Monthly Archives: February 2022

Amend or Discard? We, the People, Decide

Review: What the Constitution Means to Me

By Perry Tannenbaum

Cassie Beck in the North American Tour of What The Constitution Means To Me - Photo by Joan Marcus (10)

Charm and wit can help you con your way onto a debating team when you’re a teen, but when you’re competing in front of a panel of sober academic judges, you’ll find that diligent study, ready knowledge, and sharp argumentation will be far more decisive in achieving victory. I learned this lesson the hard way, anchoring a senior class team of wiseguys that was ignominiously defeated by a squad of lowly sophomore nerds in front of a full high school assembly.

Lessons learned leaning over a chessboard or declaiming from a lectern can be every bit as brutal as those learned on a baseball diamond, a hockey rink, or the gridiron. While the excitement of sports makes for better action movies or TV, shows like Chess and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee demonstrate that cerebral competitions are better suited for live theatre.Cassie Beck in the North American Tour of What The Constitution Means To Me - Photo by Joan Marcus (7)

But such shows are few and far between. That’s one small reason why What the Constitution Means to Me is so fresh and welcome right now. Written by Heidi Schreck as a chronicle of her experiences as a US Constitution debater when she was a teen – with a sharp re-evaluation of her relationship with that seminal document today – What the Constitution’s finishing touches dovetailed with the rise of the #MeToo movement, its first two productions straddling the Harvey Weinstein uproar in 2017.

By the time the show opened Off-Broadway in 2018, Judge Brett Kavanaugh was dominating the headlines, adding another layer of timeliness.

We need to look back to the Democratic National Convention of 2016 as a more probable inspiration for Schreck’s reassessment. That’s when Khizr Khan, the Muslim father of a U.S. Army Captain who was killed serving in Iraq, waved a pocket edition of America’s foundational document and pointedly asked the newly anointed Republican candidate for president, “Have you even read the United States Constitution?”

Overnight, that little pocket book became a bestseller.

Schreck’s play, now at Knight Theater, is largely a one-woman performance until its exciting and invigorating ending. It isn’t simply a reprise of 15-year-old Heidi’s breathless panegyric to the genius of our Founding Fathers, for even then, when she was earning college scholarship money at American Legion contests around the country, Schreck needed to be original and analytical in her presentations.

Older and wiser, Schreck could look back on her teenage debating years – and on our Constitution – with a more critical eye. Schreck, starring in both the Off-Broadway and Broadway productions, could play both Heidis onstage, the teen and the playwright. As the teen, she could be credulous, enthusiastic, awkward, naïve, and precocious. As the playwright, Schreck can playfully mock her younger self, or interrupt her and point out her quirks. Sharper still, she can not only take a more feminist view of the Constitution, she can flout the authority of the American Legionnaire who emcees young Heidi’s performance, strictly timekeeping her every utterance, and quizzing her on the 14th Amendment.

After all, unless the playwright gives him lines, the poor Legionnaire cannot respond to Heidi’s barbs.

The playfulness of Schreck’s concept nicely counterbalances its seriousness, for her feminist critique centers on her female ancestors – beginning with the immigration of her German great-grandmother to Washington State, purchased from a mail order catalog – and the abuse their husbands could inflict upon them with total impunity. Scenic designer Rachel Hauck’s paneled interior for the Legion Post, where Heidi will relive her debating exploits, unmistakably preps us for the assault to come.Cassie Beck in the North American Tour of What The Constitution Means To Me - Photo by Joan Marcus (5)

From wall to wall, hardly a gap between them, those panels are lined with the headshots of uniformed Armed Services veterans. You could say those photos – and the one thing they have in common – personify what the Constitution means to Schreck. In this legion, four long rows of photos, there is not one woman or one person of color. Our Constitution was written by white males, many of them slaveholders, to codify the rights, privileges, and citizenship of white males – including slave ownership – with the tacit or explicit exclusion of everyone else.

