Monthly Archives: June 2019

Excellent CPCC Cast Isn’t Weary of “Show Boat”

Review: Show Boat

By Perry Tannenbaum

Show Boat Dress Rehearsal; June 6th, 2019

A theatrical breakthrough when it first opened in 1927 but so politically incorrect today, is it finally time to declare that Show Boat has sunk? At the current CPCC revival, kicking off Summer Theatre’s 2019 season, Tyler Smith as Joe seems to avoid the 92 years of “Ol’ Man River” revisions, its Oscar Hammerstein lyric migrating from N-word to “darkies” to “colored folk” and beyond, by making the Cotton Blossom’s stevedore sound like he jes’ step off de boat from Jamaica.

Yet we’re still back in 1887 Natchez, Misssissippi, where the local Sheriff, enforcing Jim Crow laws that forbid Julie LaVern from performing because she is one-sixteenth African, probably hasn’t gotten any memos that he should clean up his speech when referring to his oppressed brethren. It’s sad, but Julie can take solace in the fact that she has made her white chum Magnolia’s singing career – and comeback! – possible by vacating her gigs on the Cotton Blossom and later at the Trocadero Nightclub in Chicago.

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Julie’s voluntary departure from her Trocadero dressing room enables us to realize how noble she is even if Julie remains blissfully unaware. Insidiously, it also justifies the suffering we burden black folk with – because they’re so much better than us and so much more equipped to bear it.

It gets irritating for me. Each time Julie appears, it’s so she can benevolently disappear! And doesn’t the rugged, hard-bitten Stoicism of Joe’s “Ol’ Man River” make the innate nobility of his people even greater?

Yes, it does.

Watching Show Boat last weekend, I couldn’t help thinking how much more interesting this Jerome Kern musical would be if it were about Julie, Joe, and their respective spouses. Instead the Hammerstein book, based on Edna Ferber’s novel, concentrates on Magnolia Hawks, her outgoing dad Captain Andy, her small-minded mom Parthy, and her dashing man, riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal. Hammerstein’s book doles out crumbs to the people I care about when they should be seeing at least half the loaf.

Ah, but the best of Kern’s score is still heartland wonderful, and director Tom Hollis has assembled an outstanding cast to bring it to life. Set designer Jennifer O’Kelly creates a riverboat with a fair amount of Mark Twain flair, twin staircases joining at the deck and two smokestacks above, and there are impressive drop pieces descending from the fly loft when we arrive at the Trocadero for a genuine scene change. Debbie Scheu’s costume designs have exactly the right frilly-silky-grubby mix to sharply define the racial and class divides.

Show Boat Dress Rehearsal; June 6th, 2019

It’s important that the evening starts off with the big-hearted garrulousness of Tom Ollis as Captain Andy, because other than the salty bitchiness of Paula Baldwin as his wife Parthy, longstanding conflict is in short supply. As the rakish Gaylord, Ashton Guthrie gets the best of the music written for the men who matter here, and he’s singing better than ever before on “Where’s the Mate for Me” and “Make Believe,” adding a touch of old-timey crooning to remind us what this show would have sounded like way back in the Roaring Twenties.

Lindsey Schroeder as Julie and Sarah Henkel as Magnolia share the “Fish gotta swim” resignation of “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man” long before their paths cross in Chicago and each gets a song of her own. Schroeder’s farewell is a similarly resigned “Bill” before she cedes the Trocadero stage to Magnolia. You would think that Henkel could simply take it from there, but it’s only 1899, women are decades away from getting the vote, so Daddy needs to drop by in the nick of time – coincidence, huh? – to buoy sweet Magnolia’s confidence in “After the Ball.” Hooray for Captain Andy! He saved the day.

Show Boat Dress Rehearsal; June 6th, 2019

The sexual politics here are fairly dismal, Edna Ferber story or not. Men can abruptly leave both Magnolia and Julie without accounting for themselves, and they can expect a hearty welcome if they have second thoughts. The layabout Joe lays it out best in his “I Still Suits Me” duet with his long-suffering wife Queenie (Brittany Harrington): “I may be lifeless, But with one wife less, My life would be more strifeless, yes sirree, No matter what you say, I still suits me!”

That’s the brutal, sexist side of Joe, and you can bet that Tyler Smith brings plenty of bite to his complacent boasting. Yet Smith, singing every bit as beautifully as Guthrie in his reprises of “Ol’ Man River,” is especially golden at the end of each bridge, when he sings those two dark low notes each time “you land in jail.” Are there two bluer notes in the American songbook?

Show Boat Dress Rehearsal; June 6th, 2019

Paul Robeson, the megastar this role was originally written for, must be looking down kindly from his heavenly sphere, for Smith is the best reason at Halton Theater not to get weary of Show Boat.

Outdoor Spoleto Headliners Beat the Heat

Review: Spoleto Jazz at the Cistern Yard

By Perry Tannenbaum

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There had never been anything like it at Spoleto Festival USA before – four consecutive days of 100-degree heat – and nothing like it in Charleston before, where temperatures that torrid had never previously been recorded in the month of May. Fortunately, two of the three outdoor headliners in Spoleto’s 2019 jazz lineup straddled the worst of the heat wave, Esperanza Spalding on the opening two nights of the festival and Carla Bley on the last night of the month after the heat had broken. Somewhat.

Leading a Geri Allen Tribute Quintet into Cistern Yard, drum diva Terri Lyne Carrington was caught smack in the middle of the cauldron. “How do you people deal with this heat?” she cried out shortly after sitting down at her kit. “It’s like a sauna up here!!”

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Carrington may have had the question, but it was clear that her all-star quintet, fronted by Craig Taborn and Ravi Coltrane, had the answer. They would fight fire with fire.

Before the trio, completed by bassist Robert Hurst, got rolling with the pianist’s originals, Taborn filled in with “Bemsha Swing.” The impromptu choice was marvelously apt, since Allen had covered Monk’s line on a solo CD recorded in the mid-80s – with less swing and more Monkish angularity. Taborn remained the dominant voice on both of the trio selections, “LWB’s House” and “A Place of Power.”

