Daily Archives: February 11, 2019

Two Iconic Singer-Songwriters Collide

Reviews: Nina Simone: Four Women and Ain’t Misbehavin’

By Perry Tannenbaum

With three new theater productions opening last week from Actor’s Theatre, Brand New Sheriff, and Theatre Charlotte – all sporting all-black casts – we have entered a Black History Month in Charlotte that is more about black history than ever before. Some of the African Americans who might be expected to show up for those auditions will be shining in the spotlight somewhere else this weekend as Children’s Theatre of Charlotte opens Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds at ImaginOn.

Unless you count university productions, we haven’t had more than one truly black theater production here in Charlotte during any Black History Month in the past 10 years.

So our Black History Month upgrade – and the stunning amount of local black talent necessary to make it happen – was definitely on my mind as I took in all of these shows. But a couple of times, in Actor’s Theatre’s tribute to Nina Simone and Theatre Charlotte’s Fat Waller revue, I found myself flashing back to January 2003.

That’s when a bi-racial Charlotte Rep production of Let Me Sing featured two black Broadway veterans, Gretha Boston and André de Shields, who boasted five Tony Award nominations and two wins between them.

Nina Simone: Four Women from Actor’s Theatre threw a new perspective on what are usually regarded as Rep’s declining years. The title role, calling for a passionate Black Power advocate and a charismatic singer-songwriter, would obviously benefit from the Broadway star power that Michael Bush, with his Manhattan Theatre Club connections, was able to lure down to our Booth Playhouse during Rep’s latter days.

De Shields was actually one of the original stars of Ain’t Misbehavin’ when it opened at Manhattan Theatre Club and took the Tony for Best Musical in 1978. So my thoughts naturally returned to De Shields, Rep, and Let Me Sing when Theatre Charlotte opened the Fats Waller musical revue two days after Actor’s opened their Simone musical. On this night at least, I had the satisfaction of recalling the Broadway star and feeling that our fair Queen City was getting along just fine without him.

A lot of the credit goes to Charlotte’s own Tony winner, educator extraordinaire Corey Mitchell, who directs this sassy 94-minute show at the Queens Road barn. The cast he culled from auditions is consistently spectacular, whether they’re singing or dancing, but we also need to slice off some accolades to the seven-piece jazz band led by trombonist Tyrone Jefferson, featuring Neal Davenport at the piano. Kudos to choreographer Ashlyn Sumner: with some formidable talents to work with, she has stretched them.

Conceived by Murray Horwitz and Richard Maltby, Jr., Misbehavin’ goes about capturing Waller’s essence by culling the gems from his imposing oeuvre and preserving the pianist’s penchant for interpolating sly comments and wisecracks between his lyrics. Comical gems like “The Viper’s Drag,” “Find Out What They Like (and How They Like It),” and “Your Feet’s Too Big,” all score big. Adapting and orchestrating, Luther Handerson and Jeffrey Gutcheon usually go with the grain of Waller’s merry, mischievous recordings, but occasionally they go against it, slowing down “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Mean to Me” so they sound brand new.

Yet Waller also composed one solemn anthem that belongs in the same elite pantheon as Simone’s “Four Women” and Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” The introductory chords from the piano were all I needed to tell me that “Black and Blue” was on its way with lyricist Andy Razaf’s indelible refrain: What did I do to be so black and blue?

After delivering more than an hour of pure ebullient joy, it was a powerful question to ask. Lighting designer Chris Timmons dimmed his gels over Tim Parati’s funky nightclub set, Jefferson hushed the band, and Mitchell huddled his entire cast downstage where all five could look us coldly in the eye.

Never afflicted with obliquity. Waller and Razaf answered their own question: My only sin is in my skin.

