Monthly Archives: April 2023

Charlotte Ballet’s “Peter Pan”: An Intriguing Hybrid With Provocative Possibilities

Review: Peter Pan at Knight Theater

By Perry Tannenbaum


We don’t grow up with the various incarnations of James M. Barrie’s Peter Pan as much as we used to. The aged Mary Martin musical is no longer resuscitated every year, the Disney animation has been relegated to a fairy-dust sprinkling for their theme park promotions, and I honestly can’t remember the last time I saw an ad for the peanut butter. And gosh, wasn’t there once a popcorn? Not a kernel remains in all of Googledom.

Yet the young flying prince of Neverland is still a powerful presence. Whether in touring musicals, glittery ballets, the original stage version, or that bizarre Broadway offshoot, Peter and the Starcatcher, the eternally young green sprite has visited our Metrolina stages at least 15 times during the new millennium. And tomorrow, Disney’s refresh, Peter and Wendy, starts to stream in your home if you’re subscribed.

Renaissance or evolution? The amended title begins to tell the direction of the Disney+ refresh. Meanwhile at Knight Theater, Charlotte Ballet unveiled their new Peter Pan, choreographed by Christopher Stuart. Building upon the previous version choreographed by Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux in 2004 for Peter’s centenary, Stuart has retained Howard Jones’s set design and most of A. Christina Giannini’s costume designs.

The jolly pastiche of Rossini favorites that Bonnefoux leaned on for his score, with gossamer drizzles of Respighi, is replaced by a full-length ballet score by Stephen Warbeck, best known for his Billy Elliott and Shakespeare in Love film scores. In exchange for the one step backward in his scenario, restoring the traditional resurrect of Tinker Bell, Stuart took the evolution of Barrie’s story a couple of steps forward toward political correctness.

Was such evolution necessary? When Mary Martin first flew in from Neverland on the wings of Moose Charlap and Jule Styne’s music, she turned Peter into a female action hero, smoked the peace pipe with Tiger Lily and her tribe, and depended on the Darling women across the generations. Not that these were radical changes, either, since Nina Boucicault (daughter of the famed playwright Dion) originated the title role in 1904.DSC_6648

So with respect to women and Native Americans, termed Indians back in 1954, Peter Pan easily passed for progressive in my eyes. But in recent touring versions and in the Bonnefoux remake, you could see these sore points addressed. Styne’s “Ugg-a-Wugg,” with its Comden and Green lyric, remained in all the Broadway revivals through 1999, but has been discreetly reworked or dropped in recent tours. Bonnefoux turned the Indians into Incas in 2004, and when he brought his version back in 2013 with the new sets and costumes, Captain Hook’s pirate crew were equally divided between men and swashbuckling S&M women.

Stuart’s Tiger Lily, gracefully danced by Raven Barkley, is now a fighting flower. Thanks to new costumes by Kerri Martinsen, Tiger’s all-female militia are now billed as the Lillies of Neverland. While the Lost Boys haven’t changed their name (or costumes), half are now girls. The feminine swarm is augmented by a dozen female butterflies, but there are now a few more gigs for boys. Following in the wake of the funky Crocodile that Bonnefoux reconceived, a new gaggle of Little Crocodiles added microscopically to Pierce Gallagher’s menace at the premiere.Peter Pan

A quarter of this reptilian dozen are boys, so I’m guessing that the gender breakdown among the younglings parallels enrollment at the Charlotte Ballet school. The pre-recorded music, the hand-me-down costumes and sets, and especially the profusion of child labor – all of these economies make perfect sense. But did Stuart really think it would fly with a 2023 audience if Peter, Wendy, and the Darling bros didn’t fly?

Surely there were mommies and daddies out there in Knight Theater who had promised that Peter and Wendy would fly. Hell, there were adults out there counting on it. I couldn’t think of a single reason, not even a politically correct or environmentally responsible reason, why they didn’t fly. Flying by Foy is on strike, they missed their flight, or their train was derailed. Try those.DSC_6332

If nothing else, the gaps and hybrid aspects of the new Peter emphatically indicate that it is a production in flux, ready for new twists, new replacement parts, upgrades, and embellishments in years to come. To Stuart’s credit, he tinkers brilliantly with Tinker Bell, impishly danced by Isabella Franco at the premiere. The new opening scene, at the newly-discovered Darling Orphanage, shows her stealing a newborn from its cradle and whisking it off to Neverland.

In the ensuing scene, when the curtain goes up, Tink is more jealous of Wendy than usual, a resentment and hostility that will carry over to Neverland – where Peter, the little babe she has raised, must eventually put her in time-out! A delicious moment. Michael Darling and John Darling, danced by Tyler Diggs and Lorenzo Dunton, also get more development than I usually note before Peter’s arrival. Their mom and dad, Sarah Lapointe and James Kopecky, were admirably contoured as well. Kopecky showed a little achiness after dancing with his sons, yet Lapointe regally summoned him for another spin or two on the floor.DSC_6024

Both Sarah Hayes Harkins and Maurice Mouzon Jr. were youth and joy from the moment they met, but their start was a bit awkward in the Darlings’ bedroom compared to their outdoor adventures in Neverland. Aside from the no-fly-zone reveal we had to overcome, Stuart needs to clean up the sequence and the lighting of Peter’s lost and found shadow. He seems to have his shadow quite dramatically soon after he comes in, but then he inexplicably loses it.

