Monthly Archives: December 2021

The Road Gets Bumpy, but Theatre Charlotte’s “Christmas Carol” Prevails at CP

Review: A Christmas Carol at Halton Theater

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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Almost a year ago, fire struck the Theatre Charlotte building on Queens Road, gouging a sizable trench in its auditorium and destroying its electrical equipment. Repairs and renovations will hopefully be completed in time for the launch of the company’s 95th season next fall, but meanwhile, actors, directors, designers, and technicians are soldiering on at various venues for 2021-22, their year of exile cheerfully branded as “The Road Trip Season Tour.” Ironically enough, Theatre Charlotte’s Season 94 began in September with a downsized musical, The Fantasticks, at the Palmer Building, a facility that once served as a training ground for firefighters. For their 14th production of A Christmas Carol, Theatre Charlotte has moved along to Halton Theater, the permanent home of Central Piedmont Theatre.

Timing is a bit awkward on the campus of Central Piedmont Community College, where a new theater that will be friendlier to dramatic productions – replacing the demolished Pease Auditorium – is slated to open in April with The Diary of Anne Frank. Graced with a generous orchestra pit, the Halton is more hospitable to big splashy musicals (when its sound system responds favorably to our crossed fingers). In fact, this transplanted production of A Christmas Carol, in Julius Arthur Leonard’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ iconic novella, reminds us how well-suited the old “Queens Road barn” was for such spooky and creepy fare. Not only were the ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Future at home there, but so were such confections as Arsenic and Old Lace, Assassins, Blithe Spirit, and To Kill a Mockingbird. The Halton occasionally seemed oversized when You Can’t Take It With You took up residence there at the beginning of Central Piedmont’s current season, and you can imagine how their spectacular 2015 Phantom of the Opera emphasized the grandness of Andy Lloyd Webber’s grand guignol.

Encountering the vastness of the Halton in transplanting Theatre Charlotte’s cozy Christmas Carol, director Jill Bloede has been characteristically resourceful in executing its many daunting scene changes. At times, we could see cast members whisking set pieces off to the wings in a smooth out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new routine. But there were occasions when changes of scenery necessitated a complete closing and reopening of the stage curtains. Veiling the tediousness of that maneuver, Bloede has summoned repeated parades of a small band of merry carolers, coached by Jim Eddings, to cross the stage while the curtains are closed – so you would probably be right in thinking there are more carols sung this year than in Christmases past on Queens Road. My welcome for the carolers on opening night veered toward the unredeemed Ebenezer Scrooge’s grumpy attitude as the evening progressed, yet opening night is destined to be enshrined in Theatre Charlotte lore as the night of the infamous doorknocker scene fiasco.

One of the first indications that Scrooge’s house will be haunted, after a ghostly “Ebenezer Scrooge!” exclamation blows in on the Halton’s sound system, is the brief scene at the threshold to Ebenezer’s home. Here is where Scrooge sees a fleeting glimpse of his deceased partner, Jacob Marley, bringing his doorknocker to life. The precision needed to carry off such a simple scene only became apparent when it went awry. Either the Halton curtains were tardy in arriving at their centerstage spots, where they would fully frame Scrooge’s front door, or the actor who was to lurk unseen behind that door arrived early – and was very clearly seen, garishly aglow. Portraying Scrooge, Hank West seemed sufficiently poised to extemporize while the stage curtains and the lurking Marley came into proper alignment. But the carolers took their cue and entered before West could properly proceed, and the panicked actor behind the door fled. West finished out the brief scene as well he could without any eerie lights beaming through the doorknocker, but the special effect was lost – the only real reason for that scene.

Legions of Theatre Charlotte veterans – and new initiates in years to come – will no doubt keep the memory of this snafu alive for generations, heartily laughing all the more at the incident because it didn’t typify the production. Scenic design by Chris Timmons and lighting by Gordon Olson didn’t expand quite enough to comfortably acclimate at the Halton, nor did the company splurge on smoke or fog effects during its financial woes, which might have deepened the spell of the spookier Marley and graveyard scenes. Don’t expect any snow to flutter down on the vast Halton acreage, either. With balmy temperatures likely to prevail throughout the opening weekend, it’s Beth Killion’s set of period costumes that most successfully instill a chill into the air.IMG_8525

