Monthly Archives: January 2019

Greek Gods Rock a Comeback

Review: The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Take it from a very hairy satyr – or a prancing centaur: “The gods are real!” That’s the emphatic message Rick Riordan delivered to Percy Jackson, the hero of his young adult novel, The Lightning Thief, in 2005. Five years later, the best-selling saga became a blockbuster movie, and now – after a modest off-Broadway run in 2017 – Riordan’s demigod is on tour in The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical, and Knight Theater is one of his first stops.

Joe Tracz’ adaptation of Riordan’s story leans more towards the book than the movie, and Rob Rokicki’s songs add a rocking dimension to Lightning, pushing Percy’s youthful voltage decisively into defiant adolescence – and away from the 12-year-olds who were the original protagonists. But that boost doesn’t compare with the jumpstart this new musical delivers for the Greek gods.

Photo: Jeremy Daniel

You need to remember that these mighty Olympians were already fairly passé in the days of the Roman Empire when Zeus’s name was changed to Jove and Odysseus became Ulysses. Revivals of the Greek gods by 20th century novelists and poets were about the potency of myth rather than the truth of religion – and Homer’s heroes were more likely to be the focus than the immortals on Olympus.

We hear some definite rumblings from Olympus before the action begins at Knight Theater. Before we learn that Zeus’s lightning has been stolen and that Percy is a prime suspect, the lad’s field trip to the Metropolitan Museum – yes, in New York – is punctuated by attacks from a harpy and a minotaur.

Yeah, a very mighty somebody is angry with Percy, and the kid really has a lot to learn. After he gets expelled from school, the long-overdue lessons begin. Mom breaks the news that Dad, if not a great parent, was and is unquestionably great. But before Sally can specify Percy’s divine lineage, his implacable pursuers strike again. Now in hindsight, I could second-guess Zeus and politely assert that it would have been more sensible for him to send a more articulate messenger than a minotaur to ask Percy where he’d hidden the damn lightning.

Photo: Jeremy Daniel

So be advised, action comic book logic often prevails here – which is not very much out of step with the illogic of Greek mythology. When Percy awakens from a coma three days later, he finds himself motherless and enrolled at Camp Half-Blood up in Long Island, together with other kids whose divine parents are equally neglectful. Needless to say, the animus bred among these teenage demigods by their absentee parents chimes well with the Rokicki rock score.

Percy is doubly different from the rest. Until deep into Act 1, he doesn’t know whose son he is. On a dark night, the revelation from Dad will be truly spectacular as Percy and his fellow campers look up in the sky and – amid the obligatory earthshaking tremors – see the god’s signature trident blazoned among the stars. Heavenly signs are the stuff you hear heroes speak about in plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, a dramatic effect that Shakespeare shrewdly revived.

Photo: Jeremy Daniel

The other distinction that separates Percy is his getting selected to go on the quest to somehow retrieve the stolen lightning and prevent all-out warfare from breaking out among the gods. It’s here that Riordan takes us all the way back to the heroes of Homer’s epics. Just as there was tension and moodiness on the fields of Troy where Achilles, Ajax, Agamemnon, Hector, and Paris trod, there are rivalries and animosities among the half-blood campers. Annabeth, neglected by Mama Athena, wants to join Percy and prove herself. Others channel their jealousy, resentment, and antagonism into undermining him.

Up above, the unseen gods are supporting their neglected children, using them as instruments against one another, very much like Homer described them behind the scenes of the Trojan War. Mars and Mercury, the gods with Roman names, are sponsoring kids at camp who are going to make it tough on the offspring of Zeus and Poseidon. Singing rock songs with amped-up intensity and sincerity amid flashing lights and minimal scenery, these relentlessly energetic teens do occasionally seem like avatars in a video game.

I guess that’s because so much of the energy is channeled into the music.

Kristen Stokes as Annabeth sported the best vocal chops among our protagonists, but the role of Athena’s daughter isn’t nearly as meaty as the lead. Chris McCarrell is your fairly generic rock ‘n’ roll lead, not quite as iconoclastic as the Footloose outsider at his core, but he’s marvelously awed and illuminated by his magic sword and his mission. Somehow his determined edge never grows stale.