There are usually two scenarios to choose from. The musical has Peter returning in search of a shadow left behind an indeterminate time ago. In other tellings, he might fly away from Wendy in a huff only to realize that his pesky shadow has stuck on the supersized window sill when he left. Stuart and lighting designer Jennifer Propst have to be on the same page with these niggling details.DSC_5944

Up in sunny Neverland, it all goes so beautifully. As always, Franco as Tink has taken the shortcut, arrives before all the others, and instigates the shooting down of our airborne Wendy by one of the Lost Boys. With a slingshot, not a bow and arrow.

For a flower, Barkley does seem to have a lot of fight in her, so her kidnapping by Ben Ingel as Captain Hook remains a satisfying battle. In his rescue of Tiger Lilly, Peter is wounded by Hook, proving that the pirate is a worthy foe. But don’t expect Ingel to be as fearsome as Jude Law will be on Disney+. He retains some of the comical blood that Bonnefoux infused into previous Hooks, lurking and skulking across the stage when he isn’t prancing merrily or fleeing in terror from the cheerfully chomping Croc.

There’s plenty of lovely, charming, and colorful mayhem as the nearly poisoned Peter rescues Wendy, the Darling bros, and the Lost Boys. Joy is abundant in the homecoming, and Stuart tacks on the cherishable postscript when Peter returns a generation later for Wendy. Four little girls will get to play the touching part of Jane during the 12-show run, one more than any other role.

Now aside from a phone call to Foy, Stuart and company might consider returning to that Darling Orphanage they’ve left dangling for future editions. In Barrie’s novelization, one of the Lost Boys, adopted by the Darlings, becomes a titled lord and another becomes a judge. The least Stuart and CharBallet could do is bring them home.

“Into the Woods” Revival Resuscitates Sondheim’s Heart

Review: Into the Woods at Blumenthal PAC

By Perry Tannenbaum


Replete with wit and amazingly intricate rhyme and wordplay, intertwining no less than five fairytales, all brightly sprinkled with pseudo profundity, Steven Sondheim’s INTO THE WOODS has always left me with an aftertaste of being too clever and too cerebral. For me, it’s the polar opposite of The Sound of Music, which always has me worrying whether my glucose reading will spike the following morning. Dreading my next encounter with both of these musicals, I’m invariably surprised by how satisfied I am while I’m still in the hall and their stories unfold.

Until this week, that is, when the touring version of the posthumous 2022 revival of Sondheim’s gem rolled into Charlotte, just a little over three months after closing on Broadway. Directed by Lear deBessonet and bringing a generous bouquet from the Great White Way of players who were in the opening-night and replacement casts, this new INTO THE WOODS, dedicated to Sondheim’s memory and now at Belk Theater, breaks the spell, dispelling the aftertaste of so many local and regional productions I have seen.INTO THE WOODS 6

Of course, the clever and resourceful meshing of multiple fairytales in Act 1 still delights, but after so many reprises, it doesn’t astonish anymore. No, what knocked me over was the extensive rebalancing and reimagining of Act 2, which had always scored many of its points but had also seemed intent on ruining the magic that Sondheim had crafted before intermission.

In deBessonet’s hands, the emphasis has shifted away from the spurious “children will listen” trope that was so loudly flouted by the strayings of Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Cinderella, and Jack of “Beanstalk” fame. You may also perceive the connection between “The Last Midnight” sung by the Witch deep into Act 2 with the three midnights she gave the Baker and his Wife before intermission to collect various charms from those more famous fairytale protagonists in order to achieve the couple’s dream of having a child.

With its new emphasis on the “you are not alone” refrain, this journey Into the Woods proves that Sondheim does have a heart – and plenty of it. Tears were already welling up for me as soon as I knew that soothing phrase was about to be sung.INTO THE WOODS 4

At the center of all this wonder is Montego Glover’s electrifying performance as the Witch. All too often, the defanged and chastened Witch is portrayed as reformed and fundamentally changed after intermission. That impression, a holdover from previous encounters with Sondheim’s Witch, didn’t last long here. Glover is still playing the blame game viciously, maliciously, and fiercely after regaining her youth, pointing her crooked finger at Jack as a surviving She-Giant from above wreaks rampaging vengeance upon the whole kingdom.

Feeling the impact of the Witch’s damage as keenly as her primal yearning for motherhood, Stephanie J. Block as the Baker’s Wife comes fairly close to stealing the show back from Glover. Until Glover’s devastating “Last Midnight” comes along, Block’s “Moments in the Woods” stands as the peak showstopper of the evening, poignant, raunchy, and comical.