But not the only voice: Carrington immediately asserted herself on “LWB” under the pianist’s bravado, then an inconspicuous shifting of the lead as the drummer wailed more emphatically and the piano subsided into a vamp – before a Taborn-again explosion. On “Power,” the heavy bass line underpinning Taborn’s work clearly signaled that Hurst would be getting some solo space. So did Allen’s original recording on her 1989 Twylight album, with Jaribu Shahid on electric bass.

Hurst’s acoustic solo made for a mellower prelude to Coltrane’s arrival – right on cue for “Feed the Fire,” the working title for the whole set. Everybody got in on the feeding, Carrington framing the other solos by opening and closing the piece. The fire inched closer to a blaze in “Swamini,” a more spiritual piece at the outset as the percussionist picked up her mallets and Coltrane, still on tenor sax, glided through the line and upwards into his zone. Between Ravi’s two solos, Taborn asserted himself forcefully to remind us that this was a tribute to another pianist.

A Beauty-and-the-Beast pairing followed as Coltrane picked up his soprano and lavished his burnished tone on “Unconditional Love,” one of Allen’s loveliest compositions. After Taborn, Coltrane, and Carrington all soloed, an extended drums-and-bass jam segued into “Running as Fast as You Can” with Taborn, both hands ablur, going entirely out, defying the heat as militantly as Carrington – though Coltrane would have a pretty bodacious answer.

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The end of the concert had a couple of interesting novelties. Carrington sang the newly revealed lyric to “Your Pure Self,” received directly from the late composer, and tap dancer Maurice Chestnut came onstage to complete the Allen Tribute Quintet. In “The Dancer” and “Celebration of All Life,” Chestnut appeared to be burning more calories than the rest of the quintet put together, driving the group to a new level of energy and pure joy. Coltrane seemed to get the greatest kick out of trading licks with Chestnut, supercharged in his exchanges, but there was a closer fellowship between Carrington and the dancer when those two percussionists started trading.

At the climax of the celebration, there was a musical moment as touching as the spoken testimonials we had heard from Carrington and Coltrane, when the Tribute Quintet performed “Our Lady,” Allen’s tribute to Billie Holiday. We looked down a long corridor of jazz history in that moment, especially when Taborn, echoing Allen on her instrument, simply and soulfully played the blues.

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Scatting a few bars of Eric Dolphy before her band joined her onstage, Spalding declared that she was thereby fulfilling her obligation to perform jazz as part of Spoleto’s Wells Fargo Jazz series. That was slightly more respectful than Dee Dee Bridgewater, who told her 2017 audience that if they were expecting a jazz concert, they were out of luck. Or was it? Though most of her set was culled from the originals of her new 12 Little Spells album, which she can categorize as she pleases, she also performed works by composer/performers who didn’t shun the jazz label when they appeared at the Charleston festival.

Yes, Abbey Lincoln’s “Throw It Away” and Wayne Shorter’s “Endangered Species” were also on Spalding’s set list. Before she sang either of those, Spalding hearkened back to her own debut jazz trio album, Junjo, accompanying herself on acoustic bass in singing Manuel Castilla’s “Cantora De Yala.” Jazz or not, it was the loveliest vocal performance I’ve ever heard from Spalding. While the bassist could not equal the trademark huskiness of Lincoln’s voice, her rendition of “Throw It Away” was arguably jazzier than the iconic Abbey version at her 2003 concert in Gaillard Auditorium.

There was definitely more showmanship packaged into Spalding’s concert as she changed from slacks and T-shirt to a fairly formal dress after her band appeared. Corresponding with various body parts, the songs performed from 12 Little Spells, somewhat stripped of their studio trimming, were very reminiscent of the “Joni jazz” albums, Mingus and Miles of Aisles, that Joni Mitchell recorded back in the ‘70s. The resemblance was most striking when the versatile Morgan Guerin, camped behind keyboards most of the evening, abruptly picked up a tenor sax for “With Others,” the piece dedicated to the ears. Briefly, the Tom Scott backup sound lived again.

Spalding’s lyrics usually drove the rhythm of her vocals, an approach that grew rather monochromatic after a refreshing R&B excursion, the hips-driven “Thang.” With Esperanza taking over the catchy backup vocal riff and bringing it to the forefront, the Cistern Yard performance was far funkier than the studio version. When Guerin supplanted guitarist Matthew Stevens as the lead instrumental voice, the band grew edgier and more acoustic. Hotter. Stevens took a solid solo as Spalding capped the evening with Shorter’s “Species,” but Guerin took two, sustaining the heat. Ultimately, jazz prevailed.

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All of the other performers in the Spoleto jazz lineup seemed comfortable enough with the notion of playing jazz, but those who played indoors – with blessed air conditioning – were no doubt the most comfortable. These included Dafnis Prieto Big Band at the lavish Gaillard and two six-performance engagements at the Simons Center Recital Hall. The tenor sax-piano duo of Mark Turner and Ethan Iverson is onstage during wrap-up week of Spoleto, but I caught pianist David Virelles during his Simons stint, beginning on the festival’s opening weekend and stretching past Memorial Day.

Virelles varied his format, flying solo during his first three concerts and teaming up with a fellow Cuban, master conguero and percussionist Román Díaz, for his final three gigs. Most of the titles went unannounced, and it wasn’t until after the duo had played Monk’s “Epistrophy” that Virelles indicated that previous pieces had been exploratory, recently composed work – perhaps awaiting titles to be given after some more workshopping.

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From the opening moments, it was clear that this was a joint project. Virelles played a searching solo while the percussionist, armed with just a couple of congas and shaker bracelets, sat by. When Díaz made his entrance, it wasn’t merely to accompany. Instead, his congas gradually initiated a dialogue, at first with abrupt unrhythmic punctuations that seemed to be heeding voices other than Virelles’. The sudden strokes morphed into phrases, which became interpolations when the pianist paused to listen. As if the mutual feeling out had ceased, the melody and rhythm between piano and congas became more integrated as the tempo quickened.

