All posts by perryt77

Gaillard Grandeur and Dock Street Informality Shape a New Spoleto

Review: Spoleto Festival USA – 2017

By Perry Tannenbaum

For the past two years at Spoleto Festival USA, opera has been the bellwether of how this massive festiv

al of the performing arts – including theatre, jazz, dance, symphonic and chamber music – has been changing and evolving. In 2015, opera programming untethered itself from its customary balance of new works with outré offerings from recognized masters. The tandem of Paradise Interrupted in its world premiere and Veremonda in its American debut underscored the transformation of Spoleto into the world’s leading showcase for new and/or different classical music.

Last year, what seemed like a move toward more populist programming, with Porgy and Bess as the marquee opera and an increased presence of American jazz artists, did not affect a continuing drift toward more modernist music. What the Porgy and Bess celebration of the festival’s 40th season really signaled was that, with the radical facelift to the reopened Gaillard Center, truly grand productions of grand operas were now possible in Charleston, SC.

Even before the Gaillard closed down for its makeover after the 2012 season, it was clear that, from a technical standpoint, only lackluster stagings could be expected there. Gustave Charpentier’s Louise had been the last operatic attempt in 2009. During the renovations, you could be charmed by Spoleto’s productions of Kát’a Kabanová and Le Villi at Sottile Theatre, but you could hardly pretend they were on a grand scale.

With this year’s presentation of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, grand lyric opera was emphatically enthroned at the festival, although I suspect there were budgetary constraints in the wake of last year’s anniversary extravagances. Now that might not explain why there was no bed, no window, and no writing desk – all mentioned in the libretto – for Tatyana’s famed letter scene. Why would stage director Chen Shi-Zheng’s austerity extend to depriving the poor woman of pen and paper until after she has finished writing?

Suspicions came unbidden when, after a snowbound video of a Russian forest ran over the overture, spindly trunks of wintry trees descended from the fly lofts and haunted nearly the entire production. The concept didn’t jibe with arrival of the family estate’s peasants heralding their completion of the harvest. More puzzling, the lovely trees were whisked to the wings prior to the scene where they might make the most sense, the duel between Onegin and the hotheaded poet Lensky.

Projections that replaced the trees for the duel and for the ultimate denouement, where he receives his richly deserved rejection from Tatyana, were actually darkly effective. But the best use of set designer Christopher Barreca’s trees came when, half-lifted into the flies and colorfully illuminated, they simulated chandeliers at the regal ball in Prince Gremin’s palace, where Onegin is thunderstruck by the transformation of Tatyana into a poised and polished aristocrat.

Whatever toll austerity might have taken on the scenery, it was not a factor in the singing. Taxed with delivering the letter scene with no props except a chair (those lingering tree trunks did fill up momentarily with projections of Tatyana’s handwriting), soprano Natalia Pavolova glowed with youthful longing in her American debut. She was hardly less impressive as a mature princess, bearing herself imperially in the ballroom, and her creamy voice thickened pleasingly with emotion in the final tête-à-tête with Onegin. Lacking the hauteur I saw from Dmitri Hvorostovsky when I saw him in the role opposite Renee Fleming, baritone Franco Pomponi was less of a cold-hearted jerk when Onegin rejected Tatyana and killed Lensky – and more pitiable when he comprehended his mistakes.

Solid as he was vocally, Pomponi was thoroughly upstaged by tenor Jamez McCorkle as Lensky. The pride and pathos that McCorkle brought to Lensky’s final pre-duel meditations were shattering. Nearly as touching – and as vocally powerful – baritone Peter Volpe’s weighty, twilit confessions to Onegin as Prince Gremin were the perfect prelude to the cad’s comeuppance.

Acoustics at the new 1,800-seat facility helped to keep the front-liners relaxed, unless they had the misfortune of singing from the rear half of the stage, which introduced a noticeable echo effect. Clarity and presence improve markedly for the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra when it ascends from the pit to the stage, where it is wrapped in a tall, wood-grained shell and covered by a sloped and sculpted acoustic ceiling.

With the addition of the Westminster Choir conducted by Joe Miller, the worthy heir to Joseph Flummerfelt, orchestral concerts have also grown grander in recent years. Ramping up to the return of the Gaillard, Miller and the Westminsters presented the St. Matthew Passion at the Sottile in 2015 before helping to break in the new hall last year with Beethoven’s Mass in C and his Choral Fantasy. Once again mixing the sacred with the secular at the Gaillard, Miller programmed Mozart’s unfinished “Great” Mass in C Minor, preceded by two Ralph Vaughan Williams settings, one for Psalm 90 (“Lord, Thou Hast Been Our Refuge” and the other from the moonlit Act 5 love scene that punctuates the hurly-burly of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice (“Serenade to Music”).

Augmented by the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, the Westminster Choir sounded massive and sure, and the Festival Orchestra, culled from advanced conservatory students and young professionals through nationwide auditions, still strikes me as the best American orchestra of its kind. The bigger sound of the choir made the “Lord, Thou Hast Been Our Refuge” more soothing and cosmic, building to a majestic finish. An exquisite dialogue between orchestra and vocalists followed in the Shakespeare setting, as six of the Westminster choristers then came downstage and formed a mini-choir, joining the four guest artists who would sing in the Mozart.

It was gratifying to see McCorkle again after his fine Lensky, but once again, he didn’t draw a leading role in the Mass after shining briefly in the “Serenade.” Mozart began this liturgical piece as a showcase for his wife, Constanza, and soprano Sherezade Panthaki shone in much of the coloratura spotlight that he managed to finish, especially when powering the climax of the Credo. Soprano Clara Rottsolk ably complemented Panthaki in the Gloria, and bass André Courville rounded out the quartet of soloists in the concluding Benedictus.

Of course, there was nothing miniscule about the other orchestral concert, beginning with Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s icily atmospheric Dreaming and climaxing with Mahler’s Symphony No. 4. Following up brilliantly on her lustrous 2013 debut in the title role of Matsukaze, soprano Pureum Jo filled the folksy jollity of the Sehr behaglich (“Very comfortable”) finale with a heavenly purity.

Yet I found myself even more encouraged and excited by what’s happening in the chamber music sector of the festival. For the first time since taking over the reins of the daily chamber music series in 2010, violinist Geoff Nuttall had to acknowledge the absence of his mentor and predecessor, Charles Wadsworth, on the mend up in New York. As host and programmer of the lunchtime Dock Street Theatre concerts, Nuttall has come into his own, greatly increasing the amount of modern and contemporary music that is played while chipping away at the barrier that previously distinguished the genial, comical, and witty introductions to the music from the formality of the performances that followed.

There’s likely a connection between the two developments. When a percussionist provides the entire audience with pairs of rocks to bang together during a performance of new music, or a composer triggers video and sound cues with an iPhone, formality begins to break down. The effect spread to more antique music when countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo called attention to the kinship between a Vivaldi aria and Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel.”

Performances have sprouted a jocular dimension here and there, thanks to the deployment of clarinetist Todd Palmer as comedian-in-chief. After Nuttall spoke vividly of Giovanni Bottesini’s virtuosic displays on double bass during operas that he conducted in the mid-1800’s, appearing mid-performance to dazzle with improvised fantasias on tunes from that evening’s opera, Palmer joined double bassist Anthony Manzo and pianist Gilles Vonsattel in Bottesini’s Duetto for Clarinet and Double Bass with Piano. Between two of the fantasias, Palmer did a riff of his own on the diva aspects of the spoken intro, flashing some leg and modeling a sock that was more flamboyant than any I’ve seen on even Nuttall’s feet.

There was more later as Nuttall and his St. Lawrence String Quartet joined Manzo, flutist Tara Helen O’Connor, and pianist Pedja Muzijevic in a cunning reduction of Symphony No. 100 by Haydn, our host’s favorite composer. As Nuttall explained how this “Military” Symphony came by its nickname, you had to wonder where the hellish percussive roar would come from when the second movement started. The answer came during the interval between the opening Adagio-Allegro and the signature Allegretto: emerging from the wings, Palmer marched onstage – literally marched, mind you – harnessed into a big bass marching drum and brandishing two mallets.

It was actually a military parade, since cellist Joshua Roman with a pair of cymbals and violinist Benjamin Bellman with a wee triangle marched in right behind Palmer. Earlier in the concert, right after the Bottesini, these two accomplices had given an absolutely delicious account of Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello. If anything, the exit after Haydn’s second movement, led again by Palmer, was even more ceremonial. Yet there were more surprises to come. Violinist Daniel Phillips (flutist O’Connor’s husband) heralded the opening passages of the Presto finale from the balcony, and Palmer’s percussion trio resurfaced at the rear of the hall to pound, clang, and clink the final measures.