Before those powerhouse women take charge, Gavin Creel and Jason Forbach file legitimate claims to sovereignty as the two Princes in their “Agony” duets. Creel clearly drew the juicier royal role, reprising his Broadway turns as Cinderella’s Prince and Riding Hood’s Wolf. So he gets to woo Little Red with “Hello, Little Girl” in Act 1 and the Baker’s Wife with “Any Moment” after intermission. Fortunately for the audience, Creel is as full of himself as Glover.INTO THE WOODS 17

Sebastian Arcelus, Block’s husband in real life, brings more self-doubt and less smug complacency to the Baker than I’ve seen before, further updating and humanizing the pair. As Jack, Cole Thompson gives us a credulous farmboy who might not be stupid. But the lad definitely needs looking after, and Aymee Garcia as Jack’s Mother gets plenty of free rein for motherly fretting and pragmatic exasperation.

While deBessonet had little leeway in making over Diane Phelan’s modest and wholesome Cinderella and even less with Alysia Velez’s Rapunzel – who sings only a few notes but no words – he allowed Katy Geraghty to go radically bratty as Little Red Riding Hood. With the “children will listen” motif thrown to the wolves, Little Red’s new orneriness works well.

Fans who treasure Sondheim’s braininess still have plenty to savor. With music director John Bell and his orchestra onstage behind the action; and with puppeteers wielding the monstrous feet of the Giant, a golden egg-laying chicken, and Jack’s personable Milky White cow (a mischievous Kennedy Kanagawa); the tension between magic and artifice remains suspended all evening long.INTO THE WOODS 1

David Patrick Kelly as our Narrator even gets his own rostrum to declaim from as he pipes up every so often to tell our tale, dutifully turning pages as he pretends to read. Kelly’s various turns as the wizened and crouching Mysterious Man, switching from his Wizard of Oz formalwear to filthy rags as he bedevils the Baker, are a recurring treat, one of many, many winking reminders that we’re watching children’s theatre as adults.

Kudos to costume designer Andrea Hood, totally in on the mischief and fun, and puppet maker James Ortiz, whose designs will enchant young and old. Only a small but substantial number of empty seats were visible on Media Night, way up in the back of the second and third balconies. Count them as precious opportunities that were missed.

“Pippin” Is Mostly Magical at Theatre Charlotte

Review: Pippin at Theatre Charlotte

By Perry Tannenbaum


There was plenty of magic to do last Friday night as Theatre Charlotte opened their new production of Pippin at the Queens Road barn. Opening night was happening in the wake of a dazzling Broadway Lights reveal at Belk Theater of a star-studded touring version of Into the Woods just three nights earlier. That compounded the new challenges already added by the 2013 Broadway revival of Stephen Schwartz’s 1972 hit, layering on new illusions, flying effects, circus acrobatics, and fire.

Behind the scenes, budgets and available talent are also stressed and stretched. Theatre Charlotte is embarking on an unprecedented series of four consecutive shows, hosting performances of Detroit ’67 (opening May 26) and I and You (June 16) at the old barn through June 25, after an excursion to the Uptown Mint Museum, where Picasso at the Lapin Agile will pay a visit beginning on May 5, the weekend after Pippin shutters. At home and on the road, TC’s running crews are booked for the next 10 weekends.

At first blush, it was tough for me to escape the notion that Woods witch Montego Glover’s wardrobe alone – not to mention her paycheck – was more expensive than this entire pipsqueak Pippin production. But the five-piece stage band directed by Lindsey Schroeder is tight, the ensemble directed by director/choreographer Lisa Blanton is brash and teeming with pro-grade talent, and the dance stylings by Sterling Masters-Deeney (home from a 12-year stint with the Broadway company of Wicked) are besprinkled with Fosse hands and pizzazz.

Before he composed Wicked, Schwartz wasn’t exactly sold on serious storytelling, so it isn’t difficult to swap out the narrative frameworks of Godspell and Pippin. Not for directors and most of the design team, anyway. For the acting troupe, most of whom are billed as Players; and for those designing the new Pippin effects and teaching performers how to execute them; it’s a different story. A granny on a trapeze? The original Javert from Les Miz learning parlor tricks? Tall orders.

Community theatres have scaled-down prep schedules as well as Slimfast budgets, so there were a few times – particularly when fire is involved – when you’ll need to brace yourself for disappointment. Otherwise, the acrobatics, the sawed woman, and the levitation stunt overachieved magnificently. Who knows, maybe by the second weekend, the kinks will be ironed out of the flame-throwings.TC95-Pippin-275

With Nehemiah Lawson as the Leading Player and Bart Copeland in the title role, both emerging from the ensemble of Theatre Charlotte’s Something Rotten, the bulk of Schwartz’s music and lyrics is in good hands. Lawson is a powerful presence and an excellent dancer, and the costume Beth Killion has designed for him strongly suggests black magic wizardry. Yet Lawson sometimes undercuts his own authority when he appears to be striving to precisely execute the choreography instead of taking over his moves, manhandling them, and making them his own.

The flimsy book by Roger O. Hirson is already lax in reminding us that the Leading Player is in charge of all the other players and their storytelling, so Lawson’s occasional spasms of fidelity don’t help. Yet his scenes with Sophie Lanser as the flawed and recalcitrant Catherine, Pippin’s true love, are beautifully calibrated in their give-and-take, and his climactic tantrum when Pippin rejects martyrdom is fairly breathtaking.