The exclusivity of the US Constitution doubly impacted the immigration of Schreck’s great-grandmother in 1879, who was committed to an asylum for “melancholia” and died at age 36. You see, the “shortage” of women that partially justified her great-grandfather in shopping for a bride was the result of Native American women no longer qualifying as American.

Looping in and out of her various guises, Cassie Beck as the Heidis of the touring production applies a thin gloss to her portrayal of teen Heidi, slightly exaggerated and visibly “acting” for brief moments and slyly self-aware at others. Our encounters with teen Heidi, often punctuated by adult Heidi interjections, are presented in two parts. First, there’s the formal essay comparing the Constitution to a crucible, reconstructed from memory because her proud mother inexplicably lost the original.Cassie Beck and Mike Iveson in the North American Tour of What The Constitution Means To Me - Photo by Joan Marcus

In the next stage, young Heidi picks a random Amendment out of a coffee can, written on a slip of paper, and is quizzed on it. Ushers hand out copies of the Constitution at this point, enhancing our involvement and excitement. She always draws the 14th Amendment and its multiple articles, so here the interaction between Heidi and the Legionnaire, a stodgy and pallid vet in Gabriel Marin’s meticulous portrayal, becomes more intense and entertaining. For here amid the question-and-answer volleys, young Heidi is often supplanted by adult Heidi, flouting the Legionnaire’s authority and steamrolling his prissy time limits – giving this one white male a taste of being bossed and oppressed.

Afterwards, we were done with young Heidi, and both Beck and Marin got the chance to step out of character and be themselves. Marin’s transformation, taking off his Legion hat, offered more contrast, but Beck’s relaxed confidence, talking about herself and how she became acquainted with Schreck – and how she empathized – augured well for the final segment of the show, where she’s called upon to be even more spontaneous and to interact with us.Cassie Beck and Jocelyn Shek in the North American Tour of WHAT THE CONSTITUTION MEANS TO ME - Photo by Joan Marcus

Depending on the performance you attend, Jocelyn Shek or Emilyn Toffler will stride forward to debate the following proposition: The United States Constitution Should Be Abolished. Each night, a coin toss will determine which side of the issue the participants will argue. Shek, who argued for keeping the Constitution, was a different breed of high-schooler than the Heidi we had seen, a little less high-energy, more focus, and abundant self-assurance.

By this time, adult Heidi has sufficiently faulted our Constitution to nearly make the debate over the future of this venerated document a fair fight. But every night, the audience decides which of the two debaters is the winner. How this happens I will not divulge, but I will say that I’m convinced this segment should more fully demonstrate how an imperfect participatory democracy really works.

Obviously, the primacy of our Constitution has been enhanced by last year’s bloody January 6 insurrection, compounding the relevance of Schreck’s script after it was already a 2019 Pulitzer Prize finalist. With its testimonies from the two actors, with its nightly debate, including a rapidfire Q&A when the debaters shot questions at each other contributed by a previous audience, Schreck has provided room for her show to breathe and flow along with the tide of changing events. Like the US Constitution.

As a framer of her own show, Schreck has clearly had more fun than the more famous framers did at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. So will you.

Clara, Kensho, and Clyne – New Names All – Ride in for Daring Charlotte Symphony Concert

Review: Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 “Pathétique”

By Perry Tannenbaum

2022~Tchaikovsky Pathétique-19 

February 11, 2022, Charlotte, NC – It was an evening for new faces at Belk Theater – and plenty of unfamiliar music – as Charlotte Symphony welcomed Sara Davis Buechner as guest soloist for Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto, and Kensho Watanabe appeared for the first time at the podium. Drawing the largest Symphony audience we’ve seen since the start of the pandemic, Tchaikovsky’s ever-popular “Pathétique” Symphony No.6 was not merely the only familiar piece on the program, it was also the only music by a male composer. Even in the absence of music director Christopher Warren-Green, the audience seemed to delight in the balance of adventurous and beloved fare.2022~Tchaikovsky Pathétique-03

Watanabe helped put our minds at ease about Anna Clyne’s “Within Her Arms,” telling us that it was written as a memorial to the composer’s mother. A certain solemnity of the tableau we saw onstage – 15 string players, all standing except the three cellists – also led me to expect harmonies that were respectful and consoling rather than raucous. At the start, the tone actually seemed thin, wan, and weepy, rich with treble. When the lower strings began to assert themselves, the tone veered toward grief and hurt. Repeated six-note phrases briefly put me in mind of Samuel Barber’s funereal Adagio, but Clyne put more variety into her 2009 composition, breaking it into multiple sections.