Musically, Palmer’s shining moments came three programs earlier when he played the Beethoven Clarinet Trio with Muzijevic and Roman, while the best of Nuttall came when he led an inspired performance of the Mendelssohn Octet. Some of the inspiration no doubt came from the meet-up between Nuttall’s St. Lawrence Quartet and his newest Spoleto recruits, the Rolston String Quartet. They won the Banff International String Quartet Competition 24 years after the elder Canadian quartet won the same prize in 1992. There were moments when Rolston cellist Jonathan Lo and violist Hezekiah Leung gazed upon Nuttall’s rapt antics – his back-and-forth swaying on the first chair and his spasmodic knee-lifts – with undisguised, wide-eyed wonder, apparently unaware that he played with the same abandon, eccentricity, and charisma when he first came to Spoleto in 1995. Except that his hair was longer then.

Effects of Nuttall’s stewardship now extend beyond the Dock Street Theatre. Two of the chamber music pianists had concerts booked at other venues. Muzijevic, who also traveled to Hamburg to select the new Steinway for the Dock Street series, fashioned a set of “Haydn Dialogues” at the Simons Center Recital Hall – four Papa pieces interspersed with works by Jonathan Berger, Morton Feldman, and (with an alternate prepared piano) John Cage. Stephen Prutsman put on his composing hat at Woolfe Street Playhouse, plucking a string quartet from the Festival Orchestra to score three silent films, “Suspense,” “The Cameraman’s Revenge,” and “Mighty Like a Moose.”

For the past two years, Nuttall has performed at Gaillard Center in chamber music segments of Spoleto Celebration Concerts, further extending his presence. He and his spouse, violinist spouse Livia Sohn formed half of a quartet, including Muzijevic and St. Lawrence cellist Christopher Costanza, in a reduced adaptation from Vivaldi’s L’estro armonico concertos. Until 2013, when oboist James Austin Smith joined his chamber music stable, Nuttall was no more likely to program Vivaldi’s music than Wadsworth was, let alone play it.

What really brought Vivaldi to centerstage at Spoleto was the sensation that countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo created last season in his first three programs at Dock Street. Costanzo didn’t sing Vivaldi then, ranging instead from Handel to Gershwin to Osvaldo Golijov, but it was obvious to he could sing the Red Priest’s rep with a vengeance. Having Costanzo on board to play the title role made it easy to green-light the American premiere of Vivaldi’s Farnace, the most popular of the composer’s operas during his lifetime.

You had to be able to accept the old-timey ethos of death before dishonor to the point of absurdity if you were to reach the end of Antonio Lucchini’s 1727 libretto without guffaws or derisive laughter. Dethroned from the kingdom of Pontus by invaders from Rome, Farnace orders his queen Tamiri to kill their son and herself to avoid the disgrace of captivity. Meanwhile Farnace and his captive sister Selinda separately plot to bring down their conquerors, Roman general Pompeo and his merciless ally, Queen Berenice of Cappadocia, a gargoyle who turns out to be Tamiri’s mom.

Somehow everything sorted out happily. More amazingly, Costanzo managed to bring down the house just before intermission – bemoaning the death of the angelic little son whom he himself condemned to death!

With Costanzo singing two additional Vivaldi arias at the lunchtime concerts and Smith fronting an oboe concerto, the Red Priest explosion was major theme in Spoleto’s 2017 classical music lineup. But the countertenor continued to show his wide range. What I most regretted about skipping the final weekend in Charleston was seeing Costanzo introduce and deliver Roy Orbison’s deathless “Crying!” An 11-piece ensemble, including Palmer and Nuttall, was weeping behind him. Or maybe not.

Lou Harrison and the Fab Four Spark 24 Rapidfire Miniatures at Charlotte New Music Festival

Review:  Charlotte New Music Festival

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

Partnering with UNC Charlotte and picking up prestigious sponsors such as the Knight Foundation and the NEA, the Charlotte New Music Festival continues to draw topnotch composers and musicians for an intriguing variety of workshops, concerts, and competitions. The sixth annual CNMF ran from June 19 through July 1, and I caught the last concert on the final day, which also turned out to be a competition of sorts. Hosted by festival founder and executive artistic director Elizabeth Kowalski, “Contest in the Concert of the Miniatures” presented 24 new pieces written within the space of a week. All of the pieces were performed by members of Pittsburgh’s Beo String Quartet in a wide variety of instrumental configurations, from solo to full quartet, with only two days for the players to learn the music. And just because there were no laptops, Wiimotes, Xboxes, tape loops, or pre-recorded sound, the feel of this concert was anything but retro. The event was staged behind the taproom at the Lenny Boy Brewing Co. in a warehouse ambiance further compromised by mechanical outbursts of brewing activity and spasms of a rainstorm pelting the roof.

Amid this din, I was unable to catch all of Kowalski’s introductory remarks. The audience was configured around the quartet in a roughly circular or octagonal formation two rows deep, providing seating for approximately 60 people. Wooden picnic tables supplied the octagonal component of the seating. What I did make out of Kowalski’s remarks – and from Drew Dolan, program director of the composers workshop, who spoke after the intermission – was that the audience would be voting for the winner of the Contest on their smartphones, with the announcement of the winner following shortly after the concert concluded. Whether this was exactly what happened is open to doubt, since I overheard the winning composer protesting his own victory – on the grounds that he had voted for himself 10 times. Nor could I say how diligently the 24 composers followed the suggestion that their music celebrate the centenary of Lou Harrison or the 50-year anniversary of The Beatles’ landmark album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Opening the concert, Nathan Scalise’s “A Day in Lou Harrison’s Life” addressed both prompts – or at least the title did. A duo for violin and cello, the piece leaned toward Appalachia with its pizzicatos after opening with some weird and evocative cello glisses, clearly an early contender. Other pieces that seemed to address the prompts even obliquely included Ian Wiese’s “Hard Day,” Stephen Wiegel’s “Genesis, Gamelan, and Birth,” and – a solo for viola, and another contender – Zach Davis’s “On a Melody of Lou Harrison.” Writing a quiet piece became a risky strategy at Lenny Boy if you wanted to win. Swallowed up by brewing noises, I couldn’t fully hear or judge the latter stages of Yasha Hoffman’s “Exploration” for solo violin after a variety of bowing effects, but fortune smiled a few pieces later on when Lewis Ingham’s “A Sharper Breath” for two violins and viola premiered. Violinist Jason Neukom called us all together to stand around the trio as they played, helping us. I can’t recall any previous concert where I was close enough to a violinist to see the hairs on his bow arm.

After that unique powwow, notable for the pianissimo harmonics from the other violinist, Sandro Leal Santiesteban, I found Colin Payne’s “Sullivan in Song” for viola and cello to be equally enjoyable, purposeful in its counterpoint. Yet the piece afterwards, “Cogs” by Victor Zheng, won my smartphone vote. Written for violin, viola, and cello, the piece began with a minimalist backbeat from the cello and pizzicatos from the higher strings, coalescing into a wisp of melody, with a propulsive syncopation that reminded me of Bartók quartets. Slowing things down, Chelsea Williamson’s “Portrait of a Concerto” for violin and viola was a shrewd programming placement, a little like the Barber Adagio in its melancholy. No other composition impressed me quite as much before intermission, though cellist Ryan Ash was notably effective playing eerie harmonics, some below his instrument’s bridge, in Chase Jordan’s dark and brooding “Atlantic Opalescence I.”

That and a few other pieces fell short of winning my heartiest approval due to their brevity. To cite one example, Logan Rutledge’s “Problem Child” for violin, viola, and cello sported interesting pizzicatos but ultimately too little development. A fuller architecture could be discerned in Daniel Fawcett’s “ECHOING RISE” for two violins and viola, not unlike Vaughan Williams’ A Lark Ascending but with a more insect-like busyness. Written for the same instrumentation, Tyler Waters’ “The Center of the Circle” spotlighted violist Sean Neukom amid a mist of violin harmonics. Sean figured prominently in the next two compositions that I fancied, converging effectively with Ash in “a glimpse of something passed” after composer Tim Clay launched them on separate paths. Immediately afterwards, the violist brought a nice improvisatory energy to the Davis piece. Not to be outdone, Christopher Miller’s “Experiment 625” for violin and cello had all the kinetic energy of a mad scientist’s lab, harmonious pizzicatos bending toward melody, with the violin briefly taking on a banjo’s timbre.

