All posts by perryt77

Grit and Endurance at Birkenau – and Urgency Today

Review: Protective Custody: Prisoner 34042

By Perry Tannenbaum

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For those of us who didn’t endure or survive it, talking about the Holocaust can be awkward, uncomfortable, and disturbing. I should know: Invited to a 1991 production of I Never Saw Another Butterfly by Children’s Theatre, my own uncle – brought to Charlotte as a pre-eminent authority on gifted children – turned down the opportunity to see a fine Teen Ensemble in action. Very likely, the I in the title was the biggest red flag for Uncle Abe – the threat of hearing a first-hand account of the horrors, the inhumanity, and the suffering. Even from teens.

Ah, but what if you weren’t the child of Jewish American immigrants, safe from the Nazi killing machine and the misfortunes of growing up Jewish inside the Third Reich? If you had grown up Jewish in Berlin and Vienna, if you had seen the belly of the beast as a concentration camp prisoner at Auschwitz and Birkenau, smelled the smoke of the crematorium from the moment you arrived, dreaded every morning roll call, and reverted to your animal instincts just to survive – even then, after surviving this unfathomable ordeal, you’re unlikely to feel comfortable talking about it.

Come to Duke Energy Theater and you’ll see why.

The screening of Surviving Birkenau at the Charlotte Jewish Film Festival late last month was a preliminary reminder. Like Three Bone Theatre’s world premiere of Protective Custody: Prisoner 34042, now at Spirit Square through Sunday, Ron Small’s documentary was all about the early life of Dr. Susan Cerynak-Spatz and how she managed to outlast her brutal captors – ultimately escaping Adolph Hitler’s infamous “final solution.”

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After the film, there was a panel discussion and time set aside for audience questions. Among those on the panel were Three Bone Theatre artistic director Robin Tynes-Miller, Charles LaBorde, the actor-playwright-educator who adapted Cernyak-Spatz’s memoir, and Dennis Delamar, who is directing it. Joining the panel was Jackie Fishman, Cernyak-Spatz’s daughter, who had appeared briefly during the film and was instrumental in greenlighting the new play.

It was Fishman who inadvertently delineated the key difference between the Cernyak-Spatz we had just seen onscreen at the Levine Jewish Community Center and the one who I would see portrayed at Duke Energy the following week. Asked about how her mom had discussed the Holocaust in their home while she was growing up, Fishman recalled that the subject was rarely mentioned. Avoided.

We had just watched a woman who, already well into her 90’s when Surviving Birkenau was filmed, had spoken – and as a UNC Charlotte professor, lectured – all over the US and around the world for decades about her Holocaust experiences and studies. She hadn’t been at all uncomfortable about doing so once again for the cameras. The woman that LaBorde would have us meet, Leslie Giles playing the role, is 40-something according to the script, about the same age Cernyak-Spatz was when she and Fishman attended the same Midwest college together.

[Getting an actress who could replicate the 97-year-old today is borderline impossible. Recently felled by a stroke, Cernyak-Spatz willed herself out of her sickbed and attended last Sunday evening’s performance. Brava, Susan!]

What LaBorde has done, taking the author who published her memoir in 2005 and making her some 40 years younger, isn’t exactly unusual for adaptations we see onstage, in movies, or in opera. But when you’re dealing with Holocaust material, the discomfort factor needs to be part of your calculus.

For LaBorde, audience discomfort is definitely a consideration. You can see it and hear it as the play begins. But what LaBorde, Giles, and Delamar didn’t calibrate – or consider – was Susan’s discomfort four decades earlier.

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Instead of immediately plunging us into the Kristallnacht pogrom of 1938 and all that she and millions of other Jews experienced after that, in a gradual crescendo of horrific inhumanity, Susan introduces us to a rack of clothes that – with a Dresser, portrayed by Paula Baldwin – will help her to guide us through all the major transformations that befell her from the days of her relatively idyllic childhood in Vienna onwards. It was during the lighter pleasantries opening the show that Giles faced what nobody had anticipated.

Whether it was because so many theatrefolk were in the audience on opening night or because of the grim subject, this wasn’t the kind of crowd that shouted back a greeting if you started off with a “Good evening!” or a hearty hello, Nothing came out of us in response to Susan’s welcome. Not even enough for Giles to come back with the obligatory, “Aw, you can do better than that!”

It was an awkward moment – but also a momentary glimpse of what we would see if we were being addressed by a Susan who had real trepidations about broaching a story that might be uncomfortable or disturbing for us to hear. Or for her to relive. Giles proceeded to tell Susan’s story with all the confidence that’s on the pages of the original Protective Custody memoir, in a voice that, benefiting from fruitful time spent with Cernyak-Spatz’s audiobook, occasionally replicated Susan’s with chilling accuracy.

And what a story it was, a powerful no-bull account of what life was like in the showcase Theresienstadt camp and the more harrowing living conditions at Auschwitz and Birkenau. Nor was there any sugarcoating of what it took from Susan to survive. Actually, the show is pretty amazing when you consider that Three Bone Theatre skipped the preliminary processes of a full staged reading or an intermediate workshop version. The entire production team was learning for the first time how an audience would react to the full script.

All that I saw on opening night was at a surprisingly advanced state of development. LaBorde, Giles, and Delamar have delivered far more than a mere chronology of a descent into hell. There are a couple of times when the highly detailed narrative is paused. One happens when Susan ponders how a bad decision by her mom changed the course of both their lives – and poisoned Susan’s attitude towards her to this day. Another recounts how Susan lost her faith in God.

Giles makes these into moments that challenge us – and LaBorde gives her another at the end of the evening when Susan turns her unflinching gaze on today’s world and the question of whether we have learned anything from the history she has devoted her life to preserving. She frames the Never again question in a way calculated to make us uncomfortable one last time.

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More moments such as these, with Susan speaking her heart, voicing her sense of urgency, or simply engaging us directly would help in fleshing out Prisoner 34042, which now has a somewhat boney 80-minute runtime. I’ll be surer of whether LaBorde has mined all the details from the memoir to give his drama maximum power when I finish the ebook, but what I’ve already read convinces me that the task of distilling the book was as daunting as he has said.

Paying more attention to the drama inherent in becoming comfortable with the Holocaust conversation – or at least usefully informed by it – might also turn up the temperature, but there were also times that I felt more dialogue between the two women onstage could spark more tension, light and warmth. Even though she rarely spoke, Baldwin brought me some of the most touching drama of the evening. Curiously enough, her most affecting moments came at the end, when she ditched her Euro accents and became a couple of Americans who welcomed Susan to freedom. Choked me up.

Of course, we can credit much of Baldwin’s liberating impact to the vivid narrative Cernyak-Spatz had written, LaBorde had adapted, and Giles had so deeply immersed herself in, taking her audience along with her on her journey. Already portraying Susan’s mom and various Nazi jackboots, Baldwin could be helping to make Giles’ journey even more intense along the way. But I won’t disagree with anyone who emerges from Spirit Square feeling that Protective Custody: Prisoner 34042 is informative, intense, and impactful enough as it stands.

Disturbing? I hope so.

CSO and Graf Make Debussy’s Faun a Dynamic Prelude

Review:  Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Slipping out of town for Charlotte Symphony’s Firebird concert back in October, maestro Christopher Warren-Green has orchestrated a nice little three-month vacation for himself, but so far, the music director’s pinch-hitters on the podium haven’t let him or us down. Christopher James Lees was best when he lit into the Stravinsky that subscribers came for, and last week in his Queen City debut, German-born guest conductor Hans Graf demonstrated his mastery at Knight Theater on works by Brahms, Mozart, and the evening’s headliner, Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.

