Review: The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical
By Perry Tannenbaum
Take it from a very hairy satyr – or a prancing centaur: “The gods are real!” That’s the emphatic message Rick Riordan delivered to Percy Jackson, the hero of his young adult novel, The Lightning Thief, in 2005. Five years later, the best-selling saga became a blockbuster movie, and now – after a modest off-Broadway run in 2017 – Riordan’s demigod is on tour in The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical, and Knight Theater is one of his first stops.
Joe Tracz’ adaptation of Riordan’s story leans more towards the book than the movie, and Rob Rokicki’s songs add a rocking dimension to Lightning, pushing Percy’s youthful voltage decisively into defiant adolescence – and away from the 12-year-olds who were the original protagonists. But that boost doesn’t compare with the jumpstart this new musical delivers for the Greek gods.
You need to remember that these mighty Olympians were already fairly passé in the days of the Roman Empire when Zeus’s name was changed to Jove and Odysseus became Ulysses. Revivals of the Greek gods by 20th century novelists and poets were about the potency of myth rather than the truth of religion – and Homer’s heroes were more likely to be the focus than the immortals on Olympus.
We hear some definite rumblings from Olympus before the action begins at Knight Theater. Before we learn that Zeus’s lightning has been stolen and that Percy is a prime suspect, the lad’s field trip to the Metropolitan Museum – yes, in New York – is punctuated by attacks from a harpy and a minotaur.
Yeah, a very mighty somebody is angry with Percy, and the kid really has a lot to learn. After he gets expelled from school, the long-overdue lessons begin. Mom breaks the news that Dad, if not a great parent, was and is unquestionably great. But before Sally can specify Percy’s divine lineage, his implacable pursuers strike again. Now in hindsight, I could second-guess Zeus and politely assert that it would have been more sensible for him to send a more articulate messenger than a minotaur to ask Percy where he’d hidden the damn lightning.
So be advised, action comic book logic often prevails here – which is not very much out of step with the illogic of Greek mythology. When Percy awakens from a coma three days later, he finds himself motherless and enrolled at Camp Half-Blood up in Long Island, together with other kids whose divine parents are equally neglectful. Needless to say, the animus bred among these teenage demigods by their absentee parents chimes well with the Rokicki rock score.
Percy is doubly different from the rest. Until deep into Act 1, he doesn’t know whose son he is. On a dark night, the revelation from Dad will be truly spectacular as Percy and his fellow campers look up in the sky and – amid the obligatory earthshaking tremors – see the god’s signature trident blazoned among the stars. Heavenly signs are the stuff you hear heroes speak about in plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, a dramatic effect that Shakespeare shrewdly revived.
The other distinction that separates Percy is his getting selected to go on the quest to somehow retrieve the stolen lightning and prevent all-out warfare from breaking out among the gods. It’s here that Riordan takes us all the way back to the heroes of Homer’s epics. Just as there was tension and moodiness on the fields of Troy where Achilles, Ajax, Agamemnon, Hector, and Paris trod, there are rivalries and animosities among the half-blood campers. Annabeth, neglected by Mama Athena, wants to join Percy and prove herself. Others channel their jealousy, resentment, and antagonism into undermining him.
Up above, the unseen gods are supporting their neglected children, using them as instruments against one another, very much like Homer described them behind the scenes of the Trojan War. Mars and Mercury, the gods with Roman names, are sponsoring kids at camp who are going to make it tough on the offspring of Zeus and Poseidon. Singing rock songs with amped-up intensity and sincerity amid flashing lights and minimal scenery, these relentlessly energetic teens do occasionally seem like avatars in a video game.
I guess that’s because so much of the energy is channeled into the music.
Kristen Stokes as Annabeth sported the best vocal chops among our protagonists, but the role of Athena’s daughter isn’t nearly as meaty as the lead. Chris McCarrell is your fairly generic rock ‘n’ roll lead, not quite as iconoclastic as the Footloose outsider at his core, but he’s marvelously awed and illuminated by his magic sword and his mission. Somehow his determined edge never grows stale.
But as often happens with pure heroes and superheroes, Percy and Annabeth are often upstaged by the more outré characters they pal around with or confront. Three of the five supporting players have multiple roles to feast on, and I still find myself torn about which scene stealer I liked most. Perhaps because he rocked the most costumes, I’m giving the nod to Ryan Knowles as Chiron, Hades, and Poseidon. Knowles starts out as Percy’s teacher and principal before he reveals himself as a centaur – not an unreasonable stretch, since the original Chiron tutored such adventurers as Achilles and Jason.
Likewise, Percy’s classmate Grover reveals himself as a satyr when our hero comes out of his coma, the pagan equivalent of a guardian angel. Yet somehow, he moonlights as Mr. D, the godly camp director who presides over admissions in a manner that suggests a Hawaiian bartender. Jalynn Steele spends the largest chunk of her stage time as Percy’s mom, warmly nurturing and humdrum, but she gets the most startling cameo as Mrs. Dodd, the substitute teacher who turns into a very shrill harpy. Given a couple of chances to sing, Steele proves to have ample reserves of voltage and sizzle.
Okay, so maybe the gods aren’t real. At Knight Theater, in The Lightning Thief, they’re still a lot of fun.
When Mike Fitelson’s holiday riff on ballet and Tchaikovsky, The Hip Hop Nutcracker, first invaded Charlotte three years ago, it wasn’t quite where it needed to be artistically. The brash pre-show at Booth Playhouse presented by DJ Boo somewhat upstaged the pallid pre-recorded Peter Ilyich score that backed Fitelson’s updated scenario and Jennifer Weber’s choreography. Nocturnal settings by video designer Moe Shahrooz recalled the Washington Heights portrayed in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights – moody and occasionally surreal but drained of the Miranda musical’s inner-city vitality and color.
The Fitelson scenario definitely perks up the traditionally moribund Act 2. Instead of sitting his Clara and her Nutcracker down for the better part of an hour to watch a series of decorative dances, Fitelson sends his Maria-Clara voyaging back 30 years where, in Back to the Future style, she encounters her perennially bickering parents back on the night when they first met at the Land of Sweets nightclub – getting to see them freshly at the moment romantic love first sparked between them.
Very promising, but the show needed some extra spark itself.
Produced by the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, the show has returned to the Queen City every year since its forgettable 2015 debut. Yeah, when I booked this year’s reprise at Knight Theater, I’d actually forgotten that we had seen it before. Thankfully, I review stuff. And thankfully, the Knight is exactly where this Nut needs to be.
Memories did not come rushing back when the show began. Kurtis Blow, a founding father of hip hop, hadn’t been part of the Booth Playhouse production, but at the Knight, he rules the pre-show for just over 18 minutes. He’s not the first performer I’ve ever seen who has asked an audience to get up on their feet or to raise their arms and sway back and forth nonsensically, but I’m sure he’s the first who has ever asked me and the rest of the crowd to SCREAM. Over and over.
So audience participation at the Knight has increased exponentially over what I experienced at the Booth. The Knight also has more than twice the Booth’s seating capacity. And since word-of-mouth and repetition have solidified Hip Hop Nutcracker as a holiday tradition, the Knight was sold-out on opening night and enthusiasm stretched to the back row of the balcony.
There is even a subtle tie-in between Blow’s aggressive patter and the dance that follows. Signed in 1979 as the first rapper to land a major-label recording contract, Blow presents his music as unabashedly “old school” and invites his audience to immerse itself in his original vibe, prefiguring the time traveling that Maria-Clara will do before she mends her parents’ dysfunctional relationship.
Things started looking familiar when violinist Jarvis L. Benson took his spot under the neighborhood lamppost and began playing Tchaikovsky’s antique melody line over Boo’s contemporary backbeat and platter scratching. You might say that, as the melody wafts upwards, it infuses the pair of red sneakers slung over the lamppost with magical powers. Our hero, The Nutcracker, sells his namesake merchandise from a ramshackle cart. He’s obviously attracted to Maria-Clara but painfully shy, and when he gallantly steps forward to save her from the unwanted attentions of a local gang, Nutcracker gets his ass kicked.