None of them were at all sunny, but the piece eventually swelled to more passionate, anguished heights and collective grieving. Although concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu’s voice was the most frequently heard in this community, Clyne doled out poignant asides to other soloists, and her ensemble passages were a controlled combination of harmony, dissonance, and individual lines. In the absence of any tracks on Spotify or Apple, the only performances I could compare this one with were a couple of live videos on YouTube, and Watanabe clearly made more of the dynamic contrasts than I found in either of those.

Schumann’s concerto, written at the age of 14, over six years before her marriage to Robert Schumann, was temporarily known as the Clara Wieck Piano Concerto. It premiered in 1835 with the prodigy herself at the keyboard and Felix Mendelssohn wielding the baton. Buechner wasted little time in demonstrating how sensational Schumann needed to be in performance to play her own concerto. The musical voice of the composer seemed to be heavily influenced by Chopin in the opening Allegro maestoso, more when Buechner played than in the orchestral prelude.2022~Tchaikovsky Pathétique-04

That impression carried over into the ensuing Romanze, played without pause, where a nocturnal solo turned into an ardent cello sonata, Chopin’s preferred chamber music format. Principal cellist Alan Black played with admirably rich tone and expression, and only a couple of foreboding rumbles from principal timpanist Jacob Lipham were necessary to transition us to Schumann’s Allegro finale, probably the most individual of her three movements. Certainly it was the sunniest music of the evening so far, and gave Buechner her best opportunities to show us her power and finesse. A responsive exhilaration thundered back from the orchestra as Watanabe cued the heavy artillery.2022~Tchaikovsky Pathétique-26

Daniele Gatti and Charles Dutoit lead the list of notables who have presided over Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” in live Charlotte performances over the past 25 years, so there were plenty stellar quality comparisons that local music lovers could make between Watanabe and what they had heard live or on CD. With this touchstone of the classical repertoire, we could see that this American conductor was a stickler for detail, reveling in the sweep of phrases and subtle – or sudden – changes in dynamics. When Watanabe and Charlotte Symphony reached the sudden sforzando in Adagio-Allegro opening movement, they nearly punched my heart out as thoroughly as Dutoit had done when he led the Royal Philharmonic into Belk Theater in 2006. Aside from the meticulous detailing, pacing, and dynamics from Watanabe, the woodwind principals excelled, beginning with bassoonist Joshua Hood and culminating with Taylor Marino’s wondrous recap of the familiar “Summer Night” melody. The whole cello section gleamed, easing us into the luxurious Allegro con grazia second movement, gliding along in 5/4 tempo.

I had to worry that the wonderful Adagio-Allegro, so resplendently rendered, might draw a premature ovation from Symphony subscribers, but they managed to restrain themselves until the rousing penultimate Allegro molto vivace, which always garners a wild ovation. We could almost hear the march melody, which eventually becomes so overpowering and triumphant, bubbling up in little hints from near the beginning of the movement, so detailed was this performance – and Marino became more festive in his playing, adding some grain to his tone. Of course, the enduring shock and innovation of the “Pathétique” is its dark and somber final movement, a tenebrous descent that begins with three cellos and a tuba calling out; resolving lower, deeper, and softer with the cellos and basses; all treble a distant memory. Remarkable that Charlotte Symphony would program “Pathétique” and the similarly lugubrious Mahler Ninth less than a month apart, but they have now done well by both.