The CSO rarely leads off their programs with their marquee piece, but L’Après-midi was the shortest on the bill, so its position wasn’t shocking. The last time the piece was played as part of a Classics Series in 2003, the beloved tone poem actually launched Symphony’s season after musicians went on strike over pay cuts. Since that momentous “French Masters” program conducted by Christof Perick at Belk Theater, Warren-Green has presented L’Après-midi at UNC Charlotte in a most unusual concert – scientifically proving that, after an Allegro from Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony, a little Debussy will bring your blood pressure back down.

A medicinal effect wasn’t Graf’s aim at all, scorning the notion that L’Après-midi is all about casting a misty, hypnotic spell. There were actually pauses in the performance, like you’ll hear in recorded accounts conducted by Herbert von Karajan and Bernard Haitink. You could actually imagine Debussy conceiving his interpretation of Stéphane Mallarmé’s symbolist poem as a series of scenes and reveries. When the orchestra swelled, the dynamic range was as robust as Simon Rattle’s recording with the Berlin Philharmonic, reminding me how unaccustomed I was to sitting so close to the ensemble at Knight Theater. Yet the woodwinds blended piquantly where they should, and principal flutist Victor Wang exquisitely led us into the enchanted glade.

In another auspicious debut, Chinese-born Angelo Xiang Yu gave a showy, ebullient account of Mozart’s “Turkish” Violin Concerto No. 5, sparking outbursts of audience applause after the opening Allegro aperto movement and after the less-familiar middle Adagio. Yu forcefully produced a gleaming, golden tone from his 290-year-old Stradivarius and seemed to be having fun even in the slow movement. Like Graf, Yu relished changing tempos and dynamics, approaches that yield happier results with Mozart than with Debussy’s concupiscent Faun. A little puckish mischief was mixed with the fun during the final Rondeau, making the joy even more contagious. More gusto from the lower strings during the “Turkish” section of the finale would have added some agreeable lagniappe.

Yu never did hide his delight in performing, so it wasn’t surprising that he could be coaxed into an encore. Yu probably wasn’t punning when he said he had first heard his little Piazzolla tango on YouTube a couple of days earlier – and still hadn’t been able to acquire the sheet music. Maybe it’s in the mail, since it sounded to me like the Tango Etude No. 3 that I was able to find on Spotify in a couple of versions.

Likely judging that audiences will always enjoy Brahms Symphony No. 2, especially its concluding Allegro con spirito, CSO has now programmed it three times during the last six years. Outside the Classics Series rotation, that final movement last popped up at a 2015 Bachtoberfest at the Knight. Until we reached that rousing spirito at the full 2014 performance, Warren-Green and the orchestra had sounded rather spiritless. Continuing to emphasize dynamic contrasts, yet still vigilant with detail, Graf drew more excitement from his musicians and more energy from Brahms.

The opening Allegro non troppo was especially freshened with sharper shaping, eloquent violins, and a new hint of sadness from the cellos. Yet Graf kept his finger more persistently on the slower middle movements, where languor has won out in the past. The Allegro con spirito now hearkened back to the opening of the Mozart, where Symphony and Yu initially lulled us with a deceptive sense of calm. On both occasions, Graf had the orchestra exploding brilliantly, and with trumpets blaring and principal timpanist Ariel Zaviezo unleashed, the evening ended giddily, like a triumphant military march just slightly out of control.

Op Carolina Animates Macbeth in Game of Thrones Style

Review: Macbeth

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Witches, ghosts, Scottish clans, regicide, guilty sleepwalking, and Shakespeare’s most famous despairing rhetoric have kept Macbeth among the Bard’s most-produced tragedies. Onstage, we’ve seen such spinoffs as Tiny Ninja Macbeth and Kabuki Macbeth in Charlotte conjuring up the one Shakespeare title that theatre veterans dread to say aloud. I suspect that, in opera as in theatre, only Romeo and Juliet has inspired more adaptations and spinoffs.

Further riffs on Macbeth have been applied by opera directors. Perhaps the most notorious were the costumes and scenic design of Mark Thompson at the Metropolitan Opera in 2008, where the Thane of Cawdor, prior to meeting the witches’ coven in post-WW2 Scotland, came riding onto the battlefield in an army Jeep. Trading on the popularity of Game of Thrones, stage director Ivan Stefanutti – adding his own costume and scenic designs to his new brew at Opera Carolina – has been quite content to return the action to 11th century Scotland, where King Duncan was murdered in 1040.

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Undoubtably trusting Op Carolina artistic director James Meena, who directed the company’s premiere of Macbeth in 2004, Stefanutti brings baritone Mark Rucker back to Belk Theater to headline his high-concept production in the title role. Rucker conquered vocally as convincingly as before, though his tendency to waddle across the stage rather than striding confidently has become more noticeable during his 15-year hiatus. Stefanutti limits Macbeth’s mobility in his staging to the point that he is often upstaged by the Witches and Lady Macbeth.

Yet it must be said that Rucker’s hulking lack of grace chimes well with the Game of Thrones design concept, emphasizing the barbaric elements of the bloodthirsty king. It was probably a worse decision for Stefanutti not to delegate the animated backdrop of his production to a different artist. As executed with Michael Baumgarten, Stefanutti’s animations are way too busy, too much like a low-budget video game, and occasionally over-the-top, especially when the ghost of Banquo appears.

For some reason, there were stretches when the animations strove to simulate traditional set pieces and backdrops. Scrolling through a series of these stage-filling line drawings while the stage was vacant, Baumgarten made it look like Macbeth’s throne was riding an elevator from one hall to another! In a far, far niftier stroke, color begins to seep into the design concept when Macduff launches his vengeful rebellion against Macbeth, escalating further when Lady M has her sleepwalking scene.

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Thrones fans will likely adore the Witches’ costumes with their piercing LED eyes and floor-length beards, but their singing is equally triumphant. Outfitted in less outré gear, the men’s half of the Op Carolina Chorus is vocally as outstanding as the women’s. Obviously, the entire ensemble drew plenty of attention from Meena in rehearsals – and plenty of blocking from Stefanutti.

The youngbloods making their Charlotte debuts all do well under Meena’s baton. Bass baritone Song Zaikuan excels as Banquo even when that ridiculously large ghost animation looms behind him. Tenor Gianluca Sciarpeletti sings purely, but he struck me as too youthful to have lost a gaggle of children, which may account for his shortage of gravitas. In the other tenor role, Johnathan Kaufman’s similarly pure voice and manner are more of what we expect of Prince Malcolm, who assumes the Scottish crown after the showdown between the Macs.

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Biggest disappointment of the night was soprano Othalie Graham as Lady Macbeth. On opening night, she seemed to have lost the bloom that I found in her voice when she made her Op Carolina debut in 2013 as Aïda. Reading Macbeth’s letter, plotting Duncan’s death, and even singing gaily at the haunted banquet, Graham had me wincing each time she prepared to sing an upward interval. Couldn’t be sure she would land on precisely the right note. Yet she still cuts a charismatic figure onstage, with genuine diva acting chops. Lady M’s white gowns by Stefanutti enhance Graham’s royal glow, setting her apart from her gloomy surroundings.

Warmed up and relaxed, Graham was at her best in her valedictory sleepwalking scene. From that highlight onwards, action from singers other than the Witches picked up, Meena continued to draw spirited work from the Op Carolina Orchestra, and those mammoth animations didn’t distract during the climactic battle.