Big difference when those sneakers improbably fall to the ground and Nutcracker puts them on. What vanquishes the gang is even more improbable: Josue “Beastmode” Figueroa as Nutcracker executes a bodacious spin on his head that lasts longer than you might think humanly possible. Literally turning The Nutcracker on its head during its climactic Act 1 battle.
While there are some dolorous and becalmed moments elsewhere in Act 1 in the ensemble choreography, the Knight Theater sound system is noticeably superior, punchier. So as the Nutcracker soundtrack plays, we never get the sense that the Jerseyites are dancing to elevator music. Although Ann-Sylvia Clark is a holdover from the 2015 edition as Maria-Clara, everyone else besides Boo was new to me and eager to strut their stuff. Weber’s choreography leaves plenty of room for exuberant freestyling.
Beastmode, with his appealing rough edges, was the most impressive newcomer for me, but I also like the pixie exuberance and stealth of Lisa “LBoogie” Bauford as Drosselmeyer. Forget the “Herr.” The Hip Hop Drosselmeyer has been a woman each time I’ve seen Fitelson’s version, symptomatic of the diversity in Weber’s casting. Yes, she choreographs and directs.
Sad to say, Nubian Nene is less seductive and more proper as Mom, draining all the comedy from her strife with Dad, though Micah “Just Jamz” Abbrey is every bit as crotchety as his predecessor. New charm and whimsy are injected into the evening by Dustin Payne, whose solo as Flute deservedly received the most audience approval among the Act 2 set pieces on opening night.
Shahrooz’s animations become livelier after intermission, responding to Drosselmeyer’s conjurations and transporting us back to 1988. The backwards time traveling is done like a subway ride, the years spelt out in the tiling on walls surrounding the track – with an increased amount of graffiti as we reach our destination. Perhaps a nod to Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his unparalleled success in “cleaning up” New York? The trip back to the present day takes us skyward as an elevated train reels in the years across the nighttime cityscape.
Wondering whether Kurtis returns? You can bet on it. Loquaciousness undimmed, he presides over the most elaborate curtain calls you will ever behold at a ballet. Many people left before it became apparent that we would have a full-fledged post-show over eight minutes long. Many more stayed – and obliged the special guest MC by screaming on cue. Not quite 60 years old, Blow even busted some moves.
Long before it became New York’s AM haven for Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, WOR was the late night hangout of Jean Shepherd, the place where he became something of a cult hero – or maybe a folk hero if you take his roguish, Bohemian homespun manner into account. His holiday idyll, A Christmas Story, recalling his boyhood in an obscure Indiana town, is the chief reason why we remember Shepherd. It’s likely also the reason why 1938 Red Ryder Carbine Action BB Guns are still available at Walmart, Bass Pro Shops, and Dick’s Sporting Goods more than 50 years after the last Red Ryder comic strip appeared in print.
Aside from the fabled Red Ryder air rifle – and the extra trimmings our hero Ralphie never fails to mention – there’s another familiar earmark in A Christmas Story. Whether he expresses his yearning obliquely through a magazine ad strategically placed in his living room, excitedly in front of a store display, panegyrically in a school essay, or confidentially in Santa’s lap, the barrier to Ralphie’s Holy Grail is always the same: “You’ll shoot your eye out!”
As your might fear, for the phrase is already sufficiently repeated, A Christmas Story, The Musical turns the catchphrase into a pervasive mantra – a phantasmagorical one partway into Act 2 after Miss Shields, Ralphie’s teacher, reacts to his essay. Transported to a fantasy speakeasy, even Ralphie’s classmates pronounce the fatal slogan in mocking singsong, fiendishly relishing our hero’s failure to get what he so dearly cherishes.
We’d be fine if this expansion were the worst of Joseph Robinette’s mistakes in adapting the 1983 Turner Entertainment film for the stage. Years after Oliver and Annie had proven a pre-teen’s ability to carry his or her weight in a Broadway musical – and less than two years before Matilda would prove it again – Robinette looks to narrator Jean, Ralphie’s parents, and Miss Shields for avenues to expand his book or let composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul plump up the songlist.
You might retch at all the geniality that Chris Carsten lavishes on Jean, but it’s an enthusiastic heartland geniality, and he isn’t singing much. We can also allow that the epic stress that Lauren Kent as Miss Shields puts on the “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out” prohibition siphons away some the ogre aspect that might taint Ralphie’s mom. But that strands Briana Gantsweg as Mother in the deadly realm of being almost entirely understanding and nurturing, toward her husband and her sons – in two of Pasek & Paul’s most sweetly innocuous songs. They stop the show in ways that aren’t helpful.
Most of the true joy that beams out at us at Ovens Auditorium in this show comes from Ian Shaw as the ever-embattled, ever-tenacious Ralphie (alternating with Michael Norman) and Paul Nobrega as The Old Man, a similarly-assailed eccentric who barely takes notice of his pint size buckaroo’s numerous tribulations. Largely ignoring Ralphie, The Old Man’s Herculean challenges include taming the furnace, eluding the next-neighborhoods dogs, and winning recognition in a very silly crossword puzzle contest.
With Pasek & Paul rising to the occasion, perhaps the best musical moments in the show are songs inspired by The Old Man, “The Genius on Cleveland Street” and “A Major Award.” Nobrega’s struggles with the crossword puzzle also give Gantswag her best moments, striving to feed the answers to her intensely dimwitted husband without defiling his self-esteem.
Starting out with Shepherd taking us to his WOR studio A Christmas Story, The Musicaltakes its time before reaching cruising gear. But times were slower in 1940, when Robinette sets the story, and set designer Walt Spangler and costume designer Elizabeth Hope Clancy create a folksy, slightly cartoonist charm that chimes well with this familiar yarn, which will warm your holiday a little if you’re patient. Playing time, 1:54, is 21 minutes more than the movie, so nobody’s in a rush.
When a playwright puts the finishing touches on his or her latest comedy, it’s without any knowledge about how prevailing attitudes and expectations might change out in the audience over the next 93 years. No playwright has ever had the chance to look back that far, and that includes Noël Coward, whose Fallen Angels is playing at Duke Energy Theater in an Actor’s Gym production directed by Tony Wright.
Knowing Noël, I’d say he’d either gasp or laugh out loud. Opportunity knocks for Coward’s protagonists, Julia Sterroll and Jane Banbury, when their husbands head off on a golfing weekend just when an old flame of both ladies, Maurice Duclos, sends them billet-doux saying that he’ll be arriving back in London after an absence of many years –so many years that the husbands, Fred and Willy, have no idea of who Maurice is nor any knowledge of his torrid affairs with their wives.
After Fred’s departure, Julia is momentarily left alone with her new smarty-pants maid, Saunders. That’s when Jane arrives at the Sterrolls’, all aflutter with the news. Julia, who was just a few minutes earlier discussing with Fred exactly how much fire was left in their mellowing marriage, hadn’t yet read her note from Maurice. It quickly becomes evident, as the women discuss Maurice, that those flames still burn brightly, perhaps more brightly than ever. They’re a little scared.What will they do when he arrives?
Their first impulse is exactly what an audience would expect – in 1925: to flee as quickly as they can to protect their honor, which presumably cannot withstand Maurice’s irresistible charms. A mere 35 years after Oscar Wilde had declared, “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it,” such an outlook was still wicked, irresponsible, and risqué.
Nowadays, coaxed by Madison Avenue, amoral leaders, social media, and longstanding American traditions of fierce individuality, we find ourselves – regardless of gender – inwardly urging Julia and Jane, Go for it! Whereas we’re taken aback in 2018 by the ladies’ knee-jerk-prissiness, their eventual decision to stay and face Maurice was immoral enough to give London’s censors pause before allowing Fallen Angels to be performed.
