All posts by perryt77

“Tropical Secrets” Presents a Bittersweet Wartime Escape from Genocide

Review: Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Havana has never been the homeland of the Jewish people. Yet as we quickly learn in Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba, now streaming from Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, it was often more hospitable to Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi oppression, terror and genocide than most other nations – including the USA. If that surprises you, imagine how 11-year-old Daniel felt when he made this discovery in 1940.

In the wake of the infamous Kristallnacht terror across Germany, Daniel’s parents rush him onto an ocean liner bound for New York, promising to meet him there. The ship isn’t allowed into the harbor. They sail north. Knowing there are Jews on board, the Canadians also turn them away. Young Daniel, who was holding his grandfather’s hand when rioters shot him down on Kristallnacht in the middle of the street, is learning some of the cruelest lessons of the world on his own, cast adrift from his family.

Interestingly enough, Margarita Engle’s story, adapted for the stage by L M Feldman, is almost equally about the 10-year-old Paloma, nee Maria Dolorosa. From the outset, her problems are paralleled with Daniel’s. Paloma’s mom abruptly decides to leave Cuba for Europe. Needing to become closer to her dad in the wake of Mom’s abandonment, Paloma finds herself turned away. Seems like an unfair comparison at first, but Engle constantly asks us throughout this new 75-minute drama to re-examine our perspectives and our sense of proportion.

Moral certitudes are questioned during the turmoil of World War II as we watch Daniel acclimate to Cuba while still holding out hope that his parents will find him – or that he will find a way to New York. A huge flip in sentiment and loyalty happens across Havana when news reaches the island that Pearl Harbor has been bombed. Instead of marking him as fodder for the horrific Nazi deathcamps, the Yellow Star that Daniel had been forced to pin on his shirt back in Munich now becomes the badge that prevents him from being arrested as a German spy.

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As with many children’s classics, kids perceive basic truths more readily than their elders. Paloma’s father, known across the island as El Gordo, is the decider when it comes to which ships are allowed to dock in Havana and which are turned away. He tries to explain to little Paloma that he makes his decisions pragmatically rather than on principle. “The world runs on business!” he proclaims with conviction. Paloma looks her dad straight in the eye and tells him, “The world runs on kindness!” Engle’s kids also have depth, as when Daniel informs Paloma, “In Germany, you have to wear a star on your shirt, so everyone can know what you are and hate you for it.”

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Adults here aren’t perfect role models chiefly because of their practical struggles to survive and thrive. With most of the world turning the Jews away, El Gordo naturally feels pressure not to open the floodgates. Yup, immigration issues! And though Daniel’s mentor, David, staunchly wears a brightly embroidered yarmulke with pride, he also bends to practicality, peddling his ice cream in his little pushcart on the Sabbath. When Jews are suddenly perceived as friends and Germans suddenly become loathsome, suspicious, and targeted for arrest, David abruptly veers to the other end of the spectrum, opposed to allowing any foreign ship to dock in Havana until the war is over – even if Daniel’s parents happen to be on board. El Gordo, on the other hand, stands fairly firm – except for raising the price of entry.

In the shifting mists of these patriarchs’ outlooks, blown by the winds of war, Engle’s Havana takes on some of the ambiguities of Casablanca. We aren’t on the same exalted levels of politics, decadence, or romance, but you may find yourself identifying more deeply with the everyday humanity of her people. You may also experience more keenly the anguish of survivors who are left in suspense for months and years about whether those dearest to them are still alive – and empathize more keenly with those who are wracked with memories of those who have died.

Most poignant, the kids rise to heroism in acting out their natural beliefs when, after the universe flips with Pearl Harbor, they encounter a Jewish mother on the run. Why would Miriam, a German Jew, be so terrified now? Because her only living relative, daughter-in-law Marta, is a Christian. For Daniel and Paloma, it is axiomatic that both are equally entitled to live in peace. Marta and Miriam, on the other hand, wrestle with the question of how fully they should describe to their rescuers the full details of the horrors they have left behind.

Thankfully for parents wondering whether Tropical Secrets might become to heavy for their youngest, Engle takes us to precipice without jumping over. There’s plenty for her to show us about kids conquering the language barrier and bonding, and there’s plenty for the kids and their elders to teach us about Judaism, Yiddish, and carnival. Helping Feldman transform Engle’s poetry into engrossing drama, stage director David Winitsky has made a welcome return to Charlotte after a year’s absence, having hosted the Charlotte Jewish Playwriting Contest at Shalom Park for the previous three seasons.

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Two dramaturges, Carmen Pelaez and Wendy Bable, helped him and his cast get the history and the cultures across accurately. Anita J. Tripathi’s scenic design radiates hacienda elegance, but it was Robyn Warfield’s lighting that filled out the atmosphere and took us beyond the city when the story needed to travel, while Magda Guichard’s costumes deftly differentiated between the nationalities and the social classes.

Most gratifying after so many months of deprivation, isolation, and lockdown was watching such a professional all-adult cast captured so well in immaculately recorded audio and video. Because this world premiere was immediately headed for film, where kids are always kids, Adrian Thornburg and Isabel Gonzalez had the steepest obstacles to overcome as Daniel and Paloma. Thornburg’s path was to shrivel himself inwards with Daniel’s sullenness when we first see him, though Winitsky might have eased off a little on all our hero’s resentful turning away. Gonzalez’ regression moved in the opposite direction, outwards with an excess of energy and often with open arms. In less than a minute, I found myself returning to a familiar theatre world, where adults can pass as kids and be as tall – or taller than – their parents.

In Europe, on the ocean liner, and in Cuba, four other actors played multiple roles, at least one of them memorable for each player. Tom Scott as David had the dignity, tenacity, and flexibility of a time-tested Jewish survivalist, stretching himself more than usual to immerse himself in the ice cream peddler, while Frank Dominguez was stubbornly set in his ways as El Gordo, professionally urbane, gradually realizing how off-putting his pomposity has become. Paula Baldwin and Margaret Dalton complemented each other nicely as two different tandems, first as border guards who stole Daniel’s boots and broke his flute, later as the fugitives, Miriam and Marta. Baldwin as the suffering Miriam could be the most fearful, grieving, and overprotective, but Dalton as Marta delivered the best retort: “When things are ugly, you cannot help but speak it ugly.”

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Maybe the best secret in Feldman’s adaptation is the time taken to breath in the tropical air. Percussionist Raphael Torn and pianist Charlene Thomas bring the tang of rhythm and music to the street a couple of times When Paloma takes Daniel to the festival, when she takes him to the beach at night, and when she brings him back to music again and again, fresh air infuses our hero’s life as he accept the kindness of a friend. He tacitly acknowledges that after the bombs of world war and Kristallnacht, there is balm in Cuba – in the oranges, the coconuts, the drums, the Afro-Cuban beat, and in carnival.

Ehnes and Weiss Deliver a Full-Length, High-Energy Concert – and a Memorable World Premiere

Review: Duke Performances’ The Show Must Go Online series

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Broadway has been closed down for nearly a year, opera remains in hibernation, while symphony and chamber concerts have slimmed down and gone virtual. Local theatre works, when they aren’t masked or outdoors, have diminished to Zoom or Skype proportions, modest in length and ambition. The preeminent pre-pandemic buzzwords, premiere and debut, when they’re used at all, are now applied by publicists to hurriedly-produced series of webcasts rather to performers or works.

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How refreshing, then, to come upon the latest installment in Duke Performances’ The Show Must Go Online series, which sported the Duke debut of two-time Grammy Award-winning violinist James Ehnes and the world premiere of Aaron Jay Kernis’s Sonatine for Violin and Piano. After acknowledging in his opening remarks that Duke Performances was “trying to celebrate its 75th anniversary,” Chamber Arts Society of Durham director George Copen proclaimed that the Kernis piece would formally premiere “this very hour.” That’s about as precise as you can be on a webcast that remains continuously accessible to ticket holders for three days.

Fleshed out with additional sonatas by Schubert, Prokofiev, and Saint-Saëns, the video stretched out for over 90 minutes, almost epic for a webcast. There was no intermission, of course, and the estimable Orion Weiss, no stranger to Duke University’s Baldwin Auditorium, was at the keyboard. Weiss remained in the background during Ehnes’s intros, but as soon as the duo launched into Schubert’s Sonata in G Minor, it was clear that he was a full partner in the musical collaboration. There were extended passages in the opening Allegro giusto when Ehnes was quietly sawing away while Weiss merrily carried the main load. Conversely, when Ehnes had the lead, Weiss was churning away behind him, probably more challenged in his backup chores. A syncopated three-note phrase that the men played together at the outset was the only turbulence on the otherwise placid flow of the movement, recurring intermittently along the way and reprised emphatically to crisply close out.

