Monthly Archives: November 2018

Summer Night, With Unicorn Plants the Seed for Professional Jewish Theatre at Shalom Park

Review:  Summer Night, With Unicorn

By Perry Tannenbaum

In a cycle that begins in November, The Levine Jewish Community Center jumped aboard the Jewish Plays Project two years ago as Charlotte became one of 12 cities adjudicating JPP’s annual Jewish Playwriting Contest. Charlotte has already assembled 21 readers for the judging process, tied with Chicago for the most among participating cities, in deciding the three scripts that are publicly presented in the spring at Gorelick Hall. That’s where the Shalom Park audience takes over, choosing the winner and also-rans for our region. From those results, a consensus national winner is chosen – not only for presentation at an annual Jewish play festival up in New York but also for full professional productions in all the cities where the Project has taken root. Last year’s contest was different from those that preceded, pitting all winners from previous contests against each other, so that an all-time winner from 2012 to 2017 would emerge. Decided by an objective points system, the 2018 contest actually produced two winners, Estelle Singerman by David Rush, winner of the 2013 prize, and Belfast Kind by Margot Connolly, the 2015 winner.

Among the co-winners, Charlotte chose Rush’s bittersweet comedy-fantasy. We had been told at the readers’ committee meeting back in January that Rush’s title was in flux. By the time it was presented at The Festival of Jewish Theater in June, Estelle had been renamed Summer Night, With Unicorn. That’s the title that JStage brought to Gorelick, sporting poster and playbill artwork with a Marc Chagall flavor that marvelously reflected the spirit and the magical realism of Rush’s play. The main figures in Kayla Piscatelli’s artwork are a crescent moon over the head and neck of a unicorn. Within that white unicorn, there is a silhouetted cityscape of skyscrapers with space enough above them for the Hebrew letters of the first four words of the traditional mourner’s kaddish. Estelle is a gregarious elderly Jew, not devoutly religious, since we meet her a little after 10pm at a lonely McDonald’s in Chicago. There’s nobody else to pester but Warren Spencer, an obvious Cubs fan busily clogging his arteries with a burger and a large order of fries.

Estelle would like this sullen, downcast, and brooding widower to believe she’s doing him a favor by sharing his fries and perhaps hoping to cheer him up as she invites him on a late-night odyssey. She will take him to a park, the Lake Michigan shore, a Christian Science reading room, a synagogue, and – inevitably – a zoo. Where else would Estelle and Warren converse with Seymour, a reincarnated giraffe? Rush proves to be very ecumenical in his ramblings around Chicago. The depressed and anorexic Hannah Kipper reads tarot cards on her lakeside blanket, the reading room is managed by a kindly Sister Rose, and the dark synagogue is haunted by a rabbi who’s unsure whether he’s alive or dead, a thickly bearded gent with Wandering Jew earmarks who has his visitors wondering who’s dreaming whom. Nor are the characteristics that Hannah and Rush assign to the Unicorn gleaned from the Encyclopedia Judaica, where there is no entry for the mythological beast.

 

Long before intermission arrives, we realize that Warren is a stubbornly lapsed Jew who is stewing in bitterness over the circumstances surrounding his wife Doris’s death. Estelle is a widow herself, habitually wandering the city at night because she’s afraid to go to sleep, promising Warren the glory of a sunrise over the lake at the end of their journey. We join Warren in wondering what Estelle’s ulterior motive is, getting hints that he isn’t the first to join her on her midnight rambles. As the lights go down for intermission, it becomes suddenly clear that Estelle is looking somebody to say kaddish over her. What we didn’t know was whether Estelle was alive, with a wisp of matrimonial motives triggering her quest, or dead, needing Warren’s prayers to bring an end to her ghostly wanderings. The other big question was whether Warren would ever say kaddish over his own beloved Doris, let alone this strange and mystifying Estelle.

My estimate is that I haven’t reviewed a theatre performance at Gorelick in almost 16 years, during which time the J has sprouted multiple new wings, one of them two stories high, along with a new entrance and dazzling new facilities – all of which make the Gorelick, now shunted from the front to the back of the complex, look old and drab by comparison. The stage and the dusty chairs we sat in could sorely use a refresh, for starters. JStage producer Susan Cherin Gundersheim, the cultural arts director at the Levine JCC (and a theatre professional in her own right), is clearly facing an uphill climb in convincing people to make a serious investment in the J’s theatre program. Gundersheim has managed to bring professional-grade theatre to the site regardless.