Keston Steele has the most amazing voice in this cast, and it’s not just her range and volume. Steele may look small, but as “I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling” proves, this lady can g-g-growl! Best dancer is more of a toss-up. Look no further than Nonye Obichere kicking “How Ya Baby” if you’re looking for somebody startling and athletic. Tyler Smith is your man if your quest is for someone smooth and sensual.

Smith was the comedy showstopper – and the chief reason why De Shields can stay right where he is – delighting us with his stealth and style in “The Viper’s Drag,” but Marvin King was just as hilarious in the outright insulting “Your Feet’s Too Big.” Danielle Burke’s breakout moments were her mellow “Squeeze Me” solo and her bawdy “Find Out What They Like” duet with Steele.

The songlist is loaded with Fats faves that will get your toes tapping, including “Handful of Keys,” “The Joint Is Jumpin’,” “Fat and Greasy,” and “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now.” Or you might get into the sway of “Jitterbug Waltz” and “Lounging at the Waldorf.” All in all, another insane overachievement for Charlotte’s community theater. Pass the reefer and the champagne!

Production values at Hadley Theater looked like they would be up to the usual high Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte standard when we took our seats on opening night of Nina Simone: Four Women. Chip Decker’s set design for the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, is colorful and impressive. And shifty: when Decker detonates his sound design, simulating the bomb blast that killed four black girls on September 15, 1963, the walls twist acutely to register the racist atrocity.

But after Lizzie and American Idiot, two arrestingly loud shows at ATC’s new Queens University home, this Christina Ham drama was often too soft-spoken to be clearly heard – even though I spotted the actors wearing head mics late in the 86-minute performance. That was a major element that can improve as the run continues.

Shortcomings in Ham’s script and Chanel Blanchett’s stage direction are not so easily remedied. I’m sure the playwright didn’t intend to be insulting, but her scenario basically tells us that Simone went down to the 16th Street church, stationed herself defiantly behind the sanctuary keyboard with the intention of completing her livid protest song, “Mississippi Goddam.” While completing her response to the murder of Medgar Evers three months earlier in Mississippi, three of the women who would be immortalized in “Four Women” walked in off the street to take refuge from the violence still raging out on the streets of Birmingham.

Fate basically hands the songwriter one of her most revered compositions, if you take Ham literally.

I’m not sure that Blanchett wants us to take the story that way. Played with stormy intensity by Destiny Stone, Simone is already hostile and militant when she arrives in Birmingham. Nina’s urgent need to get her song finished only begins to catalog the reasons why she antagonizes each of the three women who walk in on her. Sarah is a humdrum housemaid who would rather pursue MLK non-violence than take Malcolm X action. Sephronia is a yellow-skinned socialite who doesn’t struggle at all financially like Sarah, drawing class hatred from the housekeeper for her money and scorn from Simone for her political aloofness.

Further stirring the pot is Sweet Thing, seething because she can’t have Sephronia’s fiancé though she can have his baby. This liquor-swigging streetwalker draws hatred and scorn from all quarters, for how she lives and for entering a holy place. Beware, though, she’s brandishing a knife.

Although the arguments are passionate, Blanchett blunts their sharpness, preferring to space her players rather than getting them in each other’s faces – until Arlethia Friday arrives as Sweet Thing. Stone, Erica Ja-Ki Truesdale as Sarah and Krystal Gardner as Sephronia often face us instead of the person they’re arguing with. Maybe Blanchett doesn’t really believe that Simone and the “intruders” are really there at the Baptist Church. Having these actors appear like they’re reliving the first play they ever performed in grade-school doesn’t solve the problem.

After all the verbal and physical combat, the title song breaks out. It’s surreal: all three women miraculously know their lyric and their order in the song. I’m guessing this dramatic flouting of logic will help distract us from the fundamental flip she burdens Stone with in portraying Simone. For 80 minutes, she has heaped hatred, anger, and scorn upon these women who are interfering with her creative process. Now she’s deeply empathetic toward them all, turning them into emblems of scarred, heroic black womanhood.