All in all, Op Carolina seems to have created a stylized Macbeth that would spark mass appeal. After all the toil and trouble that Meena, Stefanutti, and Rucker put into this spectacle – with more LED-eyed Witches than I could count – I was shocked that more people weren’t at Belk Theater to soak up all the fun, spookiness, and Game of Thrones cachet.

Upsizing “Little Shop” at CP

Review: Little Shop of Horrors

By Perry Tannenbaum

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What seemed so axiomatic when Little Shop of Horrors opened Off-Broadway in 1982 – that it was a little musical – was shunted aside when the smash hit was finally revived on Broadway in 2003. Bringing the show to Broadway seemed against the grain to Howard Ashman after he had directed his own original adaptation of Roger Corman’s 1960 sci-fi comedy. His misgivings were borne out by the lukewarm reviews from the New York critics and the equally tepid box office.

Big productions of Little Shop, like the touring version that hit Ovens Auditorium in 2005, have been aberrations. Around the country, the welcome mat for Ashman’s artful adaptation, with a rockin’ doo-wop score by Alan Menken, is customarily rolled out by smaller regional companies and community theatres.

A little surprising, then, to see Central Piedmont Theatre bringing Audrey, Seymour, and Audrey II to Halton Theater, which is only marginally smaller than the Virginia Theatre (now the August Wilson), where it ran on Broadway. But guess what? Charlotte isn’t receiving Little Shop as if it were a niche musical for guerilla companies and intimate venues. A robust crowd turned out for this past Sunday’s matinee, with armloads of tickets sold up in the oft-empty Halton balcony.LITTLESHOPOFHORRORS-1.jpg

Nor is director Ron Chisholm and his CP team shying away from the challenge of making Little Shop big. James Duke’s set design fills the stage from wing to wing, and Chisholm pours a larger cast around Audrey and Seymour than the one that populated Mushnik’s Flower Shop and Skid Row in the Broadway revival. I should also say that Chisholm pours a larger cast into Audrey II, but I won’t spoil how that plays out.

My wife Sue didn’t recognize any of the names on the CP cast list, which ultimately demonstrated just how deep Charlotte’s talent pool is these days. The name I recognized from her starring role over the summer in CP’s Beehive, Iris DeWitt, was not to be recognized here at Mushnik’s. With body mics liberally distributed among the Skid Row citizenry, it’s safest to say that DeWitt represented onstage by the latter Audrey II puppets. That’s when the alien plant lets loose with her infamous “Feed Me,” displaying its vocal gifts upon growing to maturity.LITTLESHOPOFHORRORS-123.jpg

While you need a full-throated – even intimidating – voice that DeWitt brings to an invader that metastasizes into a global threat, we need to get more ambivalent impressions of Seymour, Mushnik, and the human Audrey. We empathize with the orphaned Seymour, who is bossed by Mushnik, bullied by Mushnik, terrified by Audrey’s dentist boyfriend, and ignored by Audrey.

Until Seymour becomes homicidal.

Then we see him feeding body parts to Audrey 2 and covering up his guilt by luring Mushnik into the same maw. He’s reluctant to do 2’s bidding and become a bloodthirsty killer, but it’s bringing him fortune, fame, and – in his mind – the Audrey who has hitherto shunned him. Ultimately, he pushes back, ready to face what his recovered integrity brings him. It’s a fairly daunting role for Matthew Howie in his Charlotte debut, and the dude must also prove he can sing – both as a downtrodden clod and, in “Suddenly, Seymour,” as a newly-minted romantic hero. Howie knows how, and Chisholm gives him a comical Clark Kent moment to punctuate his transformation.

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Nearly 60 years after she first appeared onscreen, we look more askance at Audrey for absorbing and covering up the abuse she takes from Orin, her dentist boyfriend, than we do for her presumed promiscuity. She encourages Seymour to stand up to Mushnik, and when he suddenly achieves celebrity, declares she isn’t good enough for him. Anna Farish proved to be sensational in her own way as Seymour’s ideal, belting “Suddenly Seymour” opposite Howie with equal gusto in their duet and tapping into Audrey’s humdrum sweetness in the gooey “Somewhere That’s Green.”

I quite envy anyone who hears the reprise of that bucolic ballad for the first time. The sick comedy of it comes through in Farish’s last gasps, but that was one of multiple moments when I wished I were seeing Little Shop in a more intimate venue. Because a huge set piece by Duke was spun around when we went from the outdoor squalor of Skid Row to the inside of the flower shop, scenes at the shop played too far away upstage for maximum enjoyment.LITTLESHOPOFHORRORS-70

On the other hand, there were plenty of outsized performances besides DeWitt’s to help bridge the distance. Most outré was Victor Tran as the sadistic, laughing-gas fueled Orin, who gets to shine late in Act 1 singing “Dentist” with a backup trio, somewhat denuded of its usual 50’s trimmings. Clad in leather when he calls on Audrey, Tran also gets to handle two of the most interesting props in this production, an emasculated motorcycle and the wondrous dentist’s chair he mounts in order to terrorize Seymour – extracting only a single tooth, alas.

Jake Yara has that slight avuncular quality – and the hearty voice – you want to see in Mushnik and plenty of the selfish greed you want to see offsetting it. Mushnik is a bit of a Jewish stereotype, more comical than offensive. But when Yara sings “Mushnik and Son” with Howie, as Mushnik offers to make the suddenly promising Seymour his partner, there’s a pinch of warm regard mixed into his cunning pragmatism. On the street, where the alleys and trashcan evoke the seedy ‘hood, Katie Marcelino, Logan Cosper, and Taylor Goodwin do more than just sing backup.

They keep it real. So does the ensemble actor who plays the neighborhood drunk, rousing from his stupor only long enough to sing the low notes.

“And Then There Were None” Keeps Us Guessing as the Body Count Mounts

Review: Dame Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Theatre audiences love mysteries. Action, intrigue, plot twists, murder, and maybe a jolt of romance – they deliver an intoxicating brew and demand your heightened attention. Yet there aren’t nearly enough theatre mysteries to satisfy audience demand. The big names in the field are Christie and the Holmeses – Sherlock and Rupert. Either purloined from Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories or cynically refashioned and rebranded for commercial consumption, Sherlock is the mystery detective personified. Rupert Holmes has had the chutzpah to craft two mystery musicals, Drood and Curtains, as well as two mystery dramas that premiered here in Charlotte, Accomplice and Thumbs.

Whether onstage or in bookstores, Dame Agatha Christie is the unchallenged queen of mysteries. A trio of Christie titles are constantly making the rounds: The Mousetrap, renowned as the longest-running stage production of all time since 1952; Witness for the Prosecution, especially after Billy Wilder’s Oscar-nominated film in 1957; and, first presented as Ten Little N-Words back in 1943, And Then There Were None.

Christie’s zero-sum mystery is based on the most beloved of her 72 novels and one of the six best-selling novels of all time. There’s absolutely no problem with name recognition at Theatre Charlotte, where few seats were left on opening night. Nor was there any sign that director Dave Blamy had any difficulty attracting sufficient local talent to fill his cast of 10 suspects/victims who arrive on Soldier Island, all claiming to have been invited by the same person they’ve never met. An eleventh cast member ferries the guests, the butler, and the maid from the mainland and then departs.

Or does he?