On the ensuing piece, Díaz switched back and forth from sticks to hands in striking his drums while Virelles began with a heavily percussive approach of his own, grew suddenly boppish for a stretch, and finished totally out and cacophonous when his partner returned to sticks. On another work, the script was flipped for the most symmetrical performance in the set, Díaz beginning and ending the piece, framing Virelles outbursts that were darkly anchored at the bass side of the keyboard. In between, the conguero and the pianist each had a couple of spots where they held forth, Virelles almost bluesy in one of his, ruminative in the other.

With Díaz on hand, Virelles’ restless shifts and caprices were likely easier on the ear than they had been in solo performance – and certainly more readily recognized as Cuban. Yet there were lighter, more accessible moments. Díaz found some sort of bell to beat on as Virelles, only somewhat obliquely, played “Epistrophy” up to the break, going to his conga set to play us though the rest of the line. Seemingly flying along multiple paths at the same time, Virelles’ choppy, pithy solo had the poise and grace to briefly swoop into Monk’s famed “Misterioso” for a nibble or two.

The other announced piece, Miguel Matamoros’ classic “Son de la Loma,” began with Virelles’ longest solo of the evening, gliding from a merry stride piano to a rustic salsa before Díaz joined in. What followed was a Virelles original that most likely has its title, with the conguero comping conventionally for the first time. The duo’s farewell was inchoate and searching to start, Virelles seemingly gravitating toward something we would readily recognize – including Díaz, who lay in wait. Just as pleasing, Virelles settled into a 4/4 groove, where the two Cuban masters rocked us out.

We would be remiss not to point out that half of the groups in this year’s Spoleto lineup – notably the smaller groups – hail from the ECM stable as that distinctive label celebrates its 50th anniversary. The Carla Bley Trio, one of the most prestigious names in the ECM catalogue, typifies the classical solidity and the chamber rapport we’ve come to expect from each new jazz, classical, folk, or world music release that emanates from the Munich HQ. Even among the cavalcade of notables who have built ECM’s enviable stature, the balance of Bley – Trios is exemplary.

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Of course, Bley, saxophonist Andy Sheppard, and electric bass giant Steve Swallow have honed their wondrous synergy over the span of decades. Bley and Swallow are romantic as well as musical partners, their discography together goes back more than 30 years, so the bassist, playing his instrument’s upper range, gets his well-deserved space on nearly every tune. Sheppard, the youngster in the group at the age of 62, has been on board for a mere 24 years. He isn’t the glue in the outfit, since Bley and Swallow cerebrally intertwine with their edgy voices. Beginning on “Copycat,” Sheppard’s smooth soprano sound was more like the aromatic lubricating oil that kept the music flowing.

He took multiple solos on that opener and – switching to tenor – on the ensuing “Ups and Downs,” a line that hearkens back to the Bley-Swallow Duets album of 1988. A more topical edge sharpened “Beautiful Telephones,” which Bley told us was inspired by what impressed our incoming President when he first occupied the Oval Office in 2017. You might have gathered from Bley’s intro that she felt 45 was cherishing a rather stupid thing.

Mischief was in the air. Before Sheppard picked up the pace and darkened his tone, Swallow and Bley both had their say, the bassist having a little more fun as he snuck a bit of “Beautiful Love” into his utterance. Bley asserted herself most emphatically in her lengthy summation at the end, weaving threads of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “The National Anthem,” and “Yankee Doodle” into her biting sarcasm before her final thrust, the kitschy conclusion of “My Way.”

With “Útviklingssang,” the mood lingered in mournful darkness without any witty barbs or quickening tempo. It was the oldest Bley work on the program, dating back to 1980, yet it resurfaced on Trios, the group’s ECM debut in 2013. Here the leader stayed in the background, allowing Swallow and Sheppard to spread the gloom. After the White House prank, here was an onset of grim sobriety.

“Well, this is a sad way to end,” Bley suddenly told us. Unseen eyes had been keeping watch on the weather throughout the concert after a late afternoon cloudburst had threatened the event. Now they emerged from the shadows at Cistern Yard and told Bley that there were approaching storm clouds. Festival officials were understandably concerned about exposing their Steinway to the elements and wanted to cover it immediately.

Bley pleaded for a few minutes of reprieve so she could end the evening on a more upbeat note. It was a pretty wild scene as many began fleeing to their cars, homes, and hotels, while the rest of stayed on as Bley reported her success and offered “Sex With Birds.” It’s the last of three parts in Bley’s “Wildlife” suite, first recorded in 1985 with an octet that included Swallow and reconfigured for the Trios release. Very likely, the group had planned on playing the whole triptych, yet the sampling we heard ended beautifully. Back on soprano, Sheppard faded out over a lovely Bley accompaniment, twittering happily.

Under the circumstances, a graceful save.

Gitai’s Elegiac and Abrasive Letter to a Friend in Gaza Strikes a Nerve

Review: World Premiere of Letter to a Friend in Gaza  Spoleto Festival USA

By Perry Tannenbaum

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A rarity in the US, anti-Israel theatre pieces are nothing new in Europe – more than a couple were running when I first visited the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2005. So it wasn’t surprising to me that the artistic team for the world premiere of Letter to a Friend in Gaza were flying in to Spoleto Festival USA from across the Atlantic; hailing from France, Germany, and Israel; some with Syrian, Iranian or Palestinian roots.

What was surprising was that documentary filmmaker, theatre director, and actor Amos Gitai, the creator of this multimedia piece at Emmet Robinson Theatre, is a native Israeli who resides in Paris and Haifa. He served in an Israeli military helicopter unit during the Yom Kippur War of 1973, was shot down by a Syrian missile, and the 8mm film footage he shot during his service triggered his career.