An early work written at the age of 19 but only published after Schubert’s death, when the composer had left us far mightier works, this sonata and two others written even earlier were called Sonatinas when they were originally published – and Jascha Heifetz hasn’t been alone in retaining that title in recordings. But Schubert comes through in the Andante as the imaginative melodicist we associate with his maturity, and it was pleasurable watching Ehnes and Weiss as they took turns embracing the enchanting lyricism. The ensuing Menuetto: Allegro vivace proved to be the shortest and swiftest movement. Yet this little movement, despite its sonatina scale, developed a pair of themes and delivered some of the most rugged moments overall. Three thumping chords introduced the final Allegro moderato, like an invitation to dance, and the celebration slowed down for romantic episodes a couple of times, swept aside by the prevailing party spirit.

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Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 2 in D was originally written for flute and piano in 1943, but violinist David Oistrakh was so enamored with the piece that he had the composer adapt it for violin, with extra trimmings (double bowing and harmonics), by the following year when he premiered it. Having already recorded the piece twice with different pianists, Ehnes probably didn’t need to say that he preferred the violin version, but the declaration certainly raised my expectations, since I’ve loved the piece ever since the vinyl recording by Jean-Pierre Rampal with Alfred Holeček became one of that great flutist’s first albums to grace my collection. In recent years, I’ve acquired two Oistrakh recordings of the piece as well. Ehnes didn’t fall short of any of those recordings, so I can only envy those who might hear this piece for the first time in his performance. On violin, the opening Moderato is more tender with more pent-up passion in the agitated passages; on flute, the music is more soaring, soulful, and serene.

Thrilling, exuberant, and frantic as it was, Ehnes’s bravura on the ensuing Presto did not bear out the violinist’s claim that Oistrakh had called for a brisker tempo than you would hear on flute. Some of the recordings I’ve tracked down on Spotify present this Scherzo as an Allegretto, to be sure, but the label on Rampal’s vinyl has said Presto for upwards of a half century. It wasn’t just a madcap romp in Ehnes’s hands, for there are tender moments amid the frenzy with wicked interjections, and Weiss was also very impressive here, responding assertively right up to the movement’s abrupt conclusion. Ehnes showcased the extra tenderness of this violin version most emphatically in the lovely Andante, dramatically tamping down the pulse of the piece and finding sensuous allure in the sinuous melody. The concluding Allegro con brio was brimful of triumphal zest, bursting with energy and virtuosity. Even the contemplative second theme built to a proud passion.

The diminutive suffix for Kernis’s Sonatine, Ehnes revealed, came from the composer’s mischievous determination to rhyme his title with his daughter’s name, Delphine. As the kaleidoscopic markings of the opening movement prove – including Oracle, Larkspur, and Delphinium – the composer was keenly aware of the geographic, mythic, and botanical associations with that name. Additional markings in that movement, Cetacea and Dolphinic Syncopation, hint at the probability that the girl has acquired an aquatic nickname at home or in the schoolyard. Although there is a Delicato embedded among the tempo markings, “Oracle” is anything but delicate – or feminine – at the outset, moving from fury to foreboding with enough energy to fray the horsehair on Ehnes’s bow. An ominous, somewhat uncomfortable lullaby followed a complete stop. Eventually, we circled back to tempestuous drama, capped with a vicious pizzicato.

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The middle movement, “Shaded Blue,” was intimate, personal, and once again allusive. Taking his cue from Delphine’s tendency to dye her hair blue, Kernis gave this slow movement a sad opening, lightly textured with the blues. Some of the slower, quieter passages were downright eerie and despondent, building to anguished shrieks before descending to another depression that distilled into a long, sustained harmonic note – almost as memorable an ending as the pizzicato had been. Once again, the concluding movement’s title had personal and musical connotations. “Catch That Train!” recalls the composer’s anxiety the first time he and his wife allowed Delphine and her twin brother to ride the New York subway by themselves – using the kind of train rhythms common to bluegrass and boogie-woogie. Of course, it was Weiss at the keyboard who was most propulsive in taking the musical train from a standstill to full steam. But if Weiss was the rhythm of the rails, then Ehnes was surely the train whistle, with wailing double bowing and fadeaway glissandos. Ehnes also drew a hefty share of the rhythm, fiddling furiously at times in bluegrass mode and even strumming for a while and producing a hollow banjo sound. No, Kernis’s “Train” wasn’t the most New York in spirit, but it was definitely rousing and entertaining.

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For their closer, Ehnes and Weiss presented the most often recorded piece on their program, Saint-Saëns’ Violin Sonata No. 1 in D Minor, ruefully nicknamed “The Hippogriff Sonata” by the composer when a mere human violinist couldn’t cope with its technical challenges at the 1885 premiere. A special alertness is necessary to review the piece, for two of the three divisions between movements occur without a pause. Ehnes and Heifetz are among the heavyweights who have tackled the “Hippogriff” in the recording studio, a roster that also includes Sarah Chang, Gil Shaham, Pinchas Zukerman, and Salvatore Accardo. Listening to the Ehnes recording with Wendy Chen in the wake of this explosive performance, I found that Weiss was an edgier partner, drawing more snap and ferocity from Ehnes, making for more excitement in the majestic Allegro agitato. After that opening, Weiss subordinated himself more than Chen did in the Adagio, mixing more of an accompanist’s role into his reading, where Chen maintained more autonomy.

Chen’s approach yielded sweeter, happier results in the pivotal Allegretto moderato, whereas Weiss was more impish, moody, and modern. Rounding into the beehive buzz of the Allegro molto finale, Weiss offered more puckish punctuation amid Ehnes’s awesome cascade, working into a more feverish mode when the violin began floating above in more of a legato. There was more intricacy to the interplay in the middle of this movement as Weiss and Ehnes handed over dominance to each other. Then the ending built and built and built, each flurry from Ehnes delivered with more fire and fury than the last, Weiss prodding him on with more intensity, quicker pace, to a final explosion.

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To be sure, the audio engineering by Christopher Scully-Thurston captured the sound of this concert with studio-level clarity; and filming by John Laww and Saleem Rehsamwala, edited by Rehsamwala, was beautifully conceived, varied but never gimmicky. What was perhaps most memorable and encouraging, however, was that Kernis proved he belonged in this company of titans as much as Ehnes and Weiss. Another Grammy nomination likely awaits the Kernis-Ehnes team when a recording is released.

On Your Toes for a Lively Mix of Mozart, Meyer, and Wirén

Review: Burgeoning optimism could be found in Symphony’s most recent Mozart + Wirén concert

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Unless a fourth wave of COVID-19 takes us by surprise and the 2020-21 season has to be “reimagined” yet again, Charlotte Symphony seems to be moving slowly, cautiously back towards full-sized concerts with their entire orchestra. Later this month, principal harpist Andrea Mumm will be reunited with the string players, taking a lead role in Debussy’s Danses sacrée et profane, and next month, we can look forward to Mozart’s beloved Symphony No. 40, presumably with a full complement of woodwinds. As I sit down to write, Haydn’s Symphony No. 64 has been announced for May, bringing us oboes and horns. Meanwhile a fresh series of five outdoor concerts has been scheduled this spring at the NoDa Brewing Company, all on Tuesdays, with a discreet 7:00pm starting time, improving our chances of keeping warm.

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Another harbinger of spring and burgeoning optimism could be found in Symphony’s most recent Mozart + Wirén concert. Back in February at the Holst + Elgar concert, only Holst’s St. Paul Suite was lively and sunny enough to get musical director Christopher Warren-Green jumping up and down on the podium. Check out the webcast of the Mozart + Wirén program, still replaying online, and you’ll find that both of these composers had the same effect, Mozart with his Divertimento for Strings in D major and Swedish composer Dag Wirén with his Serenade for Strings. In between these two, Warren-Green offered the Charlotte premiere of Jessica Meyer’s Slow Burn, a piece originally devised two years ago to accompany a burlesque dancer in Saratoga. Jumping was probably not the proper response.

Mozart wrote no fewer than five Divertmenti in D Major, so it’s necessary to add that this was the earliest, K. 136, written at the age of 16 – or that it’s the one Divertimento that Yehudi Menuhin recorded in his Mozart collection for Virgin Classics, leading the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne. The youthful energy of the piece burst immediately upon us in the opening Allegro, with churning propulsion from the lower strings and lithe buoyancy from the violins and violas. Dynamics undulated with the floating grace of a glider as the steady churning continued below in rhythmic waves. The sound of the Knight Theater space added the faintest echo, and the airiness of the sound recording was close to the standard set for this piece by the Seiji Ozawa recording of 1994.

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Coming after this sunny effervescence, the middle Andante was so sweet and nostalgic, reminding me of one of the first Mozart pieces I was able to master on the piano more than 60 years ago. Lovely as it is, it was the only one of the three movements that could be imagined as royal background music, which is how a divertimento is normally regarded – and what resident conductor Christopher James Lees warned us against expecting in his introductory remarks. Attcked by the strings with at least as much zest as the Allegro, the closing Presto commanded attention, six staccato notes followed by the kind of explosive ignition we associate with Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, which Symphony performed just a month ago. Along with the exciting flux of dynamics, there were also zigs and zags of tempo navigated by Warren-Green, layers of repetition from the three main string sections overlapping one another. The ensemble surpassed themselves with their legerity and clarity in long, swift sweeps of melody.