Once Julia and Jane have opted for what we perceive as the road-more-taken, you might expect that attitude adjustment becomes far less necessary. Yet in more subtle ways, the presumption of wickedness works its way deeply to the bones of Coward’s comedy. Instead of building his comedy upon Julia and Jane’s rekindled romances – and their wacky or delicious maneuverings to keep their husbands in the dark – we find an unexpected amount of time devoted to maintaining their wicked resolve. Here our complications arise from the women’s resorting to martinis and champagne to sustain their courage during their excited vigil.
So it’s helpful that Tony Wright and his design team keep reminding us that the people onstage are living indifferent times. While Tim Baxter-Ferguson’s set design isn’t the ultimate in elegance, the requirements of a British drawing room are met, including a baby grand where Saunders will upstage Julia. Davita Galloway’s costumes, particularly the flapper-flavored outfits for the partying ladies as they sip their martinis, stamp the era most decisively.
The women must dominate this comedy,and Wright has found a marvelously varied trio. Originally played by Tallulah Bankhead, Julia is the formidable serenity that is serially agitated by Saunders, Jane, and Maurice to comical effect. Jennifer Barnette takes that serenity to a loftier, more angelic plane, slightly muting her discomfiture and giving more space for the eccentricities of Saunders and Jane to shine. Karina Caporino pounces on her opportunity as Jane with frenetic energy, more brittle and midlife than we’ve ever seen her, which easily makes Jane the most screwball of her trademark neurotics.
Erin Darcy as Saunders is possibly the most vivid period trimming in this whole confection, a servant who is more knowledgeable, widely traveled, and skilled than the mistress she serves, aware of her superiority and maybe a little bit haughty about it. Saunders’ sophistication lays bare the delusion that the Sterrolls or the Banburys are living lives of consequence. Perhaps it’s Darcy’s aplomb at the piano that gives Barnette her best episode of humiliation.
In this context, Emmanuel Barbe is a perfect choice as Maurice. He is suave and self-assured, with a savoir-fair that is unmistakably French, yet he doesn’t quite have the polish and youth that would make knees buckle in high society. Barbe’s down-market elegance is still more than enough to make David Hensley as Fred and Michael Anderson as Willy seem gullible, dimwitted, and humdrum. Hensley as Fred seems to be the sort who feels like he’s fulfilling his destiny by opening a newspaper at the breakfast table, while Anderson, once he reconciles with Fred and Jane, gives Willy exactly the smiling insouciance that Wright wants for his ending.
I have to go back to 2005 and The Tempest to find the last Actor’s Gym production I reviewed. It’s great to have Wright and his Gym back on the scene, especially when the Gym unearths a gem like this.
Down in Dallas, Fun House Theatre producer Bren Rapp and her co-founder, artistic director Jeff Swearingen, don’t do children’s theatre the usual way. The children at Fun House are the actors onstage and not necessarily the target audience. So when Rapp looked for an inspiration to challenge her students, David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross wasn’t too far of a stretch. To translate the Darwinian struggles of real estate salesmen embroiled in a monthly sales contest into terms her actors could identify with – an annual Girl Scout Cookie drive – Rapp leaned upon Swearingen’s play writing skills.
The result in 2013 was a Dallas-Fort Worth theatre legend: The Daffodil Girls. In a further mutation five years later, Three Bone Theatre is currently premiering the first all-adult production of Swearingen’s script at Spirit Square.
Make no mistake, this is thoroughly Swearingen’s play, not just a servile rechanneling of Mamet’s testosterone-driven, potty-mouthed arguments through the lips of innocent preteens. Plot and dialogue only faintly echo Glengarry most of the time, language is relatively cleansed, and beware: complete sentences lie ahead. Another way to view the difference is to note that Swearingen lets plenty of air into the relatively claustrophobic world of Glengarry. Mamet only gave us three two-handed scenes before intermission. Swearingen admits more characters – and more of the world outside of the Daffodils’ treehouse.
According to Willa, who parallels Mamet’s Williamson, the entire Daffodil chapter has been endangered by their slumping cookie sales, not just the low person on the totem pole. Even before Shelly’s quest for hotter leads, in a humiliating confrontation with the officious Willa, we find Swearingen modernizing the story and infusing fresh air into the competition. Shelly is outdoors as the lights go up, on her cellphone first with her mom and then her dad, pleading with them to help boost her numbers.
Opening up his story, Swearingen doesn’t ease up on the stress that Mamet plunged us into, but he does manage to instantly wrap that stress into a more juvenile mindset. Parents at the Duke Energy Theater can only sigh. The Daffodils’ cookie quotas merely weaponize our children’s pre-existing propensity toward clinging, dependent querulousness, and cellphones help it go nuclear.
When she isn’t consulting her rules and charts – or obsequiously receiving Blayne, the regional Daffodil emissary with the motivational charms of a drill sergeant – Willa seems to live next door to the troop’s treehouse. All we see at stage right is Willa’s housefront, enough for her to peep out of and defer to parents lurking within. Flanking the treehouse interior in Ryan Maloney’s set design, a Peanuts-gone-to-seed affair, is that pillar of preteen commerce, a lemonade stand (with a crayon rental side hustle). There we will find Raimi, the top-selling Daffodil, closing in on a high-gross sale to hapless, sickly Jenny Link, who may be allergic to every ingredient in those cookies.
Raimi is modeled on Mamet’s sales ace, Roma, who circles his prey, Lingk, ever so circumspectly in the last Chinese restaurant scene of Glengarry prior to intermission. The real bridge to Act 2 in both dramas is the discussion about ransacking the sales office, ostensibly for cash and receipts, but really so the desperate accomplices can get their hands on those hot sales leads that are guarded so closely. In Glengarry, the conspirators were Dave Moss and George Aaronow, with Moss as the intimidator. Here the crooked bullying malcontent is Dana, bullying a kindergarten neophyte, Georgina.
Casting the women who will regress into girlhood in daffodil-colored uniforms, Three Bone director Amanda Liles leans on size in her casting when we need to differentiate between their purported ages. Layla Sutton as Dana towers over Kitty Janvrin as Georgina, conjuring up a Trunchbull-Matilda contrast more readily than any relationship Mamet set down. You’ll notice a similar disparity between the imposing Iris DeWitt as Blayne, the regional enforcer, and the comparatively petite Iesha Nyree as the deferential Willa.
Rather than playing down these contrasts, Liles encourages her actresses to play them up. Among them, Nyree gets the best opportunity to surprise, for Willa may be a worm and a suck-up, but she’s a cunning one, and her moment will come. In proving that crime doesn’t pay, Nyree gets to unleash a volcano of pent-up emotion that is quite consonant with Willa’s customary sliminess, but she only briefly wrests our primary attention away from the girls at the opposite ends of sales totem pole.
Kerstin VanHuss as the pathetic Shelly and LeShea Nicole as the regal Raimi give the performances you’ll remember longest. If Shelly would sweeten up, stop acting so spoiled, and show a little more initiative, she might shape up as the sort of underdog you could root for, like the chubby Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray. Yet in her pluckier moments, Van Huss succeeds in making this mopey, self-pitying Shelly more appealing than any of Mamet’s predators, so I did find myself rooting for her late in the action despite my better judgment.
Raimi oozes all the self-confidence, superiority, and staunch entitlement that Shelly lacks, and Nicole makes her so very slick, patient, and condescending as she sets about fleecing poor Jenny for over 20+ boxes of toxic cookies. The fruits of Raimi’s finesse make her a victorious queen when she finally deigns to return to the ransacked treehouse. Nobody is taking away her damn pony party, the prize that goes to the troop’s top seller, and you can hear Nicole playing the race card as she proclaims this – slapping that card down on the table with gusto, absolutely shameless. As in previous Nicole stage exploits, she’s intensely eccentric and laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes without even saying a word.