Whoever sent out the invitations was selective, choosing only people who were responsible for other people’s deaths. They will all be victims, in the killer’s mind, who deserve to die. A recording that the butler has been instructed to play calls out each of the guests’ names and tells the group whose death he or she is responsible for. Justice is to be meted out to them all, for there is no escaping to the mainland.IMG_1674

That only begins to describe the fiendishness and arrogance of the killer who is on the loose, probably hiding in plain sight. Hanging over the mantle – and printed as an insert in our programs – is a poem, “Ten Little Soldier Boys,” chronicling how the group dwindled until “there were none.” As the dwindling survivors of the murderous rampage soon figure out, the poem has become a template for how the killer will snuff out each of them, following the order of the poem. The first “choked his little self,” the second “overslept himself,” the third “got left behind,” and so on.

Each time one of the guests is murdered, a soldier boy figurine sitting on the mantle disappears or falls to the floor.

It’s an elegant touch, an impressive sleight-of-hand, another affirmation that the killer is in control and always one or two steps ahead of his victims – another way he or she is toying with the ineffectual survivors who remain, mocking their efforts. And ours.

Chris Timmons’ set design, one of the best and most beautiful he has built during his 13-year tenure at the Queens Road barn, has four exits on its two levels, allowing a certain amount of bustle and confusion as we track the whereabouts of our chief suspects. We’re also rubbernecking where the next victim is, for we never know who that will be until late in the game – this is a diabolical game, right? – and only vaguely how the next murder will be done.IMG_1668

Blamy keeps the action flowing masterfully, varying his pacing, and getting Christie’s suspects to engage with each other intensively. Once the game is afoot, we must believe that each one’s demeanor – suave, artless, judgmental, analytical, scientific, or dignified – hides the heart of a maniacal murderer.

The Theatre Charlotte veterans are as reliable as we expect them to be. Caryn Crye drips piety and primness as spinster Emily Brent, saving her most severely moralizing barbs for young Vera Claythorne, whom she views as scandalously immodest. Johnny Hohenstein, not always on his best form on opening night, was sleazy and obnoxious as retired policeman William Blore when he hit his stride, both deceitful and maybe a little stupid. Timothy Huffman was actually a little less commanding than we’ve seen him before as retired General Mackenzie, perhaps too overcome by guilt and senility to be a serious threat.

On the other hand, Philip Robertson emerges as a natural leader and investigator as Sir Lawrence Wargrave, a retired judge who gets all the guests to respond to the crimes they’re accused of, rousing suspicions and animosities among the group. Thanks to him, we see the rogues’ gallery we’re dealing with fairly clearly.

Among the Queens Road newcomers, Peter Finnegan takes top-of-the-class honors as adventurer Philip Lombard. After a startling local debut as Bottom in Actor’s Theatre’s Midsummer Night’s Dream in August, Finnegan turns the pistol-toting Lombard from a semi-romantic hero into an Indiana Jones rascal, absorbing multiple rejections and altering the chemistry between him and Vera. Jonathan Stevens’ breakout performance at CPCC came even more recently as Lord Wessex in Shakespeare in Love. Some of that same aristocratic conceit and bearing transfers well to Rogers the butler, and his toxic superiority to Mrs. Rogers also has a familiar ring.

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As Mrs. Rogers, Cadie Pittman comes closer to a breakout role, giving the overworked maidservant a nice resentful edge. We keep guessing about Vera and her past because newcomer Quincy Stanford keeps her so unpredictable as she establishes bumpy relationships with both Lombard and Emily. It’s hard to surpass Finnegan for reckless swagger, but newcomer Carson Edwards gives it a try as inconsiderate daredevil Anthony Marston. He’s somewhat thwarted by the playboy outfit designed for him by costumer Chelsea Retalic, more apt to drink champagne than bourbon, and too carefree to carry a gun.

Rounding out our primary suspects, Will Lampe makes an interesting study as Dr. Armstrong. He might be a truly timorous, harmless, and useful physician, but Lampe’s fearfulness could be a façade if he’s furtively dealing out death with his medicinal syringes. Then he disappears! Dead? Lurking? The tension ratchets up suspensefully as we puzzle out whether he’s the “red herring” in the “Ten Little Soldier Boys” poem or the latest addition to the body count.

 

Charlotte’s Witness to Genocide

Preview: Protective Custody: Prisoner 34042, a Three Bone Theatre Production

By Perry Tannenbaum

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At age 97, Dr. Susan Cernyak-Spatz can look back on a life well-lived – and a life well-told. Neither outcome seemed possible on May 7, 1942, when Cernyak-Spatz and her mom responded to an invitation from the Nazi invaders who had occupied Czechoslovakia. It was an invitation that Jews could not refuse. They assembled at a large public square, where they were marched across the city of Prague in broad daylight, herded to a freight station, loaded onto trains, and transported to the Theresienstadt concentration camps.

Survival was already against the odds. Those odds grew slimmer on January 31, 1943, when Cernyak-Spatz was transported from Theresienstadt, the “showplace” camp built to deceive International Red Cross inspectors, to Birkenau, the belly of the beast in Adolph Hitler’s genocide machine.

Yet Cernyak-Spatz did survive. She survived a transfer deeper into the belly, to Auschwitz, and an attack of typhus fever brought on by the toxic living conditions there. Even after the Russians began “liberating” Eastern Europe, Cernyak-Spatz survived a grueling death march in the custody of her captors.

And oh baby, since arriving in the US nearly three-quarters of a century ago, Cernyak-Spatz has told her story – well and often. New generations have heard it at Jewish Sunday schools and at UNC Charlotte, where she is still a professor emerita in German literature. In classrooms, in lecture halls, and in synagogues across America and Europe – including Germany – she has opened fresh eyes to Nazi atrocities. In books she has authored about her life, the Holocaust, and Theresienstadt, Cernyak-Spatz has chronicled the unthinkable horrors she survived – horrors that millions of other Jews did not survive.

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The story keeps getting told. At the upcoming Charlotte Jewish Film Festival, filmmaker Ron Small’s documentary biopic, Surviving Birkenau, will be screened on October 26. And next week at Spirit Square, a project initiated by Cernyak-Spatz’s daughter, Jackie Fishman, and notables of the QC’s theatre community comes to fruition. Charles LaBorde’s adaptation of Cernyak-Spatz’s memoirs, Protective Custody: Prisoner 34042, opens on November 1 in a Three Bone Theatre production directed by Dennis Delamar.

The idea for presenting a one-woman show focused on his longtime friend Susan’s life had been moldering in Delamar’s mind since 2005 when he directed the Charlotte premiere of Doug Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning I Am My Own Wife, an adaptation of transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf’s autobiography.

“That survivor’s story carried us through the Holocaust and also the fall of the Berlin Wall and made me start visualizing something similarly possible about another person’s unique Holocaust story. Someone I actually knew and cared for very much – Susan! Since then, I thought the idea was a really good one, but it stayed in the back of mind, dormant. Cut to eleven years later.”

Pieces began falling into place when Fishman, education coordinator at the Stan Greenspon Center for Peace and Social Justice, brought Delamar and LaBorde to Queens University for a reading of Address Unknown in April 2017, reviving one of multiple Holocaust plays LaBorde had already written. Almost inevitably, Delamar broached his long-gestating idea with Fishman during rehearsals.

“Jackie was immediately ecstatic over the idea,” he recalls, “as if I had said some magic words. ‘Let’s do it! Mom has already written her story down, the book she published in 2005. Have you read it? I’ll get you a copy.’ At that moment, Jackie became a key driving force behind this play getting done, a mission she has continued to energize as a daughter’s gift to her mother.”

