waltz rhythm – and his trilling little codetta as we turned toward home was simply exquisite. After calling our attention to the “Always Chasing Rainbows” midsection of the Fantasy-Impromptu, Pandolfi produced his best playing so far, admirably navigating the turgid A-theme so that clarity was balanced with power. Transitions in and out of the midsection delivered sharp, dramatic contrasts.
The marvelous Opus 53 Polonaise, “The Heroic” in A-Flat, is a litmus test for piano technique and artistry. I remember arriving at the University of South Carolina as a teaching assistant in the early ‘70s and discovering the extensive LP collection at the local library that enabled me to compare how the masters attacked and interpreted this masterwork: Rubinstein, Horowitz, Entremont, Vasary, Brailowsky, and others. There are worse ways to absorb the nuances of musical interpretation and develop personal taste. It’s also pretty special to be able to hear this piece played live by someone with the attack force that can shake and roll a grand piano the way Pandolfi can. The opening sforzando snapped our heads back, and the first sounding of the heroic melody was as sharp, crisp, and uplifting as you could wish. All the intervening passages were also beautifully judged and mastered (the second quick-step interlude is a formidable beast), and the closing summation was truly rousing and thunderous. There was a satisfying rigor to the earthbound final chords, which can often sound awkwardly separated from the explosion that precedes. My only problem with the performance came when Pandolfi repeated the heroic refrain on its second and third hearings. While I appreciated his urge to vary what we had previously heard, I felt that he strayed too far, softening and muddying a couple of measures that had previously been crystal clear and bright. Nothing nearly as perverse as Lang Lang’s recent recording, mind you, but a bit outré.
After that thunder – and the enthusiastic applause that greeted it – Pandolfi reset and started a fresh trilogy in the same intensifying mold as the Chopin set. Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” came off with more lyricism and delicacy than the Nocturne, indicating that the pianist was calmer now – or maybe slightly wearied from his Polonaise exertions. The sound he could coax from the piano was as impressive as the feeling. Ponce’s Intermezzo #1 was the only letdown in the concert, rushed too much at the start and not sufficiently varied in dynamics afterwards to get a full sense of the piece’s architecture, though wisps of its “Windmills of Your Mind” flavor came through.
Not to worry, Pandolfi had a grand finale in his pocket and, he hinted, a special encore if we liked his Gershwin enough. The piano transcription of Rhapsody in Blue is daunting from the beginning, when the soloist is called upon to replicate the famous opening glissando that fits the clarinet so divinely. Pandolfi accepted the challenge with gusto, producing a sound from the keyboard that was respectably close to the reed instrument, and he attacked orchestral passages with a zeal that was exhilarating. All the dynamic contrasts that were wanting in the Ponce were here in superabundance, so that the succession of late-night, blues-tinged quietudes flowed meaningfully into the city lights outbursts. Of course, all the passages originally written for piano had a special glitter, but Pandolfi was also up to grand onset of the familiar rhapsody melody and the rocking celebration that follows. All of Pandolfi’s considerable showmanship came in handy as we reached this classic upswell, yet the final moments of this epic performance were a model of restraint, control, and dignity. Of course, the audience loved it.
So we were granted the privilege of an encore, a resourceful mashup by Pandolfi of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera. On the new CD, Pandolfi’s “Phantom Phantasy” is actually the first track, but the 2018 release is titled After the Applause, so if I’m interpreting correctly, everything on its songlist qualifies as an encore. About half as long as the mammoth Rhapsody in Blue, the Lloyd Webber fantasia was noticeably longer than typical encores and quite a feast, more cleverly and artfully arranged than the Bernstein rhapsody – florid, romantic, rhapsodic, and melodramatic. A lot of fun, really, as Pandolfi unpredictably interwove the Phantom melodies, and a refreshing way to end a satisfying recital.
Charlotte isn’t known as a city that treasures its heritage, so it was gratifying to see that Charlotte Symphony was dedicating its Music for a Royal Celebration concert to the 250th anniversary of the Queen City’s founding. Presumably, the audience that filled Knight Theater knew what all the celebration was about. If they didn’t, nobody was going to fill them in from the podium, although we had an able emissary from the Crown onstage in Charlotte Symphony maestro Christopher Warren-Green, who conducted at Their Majesties’ last two Royal Weddings in his native UK.
Warren-Green regaled us, instead, with anecdotes about programming Sir William Walton’s “Crown Imperial March” at the most recent Royal Wedding and the fire emergency that marred the premiere of George Frederic Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks in 1749. This was the latest of the three Handel works that Symphony performed, including “Zadok the Priest” (1727) and excerpts from the Water Music (1717) – and the only one written during Queen Charlotte’s lifetime (1744-1818). She wouldn’t become queen until 1761, however, seven years before her eponymous Charlotte Town was incorporated.
If you’ve ever heard “Zadok the Priest” performed, you’ll realize that the Charlotte Symphony Chorus had to be part of the celebration. Composed for the coronation of King George II, Handel loosely adapted a couple of verses from the opening chapter of Kings I that fit the occasion, the first of his four Coronation Anthems. With the strings pumping quiet arpeggios, this piece didn’t immediately sound anthemic, but after about a minute-and-a-half, Warren-Green had stirred a keen enough sense of expectancy for the powerful onslaught of the Chorus to feel inevitable, soon reinforced by the brass.
Solomon reigned for 40 years over Ancient Israel, yet the sounds of hosanna and hallelujah that Handel devised to replicate the spirit of his coronation weren’t altogether different from the “Hallelujah Chorus” he would compose in Messiah for the King who shall live forever. As a matter of fact, Handel took the liberty of urging his new King to “live for ever,” too. More reason for the Symphony Chorus to fire up their parts with a gusto that signaled their awareness of the kinship of these kingly compositions. And this was just the concert opener!
As the program booklet seemed to hint – and Warren-Green reemphasized – you can play the three suites of the Water Music in any order you choose. Maestro chose not only to have Suite II and Suite III shift places but also to give far more play to the third suite than the second. The strings sounded rich and resonant plunging into the Overture of the first suite, but their fleet and nimble pace was even more impressive. Principal oboist Hollis Ulaky smoothly cued the ensuing Adagio with hardly a pause and closed it poignantly, a perfect setup for the French horns kicking up the liveliness and tempo in the Allegro. The Bourree found Ulaky combining with Symphony’s new principal bassoon, Olivia Oh, in response to the chirping strings.
Slated to headline Symphony’s upcoming February concert, when he’ll play Michael Daugherty’s Trail of Tears, principal flutist Victor Wang stepped forward during Suite III to acquaint us with some of his virtuosity. Principals from the four string sections formed a quiet little quartet behind Wang in the opening Sarabande before the full sections showed their nimbleness in a fleet Rigaudon. No less virtuosic – but a lot more surprising – Wang picked up a piccolo to front the final Minuet and Gigue, speeding up effortlessly for the latter movement.
Warren-Green’s arrangement of Handel’s score trimmed the movements in Suite II that Symphony performed to a pair, but it was easy to see why he held off presenting them when two trumpets joined the ensemble, including acting principal trumpeter Alex Wilborn. They wasted no time in making an impact, trading spirited volleys with the horns in the Allegro – and then in the rousing Hornpipe, the most familiar movement in all of the Water Music. With the RoyalFireworks still looming after intermission, the loudest outburst of percussion so far sent us off to the break with a foretaste of the thunder to come.
Wilborn and a battery of heavy percussion asserted themselves quickly in Hubert Parry’s “I was Glad,” another choral coronation piece – first detonated in 1902 for Edward VII and Queen Alexandra – that offered the Symphony Chorus another opportunity to loudly proclaim Old Testament scripture, this time adapted from Psalm 122. Instead of obliging the singers to sit through the remainder of the concert, Warren-Green used their departure as an opportunity to deliver his tasty intro to the Royal Fireworks, which we would hear in their entirety.