Concluding the program, Maya Johnson’s “Turn Off Your Mind” was one of just two new pieces written for a full string quartet, with bluegrass flavorings from the violins and the first percussive burst from Ash’s cello all evening long. Together with Williamson’s dirge-like piece and Julie Mitchell’s “Phantasm” for violin and cello – very mainstream until its outbreak of violin pizzicatos – there was evidence that the women composers on the program more readily embraced traditional forms and sounds. But with new European and Asian composers returning toward tonality, it may be argued that these feminine composers are really more au courante, while the lingering iconoclasm, electronica, and academic nerdiness that still prevail across the USA are exactly what is isolating America from the new millennium of classical music.

Don’t get me wrong. There was a discernable difference overall between the four compositions by women and the more outré works I heard from the men, but not a radical one. More memorable, as the members of the Beo Quartet acknowledged the composers strewn among the audience, was sense of community. Seated in a circle as we were, it was impossible to ignore the expressions of joy on the faces of the composers as they listened to their new works being played for the first time. Those joyous expressions remained even when the compositions weren’t their own – even when those sounds were mostly swallowed by a sea of brewing suds and the clatter of falling rain.

 

Chicklet Is Back – All Five of Her!!

Preview: Psycho Beach Party @ The Warehouse PAC

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By Perry Tannenbaum

Odd juxtapositions like ketchup and cantaloupe don’t always work on your taste buds. But in comedy, the results can be spectacular. Ranging far beyond the incongruities of The Odd Couple, actor/playwright Charles Busch created a sea of contrasts and hairpin turns for himself, bridging the gap between Gidget and Alfred Hitchcock in Psycho Beach Party.

Combining the sunny surfboard innocence of Gidget with the multiple personalities that marked Marnie, the title character of a Hitchcock thriller, Busch became Chicklet in 1987, tossing flamboyant cross-dressing into the mix. Four years later, Alan Poindexter brought the role to Charlotte at the Pterodactyl Club under the direction of George Brown, a prime reason why the future artistic director of Children’s Theatre took CL’s Actor of the Year honors for 1991.

Fast-forward to 2017 as The Warehouse brings Psycho Beach to Cornelius for a three-week run starting on Friday. The most recent sighting of a Busch lampoon in Charlotte was The Divine Sister in 2013, preceded by Queen City Theatre Company’s Die Mommie Die in 2008. Psycho Beach hasn’t washed ashore anywhere in the Metrolina region since BareBones Theatre Group produced it – for a second consecutive season – in 2005.

Busch pretty much surrendered his enfant terrible status when he crafted a Broadway hit, The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, in 2002. In an age when importance is gauged by what’s on people’s tongues and in their tweets, Busch’s trusty Hollywood targets – Gidget, Hitchcock, Psycho, Joan Crawford – have also lost traction.

You have to explain a lot of the once-familiar references to today’s audiences. Same goes for today’s actors. Jesse Pritchard, who takes on the role of Chicklet, admits to a learning curve.

“I was not familiar at all with the play,” he says. “It seemed funny, and so I wanted to try it out. I did have a bit of a brain blast looking into all of the different cultural references that the play portrays, but other than that, it all came over pretty well.”

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Chicklet is your basic beachcombing ingénue, innocent and wholesome, hoping to capture the eye of ace surfboarder Kanaka. Embedded within the demure Chicklet is the personality of dominatrix Ann Bowman, whose desires go far beyond The Great Kanaka, all the way to world dominance.

And there’s far more lurking inside of Chicklet, expanding the diva role.

“I don’t even think I know all her personalities yet,” Pritchard confides. “Tylene is a bit of a stretch, a strong black woman in a loving relationship. She may be the biggest stretch because it’s hard for me to embody her truthfully. Doctor Rose Mayer is like the mom of the group. The accent is a bit much, but I feel like I’ve made headway with her. Steve is also fun, the male model.”

Behind all this pathology? That’s where Joan Crawford gets layered on, channeled into Chicklet’s harpy mother, Mrs. Forrest. Two divas will dominate Warehouse’s diminutive storefront stage, with Mara Rosenberg taking on the Mommie Dearest allusions.

Presiding over the auditions, director Vito Abate liked Pritchard’s stage presence and his ability to capture Chicklet’s girlish innocence. But of course, the comedy needs to go nuclear.

“I was fortunate enough to have Mara and Jesse audition together,” Abate reveals, “and there were instant fireworks and a connection between them. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Mara before, as an actor and director. I knew she would be good fit for the role. She captured the passive-aggressive nature of Mrs. Forrest, and I knew she’d enjoy taking on the different ages and aspects of the character.”

A mainstay at Theatre Charlotte, where he originated the Just Do It series, Abate’s most recent wallow in trashiness came when he directed Sordid Lives at Spirit Square last fall. That production featured Ann Walker as LaVonda, reprising the role she played onscreen and in the TV series.

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Both of those stages dwarf the storefront in Cornelius where Abate will be bringing his Beach. That suits him fine.

“The intimacy of the Warehouse really lends itself to the fluid nature of this show,” Abate insists. “Every time I see a production in this space, I have a sense of being part of something quite special happening between the actors and the audience, and it’s a unique theatre experience. The title of the play strongly suggests a party and that’s exactly what we plan on delivering!”

Abate got a taste of that intimacy as a performer when he appeared in Fuddy Meers three years ago. In the eight-year history of Warehouse Performing Arts Center, Fuddy Meers, along with Wonder of the World and Mr. Marmalade, has been as edgy as it gets. Red, Sylvia, Road to Mecca, Last of the Red Hot Lovers, and An Empty Plate at the Café du Grand Boeuf are the more customary style of wares at 9216-A Westmoreland Road.

Boomer nostalgia and the silly summer season may prove that the time – and the tide – are right for bringing the smuttiness and perversion of Psycho Beach to Cornelius. America has evolved so much in the 30 years since Busch introduced Chicklet & Co. that’s it’s likely politically incorrect to call anything in Psycho Beach smutty or perverted anymore.

“The first group sale [of tickets] was several weeks ago and it was from a senior community in Davidson!” says Abate. “It’s summertime and in my opinion it’s always time to laugh, and this is a perfect show for both. I’m sure many who come will be fans of the movie, some of Charles Busch, and others just out to see a comedy.”

Pritchard’s Charlotte debut back in February, as the Clybourne Park emissary in A Raisin in the Sun, didn’t exactly give him the chance to show off his comedic talents. But he feels like Chicklet is nearer to his wheelhouse than Karl Lindner. Down at Winthrop University, where he earned his Performing Arts degree, Pritchard did some cross-dressing as the sidekick in Leading Ladies, and he logged additional comic turns at Rock Hill Community Theatre, including Hillbilly Hankerin’.

He takes direction well, according to Abate. But there’s a reason for that: “Vito definitely has a vision and a keen eye to detail,” says Pritchard, “and so I’m working to make it just as he sees it.”

Abate has been very satisfied with his cast as opening night approaches, and he’s confident that his dueling divas will shine brighter afterwards. “I expect their chemistry to grow during the course of the run, with a mix of typical teenage mother-daughter relationship stuff with some severe psychological and behavioral problems thrown in.”

More Empathy for a Barbaric Monarch in the Touring “King and I”

Review: The King and I

Laura Michelle Kelly, Baylen Thomas and Graham Montgomery in Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I. Photo by Matthew Murphy

By: Perry Tannenbaum

When I saw The King and I presented on a thrust stage at the Stratford Festival of Canada in the summer of 2003, I struggled for superlatives, convinced that this was the best production of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic that I’d ever see. While the Asian spectacle and the beloved R&H hit parade were given their due, both were subordinated under Susan Schulman’s direction to the conviction that this is a theatre classic, presented on a thrust stage at Stratford’s marvelous Festival Theatre.

Though I heard wonderful things about the recent Lincoln Center production at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre – another thrust stage – I was reluctant to risk disappointment in comparing Bartlett Sher’s direction to Schulman’s. Well, the touring version that has just touched down in Charlotte dispels my doubts. Leaning more toward spectacle and theatricality, unafraid of a cliché or two, Sher’s King and I took me by surprise with its emotional power.

Wonders begin early, with the prow of a large ship sailing onto the stage, surely astonishing when it docked at the Vivian Beaumont in New York and no less amazing as part of the touring production now at Belk Theater. A few minutes later, when Anna Leonowens and her young son Louis debark in Bangkok for their adventures in the royal palace of Siam, we realize that getting the ship off the stage gracefully is a feat that easily equals bringing it on. Doing it while simulating the bustle of Bangkok adds to the delight.

Laura Michelle Kelly as Anna and the Royal Children of Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I. Photo by Matthew Murphy

One of the enduring hallmarks of Hammerstein’s book is the culture clash between the starchy propriety of the British teacher, Anna, and the silky sensuality of the Siamese. Catherine Zuber resplendently represents the clash in her costume designs – whether it’s the eye-popping colors worn by the King’s wives and children or the frilly hoop skirts that give Anna her aura. Yet there’s a political undercurrent that widens the gulf: Anna hails from an empire ruled by a woman, Queen Victoria, while the King claims superiority over all his subjects and expects absolute submission from all his wives.