Though Fishman had been one of his most valued teachers back when LaBorde was principal of Northwest School of the Arts, he didn’t see a natural transition of Protective Custody from page to stage: “too many people, too complex a story to pare down enough for an audience to follow.” LaBorde was prepared to walk away – until he came face-to-face with Fishman’s enthusiasm for the project. So he gave the book a second look.

With Three Bone Theatre aboard – and Cernyak-Spatz greenlighting the project – Delamar and LaBorde returned to Queens University, where the Greenspon Center hosted an even more exciting event last December than they had the year before. For Cernyak-Spatz was seated in the front row of a packed house at a reading-stage performance of a new LaBorde play, doubly honored at the occasion.

Nor did Cernyak-Spatz sit idly by as the latest incarnation of her life story took shape. She and her daughters, Jackie and Wendy Fishman, have been intensively involved in the process, checking facts, suggesting enhancements, correcting pronunciations, and fine-tuning the voice of the Susan we will see onstage.

“My favorite bit of research,” LaBorde reveals, “was to ask Wendy and Jackie if their mother would say the line I had written early in the play, ‘Somebody fucked up.’ Their reaction was to look at each other and then say simultaneously, ‘Oh, yeah.’”

My own research for this momentous Three Bone premiere took me to Prague last month – and from there to the fortress site of the Theresienstadt camps, the town of Terezín, and the Museum of the Ghetto. In Prague, my wife Sue and I stood in one of the squares where Cernyak-Spatz may have been marched to the transport awaiting her at the freight yards. Our guide told us that we were standing on pavement made from the shattered gravestones from a demolished Jewish cemetery.

At Theresienstadt we saw the barracks where Jews were warehoused in hall-length beds three and four levels high, no toilets provided. We saw a washroom built to hoodwink the Red Cross, lined with sinks where no water has ever flowed. We saw cemeteries near Theresienstadt and Terzín larger than football fields – with marked graves, unmarked graves, and mass graves. We were guided to the Secret Synagogue where I read the most heartbreaking plea to God that I’ve ever seen in a house of worship, written in Hebrew:

“PLEASE RETURN FROM YOUR WRATH.”

And outside Terezín, adjoining one of the burial grounds, we saw the crematoriums, restored by the Luski Family, a name familiar throughout Charlotte’s Jewish community. Maybe the most chilling and revelatory things I saw were the records displayed at the Ghetto Museum of the transports, punctiliously kept by the Nazis: dates, points of origin, and numbers of Protective Custody prisoners brought into Theresienstadt via the transports. Of the hundreds, sometimes thousands who were loaded into the cattle cars, I never saw that even 100 survived any of these horrific transports. More than once, the number was zero.

Clearly, Cernyak-Spatz bucked prodigious odds to arrive at Theresienstadt, to survive her journey to Birkenau, and finally reach Ravensbrueck, the destination of her January 1945 death march. Susan does use the word “miracle” in LaBorde’s script to account for her eluding “the gas.” Once.

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Benefiting from the guidance of the Fishmans – and the sound of the real Cernyak-Spatz’s voice (yes, there’s a Prisoner 34042 audiobook!) – Leslie Giles takes on the daunting challenge of being Susan at Duke Energy Theater, assisted by Paula Baldwin as The Dresser.

“Oh my gosh, daunting doesn’t even begin to describe how it feels to take on this very special project about this incredible person,” says Giles. “The amount of lines would be enough to scare some actors away, and then to top it off with the very real and gritty details makes it overwhelming at times. That said, it is absolutely worth it, probably the most important piece of work I’ve ever performed in my entire career. It is one thing to read about these events in a book. It is another thing to watch the story coming alive in front of you.”

Reflecting on the wonder of her survival, Cernyak-Spatz scoffs at the notion that she had any special wisdom. “Our entire day was taken up with thinking of survival,” she declares. “We had to be alert like wild animals. Wild animals don’t do much thinking. They survive. We ate anything that wouldn’t eat us. There was no time to dwell on faith or God; you had to give up your expectations of a normal universe. Perhaps my naivete allowed me to take great risks that paid off.”

If it weren’t for the war, Cernyak-Spatz says she would have likely become a dancer or an actress. Indeed, she has occasionally performed onstage here in the QC, most recently when I called her one the “islands in a stream of ineptitude” in my review of Theatre Charlotte’s production of A Little Night Music in 2006. No wonder she treasures the gift of a new drama dedicated to her in her twilight years.

There’s also a twinkle of artistry in the title of her memoirs. The Nazis didn’t simply record your prisoner number in a ledger or stitch it into your prison clothes – it was tattooed into your forearm. They fancied themselves the master race, so they could house Jews and brand Jews and liquidate Jews like cattle. The 34042 that endures in Cernyak-Spatz’s title does not signify their triumph.

“The title serves my purpose of explaining the steps and the de-humanization of a group of human beings. When one is ultimately reduced to no more than a number, the extrapolation is that there’s no worth to this life and it can be easily disposed of. I have outlived the Third Reich, triumphed over them, with a successful and productive life – raised a Jewish family and have told my story all over the world. Anyone who sees the tattooed number on my arm becomes a witness to this history.”

Bach Akademie’s “German Requiem” Concert Offers Heavenly Music at St. Alban’s

Review:  St. Matthew Passion performed brilliantly by Bach Akademie Charlotte

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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Once you’ve performed the St. Matthew Passion, as Bach Akademie Charlotte did so brilliantly in concluding its second annual Charlotte Bach Festival back on June 15, there is little left for this powerhouse company to prove as it begins its third season. In fact, their third season began in Charlotte and then Davidson after a weeklong residency at the University of Iowa, so they arrived at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church with their “Bach & the Class of ‘85” program well-rehearsed, glowing with the honor of their invitation to perform in Iowa City, and polished after performing the same program in concert twice in the previous three days.

Both born in 1685, JS Bach and Domenico Scarlatti fit the original program title best, Bach represented by his BWV 229 Motet, “Komm, Jesu, komm,” and Scarlatti contributing the more substantial Stabat Mater. Emphasizing the liturgical aspect of the concert, Music @ St. Alban’s rebranded it as “German Requiem,” for the program built up to Heinrich Schütz’s Musikalische Exequien, the first German requiem. The afternoon concert, led by Scott Allen Jarrett, began with Schütz’s less ambitious “Selig sind die Toten” and paid homage to Schütz’s teacher, Claudio Monteverdi, with “Audi coelum,” excerpted from Vespro della beata vergine.

Jarrett made no mention of the change, and seemed quite comfortable with it, revealing that the Scarlatti was chosen more to accommodate his traveling ensemble of 10 voices than to celebrate the composer’s birthdate. That was giving up the cause too easily, in my view, for Schütz was born in 1585 and there was no mention at all of the composers’ dates, either live or in our program booklets. It was unclear whether the vocalists from the BA|CH Cantata Choir – four sopranos, two altos, two tenors, and two basses – were chosen on the basis of merit or availability, for the level of excellence among the 25 singers who had performed the Matthew Passion had been so high.

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There was certainly no diminution of excellence among the instrumentalists who accompanied them. Seattle-based theorbo player John Lenti distinguished himself immediately in the first two pieces, strumming vigorously over the continuo in the opening Schütz song, and giving the fiery closing section of the ensuing Stabat Mater a percussive edge. Nicolas Haigh had already distinguished himself at the organ throughout the Akademie’s brief history, and cellist Guy Fishman, a principal with the Handel & Haydn Society in Boston, was returning to the Charlotte area for the first time since his stellar solo concert at the first Charlotte Bach Festival last year.