As Prince Pippin, Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne’s son, Copeland is disarmingly wholesome, earnest, and at ease. His dancing prowess seems to improve before our eyes as he ages and becomes more worldly-wise, with an added grace that may stem from Copeland’s not taking himself seriously as a dancer. That kind of modesty works well for the major Pippin role that hasn’t won two Tony Awards (Ben Vereen in 1973 and Patina Miller in 2014), particularly when you’re a protagonist who finds himself beaten down in life no matter which path he follows toward fulfillment, his ”Corner of the Sky.”TC95-Pippin-154

While we savor the blithe amorality of Darren Spencer as Charlemagne, more aristocratic zest emanates from two female royals. Reveling in her corruption as Fastrada, Charlemagne’s current wife, Alyson Lowe gets to scheme against both her Emperor husband and her stepson Pippin, slyly maneuvering to install her valorous dimwitted son Lewis on the throne. Louann Vaughan draws the sunnier role as Charlemagne’s mom, exiled from court by the conniving Fastrada.

Her sunnier song, “No Time at All,” is the catchiest, a carpe diem song from Granny that espouses hedonism to Pippin as a better path than ambition. It also draws some of the most surprising staging as Berthe proves she hasn’t sunk into stagnant retirement. She’s as much of an opposite of Catherine as the cold-blooded Fastrada, for Lanser quickly forms a domesticated trio with Copeland and Logan Campbell as the widow’s son Theo, bonding together in the precious “Prayer for a Duck.”

Common farmer she may be – and maybe, according to Leading Player, the lowliest actor in the troupe – but Lanser reminds us she isn’t a doormat, aggressively seeking out a replacement husband when she’s on script in the Leading Player’s story and then pugnaciously inserting a song that he has not approved. Catherine needs Pippin and her “I Guess I’ll Miss the Man” is a long way from worshipful.

Matt Howie is the only other cast member who speaks, giving Pippin’s half-brother Lewis a surprisingly sweet tinge. After seeing him in numerous productions, most recently in Something Rotten, I’m not sure he can help it. Among the dozen dancers in unnamed roles, captains Georgie DeCosmo and Mitchell Dudas consistently excelled. Charlton Alicia Tapp also stood out as a slick ballroom lizard, and lithe Riley Gray breathtakingly took acrobatic honors ascending and descending the silks.

Pro-Grade “POTUS” at Booth Gets New Conservatory Run in Cornelius

Feature Review: Charlotte Conservatory Theatre’s POTUS Transfers to Cain Center

By Perry Tannenbaum


After the morning press conference, there’s China, an international meeting on nuclear proliferation, followed by a photo op with blinded-and-maimed Iraq War vets, and a much-anticipated endorsement of a gubernatorial candidate somewhere out in the Midwest. Pretty typical day at the White House.

But in Selina Fillinger’s frenetic presidential comedy, POTUS, neither the man in the Oval Office nor the playwright’s viewpoint is typical. Fillinger made that clear in her subtitle, Behind Every Great Dumbass are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive. At opening night of Charlotte Conservatory Theatre’s production of this romp, seven frantic women directed by Stephen Kaliski had their audience laughing nearly non-stop at Booth Playhouse.

It was the second consecutive Conservatory production that reminded many of us of the last resident company at the Booth, Charlotte Repertory Theatre, which expired way back in 2005. Members of Actors Equity are back in the mix, along with members of Stage Directors and Choreographers behind the scenes. Other professional groups are involved, including the local IATSE union and United Scenic Artists. Kaliski and Conservatory Theatre co-founder Marla Brown also harbor the long-term ambition of ascending to the highest rung of regional companies and becoming Charlotte’s first LORT (League of Resident Theatres) company since Rep’s demise.

Kaliski wasn’t behind the scenes for Conservatory’s debut at the Booth last August. No, he was onstage as a rather charismatic devil named Scratch in a surprisingly amorous faceoff with Elizabeth Sawyer. Jen Silverman’s Witch was the playwright’s fresh 2018 spin on The Witch of Edmonton, first staged in 1621, and Sawyer was a dramatization of a real-life woman burned for witchcraft earlier that same year. Brown wasn’t onstage in that “then-ish” setting, but her inclination toward making Conservatory a classics-flavored company definitely was.POTUS_Fenixfoto_Charlotte_5R4A2210

With POTUS, it’s Brown who is taking the stage – nearly assuming the title role late in Act 2 as she prepares to take the place of her lookalike brother, the Prez, at a posh speaking engagement. Speaking with Brown for this story, I opined that the recent POTUS she most closely resembled was The Donald. Nope, she countered, it was Obama.

You can decide who’s right. For the Conservatory Theatre production, after closing at the Booth several weeks ago, reopens at the new Cain Center in Cornelius for another three-performance run on April 26.