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Slow or not, Meyer’s dancer evidently preferred to ply her trade in a steady 4/4 time as the piece began, with suggestive gestures from principal violist Benjamin Geller, principal second violin Oliver Kot, and concertmaster Calin Lupanu. Action halted before these solo voices – and after slaps on the double basses that sounded like whip cracks. Resuming the Burn, the music slid into swooning glissandos that allowed the dancer to surrender as much as her audience. Urgency and fury crept in as the tempo accelerated with frequent slaps on the basses, alternating with jazzy pizzicatos. The next halt gave way to a longer statement from Geller on viola that triggered a more frantic acceleration from the orchestra than before, this final gallop prodded by a constant cracking on the necks and sides of the two basses. What a dancer would do at this climax was enticing to imagine. Certainly it would be more like a flamenco flowering than a bump and grind.

Wirén had never crossed my radar before this Charlotte Symphony debut. He merits only a brief paragraph in my two music cyclopedias and only three entries in my last copy of the Penguin Guide, which did declare Wirén’s Serenade of 1937 to have been his greatest international hit. Apple Music is a better place than Spotify to hunt for it, but Symphony’s account was as exemplary as its previous two performances. Lees peeped in for another intro, describing the piece as a blend Mozart lightness and 1930s Paris, where Wirén studied composition. With long sweeping melodic phrases from the violins conveying Mozartian lightness, the opening Preludium had the urban bustle of Gershwin’s Paris – or the Londons evoked by Eric Coates and Noël Coward – and Symphony was not at all tentative about zooming into the cityscape. The cellos and double basses actually injected a heavy, foreboding undertow at times, as if a spot of rain were on the way or the specter of a traffic jam.

The rustic quality presaged by Lees in his intro was further delayed by the Andante espressivo, which began softly with pizzicatos spanning the Knight stage followed by an outbreak of melancholy from the second violins. First violins only intensified the poignancy when they layered on with their bowing, taking us further into solemnity and coloring it faintly with regret. A second round of pizzicatos from the lower strings led into deeper keening from the violas, intensified by another onset of the violins. Cellos blended with violins before a concluding pizzicato hush. The ensuing Scherzo was where Wirén finally fulfilled Lees’ rustic description, though I’d have to guess that the composer had Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony closer to heart than anything Mozart wrote, and a few notes struck up by the second violins had a kinship with “Willow Weep for Me,” written five years earlier by Ann Ronell and dedicated to Gershwin. Amid the hairpin turns of this impetuous movement, interspersed with the laughter of the violins, the cellos took over briefly with their sobriety.

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With violas, cellos, and basses beating their bows on their strings, the beat of the final grand march began, reminding me most vividly of Coates’s British pomp. But here we swerved dramatically, slowing down for our first genuine B section of the evening before circling back to the forceful main theme. This Marcía is the movement that is most excerpted from this most popular Wirén work, and there’s nothing subtle about its appeal. Little strums from the basses thicken its pulse and there are moments when the beat is so strong that you could suspect a drum or two lurking somewhere offstage. Its giddy spirit had Warren-Green on his toes, waving his arms with the sweep of it all, and ultimately jumping. For joy, no doubt.

“Hadleyburg High” Takes Streaming to School

Review: Hadleyburg High at Little Theatre of Winston-Salem

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By Perry Tannenbaum

 We’ve only had a year, at most, to acclimate to the restraints imposed upon theatre and performing artists by the pandemic – and to wrestle with the sensible precautions imposed on audiences. Even that slim amount of time becomes constricted when you consider the amount of time it takes for an artist to come to grips with COVID conditions and navigate what he or she can feasibly create.

Adjustments have been further constricted by the time required for a presenter to navigate the practicalities of production, schedule an event, shoot and edit and upload a livestream, and reconnect with an audience whose attention may have drifted away to Play Station and Roku. Still when something like Hadleyburg High from the Little Theatre of Winston-Salem comes along, getting so many things so right and making all of its answers to problems that have stumped so many other theatre companies seem so simple and obvious, I found myself wondering why it had taken so long.

Up until Hadleyburg High, streamed theatre productions I had reviewed existed in a binary universe. Companies either recorded their actors onstage wearing masks or they squeezed their actors onto a ZOOM grid, as many as eight wee rectangles cramped into one larger screen designed to hold 12 participants. The only escape from masking and ZOOMing has been a one-person monologue. But as Chad Edwards’ adaptation of Mark Twain’s “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” amply proves, masking and ZOOMing aren’t the only paradigms available to a resourceful theatre artist.

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From the outset, Edwards expands the possibilities, presenting his vengeful mischief-making narrator, The Stranger, as a podcaster who can quite naturally fill our screens – and proceed as soon as we key in the proper passcode. Instead of her planned episode, “New York’s Five Most Haunted Places,” on her Stranger Than Fiction blogspot, The Stranger plans to tell us of an exploit that she herself is somewhat surprised at pulling off, the hoodwinking of Hadleyburg High.

Sadly enough, The Stranger had not been able to fit in during her sojourn at the perfect school, where perfect students got perfect grades, lived perfect lives, and won every state championship worth winning. Everybody had known everybody else at Hadleyburg, but nobody troubled to welcome her or get to know her during the semester she spent there. She couldn’t wait to leave Hadleyburg when the semester ended, and she couldn’t wait to devise her vengeance – by exposing the pretense and corruption beneath the perfect students’ perfect veneer.

Now in Twain’s 1899 short story, telling a fable that happened “many years ago,” a whole proud and pretentious town, not a mere high school, was exposed by an offended stranger who had passed among the townspeople. Twain’s story was served up from an omniscient narrator rather than from a snarky, disaffected teenage girl. When Edwards, who also directed, plunges into his narrative, The Stranger disappears until we’re deep into the denouement. Without our narrator’s voice guiding us, point of view regained its original omniscient form, as Edwards adopted a split-screen format for the dialogues that ensued, simulating a series of video calls on the Hadleyburg High students’ laptops. A huge leap of the imagination wasn’t necessary as we switched gears from The Stranger’s first-person account.

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The Stranger’s locked box with a note attached – the famed “temptation” of Twain’s tale – is delivered to Casey, the Student Council president. Conferring with Tammy, her bestie, Casey makes it clear that she hopes to keep the locked box and the riches it contains a secret from the rest of the school, which would thwart The Stranger’s scheme. Tammy, however, is a relatively straight arrow, not the greedy politician that Casey is, so she’s leery of conspiring with her friend, though she prides herself on having the computer skills necessary to break the code that will unlock the box.

Denied by Tammy, Casey turns to Brent for help in getting out the word of The Stranger’s quest to discover the student who had offered the advice that had helped create the fortune contained in the locked box, a tempting $100,000. Each student who believed he or she had given this advice was to submit a form to Mrs. Calloway, the teacher that The Stranger trusted most, stating word-for-word what the exact advice was. Keyed into box, the exact words would unlock the cash prize.

Edwards isn’t shy about injecting some fresh comedy into his retelling, along with altering a plot twist or two. When Tammy changes her mind, getting a bit greedy, Brent turns out to be a bit of a screw-up when Casey tells him not to send out the announcement after all. And The Stranger’s affinity with Mrs. Calloway turns out to be justified by the teacher’s deep flaws. Another nice touch is Frances, reporting for “Hadleyburg Student News” about the amazing giveaway, as Edwards reverts to his podcast format.

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Reactions from various students to the bulletin, intercut with Frances’ report, helps to widen the roster of imposter Samaritans who will submit their entry forms and set the stage for the catastrophic reveal. All of the students at Hadleyburg know that they didn’t donate the $20 that seeded The Stranger’s fortune, but an email sent out by The Stranger explains why each of them deserves the prize. Edwards was able to preserve most of Twain’s original design in baiting this trap. Like Twain’s letter writer, Edwards’ email correspondent has just returned from Mexico.

The famous advice is also replicated – exactly. Edwards finally goes to ZOOM format when the trap is sprung. He added Calloway to preside over the reading of the students’ entries, a Mr. Banks to be caretaker for the digital lockbox, and a Mr. Caldwell as the school principal. What Edwards couldn’t do in a ZOOM format was to underscore the shame of the tempted hypocrites to a whole town, or even to a full high school student body and faculty. Only eight students, eventually including The Stranger, are crowded onto the ZOOM grid with the adults. After the podcasts and the video calls, this climactic scene did seem populated by a throng. Nor did Edwards disappoint me in dealing with the fallout from the public disgrace, resourcefully adjusting his plot.