Originally published on 2/12 at CVNC.org

Opera Carolina Finds New Balance in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”

Review: Don Giovanni at Belk Theater

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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February 3, 2022, Charlotte, NC – Among the lovable scoundrels of Western world literature, surely Don Juan has proven to be the most lovable – Molière, Goldoni, Lord Byron, Shaw, and Mozart are just a few of the notables who have sung the Spanish Don’s sins over the past 400 years. His tale can be seen as a series picaresque escapades and comical conquests, or as a grim and grisly revenge tragedy, or as a stern moral lesson. Armed with a wondrous libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte, Mozart disdained to choose among these alternatives, daring to make his Don Giovanni all of the above. With so much to see and emphasize, it’s no wonder that each of the six productions I’ve reviewed since 1991 has been so different from the others – including a Czech National Theatre production at the Estates Theater in Prague, the venue where Mozart’s masterwork premiered in 1787.220201_OPC_DON_053

In her Opera Carolina debut, stage director Eve Summer pays little attention to scenery, relying on props and Whitney Locher’s costume designs to modernize the action. Donna Anna’s home doesn’t have a façade in the opening scene, where Giovanni flees after raping the noblewoman and is compelled to murder her father before he can escape. Nor is there an exterior, let alone an upstairs, at Donna Elvira’s lodgings in Act 2, when Giovanni serenades milady’s maidservant while Leporello, the Don’s servant masquerading as his master, creates a cunning diversion. Three revolving pods help simulate the places where the swift action unfolds, and Michael Baumgarten’s lighting designs signal the transitions and enhance the drama – especially in the denouement, when the Commendatore, Donna Anna’s murdered father risen from the dead, implacably gets his revenge.220201_OPC_DON_426

Summer hasn’t totally surrendered to modernity in her vision of Giovanni, for she surely could have gone further than equipping Elvira with contemporary luggage as she pursues the Don and turning the pages of Leporello’s book chronicling the rogue’s romantic conquests into an iPad that he scrolls. Balancing these modern touches are the curved tops of the revolving pods, evoking ancient arches, and the presence of harpsichordist Emily Jarrell Urbanak, seated at stage right throughout the evening. In a way, the singers also straddled different eras, always immersing themselves in Mozart’s music, yet the diversity of the casting – and a few of the dance moves they busted at Giovanni’s soiree – returned us to the new millennium. Most anachronistic were Sequina DuBose as Elvira, lugging her rolling stack of suitcases up a couple of stairs and down a ramp, and Alex Soare as Leporello, discarding his sensationally grungy attire only when he impersonated Giovanni (though Locher’s design here may have also been inspired by the Ghost of Christmas Future).220201_OPC_DON_170

Dashing, cruel, and overflowing with conceit, bass-baritone Richard Ollarsaba made a stunning debut as Giovanni, even if the mod dress deprived him of the opportunity to unsheathe a sword. His overtures to Elvira, her maid, and the peasant girl Zerlina were all lusciously seductive. Encounters with Leporello and Masetto, Zerlina’s fiancé, crackled with scornful superiority, sometimes snarling and sometimes nonchalant. The old Commendatore seemed to draw the very best from Ollarsada, cavalierly deferential to his age in resisting his challenges to combat in the opening scene, defiant and fatally unrepentant when Giovanni’s fate was sealed. As rich and appealing as Ollarsaba was when he sang, Alex Soare was startlingly convincing as Leporello when the servant was called upon to masquerade as his master. To bring out the servant’s comic flavor, moments when Leporello was marveling at the gullibility of Giovanni’s victims were underscored more boldly than the disillusion, disgust, and abject fear that the Don’s escapades put him through. Nor was bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam chiefly onstage as Masetto to clownishly portray the peasant’s malleability, showing us far more of the hothead than the usual hayseed. In the same spirit, tenor Johnathan Stafford White as Don Ottavio, Anna’s staunch and patient fiancé, is more of a noble champion than a feckless chump.27sQMG5Q