The Cantata Choir had dipped into Schütz’s work back in February, when Jarrett showed his inclination to point up the dramatic contrast embedded in “Das ist je gewisslich wahr.” Once again, the Choir began by ravishing the harmonies of the opening lines of “Selig sind die Toten,” the four men in the ensemble answering and enriching melodies beautifully initiated by the six women. Lenti’s strumming was at the vanguard of the mood change when the choir shifted with a quickened pace from their consoling words, “Blessed are the dead which died in the Lord,” to the more vigorous and affirmative “their works do follow after them.”

A more dramatic shift, from German to Latin and from the promise of heavenly reward to Mary’s keening at the Crucifixion, was in store with the onset of Scarlatti’s Stabat Mater. Jarrett didn’t venture to say where this Stabat Mater ranked among over 80 settings of this 13th century hymn listed in Wikipedia, but it’s certainly among his top choices for works scored for 10 voices – and he was obviously excited to add it to the Cantata Choir’s repertoire and share it with us.

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Unlike the traditional Requiem, which is broken into distinctive stages, the poem venerating Mary is continuous and rhymed, following an aabccb scheme from beginning to end. When printed in stanzas, it’s usually presented in three-line tercets, so it’s interesting to observe how various composers divide the 20 tercets in their settings. Pergolesi and Poulenc, for example, wrote their settings with 12 sections, while Rossini and Dvořák preferred 10 – not agreeing at all where the intervals should be. Domenico Scarlatti’s setting was presented in eight parts (his dad, Alessandro, also set the hymn – in 18 sections), tilted more toward the choral idiom than Rossini’s and Vivaldi’s without layering on Dvořák’s orchestral preamble and blandishments.

There was no instrumental preamble at all in the opening “Stabat mater dolorosa” (“The sorrowful Mother”) section, and though the sopranos dominated early here over Haigh’s organ, the men added warm empathy and deeply textured gravity. By the end of the ensuing “Cuius animam gementum” (“Her grieving heart”) section, the Cantata Choir produced a more massive sound in the passage depicting Mary’s grieving and trembling, growing plaintive and pleading at its concluding question: “What man would not weep if he saw the Mother of Christ in such torment?”

Scarlatti’s third section, “Quis no posset” (“Who would not share her sorrow”) was hushed and slowed in Jarrett’s interpretation, so the ensuing “Eia Mater, fons amoris” (“O Mother, fount of love”), addressed to Mary, sounded freshened with heightened speed and volume, with a spate of new counterpoint launched by the female voices. The Choir’s ardor bordered on joy in the penultimate “Juxta crucem tecum stare” (“To stand beside the cross with you”), yet the closing “Inflammatus et accencus” (“Lest I burn, set afire by flames”) began more quietly and focused than the text suggested, virtually a duet with tenor Steven Soph most prominent. Stately harmonies took over in the final tercet, “Quando corpus morietur” (“When my body dies”), cresting in resolute affirmation with the Amens.

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Soph moved downstage to sing the lead voice in Monteverdi’s “Audi coelum” (“Hear, O heaven”), literally upstaged by tenor Patrick Muehleise who vanished behind the Choir and sang the “echo” role at the end of each stanza – and by Jarrett, who gave way to Soph and led the other singers from upstage when they entered upon the duet for the final three stanzas. Certainly this was a lighter, cleverer veneration of Mary, for the vanished tenor only sang the last word of the previous stanza, usually abbreviating that word and transforming it into a different word. Soph’s “benedicam” (“bless her”) thus led to Muehleise’s “Dicam” (“I shall tell you”), but “maria” (“the seas”) was fully echoed to become “Maria,” introducing the song’s subject at last in the fourth stanza. The device persisted after the Choir joined the fun, until the penultimate stanza, ending in “solamen” (“solace”), segued into a full-throated Amen.

Pointing up the inner contrasts of Bach’s motet, Jarrett smoothed the transition between the beguiling Monteverdi devotional to the lachrymose opening line, “Komm, Jesu, komm mein Leib ist müde” (“Come, Jesus, come, my body is weary”). The singers’ acceleration in the ensuing line, saying they grew weaker and weaker, somewhat belied that resigned text before subsiding into a repeated lament on the sourness of their difficult path. Suddenly there was a complete hairpin turn toward happiness when the words “Komm, komm” repeated. Instead of their prior funereal lassitude, the singers merrily bounced the repeated words and the phrase that followed, “I will yield myself to you,” as if they were singing “Mr. Sandman.” After that upbeat ending to the Choral section, the concluding Aria began more slowly, comparatively hushed, and sleepier. But here Bach’s change of mood became more cohesive in Jarrett’s hands, giving us a satisfying ascent and resolution as we reached “the true path to life.”

If it were actually the traditional Latin Requiem translated into German, Musikalische Exequien would be far easier to describe, summarize, and pass judgment on concisely. The genesis of the piece is a little macabre, commissioned by Count Heinrich Posthumous Reuss for his own funeral in 1636 – with texts he chose himself and ordered engraved on the inside of his coffin. Only the first of the three parts of the work has anything to do with the Lutheran mass, embracing a Kyrie and a Gloria in a lengthy Concert section of 27 parts. Scored for six voices and continuo, the Concert comprises about three-quarters of the whole Exequien. It was a wonderful showcase for the BA|CH Cantata Choir’s singers as soloists, as deliverers of delicious harmonies, and as instruments of varied contrapuntal delights. Soph and alto Elizabeth Eschen impressed me most here.

Jarrett once again brought more contrasting contours in the middle Motette section, written for an eight-voice double choir. The prayerful opening line, “Herr, wenn ich nur Dich habe” (“Whom have I in heaven but you”), zigzagged no less than three times in the next four lines, sprightly, then morose, and then almost dancing in finishing with “God is my strength and portion forever.” Concluding his requiem, Schütz puts on his most elaborate – and confusing – show, scoring two different texts, the biblical “Song of Simeon” for a five-voice choir and a trio of soloists singing “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.”

The trio is directed by Schütz to sing at a distance from the main choir, so Jarrett deployed them to the rear of the chapel during the second interval. Quite a spectacle to take all this in at a live performance! The program booklet helped me to understand that the soloists behind me were finishing with a declaration that the dead “are in the hands of the Lord and there is no sorrow that disturbs them.” Up front, the chorus overlapped the trio and seized the final words, extoling the Christian messiah as “a light to enlighten all gentiles and a glory for your people Israel.”

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Wrestling with two foreign languages and waves of contrapuntal complications with no instrumental respite – and no intermission – for over 100 minutes, the audience earned the praise that Jarrett offered them for their zeal and endurance. I strongly suspect they were ready for more.

King of Pop Invades Popo in Leonce and Lena

Review: US premiere of Christian Spuck’s Leonce and Lena in Charlotte

By Perry Tannenbaum

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As the action in the US premiere of Christian Spuck’s Leonce and Lena reached its climax, King Peter of Popo stepped forward on the Knight Theater stage to make an important announcement – to the audience, presumably, for the rest of the Charlotte Ballet cast stood respectfully and expectantly behind him. King Peter struggled mightily to express himself, never quite succeeding in uttering a syllable, though I’m sure I heard a consonant.