With 11 other songs along the way, there are sudden lurches as we move forward, cutting abruptly from argument to song. Stone’s singing, with pianist Judith Porter leading a driving quartet, is the show’s most human element as she channels Simone’s fire into “Sinnerman,” “Mississippi Goddam,” and the last of the “Four Women.” Stripped of the backup singers that sugarcoat Simone’s recordings of “Young, Gifted, and Black,” I liked the crispness of Stone’s even better.

Intensity was never Stone’s problem. What I was looking for was more arrogant self-assurance lifting her rage to a higher plane – a serene majesty that earns you the title of High Priestess of Soul. A few more leading roles, not to mention turning 30, will likely do the trick someday. Probably because she comes in toting a flask and a knife, getting the liberty to stagger around the stage rather than finding a mark and facing front, Friday’s Sweet Thing is the best acting we see. She isn’t Simone’s Sweet Thing until she sings her, but she’s closer to what Nina had in mind than Ham’s housemaid. Darting between the worlds of rock, jazz, blues, folk, and soul, Simone has eluded many who would find excitement and enjoyment in her music. Ham’s writing marshals key facts in this North Carolina native’s life into the dialogue but never really captures her soul. The songs in Four Women and Stone’s singing could be a gateway to that treasure trove.

BNS Productions’ “Two Trains Running” Runs at Full Steam With a Deep Cast

Review: Two Trains Running

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Like all of the other plays I’ve seen in August Wilson’s epic Pittsburgh Cycle ­ and I’ve now seen nine of the 10 – Two Trains Running is about community struggle and personal redemption. Each of the dramas digs into one of decades of the 20th century, and after Brand New Sheriff began its Wilson explorations with Jitney and the 1950s, their sophomore effort at Spirit Square takes us into the turbulent 1960s.

With so much memorable social and civil rights upheaval in that decade, not to mention the horrifying Birmingham church bombing and the assassinations of Medgar Evers and MLK, it’s no surprise that community struggles are more at the forefront of this Wilson work than the others. As it was in the ‘50s, when we looked on the city through Jitney, Pittsburgh is continuing its predatory campaign to demolish the predominantly black Hill District in the name of urban renewal. After Becker’s gypsy cab depot in Jitney, the city is moving in on Memphis Lee’s Restaurant.

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Another young man is returning from incarceration and trying start a new life – but not quietly this time. Sterling is handing out leaflets for an upcoming Black Power rally and befriending Hambone, a mentally handicapped person who was cheated years ago by the white grocer across the street. At the same time, Sterling is seeking out a job or at least a lead from everyone else he speaks to at the restaurant. Standing up for other black people cheated by a white system – and for himself – Sterling is clearly a powder keg that will soon go off.

Memphis estimates that he’ll be back in prison in three weeks. As the days pass and he sees more of Sterling, who grabs whatever he can, Memphis will revise that estimate downwards.

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Sterling teaches Hambone a Black Power slogan, but Memphis isn’t so easily swayed. It’s the central issue for black people of that time, especially here in 1969 after the MLK murder. Do they wait patiently and peacefully for what is rightfully theirs, marching and petitioning to make their wishes known – or do they resort to the same kind of violence that kept their people down? Memphis insists on doing things the right way, holding out for a fair price from the city for his property, firing the craven lawyer who advises him to cave.

Looking at Memphis’s regular customers, you’ll find additional evidence that MLK’s ideas didn’t die with him. Nobody intends to join the rally. A more popular road to self-fulfillment is winning the daily numbers game at odds of 600-1, and it’s Wolf who haunts the place, taking all bets, often through unauthorized use of the restaurant’s phone. The sagely and cynical Holloway will play a number as readily as Memphis or Sterling, but to change your life, Holloway recommends a visit to Aunt Ester, the 322-year-old soothsayer who lurks behind a faithfully guarded red door in an alley down the block.