Of course, Nicole’s imperious cruelty is greatly augmented by the immense frailty of Valerie Thames as Jenny – though it must be said those breathing tubes sprouting from her nostrils give her a head start. To a lesser extent than Nyree as Willa, Thames will acquire the beginnings of a backbone in the Act 2 denouement when Jenny finally gets a word in edgewise.
Similarly, it isn’t just Willa who nudges us toward empathizing with Shelly. After her cameo as Blayne, DeWitt returns to belittle Shelly, her cookies and her Daffodils uniform as Lisa, a preppy girl who acts like giving Shelly the time of day is more than sufficient charity. Rounding out the cast is Tiffany Bryant Jackson as Cora. Mostly quiet as she runs the lemonade stand before intermission, Cora turns out to have quite a bossy streak in the heat of the great burglary investigation.
Maybe the biggest surprise in Swearingen’s fun-filled riff on Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross was how much plot and action the Dallas playwright squeezed into a script whose running time didn’t quite reach 80 minutes. Amazing what you can do with short speeches and complete sentences.
In a cycle that begins in November, The Levine Jewish Community Center jumped aboard the Jewish Plays Project two years ago as Charlotte became one of 12 cities adjudicating JPP’s annual Jewish Playwriting Contest. Charlotte has already assembled 21 readers for the judging process, tied with Chicago for the most among participating cities, in deciding the three scripts that are publicly presented in the spring at Gorelick Hall. That’s where the Shalom Park audience takes over, choosing the winner and also-rans for our region. From those results, a consensus national winner is chosen – not only for presentation at an annual Jewish play festival up in New York but also for full professional productions in all the cities where the Project has taken root. Last year’s contest was different from those that preceded, pitting all winners from previous contests against each other, so that an all-time winner from 2012 to 2017 would emerge. Decided by an objective points system, the 2018 contest actually produced two winners, Estelle Singerman by David Rush, winner of the 2013 prize, and Belfast Kind by Margot Connolly, the 2015 winner.
Among the co-winners, Charlotte chose Rush’s bittersweet comedy-fantasy. We had been told at the readers’ committee meeting back in January that Rush’s title was in flux. By the time it was presented at The Festival of Jewish Theater in June, Estelle had been renamed Summer Night, With Unicorn. That’s the title that JStage brought to Gorelick, sporting poster and playbill artwork with a Marc Chagall flavor that marvelously reflected the spirit and the magical realism of Rush’s play. The main figures in Kayla Piscatelli’s artwork are a crescent moon over the head and neck of a unicorn. Within that white unicorn, there is a silhouetted cityscape of skyscrapers with space enough above them for the Hebrew letters of the first four words of the traditional mourner’s kaddish. Estelle is a gregarious elderly Jew, not devoutly religious, since we meet her a little after 10pm at a lonely McDonald’s in Chicago. There’s nobody else to pester but Warren Spencer, an obvious Cubs fan busily clogging his arteries with a burger and a large order of fries.
Estelle would like this sullen, downcast, and brooding widower to believe she’s doing him a favor by sharing his fries and perhaps hoping to cheer him up as she invites him on a late-night odyssey. She will take him to a park, the Lake Michigan shore, a Christian Science reading room, a synagogue, and – inevitably – a zoo. Where else would Estelle and Warren converse with Seymour, a reincarnated giraffe? Rush proves to be very ecumenical in his ramblings around Chicago. The depressed and anorexic Hannah Kipper reads tarot cards on her lakeside blanket, the reading room is managed by a kindly Sister Rose, and the dark synagogue is haunted by a rabbi who’s unsure whether he’s alive or dead, a thickly bearded gent with Wandering Jew earmarks who has his visitors wondering who’s dreaming whom. Nor are the characteristics that Hannah and Rush assign to the Unicorn gleaned from the Encyclopedia Judaica, where there is no entry for the mythological beast.
Long before intermission arrives, we realize that Warren is a stubbornly lapsed Jew who is stewing in bitterness over the circumstances surrounding his wife Doris’s death. Estelle is a widow herself, habitually wandering the city at night because she’s afraid to go to sleep, promising Warren the glory of a sunrise over the lake at the end of their journey. We join Warren in wondering what Estelle’s ulterior motive is, getting hints that he isn’t the first to join her on her midnight rambles. As the lights go down for intermission, it becomes suddenly clear that Estelle is looking somebody to say kaddish over her. What we didn’t know was whether Estelle was alive, with a wisp of matrimonial motives triggering her quest, or dead, needing Warren’s prayers to bring an end to her ghostly wanderings. The other big question was whether Warren would ever say kaddish over his own beloved Doris, let alone this strange and mystifying Estelle.
My estimate is that I haven’t reviewed a theatre performance at Gorelick in almost 16 years, during which time the J has sprouted multiple new wings, one of them two stories high, along with a new entrance and dazzling new facilities – all of which make the Gorelick, now shunted from the front to the back of the complex, look old and drab by comparison. The stage and the dusty chairs we sat in could sorely use a refresh, for starters. JStage producer Susan Cherin Gundersheim, the cultural arts director at the Levine JCC (and a theatre professional in her own right), is clearly facing an uphill climb in convincing people to make a serious investment in the J’s theatre program. Gundersheim has managed to bring professional-grade theatre to the site regardless.
To check off all the design and directorial boxes, Gundersheim has brought in Piscatelli and Mark Sutton to don multiple hats, which they do admirably on their shoestring budget. Sutton’s set design, little more than three wooden frames after we exited McD’s, meshed well with his directorial concept, calling upon his audience to mostly imagine the scenes for themselves. Piscatelli’s costumes and lighting were no less complimentary, the raggedy cerements for the ghostly Doris and the gleaming silk cape for the Unicorn contrasting effectively with the garish attire of our earthbound protagonists.
There are plenty of Hebrew and Yiddish expressions studding this script like landmines. Fortunately, Sheila Snow Proctor navigated the treacherous terrain almost perfectly as Estelle, certainly better than Sutton, who allows Devin Clark to mangle his Yiddish mercilessly as the ageless Rabbi. Portraying a lapsed Jew, David Catenazzo probably earned a pass as Warren on his trespasses with the Hebrew blessing for putting on a tallit – I’ve heard worse during torah readings at my Conservative synagogue. Proctor not only clops around like a pensioner, slightly stooped, slightly squinting, she gets the essence of Jewish soul and humor, the impulse of kvetching leavened with a pinch of self-mockery. She even carries her late husband’s tallit bag and tefillin with a touch of reverence. Perhaps Proctor would have had an easier time of it if Catenazzo had similarly leavened his anger and impatience with hints of the Jewish soul that had loved and indulgently persevered with Doris when she wasn’t angelic. To some extent, Warren needed to be charmed by Estelle. Judging this role is a little like living the journey of Ebenezer Scrooge.
With two major cameos, the Rabbi and the giraffe, Clark had the most opportunities to shine among the supporting players. He was especially entertaining as Seymour sparring with Warren, who probed into the question of why he had been demoted to giraffe in his present incarnation. Yet Clark was curiously endearing as the bewildered Rabbi, notwithstanding the butchered vay iz meers. Liora Tal likely sparked some objections for how she delivered Hannah Kipper, a little underpowered and maybe a little too serene for a young fortune teller looking forward to death – but Estelle persisted in feeding her, and I didn’t think we were supposed to believe her, either. I’m afraid that Mariana Bracciale didn’t get much of a chance to shine as Sister Rose, but at least she got to glow in the denouement as the Unicorn, making her entrance and exit from the margins of the audience.
No cameo better encapsulated what Summer Night, With Unicorn was all about than Stephanie DiPaolo’s visit from the beyond as the ghost of Doris. Even more befuddled and uncomprehending than the Rabbi, DiPaolo only flickeringly registered what Warren was asking of her, but although she haltingly spoke, she never responded. That was very much the dynamic in Rush’s magical journey. Multiple possibilities presented themselves to Estelle when she posed the question we all have about what lies ahead, but through the night, there was no clearer answer than that death will surely come. With richer lighting, sound design, and a sprinkle of special effects, DiPaolo’s clarifying moment of confusion might have reached a finer pinnacle. Hopefully, when more people at the Levine JCC appreciate the gems these professionals are creating, they will also realize that the artists and their audience deserve a finer setting.