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Performances weren’t professionally polished down to the smallest cameo, but you’ll find that Edwards’ design bends to such imperfections, particularly when Hadleyburg High students are reacting for a newscast. It was also interesting to watch how emphasis shifted from Casey as Council president to the morally ambivalent Tammy as the action proceeded. Playing the typical stuck-up high school queen bee that we know so well from teen comedy flicks, Adair Addison had most of the zingers in the early action as Casey, reveling in her smugness and sense of privilege. It’s a fun role to play. Tammy’s trials, however, more closely echoed the struggles that Twain’s most upstanding citizens had in his Hadleyburg, and as the webcast proceeded, I appreciated Sabrina Layman’s ambivalence and vacillation more and more, particularly after the ZOOM meeting took an unexpected turn.

Ella Kiser framed the production nicely as The Stranger, assuming an outsider’s sense of resentment from the moment she addressed her podcast audience as “deviants.” Unlike Olivia Samuels, who was so polished as Frances in her newscasts that she could pass for a TV anchor, Kiser retained a nerdy vibe and we could easily imagine her sitting alone, in front of her laptop, with her teen angst and defiance. Screw-up or not, Noah Goldstein was the coolest and most relaxed of the Hadleyburg students, squinting and bending toward us each time he was messaged or emailed, so we really did think of him as lounging in front of his laptop in his tacky bedroom. Addison was such a diva as Casey that we delighted when Goldstein and Layman pushed back in bargaining for their share of the undeserved cash.

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All of the adults were very fine, though only Bethany Schultz as Calloway ever garnered a substantial share of our screens. Schultz was a fascinating study, never surrendering her dignity to Tammy no matter how much Calloway was compromised, yet layering on a nervous, impulsive edge. Ken Ashford as Principal Caldwell and Mickey Hyland as Banks did most of the heavy lifting in reacting to the mass humiliation of Hadleyburg’s perfect students. As the principal, Ashford registered the steep descent from pride to shame – with plenty of surprise and outrage in between. Hyland remained the respectable adult in the room, mostly concerned with damage control as the school’s disgrace metastasized.

We could sense that Casey hadn’t received the comeuppance she truly deserved when the ZOOM meeting adjourned. This and other loose ends were neatly tied together with late-breaking podcasts from Tammy and Frances before The Stranger returned with a final update on her Stranger Than Fiction blogspot. While Edwards decided to detour around Hadleyburg’s memorable temptation motto, the path he chose otherwise was almost perfect.

All-English Symphony Program Moves from Wintry Dreariness to Triumphant Jollity

Review: Charlotte Symphony Plays Holst + Elgar

By Perry Tannenbaum

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 Assailed by the ongoing pandemic, the postponement of vaccinations, and a midwinter cold snap, we must be contented when we receive short rations of Edward Elgar without pomp or percussion and William Walton’s Henry V without winds or brass. In fact, since Charlotte Symphony music director Christopher Warren-Green often shuttles back and forth across the Atlantic to lead our Queen City orchestra and the London Chamber Orchestra, we’re rather fortunate just to have him on the podium at Knight Theater conducting an all-English program. Traveling by air between the UK and the US has become uncertain in recent months, due to the mutating coronavirus, and restrictions pushed Symphony’s Holst + Elgar offering from January 23 into February. Electricity can also be capricious when the Arctic is riled: Texas is merely the most notorious state plagued by power outages this month, not the only one.

We’ve heard more than a couple of Serenades since Symphony returned, string players only, reconfiguring its 2020-21 season and fine tuning on-the-fly. Elgar’s Serenade for Strings in E minor was certainly not the peppiest or the most sweeping of the breed, but Warren-Green, stressing the harmonic blend of the piece instead of its rhythmic flow, gave us a drearier reading than I would have hoped for, particularly in the first two movements, a tranquil and dreamy Allegro piacevole followed by a sleepier Larghetto. Only in the concluding Allegretto did Warren-Green abandon extreme delicacy and pick up his baton. Only now did the orchestra’s energy compare with the more light-hearted Sir Roger Norrington recording of the piece. Here there was more melodic dialogue between the upper and lower strings, more satisfying swells in the sway of the dynamics.

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Although Walton’s Two Pieces for Strings from Henry V have been paired on commercial recordings, they are hardly a representative foretaste of the full musical score written for the 1945 film starring – and directed by – Laurence Olivier. Elsewhere in the score, in places such as the “Charge and Battle” and the “Agincourt Song” collected in more extensive suites, Warren-Green could parade Symphony’s winds, brass, and percussion. Mightily. “Death of Falstaff” and “Touch Her Soft Lips and Part” are soft, brief, and fragile flowers compared to those sturdy oaks, yet they were more affecting than the Elgar pieces. The Passacaglia for Sir John was quiet and grave, almost but not quite a dirge, and the “Soft Lips” was tenderly suffused with pure and chaste ardor, tinged with the sorrow of soldiers’ farewells. Count me as enthusiastically supportive if Warren-Green opts to program a fuller representation of this Henry V score when he can bring the full Symphony to the task.

If we longed for music that quietly reflected our mood during these cold, gray, homebound winter days and nights, then these Elgar and Walton works more than fulfilled their mission, but if it was uplift that we sought, then Gustav Holst’s St Paul’s Suite in C Major was a perfect tonic. Warren-Green’s anecdote about meeting Olivier and Walton after a performance of the Henry pieces was by far the most appealing of his intros. Warren-Green had been onstage as the concertmaster that night, and the actor and the composer had vied ridiculously with each other at the post-performance reception to be more modest about his contribution to that celebrated film. Yet the insight into Holst, when Warren-Green visited the St. Paul’s Girls School in London, was also fascinating. Holst taught at the school, eventually becoming its music director, and a soundproof room was built specially for him at the school where he composed his most famous work, The Planets, as well as this more modest suite.

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To be honest, St. Paul’s sounds more like it was written in the middle of the girls’ playground on a bright sunny spring morning with the children running and squealing in all directions around the composer, especially in the effervescent outer movements. Amid the lively opening Vivace, ebulliently labeled as a Jig, it was inspiring to see Warren-Green jumping up and down on the podium again, excitedly gesticulating after maintaining his British dignity for these many months. The liveliness spread across the Knight stage, and I strongly suspect that the masked faces of the Symphony musicians were smiling. Even the middle movements had a youthful élan. The second movement was a quiet Ostinato at a Presto pace, with concertmaster Calin Lupanu floating a melody over the subdued churning of the upper strings and pizzicatos from the cellos. Lupanu’s soloing resumed in the Intermezzo, where we slowed to Andante con moto and principal violist Benjamin Geller took a couple of turns in the solo spotlight. Here again, a Vivace interlude abruptly shed its orchestral sunlight before we reverted to a slower tempo, ending with a sedate string quartet led by Lupanu.

Jollity reigned when we arrived at Holst’s Finale, an Allegro that riffs on an English folk tune, “The Dargason,” sounding even merrier than the opening Jig, and certainly more familiar. Holst further enhanced the merriment and complexity of his composition by giving the cellos the undercover assignment of introducing the ancient melody of “Greensleeves” under the main theme. No problem if you missed “Greensleeves” while it was part of the cellos’ stealth operation, because it became gloriously dominant when it was reprised. The infectious “Dargason” was not to be suppressed for long, interweaving so well with “Greensleeves,” and Lupanu had one more tasty little cadenza before the full string orchestra pounced on the final fortissimo chords.

 

Wilde Gets a Manicure, Not a Makeover

Review: The Importance of Being Earnest in a Pandemic at CPCC

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Oscar Wilde fell on tough times after writing his comic masterwork, The Importance of Being Earnest, in 1895 – but whatever else he succumbed to, including humiliation and imprisonment that very same year, Wilde never faced the Spanish Flu, let alone COVID-19. Our supply of pandemic epigrams would have been unquestionably enriched if history had played out otherwise. So I did have hopes, when I signed up for CPCC Theatre’s webcast of The Importance of Being Earnest in a Pandemic, that history would be redeemed.

Compounding pandemic and winter woes, a ransomware attack on CP plagued this production, delaying its opening by a full week and ratcheting up my eagerness. Subtitling his three-act romp “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People,” Wilde could have had a field day opening a Pandora’s box of pandemic paradoxes. The new script by Don Zolidis, sad to say, performs little more than a manicure on Wilde’s popular script – nothing like the refresh or update a more ambitious and talented playwright might have attempted.

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Masks and social distancing are occasionally acknowledged during the CP webcast, ably directed and designed by James Duke. Since our comedy comes to us on the Zoom format, the formalities of signing in and out of the grid are observed – often with an odd doorbell ring that gets its own mini-screen among the human characters’. Pandemic or not, no other technology aside from those martialed by Zoom advances us past 1895.