Until her shocking transformation into formalwear, Brown as the drug-dealing presidential sib Bernadette looked to me like a punkish Rob Roy on the skids. Here Brown and I are in much closer agreement, since she has proclaimed, “I got that role because I can rock shorts that are hideous.”POTUS_Fenixfoto_Charlotte_5R4A2137

Yet Brown’s shorts may not be the most bizarre or hideous thing we saw at the Booth in POTUS. Iris DeWitt as Chris, a beat reporter fishing for a scoop, multitasked by sporting a pair of noisy breast pumps that reminded me of football fan craziness, helmets retooled to hold beer cans emptying into drinking straws. Katy Shepherd as presidential secretary Stephanie may be the queen oddball. After unwittingly sampling an overdose of Bernadette’s merchandise, Steph goes so far off the rails that, by intermission, she’s prancing around the West Wing dreamily with a pink swimming pool floating around her waist.

The zany, comical mayhem that brings POTUS to the end of Act 1, with all seven women in action and Chris somehow stealing focus from the ever-twirling-and-spacey Stephanie, is the closest equivalent I’ve seen in many years to the explosive circus that engulfs the stage at the second intermission of George S. Kaufman’s You Can’t Take It With You. And that fizzy moment was the only time in Fillingers’ comedy that I caught anything like a whiff of classical flavor.

Conservatory’s swerve from classicism has been both intentional and fortuitous in terms of POTUS coming here and moving up the road to Cornelius.

“We want to leave our options open in these early days,” Kaliski says, “so there was a consideration early on of, okay, we’ll always do something that has some sort of anchor in a classical story. Right now, the aesthetic we’re landing on is, you know, how can we be that company? The plays in New York that are either your non-touring Broadway shows or prestige Off-Broadway shows – we want to be the group that picks a lot of those off and brings them to Charlotte. And I think Actor’s Theatre filled this role.”

Yeah, it’s clear that the closure of Actor’s Theatre rocked this town – arguably harder than the shuttering of Rep, which left CAST (Carolina Actor’s Studio Theatre) and Actor’s Theatre in its wake. Now? We’ve devolved into a bunch of small black box theatre outfits, counterbalanced by the bigger BNS Productions. They all produce consistently fine work, but none of them can be called “that company.”

Actor’s and CAST hardly messed with the classics at all. BNS, when it isn’t producing works by its founder, Rory Sheriff, mostly does the classics by August Wilson. So there’s definitely a niche for a major company in Charlotte that plans to straddle recent hits and the classics. Or any major LORT company at all, since we’re probably the largest US market without one.

Even in its beginnings, Conservatory is flipping the script written by Queen City theatre behemoths that perished in the past. Whether suddenly or gradually, Rep, CAST, and Actor’s all disgorged their founders through actions of their boards of directors, who then proceeded to dissolve their companies – without alerting the public that they were in crisis, let alone appealing for aid.

Having founded The Warehouse up in Cornelius in 2009, Brown and her board have not liquidated her brainchild. Utilizing Warehouse’s non-profit 501c3 credentials, they have rebranded as Charlotte Conservatory, upsized their mission and ambition, and – here’s a twist – amicably disbanded their board.

“I love that space very much,” Brown still says of The Warehouse. “But I also knew that after ten years, if I continued to produce there, I would regret it. Because Charlotte has seen such a de-evolution of theatre since Rep’s demise, and such a de-evolution of our talent pool. Anybody who works on a professional level or who understands the craft either has to do it for very little money or they have to teach and then do it at theaters, other LORT companies at other cities, or they work for Children’s Theatre only.”

In the wake of COVID, which gave theatre companies plenty of time to pause and reflect; and in the wake of We See You, White Theatre, a scathing BIPOC indictment of American theatre companies’ lack of inclusivity; Conservatory Theatre is intent on being more open-ended – and more open-minded – as it continues to take shape.

Neither cliques nor permanent positions have formed as Conservatory blazes its new path.

“We didn’t start with, okay, here’s our artistic director and the managing director, and here’s our director of development, etc., etc.,” Kaliski explains. “We didn’t start with a typical organizational structure. We were kind of thinking, all right, we’re a collective in this room together, and we’re going to take it project by project to start, and each project can have its own set of showrunners, if you will, kind of like a TV show. And they’ll be in charge of that, and then we’ll kind of have a different group of showrunners or a different producing pod for the next one.”

That kind of inclusivity has allowed Kaliski and Brown to reach out, in Conservatory’s formative phase, to Matt Cosper, who still cranks out XOXO productions, and playwright/actor/director Brian Daye, a former member of the Warehouse board. Nor is this core group and others limiting their horizons to the Booth Playhouse and the Cain Center, especially since Conservatory doesn’t have the kind of sweetheart rental deal the would come with official residency at either venue.

Mint Museum, the Stage Door, and the new Parr Center are all in play for future reconnoitering and producing, along with whatever the epic renovation of Uptown’s Carolina Theatre winds up offering. Meanwhile at Cain Center, whose stage does not sport a fly loft, there’s a mutual feeling-out process as both newbie organizations find their bearings.

Both Brown and Kaliski were surprised and delighted that rights to perform POTUS became available so soon after the Broadway production closed last August. Many in their circle presumed there might be a national tour in the offing. But POTUS doesn’t make the most discreet or decorous entrance for a Cornelius audience, that’s for sure.