Written to celebrate the triumphant conclusion of the War of Austrian Succession and the signing of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, the Music for the Royal Fireworks bursts with imperial pride and colonial ambition, an affirmation that Brits ruled a goodly chunk of the planet in 1749. Especially mighty were the outer movements, an epic Ouverture to start, and the sequence of three movements that climaxed the work, “La Réjouissance” and two Menuets, finishing with a majestic deceleration. There are many recorded examples of Royal Fireworks, but only the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra performance comes close to capturing the thrill of hearing Charlotte Symphony’s brass playing it live. Nothing I’ve sampled comes close to replicating the full conquering thunder Warren-Green drew from his orchestra when the trumpets’ roar combined with the pounding drums.
The reposeful movements in the middle of Royal Fireworks, the Bourrée and “La Paix,” were accorded their due as the orchestra – especially the brass – primed themselves for their final blasts. Walton’s “Crown Imperial March,” though more benign than Handel’s closing salvos, wasn’t at all an anticlimax. There was still lively percussion, yet the opening had a sleekness to it from the strings, and the mod harmonies reminded us that we had indeed transitioned from 1749 to 1937. Every recorded performance of this piece doesn’t pause for a moment, as Warren-Green did, before the music truly explodes into its vigorous march – try Andrew Litton’s version with the Bournemouth Symphony to approximate the sensation at Symphony’s celebration. It was carried off so naturally that it felt like all of us onstage and throughout Knight Theater were collectively holding our breaths.
Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
By Perry Tannenbaum
For all of its bells and whistles, Simon Stephens’ The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time evolves into something quite simple – a mother, a father, and their autistic son who are all trying to be better. I’ve seen the show three times in less than three years, first on Broadway, then on in its national tour, and now in its current incarnation at Hadley Theater on the Queens University campus. Each time, I’ve found new details to unpack, new facets of character to consider. Of course, the Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte version breaks the mold set by Marianne Elliott, who directed this adaptation of Mark Hadden’s novel on Broadway and on tour. In his stage direction and scenic design, Chip Decker takes his cues from Elliott and her scenic designer, Bunny Christie, but it’s obvious the Decker and the three actors he has cast as the Boone family have their own ideas.
Christopher Boone is the inward 15-year-old with autism who savors his solitude and freaks if anyone touches him, including Mum and Dad. He’s fairly oblivious, inexperienced, and clueless about human relationships, so the marital dynamics between his parents are totally unexplored territory. Yet Christopher functions on such a high mental level, an Asperger savant syndrome level, that he regards his special ed classmates as stupid and is highly confident that he can pass his A-level math tests years before “normal” schoolkids are allowed to take them. With Chester Shepherd taking on this role in his own clenched, volatile and vulnerable way, I saw more clearly why the prospect of postponing these tests was such an unthinkable catastrophe for him. Not only does Christopher notice everything that well-adjusted people allow to slip past them, he can also recall details with the same precision, like every item he extracted from his pockets on the night he was arrested and questioned at the Swindon police station. So it figures that Christopher would plan his future with the same persnicketiness, and that a single displaced detail – like postponing the date when he would pass his maths – would throw him into a spasmodic fit of panic.
Or so it seems with Shepherd emphasizing Christopher’s hair-trigger sensitivities. We see him at the beginning of his epic journey, huddled over his neighbor Mrs. Shears’ dog, Wellington, who lies there lifeless, skewered by a pitchfork. Christopher is obviously a prime suspect for Mrs. Shears, so she calls the police. Uncomfortable around other humans, Christopher doesn’t react well when a policeman arrives to interrogate him. Dad must come down to the station, after Christopher is arrested for assaulting the cop, to explain his son’s condition – a not-so-subtle indictment of police enlightenment. Twice shaken by the evening’s experiences, Christopher resolves to solve the mystery of who killed Wellington. That beastly affair doesn’t seem to concern the police, perhaps the second count in Hadden’s indictment.
As Christopher well understands, solving the Wellington mystery will force him to engage with other people, especially neighbors whom he has previously shunned. This aversion isn’t readily quashed, cramping the investigation when Christopher decides to question the warm and eccentric Mrs. Alexander. When the hospitable lady invites him into her apartment, Christopher refuses, and when Mrs. Alexander offers to bring him orangeade and cookies – after a somewhat protracted negotiation – he flees before she can return with the goodies, fearing that she is calling the police on him, the way neighbor ladies seem to do. Christopher seems most at ease with the person who understands him best – his teacher, Siobhan. She encourages him to pursue this project and to chronicle the investigation in a book. But she has the good sense to yield to Dad when he forbids Christopher to continue with his investigation and his narrative. With some adorable hair-splitting, Christopher thinks he’s circumventing Dad’s directive as he persists in his probe, getting key info when he meets up with Mrs. Alexander for a second time.
Maybe the niftiest turn of the plot is how Dad ironically entraps himself. By confiscating Christopher’s handwritten book-in-progress, Ed Boone ultimately ensures that his son will not only discover the truth about Wellington but also the truth he’s been hiding about Christopher’s mom, Judy. This section of the plot is bookended by two prodigious meltdowns from Shepherd, the second one stunning enough to remind me of Othello’s fit. Shepherd delivers Christopher’s comical difficulties as vividly as his poignant ones in a performance that rivals his leading role in Hand to God a year ago, but Decker and his design team magnify this performance by working to help us see the action from the perspective of an autistic teen. At the beginning, Decker’s sound design assaults us with loud noises, simulating the sensory overload that is the everyday norm for Christopher. There are similar assaults in Hallie Gray’s lighting design glaring in our faces – and flashing red alarms across the upstage walls when Christopher is tensing up or melting down. We often hear a doglike whimper from Shepherd when he is stressed.
About the only shortfall in Decker’s scenic concept, which opens up Christie’s more enclosed design, is the erosion it inflicts on Jon Ecklund’s projection designs. They just don’t pop as wondrously as they did at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York or at Belk Theater when the tour stopped here in February 2017. We don’t get quite the same amplification when poor Christopher navigates the London Underground or cityscape as he searches for Mum’s flat, and the wow factor when Christopher rhapsodizes on our vast universe is muted. But there was plenty of wattage from Shepherd to compensate, and Becca Worthington gave us more energy on opening night as Judy Boone than I saw on Broadway or at the Belk describing the good times and the bad times before she abandoned her family. By the time she recalled the meltdown at a shopping mall that precipitated her departure, I didn’t require a replay. Afterwards, Worthington gave more of an emphasis on doing better as a mother so it was never overshadowed by her outrage at Ed’s deceptions and misdeeds.
Rob Addison was less wiry and more avuncular than previous Eds that I’d seen, which struck me as good things before and after he was found out. I think first-timers will see Dad’s prohibition of Christopher’s probe as less strict and arbitrary than my first and second impressions were on Broadway and on tour – and that his pleas for forgiveness are sincere and heartfelt. A less cuddly approach to the role is certainly defensible, but I was deeply pleased with Addison’s take. Decker brought Megan Montgomery downstage as Siobhan more often than I remembered, giving Christopher’s teacher slightly more texture than I had seen previously. The brambles in her accent also demonstrated that Montgomery’s years at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland hadn’t been wasted.
An ensemble of six flutters around the four core characters, moving spare scenery pieces around, unobtrusively setting up an electric train set, acting as street and subway crowds, levitating Christopher, and filling multiple minor roles. Tracie Frank and Jeremy DeCarlos stood out as the long-separated Shearses, each abrasive to Christopher in his or her own way. With her nervous gestures and blue-tinted pigtails, Shawnna Pledger’s fussy account of Mrs. Alexander safely transcended that of a generic eccentric. A similar children’s book simplicity hovered over Donovan Harper’s rendition of the arresting Policeman in the opening scene, yet Tom Scott was able to sprinkle some comical discomfort on Reverend Peters when confronted with the question of where heaven is.