As a lifelong supporter of Israel, now planning my third trip to the Holy Land late this summer, what really rattled me was hearing the most damning descriptions and denunciations of Israeli military actions spoken in Hebrew – with substantiating film projected behind the performers with English captions. What we heard in Arabic, mostly from poet Mahmoud Darwish, was comparatively benign, lyrical, and poignant. Touching, really, as delivered by father and daughter Makram and Clara Khoury, Israeli actors with Palestinian roots.

Sarah Adler’s Hebrew descriptions, quoted from Ha’aretz newspaper correspondent Amira Haas, were read in a just-the-facts Dragnet monotone that probably shortchanged the journalist. Another Hebrew text by Yizhar Smilansky (also known as S. Yizhar) is more confrontational, children asking their parents tough questions about their horrific deeds or acquiescence and getting weak answers that echoed Nazi war criminals responding to their accusers.

Before the actors took their seats at a long table outfitted with microphones and video cameras, there was a curious and chaotic film representing the sacking of the Holy Temple by the Romans and the expulsion of the Jews from Jerusalem. Lots of darkness, flames, and fleeing people, with a narrator reading from Jewish historian Flavius Josephus’ Antiquities – written under the watchful eye of the Roman Empire and its emperor.

That account eventually dovetailed with a litany of Arab villages remembered by the Khourys that had suffered a similar fate and survived only in nostalgic memory. What Gitai was obviously sketching was a Palestinian Diaspora that should resonate deeply with Zionists and Jews, whose storied Diaspora lasted 19 centuries from Roman days until the hotly disputed founding of Israel.

Palestinian nostalgia was sweetened – and saddened – with elegiac music played on violin and oud, with singing from assistant director Madeleine Pougatch, who filled in for one of the performers whose visa was held up in administrative red tape. While Pougatch was singing, the multimedia presentation was most effective as the cameras facing the Khourys sprang into action and their video images were projected behind them – processed so that the live actors looked rather ghostly behind themselves.

Gitai didn’t join the actors onstage until late in the action when he read what sounded like an Israeli apology to the Khourys but was actually an excerpt from Albert Camus’ Letters to a German Friend. Just in case you had missed the Nazi analogy earlier.

While Letter to a Friend in Gaza was often cogent, powerful, and convincing, it was also one-sided and abrasive at times. There was plenty slingshots-versus-tanks and David-Goliath imagery following up on bombed-out footage shot Gaza and/or Occupied Territories, but not a single image of terrorist actions or carnage inside Israel. At the Sunday matinee I attended, people walked out during the show and afterwards while Gitai was sitting down for a talkback moderated by festival director Nigel Redden.

Undoubtedly, kindling controversy and sparking discussion were prime aims for Gitai in creating this piece and for Redden in staging the world premiere at Spoleto. They’ve definitely hit the bullseye on those counts with a piece that deserved more than five performances in Charleston. Letter to a Friend in Gaza is slated for another brief run at the Theatre de la Ville in Paris, September 4-7, and Gitai is reportedly in talks with Cal Performances at UC Berkeley.

 

Theatre Charlotte’s “The Producers Is More Politically Incorrect Than Ever

Review:  The Producers

By Perry Tannenbaum

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When I first saw Mel Brooks’ The Producers on Broadway in 2001, my disappointment in not seeing Nathan Lane in the role of Max Bialystock was assuaged by the realization that the show was still so damn good with last-minute replacement Brad Oscar filling the megastar’s shoes. Each of the successive versions I’ve seen in Charlotte – the national tour at Ovens Auditorium in 2004 and the CPCC Summer Theatre production at Halton Theater in 2009 – has only strengthened my conviction that Lane was not an essential ingredient in the show’s success.

But isn’t it too much to expect a smashing Producers at Theatre Charlotte, where they don’t have a Broadway-sized budget – or even a spacious orchestra pit like the Halton’s? Make a couple of allowances and then prepare to be astonished.

Scenic design by Chris Timmons is cheesy, even by community theatre standards, and there are no live musicians in sight – or out of sight – at the Queens Road barn. Once you get past those visible and audible austerities, you can revel in the costume designs by Rachel Engstrom, so crucial to the big “Springtime for Hitler” climax, and in the deep cast, so necessary in putting over Brooks’ comedy and his schlocky score.

Benefitting from the embarrassment of riches that showed up at auditions, director Caroline Bower hasn’t squandered her good fortune. In David Catenazzo as Max, she has found a leading man who is as seedy as Timmons’ scenery. Mostly a secret kept in recent years by JStage at the Levine Jewish Community Center, where he has starred in A Year With Frog and Toad and Fiddler on the Roof, Catenazzo proves to have a strong singing voice to go along with his comedic gifts. He absolutely oozes corruption, eager to enlist humdrum accountant Leo Bloom to cook his books, eager to bilk show investors in a surefire flop, and rabid to shtup Ulla, the voluptuous Swedish actress who turns up early for auditions.

A second solid gold debut comes from Landon Sutton as the diffident Leo, more than nerdy enough for a numbers crusher who discovers how to pocket a shady profit from a Broadway flop. There’s pallid innocence to Sutton’s manner as Leo, plus a little endearing pudginess, that works well when he’s too timid to plunge into the crooked scheme he has inspired. But there’s a surprisingly strong and smooth singing voice when Leo jumps aboard on the reprise of “We Can Do It,” and hormonal heat in “That Face,” his serenade to Ulla.

Brooks’ book and lyrics are so politically incorrect that they still seem to draw a pass from the audience – apparently willing to overlook the sexist attitude toward Ulla and the mockery directed at Franz Liebkind, the pigeon-keeping diehard Nazi who has penned the worst musical script that Max has ever read, Springtime for Hitler. Bower makes the right choices in casting the very un-Swedish Hailey Thomas as Ulla, draping her curves with a modicum of modesty, and limiting her flirtatiousness in comparison with Max’s leering. The Sveedish accent is ba-a-a-d, which is paradoxically good, and she’s positively smashing in her Nazi eagle outfit.