We’ve seen some of this cast before, notably West as Scrooge, Chip Bradley as Christmas Present, and Mary Lynn Bain doubling as Fred’s wife Elizabeth in the present and Belle, Scrooge’s old flame, in the flashbacks. All of these enlarge on their past performances to some extent, maybe West most of all. His meanness is more startling in person than it was in last year’s video version, streamed online, and his sorrow and penitence are also magnified. The graceful arc of Scrooge’s redemption is only slightly bumpier this year with West’s adjustments to the new space, Bloede’s script edits for this intermission-free edition, and a body mic. Projected into a larger hall, Scrooge’s newly minted intentions needed to sound more like settled resolves and less like agonized pleas. Bradley enlarges to a similar degree upon Present’s outsized cheer, the more the merrier in his case – until he issues his climactic admonitions, now sharper in their contrast. Bain seems most content to let her mic do her amplification, but she is stronger this year in the climactic flashback scene when she returns Ebenezer’s engagement ring.IMG_8694_dcoston

All the newcomers to TC’s Carol are quite fine, a testament to Bloede’s ability to attract talent when she holds auditions. In contrast with the veiled youthful mystery of Anna McCarty last year, Suzanne Newsom brought a nostalgic melancholy to the Ghost of Christmas Past that was quite affecting in its serenity, while Mike Corrigan appeared for the first time as Bob Cratchit – very different with his more muted brand of meekness from Andrea King last year but no less kindly or comical. For richer or poorer, Josh Logsdon and Rebecca Kirby were a fine pairing for the Fezziwigs, Aedan Coughlin doubled well as Young Ebenezer and Ghost of Christmas Future, and Riley Smith brought all the optimism needed for the sanctity of Tiny Tim. With Mitzi Corrigan and Emma Corrigan on board as Mrs. Cratchit and daughter Belinda, there’s plenty of family authenticity around the humble Cratchit hearth – or there will be when Mitzi returns from personal leave due to a death in her real family. Vanessa Davis spelled ably for Corrigan as Mrs. Cratchit at the premiere performance, augmenting her regular role as Mrs. Dilbur.

Assuming that Thom Tonetti was already in character as Jacob Marley during the notorious doorknocker scene, I’ll say his opening night adventures most typified the Theatre Charlotte crew’s tribulations in acclimating to a new space. Marley’s entrance into Scrooge’s home wasn’t dramatized with smoke and lights, and Tonetti didn’t enjoy the benefit of having his prophecies and imprecations magnified with thunderous jolts from the soundboard. During the flashbacks, the actor certainly earned some sort of sportsmanship award, appearing as the younger Jacob opposite the truly younger Coughlin.IMG_8645_dcoston

Steadying this production and assuring that its professional polish never deteriorated into community theatre chaos for long, West ultimately triumphed over all missteps and obstacles, bringing us the compelling Scrooge we expect in all his goodness. It’s still a strong story, and 24 of its most ardent Theatre Charlotte believers are moonlighting at Central Piedmont, giving this 87-minute production the old college try. A drama within a drama, to be sure, both ending happily.

Originally published on 12/18 at CVNC.org

New Techni-Colorful “Velveteen Rabbit” Struggles to Retain Its Aching Soul

Review: The Velveteen Rabbit at ImaginOn

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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Beginning with a musical version in 1992, I’ve now seen at least eight productions of The Velveteen Rabbit at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, four at their former location on Morehead Street and four at their pioneering ImaginOn facility near Seventh Street Station. Scott Davidson’s dramatic adaptation of Margery Williams’ classic 1922 book, long a mainstay at Children’s Theatre after the musical version was discreetly discarded, was actually the first show staged in the smaller theater, now named the Wells Fargo Playhouse, when ImaginOn opened in 2005.

The company’s 2021 edition of the story, arguably more relevant for children in the midst of a pandemic, takes us in new directions – with a new stage adaptation by Michelle Hoppe-Long, CTC’s director of education. Hoppe-Long’s Rabbit hopped from page to screen last December with a different cast, a worldwide debut that was still viewable online back in March. Now it’s in its premiere live run.