Only Lisa Hatt was deprived of a name, portraying a Punk Girl, and a Lady in Street among her various cameos. Decker may have felt sorry for all of Hatt’s unnamed contributions, perhaps allowing her to choose her own number. She was listed in the Actor’s Theatre playbill as No. 40, a radical break from the Broadway and touring company playbills, which listed that role as No. 37. This production certainly paid attention to details! We even had the delight of Stephens’ Pythagorean postscript, which Shepherd dispatched with a full two minutes remaining on the projected digital clock. It was part of a comical meta layer that the playwright sprinkled across Christopher’s dialogues with Siobhan, reminding us that he had adapted Hadden’s novel for the stage. Very successfully, I should add.
Hope Muir’s second season as artistic director with Charlotte Ballet began very much like her first, with another program titled Fall Works that revived a gem from the company’s existing repertoire while introducing a pair of pieces that were new to the Queen City. It wasn’t as splashy or audacious as last year’s edition, when Muir not only gave us our first sighting of choreographer Javier de Frutos but also delivered the electricity of Tony Award winner Levi Kraus. The 2018 program was merely more polished and more consistently satisfying.
We began with Jerome Robbins’ setting for Leonard Bernstein’s Fancy Free, the 1944 prototype of On the Town, their joint debut on Broadway later that year. Muir’s company hasn’t staged this work since it was Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux’s company, NC Dance Theatre, in 2006, but it certainly returned propitiously, in the centenary year of both Robbins and Bernstein. Robbins was celebrated with a full evening of his works at Spoleto Festival USA earlier this year, a fitting tribute since Robbins founded his dance company, Ballets: USA, at the Italian Spoleto in 1968.
That March 2018 celebration in Charleston circles back to Charlotte when you remember that the program of Robbins duets at Spoleto USA replicated one that had been originally staged in Italy in 1973 – with Bonnefoux and Patricia McBride among the elite superstars who danced the pas de deux.
Longtime NYC Ballet stalwart Kipling Houston, who danced Fancy Free on Dance in America back in 1986 during his younger days, staged a very handsome revival, aided by the dreamy original set design by Oliver Smith and the spot-on World War II costumes by Kermit Love – both on loan from Richmond Ballet. What really livened this staging was the live accompaniment by the Charlotte Symphony under the direction of Christopher James Lees
Peter Mazurowski and Juwan Alston were the two sailors on shore leave in NYC who left James Kopecky in the lurch to pursue a bright yellow skirt, otherwise known as Sarah Hayes Harkins. Kopecky didn’t need to lick his wounds for long before Alessandra Ball James sauntered in, working a burgundy dress. The tone got more serious when James popped up, for the sailors engaged in horseplay even before Harkins arrived on the scene – and teased her a bit after they had vied in preening for her.
Harkins was sassier than usual before her first exit, a welcome sign that she’s hungry for this kind of role. As we saw a couple of times during this comedy, Mazurowski and Alston were in cahoots with one another at Kopecky’s expense, but they competed against each other, too, for the arithmetic is obvious when the young men and women reassemble at the bar. Three men were vying for two women’s favors. Each of the men took a turn at making his case. Landing two prodigious splits after high leaps, making me wince both times, Mazurowski definitely impressed me.
The moment of truth, when we expected the ladies to choose their men, turned chaotic and comical as the guys sought to usurp the ladies’ privilege and wound up brawling with one another – in front of and behind the bar. By the time the fisticuffs had concluded, Harkins and James had escaped, leaving all three sailors high and dry. Cue the entrance of Sarah Lapointe, really working it as she sashayed into view for a delicious cameo.
With Sasha Janes taking Bernstein’s music and replacing Robbins’ choreography with a totally new setting, Facsimile showed us more of Bernstein’s symphonic side and gave us a fuller view of the company to start the 2018-19 season. Instead of Robbins’ original love triangle, Janes presented us with a sometimes-surreal seduction, with Harkins trying to perk up the downtrodden, woebegone Kopecky. Listlessly pushing a custodian’s broom, Kopecky found Harkins beaming sympathetically at him.
Daring and precise as she has always been, Harkins seems to be taking a more lithe and spontaneous approach these days, with a new fluidity that makes her even more versatile and formidable than she has been before. As the troubled Lead Man, Kopecky was more troubled than pathetic, exactly the right mix to keep up Harkins’ efforts to puncture his despondency. You want him to be worth her time.
Janes’ Lead Woman suddenly receives backup when an upstage scrim lifts and a colorful gallery of circus characters appear, from Ringmaster and Equestrians to sideshow Fortune Teller and Strong Man, garishly costumed by Jennifer Janes, the choreographer’s mom. Among this motley crew, Drew Grant as the Ringmaster and Amanda Sturt-Dilley as the Fortune Teller were the most vivid diversions, but I couldn’t help ogling Maurice Mouzon Jr. with his barbells and Colby Foss as the Bearded Lady.
None of these fantastics could quite keep Kopecky’s mood levitated though they became a rather bacchanalian carnival when Lees stirred up the orchestral hullaballoo to max volume. They vanished almost as suddenly as they appeared, leaving Harkins one last half-hearted opportunity to accomplish what the circus could not. Here we saw perhaps the best of Kopecky’s performance as he summoned up sufficient ambivalence to justify a hopeful if not happy ending, chiming beautifully with the music.
With his mischievous against-the-grain style, Medhi Walerski and his Petite Cérémonie easily supplied the most fun of the evening. Dancers in mostly black formal attire, designed by Linda Chow, entered a bare stage – some of them processioning up the theater aisles – and formed a strict chorus line upstage, staggered by gender, repeating the same monotonous step. Then as the rapturous, prayerful strains of Bellini’s “Casta diva” played softly in the background, the men and the women moved in regimented unison, often with the men and women assigned different sequences of movement.
Or a couple might break away from the ensemble to perform a brief duet conspicuously devoid of human connection. Creepily enough, there were times when the ensemble’s regimented routines – or even the couple’s movements – were louder than the opera.
It took awhile for the audience to get Walerski’s humor. There was no turning back when Ben Ingel came out and juggled three balls under a boom mic and delivered a disquisition on the difference between male and female brains while Mozart played faintly in the background and other dancers attempted to distract him. The visibly disproven point our juggler made about men’s brains was that they couldn’t concentrate on more than one thing at the same time.
Similar disconnects between the recorded music and the live action persisted in settings of a Benny Goodman Orchestra version of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Moon” and a Mozart concerto, finally arriving at a witty obliquity when we reached an excerpt from Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The ensemble danced in the same regimented, sometimes robotic style we had seen in previous sections of Petite Cérémonie, but now each of the 15 dancers also moved a white cube along the floor.
When you recognized the music as coming from Vivaldi’s Winter Concerto, you might imagine that the dancers were performing an ice dance, sliding those white cubes along a frozen pond. As the music churned to its conclusion, they piled all those cubes up and struck a pose. In that final tableau, you could imagine that they had built a little ice castle for their backdrop.
Lauded by Broadway critics as an artistic breakthrough, showered with 11 Tony Awards, celebrated and denounced by successive US Presidents, and worshipped by millions wherever it has played. Hamilton has been an unprecedented sell-out smash since it opened on August 6, 2015. It’s the hottest ticket in New York, and wherever it tours, it’s big – capital boldface letters big.
And now the actors, the scenery, the technicians, and the musicians have arrived in the QC, triggering an influx of ticketbuyers, hotel bookings, restaurant reservations, and sheer I-got-to-see-Hamilton euphoria that will linger until the tour’s final performance at Belk Theater on November 4.
The hullabaloo peaked on August 1 when non-subscription seats went up for grabs. Beginning at 5 a.m., three hours before tickets were scheduled to go on sale, over 110,000 hopefuls queued up to snag seats online – plus an estimated 8,000+ bots that were poised to steal and scalp tickets, delaying sales until 9:20.
Another crowd lined up at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center box office on Tryon Street, where wristbands were distributed starting at 5:30 a.m. By 9:46, the box office allotment of seats had been doled out to proud wearers of 1200 lucky wristbands, who could score a maximum of four tickets. It wasn’t until 3:37 p.m. that folks still waiting on the online queue were told to abandon all hope.