Nobody specific seems to have died during the pandemic in London, where we meet at Algernon Moncrieff’s flat for Act 1. None of the proper folk he and his lazy manservant Lane receive – including the duplicitous “Jack” Worthing, his lady fair Gwendolyn Fairfax, and the imperious Lady Bracknell – seems to have suffered any grave losses. Bucolic serenity also seems to prevail when we adjourn to Jack’s country manor for Act 2, where we meet Worthing’s lovely ward, Cicely Cardew, who is pursued there by Algernon, posing as Jack’s invented brother.

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That’s odd, because Jack’s butler Merriman has disappeared during Zolidis’s tidying of the script. Couldn’t he have been in a susceptible age group or have been afflicted by a pre-existing condition before he was taken away from us so cruelly? As it is, we must skip over an accounting of Algy’s luggage when he arrives for his surprise visit – and poor Jack is left without a surrogate to quickly order a cab for the sly mischief maker.

Tidying is never really what happens here, for doling out a comedy onto an orderly Zoom grid messes it up irreparably. Two marriage proposals happen across multiple locations on paired screens, which oddly show Algy and Gwen and then Jack and Cicely facing us when they would normally be gazing exclusively and adoringly at each other. The screen kissing is an cute touch, I’ll admit. Pure pandemic. Later on, the simultaneous withholding of permission to marry from the ladies’ guardians crisscrosses our monitors on four separate mini-screens as seven of the eight cast members get involved in the climactic melee.

Anybody yearning for reruns of Hollywood Squares will be ecstatic during this flashy denouement.

It helps that Wilde provided us with two women who had already settled on the men they would marry before they proposed – in Cicely’s case, incontestably documented in her diary, before she had even met her Ernest. More than that, we are lucky to have both Algernon and Lady Bracknell on hand. Tatters in time and space mean nothing to these perfectly insouciant personalities. They each see the world around them with uniquely absurd viewpoints. Both are uniquely acclimated to absurdity.

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Andrew Blackwell is especially satisfying as Algernon, conducting himself with an equipoise that suggests that all is well with the world. Until it isn’t, when fretting and fussing must be immediately rejected as ways of fixing things. A cucumber sandwich or a good muffin seem as capable of bringing bliss to Blackwell as the hand of Miss Cardew. Sensible fellow.

At the other end of the spectrum, with even more certitude, is Lady Bracknell. Nothing is right with the world unless it has received her certification. Milady is one of the most celebrated creations of the British stage, a plum that leading actresses and actors have salivated over for more than a century. Brionna Knight isn’t merely confronting this heritage in tackling Lady Bracknell, she’s taking on the constraints of a cruelly decimated screen.

A small restricted screen, it turns out, is fully adequate for conveying the bliss of devouring a cucumber sandwich. Lick your fingers afterwards and nothing is lost. But ruling as a stern monarch over an empire? Lady B needs a stage, a big stage, and a larger-than-life portrayal. Crowding her computer monitor in front of a tastefully decorated green screen, Knight is rarely visible below her collarbones. A diva needs more, so we never find out whether Knight can be one.

Among the other players, only Miyoni Heard is comparably disadvantaged as Miss Prism, Cicely’s incompetent governess. Heard must content herself with a dull gray background each time she appears, along with a microphone that screams out for an upgrade. Nor does Duke illuminate his governess in a way that would prompt him to take credit for lighting design, settling for a dim silhouetted look that would suggest Miss Prism was in a witness protection program. Ironically, Prism becomes the key witness at the end of Act 3 as we unravel the mystery of Jack’s origins.

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Knight is at her best in launching Prism’s reckoning, but Jacob Feldpausch as Jack swoops in nicely at this point to help Heard prolong our suspense. Wilde himself contributes superb contrivance to sustaining the tension, one of those craftsy things that can emerge the seventh time you’ve enjoyed a great comedy. More than Jack’s exit to fetch an old handbag is involved as Wilde deftly pumps the brakes. Lady B must forget the name of a lost family member after 28 years, she must also have a clue, and Jack must own a copy of the Army Lists spanning the last 40 years to finally track it down.

Brilliant.

The remaining glitter in this production comes from the ladies who portray Wilde’s eccentric, cocksure bachelorettes. As befits a relation of Lady B, Mia Venuto as Gwendolyn can nonchalantly claim the adoration of all male Londoners as her birthright, never doubting her allure or her marriageability. On the other hand, Jeanine Diaz as Cecily is as adrift and insecure in her condition as Jack is on their country manor, equally given to doing the adoring.

Wilde finely calculates his romantic relationships, to be sure, but what elevates his comedy above the epigrams of Algy and Lady B, above how fate serves Jack up to Gwen on a silver platter, is how his complications set Gwen and Cicely against each other as mortal enemies, dueling with their diaries. When these betrothed ladies are most deceived and most misunderstanding of each other, Venuto and Diaz offer up their best work, carving a perfect circle out of their confusion and caprice.

Of course, this spitfire confrontation would be even more delectable if the women were face-to-face at CP’s Halton Theater and we were all sitting there, laughing at their raging befuddlement even as we understood it so well. On Zoom, it’s so easy for them to mind their manners and resist clawing each other’s eyes out! But what can we do? We’re all in this pandemic together.

Playing Its Trump Card, Four Nations Caps Valentine’s Day of Infernal Love With Médée

Review: Four Nations Ensemble’s Baroque Valentine’s Day Celebration

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Chamber Music Raleigh and their latest guest artists, Four Nations Ensemble, had a different idea for a Valentine’s Day concert than you might expect, disdaining both the saintliness of religious music and the Hallmark Cards sentimentality of sappy love songs and madrigals. Their Baroque Valentine’s Day Celebration took up the theme of “When Love Goes Wrong,” and like the “Treacherous Love” concert by L’Académie du Roi Solei that we reviewed two years ago, reminded us that early music had a raw side, not circumscribed by salons or churches. Four Nations did indeed roam Europe more widely than the Roi Soleil group, presenting music by Handel, Vivaldi, François Couperin, Barbara Strozzi, Michael Haydn, Jean-Paul Martini, and Giuseppe Tartini. Both groups played the same trump card for their finales, the Médée cantata for soprano and instruments by Louis-Nicolas Clérambault.

Andrew Appel, who directs Four Nations from the harpsichord, acted as our host and offered his first thanks to the Chamber Music Society of Detroit, who produced “When Love Goes Wrong” as part of their new CameraMusic series. In order to remain unmasked, he introduced all the pieces – and all his fellow musicians – before we saw anyone else onscreen, lingering over the two prima donnas in the music, Queen Dido from Vergil’s Aeneid and Jason’s scorned wife Medea, somewhat softened in comparison with Euripides’ tragedy. Appel found them both extremely attractive to baroque composers in the sense that both delivered high drama and sharp contrasts, the antithesis of mellow background music for a dimly lit romantic rendezvous.

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We could see the full Four Nations onstage (location never mentioned) when Appel began with a superb rendition of Couperin’s utterly gorgeous Prelude No. 5 from L’art de toucher le clavecin – on a lovely, ornate harpsichord that wasn’t quite as wide as his piano bench. The program was arranged in a way that gradually introduced us to the full Ensemble, with cellist Loretta O’Sullivan taking the lead on Couperin’s “Le Dodo ou l’amour au berceau,” a piece normally heard on solo piano or harpsichord to somewhat better advantage. By jettisoning the charming trill that infiltrates the recurring melody, O’Sullivan slowed the piece down and invited a downcast “Three Blind Mice” monotony, though Appel’s accompaniment was helpful.

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Energy rose conspicuously when soprano Pascale Beaudin joined lutenist Scott Pauley for Strozzi’s “Amor Dormiglione.” It’s unknown whether Strozzi was a courtesan, but the Venetian was incontrovertibly prolific as a songwriter and no doubt wanton, since the one formal portrait we have of her (clasping a lute) shows her with one breast bared. Appel pointed out the suggestiveness of the song, and lines like “Love sleep no more!” and “Arrows, arrows, fire, fire, arise, arise!” weren’t about a cute cuddly concept of Cupid awakening. This was indeed the sort of song that Strozzi, a renowned singer, might have sung in plying a lewd trade.

Curiously enough, Beaudin eschewed much of the song’s seductive drama by remaining seated beside Pauley, who was brilliant in accompaniment. Nor was that the best position onstage for her to be singing, from an acoustic standpoint. The soprano’s voice came to us muted with a distancing echo contrasting with the lute’s clarity, but we could already espy loveliness in her sustained notes. Beaudin foreshadowed her fitness for the Médée when she detoured into moments of pouty resentment and amorous longing.

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Shorter and darker than his previous Couperin solo, Prelude No. 2 was another beauty from Appel that perfectly bridged the importunate Strozzi and Handel’s more emotional “Credete al mio dolo” (Believe my pain). Discreetly, Beaudin switched chairs with Pauley while Appel soloed and rose while O’Sullivan played an aching intro on the cello, easily her most affecting playing so far. This put the soprano near the far end of the harpsichord, roughly parallel with O’Sullivan at the other side, by far the sweetest spot onstage for her to sing. Beaudin projected the opening ache of the song, intensified her expression for the crying midsection – after more affecting work from O’Sullivan – and returned even more appealingly to the plaintive theme.