Laura Michelle Kelly and Jose Llana in Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I. Photo by Matthew Murphy

Constantly reminding him of his promise to house her outside the palace while she teaches his wives and children, Anna astounds the King with her uppity-ness and tenacity. Were it not for the efforts of the King’s chief wife, Lady Thiang, to hold things together, this doomed relationship would quickly disintegrate. Sher deftly underscores Thiang’s subterranean feminism, so Joan Almedilla’s “Something Wonderful,” usually sung as a desperate supplication, emphasizes Thiang’s nobility – easily the most emotionally shattering moment of the show.

Raw realism is at the heart of this appeal. You can guide him to self-fulfillment. I cannot.

The most dramatic moment occurs where the three main plotlines converge. Early on, Tuptim is presented to the King as a gift wife from the ruler of Burma – by Lun Tha, the Burmese emissary whom Tuptim actually loves. The third storyline, the King’s attempt to impress British officials and debunk reports that he is a barbarian, propels much of the action, elevating Anna’s usefulness to the King and hatching the famed “Small House of Uncle Thomas” play-within-the-play.

After this triumphant presentation, Tuptim is caught trying to run away with Lun Tha, and we get the most forceful denouement I’ve ever seen in any production of this musical. When chief minister Kralahome (a wonderfully stolid Brian Rivera) tells Anna, “You have destroyed the King,” we can believe it.

Jose Llana is stern and imperious enough as the King of Siam when he needs to be, but he infuses more hearty mischief into navigating his difficulties with Anna, adding to the notion that, yes, she could be a little more indulgent and understanding. Complementing that portrayal, Laura Michelle Kelly never stints on Anna’s primness, firmly distancing herself from intimacy and sexuality until the moments when the charming rapprochement between the schoolmarm and the King reach peak temperature in “Shall We Dance?”

Kelly’s “Hello, Young Lovers” reads as a matronly approval of love from someone who has renounced it for herself, so it’s delicious to discover that old friend Sir Edward Ramsey – a veddy British Baylen Thomas – perceives this renunciation so much more readily than the King. Deflecting the question of whether the King is a blindly driven barbarian in his lusts, Hammerstein skirted the tender issue of whether the Siamese monarch ever took advantage of Tuptim.

The cast of Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I. Photo by Matthew Murphy_edited-1That opens a path for Manna Nichols to sing her solos and duets as Tuptim with liberated strength, expanding upon the intelligence that was always hers when she presided over the “Uncle Thomas” ballet. Kavin Panmeechao adjusts beautifully as Lun Tha in the duets, not quite as regal as his lover but admirable in his steadfastness.

All the silky cutesiness of the small fry is retained in “The March of Siamese Children,” but the two prime youths both count as the story unfolds. Each in his own fashion, Graham Montgomery as Louis Leonowens and Anthony Chan as Prince Chulalongkorn, the heir to the throne, is modeling the aristocratic discipline we expect of a first-born. More than Montgomery, Chan gets to model the realization that our parents aren’t perfect – and that we must move on from there.

The lessons are more meaningful for the Prince, who is the last of Anna’s students to show his appreciation for the very best in her, her maternal love. It’s a key reason why this edition of The King and I ends up feeling so warm and satisfying when all the fundamental disagreements between the title characters have played out and the Prince sets forth on a new path.

 

CPCC’s Comedy of Tenors Has Plenty of Doors and Plenty of Farce

Review: Comedy of Tenors

By: Perry Tannenbaum

Ken Ludwig has written over 20 plays and musicals over the past quarter of a century, nine of which have now been presented in Charlotte. While the books for his two Gershwin musicals, Crazy for You and An American in Paris, display his craftsmanship, Ludwig’s most enduring comedy is undoubtedly his first Broadway hit, Lend Me a Tenor. First produced in 1989, Tenor was converted to a London musical in 2011, after a Broadway revival the previous season. So why shouldn’t the playwright entertain the notion of recycling his Tenor characters into a sequel? The idea evidently seems so natural to Central Piedmont Community College Summer Theatre, an organization that rarely produces a musical or a comedy that isn’t at least a decade old, that it has brought A Comedy of Tenors to Pease Auditorium less than two years after it premiered in Cleveland.

Ludwig brings back the arrogant and flamboyant Italian tenor Tito Merelli and his wife Maria, both highly passionate and usually squabbling. Impresario Henry Saunders, formerly the GM of the Cleveland Grand Opera, is now bringing the greatest concert in the history of opera to Paris, still as nervous, domineering, and hot-tempered as before. Saunders is provoked, but it isn’t by his son-in-law and former assistant Max, whose singing prowess was discovered in Cleveland a farce ago. Max is now on the bill as one of the four tenors who will wow Paris, but his father-in-law feels free to yank him out of rehearsals anyway to deal with the crisis du jour.

Fresh blood stirs up the fresh complications and misunderstandings. Back in Cleveland, it was Saunders’ daughter who was the victim of mistaken identities. Now she’s back in Cleveland, married to Max, and on the verge of delivering his first child. Instead, it’s Tito’s daughter Mimi who is our ingénue, embarking on a similar path of confusion. She’s in love with the third tenor on the bill, Carlo, but they haven’t yet summoned the nerve to divulge their marriage plans to her parents. In the hurly-burly of evading discovery by the Merellis, Carlo tells Maria of his plans to marry her daughter, but the eavesdropping Tito gets a vivid impression that his wife has become Carlo’s sex slave. On the flipside of this specious reason for jealousy, a real one happens to be in town, Russian soprano Tatiana Racon, Tito’s old flame. Almost forgot: on the day of the performance, the fourth tenor, Jussi Björling, cancels to attend his mother’s funeral. They will need to replace him.

Besides the repeating characters, the hotel suite setting, performer dropouts, and the last-minute frenzy of preparing to go onstage, there are other holdover motifs that link Ludwig’s Tenor farces. Both of them have pesky bellhops, both have fast-forward mashups of the entire show before the final bows, and whether your access route is Shakespeare or Verdi, there are comical uses of Othello to watch out for in both pieces – more subtly done in this newer farce. Under the direction of Carey Kugler, that’s about all the subtlety you will find, for the script offers an abundance of physical comedy. Slapping, frantic hiding, broad suggestions of sexual activity, and a plateful of tongue are all on the menu. There is scurrying galore during the countdown to the concert, and Biff Edge’s scenic design provides four doors plus a patio looking out on the outdoors for farcical entrances and exits.

This is 1936, so Ludwig could easily be forgiven for making his operatic saga all about the men. Yet the women aren’t altogether objectified, and they certainly aren’t marginalized. The Russian temptress Racon can carry herself like an established diva, and we sense that Mimi isn’t destined to be a hausfrau either, since she is embarking on a movie career – a happenstance that enables costume designer Rachel Hines to expand the fashion gallery beyond eveningwear, formalwear, and lingerie. Nor is Maria, Ludwig’s Desdemona, the same pure and worshipful seraph we find in Shakespeare. In addition to the vamping, it’s the women who have the lionesses’ share of the slapping and straddling.

Drugged and suicidal in the previous Lend Me a Tenor, Tito emerges as our hero in the sequel, supplanting Max. Surely this is Craig Estep’s finest hour in straight comedy as Tito and his lookalike, the pathologically talkative bellhop, though a couple of provisos might be added. First, he does sing here, since the three tenors are destined to rehearse the “Libiamo!” from La Traviata, and Estep’s previous hookup with James K. Flynn in Monty Python’s Spamalot was certainly a CPCC Summer Theatre gem in 2013. Flynn could have been eyeing the Tito role for himself, yet he’s perfectly cast as Saunders, just sympathetic enough in panic mode to prevent us from finding him loathsome in his overbearing moments. Winston Smith doesn’t have as much to do as Max as he would have had in Lend Me, but when it came time to sing the trio, he proved capable of holding his own with Estep. As it turned out, Max wasn’t in total eclipse. Eventually, he’s the one who untangled all the twists that Ludwig had put in the plot. Gabe Saienni got far more of a workout as Carlo, hiding from his future in-laws and fleeing from Tito’s deluded jealousy, so he had to sustain his terror of Tito while remaining worthy of Mimi’s love. The only real problem in Saienni’s performance was in the trio, where he was vocally a weak link.