But the financial impact of Hamilton – and the ticketbuying frenzy – really began more than a year ago. If you wanted first dibs on Hamilton seats, you had to splurge on a full Broadway Lights subscription for 2017-18. Largely because Hamilton loomed so enticingly over the rainbow as part of the package, all subscriptions for the Blumenthal’s Broadway Lights Series, including eight other shows, were sold out by August 1 of last year. A waiting list for those precious subscriptions was announced on June 24, 2017.
Not only did Hamilton enable Blumenthal to sell out its entire 2017-18 Broadway Lights inventory, it set the stage for them to launch an additional Encore Series, including reprises of Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, Book of Mormon, and Lion King. Those also sold pretty well.
So more than a whole year of theatergoing at Blumenthal’s big boxes – Belk Theater, Ovens Auditorium, and Knight Theater – was built on the public’s insatiable demand for Hamilton tickets. That’s some pretty heavy lifting.
But what kind of lift does Hamilton deliver for local artists and arts organizations? Around town, there are grumblings that the big-box successes at the PAC suck audience, revenue, and esteem away from local pros, shunting them into the shadows.
We heard from Carver Johns during the recent run of The Foreigner at Belmont Abbey College. Back when he was more active on the Charlotte scene, Johns had starring roles in Charlotte’s Web at Children’s Theatre, The Changeling with Innovative Theatre, Fool for Love with Off-Tryon Theatre Company, and The Exonerated, the last show produced by Charlotte Repertory Theatre before it flamed out in 2005.
“The way [Broadway Lights] is framed and kept separate from local fare,” Johns says, “suggests that the Blumey shows are ‘real theater’ and the rest of us are Little Rascals throwing things up in a barn. And this I believe was the long-term fallout of Angels [in America] and Rep.”
Shuttling back and forth from Charlotte Rep to Children’s Theatre acting jobs – supplemented by gigs as a certified lighting, sound and AV technician and a fight supervisor – Johns could cobble together a livelihood in theatre here in town. That can’t happen anymore unless you’re on the payroll at ImaginOn with Children’s Theatre.
When Johns was acting and directing Fool for Love, theatre groups formed coalitions, advertised jointly, and coordinated programming schedules. With the coming of light rail, construction of yuppie housing, and the demise of Carolina Actors Studio Theatre (CAST), the NoDa scene where all that happened has all but disappeared.
“Smaller companies have to own that we have eaten our own by driving one another out of business,” Johns admits. “But the ‘real theater’ vs ‘local loonies’ comparison the Belksters and their programming creates will always be a negative impact until the city power structure becomes more progressive and truly embraces local artists.”
Tim Ross was a mainstay at Charlotte Rep in leading roles onstage – and prominent at the pioneering Charlotte Shakespeare before that. Over the years, Ross found his lifeline behind the soundboard at the WFAE studio in Spirit Square where he produced the Charlotte Talks broadcasts five days a week until 2015. What irks Ross is how feebly media has pushed back against the power structure. Even at arguably the friendliest media outlet for performing arts publicity in the QC, Ross found that local theatre literally struggled for air.
“I had a constant struggle trying to get the host or the other producers to get on board with doing more shows about local theatre,” Ross recalls. “I don’t know how Hamilton helps beyond motivating people to go to the theater in general. There might be three or four interesting productions going on at exactly the same time as Hamilton but I’m pretty sure that Hamilton is going to get an absolute ton of free local press that it doesn’t even need while these other productions will barely get mentioned.”
Banding together might help local theatre companies do more advertising and promotion, and it would be immensely helpful if local media gave them more of an airing, but a change in outlook could also provide a lift. Tom Gabbard, president and CEO of Blumenthal Performing Arts (BPA), scoffs at the notion that Hamilton and Broadway Lights are the natural enemies of local theatre.
“My arts colleagues who get wound up about this don’t understand that their real competition is not the blockbuster shows or other arts events,” Gabbard insists. “It’s Netflix, brew pubs, the Panthers and a million other things that people do besides go to theater. All of us in the arts, big or small, are together in needing to get the public who aren’t going to the arts to watch less Netflix and go to a show. Worrying about competition within the arts is delusional, and misses strategizing on what are solutions.”
It’s also delusional to presume that BPA isn’t already reaching out with help, promotional and financial, to local arts groups. After paying staff and maintaining facilities, BPA plows plentiful monies into tilling the soil for local artists and arts groups – and enriching it.
But of course, you want to know how much cash we’re talking about. As we began digging into this, BPA issued a press release proclaiming that the sold-out run of The Lion King that began in August grossed more than $4.8 million over a three-week, 24-performance engagement. Using a multiplier of 3.66 supplied by the Touring Broadway League, promotions manager Brandon Carter estimated an economic impact of well over $17 million.
Set to run for 32 performances, Hamilton will have an even larger impact. Compared to Lion King ticket prices, which averaged $100 each, the range for Hamilton was $75 to $175 a shot, with select VIP premium seats going for $434.50. So ticket sales won’t merely be 33% higher because of the longer engagement. Factoring the higher sticker prices, Gabbard predicted last week that Hamilton would gross over $9 mil for a total economic impact of more than $30 mil – or a less gaudy $23.5 if you go by the more conservative 2.5 multiplier that Gabbard prefers.
And that’s not counting all the additional subscription tix – an additional five thousand subscriptions compared to 2016-17, a 50% increase – and encore programming that Hamilton has carried on its back.
So BPA has plenty of profits to play with, about 10% of the Broadway Lights gross for starters. Some of these proceeds go into helping local resident companies like On Q Performing Arts, Three Bone Theatre and Caroline Calouche & Co. pay rental fees at smaller venues under the BPA umbrella, namely McGlohon Theater and Duke Energy at Spirit Square and Booth Playhouse up in Founders Hall. By day, Community School of the Arts gets a break at Sprit Square.
Fully itemized, subsidies and rental waivers approached $1 million in 2016-17, since beneficiaries also included users of BPA’s bigger boxes: Opera Carolina, Charlotte Symphony and Charlotte Ballet, who all used the Belk and Knight Theater. These companies would pay nearly 22% more to perform in St. Paul and more than 200% more to perform in Dallas, according to Gabbard.
That not only impacts Opera, Symphony, and Ballet, it also impacts music lovers and balletomanes who subscribe to their performances, keeping ticket prices down. Companies that rent BPA’s venues can also take advantage of their databases to reach out to their untapped market. Whether or not they rent space at BPA’s facilities, companies that have the necessary hardware can utilize Carolina Tix, the ticket selling engine launched by BPA that’s offered free to all local companies.
All of the above may sound a bit under-the-hood or behind-the-scenes, but BPA also ventures into sponsorships of high profile events. About the same amount of money that goes annually for subsidies and slashed rentals goes into putting up unique events – or bringing in young people to see shows that would otherwise be way beyond their means. The three-year-old Charlotte Jazz Festival and Breakin’ Convention, a three-day showcase of break dancing, both required outlays of at least $200K annually before they could happen.
And have you heard of the Blumey Awards? High schoolers go insane watching their classmates perform onstage at Belk Theater, unleashing deafening cheers for winners of best acting, design, and musical awards and scholarships. Two Charlotte winners have gone on to New York and won the national Jimmy Award for best actress, and two of Charlotte’s best actresses, Eva Noblezada and Abby Corrigan, have gone on to Broadway fame, Corrigan in the national tour of Fun Home and Noblezada in the title role of the Broadway and London productions of Miss Saigon.
Ironically, the judges who decide the Jimmy Awards up in New York are more aware of the high level of talent we’re training in Charlotte than most people who live here.
High school theatre programs across the Metrolina region have been galvanized and incentivized. But without a thriving regional theatre company in Charlotte, how can the best talent incubated here stay in the city and build professional careers? How can Corrigan and Noblezada go home again?
“We have, as a community, allowed so many of our local arts organizations to close, shut down, wither and wilt with very little pause or remorse,” Karina Caporino declares. A fixture onstage at CAST before it abruptly folded in 2014, Caporino has been a leading light in the Machine Theatre and XOXO guerilla groups, and she’ll be at Spirit Square at the end of November in an Actor’s Gym revival of Noël Coward’s Fallen Angels.