One of the wonderful things about Philip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story is that, yes, it really is about class distinctions and peculiarities, but the playwright remains ambivalent and tolerant of them all. Beneath their upper or lower crust exteriors, all of these Philadelphians – young and old – are recognizably human. You rarely see so many fully-fleshed characters onstage in the course of a single evening. I wouldn’t be terribly surprised to see a premier professional company repeatedly reviving this witty, effervescent comedy, but it’s absolutely astounding that Theatre Charlotte, our community theatre, has revived Philadelphia Story twice in the new millennium, now and back in 2000.
Both productions showed the pitfalls. The cast needs to be nine deep, alert to the amount of polish and roughness Barry expects of them, and aware of the energies and pacing required at each point of Barry’s intricate plot. The story revolves around “virgin goddess” socialite Tracy Lord – as you might expect, since Katharine Hepburn, the original Tra on Broadway and on celluloid, matched the 25% investment that the playwright plowed into the original production. Tracy is sensibly engaged to the cold and ambitious George Kittredge, impetuously divorced from the dapper C.K. Dexter Haven, and estranged from her father, whose indiscretions have brought the Lords unwanted publicity.
While Tracy is resolving these relationships, her brother is focused on suppressing a magazine exposé that will be published about their wayward father, dangling the prospect of exclusive access to the wedding as an enticing alternative for the publisher. The reporter and the photographer assigned to the Kittredge-Lord nuptials, Mike Conner and Liz Imbrie, bring another level of complications to the scene. She’s been secretly carrying a torch for him for years, but when spirits rise and champagne flows on the night before the wedding, Mike finds that he has fallen – hard – for Tracy, a prelude to their both enjoying an illicit, drunken midnight dip together in the Lords’ swimming pool.
While Barry is at work on how the wedding, the magazine story, and multiple alienated affections – past and present – will ultimately resolve, director Tonya Bludsworth and her cast must deal with all of the reactions and repercussions along the way. Making all of this bubbly complexity even harder for Bludsworth and Theatre Charlotte to achieve is the relative lack of enthusiasm for the project. Turnout for auditions was likely as tepid as audience turnout. Compared with opening night for Peter and the Starcatcher in September, there were conspicuously more empty seats at the back of the house – and a bit less confidence onstage.
Ten of the 14 cast members are new to Theatre Charlotte, including most of the key characters. We started off strong back in 2000 with a Tracy who had the look, the patrician manner, and sometimes even the sound of Hepburn, but that newcomer’s imperial highness never became sufficiently ruffled when the plot thickened. In Bella Belitto, we have another newcomer as Tracy, and on opening night, her serene highness was conspicuously lacking in the early going and – like others onstage – she was often underpowered and inaudible.
Without that serene aura and grace, the splintering of Tracy’s goddess élan isn’t as poignant as it should be in Belitto’s account of her re-education. Yet when she’s assailed by complications, catastrophes, and intensifying adoration, she faces it all very convincingly, her spirits and energies rising. Waking up on the climactic morning after, her decibel level also crescendos spontaneously. We feel that she is learning her lesson and actually benefiting from the indiscretions that brought on her fall – and that the lesson runs deep to her core. Her epiphany detonated effectively for me.
A lot of that depends on Nick de la Canal radiating a rakish upper-crust urbanity as Dexter with enough of that crust trimmed away to make room for tolerance and forgiveness – the two key qualities Tracy needs to acquire. De la Canal’s insouciance also contrasts nicely with the stuffiness that Will Millwood brings to George Kittredge. Barry doesn’t completely hide his disdain for George’s commercial outsider status, so Millwood makes a prudent choice in stressing his judgmental bent.
Dexter also comes off finer than Mike Conner, but by a significantly smaller margin. Here the nuanced class distinctions are no less telling. Christopher Long reminds us that Mike starts out fairly judgmental himself before Tracy bewitches him, but we indulge his pre-judgments more readily in the same spirit that we’re inclined to forgive his boyish, impulsive trespasses. Our best verdict on him vis-à-vis George is much like Barry’s: he’s more deserving, in spite of his depressed finances, of being called a gentleman.
What gives The Philadelphia Story its screwball slant is that everybody up onstage and down in the audience seems to know who the best fit for Tracy is – except for the goddess herself. This includes her mischievous younger sister, Dinah, who attempts some telephone matchmaking. Helena Dryer makes little sis pesky and likable in the right proportions. She’ll be an utter triumph once she makes herself consistently intelligible.
Tracy’s mom isn’t the most pivotal role here, though Margaret does point the way for her daughter in forgiving her husband’s infidelity. What makes Heather Place’s debut so auspicious as Margaret Lord is her clear bubbly delivery and her effortless projection of warmth and class, richly portending her reconciliation with the dashing, slightly over-the-hill Seth Lord. Victor Sayegh is mildly and earnestly supplicating toward Margaret and his disapproving daughter, as befits a Philadelphia patriarch, another cue for Tracy to accept people’s imperfections, including her own.
Sayegh and Place draw two of Chelsea Retalic’s most stylish costume designs in evoking high society elegance, but it’s an uphill battle to project prosperity amid Josh Webb’s drab and dour set design. Two Ionian columns fail to provide uplift, and there’s no longer a visible hint of the swimming pool in the wings. Portraying the eccentric Uncle Willie in a delightful debut, Dan Kirsch gets my nod as the plutocrat most at home in this down-market mansion, lovable for all his pomposity.
Fresh from his crossdressing exploits in Starcatcher, Johnny Hohenstein is mostly responsible, as Tracy’s scheming brother Sandy, for the PR intrigue that lurks beneath the romantic comedy. Good luck following – or caring about – all the Act 2 twists in that sector of the plot. For that reason, Anna Royal as Liz turns out to be more important for me. Ultimately, she’s modeling the patience, forbearance, and forgiveness toward Mike that Tra should have toward Dex. Royal gives Liz just enough edge to update her and elevate above the cliché she must have been in 1939 when THE PHILADELPHIA STORY first hit Broadway.
Here she isn’t just a working-class woman who knows her place, meekly deserving Tracy’s discards. Wielding her Contax camera, she’s Mike’s professional partner, biding her time for a natural upgrade.
Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
By Perry Tannenbaum
For all of its bells and whistles, Simon Stephens’ The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time evolves into something quite simple – a mother, a father, and their autistic son who are all trying to be better. I’ve seen the show three times in less than three years, first on Broadway, then on in its national tour, and now in its current incarnation at Hadley Theater on the Queens University campus. Each time, I’ve found new details to unpack, new facets of character to consider. Of course, the Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte version breaks the mold set by Marianne Elliott, who directed this adaptation of Mark Hadden’s novel on Broadway and on tour. In his stage direction and scenic design, Chip Decker takes his cues from Elliott and her scenic designer, Bunny Christie, but it’s obvious the Decker and the three actors he has cast as the Boone family have their own ideas.
Christopher Boone is the inward 15-year-old with autism who savors his solitude and freaks if anyone touches him, including Mum and Dad. He’s fairly oblivious, inexperienced, and clueless about human relationships, so the marital dynamics between his parents are totally unexplored territory. Yet Christopher functions on such a high mental level, an Asperger savant syndrome level, that he regards his special ed classmates as stupid and is highly confident that he can pass his A-level math tests years before “normal” schoolkids are allowed to take them. With Chester Shepherd taking on this role in his own clenched, volatile and vulnerable way, I saw more clearly why the prospect of postponing these tests was such an unthinkable catastrophe for him. Not only does Christopher notice everything that well-adjusted people allow to slip past them, he can also recall details with the same precision, like every item he extracted from his pockets on the night he was arrested and questioned at the Swindon police station. So it figures that Christopher would plan his future with the same persnicketiness, and that a single displaced detail – like postponing the date when he would pass his maths – would throw him into a spasmodic fit of panic.