Over the years, CTC’s Rabbit is likely the company’s most widely-known piece, since it has often travelled across the state in pint-sized portable productions with its travelling troupe, known once upon a time as the Tarradiddle Players. So perhaps the biggest shift between the former Rabbit and the new one is only becoming obvious now, as the ImaginOn staging leaps from the Wells Fargo to the larger McColl Family Theatre. Logically enough, Andrew Gibbon’s scenic design concept has discarded the simple, drab, intimate, and pastel look of the vagabond Rabbit in favor of a sweeping, eye-popping, and technically dazzling spectacle, abetted by Robyn Warfield’s bold lighting design. These flamboyant Disney fantasy elements are offset by Magda Guichard’s earthbound costume and puppet designs.

2122 The Velveteen Rabbit

That same tension between imaginative extravagance and minimalist simplicity is evident in Hoppe-Long’s script and Melissa Ohlman-Roberge’s stage direction. These discordant elements may be viewed as indecision, but it seemed to me that this new hourlong Velveteen Rabbit was consistently plagued with wrong, illogical, and perverse decisions. Most incomprehensible and disastrous was the transformation of the title character from a woman in an outsized bunny suit into a puppet, visibly wielded by an actress bravely striving to deflect attention away from herself.

Why reduce the size, expressiveness, personality, and lovability of your lead character in transit from a small venue to a larger one? Portraying the Rabbit by proxy, Margaret Dalton never gets the chance to equal the exploits of Claire Whitworth-Helm, Lesley Giles, and Nikki Adkins, past greats in the role. And Dalton must also moonlight, without changing her costume, as the household Nana! Occasionally, Dalton’s double duties became awkward and confusing, if not cringeworthy.

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In a story about a boy’s toy aspiring to become real, all of this wrongheaded simplification makes it more difficult for toddlers to see that the Velveteen Rabbit is real – and for them to empathize with its aspirations. A whole franchise of Toy Story films is descended from Williams’ story, but Hoppe-Long and Ohlman-Roberge not only change the Old Skin Horse to a less cuddly Rocking Horse, they eliminate or downgrade all the toys and real rabbits that torment our protagonist. These abridgements of the Velveteen Rabbit’s world seemed to compound the audience’s struggle to empathize with her – it certainly compounded mine – because we never felt her pain keenly. And when the family Doctor was also removed from the cast, the Boy’s tribulations were also muted at the dramatic climax when he fell sick. Yes, even the size of the cast was smaller at this bigger venue.

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Ironically, simplifying and purifying the Boy also diverts our attention away from the Rabbit. More human stupidity and callousness from Lexie Wolfe as the Boy would have reminded us that the Rabbit should be our primary concern, though she does underscore those moments when the Boy disregards his cherished toy. Surrounded by such Technicolor splendor, it’s hard for Wolfe to break through and impress upon us that the Boy is not completely wholesome – and that his life before he falls ill is not totally idyllic. Instead, Wolfe diverts us with her charm as the Boy roams about with the Rabbit, pretending to be a warrior and pirate while immersing his cuddly toy in his fantasies.

This is the most vivid magic we get, yet Hoppe-Long has contrived to add a little more magic to the Williams yarn, expanding the role of the nursery magic Fairy. The sudden blooming of her presence in the midst of the Velveteen Rabbit’s most extreme desolation is beautifully conceived and splendidly staged, with Reneé Welsh-Noel’s lithe dancing skills adding to the wonder. Yet this new adaptation drops the Fairy into the beginning and middle of the story, where she has never appeared before, somewhat blunting the surprise of her climactic deus ex machina appearance at the end.

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Welsh-Noel also moonlights as the Rocking Horse and the Boy’s distant but understanding Mom. There’s a delightful surprise cameo at the end of the show, buried in the playbill credits, when stunt rabbit Brambles replaces the puppet protagonist. Parents and toddlers can decide for themselves whether a live rabbit that must be protectively caged at odd intervals – to prevent it from romping around forever in the audience – enhances or diminishes the nursery magic. For me, it was cute at first, but the benefits didn’t last.

Originally published on 12/6 at CVNC.org

Sensory-Friendly Theatre, or “How can I help you be you?”

Preview: Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Tyler made a surprising and daring decision at ImaginOn before attending the Sunday matinee of My Wonderful Birthday Suit. His mom, Ilana, had been sure that Tyler would want to wear noise-cancelling headphones at the performance, so I had to assure her that Children’s Theatre would be offering them prior to the show. Otherwise, she would need to pack his set of phones before they flew in from El Paso and make sure he had them when they left their hotel.