With a viewpoint mostly taking in the scene beyond the BPA’s big and small boxes in the Uptown, Caporino doesn’t see the Hamilton “lift” extending to the artists and companies she has worked with in the past. She was shaken by the frenzied queuing up for Hamilton tickets in a city that neglects its own.
“The values of our community unnerve me,” she posted on Facebook the following day. “We have the opportunity now to really take a moment to evaluate and reconfigure our values as an arts community. We have the opportunity to refocus ourselves and to push up our own creators. I recognize my chance to change trajectories and push our community in a more productive and inclusive direction, and I’m not throwing away my shot.”
Gabbard also sees this Hamilton moment as a ripe one. Calling upon his own experience running an affiliated League of Regional Theatres (LORT) company in the Denver metro, he advises mainstream groups to ride the lift rather than fighting against it.
“I used the success of someone else’s big shows as a launch point for my own success,” he explains. “I’m not spinning to say that the whiners need to get more strategic about leveraging off the success of these big shows. In Denver, I grew the subscription from 500 to 10,000 by carefully researching the Broadway series and building my LORT seasons off it, and off of what some consumers found missing in the experience.”
Does that sort of thing happen in Charlotte? Not so much. We thought it was a promising sign that CPCC Theatre and Charlotte Symphony were both staging shows later this month steeped in the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber – just six weeks after Lord Andrew’s Love Never Dies played the Belk.
In his 35 years on Elizabeth Avenue, drama department chair Tom Hollis has seen precious little overlap between the audience that turns out for Broadway Lights and the crowds that line up for CP’s musical offerings. He fondly remembers the time at Belk Theater when someone sitting in front of him turned to a friend and asked, “Have you ever heard of this Theatre Charlotte?”
Likewise, Symphony executive president Mary A. Deissler described the alignment of the “Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber” concert with the Love Never Dies tour as serendipitous rather than designed. “We didn’t plan it that way – just coincidence,” she confides. “But as we know our Pops audience loves Broadway, we viewed it as a great additional option.”
Less hand-wringing and more strategic planning couldn’t hurt, that’s for sure.
Whether or not local arts organizations take advantage of next-big-things like Lion King, Book of Mormon, and Hamilton, Gabbard maintains that BPA is still benefiting theatre companies around town. As a member of IPN, the Independent Producers Network, BPA invests in many of the shows that wind up opening on Broadway, touring across America, and popping up again on college campuses and at community theaters. Shows produced by IPN that have played at Theatre Charlotte, Actor’s Theatre or CPCC Summer Theatre in recent years include 9 to 5, Memphis, The Drowsy Chaperone, The Mountaintop, Spamalot, and The Addams Family.
Among the IPA shows still headed for the Belk – and Broadway – are Dear Evan Hansen, Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella, Donna Summer The Musical and Tootsie.
Closer to opening night, Caporino was striking a more balanced and conciliatory tone. “It’s a ‘yes and’ situation,” she begins. “YES, it is super exciting that Hamilton exists, is coming to Charlotte, is getting all this attention for/engagement with the arts AND we should use this opportunity to examine how we as a community value our local artists. Do we provide them with ample funding? Do we provide them with marketing and media coverage? Do we provide them room for errors? Are we making sure what we are providing is being done consciously and with great intention across broad spectrums of identity, race, class, gender? And do we value what is made here in Charlotte?”
On the Charlotte scene since 2007, when she was still finishing her college degree, Caporino still wrestles with student loan debt as she tries to balance work in the organic grocery industry with a career as a performing artist. Optimistically winking, she acknowledges that the artistic career of her dreams isn’t possible here yet – and that she thinks about leaving.
“I’m also rather stubborn,” she adds, “and don’t want to throw in the towel on the Queen City just yet.”
Those seem to be the big questions now that the Philip Tour of Hamilton has rolled into Charlotte, and Belk Theater is the room where it happens. Unless you can find somebody who will let go of them, or you’re willing to take on the dates – and the prices – for the few stray tickets Blumenthal Performing Arts can still sell, the hottest Broadway Lights tickets in Queen City history are gone. A daily lottery gives you 40 shots at the prize for each performance. By all means enter it if you’re unwilling to abandon all hope.
So unlike most reviews that I file, this one isn’t for people on the fence. People jumped off that fence on August 1, when available tickets sold out in less than six hours. This review is more for readers who wish to know how good the tour is, and how well it compares with the original in New York and the replacement cast at the Richard Rodgers Theater that carries on now.
It is, of course, axiomatic that Hamilton is great. With book, music, and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show has sparked a feeding frenzy at every box office in every theater where it has played – and jaw-dropping prices for its top tier VIP tickets. We’re Americans, after all, fervently devoted to the capitalist system founded by Alexander Hamilton. Financial success and buyer enthusiasm are our current gold standards.
For the record, I was somewhat ambivalent about the New York production – and only scantly prepared. The experience was unparalleled, sporting the most palpable audience energy and involvement I’ve experienced. But the disorientation that this musical can produce is also unparalleled, even if you’ve braced yourself for it.
Face it, rap music is a wildly discordant idiom for the era and the epic biography that Miranda plunges us into, more so for anyone like me who doesn’t ingest hefty helpings of rap daily. If the life of Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s brainiest forefathers, were turned into a ballet, I’m fairly sure that the choreographer’s dominant style wouldn’t be tap dancing. Seems to me like an apt analogy for what Miranda has done – until you factor in that rap is the musical lingua franca of our time.
Miranda’s rap was the primary obstacle I needed to overcome, not just because of its disconnect with Colonial America but because lyrics often flew by unintelligibly, either because the actors were rattling them off at breakneck speed or audience reaction drowned them out. Might I also venture to hint that a few of the accents fell on the wrong syllable? Although Paul Tazewell’s costumes were a welcome concession to colonial days and helped differentiate among the players, David Korins’ scene design was a brash misnomer, staunchly refusing to yield to the old-school convention of scenery.
When Act 2 began, and Miranda leaned toward comedy with the foppish return of Thomas Jefferson from France, I found myself going with the flow more readily. “What’d I Miss?” and “The Room Where It Happens” seemed to burst open a musical palette that – with the exception of King George’s cameo – had sounded fairly monochromatic to me before intermission. And the breathtaking audacity and irreverence of turning two cabinet-level debates, between Secretary of State Jefferson and Treasury Secretary Hamilton, into absurdly anachronistic poetry slams refereed by George Washington?? Irresistible.
Seeing Hamilton in New York was most of the preparation I needed to enjoy it more in Charlotte. Dipping into the Ron Chernow biography that inspired Miranda’s work quickly proved to be a dead end: there is more historical depth and nuance in the book’s first couple of pages than you’ll find in the entire evening of this Broadway megahit. Maybe more empathy as well, though Miranda also rallies on that dimension in Act 2.
Listening to the cast album on your favorite streaming service will be a better use of your time, training your ears to the rhythms and the pace – while priming you for the intensified concentration that Hamilton demands. I listened repeatedly to first four tracks three or four times, getting the feel of the show without previewing too much of the content. But beware: immersion into Miranda-style rap can leave you with withdrawal symptoms. The following evening, listening to the local news, the weatherman seemed to be rapping as I fixated on the rhythm of his forecast instead of the meaning. Days after that, “Alexander Hamilton” and “My Shot,” the first two songs of the show, proved to be tenacious earworms.
What helped me more than better preparation my second go-round was a better cast. Mind you, when I finally snagged press seats for Hamilton in January 2017, replacements for the original cast had already been replaced. Each of these casts had two actors rotating as Alexander, one of whom subbed on Sundays. Reviewing cast #3, I saw none of the above, just a small-print understudy for the sub. On press night in Charlotte, Joseph Morales was an improvement – if you were looking for a Miranda overachiever rather than a Jimmy Smits heartthrob – prancing around impishly as a revolutionary provocateur, running his mouth pugnaciously whether rallying political allies or refuting his foes, and giving us a gentlemanly susceptibility to every woman who tried to seduce him.