Brown had some trepidations when she approached Cain director Justin Dionne. “Okay, Justin,” she remembers thinking, “you understand that the first word is the C word. And I know you don’t want people coming and going, ‘This is not what we built the Cain center for.’” She squeals in a high falsetto, half-relishing this possibility.POTUS_CCT_Charlotte_Group_Fenixfoto15379 - 4

Yes, before Fillinger’s action even begins, POTUS has used this word at his morning presser – in describing the First Lady, no less. In her presence. He doesn’t know she’s there, due to a couple of additional plot points – one, we’ll learn, involving anal sex – so he explains her absence by saying, “She’s having a cunty morning.”

So Valerie Thames as chief of staff Harriet opens the show by storming onstage and exclaiming the offending adjective in its root form. Instantly radiating dignity, morality, and competence – qualities that will not be attributed to POTUS – Thames authoritatively dumps this crisis of the day in Jean’s relatively cool hands. Slim and conceivably serene, Jennifer Adams as POTUS’s beleaguered press secretary wastes little time in convincing us that poor Jean likely holds the most combustible burnout position in the West Wing.

Harriet and Jean are the women most seriously invested in keeping the dumbass alive and the most adept at getting the job done. This often involves prodding Stephanie, quite intelligent beneath her scared-rabbit exterior, into action. Bernadette, ankle monitor on her leg, is also very interested in keeping her brother alive, if for no other reason than her nefarious enterprises will ultimately require a presidential pardon.

“Harriet,” Jean memorably informs Bernadette, “is the number one reason this country continues to function.” By this time, Jean has perpetrated a monumental screw-up of her own.POTUS_Fenixfoto_Charlotte_0K9A1454

Wielding a blue slushy, Sarah Molloy makes an entrance as Dusty that rivals Harriet’s, rushing across the stage to vomit into a trashcan. Not the subtlest indication you’ll ever see that somebody is pregnant. Yet the West Wing brain trust struggles to put two and together. Bernadette sees it all rather quickly, though. You need to be truly family to understand POTUS.

Iesha Nyree as The First Lady sizes up Dusty nearly as quickly as his sister-in-law. Assailed by presidential insult and infidelity, Margaret is also complicit and invested in her dumbass husband’s political machinations. Never playing a victim card, Nyree makes Margaret formidable and conflicted. But while Fillinger flips the meaning of her subtitle upside down, hinting that impulsiveness and incompetence aren’t confined to POTUS or his gender, she spreads the inner conflict around: lurking among these ladies are two lesbians who will consider rekindling the old flames that once blazed secretly on the campaign trail.

“At least three of the characters must be women of color,” Fillinger prescribed in her script. “Actors can be cis or trans. Age is flexible. Beauty is subjective. So long as they’re fast, fierce, and fucking hilarious.”

Kaliski, Brown, and Charlotte Conservatory Theatre checked all of those boxes at the Booth. True, POTUS is a bit lightweight and more than a little over-the-top. But if you missed it in Charlotte, it’s worth the trip to follow this production up to the new Cain Center. Seeing how it all goes over with the Cornelius crowd might be an extra treat.

“Clue” Reaches New Heights of Silliness at Matthews Playhouse

Review: Clue at Matthews Playhouse of the Performing Arts

By Perry Tannenbaum


Apparently, I didn’t have much of a clue about CLUE, a new comedy by Sandy Rustin based on the 80-year-old board game and its 1985 screen adaptation. I presumed that Matthews Playhouse would be staging the musical version that has periodically skulked around regional and community theatres after ignominiously posting its closing notice a week after it opened Off-Broadway in early December 1997.

Our playbill, listing “Original music composed by Michael Holland,” kept me in the dark a bit longer until the show began without an overture or an opening number. While we waited, we had the chance to fill out a form and predict which of the “usual suspects” would be revealed as the culprit – or culprits – at the end of the show. It’s a pretty simple form since, unlike the board game, we don’t have to sniff out where the murder takes place and which of six lethal weapons is used. Simpler than the movie, too, which was famously released with three different endings.2023~Clue~4

After directing a nearly sublime Book of Will at Belmont Abbey College back in February, Jill Bloede shows that she and her sure comedy instincts can lift up the utterly ridiculous in Matthews. She and set designer Marty Wolff aren’t going to let us forget that Clue is a board game. With sliding wood panels for walls and cunning little swinging gates for doors, we can see three rooms at a time on each side of the stage simultaneously, with a corridor representing the Boddy Mansion’s hallway completing the symmetry – seven of the nine rooms depicted (even more primitively) by the humble game board’s overhead view.

Flimsy as those thin walls may appear sliding in and out of view, they must be sturdy enough to accommodate the workings of secret panels that either flip their graphics or open and shut widely enough for the comings and goings of arms visibly wielding weapons. If your Clue erudition has stuck with you since childhood, you’ll remember that those weapons are a candlestick, a lead pipe, a monkey wrench, a dagger, a rope, and a revolver.