But Tyler refused the headphones that were available – in a really cool variety of colors, it should be mentioned – at the entrance of McColl Family Theatre. Instead, he chose a day-glo green worm, about eight inches long, from a wide array of fidgets and weighted cuddles on display. His younger sister, Brynn, chose a spotted little Dalmatian doggie that weighed five pounds. More surprises.2021~Sensory Friendly Theatre-01

Tyler had to live with his choice. Now when Oobladee and Oobladah, best friends on this side of Moonbeam, started blowing up balloons for the surprise birthday party they were planning for Shebopshebe, Oobladee’s bestie from the other side of Moonbeam… Tyler covered his ears with both hands, dreading the moment when a balloon would suddenly explode.

Yet he didn’t cower or turn away. He didn’t run for cover. His beautiful blue eyes remained glued to the stage.2021~Sensory Friendly Theatre-12

I was sure that none of the balloons would explode. Even if I hadn’t seen this show before, I could see that, sitting in front of the stage, “Tree” (resident teaching artist Kaitlin Gentry) hadn’t raised her two green glow sticks, the signal that “sensory rich” moments were around the corner. Anybody who had downloaded the Parent’s Guide from the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte website would also know that the balloons were “being blown up and let go, but they do not pop or make much sound.”

Tyler’s attention never wavered after the balloon scare, but he didn’t remain completely quiet. Gloria Bond Clunie’s script becomes heavier and more emotional. When Shebopshebe shows up from the other side of the rainbow, Oobladah is shocked to discover that Oobladee’s other best friend is brown. From the start, when he points at Shebopshebe and says, “You’re brown!” it doesn’t sound at all like a description – and she hears that clearly.

The pointing and the tone get meaner, more hateful, overtly racist. “People say that brown skin is…,” Oobladah stammers, leaning over a ledge and pointing an accusing finger down at Shebopshebe. He’s heard whispers that “you know…” and finally he blurts out: “Together – we should not play!”2021~Sensory Friendly Theatre-03

You might think the two girls would be furious. Instead, they’re both rolling on the floor, laughing hysterically.

“On the Other Side of Moonbeam – we play all the time!” Shebopshebe will respond, once she and Oobladee have caught their breaths.

And this is where Tyler breaks his silence. In a voice loud enough for Mom sitting next to him to hear. It’s also loud enough for me – his grandpa – to hear, sitting two seats away, next to his sister.

“That’s NOT funny!” Tyler calls out.

Nobody turns around to shush him. Nobody glares. At all of Children’s Theatre’s Sensory-Friendly Performances, autistic nine-year-olds like Tyler are free to call out, fidget, roam around the theater, cower in a corner, or find refuge in a quiet room, where they can still watch and hear all the comedy and drama with their mom or dad.

That’s really the point: they’re free to be themselves without being judged.2021~Sensory Friendly Theatre-17

Julie Higginbotham of Precious Developments has been overseeing the Sensory-Friendly Performances at Children’s Theatre since 2016, when ImaginOn’s new project was still a pioneering rarity. Now every run of every mainstage production gets a Sensory-Friendly Performance at its closing Sunday matinee. That includes the upcoming Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba, opening this Saturday and running through November 14.

“It’s a big deal!” Higginbotham often says – because it’s so true in so many ways.

She’s preparing actors, directors, designers, technicians, and ushers for the special performance – as well as carefully preparing printed and online guides for protective parents and surprise-averse children. This involves meeting face-to-face with the stage manager, the stage director, the musical director, and the actors. Higginbotham also attends the designers’ run-through, dress rehearsals, and performances during the run of the show, where she scribbles over the Children’s Theatre director of production Steven Levine’s script, containing all the light and sound cues.

Where should the volume on the mics be turned down? Where should a scream be changed into a loud exclamation? Where should a live gunshot effect be changed into a muffled recording? Where must a scene with strobe effects – almost automatically a two-light-cue alert – be redesigned so that triggers that would be hazardous to seizure-prone kids are gone?

Amid the final tweaks to lights and sounds happening during the run of the show, Higginbotham takes hundreds of photos – because the Parent’s Guide and the Child’s Guide are also illustrated full-color scenarios that prepare audiences for what they will see. That’s helpful when a stage adaptation or a set design significantly departs from an original book that kids and their parents are already familiar with.

She also annotates the script for “Tree” so that she can closely follow and precisely time her one-light and two-light cues. Higginbotham remained involved in the last 90 minutes before the Sensory-Friendly Performance and even while “Tree” was upfront waving her traffic-control glow sticks.