By a smaller margin, I also preferred the saturnine authority and incipient menace that Nik Walker infused into Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s perennial rival and our frequent narrator. Walker’s Burr isn’t merely pragmatic and cunning. He’s dangerous. But what decisively separated the Philip Tour from the Broadway third-stringers were the three women who portrayed the Schuyler Sisters. Shora Narayan is Eliza, the sister Alexander will marry; Ta’Rea Campbell is Angelica, the sister that Alex maybe should have married; and Nyla Sostre is Peggy, the discard – resurfacing after intermission as Maria Reynolds, the siren who lures Alex into a shakedown sex scandal.
Up in New York, the trio emphasized their sisterhood to the extent that I began to suspect Miranda was basing his Schuylers on Diana Ross and the Supremes rather than actual historical figures, mere ploys to simulate diversity. I couldn’t wait to see them vanish. Here the contrast between the innocent, trusting Eliza, and the wiser, more sophisticated Angelica is wonderfully projected in Narayan’s silken plaintive voice juxtaposed with Campbell’s R&B power. Their songs came alive, deepening their individuality; the pain that Alex inflicted upon Eliza became poignant, devastating; and her quiet forgiveness of her wayward husband was an emotional peak.
Both of the remaining Founding Fathers are quite good, but it’s Kyle Scatliffe as Jefferson who threatens to steal the show from the leads each time he parleys his massive voice and his hulking frame with his bodacious dancing skills. His flair for comedy is a perfect match for his flamboyant purple threads. Less imposing is Marcus Choi, who makes George Washington a stern, sometimes avuncular father figure for Alexander. If you had seen Nicholas Christopher* as the father of our country – monumental Mount Rushmore stuff, really – you’d understand why Choi’s Washington was a bit of a letdown.
As for the lone white man among major players in this diverse cast, I couldn’t see the slightest difference between Jon Patrick Walker as King George here in Charlotte and Rory O’Malley as the Broadway monarch, though I suppose Walker is hamming it up a little more for the larger hall. In a sea of anachronisms and stylistic disconnects – Jefferson actually executes a mic drop after one of his raps! – there’s a sensible British tang to King’s “You’ll Be Back” and subsequent variants. Close your eyes and you might hear echoes of Lennon-McCartney ditties during the Beatles’ vintage Sgt. Pepper years. It’s an island of blissful, silly relaxation in a theatre evening of riveting energy and intensity.
*Christopher, you’ll be glad to know, hasn’t vanished from the scene. He has been reincarnated on the other Hamilton tour, the Angelica Tour, as Aaron Burr.
Meeting an anticipated demand, Charlotte Symphony is programming their 2018-19 season opener, Beethoven’s Fifth, for three concerts instead of the usual two – and meeting subscribers’ hopes, they’re playing it beautifully. Leading off their season with an all-Beethoven program, music director Christopher Warren-Green and his ensemble weren’t exactly blazing new trails.
Last fall, Symphony also led off all-Beethoven, playing his mighty Ninth, and followed that program with more Beethoven in two of the next three concerts. So if anything, Symphony is tapering off on their Beethoven offerings this year – but not ignoring their audience’s rabid enthusiasm for his music. What’s impressive is that the musicians have maintained their enthusiasm as well.
A surprisingly small contingent, less than 50 players by my count, came out and played the “Overture to The Ruins of Athens,” one of Beethoven’s less familiar orchestral works, before guest soloist Garrick Ohlsson came out to perform the Piano Concerto No. 4. I couldn’t detect much desolation in The Ruins after its slightly gloomy intro. The first oboe statement was like a dewy sunrise, triggering a burst of orchestral merriment that drew a festive rejoinder from the oboe and jollity from the two flutes fluttering over the bassoons.
Such a charming appetizer! Then a big video screen descended from the Belk Theater proscenium, and the Steinway was wheeled to centerstage.
Ohlsson’s last appearance with Symphony was back in the early ‘90s, long before an overhead shot of the keyboard could disclose the size of this man’s hands for all to see as he attacked the keyboard. Those prodigious digits didn’t quite stop moving long enough for a conclusive measurement, but it sure looked like his pinkies were as large as the black keys. With that view, what was perhaps most impressive about Ohlsson in the first two movements was his delicacy and grace.
The opening Allegro moderato shuttled between swift, powerful passages and soft lyrical episodes. Ohlsson played both admirably, effortlessly, trilling with both hands simultaneously and, in the dramatic cadenza, clearly articulating its counterpoint. Warren-Green asserted himself more noticeably in the middle Andante con moto movement, so that it became a dreamy dialogue.
Every note of the concerto sounded fresh and new – until we slid into the familiar final movement with hardly a pause. Everyone onstage lit into it with gusto, the swift finger work at the start of this Rondo presenting no difficulty at all for Ohlsson, who proved that he was holding his full power in reserve for this celebratory climax. Ebb and flow weren’t so much about tempo here as they were about dynamics. Ohlsson and Warren-Green meshed beautifully to sculpt the loud and soft moments in a most satisfying way.
As the program notes on the concerto pointed out, it was especially fitting that Symphony had paired Piano No. 4 with the Fifth Symphony, for they were both premiered on the same December evening in 1808 – at a concert in Vienna, where Beethoven played and conducted. That marathon event also unveiled the Sixth Symphony, the Choral Fantasy, four movements of the Mass in C, and the “Ah! Perfido” aria for soprano. Although Warren-Green didn’t mention this historic landmark, when Beethoven would play for the last time in public due to approaching deafness, you can bet he was aware of it.
Six years ago, when Warren-Green conducted the concerto for the first time at Belk Theater, he paired it with Symphony No. 4, also in an all-Beethoven concert that launched the season. On that occasion, Warren-Green did mention that the very first time Beethoven performed the piece in a private concert at the palace of his patron Prince Joseph Lobkowitz in March 1807, he also conducted his Fourth Symphony.
This time around, Maestro called our attention to the fateful opening of Symphony No. 5, “the most famous four notes in the history of music,” saying that this was also the most familiar instance of Beethoven utilizing the music of the French Revolution, something he did throughout his career. Well, that pungent insight illuminated the entire symphony for me. Partly because of Warren-Green’s remarks, a piece that I had come to regard – and describe – as the most perfect ever written became freshly infused with its revolutionary spirit and elemental fire. Repeated hearings of recorded performance, I realized, had dimmed that fire for me.
Even in the relatively quiescent third movement, mostly notable for its 3/4 time and exquisite pizzicatos, there are brief outbreaks of revolutionary marching spirit, and afterwards, a gentle thrumming of the seething timpani as the whole simmering string section comes majestically to a boil and explodes – with a mighty entrance of trumpets – into the joyous, triumphant finale.
From the outset, Warren-Green spikes the sforzandos with terrific force, but the opening Allegro also features fine spots by principal oboist Hollis Ulaky and the French hornist to mellow the brew. It’s the trumpets that ignite the revolutionary fervor at the beginning of second movement Andante, exactly the kind of march that Warren-Green’s prefatory remarks suggested, but you’ll also hit a heavenly patch from the cellos that struck me as a foretaste of Wagner’s Rhein at this listen. Wonderful hushes of strings here hit me as one of the underappreciated reasons why we adore Beethoven. Some exquisite work lightly showered from flutists Amy Orsinger Whitehead and principal Victor Wang.
Maybe Erinn Frechette as well. From my vantage point up in the Grand Tier, I didn’t notice her until I heard her amid the tutti of the final Allegro, when she picked up her Little David of instruments, the piccolo. There she was, perfectly obscured in my line of sight behind Warren-Green! By contrast, I had noticed the elephantine contrabassoon lying neglected on its stand all evening. Only when the whole orchestra was wailing underneath Frechette in the symphony’s full-throated climax did I realize that Lori Tiberio had picked up her lumbering Goliath and was playing with everyone else. Why Beethoven had bothered with her and her contrabassoon I couldn’t say, for I cannot claim to have heard a single note.