Neo-Nazis are less of a laughing matter than they were 18 years ago, so it’s also wise to have Chip Bradley tone down Franz’s achtung authoritarian qualities and pile on some extra daffiness. The result is the best performance I’ve seen from Bradley, particularly when he shows us all how Hitler should be sung at Springtime auditions. Bradley’s eccentric excellence is sustained when we encounter the Greenwich Village artistes who will direct Franz’s stinker, Roger De Bris and his loyal assistant Carmen Ghia, handpicked for their inabilities.

Here we are blessed with the gay flamboyance of Matt Kenyon as Carmen and the Ethel Merman regality of Paul Reeves Leopard as Roger. It takes a professional-grade queen to pull off Carmen’s arrogant servility and Roger’s ornate Chrysler Building party dress. Kenyon and Leopard have the goods. Leopard is certainly a different kind of Hitler than Bradley when Roger must sub for Franz on opening night.

On my fourth go-round with The Producers, I wasn’t laughing out loud until the Springtime for Hitler auditions, where I found myself enjoying the outrageousness as much as the newbies in the audience. I suspect their expectations were surpassed as much as mine were 18 years ago when Lane’s absence was announced as I stood in line outside the St. James Theatre. Enthusiasm for the Little Old Ladies and their tap-dancing walkers crackled like I remembered it even if the shtick has gone a little stale for me.

Iesha Nyree as Lick-me Bite-me and Layla Sutton as Hold-me Touch-me rounded out the named characters in the cast, which lists another 14 ensemble members who make choreographer Lauren “Loz” Gibbs look good. So what ever happened to the biddie named Kiss-me Feel-me? A victim of downsizing, we must presume.

Torrid Times on Charleston Streets and Spoleto Stages

Reviews: Spoleto Festival USA

By Perry Tannenbaum

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What’s hot at Spoleto Festival USA this year? By far the hottest is the Charleston weather, stringing together multiple record-breaking 100℉ days, absolutely unprecedented for the month of May. Upstaged by the heat, the next hottest trend is theatre.

Hard to say why, but at this year’s Spoleto, the trend is toward more theatre presentations and less opera. Even the lone opera, Richard Strauss’s edgy Salome, has a theatrical flair. We hear German sung in a modernized production that transports us from King Herod’s biblical-era palace to a swank rooftop soiree at a luxury high-rise. Yet the libretto adheres faithfully to the original tragedy, so it’s like reading the Oscar Wilde text on supertitles while the action unfolds. More about the body heat later.

When all is done on June 9, six different companies will have presented eight different stage works at various venues across Charleston, including two world premieres and a US premiere. From what we could see, the expanded number of choices was spurring ticket sales rather than diluting them, for at Gaillard Center, Memminger Auditorium, Dock Street Theatre, the Emmett Robinson Theatre, and the Woolfe Street Playhouse, my wife Sue and I encountered sellout or near-capacity houses. Even during midweek.

That applies even more intensely to the one production we couldn’t see, Target Margin Theater’s Pay No Attention to the Girl. All six performances of that show were sold out weeks before it arrived.

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World premiere or not, 1927’s Roots was hardly a leap of faith, since Spoleto has featured writer Suzanne Andrade and her company’s work before, beginning with Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea in 2008 and more recently with The Animals and Children Took to the Streets in 2012 and Golem in 2016. If you’ve never seen Andrade and 1927 at work before, it will be helpful to know that silent film and Lemony Snicket are their creative lodestars.

If Andrade wanted you to know that, she would have titled her new show A Series of Unfortunate Folktales, Anecdotes, and Myths. She couldn’t be nearly as coy about her silent film inspiration, for Paul Barritt’s animations, projected onto the upstage wall at Emmett Robinson, were charmingly integrated into each of the 10 stories that Andrade told – using unseen storytellers’ voices rather than the silent actors we see onstage.

Blocking was very precise when Andrade and the other three actors stood in front of the upstage wall, synchronizing their actions with Barritt’s silent movie. Integration is easier when actors walk through doorways cut into the wall or peep through boxy little windows. The latter effect was probably most enjoyable in the opening tale of a Fat Cat who begins his cosmic rampage by eating a maid’s porridge in her absence – and goes on to bigger, badder things. While the feline’s body is Barritt’s domain, Andrade or the equally adorable Esme Appleton peeps through the wall to become its conspicuously unferocious face.

Both Andrade and Appleton don 1927’s customary whiteface, making it difficult to tell them apart. Neither of them has much use for facial expression, their silent style favoring Buster Keaton more than Charlie Chaplin.

Students of literature could recognize two of Andrade’s other tales, for the King and his pathologically loyal wife Griselda are clearly on loan from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Clerk’s Tale. The tale of the two copulating snakes and their surprising effect on the person who observes them dates back to Greek myth and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Andrade’s cover was blown on that source when a chamber music program over at Dock Street Theatre featured Doug Balliett’s Echo and Narcissus, where all was revealed about how Teiresias happened to become the world’s best judge of whether men or women enjoy sex more.

Andrade’s concluding tale could itself be called “Roots,” since what happens to two siblings plotting to escape grandma’s dominion is clearly a vegetative intervention. 1927 Doug Balliett’seems to take a wicked delight in showing us that fairy tales aren’t always fair or happily-ever-after. The straight-faced soulfulness of the company made that delight fatally and deliciously contagious.

Shakespeare’s Globe, long an outdoor theatre fixture on the London scene, made their Spoleto debut at Dock Street in 2015 with the most affecting Romeo and Juliet that I’ve ever seen. Sadly, none of the actors or directors involved in that triumph have returned. What’s most recognizably Globe is the feel of their eight-person troupe and their approach to the Bard. They aren’t merely actors, for before our plays begin, they prove to be reasonably capable musicians!

Eleven of the 20 performances are pre-ordained, divvied up between the three plays that Globe has brought to Dock Street this year – Twelfth Night, The Comedy of Errors, and Pericles. The other nine shows of Globe’s run are “Audience Choice,” with the troupe at the service of the ticketholders’ will, expressed in a voice vote. Like the London Globe, scenery doesn’t change much. But costumes definitely do.