It’s with the entrance of our prime suspects that the plot of Jonathan Lynn’s screenplay and Rustin’s script, mimicking the film’s plot setup, swerve from the classic simplicities of the Parker Brothers’ game. Each of the six guests who have been invited to the Boddy Mansion is given one of the aliases bestowed on the iconic game pieces. Each now has a colorful – but compromising – back story that he or she is being blackmailed for. Serious enough misdeeds lurk beneath all our guests’ respectable facades for a murder motive, and their sophisticated enough for them to apply for membership among the avatars of more evolved adult board games.2023~Clue~19

So Colonel Mustard does have a military background, and Mrs. Peacock, a US Senator’s wife, has reason to be prideful. Mr. Green has a gay bent that could be costly as news of the McCarthy un-American hearings, circa 1954, seep through in radio broadcasts, and Miss Scarlet’s flame seems to be fueled by undercover stints as a high-priced madame. Professor Plum was apparently disgraced in another profession before finding refuge in academia, and Mrs. White… why is she dressed in black? Presumably because one or more of her late husbands could be the skeleton in her closet.

Now if you or I were anonymously blackmailing six evildoers with DC connections, you might think twice – or 700 times – before inviting even one of those cash cows for dinner, blowing your cover and, in a faraway secluded manor, endangering your own life. Ah, but the Lynn-Rustin silliness has just begun. Let’s distribute the six iconic murder weapons among the six color-schemed guests! And after all, if six possible murderers are gathered for an evening of killing and sleuthing – and dinner! – why limit the victims to just the ever-ready Mr. Boddy?2023~Clue~10

The whole Boddy household staff might be available to boost the body count: the maid, the cook, and the butler. Maybe we could liven (or deaden?) things up with a stranded motorist, a snoopy cop, or even a singing telegram girl? Hey, it’s a party!

With Allen Andrews as the suave and mysterious butler Wadsworth greeting mutton-chopped Jeremy Cartee as the pompous Colonel Mustard, the ball gets rolling nicely as the pair let us in on the rules of the game. Andrews as Wadsworth is so slick of a host greeting all of our suspects that he manages, through sheer brass and sliminess, to cast suspicion on himself. Cartee, meanwhile, must vie with longtime local diva Paula Baldwin as Mrs. Peacock for the distinction of being the most arrogant and pretentious of the suspects. Baldwin makes up for lost time by being the most outgoing, neurotic, and loquacious guest.2023~Clue~17

Clad in a screaming red dress, red hair garishly beribboned, and wrapped in a boa, Vanessa Davis as Miss Scarlet is the polar opposite of the cool Mary Lynn Bain as the semi-funereal Mrs. White. While Davis shoots seductive glances everywhere, Bain seems to be in perpetual mourning.

Yvette Moten’s costume designs are predictably color-coded, but they are not altogether studded with solid hues. While Andrew Pippin as the reserved Mr. Green gets to wear the most stylishly coordinated and urbane ensemble in harboring the deepest secret, Moten allows herself to go fairly wild over Johnny Hohenstein’s outfit as Mr. Plum: a cringeworthy maroon plaid jacket striped with deep purple and sky blue, a weirdly coordinated motley bowtie, and the loudest purple argyle sweater she could find.

Kathleen Cole is most notable for all the costumes – and phony eyebrows – that she wears, changing from the Cook to the Singing Telegram Girl before resurfacing as police backup. That glittery delivery girl outfit would liven any costume ball.2023~Clue~1

Bloede obviously takes much delight in maneuvering her game pieces. Sometimes they scurry around so swiftly that we lose track of them, and at other times, Wadsworth and staff parade them from room to room with a ceremoniousness that actually does evoke silly avatars moving around the squares of a game board. Yet there wasn’t a single missed beat during all the hectic scene changes at the Saturday matinees, never a missed cue, and never a flubbed line.

We seem to all get nine different rooms with all the back-and-forth of the sliding walls, so efficiently whisked in and out of sight from the wings. But I don’t remember seeing a ballroom, so I’m sure we don’t see more than eight.

Eight is enough.

B’Way “Beetlejuice” Messes With the Franchise Mojo – Design to the Rescue!

Review: BEETLEJUICE at Blumenthal PAC

Beetlejuice-2By Perry Tannenbaum

Prepare yourself for an onslaught of ghoulish purple – and wicked green! The Broadway Lights series was fiendishly lighting up Belk Theater for its first opening night there in 2023. No less than 29 purple and green spotlights are arrayed around the proscenium, the box seats, and the balcony. Some of them swivel and sweep around the hall like a bat signal, periodically slapping you between the eyes and blinding you. Twenty more LED arrays – guess what colors! – frame the stage, blinking ominously.

Organ music broods in the background, its Gothic drone abruptly halting for the BIG BANGS, two mighty jump scares that launch each of the two acts of Beetlejuice The Musical. Meanwhile, your helpful Encore playbill sports a different design scheme on its cover: black and white. Not a biggie, true, but lurking all around you, dressed in cosplay creations, are human echoes of the demonic Betelgeuse and his most famed and formal prison-striped suit. Complementing these parolees, waifs of all ages were sporting all-black ensembles such as those favored by Lydia Deetz, the title groom’s funereal bride-to-be.