Grandpa had to rise and shine a couple of hours earlier than Ilana and the grandkids to witness Higginbotham’s final preps for My Wonderful Birthday Suit – after getting buzzed in at the ImaginOn loading dock.2021~Sensory Friendly Theatre-24

First came the final powwow with the actors, lighting crew, and “Tree.” Actors portraying Oobladee, Oobladah, and Shebopshebe all received Higginbotham’s final notes and reinforcements, with opportunities to air last-minute questions and concerns. Then the reconfigured “REWIND” scene – Shebopshebe’s brilliant and zany answer to the contrite Oobladah’s wish to “begin again” – was rehearsed and rerun without the strobes.

As the three actors exited and changed into their costumes, makeup, and matching masks (since ImaginOn is a public building, masks are worn by actors during performances), Higginbotham ascended the long lobby ramp to the top level of McColl Family Theatre. Time to prep the ushering staff, a mix of vets and newbies overseen by volunteer coordinator Louise Lawson.

Some ushering basics are turned on their head at Sensory-Friendlies. Ushers don’t simply show you to your seat, retreat to anonymity, and maybe sit back and enjoy the show themselves. They’re actively engaged in helping to ensure this special audience will enjoy their experience before the show and during the show.

Audience members don’t have a seat. With open, socially distanced seating, they have any seat. If say, they run up to the front of the house and find out that the sensory onslaught is too intense there, they can move back as far as they wish to any empty seat.

What ushers pay closest attention to is the kids’ needs. So my Tyler actually had extra backup during the little balloon scare that his mom may not have been aware of. Ushers were armed with the same fidgets, cuddly dogs, sunglasses, and headphones that Tyler was offered when he came in, standing at-the-ready, spread throughout the theater, instructed to come to his aid if they noticed he was constantly putting his hands over his ears and flinching.

“The biggest thing,” Higginbotham emphasizes to the volunteers, “is this: a lot of these families are overlooked, or they get stares. Our job is to actually see these folks, make eye contact, engage with everyone. If their communication style is one you don’t understand, that’s OK. Say, ‘Hello. We are really, really glad that you are here. What can we do for you? Can we show you to your seats? This is an amazing production, and we want to make sure you guys have a good time.’”

Any questions? Higginbotham is there to answer ushers’ concerns before and during the show, supervising the operation over a headset from the rear of the hall. Like a second stage manager.

Higginbotham’s meeting with Laura Beth Lee, the actual stage manager for Tropical Secrets, gave me a close-up view of how the Sensory-Friendly process begins – and a rewarding overview of the Precious Developments methodology.

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The situation was somewhat surreal for this reviewer, since Higginbotham had not yet read the L M Feldman stage adaptation of Margarita Engle’s young adult verse novel. I’d covered the original webcast premiere back in March, but there were never live performances of the show and no Sensory-Friendly edition. The same cast, starring Adrian Thornburg as the Jewish boy Daniel and Isabel Gonzalez as Cuban native Paloma, are back with director David Winitsky. But Lee will be new to Cuba behind the scenes.

New wrinkles will confront everyone involved, however, since the production is moving from the McColl Theatre at the east side of ImaginOn to Wells Fargo Playhouse on the west, with a shrunken, more abstract set design customized for the new venue. Before Higginbotham and Lee powwowed in the “Lizard Room” on October 20, the returning cast had already rehearsed on the new set, likely because there hadn’t been a live show at the Wells since January 2020.

As the title indicates, Tropical Secrets is very much about this world – historical racism rather than the Moonbeam brand. With the 83rd anniversary of Kristallnacht falling on November 9, during the run of the show, Engle’s story will be very much in season. We really begin with that cataclysmic 1938 event in Nazi Germany, which prompts Daniel’s family to rush the 11-year-old onto an ocean liner bound for New York, where they all plan to reunite and live happily ever after.

Except that the USA turns the ship away from its ports – all of them – because there are Jews on board. Canada does the same. Hello, Havana! How in this wide world will Daniel’s family find their boy now?

Miracles aren’t likely here, and you can rule out rewinds. Meanwhile, with little more than an overcoat and a flute, little Daniel must find ways to survive and fit in. Paloma and Daniel bridge the gap between languages and cultures far more easily than their elders, but Daniel finds a link to his heritage in crusty old David, played by Tom Scott, a Yiddish-speaking ice cream vendor who sports a gaudy yarmulke.