Or so it seems with Shepherd emphasizing Christopher’s hair-trigger sensitivities. We see him at the beginning of his epic journey, huddled over his neighbor Mrs. Shears’ dog, Wellington, who lies there lifeless, skewered by a pitchfork. Christopher is obviously a prime suspect for Mrs. Shears, so she calls the police. Uncomfortable around other humans, Christopher doesn’t react well when a policeman arrives to interrogate him. Dad must come down to the station, after Christopher is arrested for assaulting the cop, to explain his son’s condition – a not-so-subtle indictment of police enlightenment. Twice shaken by the evening’s experiences, Christopher resolves to solve the mystery of who killed Wellington. That beastly affair doesn’t seem to concern the police, perhaps the second count in Hadden’s indictment.
As Christopher well understands, solving the Wellington mystery will force him to engage with other people, especially neighbors whom he has previously shunned. This aversion isn’t readily quashed, cramping the investigation when Christopher decides to question the warm and eccentric Mrs. Alexander. When the hospitable lady invites him into her apartment, Christopher refuses, and when Mrs. Alexander offers to bring him orangeade and cookies – after a somewhat protracted negotiation – he flees before she can return with the goodies, fearing that she is calling the police on him, the way neighbor ladies seem to do. Christopher seems most at ease with the person who understands him best – his teacher, Siobhan. She encourages him to pursue this project and to chronicle the investigation in a book. But she has the good sense to yield to Dad when he forbids Christopher to continue with his investigation and his narrative. With some adorable hair-splitting, Christopher thinks he’s circumventing Dad’s directive as he persists in his probe, getting key info when he meets up with Mrs. Alexander for a second time.
Maybe the niftiest turn of the plot is how Dad ironically entraps himself. By confiscating Christopher’s handwritten book-in-progress, Ed Boone ultimately ensures that his son will not only discover the truth about Wellington but also the truth he’s been hiding about Christopher’s mom, Judy. This section of the plot is bookended by two prodigious meltdowns from Shepherd, the second one stunning enough to remind me of Othello’s fit. Shepherd delivers Christopher’s comical difficulties as vividly as his poignant ones in a performance that rivals his leading role in Hand to God a year ago, but Decker and his design team magnify this performance by working to help us see the action from the perspective of an autistic teen. At the beginning, Decker’s sound design assaults us with loud noises, simulating the sensory overload that is the everyday norm for Christopher. There are similar assaults in Hallie Gray’s lighting design glaring in our faces – and flashing red alarms across the upstage walls when Christopher is tensing up or melting down. We often hear a doglike whimper from Shepherd when he is stressed.
About the only shortfall in Decker’s scenic concept, which opens up Christie’s more enclosed design, is the erosion it inflicts on Jon Ecklund’s projection designs. They just don’t pop as wondrously as they did at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York or at Belk Theater when the tour stopped here in February 2017. We don’t get quite the same amplification when poor Christopher navigates the London Underground or cityscape as he searches for Mum’s flat, and the wow factor when Christopher rhapsodizes on our vast universe is muted. But there was plenty of wattage from Shepherd to compensate, and Becca Worthington gave us more energy on opening night as Judy Boone than I saw on Broadway or at the Belk describing the good times and the bad times before she abandoned her family. By the time she recalled the meltdown at a shopping mall that precipitated her departure, I didn’t require a replay. Afterwards, Worthington gave more of an emphasis on doing better as a mother so it was never overshadowed by her outrage at Ed’s deceptions and misdeeds.
Rob Addison was less wiry and more avuncular than previous Eds that I’d seen, which struck me as good things before and after he was found out. I think first-timers will see Dad’s prohibition of Christopher’s probe as less strict and arbitrary than my first and second impressions were on Broadway and on tour – and that his pleas for forgiveness are sincere and heartfelt. A less cuddly approach to the role is certainly defensible, but I was deeply pleased with Addison’s take. Decker brought Megan Montgomery downstage as Siobhan more often than I remembered, giving Christopher’s teacher slightly more texture than I had seen previously. The brambles in her accent also demonstrated that Montgomery’s years at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland hadn’t been wasted.
An ensemble of six flutters around the four core characters, moving spare scenery pieces around, unobtrusively setting up an electric train set, acting as street and subway crowds, levitating Christopher, and filling multiple minor roles. Tracie Frank and Jeremy DeCarlos stood out as the long-separated Shearses, each abrasive to Christopher in his or her own way. With her nervous gestures and blue-tinted pigtails, Shawnna Pledger’s fussy account of Mrs. Alexander safely transcended that of a generic eccentric. A similar children’s book simplicity hovered over Donovan Harper’s rendition of the arresting Policeman in the opening scene, yet Tom Scott was able to sprinkle some comical discomfort on Reverend Peters when confronted with the question of where heaven is.
Only Lisa Hatt was deprived of a name, portraying a Punk Girl, and a Lady in Street among her various cameos. Decker may have felt sorry for all of Hatt’s unnamed contributions, perhaps allowing her to choose her own number. She was listed in the Actor’s Theatre playbill as No. 40, a radical break from the Broadway and touring company playbills, which listed that role as No. 37. This production certainly paid attention to details! We even had the delight of Stephens’ Pythagorean postscript, which Shepherd dispatched with a full two minutes remaining on the projected digital clock. It was part of a comical meta layer that the playwright sprinkled across Christopher’s dialogues with Siobhan, reminding us that he had adapted Hadden’s novel for the stage. Very successfully, I should add.
Lauded by Broadway critics as an artistic breakthrough, showered with 11 Tony Awards, celebrated and denounced by successive US Presidents, and worshipped by millions wherever it has played. Hamilton has been an unprecedented sell-out smash since it opened on August 6, 2015. It’s the hottest ticket in New York, and wherever it tours, it’s big – capital boldface letters big.
And now the actors, the scenery, the technicians, and the musicians have arrived in the QC, triggering an influx of ticketbuyers, hotel bookings, restaurant reservations, and sheer I-got-to-see-Hamilton euphoria that will linger until the tour’s final performance at Belk Theater on November 4.
The hullabaloo peaked on August 1 when non-subscription seats went up for grabs. Beginning at 5 a.m., three hours before tickets were scheduled to go on sale, over 110,000 hopefuls queued up to snag seats online – plus an estimated 8,000+ bots that were poised to steal and scalp tickets, delaying sales until 9:20.
Another crowd lined up at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center box office on Tryon Street, where wristbands were distributed starting at 5:30 a.m. By 9:46, the box office allotment of seats had been doled out to proud wearers of 1200 lucky wristbands, who could score a maximum of four tickets. It wasn’t until 3:37 p.m. that folks still waiting on the online queue were told to abandon all hope.
But the financial impact of Hamilton – and the ticketbuying frenzy – really began more than a year ago. If you wanted first dibs on Hamilton seats, you had to splurge on a full Broadway Lights subscription for 2017-18. Largely because Hamilton loomed so enticingly over the rainbow as part of the package, all subscriptions for the Blumenthal’s Broadway Lights Series, including eight other shows, were sold out by August 1 of last year. A waiting list for those precious subscriptions was announced on June 24, 2017.
Not only did Hamilton enable Blumenthal to sell out its entire 2017-18 Broadway Lights inventory, it set the stage for them to launch an additional Encore Series, including reprises of Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, Book of Mormon, and Lion King. Those also sold pretty well.
So more than a whole year of theatergoing at Blumenthal’s big boxes – Belk Theater, Ovens Auditorium, and Knight Theater – was built on the public’s insatiable demand for Hamilton tickets. That’s some pretty heavy lifting.