Yes, I’d say somewhere around 10% of the Belk crowd on opening night were not merely pre-sold on the infernal nectar of Beetlejuice but also eager to proclaim their membership in its cult following. Scott Brown and Anthony King knew their audience well when they overhauled the 1988 screenplay that director Tim Burton wildly accessorized.Beetlejuice-9

Both the Betelgeuse role played by Michael Keaton and Winona Ryder’s Lydia have been hugely enlarged. Instead of standing in the wings (or camping underground), on-call until Barbara and Adam Maitland die and become desperate ghosts, Beetlejuice is our emcee, ingratiating himself with the audience moments after the curtain rises with a steady stream of shticks, topical references, wisecracks, and personal insults flung out to the audience. Or Justin Collette tries – oh so hard in his makeover of the Keaton portrayal, ululating his tongue when all else fails.

That obnoxious appeal can be hard to sustain when the meddlesome Bee is invisibly urging the wholesome and liberal Maitlands to electrocute themselves. Don’t remember that from the movie? Brown and King keep all their action indoors – or on the haunted house’s roof – after the opening funeral scene.Beetlejuice-11

You won’t see that scene in the movie, either. Here the graveyard scene begins to layer on new grieving and suicidal dimensions to Lydia’s familiar goth couture, establishing a new gravitas for the troubled teen. In the wake of Mamma Emily Deetz’s death, Lydia also acquires a seething Hamlet-like bitterness as she, Daddy Deetz, and his wanton fiancée Delia move into the Maitlands’ quaint country home. The sequence of events is painfully compressed here, and Lydia isn’t merely plagued by a goofy, artsy stepmother.

Since they haven’t tied the knot anymore, this is more of a betrayal and an abandonment by Daddy Charles and an opportunistic intrusion by Delia. Of course, this is a gift to Isabella Esler, who gets more of the spotlight here as Lydia and has more substantial woes to bewail in her interactions with the friendly Maitlands – more angst and yearning to belt in the punk ballads written by Eddie Perfect, most notably “Home” and “Dead Mom.”

Grievance and energy have noticeably shifted away from the rookie Maitland ghosts, played by Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis in the film. Picking up on the opening shots of Baldwin, where Adam meticulously picks up an invading spider and liberates it through his attic window, Perfect expands the Maitlands’ bleeding-heart reverence for life to the point of absurdity, demonstrating in “Fright of Their Lives” that they wouldn’t hurt a fly, much less haunt a house.

That’s likely Perfect’s best lyric, proving that the Maitlands are the neediest of the needy for Betelgeuse’s services as a “bio-exorcist.” Britney Coleman and Will Burton are so successful at convincing us of their air-headed ineffectuality that even devout Beetlejuice fans will be hard-pressed to care about whether they ever achieve their ghostly aspirations. Saving Lydia from herself and ridding the home of B-Juice become the top priorities.

Not that the elder Deetzes are any more repellent than their celluloid counterparts. Jesse Sharp actually projects a Raymond Burr-ish respectability as Daddy Charles, but even as Kate Marilley outshines him as Delia, getting her teeth into a couple of new songs, she’s no less kookie than Catherine O’Hara was, just oddly more salacious as she swaps professions, becoming a cliché-spouting life coach instead of a sculptress.Beetlejuice-1

With the diminished importance of the Maitlands and the constant pesky presence of Collette as Beetlejuice, further detaching our involvement with the story by breaking the fourth wall over and over, this horror-themed musical comedy might devolve into irredeemable silliness. Certainly, Perfect’s score doesn’t help Brown and King’s update.

Design to the rescue! However you might react to the film’s storytelling, which also implicated Robert Goulet and Dick Cavett in cameo visits, Burton’s comedy-horror stew was a visual wow, with touches of Disney, Dali, Hitchcock, and Edward Gorey. Onstage at Belk Theater, we behold an orgy of scenic, costume, lighting, makeup, wig, and projection design – augmented by magic, SFX, a special illuminated edition of The Handbook for the Recently Deceased, and puppets. Fear not, the pinhead guy we encountered in Tim Burton’s netherworld has not been left behind.Beetlejuice-6

Although we must tolerate the tasteless intrusion of an NPR tote bag, we still get the zany “Day-O” possession via Harry Belafonte, our colossal man-eating sandworm, and a free consultation with Juno in hell, featuring a surprisingly frumpy Karmine Alers in the role previously graced by Sylvia Sidney onscreen. While we’re down there, we get to see how Beetlejuice The Musical producers added fresh Carmen Miranda spice to the 2022 Broadway remount of their COVID-stunted 2018 gumbo, when they upsized the role of Miss Argentina, now shaken and shimmied by Danielle Marie Gonzalez.Beetlejuice-4

Miss Argentina’s skimpy attire, one of local legend William Ivey Long’s many bizarre and resourceful creations, cues a startling alteration in the overall color scheme. Wicked and Emerald City may be eternally green, but once Lydia returns from the realm of the dead, there are startling infusions of fiery red into the décor, including the spectacularly gauche formalwear that Beetlejuice and Miss Deetz sport for their nuptials.

It all added up to complete delight for pre-sold Tim Burton worshipers, whose enthusiasm after the calypso finale tallied even higher dB readings than those jump scares. All was foreseen by the wizards of Blumenthal Performing Arts, who announced the return of Beetlejuice – for the Christmas vacation! – the morning after opening night.