Summoning up more power and determination, the doddering King of Popo snapped his fingers. Behold, the house lights came on. But still, when he faced us squarely, no words came out. Well-heeled ballet mavens would have scanned their programs by now and read the synopsis, knowing before Peter’s abortive attempts at speech that he was probably announcing the upcoming wedding of his son, Prince Leonce, to Princess Lena of Pipi.

Or, since Leonce and Lena had fled their respective kingdoms back in Act 1, perhaps Peter was announcing a kingdom-wide search for the absent bride and groom-to-be. A reward for whoever found and returned them? That would certainly be in keeping with fairytale decorum.

That the ineffectual king snapped his fingers and brought the house lights back down was no longer a big surprise. But Spuck had plenty more shtick in reserve for James Kopecky, the dancer in Peter’s royal regalia who had pitifully shrunk away from us in defeat. Shedding his doddering persona, Peter busted a whole bevy of pop dance moves, including a stylish anthology of moves associated with the concerts and videos of Michael Jackson.

“You are the king!” I was tempted to shout.

There probably were shouts amid the hubbub of laughter and surprise that greeted this dramatic break from Peter’s previous character. You couldn’t doubt that Spuck’s intentions were largely comical, but if you found an edge of satire lurking beneath the laughs, you might also find it challenging to decide who or what the targets could be.

A powdered periwig that detonates in the opening scene reliably tells us that ceremonial pretensions were definitely in Spuck’s crosshairs. The fawning and fussing of Peter’s underlings are also mercilessly exposed in the costume designs of Emma Ryott and Spuck’s choreography. Repeatedly in Popo, the presumed grandeur of fairytale kingdoms – or European kingdoms so obscure they might as well be fairytales – is repeatedly punctured. Peter’s first wedding announcement is scrawled on a humble blackboard, with interlocking rings hastily drawn with chalk, while Leonce listens to his music on his friend Valerio’s wee boombox instead of adjourning to an dignified spinet.

What Charlotte Ballet subscribers are most likely to overlook, until Kopecky’s King of Pop antics conk them over the head with it, is that Spuck’s prime satirical target is ballet itself. Robotic choreography, such as we see in Leonce and Lena among Peter’s sycophants and later among the Italian townspeople, has been part of the balletic arsenal since the days of Copéllia and Nutcracker in the 19th century. That isn’t where I was finding Spuck’s fresh assault on ballet conventions. No, it’s the royal lovebirds who are most hilariously antithetical to ballet.

Instead of the customary piety, elegance, or bookishness that might mark Leonce and Lena as kindred spirits, Spuck points up their pure boredom. Nor is this mere low-key eyeroll boredom. This is enervated, prone, cradling-your-chin-in-the-palm-of-your-hand boredom. While Leonce is moping on the floor, he does something even more unbefitting the heir to the Popo throne: he propels himself along the ground like an inchworm. Backwards.

The alienation that Lena and Leonce feel toward their parents is demonstrated, in a charmingly antiquated way, by the music they listen to. At court, we’re likely to hear the waltzes of Johan Strauss Jr., including the majestic Emperor Waltz. Lena and her loyal Governess prefer to unwind with a coy version of Cole Porter’s sexually suggestive “Let’s Do It,” while the less fiercely rebellious Leonce and Valerio crank up Burl Ives’ greatest hit, “A Little Bitty Tear” on the boombox.

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Less downcast than their besties, Peter Mazurowski as Valerio and Alessandra Ball James as the Governess get to sparkle more at their respective castles before the young royals hit the road – and wear the less humdrum costumes. They also spark more readily with each other when the quartet meets up in Italy. Love at first sight between Leonce and Lena is more of a slow burn and more passionate, allowing Colby Foss as the Prince and Sarah Hayes Harkins to fire up a singularly quirky pas de deux that will linger in your memory. Notice that Stuck sticks them side-by-side in this whirlwind courtship, not forgetting how he established their characters.

Meanwhile, Mazurowski and James’ settle into a comedy groove that has belonged to second-banana couples on stage and on screen since before the days of Guys and Dolls. Then the zany Finale, when they return to Popo to crash the wedding – and stop the show almost as hysterically as Kopecky.

Plotwise, where ballet and its mute characters always have difficulties in storytelling, Spuck gets a little haphazard when Leonce and Lena part from each other in Italy. There’s a bit of Cinderella-at-midnight confusion to how Lena abruptly leaves Leonce. So it’s quite possible on your way home, after the full happily-ever-after tale has been told, that you’ll be asking yourself: when love first exploded between them, did Leonce and Lena even tell each other who they were?

During the final scene; filled with masquers, eccentrics, a wedding bower, and the king’s antics; you’ll likely be too entertained to worry about tying up such stray details. You might, on the other hand, miss Chelsea Dumas’ pouting as Rosetta and her unsuccessful flirtations. Pursuing Leonce in the opening act, Dumas neatly livened the action and underscored the Prince’s ennui. Maybe Spuck could bring Rosetta back to ply her charms on queenless King Peter! Such monkeyshines would be quite apropos in Popo.

CSO Takes Flight With STRAVINSKY FIREBIRD

Review:  Charlotte Symphony Leads Us To STRAVINSKY FIREBIRD

By Perry Tannenbaum

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If you think The Donald is in cahoots with the Russians, take a look at the Charlotte Symphony. They began their 2019-20 Classics season with an all-Tchaikovsky program late last month and continued with another all-Russian bill last weekend featuring music by Modest Mussorgsky, Alexander Glazunov, and Anatoly Liadov before climaxing with the Igor STRAVINSKY FIREBIRD. Are the musicians of Charlotte Symphony and their conductors, first music director Christopher Warren-Green and now resident conductor Christopher James Lees, leading us into the arms of Vladimir Putin?

Or just maybe… they’re following their audience’s inclinations in melting into the bosom of Mother Russia!

Principal flutist Victor Wang started off the evening with his introductory remarks, citing a previous experience with Lees, when he led Symphony in the pivotal “Infernal Dance” from The Firebird, as emblematic of the special enthusiasm that he brings to the podium. But Lees would first need to conquer Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain in the fearsome arrangement by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Under Warren-Green’s baton, CSO had failed in its two previous assaults on the Mountain – in 2009, when the British conductor was auditioning for his Charlotte post, and in 2016.

Strangely, it’s the most familiar part of the tone poem – the macabre, witches’ sabbath part – that eluded Warren-Green on both occasions. All the chaotic, nocturnal terror of the piece was drained from the 2009 performance, though the tolling of the bells and the onset of morning at the end of the piece were gorgeous. The more recent performance three years ago attempted to restore the original snap and crackle of the piece, pushing the tempo from the violins, turning up the volume from the brass, and unleashing more sforzando crispness from the percussion. A bit over-the-top, I thought, and not convincing – until the bells sounded, more glorious than ever because of the heightened contrast.

The 2019 version glowed even more fabulously with the dawn as Wang, principal clarinetist Taylor Marino, and principal harpist Andrea Mumm worked their magic. The calm resolution was nearly as impressive as the diablerie that preceded it – so overall, I was still disappointed with our nighttime sojourn. Lees certainly brought all the percussive razor sharpness you could want on the Bald Mountain, and the brass were excellent, with full-bodied trombones rocking the house. Violins were note-perfect quailing before the onset of the brass and astringent in reacting.

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Trouble was, Lees eased off the pedal in pushing tempo. Nothing about the witches’ sabbath was ever maniacal or threatening to lurch out of control, and the interplay between the violins and the brass, particularly when the strings were asked to suddenly pounce, was lacking in visceral excitement. Listen to how electric it can be on the Naxos recording by Theodor Kuchar and the Ukraine National Symphony.