If I could have heard them better, I would probably find myself saying that Taffy Allen as Maria and Amanda Becker as Mimi were marvelous. Loudness wasn’t the issue. I’m leaning toward my wife Sue’s theory on Allen: the thickness of her Italian accent was probably the main barrier between Maria and me. Allen has crossed over into midlife just enough to make her credible as Tito’s wife, and her aggressive attempts to reconcile with her husband were even funnier than her previous fawning on Carlo. Deep into Act 2, when sexual activity runs rampant, Allen got a chance to be jealous that she definitely didn’t waste. Becker’s audibility problems seemed to stem from a rush to adhere to Kugler’s snappy pacing. But I found her attitude delectable, both as a daughter and future bride, and her jealousy, punctuated by right-handed and left-handed slaps, could hardly have been better when Mimi suspected Carlo of carrying on with her mom.

Caroline Renfro didn’t enter the fray as Racon until Act 2, but it was pretty funny when she did, since the glamorous diva instantly devoured the incredulous bellhop with her pent-up passion, mistaking him for Tito. Old flame or not, Renfro had the moves and the looks to make that old flame new. Still in a generous mood, Racon agrees to add her soprano voice to the concert, presumably because the bellhop will be a new-made star after it’s over. I’m not sure that this extra episode was as savvy as the rest of Ludwig’s script, since it required a pair of hurried scene changes. At Pease Auditorium, this final segment literally hit a snag when the curtain that had been drawn over the hotel suite to simulate the backstage scene at the opera house got stuck before we reverted to the hotel for the fast-forward rehash of the entire play. When frantic actors and stagehands finally freed to curtain so it could slide back into the wings, the audience burst into applause. More laughter ensued as Kugler’s recap, even faster than the pace that had previously prevailed, was tossed off with an overacted style truly befitting a silent film.

“Fun Home” Strikes a New Balance on Tour

Fun Home

Review:  Fun Home

By Perry Tannenbaum

Every show that wins a Tony Award for Best Play or Best Musical doesn’t necessarily bowl me over when I head to New York to critique it. Fun Home was one winner that proved itself worthy of all its accolades – five Tonys – and more. The biggest differences between that Broadway production and the current touring version in Charlotte are Knight Theater and Charlotte native Abby Corrigan.

Tightly adapted by Lisa Kron from Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel, with an exceptionally varied and emotional score by Kroon and Jeanine Tesori, Fun Home revolves around two complex characters: Alison and her troubled, multi-faceted dad. Bruce is a charismatic English teacher, a visual artist, a restorer of dilapidated houses, a connoisseur of antiques, and owner of the family business, the Bechdels’ funeral home. On the other side of the ledger, Alison’s dad is a neatness-and-control freak.

He’s also a closeted homosexual who preys on underage boys, not above taking advantage of his own students.

So while Alison, played by a succession of three actors, is on a path to discovering her own gay sexuality and becoming a cartoonist, she’s also on a collision course with the truth about her father. Bruce, the meticulous and domineering dad, is on a more fearsome path – to isolation, self-loathing, and suicide.Fun Home

Mostly used for symphony and dance, Knight Theater is probably the best place in town for replicating the Broadway musical experience, markedly better than Belk Theater. But Fun Home wasn’t at a typical Broadway theater for its New York run. At Circle in the Square, the audience surrounded the stage, and when Alison and her two brothers sang “Come to the Fun Home,” a singing advertisement for the funeral home that is the antithesis of solemnity, the three siblings seemed to explode out towards us.

At the Knight, all the action is flattened, and the Bechdel kids merely circle around each other. David Zinn’s scenic pieces seem disappointingly unchanged at first, two-dimensional and cramped on the Knight stage, but during the latter half of the show (there’s no intermission), Zinn exploits the resources of a proscenium stage. Medium Allison’s homecoming becomes more of an event when we see the funeral parlor again.

Corrigan plays the pivotal Middle Allison, flanked by tomboyish Carly Gold as Small Alison and Kate Shindle as the mature, emphatically butch Alison who narrates, often with sketchpad in hand. Gold is every bit as exuberant and appealing as her Broadway counterpart, but it’s Shindle who brings new life – and heartache – to our narrator with a more powerful, penetrating voice.

While both Small Allison and mature Allison are recognizably in the same Broadway mold that won director Sam Gold his Tony Award, Corrigan strikes me as a notably different transitional figure between her younger and older selves. On Broadway, Emily Skeggs leaned more toward the sunny exuberance of Small Allison grown to college age. Corrigan is more of an awkward foreshadowing of the comparatively subdued and serious elder Allison.09FunHomeTour0126r.jpg

As a result, when Medium Allison quickly succumbs to the attractions of Joan and liberates her lesbian leanings, Corrigan gets the same comedy mileage from her anthemic “I’m changing my major to Joan,” but with less raucous exuberance in her delivery. There’s more in-the-moment pragmatism to Corrigan’s take, as if she’s afraid of waking the object of her adoration as she lies sleeping on her bed – or just afraid of breaking an unbelievable magic spell. It’s very effective, and theatergoers seeing Fun Home for the first time will find it hard to imagine “Changing My Major” sung any other way.

With the three touring Allisons more than holding their own versus the original Broadway cast, there’s a further gravitational shift when Robert Petkoff as Bruce doesn’t match the bigger-than-life dimensions of Tony winner Michael Carveris. Amplitude is the difference with Petkoff, not detail, for he expertly navigates all the twists and turns of Bruce’s complexity. In a way, this is beneficial, for the importance of his character and Allison’s development are more evenly balanced on tour.

Further diluting Bruce’s dominance is the steely performance of Susan Moniz as his stoical wife, Helen. It was Moniz who opened my eyes to the Chekhovian dimensions of Kron’s book, for her silences were the first that spoke loudly to me on opening night, and her “Days and Days” had a martyred nobility. Moments later in the show, silence is very much the point when Alison is alone with Bruce in their climactic confrontation, where Shindle suddenly shifts from narrator to actor in the devastating “Telephone Wire” drive.

As Joan, Kally Duling seduces with a self-confident swagger, and Zinn’s costume design underlines her casual sophistication. But Duling never gets a solo, either to comment on Alison or the Bechdels. That’s symptomatic of the only problem I have with the show. Clocking in at 92 minutes on Tuesday, Kron’s script is too tight. It needs to breathe more, maybe as far as – danger ahead! – examining Alison’s feelings about her dad more closely. Yet there’s no denying that Fun Home is truly fun while it lasts, with plenty to mull over afterwards.

 

 

 

Music to a Mother’s Ears

Preview: Abby Corrigan Comes Home in Fun Home

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By Perry Tannenbaum

 

There’s an unforgettably wanton, lascivious, and joyful song nearly halfway through Fun Home, the Tony Award-winning musical that rolls into town next week. Based on cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel, Lisa Kron’s script splits our hero in three, the middle-aged Alison who tells us the story and the two younger Alisons, Small and Medium, who live it out.

Small Alison absorbs the first, often misleading impressions of her parents, Bruce and Helen. It’s Medium Alison who discovers the revelatory truths – about her own lesbian leanings and about her dad’s sexual pathology – after she goes off to college. The bold, beautiful, and seductive Joan sets Alison straight about herself, so it’s Medium Alison who gets to jubilantly proclaim, “I’m changing my major to Joan!” as her first and most important college lesson.

Charlotte native Abby Corrigan gets to sing this showstopping song beginning on Tuesday at Knight Theater in what figures to be a triumphant homecoming.

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It’s certainly a sudden change in fortune for the young actress, who turned 19 in February – but not a surprise to those of us who have seen Corrigan perform. She leapt onto the local scene in 2008, while she was still a 10-year-old, as the incorrigible Gladys Herdman in the Children’s Theatre production of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.

Corrigan remained on our radar, playing prominent roles in 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee down in Rock Hill, Next to Normal at Queen City Theatre Company, and delivering a riveting epileptic seizure to climax The Effect of Gamma Rays at CPCC. As the daughter of Mike and Mitzi Corrigan, both of whom acted in Charlotte Repertory Theatre productions, Abby figured to have acting talent.

But Mom, a talent agent and casting director who has a professional’s detachment, saw vivid signs of Abby’s gifts long before she became the Herald Angel shouting “Shazzam!” as Gladys.

“The first time I knew that she had something really special to offer,” says Mitzi, “was when she was 6 years old and we did a backyard production of The Lion King. She was Nala, and when she sang ‘Shadowland,’ I was bowled over by how she became that character and I thought to myself, ‘Wow, where did that come from?!’”

Knowing full well that you need intense passion and inner drive to survive in showbiz, Mitzi never pushed. Abby did plenty of that. At the age of 12, Abby and friend Matt Mitchell started their own theatre company, Treehouse Acting Company, mounting their first production at CAST in NoDa. The following year, Abby, Matt, and two other collaborators staged an original musical, Cybersoul, tackling a range of issues that included drug addiction, bullying, suicide, and homophobia.