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Following the pattern set by Beaudin, violinist Andrew Fouts remained seated in his chair as he made his long-awaited musical entrance, playing the lead in the Andante from Michael Haydn’s Divertimento in C major. Pacing was more in the Adagio range compared with other recordings I’ve sampled, but Fouts’s tone was a fruity delight up in the treble, and the interplay between him and O’Sullivan, seated to his left, was quite enchanting. Fouts sounded even more commanding in Tartini’s Sonata No. 10 in G minor, “Didone abbandonata” (Dido Abandoned). Nor did it hurt that this piece, originally written for violin and continuo, was expanded for Four Nations to include the entire instrumental quartet.

Standing near the middle of the harpsichord, Fouts delivered lively contrasts from the beginning of the opening Affettuoso, including some transporting double-bowing that made the suicidal queen’s lament all the more poignant. Backed by Appel’s thrashing harpsichord rather than a mere piano, Fouts brought more clout to the turbulent Presto movement than Oistrakh delivered in his Paris recital album from 1959. In this and in the dancing Allegro finale, where the heroic Aeneas has left Dido far behind, Four Nations sounded more like the Fabio Biondi recording of 1992, another full-bodied performance.

Between these two instrumental exploits, Beaudin sang “Plaisir d’Amour,” Martini’s greatest hit – and one of Elvis Presley’s greatest when it was transformed into “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” Best authentic recording I’ve heard is Bidu Sayão’s radio performance from 1950, collected in 2009, and my all-time favorite commercial adaptation remains the incomparably sweet Joan Baez recording of 1961, uniquely sublime and heartbreaking. Like Suyão’s version, Beaudin couldn’t escape the comparatively earthbound lyric of the original work, brooding about the love and the lies of a faithless Sylvia, so anger and bitterness inhabit the middle of the song instead of bliss. Thanks to the lovely work by Appel at the keyboard, however, I was able to rediscover the two fine melodies so finely interwoven by Martini – and Beaudin’s anger augured well for the Medea that lay ahead.

 

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O’Sullivan moved over toward the middle of the harpsichord to take the lead in Vivaldi’s Sonata No. 4 in B-flat major, a spot that added echo to her cello. My favorite recording of this cello sonata by Jean-Guihen Queyras uses an organ and a theorbo to magical effect as opposed to the harpsichord-theorbo basso continuo offered by the Four Nations’ Appel and Pauley. The cellist sounded best in the even-numbered Allegro movements, while Pauley’s theorbo was most effective in the two odd-numbered Largos, particularly in the third movement, where his light strums and fingerings formed a halo around O’Sullivan’s richly forlorn playing. Appel’s thrashing harpsichord was most effective in the closing Allegro, combining with O’Sullivan’s nimble work on Vivaldi’s catchy melody to create the merriest music of the evening.

Both of the live Médée performances I’ve heard in the past two years, by Margaret Carpenter Haigh and Beaudin, have been more than equal to the best recording I’ve been able to audition, featuring Agnes Mellon. The spark of both these women, dressed to kill and spitting fire, bestowed a fierce energy on both live performances and ignited spirited accompaniment on both occasions. On my second go-round with the piece as Beaudin sang, I could pick up on two patterns of ebb and flow that Clérambault had crafted in his cantata. Structurally, the cantata shuttles between recitatives or preludes and arias, slowed fluid tempos and speed-ups that became increasingly dramatic when they recurred. Emotionally, the lulls corresponded with a narrator’s objectivity, with Medea’s nostalgia as she recalls her seduction and the sacrifices she made, with her retreat from murderous intent to poignant reconsideration as her heart rebels, and with the calm before the final storm when she contentedly observes that her spell has been cast. The quickenings connect with Medea’s remembrances of her betrayal; with her jealousy and her thirst for vengeance; with her renewed fury when she realizes how foolish she is to be hesitant, loving, and merciful; and with her summons as she unleashes the forces of Hell to mete out her revenge. Capping the portrayal, there was an ebb-and-flow within Medea’s frenzied wickedness as her outbursts of rage were punctuated with expressions of delight at the prospect of seeing her rival and her betrayer destroyed.

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Fouts was at the forefront with Beaudin’s deadly conjurations throughout this riveting performance, particularly when the last of the 12 sections turned into a frenzied witches’ sabbath, and he kept fiddling – at a furious tempo – long past the moment of Medea’s final words of hellish triumph. But perhaps the signature episode of Médée, and surely the most chilling, came when Fouts, Appel, and O’Sullivan – in a stop-and-go tattoo – cued up the march that became the undercurrent for Beaudain’s wicked sorcery. No doubt about it now, this “Cruelle Fille des Enfers” evocation was cold, calculated murder, not a sudden impulse. And in her ensuing deployment of her spellbound fiends, “Volez, Démons, Volez!” Beaudin became regal, delighting in the mayhem while sustaining her fury. Insanity! No, this Medea did not tweet “This is what happens” after completing her handiwork, but Beaudin’s majestic arrogance, as she stood there defiantly in the middle of the stage, emphatically stated that her Medea was capable of such monstrous vindictiveness.

CSO and Lupanu Debut a Harlem Nachtmusik, a Starburst, and Youthful Mendelssohn

Review: Mozart’s Night Music

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By Perry Tannenbaum

One of Mozart’s most beloved compositions and the inspiration for the title of a Stephen Sondheim musical, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is perennially popular on streaming sites, CD players, and classical radio stations. WQXR’s annual countdown of audience favorites listed Eine Kleine Nachtmusik at Number 38 in its Top 100 for 2020 – ahead of Mozart’s own Clarinet Concerto, his Symphonies 40 and 41, and two of his most familiar operas, Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute. Yet if Charlotte Symphony is an accurate barometer, this Mozart masterwork is rarely heard in public. Until last Saturday night, the piece hadn’t been played in Charlotte on CSO’s classics series during the current millennium. The performances led by Christof Perick in September 2004 were played out of town at the Matthews United Methodist Church, Winthrop University in Rock Hill, and Davidson College.

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has refocused our thinking about what music can be performed safely by symphony orchestras, while the BLM movement has been shuffling our thinking on what music should be offered. So it’s natural to conclude that Symphony’s dusting off of this old chestnut was purely in response to pandemic conditions, for the Nachtmusik is actually the 13th – and last – of Mozart’s string serenades, written in 1787 for string orchestra (or quintet).

Opting for safety first and omitting wind players from their recent performances at Knight Theater, Symphony must have found Mozart’s G Major to be an inevitable choice, especially since they’ve already dusted off Barber’s Adagio, the only piece for string orchestra that currently polls better than Nachtmusik. Notwithstanding this logic – and Symphony’s history – it must be remembered that Nachtmusik was already scheduled for a rendezvous at the Knight last April, under the baton of guest conductor Jeannette Sorrell, when the pandemic struck. So there may be an additional logic at work: very likely, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik rehearsals had already commenced. Certainly the musical scores were already in the string players’ hands.

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The real responses to 2020 and the “New Normal” actually lay elsewhere in the program, most notably in the resourceful pairing of Mozart’s famed Serenade with Leonardo Balada’s A Little Night Music in Harlem, premiered in 2007. The preamble to this Nachtmusik pairing on the program, Jessie Montgomery’s Starburst, was also noteworthy. Starburst was commissioned by The Sphinx Organization, a non-profit dedicated to the development of young Black and Latino classical musicians, and The Sphinx Virtuosi, who performed its 2012 premiere. Capping the live-streamed concert from Knight Theater, concertmaster Calin Lupanu spearheaded the Charlotte premiere of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in D, a work discovered and premiered in 1952 by violinist Yehudi Menuhin, 130 years after it was composed. Like the Balada and the Montgomery, this excavated Mendelssohn was the antithesis of the utterly predictable Mozart revival.

Clocking in at 3:31 on Montgomery’s own Strum CD in 2015, “Starburst” was a perfect prelude to the lengthier nocturnal works that followed, cued by resident conductor Christopher James Lees with an effervescent vitality that augured well for the rest of the concert. The minimalistic repetitions didn’t last long enough to become stale monotony, churned our way with infectious enthusiasm. Strands of melody were sprinkled with pizzicatos, and the bracing celestial explosions came in collective four-note clusters at the tail end of cheery sawing from the violins.