As Pericles, the Prince of Tyre, moves from Antioch to Tarsus to Pentapolis to Ephesus and to Mytilene, costumes become very useful in keeping us informed on where we are, whether we’ve landed at someplace new, or we’ve circled back to a previous king and country. Pericles’ troubles and wanderings begin when he ventures to solve a riddle to win the hand of the King of Antioch’s daughter. Death is the stated penalty for failing to solve the riddle, and death would be equally inevitable if Pericles proclaimed the solution in public – revealing that King Antiochus is in an incestuous relationship with his daughter.

Since most people aren’t as familiar with Pericles as they are with Romeo and Juliet, when Pericles flees for his life from Antioch to Tyre, then sails on to Tarsus to elude Antiochus’s hired assassin, our hero may not only be leaving his pursuer in the dust but also newcomers to the story. Why does Prince Pericles flee from a country he himself rules after so clearly showing his bravery in Antioch? And why does he then leave Tarsus, and where does he think he’s going?

Pericles can be rough sailing during the Prince’s early travels, and players changing costumes and nationalities can further jostle perceptions. As fine as Colin Campbell is in the title role, even he pops up in different guises, once as a Pirate who kidnaps Pericles’ daughter. The one constant in the cast, Natasha Magigi as Gower, wasn’t as clear and relaxed as she could be as our narrator. Many among us had left at intermission before Magigi redeemed herself during the epic resolution of Pericles’ woes.

Much of the hurly-burly settles down after the chief catastrophes, when Pericles believes he has lost his daughter Marina and his wife Thaisa, the king’s daughter he won in Pentapolis. Silly man, they’re merely scattered across the seas, one of them revived in a coffin. Mogali Masuku has an imposing dignity as Thaisa before and after her coffin sojourn, and Evelyn Miller as Marina has a saintly luminosity, suffering every bit as much as her dad. Tears flowed during both of the long-delayed reunions for those of us who had persevered.

Apportioning multiple roles to most of your actors usually works better in Shakespeare’s comedies, so I expected to be better pleased with The Comedy of Errors. What surprised me here was director Brendan O’Hea’s unusually dramatic approach to the action. With Mark Deselbeck as Egeon and Masuku as the Duke of Ephesus, the agony of Egeon’s trials, seeking his long-lost son, and the severity of his oncoming punishment – death for merely visiting Ephesus – take on a little more weight.

While the two servile Dromios of the story, Beau Holland visiting from Syracuse and Eric Sirakian residing in Ephesus, are comical enough in their confounded confusion, the slapstick aspect of their repeated thrashings by their masters is conspicuously toned-down. O’Hea is taking the candy wrapping off the abuses meted out by the twin Antipholuses upon their obedient Dromios. Campbell, as the Antipholus from Syracuse, is the more benign of the identical twin masters, getting comical mileage out of his absurdly familiar reception throughout Syracuse, especially from his twin’s wife Adriana.

But he has no patience with his Dromio’s apparent misconduct, and the slaps and kicks he delivers to her might appear a bit Three Stooges at first, but only if we’re conditioned by Comedy of Errors productions we’ve seen before. We are soon disabused. This is a master objectionably mistreating his slave. Bigger point: Shakespeare’s Globe, apparently, is no longer the grand museum it once was, where you simply go to see how the Bard’s works were presented during the Elizabethan Era. Updates and reconsiderations are now possible.

Antipholus of Ephesus was always a meaner piece of work, cheating on his wife Adriana and devaluing her virtues, but Anthony Gaučas takes this master’s unsavoriness further. There’s nothing comical about his reaction to being locked out of his own house, nothing comical about his resulting enmity toward Adriana, and we see a wildfire of jealousy break out when he learns that it was his twin brother who “dined” with her earlier in the day. Mistakenly taken into custody for an unpaid debt, Gaučas earns the presumptions from onlookers that he has gone insane. Nor does this Antipholus instantly reconcile with Adriana once all the mistaken identities have been cleared – and he has absolutely no welcome for his long-lost twin brother.

Amid all of these alterations – none of them violating Shakespeare’s text – Miller as Adriana emerges as the most admirable master or mistress that we see. She is clearly not a dainty pushover. Miller wears a larger cape than either of the identically clad Antipholuses, and she swishes it around in far more swashbuckling style. Hers is the noblest rage at this performance. Fully digesting the brothers’ origins and biographies on your ride home, you might find yourself realizing that Antipholus of Ephesus probably owes all of his fortune and property to this formidable, beautiful lady, making him an even more despicable heel.

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People still talk about the Salomé that directors Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser brought to Spoleto back in 1987, and it’s clear that the directing duo was bent on duplicating that éclat in their current reimagining of Strauss’s sizzling opera. They’ve succeeded – and you only have a couple of more chances to witness it on June 2 and 5.

The singing from the cast is rich and strong, allowing conductor Steven Sloane and the Spoleto Festival Orchestra to fill beautiful Gaillard Center with the sounds of Strauss’s score without drowning out the vocalists. Teaming up with set designer Christian Fenouillat and lighting designer Christophe Forey, Caurier and Leiser deliver a spectacular visual experience.

Looking out on night-time Jerusalem from a swank high-rise, we can’t expect the divine prophet Jokanaan to be imprisoned in a dingy dungeon. No, he’s confined in an apartment below. But after hearing Jokanaan’s powerful denunciations and imprecations from offstage during the opening scene, we first see baritone Erik Van Heyningen as the seer when his suite is lowered down from high above, far brighter than the surrounding night. Illumination and severe simplicity come with him.

What Caurier and Leiser bring to this holy sanctuary – and later, back at Herod’s rooftop – is wickedly, sensationally profane. They don’t merely ask soprano Melanie Henley Heyn to open her heart to Jokanaan in Salomé’s attempt to seduce the prophet. They also call upon her to bare her breasts in his bedroom. Nor was that necessarily the most shocking episode of the night, for when tenor Paul Groves as Herod prevailed upon Salomé to dance for him, he did more than join in. He dropped his pants, and Strauss’s famed “Dance of the Seven Veils” became the dance of the 10 thrusts. Or maybe that’s where I stopped counting.