But what kind of lift does Hamilton deliver for local artists and arts organizations? Around town, there are grumblings that the big-box successes at the PAC suck audience, revenue, and esteem away from local pros, shunting them into the shadows.
We heard from Carver Johns during the recent run of The Foreigner at Belmont Abbey College. Back when he was more active on the Charlotte scene, Johns had starring roles in Charlotte’s Web at Children’s Theatre, The Changeling with Innovative Theatre, Fool for Love with Off-Tryon Theatre Company, and The Exonerated, the last show produced by Charlotte Repertory Theatre before it flamed out in 2005.
“The way [Broadway Lights] is framed and kept separate from local fare,” Johns says, “suggests that the Blumey shows are ‘real theater’ and the rest of us are Little Rascals throwing things up in a barn. And this I believe was the long-term fallout of Angels [in America] and Rep.”
Shuttling back and forth from Charlotte Rep to Children’s Theatre acting jobs – supplemented by gigs as a certified lighting, sound and AV technician and a fight supervisor – Johns could cobble together a livelihood in theatre here in town. That can’t happen anymore unless you’re on the payroll at ImaginOn with Children’s Theatre.
When Johns was acting and directing Fool for Love, theatre groups formed coalitions, advertised jointly, and coordinated programming schedules. With the coming of light rail, construction of yuppie housing, and the demise of Carolina Actors Studio Theatre (CAST), the NoDa scene where all that happened has all but disappeared.
“Smaller companies have to own that we have eaten our own by driving one another out of business,” Johns admits. “But the ‘real theater’ vs ‘local loonies’ comparison the Belksters and their programming creates will always be a negative impact until the city power structure becomes more progressive and truly embraces local artists.”
Tim Ross was a mainstay at Charlotte Rep in leading roles onstage – and prominent at the pioneering Charlotte Shakespeare before that. Over the years, Ross found his lifeline behind the soundboard at the WFAE studio in Spirit Square where he produced the Charlotte Talks broadcasts five days a week until 2015. What irks Ross is how feebly media has pushed back against the power structure. Even at arguably the friendliest media outlet for performing arts publicity in the QC, Ross found that local theatre literally struggled for air.
“I had a constant struggle trying to get the host or the other producers to get on board with doing more shows about local theatre,” Ross recalls. “I don’t know how Hamilton helps beyond motivating people to go to the theater in general. There might be three or four interesting productions going on at exactly the same time as Hamilton but I’m pretty sure that Hamilton is going to get an absolute ton of free local press that it doesn’t even need while these other productions will barely get mentioned.”
Banding together might help local theatre companies do more advertising and promotion, and it would be immensely helpful if local media gave them more of an airing, but a change in outlook could also provide a lift. Tom Gabbard, president and CEO of Blumenthal Performing Arts (BPA), scoffs at the notion that Hamilton and Broadway Lights are the natural enemies of local theatre.
“My arts colleagues who get wound up about this don’t understand that their real competition is not the blockbuster shows or other arts events,” Gabbard insists. “It’s Netflix, brew pubs, the Panthers and a million other things that people do besides go to theater. All of us in the arts, big or small, are together in needing to get the public who aren’t going to the arts to watch less Netflix and go to a show. Worrying about competition within the arts is delusional, and misses strategizing on what are solutions.”
It’s also delusional to presume that BPA isn’t already reaching out with help, promotional and financial, to local arts groups. After paying staff and maintaining facilities, BPA plows plentiful monies into tilling the soil for local artists and arts groups – and enriching it.
But of course, you want to know how much cash we’re talking about. As we began digging into this, BPA issued a press release proclaiming that the sold-out run of The Lion King that began in August grossed more than $4.8 million over a three-week, 24-performance engagement. Using a multiplier of 3.66 supplied by the Touring Broadway League, promotions manager Brandon Carter estimated an economic impact of well over $17 million.
Set to run for 32 performances, Hamilton will have an even larger impact. Compared to Lion King ticket prices, which averaged $100 each, the range for Hamilton was $75 to $175 a shot, with select VIP premium seats going for $434.50. So ticket sales won’t merely be 33% higher because of the longer engagement. Factoring the higher sticker prices, Gabbard predicted last week that Hamilton would gross over $9 mil for a total economic impact of more than $30 mil – or a less gaudy $23.5 if you go by the more conservative 2.5 multiplier that Gabbard prefers.
And that’s not counting all the additional subscription tix – an additional five thousand subscriptions compared to 2016-17, a 50% increase – and encore programming that Hamilton has carried on its back.
So BPA has plenty of profits to play with, about 10% of the Broadway Lights gross for starters. Some of these proceeds go into helping local resident companies like On Q Performing Arts, Three Bone Theatre and Caroline Calouche & Co. pay rental fees at smaller venues under the BPA umbrella, namely McGlohon Theater and Duke Energy at Spirit Square and Booth Playhouse up in Founders Hall. By day, Community School of the Arts gets a break at Sprit Square.
Fully itemized, subsidies and rental waivers approached $1 million in 2016-17, since beneficiaries also included users of BPA’s bigger boxes: Opera Carolina, Charlotte Symphony and Charlotte Ballet, who all used the Belk and Knight Theater. These companies would pay nearly 22% more to perform in St. Paul and more than 200% more to perform in Dallas, according to Gabbard.
That not only impacts Opera, Symphony, and Ballet, it also impacts music lovers and balletomanes who subscribe to their performances, keeping ticket prices down. Companies that rent BPA’s venues can also take advantage of their databases to reach out to their untapped market. Whether or not they rent space at BPA’s facilities, companies that have the necessary hardware can utilize Carolina Tix, the ticket selling engine launched by BPA that’s offered free to all local companies.
All of the above may sound a bit under-the-hood or behind-the-scenes, but BPA also ventures into sponsorships of high profile events. About the same amount of money that goes annually for subsidies and slashed rentals goes into putting up unique events – or bringing in young people to see shows that would otherwise be way beyond their means. The three-year-old Charlotte Jazz Festival and Breakin’ Convention, a three-day showcase of break dancing, both required outlays of at least $200K annually before they could happen.
And have you heard of the Blumey Awards? High schoolers go insane watching their classmates perform onstage at Belk Theater, unleashing deafening cheers for winners of best acting, design, and musical awards and scholarships. Two Charlotte winners have gone on to New York and won the national Jimmy Award for best actress, and two of Charlotte’s best actresses, Eva Noblezada and Abby Corrigan, have gone on to Broadway fame, Corrigan in the national tour of Fun Home and Noblezada in the title role of the Broadway and London productions of Miss Saigon.
Ironically, the judges who decide the Jimmy Awards up in New York are more aware of the high level of talent we’re training in Charlotte than most people who live here.
High school theatre programs across the Metrolina region have been galvanized and incentivized. But without a thriving regional theatre company in Charlotte, how can the best talent incubated here stay in the city and build professional careers? How can Corrigan and Noblezada go home again?
“We have, as a community, allowed so many of our local arts organizations to close, shut down, wither and wilt with very little pause or remorse,” Karina Caporino declares. A fixture onstage at CAST before it abruptly folded in 2014, Caporino has been a leading light in the Machine Theatre and XOXO guerilla groups, and she’ll be at Spirit Square at the end of November in an Actor’s Gym revival of Noël Coward’s Fallen Angels.
With a viewpoint mostly taking in the scene beyond the BPA’s big and small boxes in the Uptown, Caporino doesn’t see the Hamilton “lift” extending to the artists and companies she has worked with in the past. She was shaken by the frenzied queuing up for Hamilton tickets in a city that neglects its own.
“The values of our community unnerve me,” she posted on Facebook the following day. “We have the opportunity now to really take a moment to evaluate and reconfigure our values as an arts community. We have the opportunity to refocus ourselves and to push up our own creators. I recognize my chance to change trajectories and push our community in a more productive and inclusive direction, and I’m not throwing away my shot.”