To check off all the design and directorial boxes, Gundersheim has brought in Piscatelli and Mark Sutton to don multiple hats, which they do admirably on their shoestring budget. Sutton’s set design, little more than three wooden frames after we exited McD’s, meshed well with his directorial concept, calling upon his audience to mostly imagine the scenes for themselves. Piscatelli’s costumes and lighting were no less complimentary, the raggedy cerements for the ghostly Doris and the gleaming silk cape for the Unicorn contrasting effectively with the garish attire of our earthbound protagonists.

There are plenty of Hebrew and Yiddish expressions studding this script like landmines. Fortunately, Sheila Snow Proctor navigated the treacherous terrain almost perfectly as Estelle, certainly better than Sutton, who allows Devin Clark to mangle his Yiddish mercilessly as the ageless Rabbi. Portraying a lapsed Jew, David Catenazzo probably earned a pass as Warren on his trespasses with the Hebrew blessing for putting on a tallit – I’ve heard worse during torah readings at my Conservative synagogue. Proctor not only clops around like a pensioner, slightly stooped, slightly squinting, she gets the essence of Jewish soul and humor, the impulse of kvetching leavened with a pinch of self-mockery. She even carries her late husband’s tallit bag and tefillin with a touch of reverence. Perhaps Proctor would have had an easier time of it if Catenazzo had similarly leavened his anger and impatience with hints of the Jewish soul that had loved and indulgently persevered with Doris when she wasn’t angelic. To some extent, Warren needed to be charmed by Estelle. Judging this role is a little like living the journey of Ebenezer Scrooge.

With two major cameos, the Rabbi and the giraffe, Clark had the most opportunities to shine among the supporting players. He was especially entertaining as Seymour sparring with Warren, who probed into the question of why he had been demoted to giraffe in his present incarnation. Yet Clark was curiously endearing as the bewildered Rabbi, notwithstanding the butchered vay iz meers. Liora Tal likely sparked some objections for how she delivered Hannah Kipper, a little underpowered and maybe a little too serene for a young fortune teller looking forward to death – but Estelle persisted in feeding her, and I didn’t think we were supposed to believe her, either. I’m afraid that Mariana Bracciale didn’t get much of a chance to shine as Sister Rose, but at least she got to glow in the denouement as the Unicorn, making her entrance and exit from the margins of the audience.

No cameo better encapsulated what Summer Night, With Unicorn was all about than Stephanie DiPaolo’s visit from the beyond as the ghost of Doris. Even more befuddled and uncomprehending than the Rabbi, DiPaolo only flickeringly registered what Warren was asking of her, but although she haltingly spoke, she never responded. That was very much the dynamic in Rush’s magical journey. Multiple possibilities presented themselves to Estelle when she posed the question we all have about what lies ahead, but through the night, there was no clearer answer than that death will surely come. With richer lighting, sound design, and a sprinkle of special effects, DiPaolo’s clarifying moment of confusion might have reached a finer pinnacle. Hopefully, when more people at the Levine JCC appreciate the gems these professionals are creating, they will also realize that the artists and their audience deserve a finer setting.

 

Advertisements

Mendelssohn’s “Italian” Symphony Upstaged by Epic Paganini Concerto

Review:  Italian Symphony

By Perry Tannenbaum

Last week’s Symphony concert at Knight Theater, Italian Symphony, was a bit of a double entendre. Yes, the featured work on the program was Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4, also known as the “Italian,” but all the other pieces on the bill had something Italian about them, even if the composers hailed from cooler climes. Other than Mendelssohn, we heard from Parisian maestro Hector Berlioz, whose musical marinara, gleaned from his poorly-received Benvenuto Cellini opera, was discreetly called “Roman Carnival Overture.”

In between these two non-Italians, we heard from Luciano Berio and the virtuosic Niccolò Paganini. Our guest conductor, Milan native Roberto Abbado, sustained the Italian connection. Only our guest soloist, Muscovite violinist Sergej Krylov, broke the Italian mold – unless we also consider the Charlotte Symphony musicians.