You hear about precocious actors – many have paraded in and out of the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte spotlight over the years. But have you heard of anyone else who started a theatre company and co-wrote a mature musical before the age of 15?

“It really was off the charts,” Mitzi agrees. “I became good friends with Matt’s mom and we wanted to help them find ways to pursue their dreams. Because producing backyard plays had become such a regular occurrence in our existence, it seemed like a natural step to encourage them to produce their own plays.”

Of course, Abby didn’t think about measuring her ambitions against any norms. According to her mom, acting must be something you have to do in order to breathe if you wish to succeed. That’s how it has always been with Abby. She remembers loving to imitate animals when she was very young, convincing herself that she was truly what she pretended to be. Mom and Dad tried to deflect her into sports, but tee-ball never took.

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“I wanted to show people that I could become anything,” Abby recalls. “As a kid, I would’ve played all the parts if I could have, and I wanted other kids to want to play along with me. I also think Matt and I wanted to play parts that we were too young to play. We would design sets and cast shows we wanted to do for fun, but we wanted to really do the work and make it happen.”

Inevitably, Abby’s talents and drive took her to Northwest School of the Arts, where her theatre exploits – starring in Cabaret, Shrek, and Peter Pan – took her on a rollercoaster ride. At her peaks, Abby was a finalist for Best Actress honors two years in a row at the Blumey Awards, winning a trip to New York for her Princess Fiona in Shrek and a chance to compete against winners from across the country at the national Jimmy Awards, the holy grail of high school theatre prizes.

Just as that brass ring was within sight, the opportunity to perform in front of top Broadway professionals vanished. Initially misdiagnosed in ER, Abby’s appendix ruptured, sending her back into the hospital, and she had to give us her spot at the Jimmys to the Blumey runner-up. Opportunity lost, but Abby was happy just to be alive. She returned to Belk Theater the following season, once again performing onstage as one of the Blumey finalists, but she didn’t win.

“I didn’t want to win that year,” Abby says. “I just wanted to do ‘Ugg-a-Wugg’ with my cast because it was so much fun to scream and bang the ground with sticks onstage as Peter Pan. I mean, come on. That’s what should matter. Not an award.”

Peter_TigerLilyAbby wasn’t totally exiled from New York because of her misfortune and subsequent defeat. For a couple of summers, she participated in a Destination Broadway theatre camp where the musical director was conductor Michael Rafter. So happens that Rafter is the ex-husband of Jeanine Tesori, who wrote music for the “Changing My Major” song – and the entire Fun Home score. When Mitzi invited Rafter to be the keynote speaker at a NW School of the Arts fundraiser, he informed her about Fun Home auditions.

Opportunity was knocking again, but how ready was Abby for it? Medium Alison doesn’t merely participate in this touring version of Fun Home, she drives the action.

“Yes, I about peed myself walking in the audition room those three times,” Abby confesses. The last two of those auditions were in front of three Tony Award winners – Kron, Tesori, and stage director Sam Gold. “I’d never wanted anything more in my life. After my first audition, the casting director gave me tickets to see it on Broadway, and I knew I had to do the show. I just wanted to eat the script/score whole.”

There are easier people to reach than Gold, especially during this year’s Tony Awards weekend, when he was up for a second Best Director trophy for his work on A Doll’s House, Part 2. Busy as he is, he had no trouble remembering Abby’s audition from a year ago, when she was still 18.

“Abby’s audition was one of the best and most memorable of my career,” Gold tells me. “It was like seeing the character of Medium Alison in front of me. She had worked very hard on the material and it was deeply felt, full of detail and comic timing, and she exuded confidence. When we spoke after, she said she was about to graduate, and I said, ‘What college do you go to?’ She said, ‘from high school!’ I couldn’t believe the poise and professionalism I saw was coming from an actor who would barely be of age for the tour.”

Both the poise and the professionalism are somewhat paradoxical in an actor who says she’s constantly striving to maintain the curiosity, fearlessness, and joy of a kid when she works – but her mom finds that onstage poise is just as genuine offstage. Time and again, Mitzi has come across the rejection, the ugly desperation, the deformed egos, and the over-swelled sense of entitlement that stalk theatre people – and she has seen the beauty and happiness it brings to Abby.

“Letting her go has been the hardest thing in the world for me,” Mitzi admits, “but she continually reassures me by saying, ‘Don’t worry mom. I’ve got this!’ Those words are like music to a mother’s ears.”

 

“A Chorus Line” @ CP Remains as Fresh as Ever – in Spots

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Review:  A Chorus Line

By Perry Tannenbaum

Simple and realistic – while obeying the classic theatre unities of ancient Greece – Michael Bennett’s A Chorus Line, with music by Marvin Hamlisch, was the coolest Broadway musical around, keeping its cachet for years after it opened in 1975. Part of the “singular sensation” was that it dispensed with the fripperies of musical theatre and humanized the quixotic kids auditioning for a precious few slots in the dancing chorus of a new Broadway show.

With the director, Zach, stepping out into the audience as he fires interview questions at the 17 finalists for the eight slots, the “singular sensation” dissolves the make-believe world of musicals – if we’ll only believe that each finalist is speaking directly to us as he or she responds to Zach. A whole new generation immersed itself in Bennett’s choreography, Hamlisch’s music, and the book by James Kirkwood and Nicolas Dante. Keeping step with Edward Kleban’s lyrics for the iconic “One” became a rite of passage.

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As the show sidles into Halton Theater for the first time, we can see the many spots in the simple fabric that are showing their wear in this briskly-paced CPCC Summer Theatre production directed by choreographer Tod A. Kubo. Much of the wear possibly comes from the success of Chorus Line. If the show didn’t exactly invent audition jitters and drama, it certainly helped open the floodgates for the more frequent depictions we see nowadays.

While simple candor may have been an edgy concept 40+ years ago, we can see easily enough that Kirkwood and Dante didn’t go overboard in their script. “I Can Do That,” “Sing,” and “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three” all seem to fit comfortably into the twinkling heyday of Neil Simon, rather cutesy and glib for many who are plunging into the Glee world of today. The format simulates candor, but the content takes a while arriving at depth.CENTRAL_THEA_AChorusLine(Cyrus_Performance)_090

So despite the effervescence that Kubo infuses into this production with his direction and choreography, I found myself only lightly engaged until we had skated through most of the narratives about the dancers’ past. When we arrive at the present drama between Zach and his former love, Cassie – drama happening right before our eyes – even first-timers may experience that jolt reminding them how mundane an audition is compared to real conflict and drama.

Or maybe not: I’ve heard that American Idol and America’s Got Talent, glorified auditions both, are fairly popular.

While the three previous productions that I’ve seen during this century alone have eroded my susceptibility, I did find Tony Wright – the one performer who doesn’t sing – freshly compelling as Zach. Doubling as the production’s dance captain, Meredith Fox has more than enough dancing individuality as Cassie to match the arc of her character, and the embers of past flames spark as she and Zach struggle to arrive at some kind of romantic closure while she reboots her aspirations and career.

CENTRAL_THEA_AChorusLine(Cyrus_Performance)_135Paul, another role that doesn’t draw a solo vocal, is the other finalist who brings the action forcefully into the present – thanks to Tyler Dema’s affecting vulnerability as he uncovers the reasons why Paul finds it impossible to open up in front of his fellow dancers. Zach’s private huddle with Paul is another highlight in Wright’s performance as well. Eleni Demos, new this season to CP, deserves a shout-out as Diana. Answering Zach’s most disturbing question, she ably leads “What I Did for Love” – the enduring anthem of A Chorus Line.

So many newcomers play out their auditions on the Halton stage, an encouraging omen for the future. Even more heartening, the house was filled, up to and including the top row in the balcony. Best reminders of the stalwarts who have matriculated at CP Summer in previous seasons were Susannah Upchurch as the tone-deaf Kristine and Lexie Wolfe as the pint-sized Val, saddled with all those “tits and ass” refrains.

There were murmurs in my row that the fit of the iconic Chorus Line uniforms wasn’t as tack-sharp as it should be. Too bulky or wrinkly? Perhaps, but Barbi Van Schaick’s costumes certainly had sufficient dazzle teamed with Biff Edge’s scene design and Gary Sivak’s lighting. More concerning was the relapse in the Halton sound system. Levels never seemed to be right for long, too loud for the singing, too soft for the speaking, and often unclear for both. More equipment and more sound techs might have helped.