After explaining the interconnection between the Mozart and Balada pieces, Lees drove the orchestra into the opening Allegro of the Eine Kleine Nachtmusik with the same zest he lavished on the Montgomery aperitif. There was a dramatic contrast between the delicate passages in the treble and the onset of the full orchestra’s robust responses, which always came back louder, accelerated, and edgy. While you might prefer the way Sir Neville Marriner interpreted the music with his Academy of St. Martin’s in the Fields on their Philips CD, allowing the music to speak for itself, the CSO reading was more exciting. Lees not only hears the sturdiness of the melodies we so readily remember in movements 1, 2, and 4 (not performed) of the Nachtmusik – and their amazing simplicity, anticipating the miraculous opening of Symphony No. 40 – he hears the dialectic in Mozart’s idiom. Even in the ensuing Romance: Andante, where repose might be more readily excused, Lees had Symphony playing crisply, so this wasn’t a lullaby. The brief second theme had some zip to it, subsiding graciously into the more familiar strain.

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Born in Barcelona, Balada studied composition at Juilliard with Aaron Copland, began teaching at Carnegie Mellon University in 1970, and became a naturalized citizen in 1981 at the age of 48. The two Naxos albums of Balada’s music on my shelves; featuring concertos for Violin, for Cello, and for Four Guitars; both left me hungry for more. Both were recorded by the Barcelona Symphony, so it would have been easy to overlook Balada’s American ties if it weren’t for the Cello Concerto’s alias, “New Orleans.” A Little Night Music in Harlem, one blushes to say, was commissioned by the Hungarian Chamber Orchestra and recorded on Naxos by the Iberian Chamber Orchestra, underscoring the simple fact that Balada is underappreciated and neglected in his adopted homeland.

Music in Harlem is merely a peephole into Balada’s capabilities, but many of us who watched this Symphony webcast will not only accept Lees’ invitation to replay this performance online but also to seek out more of the composer’s output. A recurrent baseline through this composition, bowed or in plucked pizzicatos, could be construed as locals walking up and down Lenox Avenue or back and forth along 125th Street, also known as Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Or it could just as easily be heard as the spirit of jazz clubs along that street, the pulsebeat of Harlem. Like Mozart’s Nachtmusik, perhaps even more so, Balada’s piece displays its layers, denser and more pictorial than the Serenade. Aside from Balada’s echoes of the second and fourth movements of Nachtmusik, the new piece evokes vehicular traffic with its occasional glisses and takes us underground for the rumble of the subway. Lees told us that he hears the extended whistling sounds toward the end of the piece as commuters emerging from a subway station whistling together. It was certainly an eerie, sad, and ethereal contrast with much of the big city bustle and cacophony we had heard before.

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Listening to Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in D minor for the first time, I couldn’t help thinking that the reason it’s so rarely heard can be traced, like the absence of Mozart’s Nachtmusik from our concert halls, to its having been written for string orchestra. The biggest names to have recorded the work since the piece was discovered 69 years ago are Menuhin and Kyoko Takezawa. On the strength of their performance on Saturday, the CSO’s Lupanu, Lees, and the 22 string players onstage at the Knight can thus be counted among this concerto’s leading exponents. The sound from the orchestra was full-bodied and satisfying from the outset of the opening Allegro. After playing along with the others through most of the prologue, Lupanu showed that he was fully warmed-up, attacking the opening bars of his solo fiercely, bowing with bold panache, sharply punctuating the swiftest passages and then singing the lyrical sections with ardor, all the while producing the fullest, loveliest tone I’ve ever heard from him.

As the middle Andante movement began, I had momentary fears that Mendelssohn’s immaturity – he composed this concerto at the age of 13, after all – might have been too much of an impediment to achieving true excellence in a slow movement. However, soon as Lupanu ascended into the treble in his first solo, all doubts were dispelled, for there were no pedestrian moments afterwards. On the contrary, Lupanu’s soulfulness increased with his silvery pianissimos. The catchiest theme in Mendelssohn’s youthful concerto came in the final Allegro, enabling Lupanu to play with greater verve and virtuosity than ever. Lees and the CSO seemed to be lifted by Lupanu’s brio, maintaining the torrid pace set by the concertmaster while he rested briefly before his crowning cadenza. Some fancy bowing gave way to a final burst of ethereal lyricism as Lupanu circled back to the sunny main theme. The soloist and the orchestra tossed it back and forth with engaging spirit, triumphantly finishing in just under an hour.

Grace and Kindness Glow in Anna Deavere Smith’s Answers to Adversity

Review: A Deeper Dive Into Anna Deavere Smith’s Let Me Down Easy  – With a 2020 Refresh

By Perry Tannenbaum

 Winner of multiple Drama Desk Awards for her plays – and her solo performances in them – Anna Deavere Smith has forged a unique synthesis from her skills as a playwright, actress, journalist, and teacher. Her groundbreaking monologues, Fires in the Mirror (1992) and Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 (1994), were skillfully edited from hundreds of interviews that Smith taped with people involved in two distinctively American events, the Crown Heights race riots of 1991 and the Los Angeles rioting of 1992 that followed the acquittal of police officers who had brutally beaten Rodney King. After compacting the taped interviews into taut monologues, Smith channeled each of her characters in performances of carefully crafted mimicry. In artfully distilling the essence of her characters, Smith cumulatively distills us with her art in a fascinating, unique way.

On a webcast presented by The Schaeffer Center for Performing Arts at Appalachian State University, “An Evening with Anna Deavere Smith: Reclaiming Grace in the Face of Adversity,” Smith came onscreen in a way that freshly meshed theatre, lecture, pedagogy, and discussion. Dr. Paulette Marty, theatre arts professor at App State, introduced Smith, instantly departing from normal theatre presentation. Marty and Smith joined in laying the groundwork for the evening’s theme, chosen so aptly in the face earth-shattering events that have rocked us all in the past year – for Smith had prologues of her own that preceded each of her three extended portraits. Of course, such a video conference would be a staid affair in 2021 without a stream of chatter rolling along the margin of our screens. Viewers of this free webstream had a chatroom for making comments – and afterwards, as Marty interviewed Smith, the professor lifted some of her questions from that chatline.

Apparently, a side benefit of all Smith’s researches is all the prime leftovers she can deliver from those hundreds of interviews. For her rendezvous with App State, to which she linked live from New York, Smith had distillations of interviews she had taped while researching Let Me Down Easy (2008). These dated back to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and included sitdowns with Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, and the late Congressman John Lewis, who walked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King in the famed 1965 Selma March.

Before these well-known figures, Smith introduced us to Kirsa Kurtzberg, a white physician who worked at a charity hospital in New Orleans in the midst of the Katrina disaster. Smith wove together two strands of the Kurtzberg interview in crafting her monologue, a description of the “worst asshole” she had run across in her hospital work, followed by recollections of her patients’ cynical stoicism during the Katrina ordeal. That worst person turned out to be a doctor who was her superior: he not only demonstrated absolute coldness and distaste toward his patients, but when Kurtzberg called him out on his poisonous attitude, declared that she would inevitably come to feel the same way in time.

When Katrina inundated New Orleans, Kurtzberg watched the city’s reaction unfold as private hospitals were evacuated and the charity hospital was abandoned. Worse, they opened the levees on that part of town in order to save the more valuable real estate. It was not only revelatory to Kurtzberg that her patients, overwhelming black, would be treated with such disregard and disdain, but also that these unfortunates were not at all surprised, telling her in advance that the unthinkable would happen.

If we thought that these were the darkest perceptions we would need to entertain, Smith’s portrait of Bryan Stevenson proved us wrong. Since founding the Equal Justice Initiative, Smith reminded us, Stevenson has opened the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, commemorating nearly 4400 victims of “racial terror lynchings” between 1877 and 1950. What Smith then concluded about America is piercing, damning, and true – more indelibly now since January 6: we are a post-genocidal society. Smith’s interview with Stevenson spotlighted a failed attempt to obtain a stay of execution for a prisoner on death row who was intellectually disabled. This is the kind of work Stevenson has dedicated his career to performing, as well as the famed case, exonerating a wrongly convicted murderer, that became the cornerstone of his memoir, Just Mercy, and the film derived from that book.

The question that Stevenson repeatedly asked in court with respect to the intellectually disabled, “Why do we kill broken people?” morphed into another question when the Supreme Court rejected his appeal at the eleventh hour. “Why do I do this?” His self-reflection yielded a brutally honest answer, “Because I’m broken, too.” This realization was illuminated by a childhood memory of the frustration, violence, and humiliation that broke out when he, his mother, and the black community stood in line – at the back of the line – waiting to be vaccinated for polio. Like his mom, Stevenson concluded, he was seeking a way not to be silent about this perennial brokenness.

The portrait of Congressman Lewis, eulogized just last summer by three former American presidents at Ebenezer Baptist Church, was the most hopeful and conciliatory in Smith’s trilogy. “Brother” also featured the most rewarding stretch of Smith’s acting skills as she adapted Lewis’s slow, distinctively accented drawl. He spoke of his yearly pilgrimage to Selma, a ritual that included stopovers in Birmingham and Montgomery, but unexpectedly, the moments of grace that he gleaned from this commemoration shone a spotlight on white people upstaging him. The first was the current Montgomery Police Chief, who publicly apologized for the beating that his department had inflicted upon him decades earlier. It was the first such apology that Lewis could remember.