The last time Symphony played the “Roman Carnival Overture” in 2012, we were also at Knight Theater, but maestro Christopher Warren-Green had to battle the embryonic acoustics of the stage, which swallowed much of sonic details before they reached the audience. With the handsome wood-grained shell that now encloses the orchestra, strings sounded mellower and more immediate, the thrumming percussion that prodded the tempo had a far more audible and visceral effect, and the whole piece was livelier, with trombones asserting themselves in the final build.

Abbado seized upon the intro to Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 1 – its precipitous pauses, hairpin tempo changes, sudden thunderous outcries, and outbreaks of joyous melody – and brought out its kinship with Rossini’s overtures. The pause before Krylov’s bravura entrance was so emphatic that the intro might rightly be looked upon as an overture. As for Krylov, while he isn’t Italian, his pedigree for the Paganini concerto can hardly be bettered, for he studied under the renowned Salvatore Accardo, arguably the greatest living exponent of the entire Paganini violin repertoire. Accardo’s six-CD collection; including six concertos, the famed Caprices, and more; is calling out loudly to everybody at Knight Theater who sampled the goodies.

Of course, seeing this music performed live surpasses what you can merely hear. The speed, the exquisite harmonics, the double bowing, and the ricochet bowing heighten the drama when you watch them executed with such energy, deftness, and excitement. In the heat of the opening Allegro maestoso movement, you could see concertmaster Calin Lupanu and principal cellist Alan Black craning their necks to see around Abbado and fully savor what Krylov was doing. Not only was it epic enough to draw their smiles, most of the audience jumped up and gave the violinist a rousing ovation – forcing him, somewhat sheepishly, to remind us that there were two more movements to come.

The middle Adagio movement really required the audience to quiet down if it were to be heard, an oasis of tranquility before another onset of dazzle and fireworks. Anyone who had overlooked the purity of Krylov’s tone, particularly on the low notes and midrange of his instrument, could savor it here. Where the movement builds in volume and passion, both the soloist and the orchestra were up to the drama. The final Rondo: Allegro was shorter than the epic opening, but with some bodacious pizzicato work sprinkled amidst more frequent ricochet episodes, Krylov was no less spectacular, sparring a little with acting principal trumpeter Alex Wilborn along the way.

For those of us who love Luigi Boccherini’s guitar quintets, it bordered on criminal that credit to Luigi as the original creator of “La ritirata di Madrid” was deferred to the program notes on Berio in Symphony’s program booklet instead of in the main concert listing. All the guitar quintets are delightful, but the named pieces, the “Fandango” and “La ritirata,” are the stunners. Both take their names from their fourth and final movements, where Boccherini stretches the limits of his ensemble – string quartet plus guitar – by adding percussion effects. In the “Fandango,” he sneaks in a pair of castanets while the guitarist forcefully strums, but in the “Ritirata,” the strumming of the guitar simulates the fanfare of a full marching band, supplying all the percussion as the platoon moves through town and retires quietly to its barracks.

With principal Andrea Mumm Trammell sweetly plucking her harp, Berio’s orchestration of the arrival could be even quieter and stealthier. Nor did Berio deprive us of the services of traditional percussion – plus trumpets – where Boccherini had brought his quintet to a full roar. It was quite obvious that Abbado and Symphony relished their opportunity to bring orchestral power to this chamber music classic, and the fadeaway finish was absolutely adorable.

If Krylov’s pedigree was optimal for the Paganini, then no less can be said for Abbado’s with the Mendelssohn. Many regard the recordings by Claudio Abbado, Roberto’s uncle, as the most definitive traversal of Mendelssohn’s five symphonies. The nephew stamped his authority on the “Italian” in the opening measures of the most familiar movement, the vibrant Allegro vivace. Unlike the metronomic statement of the long melody line that we heard from Warren-Green and the ensemble in 2013, Abbado had a freer feel for the opening movement, the violins setting an exuberant pace and the winds injecting softer replies.