Since Salomé knows she will be rewarded before her dance begins, you might say she isn’t abused here. But if she is, we feel uncomfortably supportive toward the horrific price she names – over and over, stretching the name of Jokanaan to seven syllables each time she demands his head. Even with all this salacious business, Heyn isn’t the most wanton or alluring Salomé that I’ve seen. The audacity of her overture to Jokanaan seems fueled by privilege more than vanity, so there’s enough youthful simplicity left in her to make Herod’s advances a stunning violation.

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Yet I’ve never heard more powerful demands for Jokanaan’s head, wickedly seconded by Edna Prochnik as the jealous and vengeful Herodias. Caurier and Leiser are somewhat remiss in not attempting to make an ultimate horror out of Salomé’s love song to the decapitated Jokanaan, but Heyn is also supreme in those moments. We expect the mighty righteousness of Van Heyningen lashing out at the “daughters of Babylon” who assail him, and Groves is a perfect fit for the powerful, conscience-stricken, and infatuated Herod. The most surprising vocal exploits came from tenor Zach Borichevsky as Narraboth, the captain of the guard who unwisely grants Salomé her visit with Jokanaan.

But it’s the production concept by Caurier and Leiser that will live longest in my memory – and Heyn’s performance that crowned it.

 

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Other highlights of Spoleto’s first week start with the jazz lineup – including Esperanza Spalding, the Dafnis Prieto Big Band, David Virelles, and an all-star tribute to Geri Allen from Terri Lyne Carrington, Craig Taborn, and Ravi Coltrane.

 

Meanwhile, the Chamber Music series hosted by Geoff Nuttall keeps getting edgier and wackier. Aside from Balliett’s hip refresh of Ovid, Stephen Prutsman’s new score for Buster Keaton’s old silent film, College, was smashing – when I was able to stop laughing at Keaton’s antics and pay attention to Prutsman’s.

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You have plenty of time – and multiple opportunities – to catch Mark Turner and Ethan Iverson (June 5-8) at the Simons Center Recital Hall, but jazz fanatics must hurry or they will miss Carla Bley Trio (May 31) at Cistern Yard. Six more programs and 18 performances remain in the BofA Chamber Music series, twice daily through June 9. After making a delightful surprise appearance earlier this week singing a piece by Henri Duparc, tenor Paul Groves returns for Program VIII, headlining Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn & Strings.

The range, power, and delight of the lunchtime concerts is best illustrated by the concluding Program XI, slated for next weekend. Members of the band warm up with an 18th century bassoon sonata by Georg Philipp Telemann, followed by a recent Disco-Toccata for clarinet and cello by Guillaume Connesson. Then a deep dive into Beethoven’s “Ghost” Piano Trio with Inon Barnatan at the keyboard, Joshua Roman behind the cello, and Karen Gomyo on violin. All of the musicians heard thus far – and more – gather for the finale, a merry chamber music reduction of Rossini’s “Overture from Barber of Seville,” arranged by clarinetist Todd Palmer.

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In the dance realm, the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company’s five-day sojourn in Charleston concludes this Saturday with repeats of all three parts of their Analogy Trilogy. For more lavish spectacle, stand by for Caracalla Dance Theatre’s One Thousand and One Nights (June 7-9), as the Lebanese company fuses Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and Ravel’s Bolero with traditional Arabic instruments, melodies, and costumes. Expect this hottie to be a tough ticket.

Plenty more excitement awaits theatergoers, headlined by two Israeli and two Palestinian actors onstage together in the multimedia world premiere of Letters to a Friend in Gaza (May 30-June 2) at the Emmett Robinson. Up at the Woolfe Street Playhouse, 600 Highwaymen brings on The Fever (June 4-9), exploring group dynamics with audience participation. Cora Bissett’s What Girls Are Made Of (June 4-8) keeps it just as real at Memminger Auditorium, with the rock star bringing her teen diaries to life. Backed by a live rock band, of course!

There’s more. Find out what Circa, I’m With Her, Music in Time, St. John Passion, Westminster Choir, and the Festival Finale are all about at spoletousa.org.

 

Recapturing Old Hostilities – and the Path to Peace

Preview:  Three Bone Theatre Production of Oslo

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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Peace and the Middle East – they just don’t seem to belong in the same sentence, do they? Every week, we hear about a new flareup, a new conflict, a new bombing, and more death. So it’s timely that Oslo, the 2017 Tony Award winner for Best Play by J.T. Rogers, will be opening this week at Spirit Square. The Three Bone Theatre production, a Charlotte area premiere, revisits the back-channel talks that led to the historic handshake between Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993.

Simpler, more innocent times – before we were educated (superficially, of course) about Sunnis and Shiites, before Americans discovered we despised Iran as much as Iraq, before Al Qaeda, 9-11, ISIS, beheadings, and chemical warfare. Long ago.

Beginning with a guerilla production of The Vagina Monologues at the WineUp wine loft in NoDa six years ago, Three Bone has grown gradually to the point where artistic director Robin Tynes feels ready for the challenge. Ready or not, Oslo is a substantial stretch for Three Bone.

There are more than 20 roles in Oslo, and most of 15 players covering them are making their company debuts. Actors in both the Israeli and Palestinian delegations need to feel the distrust and animosity of each side toward the other, travel the compressed journey to understanding and agreement in Rogers’ script, and repeat that three-hour odyssey – starting all over again with the same ferocious edge – night after night in performance.

That journey gets rockier if you’re fielding a diverse cast of Jews, Muslims, and Christians who come to the table with their own settled views. Respecting diversity had to go hand-in-hand with respecting the values of each performer’s time.

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“Yes, the rehearsal schedule was quite the challenge,” says director Paige Johnston Thomas, “15 people for 65 scenes! As they say in the theatre: I was told there’d be no math!”