 

 

“Squawks” Hasn’t Sharpened Its Claws

Review:  Charlotte Squawks 13

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By Perry Tannenbaum

The time seemed so ripe for a Charlotte Squawks makeover. Since last year’s Squawks 12: Twelve Angry Hens, Charlotte has been rocked by the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, the riots Uptown, the shame of national headlines, and the awkward agonies of our mayor and police chief. Rescinding the liberalized treatment for our LGBTQ community that led to the notorious HB2 law from Raleigh lawmakers, Charlotte received zilch for its concession, another Queen City humiliation.

So when the word came out that Squawks 13, riffing on the Apollo space drama, would be subtitled Charlotte, We Have a Problem, I held out the hope that Squawks might transcend its ducky cartoon logo and address substantial issues. Sharpen its feeble claws into angry talons.

Instead, the familiar formulas and musical parody format established over the years by producer-director Mike Collins and writer Brian Kahn remained intact. New wine was poured into the old bottles, presented by a slightly altered cast of admirable performers, with customary sensory overload provided by three big screen monitors – streaming memes, produced by John Merrick, that ran simultaneously with Kahn’s parodies.

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Lightweight eggs laid by Kahn rolled in one after another, foredoomed by their safe, jejune subjects: parodies targeting rampant Charlotte construction, pussyhats, the craft brewery craze, airport delays, Carolina Panther concussion injuries. Subjects that didn’t figure to deliver hilarity consistently fulfilled their dismal potential. While it certainly was a brave public service for somebody to tell Mayor Jennifer Roberts to do something about her hair, the assault wasn’t the thunderbolt I’d hoped for.

Keith Scott, the Uptown riots, and Police Chief Kerr Putney? Never mentioned.

Not surprisingly, Kahn fares better when he abandons Squawks 13’s implied purpose of taking on Charlotte and its foibles. He finds more fertile soil ranging into more open, less threatening frontiers where the deer, the antelope, and latenight TV comedians roam. Modeled after B.B. King’s raging blues, “The Bill Is Gone” is a lusty attack on the homophobic HB2, and “Give Us Our Way, We’re Republicans” after intermission is a delicious second helping.

Our tweeter-in-chief also draws fire early and late, “Tweet Commotion” before the break eclipsed by “I Deny This Scheme” – with its Donald-Putin innuendo – after intermission. Lest you think Act 2 is pure gold compared to what precedes, beware: successive takedowns of memes, former guv McCrory, Bill Reilly, and Starbucks are all lyrically toothless (though three of the parodied songs are catchy). Collins and his cast make a nice point about the inane predictability of Charlotte 5, but the mockery of Luke Kuechly’s local CPI ad doesn’t even achieve the mediocrity it aspires to.

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Collins’ opening monologue and his stints behind the Squawks newsdesk with Johanna Jowett are still punchy, and the new parodies poured into “Bad Day” are worth keeping the annual reprise of Daniel Powter’s song alive. But CMPD’s blunders throughout the Keith Scott debacle merited a spot on the roster of shame.

There’s always an element of schadenfreude watching Collins and his cohorts trying to deal with Linda Booth’s glitzy choreography. Aside from Jowett’s sassy irony, I’m addicted to the annual shots of brassy phoniness that Robbie Jaeger delivers. A new sensation is added to the brash Squawks bird this year, Nkeki Obi-Melekwe, who was last on my radar in 2014 as a Blumey Award nominee. That was three years after she represented Central Academy of Technology and Arts Performing Arts Academy from Monroe at the North Carolina Theatre Conference State Play Festival – and took home Outstanding Achievement in Acting honors.

Pairing Obi-Melekwe with Jaeger in the two “Thrill Is Gone” segments is a masterstroke, giving Jaeger a chance to blaze through his half of the blues shouts with white-boy chutzpah and Obi-Melekwe a chance to torch hers with the authentic flame. These showdown performances, half hilarious and half thrilling, upstage the parodies. So I’m hoping something equally loathsome will be gone over the next 12 months, just so I can see Robbie and Nkeki doin’ it again.

Dee Dee and Charles Do It Their Way

Review:  Spoleto Festival USA Jazz

By Perry Tannenbaum

Dee Dee Bridgewater didn’t exactly say that a diva can sing any damn thing she pleases. But she came damn close. Kicking off the Wells Fargo Jazz concerts at this year’s Spoleto Festival USA, Bridgewater told the crowd at Cistern Yard that it was tough luck if we didn’t get the memo: now that she has been named among the NEA Jazz Masters for 2017, she feels like she’s earned the privilege to take a break from jazz and move in a new direction.

As she introduced her supporting cast, six pieces plus two backup singers called the Memphis Soulphony, Bridgewater told us that her detour was taking her back to the soul and blues of her hometown. So there were golden oldies by Big Mama Thornton, B.B. King, Al Green, Otis Redding, solos by each of the backup singers, and a purple Prince encore. The last two numbers, a Redding-styled “Try a Little Tenderness” and a communal “Purple Rain,” with many in the audience firing up their smartphone flashlights to simulate the good old butane lighter days, were distantly connected with jazz.

But if you were looking for the kind of vibes on such CDs as Dee Dee’s Feathers or Dear Ella, Bridgewater and her Soulphony weren’t ready to oblige. Or if you were expecting the coy and cooing sounds that dominate Dee Dee’s recordings, you needed to open your heart to a raunchy and raspy side of this vocalist that record execs may have muted in past years. B.B.’s “The Thrill Is Gone” and Big Mama’s “Hound Dog” both had an authentic zest of their own, raw at the core, affirming a true busting loose. You can judge for yourself when Bridgewater and Soulphony drop their Memphis CD later this year.

I was fearing a similar non-jazz experience from Sofía Rei when a couple of people who caught one of the transplanted Argentinian’s earlier sets asked me to get back to them after I’d seen her. As it turned out, each of Rei’s sets was different – with different titles and mixes of personnel until her final day at Spoleto. Even then, when the same trio backed her at 5:00 and 7:00pm, each set had its own title. I caught the earlier “Cursed Heaven” program, favoring that over Rei’s “Quartet” finale.

Most of the “Cursed Heaven” songs can be heard on El Gavilán*, Rei’s tribute to Chilean songwriter and folklorist Violeta Parra issued earlier this year; but with free jazz pianist Leo Genovese anchoring the rhythm section, textures were radically different from those on the CD. With Rei’s vocals, loops, and charango mostly backed by an acoustic guitar, that studio “*Hawk” is relatively tame.

The divergence and the excitement began immediately with “Arriba Quemando el Sol.” Underscored by the repetition of the loops that Rei laid down as backup and backbeat, the juxtaposition of Rei’s on-the-beat vocals with Genovese’ out-of-time accompaniment made for a burning restlessness, with percussionist Franco Pinna taking the keyboardist’s side in the conflict and bassist Jorge Roeder hedging his allegiances.

Genovese did some hedging of his own on “Mazúrquica Modérnica,” his initial accompaniment very trad with a carnival flavor, followed by a Monkish solo on his electric keys. When Rei returned for her second spot, accompanying her own vocalese on charango, Genovese was as out on piano as he had been before – only this time with an explicit Monk “Misterioso” quote.

Both Pinna and Roeder sat out “El Gavilán,” Rei and Genovese becoming a powerful duo. Rei was simply majestic here, alternating intense outbursts with soft or anguished interludes. After a bodacious electric solo from Genovese, he and Rei went beyond intense together before easing into ballad mode. The saga wasn’t quite done – it runs over 14 minutes on the CD – as Genovese ripped the first part of his sheet music off his stand to access his final jottings.

Nothing that followed matched this majesty, even after Roeder and Pinna returned to their posts, but “Rin del Angelito” was brimful of color and charm, with Genovese tooting on a melodica for one of his solos and Rei actually swinging on one of her vocals, prodded by Roeder. The finale, “Casamiento de Negros,” proved that the quartet could tap into an orgiastic Flora Purim-Airto level of intensity. Loops, vocals, and vocalese poured from the joyous Rei, and Pinna absolutely sizzled behind her on percussion.

The Pedrito Martinez Group commanded a larger venue at Cistern Yard and expended plenty of energy on a hot and humid night for an appreciative audience that enjoyed the Latin beat. My enthusiasm was tempered by Martinez’s lead vocals, hardly less generic than the backup vocals from his band, and the total absence of brass to spice up the salsa.

Martinez hails from Cuba, I get that, but I much preferred Arturo O’Farrill and his 17-piece band, last year’s Latin headliners. True, the Mexican-born bandleader wasn’t universally popular: when he announced, after affirming that his countrymen aren’t rapists, that his next piece was titled “Trump, Fuck Trump,” a number of ticketholders headed for the exits. A year later, the timing was more propitious for Martinez and his congas. Our tweeter-in-chief’s executive orders on Cuba came after the festival, so Apprentice fans were spared from a Martinez reaction.