While the middle movements were mellow and satisfyingly cohesive, contrasting effectively with the bracing beginning, Abbado seemed to allow the lull to have a lingering effect on the Saltarello: Presto finale. The two flutists, Amy Orsinger Whitehead and principal Victor Wang, led a spirited charge into the breech, but when the strings answered back, it was merely with their former exuberance and not with a new ferocity or fire. Instead of Mozart bumping into Beethoven, it was more like Mozart flowing into Mozart, insufficiently bolstered by the timpani and brass. The flutes’ charge should have ignited more magic.

Like Panoramic Pease, Music of the Night Was Fun While It Lasted

Review:  The Music of the Night: An Andrew Lloyd Webber Revue

By Perry Tannenbaum

If you’ve never heard of Andrew Lloyd Webber – or you’re aching to become reacquainted – don’t blame Blumenthal Performing Arts, Charlotte Symphony, or CPCC. Three times in last nine years, Blumenthal’s Broadway Lights series has brought us touring versions of Phantom of the Opera with visits from Evita, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and School of Rock sprinkled in-between. CP brought us one of the first local productions of Phantom anywhere in 2015 and has kept enthusiasms stoked for Lord Lloyd with productions of Joseph and Jesus Christ Superstar over the past decade and Evita earlier this year.

Denial and deprivation have become harder to sustain in recent months. Broadway Lights brought Love Never Dies, Webber’s sequel to Phantom, to Belk Theater in early September, and both Charlotte Symphony and CP piled on with Andrew Lloyd sequels in late October. Symphony’s “Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber and More” opened last Thursday and encored the following evening, but the melodies of CP’s The Music of the Night: An Andrew Lloyd Webber Revue linger on after opening on the same night.

The current revue marks a farewell to panoramic Pease Auditorium, which is slated to be demolished along with the school’s library in early 2019. As you might expect, the fondness of the farewell comes from numerous actors and artists who have kept the theatre tradition thriving at Pease, regathering at ground zero where the CP program started in 1972.

At the helm, directing and choreographing, is Ron Chisholm, whose local pedigree goes back to 1990. Susan Roberts Knowlson, Patrick Ratchford, Lisa Smith Bradley, and Kevin Harris qualify as distinguished veterans handpicked for this 13-member cast, while Ryan Deal and Lucia Stetson have the creds to be labelled the new establishment. Watch out for a few of the others, though. There were stars on the ascendant in my telescope.

With a running time of less than 73 minutes, nobody onstage gets a truly full workout except the musicians led by the versatile Lucia Stetson, who has acted, directed, and conducted both musicals and operas over the years at CP. Why such a miserly songlist with so many singers onstage and so many songs to choose from? With a decent bouquet of your fave CP singers on hand to deliver, it would have nice to claim that you’d be hearing all your fave Andrew Lloyd Webber songs.

There are 20 songs, or there would have been if one hadn’t been skipped last Saturday. Most generously represented are Evita and Phantom of the Opera – not surprising when you consider that Lucia Stetson and Ryan Deal, who starred in the title roles at CP, are on hand to handle their reprises. This they do with panache, for Chisholm knows where to place his chips when he ponders his staging. Stetson is festively dressed by costume designer Ramsey Lyric for the brash “Buenos Aires” and backed with enough vocalists to evoke a carnivale – and she really is dressed to the nines when she does Evita’s anthemic “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.”

As the ghoulish, predatory Phantom, Deal can only fully come into his own when paired with his prey – the more beautiful, the better. Deal breathes heavily enough to be truly sinister in singing “Music of the Night,” but he’s most commanding when he torments Knowlson in the title song. Squat as Pease is, scenic designer James Duke does provide twin staircases flanking his final Pease set. The one at stage left is definitely an asset when Deal makes his dominant melodramatic exit. “Sing!” he bellows as Knowlson sustains high notes we haven’t heard from her in years. I’m guessing that’s the rest of the ensemble forming an offstage chorus for this duet, intensifying its power.

Taking up the Raoul role, Ratchford struck up the more consoling duet with Knowlson, “All I Ask of You.” All that chemistry was still there, no doubt kindling widespread nostalgia among those in the audience who remember the multiple times Knowlson and Ratchford shared top billing at CP in the past. With the entire ensemble singing “Masquerade” and Knowlson soloing on “Wishing You Were Here,” you will gather that Chisholm & Company’s Music of the Night is wringing maximum mileage from Phantom.