Thomas, a fixture on the local scene for over 20 years, is making her debut with Three Bone. Kat Martin, brought aboard as assistant director and dramaturg, hasn’t worked at any theatre company before in the QC – and she’s drawing “rock star” accolades for her work in her Charlotte debut.

“Although I am not a Middle East expert,” says Martin, “a dramaturg’s job is to become an expert quickly then create points of entry for deepened understanding for creatives as well as community members.”

A dramaturg’s outreach to the community, after briefing directors and performers, often takes the form of explanatory materials in the show’s playbill. Martin’s involvement has been more proactive, involving the Oslo cast during her search for historical contexts. She began by speaking with John Cox, associate professor of Holocaust, genocide & human rights studies at UNC-Charlotte, who encouraged her to create a dramaturgy day where actors could listen and learn from community stakeholders like Palestinian activist Rose Hamid and Rabbi Judy Schindler, director of the Stan Greenspon Center for Peace and Social Justice.

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That solid core was augmented by the participation of former Israeli soldier Stefan Pienkny, a veteran of the 1967 war, and two Palestinian refugees, Wafa Omran and Khalid Hijazi. Rounding out her gathering – and acknowledging the all-important peacemaking perspective of the Norwegians – Martin also invited facilitation expert Candice Langston, managing director of The Lee Institute.

“My biggest challenge was to keep the research real,” Martin emphasizes, “so I wanted to cultivate information for the cast while also making sure they were learning with their gut.” The three-hour crash course she organized for dramaturgy day began with Cox reviewing the historical background and Langston addressing the topic of building community dialogue.

Then there were hourlong small group meetups that paired the Israelis and Palestinians in the cast with the community stakeholders who represent those points of view. At the same time, actors cast as Norwegians lingered with Langston for more info on facilitating high-level negotiations. Climaxing the evening, the whole cast gathered together right after ingesting an hour of diverging partisan viewpoints, plunging into exercises designed to simulate the process of bridging those gaps, understanding the “other,” and finding common ground.

It was intense.

“An evening as an actor I won’t forget,” says Dennis Delamar, who will portray Yair Hircshfeld, one of the back-channel negotiators, and Shimon Peres, the foreign minister who would share the Nobel Peace Prize with Rabin and Arafat after the Accords were signed. “The evening focused on lived experiences, personal stories, facts, and some tears I observed which were quite integral in shaping my mindset. Stakes were definitely raised. I loved every minute of it.”

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Peres doesn’t enter until well after intermission. A political rival of Rabin, he keeps the Oslo talks secret – because he knows the Prime Minister will reject any agreement that isn’t airtight. It must be an offer that cannot be refused. Until the Israelis are close to that, no member of the government can be seen talking to the Palestinians. Needless to say, the Americans engaged in their endless fruitless talks must also be kept in the dark.

So that’s why Delamar is Hirschfeld all through the opening act – an economics professor at the U of Haifa!

“I connect with and enjoy playing Yair’s passion and intellect,” he says, “but also a certain amount of humor J.T. Rogers developed with this character. Sometimes he is out of his depths in the negotiations, but he’s never without a passion for the grave reason he’s there, fully invested in the outcome, proud of his part in the start of it all. I’ve enjoyed making him relatable in an endearing and real way.”

Yes, there are comical moments that leaven the animosities and tensions, but there are thriller elements aplenty. The possibility of ruining Peres’s political fortunes keeps the Israelis on edge, while for Mona Juul and Terje Rød-Larsen, the Norwegians pushing negotiations forward, getting their government to buy into the process – knowing they must keep the Americans in the dark – ratchets up their anxieties.

For the Palestinian delegation, PLO finance minister Ahmed Qurie and PLO liaison Hassan Asfour, secrecy is a matter of life-or-death. Only Arafat knows about these talks and how they’re progressing.

Vic Sayegh will take on the role of Qurie. Although he the mellower, less militant of the two Palestinians, he’s a radical departure for an actor whose QC credits began in 2003 with appearances in Steve Martin’s The Underpants and Charles Busch’s Psycho Beach Party. There’s no Kanaka shtick here, but there is a certain amount of savoir faire.

And the Palestinian does provide some comedy when he lets his guard down. Before encountering Hirschfeld in London for the first time, he confides to Larsen, his intermediary: “I have never met an Israeli. Face-to-face.”

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Very unique comedy, typical of the tensions Oslo whips up. But the finance minister quickly recovers in Hirschfeld’s presence, informing him that he hasn’t been to his homeland since 1967 when his whole village was forced to flee from “the advancing hordes of Zionism.” Awkwardness turns to polite hostility in a flash.

“Qurie often has an ulterior motive behind his words,” Sayegh notes. “He is very calculated. Like a poker player, he never lets his face give away his hand.”

Poker-faced or not, Sayegh sees Qurie’s motivations as deep and honorable. He’s relating them to his own experiences and heritage.

“As a young man, I remember meeting people who were Palestinian and subsequently looking for Palestine on a map,” Sayegh reminisces. “I would ask myself why they called a place that no longer existed, ‘home.’ Now I understand. Personally, my paternal grandparents were born in Aleppo, Syria. It was once a beautiful region of the world, but many years of conflict have reduced it to rubble. I hope that one day, peace in the entire region will allow me to visit the land of my ancestors.”

While Terje is the visionary who devises a successful model for conflict resolution – with a mixture dogged determination and quixotic optimism to keep it going – it’s the calm, meticulous, and brilliantly resourceful Mona who steers her husband around the political complications that threaten to scuttle his mission. Fresh on the heels of her pivotal role in the world premiere of Steven Dietz’s The Great Beyond, Tonya Bludsworth takes on the role of this unsung hero who buoyed her husband’s confidence while clearing his path.

“Prior to reading Oslo,” says Bludsworth of her journey, “I’m sure I felt like most Americans, that peace in the Middle East is not likely to ever really happen. But I was in tears when I first read the script, not because I was sad, but because I was overwhelmed by this incredible feeling of hope, and I still feel it every night in rehearsal. As Terje says, if we could just get past the politics and see the people, the personal, then there is a way.”