Risa, the troubled waitress who has scarred herself, disparages the men who throw their money away on the numbers. To her mind, they’d get a better return from their quarters if they just dropped them in the jukebox. Until recently, she’s been a follower of the Prophet Samuel, but currently her rock and redeemer is lying in state across the street at West’s Funeral Home. She has no desire to see the man in a casket, but Sterling goes through the long lines waiting to see the Prophet and snatches flowers from the site and presents them to Risa, whose head he’s trying to turn.

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It’s another illustrative instance of Sterling flouting decorum and convention. Why should her qualms get in the way of enjoying a few beautiful flowers that would die and be trashed in the next couple of days if she weren’t caring for them? West certainly doesn’t notice or mind, Sterling maintains. It’s true. When West comes by every day, he’s looking for Risa to serve him another cup of coffee and Memphis to accept his latest lowball offer for the restaurant.

The parallel rituals are significant, two of the sparkplugs that keep Wilson’s drama humming. The grocer fends off Hambone’s daily demand for the ham that was promised to him, and Memphis refuses to allow West to steal his property away for a bargain price.

BNS and director Corlis Hayes, in their second Wilson outing at Duke Energy Theater, are getting really good at this. Although smaller than the design the playwright describes, James Duke’s set captures the spirit of the time beautifully, perfectly calibrating the restaurant’s waning appeal so that we see it as a warm, welcoming place. Or at least we can imagine it that way, for Tim Bradley as Memphis is not at all the deferential restauranteur, arguing with customers, barking at Wolf for running numbers on his phone, bragging about duping West, bossing Risa unnecessarily, and expressing general disdain for his lazy people.

That’s all very much on the page, so Bradley finds ways to keep us empathizing with Memphis. Hayes and LeShea Stukes have far more latitude with Risa as we watch the waitress going about her job and reacting to various advances. Stukes plays her as sullen and cynical, allowing Risa’s resentment of her boss’s scolding tone to occasionally surface. Seeing her smile late in Act 2 is like seeing the sun come out after fives days of stormy weather. By the time that happens, we may suspect that the jukebox being out of order is troubling Risa as much as Prophet Samuel’s death and her boss’s bossiness.

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Devin Clark struts around as Wolf like an arrogant sleazeball, but there are more depths, contours, and vulnerabilities to him than the iconic Sportin’ Life as he talks about himself and strikes out with Risa. Ramsey Lyric’s costume designs certainly help Clark strut his stuff, but they also help us to chart Jonavan Adams’s progress in his portrayal of Sterling, fresh out of prison. Hayes and Adams have worked together before on Wilson’s plays, so they both know the strength, the brashness, and the seething frustrations of these strapping young men. Trust me, Adams’ work as Sterling is even more powerful and nuanced than his 2017 outing as Levee in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

BNS continues to have admirable depth in their Wilson lineups. You can understand why Jermaine A. Gamble would gravitate to a role as salty as Holloway, whose sharp observations are mixed with a strong belief in the supernatural, expressed in an unwavering advocacy of Aunt Ester’s powers. Gamble makes Holloway a reasonable man, good reason for having this kind of restaurant around. He’s the neighborhood. But the disruptive Hambone, restricted to little more than one repeated line, wouldn’t jump out at you as a plum role to audition for. Dominic Weaver makes it one in a performance of astonishing intensity and authenticity.

It was probably a group effort to make Weaver look so frightfully grubby as Hambone, but Lyric and Hayes draw my kudos for the sensation West makes each time he enters. Wilson prescribes that the undertaker is always dressed in an all-black outfit, including black gloves that he wears indoors, but designers only add a black hat in about half the productions I’ve tracked on YouTube – and none of them are as imposing as the formal chapeau Lyric chooses for Sultan Omar El-Amin. Hayes layers onto this formality, decreeing that El-Amin must meticulously spread a napkin across his lap at each sitting.