Even before the selections already cited, Brittany Currie Harrington and Traven Harrington were a more age-appropriate Christine and Raoul in “Think of Me.” Traven’s voice is the mellower at his low end, but Brittany was sensational at her uppermost in an unforeseen cadenza at the end of their duet. Each of the Harringtons logged an additional solo before the revue was done, Brittany reprising the title song from Love Never Dies and Traven taking us way back to the title song of Starlight Express.

Do you remember There’s A Light at the End of the Tunnel from that same rollerskating musical? Me neither, but Kevin Harris – perhaps signaling that he’ll be back for Showboat next summer? – reminds us how righteously rousing it is in bringing us to intermission, with backup support that matches the liveliness of “Buenos Aires.” Of the remaining cast members, I most fancied Ron T. Diaz and Emily Witte, both of whom I wished were better showcased.

Witte was saddled with the lackluster “Another Suitcase” from Evita before being obliged to timeshare “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar with Sarah Henkel and Karen Christensen. Diaz continues the Superstar momentum into the final bows, getting a better split on that title song, with J. Michael Beech sharing the spotlight and everybody in celebratory form backing up.

Lisa Smith Bradley bore the burden of beginning the evening with “Memory” from Cats, a song that I loathe from a show I despise. As we moved onward – and inevitably upward – I could be thankful that this irritation had been immediately disposed of. But I remain peeved at the evening’s brevity and the songs from other shows that remained AWOL. If we could dip into Joseph for Ratchford’s Elvis-like “Song of the King” and Harris’s “Close Every Door to Me,” surely there could be space for more than the peeps we had into Song & Dance and Whistle Down the Wind.

Maybe it’s okay to skip past The Woman in White, Aspects of Love, and Tell Me on a Sunday, but surely we must sample the Tony Award-winning Sunset Boulevard and Sir Andrew’s triumphant comeback, School of Rock, which wowed this town back in January. A couple of songs from each of those hits would expand the running time past the 90-minute threshold – and sound more like a respectable survey of this composer’s work.

Philadelphia Story Bides Its Time Before Detonating

Review:  The Philadelphia Story

By Perry Tannenbaum

One of the wonderful things about Philip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story is that, yes, it really is about class distinctions and peculiarities, but the playwright remains ambivalent and tolerant of them all. Beneath their upper or lower crust exteriors, all of these Philadelphians – young and old – are recognizably human. You rarely see so many fully-fleshed characters onstage in the course of a single evening. I wouldn’t be terribly surprised to see a premier professional company repeatedly reviving this witty, effervescent comedy, but it’s absolutely astounding that Theatre Charlotte, our community theatre, has revived Philadelphia Story twice in the new millennium, now and back in 2000.

Both productions showed the pitfalls. The cast needs to be nine deep, alert to the amount of polish and roughness Barry expects of them, and aware of the energies and pacing required at each point of Barry’s intricate plot. The story revolves around “virgin goddess” socialite Tracy Lord – as you might expect, since Katharine Hepburn, the original Tra on Broadway and on celluloid, matched the 25% investment that the playwright plowed into the original production. Tracy is sensibly engaged to the cold and ambitious George Kittredge, impetuously divorced from the dapper C.K. Dexter Haven, and estranged from her father, whose indiscretions have brought the Lords unwanted publicity.

While Tracy is resolving these relationships, her brother is focused on suppressing a magazine exposé that will be published about their wayward father, dangling the prospect of exclusive access to the wedding as an enticing alternative for the publisher. The reporter and the photographer assigned to the Kittredge-Lord nuptials, Mike Conner and Liz Imbrie, bring another level of complications to the scene. She’s been secretly carrying a torch for him for years, but when spirits rise and champagne flows on the night before the wedding, Mike finds that he has fallen – hard – for Tracy, a prelude to their both enjoying an illicit, drunken midnight dip together in the Lords’ swimming pool.

While Barry is at work on how the wedding, the magazine story, and multiple alienated affections – past and present – will ultimately resolve, director Tonya Bludsworth and her cast must deal with all of the reactions and repercussions along the way. Making all of this bubbly complexity even harder for Bludsworth and Theatre Charlotte to achieve is the relative lack of enthusiasm for the project. Turnout for auditions was likely as tepid as audience turnout. Compared with opening night for Peter and the Starcatcher in September, there were conspicuously more empty seats at the back of the house – and a bit less confidence onstage.