“It’s also a very emotional show,” Lee tells Higginbotham, “a Holocaust show, so you’ve got police officers who are bursting in and yelling, there’s scary emotional outburst moments, so I can definitely see that there are these big impactful things.”2021~Tropical Secrets-32

Together with our dip into Yiddish and repeated Judaic references, Paloma has her own story – and considerable depths. She is our gateway into Cuban culture and the Afro-Cuban beat. Daniel will discard his flute for a drum and jam with percussionist Raphael Torn, who will also play the vibraphone. Topping that outbreak of rhythm and dance, there’s a full-fledged carnival scene.

Yes, there is sensory richness aplenty in Tropical Secrets – and the kid protagonists are sharp. Explaining to Paloma what living Jewish was like back in Munich, Daniel says, “In Germany, you have to wear a star on your shirt, so everyone can know what you are and hate you for it.”

Paloma’s dad is El Gordo, played by Frank Dominguez, the notorious decider when it comes to which ships are allowed to dock in Havana and which are turned away. Defending his wartime profiteering, El Gordo schools his daughter: “The world runs on business!” With no less conviction, Paloma looks her dad straight in the eye and fires back, “The world runs on kindness!

Emotional.

Impactful as Tropical Secrets will be, part of Higginbotham’s job will be to prep the able actors onstage for what to expect from their ultra-sensitive, surprise-averse audience – especially when volume has been trimmed to 75% or less and houselights turned down to half. They will see their audience more clearly than they did at previous performances. There will be fewer kids out there, socially distanced and maybe moving around or fidgeting. It may be jarring to look out into the audience and see kids talking back to the actors or wearing headphones. Or holding their hands over their ears. Or not making eye contact.

They might not even clap.

Parents will need to show proof of vaccination to enter the Wells for Tropical Secrets, but they won’t need to bring doctor’s notes or medical records for the Sensory-Friendly finale. Nor will this be an entirely special-needs crowd.

“Some folks prefer the softer presentation,” Higginbotham explains. “Some parents feel it gives their kids more freedom, and some folks can only get tickets for the Sunday matinee!”

If all goes according to plan, Higginbotham’s guides for parents and children will go out to all ticketholders on November 8, giving families six days to prepare.

Ilana was impressed by both Birthday Suit guides, but she didn’t see them as particularly useful for her Tyler, whom she describes as falling in the mild-to-moderate range of the autistic spectrum. Medication also helps him in tolerating sensory irritants.2021~Ilana Visits-22

“I don’t think Brynn or Tyler would’ve benefited,” Ilana says of the illustrated guide, “and it may actually have detracted from their experience. In children’s theatre, anything that dampens the surprise and wonder of a performance wouldn’t be optimal for my kids. And the show itself didn’t have anything too jarring (sensory-wise) that we would’ve needed to warn him about.”

On the other hand, My Wonderful Birthday Suit was far more palatable to Tyler than his previous theatre experience at Sesame Street Live! in 2019.

“Brynn loved it, but it was too loud and glitzy for Tyler,” Mom recalls. “Crazy loud, confetti storm, etc. We had to buy him off with a snow cone to get him through it.”

Higginbotham points out that the guides aren’t merely handy in preparing kids for Sensory-Friendly Performances, they also help in revisiting and remembering what they’ve seen. That can happen soon after the theatre experience is over or before the next theatre experience, when parents want to pique their children’s interest and anticipation.

“I showed Tyler the Child’s Guide,” Ilana wrote me, “and he was very excited and asked if you had sent pictures of the stage. Then he asked if I could send him screenshots of his 3 favorite pictures. Why? ‘Because they’re beautiful!’”

Unforeseen as that reaction might be, it’s what Higginbotham aims for.

“People need the freedom to be exactly who they need to be,” she says, “and to be able to feel like they’re supported. And man, we can’t predict everything, but we try. They need a non-judgment zone that I defend to the death. How can I help you be you? That’s my job.”