With such outré ammo, El-Amin steals each of his scenes without raising his voice to a level that might lead you to seriously suspect that he doubts his own power. By the manner he holds his cup and saucer, you’d think he was at high tea! From a man who has specialized in portrayals of angry, resentful, and mixed-up young men, El-Amin’s confidently restrained performance as an established 60-year-old widower is a stunner.

Two Trains Running at Spirit Square is a good place to climb aboard the complete Pittsburgh Cycle that BNS is planning to present in coming seasons. You won’t miss a thing because BNS is planning to reprise its previous production of Jitney in May. Then they plan to present Radio Golf, the final drama in the Cycle – and Wilson’s last completed play – next season. Two Trains is not the last stop, but you’ll need to catch it this week before it closes.

 

Bach Akademie Charlotte’s Epiphany Concert Includes Schütz and Amon Appetizers in a Cantata Feast

Review: Bach Akademie Charlotte’s Epiphany Concert

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Word has spread quickly about Bach Akademie Charlotte, their professional choir, and their polyphonic excellence. After their biggest splash last spring, the first annual Charlotte Bach Festival with its Oregon Bach aspirations, Akademie reconnected with their audience in the fall with “Priceless Treasure: Bach and the Motet Tradition” at Christ Church Charlotte. They rekindled the flame in a midwinter program, “Epiphany Cantatas,” last Saturday night at Myers Park Presbyterian Church in front of a robust turnout. It wasn’t all Bach or all cantatas, with motets by Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) and Blasius Amon (ca. 1560-1590) sprinkled in between, and while it’s always so apt to hear Bach’s sacred cantatas in a church, these were sung and played nearly four Sundays after this year’s Feast of Epiphany.

Programmed and conducted by artistic director Scott Allen Jarrett, rest assured that the concert was aptly themed on the Epiphany celebration. While the BA Cantata Choir was reduced in size to 12, about half the maximum number that performed the B Minor Mass last June, there was nothing off-season about its membership, including choristers and soloists who flew in from as far north as New York and as far west as California. The 18-member North Carolina Baroque Orchestra also sported ace guests who had traveled from afar.

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The opening piece of the evening, “Fallt mit Danken, Fallt mit Leben” (“prostrate yourselves with thanks and praise”), was easily the most extended work of the evening – but not exactly a cantata. Actually, it was the fourth part of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and, celebrating the circumcision of Jesus, performed on New Year’s Day. Do the math, recall the Jewish custom, and you’ll know why. There’s a pretty little orchestral prelude before the chorus enters that gave hornists Chris Caudill and Rachel Niketopoulus a chance to shine, and once the Cantata Choir broke in, there were appealing spaces provided for oboists Geoffrey Burgess and Sung Lee. Burgess surpassed himself later on with his charming obbligato in the “Flösst, mein Feiland, Flösst dein Namen” (“does your name, my savior, instill”) aria where Molly Quinn floated her echoes, soprano to soprano, from upstage to Arwen Myers’s lead vocal up front.

As the Evangelist, tenor Bryon Grohman underscored the deeper significance of the circumcision, reminding us in “Und da Acht Tage” recitative that Jesus was given his name during that eighth-day ritual. Most impressive of the solo vocalists, starting with the length of his contribution, was bass baritone Jason Steigerwalt, who drew two recitatives during this piece. The first of these, “Immanuel, o Süsses Wort!” (“Emmanuel, oh sweet word!”), not only showed off Steigerwelt’s gorgeous lower range to better advantage, it pleasantly surprised us when three sopranos stood up to accompany him midway through.