Photo: Jeremy Daniel

 

But as often happens with pure heroes and superheroes, Percy and Annabeth are often upstaged by the more outré characters they pal around with or confront. Three of the five supporting players have multiple roles to feast on, and I still find myself torn about which scene stealer I liked most. Perhaps because he rocked the most costumes, I’m giving the nod to Ryan Knowles as Chiron, Hades, and Poseidon. Knowles starts out as Percy’s teacher and principal before he reveals himself as a centaur – not an unreasonable stretch, since the original Chiron tutored such adventurers as Achilles and Jason.

Likewise, Percy’s classmate Grover reveals himself as a satyr when our hero comes out of his coma, the pagan equivalent of a guardian angel. Yet somehow, he moonlights as Mr. D, the godly camp director who presides over admissions in a manner that suggests a Hawaiian bartender. Jalynn Steele spends the largest chunk of her stage time as Percy’s mom, warmly nurturing and humdrum, but she gets the most startling cameo as Mrs. Dodd, the substitute teacher who turns into a very shrill harpy. Given a couple of chances to sing, Steele proves to have ample reserves of voltage and sizzle.

Okay, so maybe the gods aren’t real. At Knight Theater, in The Lightning Thief, they’re still a lot of fun.

Enormously Powerful “Mother Jones in Heaven” Could Use More Breathing Space

Review: Mother Jones in Heaven

By Perry Tannenbaum

mother jones photo credit brian kasher

Anybody who has walked by a well-stocked newsstand in the past 40 years has heard of Mother Jones, but fewer people can tell you anything about the real-life woman who inspired the magazine. You can now be handsomely schooled at the Warehouse Performing Arts Center by Vivian Nesbitt, who portrays the rabble-rousing labor activist in a fast-moving production of Si Kahn’s musical narrative, Mother Jones in Heaven. A treasured Charlotte resident until he grows restless and sets out for the West Coast, Kahn himself has been a community and labor organizer for over a half century while composing an imposing catalog of songs in a traditional folk style. He is supremely qualified to empathize with the tribulations of Mary Harris “Mother” Jones’s life and to give her pugnacious personality musical expression. In Nesbitt, he has found an actress who is ideally suited to bring us a Mother Jones who is beautifully devoid of acting or singing self-regard.

Unfortunately, the natural instincts of these artists were subjected to the whims of director Alice Jankell, who presented the show, winner of a San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle award in 2014, as if it were a work-in-progress sorely in need of workshopping. At the post-performance talkback on opening night, Jankell asked the audience the right questions, namely what worked well and what left us confused – the polite way of asking what didn’t work. But the feedback process was doubly perverted. We were answering these questions about a script that had been severely edited. A production in Canada reportedly ran 90 minutes as recently as a couple of months ago, but the Warehouse version clocked in at under 70. Jankell confided that it had been necessary to abridge Kahn’s script to 60 minutes in order to bring this version to a fringe festival in Asheville, but she was dismissive toward those portions that hadn’t been restored, labelling them as research findings that would be interesting to the playwright and not to us. Further compromising the process, the person who most needed to judge what was working and what was not, Kahn himself, was not in the audience.

It’s hard to say what the missing 20 minutes of playing time would have fleshed out. Perhaps we would have learned the names of all four of Mother’s biological children who died from yellow fever during an epidemic in Memphis. Or we may have sampled some of the rhetoric in Mother’s speeches that inspired her figurative children, most notably the oppressed coalminers of West Virginia. Or maybe, Mother Jones in heaven was emboldened to tell some of the self-mythologizing lies she told on earth in her autobiography, only to come clean in the presence of the angels who make up her audience. Maybe all the factoids we missed might have bored us, just as Jankell feared. Maybe not.

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Aside from the additional texturing that the full script would have provided, it would also have supplied much-needed breathing space between songs. The effect of a couple of them – there are at least 10 songs – was stifled by how soon they followed on the heels of their predecessors, with little substance to feed upon. And more of Nesbitt as Mother Jones would axiomatically be a plus. Confounding the radical working-class preconceptions we might have had about “the most dangerous woman in America,” Jones arrives in heaven rather primly dressed. Yet as much as she is gratified to see us, her fellow angels in heaven, what makes her feel most at home is the old Irish pub that is set up for her, where she picks out a favorite bottle and pours out the libations that will lubricate her tongue. It reminds her of the place where she was fired from one of her prestigious union positions.