Big Names and Big Sound Mark Symphony’s Return to Mainstream Programming

Review: Charlotte Symphony Plays Beethoven’s Fourth

 By Perry Tannenbaum

Vaccinated, boostered, masked, and carded, we’re all starting to feel more comfortable at public events these days. Charlotte Symphony had more than twice the number of musicians onstage on Friday night at Knight Theater, compared with just a couple of months ago. Social distancing is suddenly an ancient artifact. The stranger who presumed she could safely poach my seat at intermission readily took consolation by poaching the empty seat right next to me. Christopher Warren-Green felt so much at ease that, instead of scrounging for orchestral pieces that could be credibly performed by a reduced number of masked and distanced musicians, he stuck with a program of Mozart, Beethoven, and Prokofiev – returning to brand-name white male composers who have been dead for at least 65 years. And in a show of restraint that was unthinkable at the beginning of Symphony’s 2021-22 season, subscribers didn’t feel obliged to give every piece a standing ovation and every movement applause.

Premiered in 1918, Sergei Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony No. 1 actually qualifies as an antique. Looking back to Josef Haydn and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov for inspiration, with a third-movement Gavotte that the composer reworked for his 1935 Romeo and Juliet, the aim of the “Classical” was to straddle old and new styles. Warren-Green took a more delicate and reposeful view of the work than the one we find in the acclaimed London Symphony collection of Prokofiev’s seven symphonies conducted by Valery Gergiev. The joy of the work was also arguably purer at Knight Theater than that recording if you find Gergiev’s accelerated tempos more than slightly manic.

There was more than sufficient zest and high-stepping marching spirit in the opening Allegro con brio for the delicate episodes to stand out in relief. Lovely orchestral textures were lavished on the ensuing Larghetto, with principal Victor Wang and fellow flutist Amy Orsinger Whitehead peeping through to admirable effect. The CSO actually made better sense of the Gavotte than either of the recordings in my collection by the National Orchestra of the Ukraine and Gergiev’s London Symphony, starting out with a mock grandeur and ending a stealthy impish exit, better than the usual awkward afterthought. The purity of Warren-Green’s concept was especially apt in the joy emanating from the Molto Vivace final movement, where the composer made a special point of avoiding minor chords.

Although Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 is the marquee piece now, Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto had top billing when it was last performed at the Knight in 2016 by guest soloist Michael Collins – interestingly enough, paired with selections from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Charlotte native Taylor Marino was the soloist this time around. Maybe that was the reason that the Concerto surrendered top billing to the Symphony, but there was no surrender in quality. In the opening Allegro, Marino quickly demonstrated why he won numerous concerto competitions before joining Charlotte Symphony as principal clarinetist in 2019. Here there was ample drama from the orchestra behind Marino’s virtuosity, maintaining a brisk, effervescent tempo that subsided effectively into a sedate whimper.

The lovely Adagio, singled out in Amadeus as the quintessence of Mozart’s genius, was absolutely exquisite in Marino’s hands, answered richly by the lower strings and woodwinds. I can never help reminiscing, when I hear this concerto, about the shining moment in 2004 when I heard it played by Martin Fröst on a basset horn at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, conducted by Ton Koopman. There was no applause or standing ovation here, but a couple of people sitting behind me could be heard marveling. The concluding Rondo: Allegro was only a slight anticlimax after such sublimity, for Marino’s virtuosity shone brightly again, and the bassoons added extra punch as we rounded toward intermission.

Between the heroic Symphony No. 3 and the mighty No. 5, Beethoven’s No. 4 can be seen as a merry middleweight. Returning from intermission without a score, Warren-Green wanted us to be in on Ludwig’s prank, making the Adagio opening to the first movement extra grave before it broke through to the galloping panache of its dominant Allegro vivace section. Violins snapped off phases with whiplash sharpness, the trumpets added steel while the flutes frolicked. The languid Adagio never quite lapsed into lullaby as the bumptious trumpets maintained patrol – with more restlessness from the lower strings and principal timpanist Jacob Lipham, while Wang on flute was an island of lyricism. Acting principal bassoonist Joshua Hood earned a subsequent curtain call from Warren-Green in the cheerful Allegro vivace, heckling the cheerleading strings. Yet the violins had the emphatic last word in the closing Allegro ma non troppo, busily sawing when they weren’t dominating. The cellos and the double basses only momentarily stole their thunder in preparing us for the ultimate climax.

Looking ahead, the concert was a fine bridge to the weightier fare that lies in front of us, as the 2021-22 season builds toward a Mahler symphony and Beethoven’s Ninth.

Originally published on 11/21 at CVNC.org