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Instrumentally, some of the accompaniment for the soloists was spare, and while organist Nick Haigh played ably, a sweeter more robust instrument would have especially elevated the thinner recitatives. The Choir bolstered Steigerwalt’s second recitative, “Wohlan, dein Name Soll Allein” (“well then, your name alone”), effectively following the echo aria. Two violinists, Martha Perry and Janelle Davis, joined tenor Gene Stenger in his genial “Ich will nur dir zu Ehren leben” (“I will live only to honor you”) aria, with additional backup from Haigh, Simon Martyn-Ellis’s theorbo, and Susan Yelanjian’s violone. The two horns returned with the orchestra and Choir for the closing Chorale, raising the devotional level to exuberance and joy while repeatedly reminding us – with six mentions of the name Jesus – of the meaning of the day.

Schutz’s Das ist je gewisslich wahr, based on the testimonial recorded in the opening chapter of 1 Timothy, immediately impressed with the awesome layered entrance of the Choir in verse 15 (New RSV): “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the foremost.” Radically contrasting the slow opening bars of this motet with the speed-up that followed, Jarrett and his Cantata Choir dramatized the swiftness of Christ’s coming more emphatically than I’ve heard on any recording, with a light sense of liberation emanating from the women’s voices.

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Briefly showcased as the Evangelist in BWV 248.IV, Grohman made more indelible impressions in the tenor recitative and aria of Bach’s BWV 124 Cantata for January 7, Meinem Jesum, lass ich nicht (“I will not let go of my Jesus”). With Burgess excelling again in a lovely obbligato, Grohman was especially smooth in the aria, “Und wenn der herte Todesschlag” (“and when the cruel stroke of death”), notwithstanding its wide intervals. Burgess also sweetened the opening chorus, but they were all soon to be upstaged by the soprano-alto duet sung by Margaret Carpenter Haigh and countertenor Jay Carter, “Entziehe dich eilends, mein Herze, die Welt” (“withdraw swiftly, my heart, from the world”).

Jarrett boldly speculated that Amon’s three-minute motet, “Magi videntes stellam” (“the Magi, seeing the star”), was likely the composer’s Charlotte debut. Finding that the piece represents one-third of Amon’s output available on Spotify, I won’t dispute that assertion. “Rorat Coeli de super,” mixing solo and choral vocals, would be my choice as the best of the three Amon titles I’ve heard, but the Cantata Choir advocated beautifully for this moment of biblical revelation, and it was certainly a fitting bridge to Bach’s Epiphany Cantata, BWV 65, with its mentions of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

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No surprise, then, that Jarrett drew our attention to the gloss on the iconic gifts that Stenger would sing in his tenor recitative, equating gold with faith, frankincense with prayer, and myrrh with patience. Jarrett also welcomed back the horn players in his introductory remarks, pointing out the extra tubing that Caudill and Niketopoulus would be adding to their valveless instruments, allowing them to play lower than before. Burgess and Lee were also asked to stand and display their curved oboes da caccia, the third different kind of oboe they would play during the evening, having slipped a pair of oboe d’amores past us earlier.

First performed on Epiphany Sunday in 1724 and one of Bach’s earliest Leipzig compositions, Sie warden aus Saba alle kommen is framed by the chorus as the fulfillment of Isiah’s prophecy in 60:6, “all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” Steigerwelt returned to give the baritone’s recitative explicating the fulfillment of the prophecy. Then he sang a very lovely aria, “Gold aus Ophir ist zu schlecht” (“gold from Ophir is too base”), exhorting Christians to offer their hearts instead of mere gold as their gifts to the newborn. With its own orchestral intro, the climactic tenor aria, “Nimm mich dir zu eigen hin” (‘take me to you as your own”), offered Stenger the chance to match Steigerwalt’s exploits, and he responded with his heartiest, most heartfelt singing of the evening.

The orchestral postlude to Stenger’s aria, peppered with pulsing horns and exchanges between a pair of recorders, was actually livelier than the closing chorale, which brought the concert to a calm, anthemic close. Altogether, this Epiphany concert was a memorable enough feast to leave us looking forward to the 2019 Charlotte Bach Festival, already scheduled for June 7-16, culminating with performances of the St. Matthew Passion on the final two nights.