The formative events in Mother Jones’s life, the yellow fever epidemic of 1867 and the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, happened earlier than I would have thought, but the celebrated – and somewhat catastrophic – Children’s March on the residence of President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903 took us into the 20th century where I had always placed her. There are subsequent references to Warren G. Harding and the likely apocryphal telegram he sent to her in 1921, so the old firebrand was very much in the thick of the labor movement well into her final decade. Her ascent to the storefront Warehouse stage presumably occurs upon her death in 1930 at the age of 93.

Joining Nesbitt onstage is her husband, John Dillon, on guitar, providing a quiet relaxedpresence. The songs he played; including “Mother Jones’ Farewell to Ireland,” “Silk and Satin,” “The Whiskey Ring and the Railroad Trust,” and the anthemic valedictory, “I Was There”; date back to at least 2004 on CD. Another title, “Tarpaper Shacks,” has been out since at least 2007, so the legacy of Mother Jones and her crusading themes have been aging and maturing in Kahn’s mind for a long time. In the choicest passages of Kahn’s dialogue, Nesbitt gets to describe the injustices, the horrors, and the deformities that enflame Mother Jones’s righteous rage. Even in this capsulized form, Nesbitt’s performance is quite a sight to behold, enormously powerful when she reaches full throttle.

 

 

Bourne Again in the London Blitz

Review: Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella

By Perry Tannenbaum

CINDERELLA

Enemy aircraft buzzes across the London skies at all hours, bomb blasts shake the earth and light up the night, and tall buildings you have known your whole life are in flames or rubble. So who are the people you hate most in life? If you’re the protagonist in Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella, it isn’t Hitler or Nazi Germany. No, you’re likely still bedeviled by that nasty stepmom of yours and those dang stepsisters who are constantly lording over you. Sir Matthew – who has brought us Sleeping Beauty, The Red Shoes and Edward Scissorhands during the new millennium – has transported dear Cindy into the frenetic heart of the London Blitz. With projection design by Duncan McLean, lighting by Neil Austin, and surround sound by Paul Groothuis, he has plenty of brilliant accomplices in the heist.

Setting his scenario to Prokofiev’s Cinderella ballet score, the famed choreographer only seems to be going off the rails in adapting mankind’s most universal tale to his own purposes. So many variants of Cinderella have been told around the world that Children’s Theatre of Charlotte had no hesitation about staging their own little anthology, Cinderellas of the World, in 1995 – or presenting no less than three more Cinderellas since, a commedia, a salsa, and most recently, a Jazz Age Cinderella riff in 2015.

Bourne’s is different enough – and of course, non-verbal enough – to present some difficulties for youngsters and oldsters expecting the usual castle, fairy godmother, and pumpkin coach. Or a dashing eligible prince at an elegant evening ball. After flashing the title on a scrim, specifying the time and place, and running a quaint British newsreel on what to do during an aerial assault, this production leaves you on your own to figure things out. It’s helpful to peep into your playbill before the lights go down.

Keeping his New Adventures troupe busy, Bourne adds a trio of stepbrothers to Cindy’s domestic tormentors – and an invalid father, the only family member truly worthy of our heroine’s suffering toil. Stepmom Sybil and stepsisters Irene and Vivian are marginally less cruel than you might remember them, substantially more urban and well-to-do. Costumer and designer Lez Brotherston is not to be constrained by the presence of working-class drones, that’s for sure.

CINDERELLA

Dressed in a matching hat and dress long before it’s time to depart, Mom is more likely to take a swig of her favorite alcoholic beverage than worry about her daughters’ matrimonial prospects or fawn over a young prince. There are Blanche DuBois elements for Madelaine Brennan ((alternating with Anjali Mehra in this double-cast production) to offer us in this role, but she might also bob her like a duck leading her gaggle of children. Or she might wink at a budding homosexual relationship between two young military men. She’s full or surprises, our most rounded character.