I’m sure it was there. But I’ll stop short of making another claim, for I’d likely be surrendering a chunk of my judicial credibility if I told you that Beethoven not only wrote more stirring movements than the immortal “Da-da-da-DAA,” but that one of them is just a short distance down the road in the same Fifth Symphony. That’s one key reason why you need to experience this orchestra playing this music in live performance at the Belk.
When Becket began at Halton Theater this past Sunday afternoon, it struck me as a vast historical tapestry. I was a bit startled to find that I was asking myself, Why didn’t Shakespeare ever take up this story? As Jean Anouilh’s drama rumbled majestically on, however, quite a different question gripped me: Isn’t this a glorified two-hander between King Henry II and Thomas Becket, with other characters strewn around them like so many chess pieces?
This seems to be only the second play that CPCC has presented at Halton Theater – the first since Noises Off in 2012. You can infer from that history that theatre department chair Tom Hollis, who directs here for CPCC Theatre, is not a big fan of the Halton when CP isn’t using it for Broadway musicals. His pre-performance invitation to the audience to find seats closer to the stage during intermission underscored his wariness.
Hollis has had to make peace with the Halton – for now, anyway – because Pease Auditorium, the longtime anchor of dramatic presentations at CP, will soon be facing the wrecking ball. A new building with theatre facilities will replace it at that razed site. Very likely, Hollis is also surprising himself a little with this Becket because scene designer Jennifer O’Kelly has filled the stage so handsomely, both horizontally and vertically.
The pillars spaced across the stage are at least three times as tall as the squat dimensions of panoramic Pease would allow, so the impressive scenery evokes Las Vegas more than London. Action does cheat forward at times to the floor that covers Halton’s commodious orchestra pit, but the chief reason we hear all the actors so well is sound designer Stephen Lancaster’s sure hand with the hall’s famously wayward audio system.
With so little between those pillars, which must remain fixed whether we’re sallying forth to a Saxon hut or to a French battlefield, there are many times that you accept O’Kelly’s set as the sort of backdrop we’ve accustomed ourselves to in Shakespearean productions. Unfortunately, the wide range of characters that Becket engages aside from Henry, from sullen peasants to a pragmatic French king, don’t deliver the rich depth we’re accustomed to in the Bard’s teeming histories.
Henry is selfish, lecherous, petulant, and spoiled throughout, but Becket transforms, beginning as a wily manipulator who thrives on the challenge of hunting and the thrill of battle. At his core, only fitfully awakened, are a set of scruples and a sense of honor. He is as apt as Henry to forget that he’s an archdeacon of the church.
In the long arc of the story, we watch Becket, appointed by Henry as chancellor of England, helping his king to extract taxes from the church. But then Henry miscalculates and appoints Becket as the new Archbishop of Canterbury, reasoning that that his old chum will make it so much easier to shake down the church. Becket shocks his benefactor after he becomes Archbishop, renouncing the chancellorship and returning the chancellor’s ring to Henry, and standing up for the church. In bare feet, renouncing worldly possessions.
In the shorter arc that plays out through much of the first act, very much along the same contours as the larger arc, we get a more vivid sense of who Henry and Becket are. After a daylong hunting excursion, the pair stop to rest and refresh at the Saxons’ hut. While the father is fetching water for the king, Henry takes a fancy to his daughter. To protect the girl from Henry’s ravishing, Becket professes to want her for himself. Henry yields the nameless girl up – on condition that he can demand payback later. When they return to the castle, Henry names his price. He lays claim to Becket’s mistress, Gwendolyn.
You can outwit and outmaneuver a monarch, we’re repeatedly shown, but power ultimately prevails. Gwendolyn and the Saxon girl are crucial to illustrating Anouilh’s point, but Shakespeare would have granted them the privilege of also being people. Hollis seems to empathize with the slenderness of these roles, giving both to Gabriela Celecia, who does what she can. Becket declares that he has never really loved anyone, but that doesn’t give cover to the playwright. Nor is this simply misogyny on Anouilh’s part, for the English clergy – and The Pope, for that matter – are also paper-thin. Seriously, he couldn’t give the Pope a name?
Ailing and decrepit, the Archbishop whom Becket will succeed is discerned easily enough amid the clergy, and Jim Greenwood gives him ample texture, the best of his multiple roles. But I can only report that Rob Craig was the Bishop of York, Roger Watson was the Bishop of York, and John DeMicco were the Huey, Dewey, and Louie of the English church. As a group, they are fine and spirited with a righteousness that is balanced with practicality. Or greed, depending on your view of the church.
Tony Wright is one of the best all-around theatre professionals we have in Charlotte, and his own company, Actor’s Gym, will soon be returning to the local scene, reviving Noël Coward’s Fallen Angels at Spirit Square. You can recognize various elements of Wright’s greatest hits as an actor – beginning with the comically delusional Elwood P. Dowd and the swashbuckling Zastrozzi – in the sunny, insouciant wickedness he brings to Henry II. The world is Henry’s playpen, so you almost laugh at his dark moments. They are petulant rather than profound.
Cole Long doesn’t always convince me as a man of valor, not exactly conjuring up Laurence Olivier or Richard Burton, the Beckets of Broadway and Hollywood. Lacking that physicality may be advantageous for Long when he tackles Becket’s more prominent traits, his wiliness, his deference, his fundamental decency, and his spiritual struggles to experience love and faith. With so few consequential people around Anouilh’s protagonists, we don’t need to pause and register that Long doesn’t ooze leadership qualities. He’s most credible as a loyal subject and surrogate before excelling as a fugitive.
The most affecting of Anouilh’s minor characters bloom when Becket becomes openly defiant towards his king. Rick Taylor’s portrait of King Louis of France has a weathered, wizened dignity to it as he offers refuge to the renegade Archbishop. Yet there is no heartbreak from His Highness when sympathy and goodwill toward the holy refugee must give way to expedience.
Accompanying Becket through his latter tribulations, the Little Monk that Becket has taken under his wing still seethes with Saxon resentment of Norman rule, nicely calibrated in Jake Dodge’s portrayal. Like Gwendolyn, he’s there for a purpose, but the fierce allegiance that Becket inspires in the Little Monk – contrasted with Henry’s inability to keep anyone’s true loyalty – strikes a deeper chord.
Aided by the age difference between them, Christy Stephens as the Queen Mother and Amy Pearre Dunn as the Young Queen transcend cardboard as the chief irritants of Henry’s court after intermission. Yes, Henry is lonely without Becket by his side, but he’s also afflicted.
The time lag between what opens on Broadway and what tours at Belk Theater has narrowed in recent years. Likewise, the gap between when the tour comes through town and when local companies get their hands on Broadway properties has also shrunk. With the arrival of Matilda The Musical at ImaginOn last weekend just two years after it played Belk Theater, it became apparent that CPCC Summer Theatre, Theatre Charlotte, or Children’s Theatre can expect to mount Broadway hits that are just as fresh from their New York runs as the off-Broadway sensations that Actor’s Theatre brings us.
Even with this slimmer interval, I fear that Roald Dahl‘s Matilda isn’t aging gracefully as a children’s story at McColl Family Theatre. It returns a bit awkwardly in a year when children are cruelly and inhumanely seized as pawns to discourage asylum seekers from Latin America. You might feel more comfortable with this story than I did just two days after I’d watched a Supreme Court nominee opt for yelling and indignation as his go-to defenses against credible accusations of sexual assault in sworn testimony on Capitol Hill.
I’m not sure which aspect of the Saturday afternoon performance disturbed me more. Was it director Adam Burke and his star, Tommy Foster, conniving to make the evil Miss Trunchbull more realistic than she had been in 2016; or was it the parents in the audience, bringing their anklebiters to the show and ignoring recommendations that it was suitable for 6-and-up? I was surprised – and slightly reassured – when so many stayed after intermission but not at all shocked when the adults sitting next to us fled.