Joined by Edgar Pantoja on keyboard, Jhair Sala on percussion, and Sebastian Natal on electric bass, the Martinez Group was basically a slightly augmented rhythm section – plus a lead vocalist who could hardly compete with Rei’s individuality and fire. His best came at the end of the concert in the conga groove of the thrusting “Mambo Influenciado,” with the tastiest group vocal, and in the “Dios Mio” finale, where he took on the Herculean tasks of teaching us the lyrics, aligning us with the rhythm, and getting us all to stand.

While Martinez was mixing with the audience, Pantoja shed his sportshirt in the evening humidity and had his best moments at the keyboard with a long solo. Quoting a snippet of “Night in Tunisia,” Pantoja’s other highlight had come in “La Ballerina.” This is a solid band, but a charismatic singer or horn player fronting them would have helped them to more adequately fill the big stage.

I had first seen Henry Butler perform in 2009 at the Savannah Music Festival in 2009, his power as prodigious as his virtuosity, so I suspected that he could command the Cistern Yard stage all by himself – if the poor piano they put up there could stand up to the punishment. Backed by Steven Bernstein & The Hot 9, there was no doubt that the group was up to the challenge of wowing the outdoor crowd under the live oaks and the Spanish moss.

When Butler and Bernstein came out with their Viper’s Drag recording in 2014, I considered it one of the top 20 releases of the year, and JazzTimes critics elevated the newly formed ensemble to the top 5 big bands and large ensembles in their annual polling. So the fit and the polish of this collaboration – Butler’s bravura and Bernstein’s arranging artistry – are well-established. Rather than making that instantly apparent, Bernstein mostly yielded the stage for the first two selections to the man he proclaimed as a national treasure, allowing him to perform his prodigies with minimal accompaniment.

Most of what followed was territory covered on Viper’s Drag, including the title tune. Having already shown his chops, Butler reciprocated and allowed more of the spotlight to shine on the Bernstein 9 in “Viper’s Drag” and “Dixie Walker” than we hear in the Impulse recording. Soloing was shifted to Erik Lawrence on baritone and Matt Munisteri in live performance of “Wolverine Blues,” and Butler once again abbreviated his input.

Butler can be an impressive vocalist when covering material like “Great Balls of Fire,” “Riders on the Storm,” and most things New Orleans. Not only was he clicking vocally on “Buddy Bolden’s Blues,” he was establishing a template for the rest of the set, unleashing more of his keyboard powers on numbers that he sang.

The two vocals that followed “Buddy” were begun with awesome preludes that gave no hint of what was to come. A piano fantasia over Donald Edwards’ drums would have swamped the “Iko Iko” that was coming if Butler weren’t such a commanding and personable performer. “Dr. John on steroids” doesn’t come close to describing the preternatural contrast in moods that was resolved when Butler finally broke into song.

More of the Bernstein 9 was integrated into the closer, including the leader soloing on trumpet and Peter Applebaum on tenor sax. When I detected wisps of Dr. John in 2009, I thought I also caught the scent of Billy Preston when I first heard Butler play, confirmed on his PiaNOLA Live album. Yet the epic intro to the band’s closer began as a meditative solo, sped up to stride, returned to restless brooding, grew darker in mid-tempo, and skittered into a helter-skelter cacophony – when the Bernstein 9 joined him in Preston’s “Will It Go Round in Circles?”

Out of the darkness and confusion, a Mardi Gras party had suddenly broken out in Charleston, with the best singing and playing of the night. You can bet Preston’s hit will be on the playlist the next time this excellent big band makes a recording.

Charles Lloyd’s appearance at the marvelously made-over Gaillard Center reminded me how Spoleto Festival USA flips the script with its jazz programming. Other festival planners will try to attract audience with familiar, bankable names – and indeed, people come to see the stars. But Charleston and the Spoleto imprimatur often come first here, prodding non-fans into trying unfamiliar names out. If Spoleto books Sofía Rei and Evan Christopher,  they must be worth a listen.

So the beautiful Gaillard, with acoustics that had already proven perfect for Randy Weston and René Marie last year, wasn’t universally crammed with Charles Lloyd believers. Though the first two ballads, “Dream Weaver” and “Defiant,” reinforced the notion that the tenor saxophonist – still vital and wailing more than 50 years after his first recordings – hasn’t radically changed his tune, a trickle of people began heading for the exits just past the midway point of the concert when Lloyd’s quartet had played “Monk’s Mood.”

Lloyd hadn’t turned against mainstreamers. If anything, I found the core of Lloyd’s new quartet, with Gerald Clayton on piano and Larry Grenadier on bass, more accessible than the combo I saw with Jason Moran and Reuben Rogers at Lloyd’s Jazz @ Lincoln Center concert in 2011.

Those new to the vintage sound of “Dream Weaver” and “Defiant” could be referred to John Coltrane’s Crescent if they liked these Lloyd compositions. The way that Lloyd broke into a 4/4 groove in “Weaver” and lathered up into a primal wail was particularly lovely, though the ominous “Defiant” intro was more Trane-like. Clayton began to shine most brilliantly when we transitioned to uptempo with “Nu Blues,” where Eric Harland, the one holdover from Lloyd’s 2011 rhythm section, launched into an epic drum solo after trading licks with the leader.

“Monk’s Mood” is signature Coltrane, of course, since he recorded it with Thelonious himself, but Harland’s chameleonic changes at the kit helped Lloyd lyrically make Monk’s tune his own. With Lloyd getting into his flute groove, Clayton working under the piano’s hood, and Harland donning a ballcap, the band seemed to be having fun plunging into the leader’s “Tagore,” though much of the mystery of the 2005 live recording remained. Clayton shattered the quietude with an astonishing solo as Lloyd fed a wisp of impromptu percussion into one of the piano mics.

Another of Lloyd’s flute classics, “Third Floor Richard” from way back in 1966, was a genial transition to the powerhouse finale, “Passin’ Thru.” Talk about a staple in Lloyd’s career, young Charles brought this line to a Chico Hamilton date in 1963, and it’s the title cut of Lloyd’s upcoming Blue Note release. Like so many formidable classic performances, this one began with an impressive bass intro. Clayton layered onto Granadier’s foundation, quickening the pace before Lloyd laid out the line. Then Clayton really amped up the intensity – and Lloyd rode onto that conflagration, turning it into a raging firestorm, capped by a blistering outchorus.

Except for his Louie’s Dream duets with pianist Eli Yamin in 2013, I’ve mostly slept on recordings by Evan Christopher, steering clear of his Clarinet Road series with the assumption that they would be old-timey tribute albums. Example: Volume 3: In Sidney’s Footsteps. Yet here he was, playing at Spoleto, sufficient reason to find whether my assumptions needed adjustment. Oh my, did they ever.

No piano here. No drums. Only one familiar title. Brian Seeger on guitar and Roland Guerin on bass fill out the new edition of Clarinet Road, and right out of the gate in “Bayou Chant,” the group was easily as edgy as it was New Orleans traditional. Bass and guitar layered onto Christopher’s unaccompanied rant, deflecting it into a 4/4 orbit, where Seeger took a thoughtful first solo. The clarinetist blazed back to the forefront, subsided into quietude before a spasmodic cadenza, and softly faded out.

With Christopher linking his next three originals to New Orleans in his spoken remarks, he made it clear that this Road was aiming toward a nouveau Dixieland. “Surrender Blue” insinuated itself with a tango, and “The Old Sober March” ignited from Seeger’s strummed intro. Edgiest by far was “Creole Wild West,” which quietly asserted its wildness when Christopher managed to integrate the sound of his clarinet keys into his a cappella preamble. Both Seeger and Guerin found paths to equal eccentricity, completing a very unlikely percussion trio before Christopher unveiled the melody.

Unsheathing one of the most familiar glisses in jazz, Christopher’s single dip into recognized rep was Ellington’s “The Mooche,” which the clarinetist has already recorded twice. He still tends to take the line too fast, but after a swiftly strummed intro from Seeger and a hurried half chorus, Christopher reined it in, varying tempos, registers, and dynamics more effectively live than on record, with Seeger providing more wacky percussion under Guerin’s solo.

“Buffalo Trace,” the one Seeger original, provided the most outré of Christopher’s intros, a brooding rumination begun with only the top half of his clarinet. The closer, “Congo in the Square,” came closest to what fans of the Clarinet Road series came for. Yet another Christopher original, it locked into some fine straight-ahead blowing after the leader’s last musical soliloquy, with a slice of “Maple Leaf Rag” embedded in the licorice. From the sound of this concert, Volume 4 of Christopher’s Road saga will be radically different from the previous three.