Invitations do arrive for a posh social event. None of them, of course, gets handed out by the evil Stepmom to Cinderella, who is chiefly beset by a stepbrother who is hyperactive, another who fetishizes her beloved sparkly shoes, and her father’s frailty. Cherishing those dazzling shoes already in her possession does not preclude an outbreak of magic, though you shouldn’t expect mice or gourds. A sleek silvery vision, Paris Fitzpatrick descends on the family drawing room long before Mom, the sibs, and their escorts vacate the stage.

CINDERELLA

The Angel begins his ministrations by bringing Cinderella her true love through the front door. He is not a prince. Instead, he is Harry, The Pilot – literally heaven-sent if you take the notion that, staggering into the hall in a bomber’s jacket, he has been shot out of the sky during an aerial battle. Whether shot out of a plane or injured on the ground by an exploding bomb, Harry’s head bandage – and his dance moves – clearly announce that he’s been seriously wounded. With Cindy’s true love already in view, there must be a major adjustment to the family’s antagonism. They throw the unwanted visitor out onto the street before gaily departing for their soiree.

There is a bit of sleepy fantasy before Cinderella follows his sibs, enough for Bourne to skip over The Angel’s more magical exploits. No spells or fairy dust are cast before we have adjourned to the Café de Paris. Yet all can admire her there as she makes her climactic entrance midway during Act 2 to the music Prokofiev composed for this breathtaking moment, descending a winding staircase against the backdrop of the Club’s midnight-blue curtains. Not only have Cinderella’s gray cardigan and drab skirt been tossed aside, her hair is so newly gilded that we can readily forgive Harry for not recognizing her. Later, when she reverts to mousiness, the split-up pair of slippers credibly affirms her identity.

CINDERELLA

Ashley Shaw is every bit as luminous now as Cinderella as she was when we first saw her in 2013 as Sleeping Beauty – and a little more poignant. The scenario is darker here in some ways, for this heroine isn’t assailed at the very awakening of her womanhood. Amid the cinders of a grimy London under attack, time is beginning to pass Cinderella by. Bourne feels that the gravity of wartime infuses Prokofiev’s score, which premiered in 1946, and it certainly suffuses the chemistry that the choreographer/director creates between Cindy and Harry.

Here there is a romantic postlude after the soiree scene and, unlike elegant princes who have courted Cinderella before, Andrew Monoghan bares his chest as Harry on their first night. Amusingly enough, Prokofiev’s music demands unmistakably, insistently and loudly that midnight has arrived, even if Bourne’s storyline hasn’t imposed any previous restrictions or curfews. It’s during Cinderella’s frantic return through the streets of London, as a relentless bombardment crescendos, that Brotherston reminds us most spectacularly of his presence.

This is where we can say that Bourne really does improve upon the chaste fairytale we all know. Both the separation and the reunion of his lovebirds prove to be freshly emotional and moving.

Turning “Nutcracker” on Its Head

Review: The Hip Hop Nutcracker

By Perry Tannenbaum

Hip Hop Nutcracker - Dolby Theatre - November 17, 2017

When Mike Fitelson’s holiday riff on ballet and Tchaikovsky, The Hip Hop Nutcracker, first invaded Charlotte three years ago, it wasn’t quite where it needed to be artistically. The brash pre-show at Booth Playhouse presented by DJ Boo somewhat upstaged the pallid pre-recorded Peter Ilyich score that backed Fitelson’s updated scenario and Jennifer Weber’s choreography. Nocturnal settings by video designer Moe Shahrooz recalled the Washington Heights portrayed in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights – moody and occasionally surreal but drained of the Miranda musical’s inner-city vitality and color.

The Fitelson scenario definitely perks up the traditionally moribund Act 2. Instead of sitting his Clara and her Nutcracker down for the better part of an hour to watch a series of decorative dances, Fitelson sends his Maria-Clara voyaging back 30 years where, in Back to the Future style, she encounters her perennially bickering parents back on the night when they first met at the Land of Sweets nightclub – getting to see them freshly at the moment romantic love first sparked between them.

Very promising, but the show needed some extra spark itself.