Foster had some comical tricks up his beefy sleeves as the hammer-throwing harridan, turning a couple of unexpected cartwheels and almost executing a split. But Trunchbull’s implacable cruelty sometimes verged on rabid, when she unveiled all the “chokey” dungeons reserved for misbehaving and disobedient students at her school or when she pulled the ears of one cowering student about a foot away from his head. Neat technical effects, but perhaps too realistic for comfort.
Dahl wrote his Matilda in 1988, a decade before Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events took off – and before some of the edgier “anti” musicals like Urinetown began to invade Broadway. So his macabre sensibility here became more and more in tune with the times. With all its demonic cogs and gears, HannaH Crowell’s set design (fiendishly augmented by Kelly Colburn’s projections) brought home to me how Dahl’s sensibility had morphed during the quarter of a century following Willy Wonka and his iconic chocolate factory. Nothing particularly sweet here.
Matilda Wormwood certainly had more natural talents and gifts than Charlie Bucket, who snagged the lucky ticket to meet Wonka and taste his chocolate wonders. She is a precocious reader, which disgusts her dimwit parents and astounds Miss Honey, her timorous first grade teacher. As a storyteller, she holds the local librarian spellbound. Pitted against the fearsome, sadistic Trunchbull, Matilda turns out to have a combination of psychic and telekinetic powers that bring her victory – wielded with a sly naughtiness.
You need more than Orphan Annie pluck to play this role, and Allie Joseph has it. She nails Matilda’s signature solos, “Naughty” and “When I Grow Up,” and she sparkles in the spotlight – Colburn’s projections going wild behind – telling her four part “Acrobat Story” to Mrs. Phelps, the librarian. There’s a touch a grim determination in Joseph’s naughtiness that nicely counterbalances the added malignity that Foster brings to Trunchbull. Without too much suspension of disbelief, Joseph also passes for a first grader.
Also supplying counterweight to Trunchbull’s regimentation and brutality are Matilda’s other tormentors, her nutball parents. Caleb Sigmon gets to do the heavier comedy lifting as Mr. Wormwood, loudly dressed by costume designer Magda Guichard, victimized by Matilda’s vicious pranks, and cuckolded by his wife. A crooked used car salesman way beyond his depth in attempting to hoodwink Russian mobsters, Matilda’s dad deserves every indignity that comes his way, especially when he tears up his daughter’s library book. Yet Sigmon retains a wonderful energy amid all Dad’s atrocities, vicissitudes and cluelessness.
Wrapped up in her competitive ballroom dancing – and her sleazy partner Rudolpho (the lithe Paul Montagnese) – Matilda’s mom doesn’t realize she’s nine months pregnant with an unwanted second child when Matilda is born. That’s a high level of stupidity to sustain, but Lucianne Hamilton is more than equal to the task as Mrs. Wormwood, particularly when she schools Miss Honey on her philosophy of education.
Absorbing this lecture as well as Miss Trunchbull’s tirade, Miss Honey earns the right to sing “Pathetic” as her signature song, yet Bailey Rose builds Honey’s strength on stoical acceptance and self-awareness, her warmth toward Matilda counting for far more than her passivity. More comical appreciation comes from Janeta Jackson as Mrs. Phelps, the librarian who listens so raptly to Matilda’s acrobat saga.
Dennis Kelly‘s adaptation of Dahl’s novel is admirably intricate and well-crafted, but I find myself less impressed with Tim Minchin‘s music and lyrics, which might be more palatable with the vitality of Annie or the wit of Avenue Q. You still need to listen – carefully – to the cast album to decipher what the kids’ choruses are singing. Whether the older kids are rattling their cages in welcoming the first-graders on their first day or Matilda’s class is celebrating victory over Trunchbull, the music sounds a bit savage, as if Annie and her fellow orphans were on a bad acid trip. The transition from Belk Theater to the smaller McColl seemed to augment the abrasiveness.
Yet some of Matilda’s classmates do distinguish themselves. Calvin Jia-Hao Mar is consistently adorable as Nigel, who spends much of his time cowering or fainting whether or not Trunchbull is persecuting him. Ryan Campos is a more formidable martyr as the heroic Bruce, a young glutton who steals a piece of Trunchbull’s chocolate cake and is forced to eat the whole thing as his punishment. And though I can’t tell you why we’re bothered with Matilda’s best friend Lavender, Jeannie Ware made her charmingly self-important when we returned from intermission.
Review: Perspective: Aerial Dance on the Mint Museum
By Perry Tannenbaum
We don’t normally expect the ruggedness of mountain climbing and the delicacy of dance to converge. But at the Levine Arts Center in the heart of Uptown Charlotte, they have. At Caroline Calouche & Co.’s new show, Perspective: Aerial Dance on the Mint Museum, the two disciplines were combined in a series of four performances on each of two successive days. Seated in front of the Uptown Mint Museum, my wife Sue and I needed to be vigilant skywatchers in order to notice when the performances began. The building folds slightly into two halves that flank the Museum’s graceful front staircase, taking visitors above the gift shop and into the Mint’s lobby. At the top of the museum’s two facades, Calouche and Sarah Ritchy, peered over the ledge – and at each other – and began their descents, holding onto sturdy cliff-climbing ropes that they were tethered to. At about halfway down the facades of the museum, they buckled themselves in place. There was plenty of rope for them to swing back and forth along the side of the building and plenty of slack for them to launch themselves away from the building into mid-air.
Yes, the dancing was happening in two directions. The women moved parallel to the beige concrete facades of the museum, executing a variety of leaps, spins, balletic poses, steps, and splits. Yet Calouche and Ritchy weren’t scraping the walls of the Mint, so air was always between them and the building. To a considerable extent, Calouche and Ritchy were perpendicular to the building. Photos and movies of them appear to be taken from overhead rather than below, for the contact points between the dancers and the building were more often the soles of their feet than their toes. Yet when they were “standing up” straight, so to speak, we were fully aware that the dancers were actually prone, facing the sky, or in free-fall posture, suspended high above the entrance stairway. Truly, these Calouche & Co. performances did present a fresh perspective by merging elements of aerial and floor dancing in ways that Cirque du Soleil has never encompassed.
The medium has its own restrictions, beginning with the outdoors. With Hurricane Florence still threatening the coast of the Carolinas, Calouche had to cancel the run of Perspective that was originally set for last weekend. Mere rain or wind would have likely caused the same postponement. Outdoors, with street traffic just a few yards behind your spectators, sound quality isn’t going to be the best, yet music did seem to be a necessary complement to the dancing, assuring that Calouche and Ritchy remained in sync when they danced together. Unlike the aerial dances Calouche and her company have performed with silks, the more mountaineering works of Perspective didn’t allow for variations in altitude, accomplished with silks by shimmying up the fabric, wrapping it around the dancers’ legs and waists, and making controlled – sometimes excitingly precipitous – descents. At first blush, the vocabulary of movement seemed limited, but this was a maiden voyage, so there may be more frontiers that Calouche and Co. can explore, provided that opportunities like this will present themselves with some regularity in the future.
Perspective was unusually brief for a dance program, clocking in at about 10 minutes. Each of the four programs presented on the night we attended featured two different dancers than those who had danced the previous hour. Entrances and exits are somewhat labored and unwieldy, which may explain why the four hourly presentations weren’t compressed into one. Calouche and Ritchy couldn’t simply prance to the wings or drop to the ground to yield up the stage. When they weren’t soloing or performing in tandem, the dancers went into a sort of suspended animation to avoid stealing focus from each other. Not until their time together was done could Ritchy and Calouche shimmy to the ground on their remaining lengths of rope. Expediting these exits, allowing dancers to enter on the same rope others were leaving on, or dropping additional ropes over the side of the building would invite additional danger or necessitate additional crew.
Like Cirque du Soleil, these Calouche & Co. performances combined elements of artistry and Evel Kneivel. The mixture of grace and excitement was unlike anything I had witnessed before, with the peril factor noticeably enhanced by the breathtaking altitude and the outdoors. If Calouche & Co. develop this medium further and conquer some of its restrictions, performances on the Mint – and other buildings around town – will be can’t-miss events.