Perhaps even more than the men, the excellence of the three sopranos cemented my suspicion that this was the deepest Opera Carolina cast I’ve seen. While Summer didn’t allow Rachel Mills quite as much risqué latitude as I saw in Prague in consoling her battered Masetto, this Zerlina was no less irresistible in her “Vedrai carino,” applying the balm of love on his bruises. Although there were slight chinks in DuBose’s vocal armor, there were no losses in sweetness when there were dips in volume as Elvira sang her woes, and DuBose is such a fine performer that I had second thoughts each time I steered my attention elsewhere – so many of her reactions are worth watching. Most revelatory was Melinda Whittington as Donna Anna, a role I’ve often found annoying in her chaste righteousness. Whittington amped up the feeling of this grieving rape victim while tamping down her outraged fervor. Summer allowed her to wear a color to the Don’s soiree instead of shrouding her in mourning, and those dance moves further humanized her.220203_OPC_CON_1197

The joyous epilogue, celebrating the triumph of justice over wickedness, is scrapped in this new Opera Carolina production. Somehow that enhances the impact of bass Jordan Bisch as the avenging Commendatore. Both at the cemetery accepting Giovanni’s dinner invitation and later at the Don’s banquet hall, Bisch resounds thrillingly as the voice of doom. After blasting my eardrums just three weeks earlier from the Belk Theater stage with Mahler’s Ninth, a discreetly reduced Charlotte Symphony sounded comparatively wan as it wafted the Giovanni overture out of the orchestra pit. But Opera Carolina artistic director James Meena had the ensemble perfectly calibrated for the occasion, and when the curtain rose, the blend of singing and playing gave constant pleasure. As I stepped onto the elevator with another couple, hurrying to beat the Belk crowd out of the parking lot, the husband couldn’t help gushing, “This is the first classical opera we’ve seen!” If future productions are as good as this Giovanni, they will be coming back again and again.

Originally published on 2/5 at CVNC.org

Charlotte Ballet Takes Us Back to the Future in Rousing and Meaningful “Innovative 1970”

Review: Innovative 1970 at Center for Dance

By Perry Tannenbaum

Innov1970 gypsy moths photo by Jeff Cravotta

February 4, 2022, Charlotte, NC – Distorted by delay, the title of Charlotte Ballet’s latest program sounds more like an oxymoron than ever. Innovative 1970 was originally designed to celebrate the company’s 50th anniversary, but COVID intervened in all our lives so that the official celebration couldn’t be staged until October 2021, already 51 years after the original troupe was formed in Winston-Salem as the North Carolina Dance Theatre. That commemoration included an electrifying revival of The Rite of Spring by Salvatore Aiello, who brought NCDT to Charlotte in 1990. Following that program, the company more predictably reprised The Nutcracker for the holidays, choreographed by Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, who succeeded Aiello as NCDT’s artistic director in 1996 and rebranded the troupe in 2014.

The durably titled Innovative 1970 is thus the first program of all-new pieces since Charlotte Ballet returned to live performances this season and the first to return dancers and subscribers to the Patricia McBride and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux Center for Dance, doubly appropriate because 1970 was adopted as the creative trigger for all three newly commissioned pieces on the program, choreographed by Andrés Trezevant, Rena Butler, and Ja’ Malik.

Innov1970 What was it for Photo by Jeff CravottaAppropriate to its Vietnam War theming, Trezevant’s “What Was It For?” arrived for its premiere as a partial amputee, for the beginning of the scenario in the printed program, where war protesters make houses out of draft cards, is MIA – along with the conspicuous absence of Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets (1974).” What remained thrust us into middle of warfare, Julie Ballard’s lighting design turning the floor of the Center for Dance’s black box into camo splotches of green and gray, while a house of cards lingered downstage, now a cryptic relic of the original concept. A quaint portable radio was spotlit near the opposite wing, likely another leftover, but it remained functional, emitting only white noise as five male dancers, dressed as soldiers, populated the stage, simulating scenes of combat, capture, escape, and rescue.