Produced by the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, the show has returned to the Queen City every year since its forgettable 2015 debut. Yeah, when I booked this year’s reprise at Knight Theater, I’d actually forgotten that we had seen it before. Thankfully, I review stuff. And thankfully, the Knight is exactly where this Nut needs to be.

Memories did not come rushing back when the show began. Kurtis Blow, a founding father of hip hop, hadn’t been part of the Booth Playhouse production, but at the Knight, he rules the pre-show for just over 18 minutes. He’s not the first performer I’ve ever seen who has asked an audience to get up on their feet or to raise their arms and sway back and forth nonsensically, but I’m sure he’s the first who has ever asked me and the rest of the crowd to SCREAM. Over and over.

So audience participation at the Knight has increased exponentially over what I experienced at the Booth. The Knight also has more than twice the Booth’s seating capacity. And since word-of-mouth and repetition have solidified Hip Hop Nutcracker as a holiday tradition, the Knight was sold-out on opening night and enthusiasm stretched to the back row of the balcony.

There is even a subtle tie-in between Blow’s aggressive patter and the dance that follows. Signed in 1979 as the first rapper to land a major-label recording contract, Blow presents his music as unabashedly “old school” and invites his audience to immerse itself in his original vibe, prefiguring the time traveling that Maria-Clara will do before she mends her parents’ dysfunctional relationship.

Things started looking familiar when violinist Jarvis L. Benson took his spot under the neighborhood lamppost and began playing Tchaikovsky’s antique melody line over Boo’s contemporary backbeat and platter scratching. You might say that, as the melody wafts upwards, it infuses the pair of red sneakers slung over the lamppost with magical powers. Our hero, The Nutcracker, sells his namesake merchandise from a ramshackle cart. He’s obviously attracted to Maria-Clara but painfully shy, and when he gallantly steps forward to save her from the unwanted attentions of a local gang, Nutcracker gets his ass kicked.

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Big difference when those sneakers improbably fall to the ground and Nutcracker puts them on. What vanquishes the gang is even more improbable: Josue “Beastmode” Figueroa as Nutcracker executes a bodacious spin on his head that lasts longer than you might think humanly possible. Literally turning The Nutcracker on its head during its climactic Act 1 battle.

While there are some dolorous and becalmed moments elsewhere in Act 1 in the ensemble choreography, the Knight Theater sound system is noticeably superior, punchier. So as the Nutcracker soundtrack plays, we never get the sense that the Jerseyites are dancing to elevator music. Although Ann-Sylvia Clark is a holdover from the 2015 edition as Maria-Clara, everyone else besides Boo was new to me and eager to strut their stuff. Weber’s choreography leaves plenty of room for exuberant freestyling.

Beastmode, with his appealing rough edges, was the most impressive newcomer for me, but I also like the pixie exuberance and stealth of Lisa “LBoogie” Bauford as Drosselmeyer. Forget the “Herr.” The Hip Hop Drosselmeyer has been a woman each time I’ve seen Fitelson’s version, symptomatic of the diversity in Weber’s casting. Yes, she choreographs and directs.

Sad to say, Nubian Nene is less seductive and more proper as Mom, draining all the comedy from her strife with Dad, though Micah “Just Jamz” Abbrey is every bit as crotchety as his predecessor. New charm and whimsy are injected into the evening by Dustin Payne, whose solo as Flute deservedly received the most audience approval among the Act 2 set pieces on opening night.

Shahrooz’s animations become livelier after intermission, responding to Drosselmeyer’s conjurations and transporting us back to 1988. The backwards time traveling is done like a subway ride, the years spelt out in the tiling on walls surrounding the track – with an increased amount of graffiti as we reach our destination. Perhaps a nod to Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his unparalleled success in “cleaning up” New York? The trip back to the present day takes us skyward as an elevated train reels in the years across the nighttime cityscape.

Wondering whether Kurtis returns? You can bet on it. Loquaciousness undimmed, he presides over the most elaborate curtain calls you will ever behold at a ballet. Many people left before it became apparent that we would have a full-fledged post-show over eight minutes long. Many more stayed – and obliged the special guest MC by screaming on cue. Not quite 60 years old, Blow even busted some moves.