What touched Lewis equally was that the Police Chief took off his badge and offered it to him. Then the moments of grace, for when Lewis answered, “I cannot accept your badge – I’m not worthy,” the chief insisted, saying. “I can get another.” An additional opportunity to forgive came to Lewis after an event that had happened even longer ago, on May 9, 1961, when the future Congressman was brutalized in Rock Hill. The son of one of those cops came to Lewis’s office to ask for forgiveness, and Lewis granted it immediately. They hugged, called each other brother, and by Lewis’s count, met 49 times afterwards.

While the post-performance discussion wasn’t my prime reason for attending, it provided a soft landing from the heights of Lewis’s moments of grace and a chance to hear some of Smith’s views head-on. Among the topics she tackled so ably, in response to Marty’s probing and pertinent questions, were the pathology of America’s police, the media’s addiction to big pharma and the auto industry, the plight of black artists, the need for a public health rethink, and the enduring need for theatre now and post-pandemic. She even dropped a suggestion on Marty, App State, and academia to deal with our times. “You might laugh,” she said, “but we need a department of kindness.” Out of nowhere, there was a religious distinction to be made. “Jesus wasn’t nice. He was kind.”

2020 or Not 2020

Review: A Half-Masked Christmas Carol at Theatre Charlotte

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Luckily, the Ghost of Christmas Present in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, so friendly and jolly with his glowing torch, was more than 175 years removed from 2020 when he made his first oxymoronic appearance in print. Christmas of 1843 may not have been the best ever as it greeted Dickens’ original readers, but it had to be more festive than 2020, the gloomiest in centuries.

While it’s possible to retreat into the nostalgia of numerous movie and TV adaptations of the Yuletide classic, Charlotte is one of hundreds of cities where watching live theatrical adaptations has become a holiday tradition. So it’s fascinating, even revelatory to see how Theatre Charlotte is adapting to the unprecedented circumstances of 2020 in presenting its 14th annual production of A Christmas Carol.

It’s a remarkable chameleon, adapted by Julius Arthur Leonard and co-directed by Stuart Spencer and Chris Timmons. This is truly a to-be-or-not-to-be effort: Live and virtual, at Theatre Charlotte on Queens Road and not, set in Dickens’ London in the 19th century and unmistakably invaded by COVID-19 and the constraints of the pandemic. 2020 or not 2020.

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Watching the virtual version recorded at the Queens Road barn, I was surprised to find how Dickens’ characters, in period costumes designed by Chelsea Retalic, replicated daily life today. While Marley and the three famous Christmas Ghosts wore masks, others – including Scrooge, his nephew, and the Cratchits – did not. No wonder poor Tiny Tim is dying!

Live outdoor performances of Theatre Charlotte’s pandemic edition of Dickens premiered at Christ South’s Old Dairy Farm in Waxhaw on Reid Dairy Road, which may account for some of the anomalies we see when we tune in to the indoor version. Outdoors, winter is upon us, so Spencer and Timmons may not have wished their Scrooge to change into his jammies. Besides that, an outdoor shift in scene from the Scrooge & Marley counting house to Ebenezer’s bedroom may have been unwieldy out on the farm.

So all of the action, aside from the Ghosts’ travels, is confined to Scrooge’s office until he sallies forth on Christmas day. To achieve this economy and consistency, Spencer and Timmons alter the plot just a little, sending Scrooge outdoors for dinner and having him realize that he has forgotten his pocket watch at his office. That’s where Marley and the Ghosts will now do their haunting. Nor do our directors forget about Ebenezer’s watch or his watch chain, elegantly transforming it into a fresh plot point without changing any of the dialogue.

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The uncredited set design, likely by Timmons, is very spare, silhouettes of city and government buildings in the background, connected to the Scrooge & Marley firm by a stunted staircase and a front door. No walls or windows obscure our view of the sidewalk outside the office or the silhouetted figures that traverse it. Inside, we never need more at Scrooge’s HQ than desks for Ebenezer and his oppressed drone Bob Cratchit. Bedtime is never observed, so there’s no longer any need for a bed. When we visit the Cratchits or Scrooge’s nephew Fred, as much as a cushioned chair and a wee table are necessary, so that Fred’s wife may have a glass of wine and a decanter nearby, but that is all.

Sound design by Timmons and Vito Abate only blunders with the opening and closing of Scrooge’s front door. Opening it lets in a hullabaloo of street sounds and closing it silences the noise – except we can clearly hear the footsteps of whoever departs on the sidewalk. Grander and more successful are the sounds heralding the supernatural entrances of Marley and the three Christmas Ghosts, while lighting by Rick Wiggins brashly suggests that all three of Scrooge’s guides have celestial origins.

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Hank West, mostly prized around town for his comedy exploits, is not a complete stranger to mean roles, having portrayed the Marquis de Sade in 2003. There’s nothing missing of Scrooge’s flinty cantankerousness in the opening scene. West’s rebuffs of a charitable solicitor (just one this year instead of two) and his nephew Fred are even more repellent than his tyranny and resentment toward Cratchit. It’s when we approach West’s comedic wheelhouse where we find him woefully hamstrung. Deprived of Scrooge’s bedclothes and his dopey nightcap – the lone accessories that make Ebenezer vulnerable or adorable through five-sixths of the story – West must accompany the Ghosts in business attire.

Worse than that, West must give us a Scrooge who dances with glee, realizing that he hasn’t missed Christmas morning, dressed up like an adult going to work rather than as a child waking from – and to – a fabulous holiday dream. Missing this parcel of Dickens’ visual genius, we can appreciate it more, for the nightcap and bedclothes are also as indispensable to the distinctive flavor of Scrooge’s supernatural journeys as the Ghosts’ personalities.

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West’s comedy isn’t totally eclipsed, peeping out in his retorts to Cratchit and the Solicitor, in his timing of remarks after visitors exit, and in his sunny sallies around town making his many amends. Of course, the final prank on Cratchit when he comes in late on the 26th is handsomely done, though I was a little surprised by West’s decision to underplay Scrooge’s mischievousness and glee as he did Ebenezer’s playacting.

More women than men are seen onstage here, with Andrea King tipping the balance as Bob Cratchit. At work, she is purely deferential toward Scrooge, and King’s entrance on the 26th has a stealth worthy of Chaplin or Lucille Ball. We probably notice that at home, King’s Cratchit as a husband and a father comes off as less of a patriarch than we’re accustomed to. Can’t say that I minded much – am I becoming too evolved?

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Seeing both Allen Andrews as Christmas Yet to Come and Josh Logsdon as Marley’s Ghost wearing masks hardly detracted from their portrayals. Logsdon’s mask had an orifice that seemed rimmed with teeth, he was bundled up with enough rags under his chains to look like a leper, and a huge gray wig affixed to his head with a shroud-like kerchief made him even more loathsome. Notwithstanding Scrooge’s doubts, when Logsdon bemoaned his fate and issued Marley’s warnings, there was far more grave than gravy in this ghost.

More noticeable were the alterations that masks imposed on the women Ghosts. Reprising her role as Christmas Past, Anna McCarty had a veiled look in her gleaming white gown, Arabian or ecclesiastical in its modesty. Yet when she needed to be strong and authoritative, McCarty didn’t disappoint, even though she seemed more socially-distanced than her castmates. Lechetze Lewis as Christmas Present was free to mingle more in her garrulous London tour. Her lively interaction with Fred and his wife, Andrews and Mary Lynn Bain, offered the most spectacular display of Retalic’s costume designs this side of Marley.

Andrews’ entreaties that Uncle Scrooge come dine with Fred were nearly as foundational in establishing the Christmas spirit on Queens Road as Cratchit’s sufferings and goodwill. Bain was also more impactful when she doubled as Belle, Scrooge’s sweetheart in the flashback, particularly when she returns her engagement ring, releases Ebenezer from his obligations, and decries his worship of Mammon.

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Little moments like this, Cratchit applauding Fred’s advocacy of Christmas, and the perfect view we get of Cratchit sneaking in late after the holiday are among the many testaments we get to the work of Megan Shiflett and Nick Allison behind the cameras – delivering the best angles from the best distances. Theatre Charlotte may not have the resources that CPCC can boast in video gear, but they’re outstripping every live video I’ve seen from the college, because Spencer and Timmons are so deftly cuing their cameras where to be and when.

Amid the special hardships of 2020, local theatre companies are substantially sharpening their video techniques and their cinema savvy, good tidings that will pay dividends when COVID-19 is conquered.

With Jill Bloede executing the Narrator’s role in such a ceremonious British style, and with the likes of Tom Ollis and Rebecca Kirby as the Fezziwigs, quality runs deep in this cast – as deep as you’d expect with productions running twice the five performances this one is getting. There’s plenty of mileage left in the virtual version, which continues its on-demand run through January 2.