We were clearly – and perhaps angrily – back home, when Maurice Mouzon Jr. subsequently performed a dashing solo to Nina Simone’s “Backlash Blues (1967).” The two women in this piece, Sarah Lapointe and Anna Mains, arrived onstage as healers while the scene brightened somewhat. Now the returning soldiers – Colby Foss, Ben Ingel, James Kopecky, and Rees Launer – were presumably in hospitals and rehab, dealing with mental and physical trauma in the grim aftermath of a futile war. I suspect that the house of draft cards was intended to fall at the end, but it remained standing.

Innov1970 Subliminal Tsunami photo by Jeff Cravotta

Subliminal Tsunami by Rena Butler, with original music by Daniel J. Hoffman, was a more acerbic and satirical piece that took 1970 as a checkpoint on the state of women’s rights and horizons, compared with where they are today. Recorded voices of Gloria Steinem, Nikki Giovanni, and ABC News anchor Marlene Sanders were in the colloquium, intermingled with recorded voices of seven Charlotte Ballet dancers delivering their own personal accounts. Sharply contrasting with this dignified discussion was what we saw onstage, five women dancers coldly confined by Ballard’s lighting into five squares. The stiffness of Lapointe, Raven Barkley, Isabella Franco, Sarah Hayes Harkins, and Amelia Sturt-Dilley, dressed in matching costumes by Kerri Martinsen, clearly identified them as a collection of Barbie dolls, handled dutifully by four men – Foss, Ingel, Launer, and David Preciado.

Only occasionally did the voices compete with the dancers for attention as the piece proceeded, giving the dancers more latitude for movement. No doubting that the black box’s sound system sorely needs an overhaul, OK for rehearsals but not suitable for prime time. It was still a bit stinging to listen to the cautions against following your impulses issued to young girls contemplating a future of homemaking. Lamentably, the pace of progress for women has been mostly subliminal, not at all a tsunami, though cumulatively we have evolved substantially since 1970, and more progress can be perceived if we look back to when women gained the right to vote 50 years earlier. While I was bothered to see the dancers still masked in 2022, Butler had an ingenious way of coping with the situation: Big smiley, lipsticked mouths on Martinsen’s matching flesh-colored masks were clearly and effectively part of the women’s design.Innov1970 gypsy moths 2 photo by Jeff Cravotta

After the traumas of war and the indignities of gender inequality, it was refreshing to return after a second intermission to gypsy moths, Ja’ Malik’s joyous celebration of funk rockers LaBelle and their frequent collaborator Laura Nyro. A teeming cast of five men and five women, all in spangled masks, converged on the floor for “Met Him on a Sunday,” Nyro’s 1971 cover of a song introduced by The Shirelles thirteen years earlier, and “Come Into My Life,” introduced on LaBelle’s Chameleon album in 1976. “Gypsy Moths,” introduced on the same LaBelle album, paired the company into five couples Emily Porter with Kopecky, Harkins with Humberto Ramazinna, Shaina Wire with Josh Hall, Emerson Dayton with Preciado, and Barkley with Mouzon.

It wasn’t until the ensuing three songs that it became clear that Barkley and Mouzon were the alpha couple of Malik’s piece, for Barkley was obviously the lead in “The Wind” and Mouzon was unquestionably the alpha male in “Going on a Holiday,” both backed by the full cast. Neither of these ensemble segments was as special or memorable as Malik’s seething setting of “Been on a Train,” the whole stage cleared for a slithering Barkley-Mouzon pas de deux. “Desiree,” taken from Nyro’s 1971 Gonna Take a Miracle album was only slightly anticlimactic, a glittery showcase for the other four women, and “What Can I Do for You” was a stirring finale for the entire cast, so infectious that it roused rounds of rhythmic clapping from the audience. The ovation when the spectacularly dressed Malik joined the dancers onstage was even more raucous.

Originally published on 2/5 at CVNC.org