While you’re there, you can also listen to Mussorgsky’s original orchestration. You’ll likely reach the same conclusion I have: it was Rimsky-Korsakov who was being “modest” if he termed the work we know today an orchestration or even an arrangement. Only six of the familiar notes from the fearsome brass theme were written by Mussorgsky. The next nine add-ons were Rimsky’s invention – and all of the concluding dawn episode was his as well. Joint attribution is very much warranted for Bald Mountain, and Ken Meltzer needs to go back to the drawing board with his program notes.

Once Lees and the CSO had exorcised the Halloween – or St. John’s Night – demons haunting them on Bald Mountain with Rimsky-Korsakov’s original music, they continued to warrant Wang’s praise. Glazunov’s Stenka Razin was delightfully contoured, though the Cossack rebel’s bellicose episodes could have been more turbulent and his dalliance with a Persian princess would have benefited from another splash of Rimsky, namely Scheherezade. The recurring theme, an old Russian folksong known as the “Song of the Volga Boatmen” on recordings by Glenn Miller and Paul Robeson, was handsomely passed back and forth from the brass to the French horns, and Mumm and Marino were again a beguiling combo on harp and clarinet.

Lees continued to be at a loss about creating maximum drama in Liadov’s The Enchanted Lake (listen to Vassily Sinaisky’s account on Chandos with the Slovak Phil to hear what I mean). But there was no lack of atmosphere here as tremolos from the strings vividly simulated Liadov’s lake. Nor was there a dearth of enchantment as the woodwinds made telling contributions and Mumm again excelled, even on the smallest strings of her harp.

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With the 1919 Suite from THE FIREBIRD, the most-frequently heard of the three suites that Stravinsky distilled from his 1910 ballet score, Symphony achieved lift-off, playing with their most admirably controlled fury. Lees not only captured the bacchanalian abandon of the “Infernal Dance of King Kastchei” as Wang had predicted, he and the orchestra brought orgiastic celebration to the Finale, where Prince Igor weds his chosen Princess after freeing her from Kastchei’s captivity, using the Firebird’s magical feather.

Amid the collective sparkle and might of THE FIREBIRD, there were individual exploits to magnify the triumph. Principal oboist Hollis Ulaky had lovely spots in the opening “Introduction and Dance of the Firebird” and later in the tender “Berceuse,” where principal bassoonist Olivia Oh spread additional nocturnal wonder. Principal cellist Alan Black and concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu were both eloquent in the “Dance of the Princesses,” but none of the principals made a more memorable impression than Byron Johns, launching the Finale with his beautiful work on the French horn. The forlorn splendor of it gave the fireworks that followed added impact and an onrush of drama.

Inside a She-Wolfpack

Review: The Wolves by Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte

By Perry Tannenbaum

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A couple of new productions drew my attention over the weekend, both sporting a cast of at least eight players. Yet at the two dramas, the new Countess Dracula from The Actor’s Gym and the local premiere of The Wolves by Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, there wasn’t a single male performer among the 18 that I saw. Even more surprising, it was the older, more established company that was fielding more new faces.

There aren’t any particularly sharp canine teeth on display in The Wolves, for the title pack is a women’s soccer team, but director Sarah Provencal and her design team are making a point of fielding this high-school-aged club. ATC has turned Hadley Theater on the Queens University campus into a soccer practice field, a somewhat jarring experience after you park your car, since there’s a real practice field adjacent to the lot and the school building that houses the Hadley.

In Evan Kinsley’s set design, the field and a scoreboard bisect the theater, and ticketholders can choose to sit on either side for a nicely simulated grandstand – and soccer mom – experience. The playing space was so large that ATC executive director barely made himself heard in his inimitable pre-show welcome, feeding my concern that the newcomers we were about to see would fare even worse.

Sarah DeLappe’s script and Provencal’s direction weren’t designed to allay such fears. Other than winning their next games and making it to the national tournament, the nine Wolves aren’t consumed by a single storyline as they gather for practices, and there can be multiple conversations vying for our attention at the same time, all equally tangential. Reminding me a bit of Annie Baker’s The Flick in its verité style, DeLappe develops her characters casually and obliquely as her teens’ conversations leap unexpectedly from immigration policy to Harry Potter to soccer strategy to coach’s hangover to the Khmer Rouge – and of course, juicy gossip about absent teammates.

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Compounding our difficulties – and her actors’ – Provencal conspires with soccer trainer Kirsten Allen to keep the Wolves engaged in an ongoing cavalcade of stretching exercises and soccer drills while all these scattershot conversations are popping at us from all points of the field. There’s plenty for us to see as we sift through the trivialities for telling info, and there’s plenty for the never-further-identified #25, #13, #46, #2, #7, #14, #8, and #00 (the goalie) to do, prompted by #11, the movement captain.

Along the way, we learn that we are somewhere in Middle America, that the mysterious newcomer lives in a yurt, and that another’s dad works with immigrants. There are little markers that attach to most of the others: #00 darts off the field repeatedly to vomit, the slender #2 may be anorexic, #14 is Armenian, and the movement captain, while aching to attract the notice of a college scout, takes on the responsibility of making her teammates winners. She’ll take the silliest of them aside, #8, and chastise her for making hurtful remarks to another player.

As with The Flick, another darling of Pulitzer Prize committees in recent years, you’re likely to conclude that, behind the outward aimlessness of The Wolves, an inner aimlessness lurks as well. At times, I felt like The Wolves might be a first draft of a script that could become a TV pilot for a series that HBO or Lifetime would reject as too nebulous or punchless. There are definitely players here who pique our curiosity and promise to reward deeper exploration.

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This ATC production reaches that limbo level because Provencal’s cast is so credible – both in inhabiting their roles and their soccer uniforms. I was most impressed by El Osborn as #7, the iconoclastic striker who is unexpectedly replaced by the socially awkward newcomer, Maevis Pair as an equally impressive #46. Osborn does a fine job with the glints of vulnerability that creep into #7’s haughty front after #46’s exploits on the pitch, revealing her longing for belonging when her stardom is broken. Pair evolves from her initial trepidations – counseling would likely be helpful for #46 – but she remains respectful toward #7 and a long distance from arrogance.

Maybe the fullest character on the team is Harley Winzenreid as #11, whose world is totally upended when she is no longer the hot college prospect but still the team leader. To be sure, DeLappe and Provencal provide Winzenreid with means to register the shifting landscape she copes with – and the cataclysms that befall the whole team collectively – but she’s interesting to watch as she effortlessly maintains leadership. Aside from the always disgruntled #7, who’s there to challenge her?

Not the two neurotic pups, Annarah Shephard as the nervous goalie, nor Hannah Kevitt as the inward and secretive #2, possibly anorexic. Entertaining as she may be as the ignorant and insensitive #8, Ahzjai Culbreth is well aware that she isn’t leader-of-the-pack material. What all of the teammates achieve, even as they expend so much athletic energy going through their pre-game paces, is a naturalness that I didn’t adequately appreciate until it was paused.

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That’s when the one adult in the cast, Jennifer Poarch as Soccer Mom, makes a dramatic entrance and delivers a fairly lengthy monologue. Compared to haphazardness that precedes her, Soccer Mom seems stagey, and I found myself accusing Poarch of acting. What comes across, aside from a distinct impression that Soccer Mom isn’t sure why she’s there, is that she exits without deepening her connection with her daughter or the other Wolves. After spending 90 minutes with them, I found that I had only barely begun.