Ten of the 14 cast members are new to Theatre Charlotte, including most of the key characters. We started off strong back in 2000 with a Tracy who had the look, the patrician manner, and sometimes even the sound of Hepburn, but that newcomer’s imperial highness never became sufficiently ruffled when the plot thickened. In Bella Belitto, we have another newcomer as Tracy, and on opening night, her serene highness was conspicuously lacking in the early going and – like others onstage – she was often underpowered and inaudible.

Without that serene aura and grace, the splintering of Tracy’s goddess élan isn’t as poignant as it should be in Belitto’s account of her re-education. Yet when she’s assailed by complications, catastrophes, and intensifying adoration, she faces it all very convincingly, her spirits and energies rising. Waking up on the climactic morning after, her decibel level also crescendos spontaneously. We feel that she is learning her lesson and actually benefiting from the indiscretions that brought on her fall – and that the lesson runs deep to her core. Her epiphany detonated effectively for me.

A lot of that depends on Nick de la Canal radiating a rakish upper-crust urbanity as Dexter with enough of that crust trimmed away to make room for tolerance and forgiveness – the two key qualities Tracy needs to acquire. De la Canal’s insouciance also contrasts nicely with the stuffiness that Will Millwood brings to George Kittredge. Barry doesn’t completely hide his disdain for George’s commercial outsider status, so Millwood makes a prudent choice in stressing his judgmental bent.

Dexter also comes off finer than Mike Conner, but by a significantly smaller margin. Here the nuanced class distinctions are no less telling. Christopher Long reminds us that Mike starts out fairly judgmental himself before Tracy bewitches him, but we indulge his pre-judgments more readily in the same spirit that we’re inclined to forgive his boyish, impulsive trespasses. Our best verdict on him vis-à-vis George is much like Barry’s: he’s more deserving, in spite of his depressed finances, of being called a gentleman.

What gives The Philadelphia Story its screwball slant is that everybody up onstage and down in the audience seems to know who the best fit for Tracy is – except for the goddess herself. This includes her mischievous younger sister, Dinah, who attempts some telephone matchmaking. Helena Dryer makes little sis pesky and likable in the right proportions. She’ll be an utter triumph once she makes herself consistently intelligible.

Tracy’s mom isn’t the most pivotal role here, though Margaret does point the way for her daughter in forgiving her husband’s infidelity. What makes Heather Place’s debut so auspicious as Margaret Lord is her clear bubbly delivery and her effortless projection of warmth and class, richly portending her reconciliation with the dashing, slightly over-the-hill Seth Lord. Victor Sayegh is mildly and earnestly supplicating toward Margaret and his disapproving daughter, as befits a Philadelphia patriarch, another cue for Tracy to accept people’s imperfections, including her own.

Sayegh and Place draw two of Chelsea Retalic’s most stylish costume designs in evoking high society elegance, but it’s an uphill battle to project prosperity amid Josh Webb’s drab and dour set design. Two Ionian columns fail to provide uplift, and there’s no longer a visible hint of the swimming pool in the wings. Portraying the eccentric Uncle Willie in a delightful debut, Dan Kirsch gets my nod as the plutocrat most at home in this down-market mansion, lovable for all his pomposity.

Fresh from his crossdressing exploits in Starcatcher, Johnny Hohenstein is mostly responsible, as Tracy’s scheming brother Sandy, for the PR intrigue that lurks beneath the romantic comedy. Good luck following – or caring about – all the Act 2 twists in that sector of the plot. For that reason, Anna Royal as Liz turns out to be more important for me. Ultimately, she’s modeling the patience, forbearance, and forgiveness toward Mike that Tra should have toward Dex. Royal gives Liz just enough edge to update her and elevate above the cliché she must have been in 1939 when THE PHILADELPHIA STORY first hit Broadway.

Here she isn’t just a working-class woman who knows her place, meekly deserving Tracy’s discards. Wielding her Contax camera, she’s Mike’s professional partner, biding her time for a natural upgrade.