Gabbard also sees this Hamilton moment as a ripe one. Calling upon his own experience running an affiliated League of Regional Theatres (LORT) company in the Denver metro, he advises mainstream groups to ride the lift rather than fighting against it.
“I used the success of someone else’s big shows as a launch point for my own success,” he explains. “I’m not spinning to say that the whiners need to get more strategic about leveraging off the success of these big shows. In Denver, I grew the subscription from 500 to 10,000 by carefully researching the Broadway series and building my LORT seasons off it, and off of what some consumers found missing in the experience.”
Does that sort of thing happen in Charlotte? Not so much. We thought it was a promising sign that CPCC Theatre and Charlotte Symphony were both staging shows later this month steeped in the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber – just six weeks after Lord Andrew’s Love Never Dies played the Belk.
In his 35 years on Elizabeth Avenue, drama department chair Tom Hollis has seen precious little overlap between the audience that turns out for Broadway Lights and the crowds that line up for CP’s musical offerings. He fondly remembers the time at Belk Theater when someone sitting in front of him turned to a friend and asked, “Have you ever heard of this Theatre Charlotte?”
Likewise, Symphony executive president Mary A. Deissler described the alignment of the “Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber” concert with the Love Never Dies tour as serendipitous rather than designed. “We didn’t plan it that way – just coincidence,” she confides. “But as we know our Pops audience loves Broadway, we viewed it as a great additional option.”
Less hand-wringing and more strategic planning couldn’t hurt, that’s for sure.
Whether or not local arts organizations take advantage of next-big-things like Lion King, Book of Mormon, and Hamilton, Gabbard maintains that BPA is still benefiting theatre companies around town. As a member of IPN, the Independent Producers Network, BPA invests in many of the shows that wind up opening on Broadway, touring across America, and popping up again on college campuses and at community theaters. Shows produced by IPN that have played at Theatre Charlotte, Actor’s Theatre or CPCC Summer Theatre in recent years include 9 to 5, Memphis, The Drowsy Chaperone, The Mountaintop, Spamalot, and The Addams Family.
Among the IPA shows still headed for the Belk – and Broadway – are Dear Evan Hansen, Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella, Donna Summer The Musical and Tootsie.
Closer to opening night, Caporino was striking a more balanced and conciliatory tone. “It’s a ‘yes and’ situation,” she begins. “YES, it is super exciting that Hamilton exists, is coming to Charlotte, is getting all this attention for/engagement with the arts AND we should use this opportunity to examine how we as a community value our local artists. Do we provide them with ample funding? Do we provide them with marketing and media coverage? Do we provide them room for errors? Are we making sure what we are providing is being done consciously and with great intention across broad spectrums of identity, race, class, gender? And do we value what is made here in Charlotte?”
On the Charlotte scene since 2007, when she was still finishing her college degree, Caporino still wrestles with student loan debt as she tries to balance work in the organic grocery industry with a career as a performing artist. Optimistically winking, she acknowledges that the artistic career of her dreams isn’t possible here yet – and that she thinks about leaving.
“I’m also rather stubborn,” she adds, “and don’t want to throw in the towel on the Queen City just yet.”
Those seem to be the big questions now that the Philip Tour of Hamilton has rolled into Charlotte, and Belk Theater is the room where it happens. Unless you can find somebody who will let go of them, or you’re willing to take on the dates – and the prices – for the few stray tickets Blumenthal Performing Arts can still sell, the hottest Broadway Lights tickets in Queen City history are gone. A daily lottery gives you 40 shots at the prize for each performance. By all means enter it if you’re unwilling to abandon all hope.
So unlike most reviews that I file, this one isn’t for people on the fence. People jumped off that fence on August 1, when available tickets sold out in less than six hours. This review is more for readers who wish to know how good the tour is, and how well it compares with the original in New York and the replacement cast at the Richard Rodgers Theater that carries on now.
It is, of course, axiomatic that Hamilton is great. With book, music, and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show has sparked a feeding frenzy at every box office in every theater where it has played – and jaw-dropping prices for its top tier VIP tickets. We’re Americans, after all, fervently devoted to the capitalist system founded by Alexander Hamilton. Financial success and buyer enthusiasm are our current gold standards.
For the record, I was somewhat ambivalent about the New York production – and only scantly prepared. The experience was unparalleled, sporting the most palpable audience energy and involvement I’ve experienced. But the disorientation that this musical can produce is also unparalleled, even if you’ve braced yourself for it.
Face it, rap music is a wildly discordant idiom for the era and the epic biography that Miranda plunges us into, more so for anyone like me who doesn’t ingest hefty helpings of rap daily. If the life of Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s brainiest forefathers, were turned into a ballet, I’m fairly sure that the choreographer’s dominant style wouldn’t be tap dancing. Seems to me like an apt analogy for what Miranda has done – until you factor in that rap is the musical lingua franca of our time.
Miranda’s rap was the primary obstacle I needed to overcome, not just because of its disconnect with Colonial America but because lyrics often flew by unintelligibly, either because the actors were rattling them off at breakneck speed or audience reaction drowned them out. Might I also venture to hint that a few of the accents fell on the wrong syllable? Although Paul Tazewell’s costumes were a welcome concession to colonial days and helped differentiate among the players, David Korins’ scene design was a brash misnomer, staunchly refusing to yield to the old-school convention of scenery.
When Act 2 began, and Miranda leaned toward comedy with the foppish return of Thomas Jefferson from France, I found myself going with the flow more readily. “What’d I Miss?” and “The Room Where It Happens” seemed to burst open a musical palette that – with the exception of King George’s cameo – had sounded fairly monochromatic to me before intermission. And the breathtaking audacity and irreverence of turning two cabinet-level debates, between Secretary of State Jefferson and Treasury Secretary Hamilton, into absurdly anachronistic poetry slams refereed by George Washington?? Irresistible.
Seeing Hamilton in New York was most of the preparation I needed to enjoy it more in Charlotte. Dipping into the Ron Chernow biography that inspired Miranda’s work quickly proved to be a dead end: there is more historical depth and nuance in the book’s first couple of pages than you’ll find in the entire evening of this Broadway megahit. Maybe more empathy as well, though Miranda also rallies on that dimension in Act 2.
Listening to the cast album on your favorite streaming service will be a better use of your time, training your ears to the rhythms and the pace – while priming you for the intensified concentration that Hamilton demands. I listened repeatedly to first four tracks three or four times, getting the feel of the show without previewing too much of the content. But beware: immersion into Miranda-style rap can leave you with withdrawal symptoms. The following evening, listening to the local news, the weatherman seemed to be rapping as I fixated on the rhythm of his forecast instead of the meaning. Days after that, “Alexander Hamilton” and “My Shot,” the first two songs of the show, proved to be tenacious earworms.
What helped me more than better preparation my second go-round was a better cast. Mind you, when I finally snagged press seats for Hamilton in January 2017, replacements for the original cast had already been replaced. Each of these casts had two actors rotating as Alexander, one of whom subbed on Sundays. Reviewing cast #3, I saw none of the above, just a small-print understudy for the sub. On press night in Charlotte, Joseph Morales was an improvement – if you were looking for a Miranda overachiever rather than a Jimmy Smits heartthrob – prancing around impishly as a revolutionary provocateur, running his mouth pugnaciously whether rallying political allies or refuting his foes, and giving us a gentlemanly susceptibility to every woman who tried to seduce him.
By a smaller margin, I also preferred the saturnine authority and incipient menace that Nik Walker infused into Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s perennial rival and our frequent narrator. Walker’s Burr isn’t merely pragmatic and cunning. He’s dangerous. But what decisively separated the Philip Tour from the Broadway third-stringers were the three women who portrayed the Schuyler Sisters. Shora Narayan is Eliza, the sister Alexander will marry; Ta’Rea Campbell is Angelica, the sister that Alex maybe should have married; and Nyla Sostre is Peggy, the discard – resurfacing after intermission as Maria Reynolds, the siren who lures Alex into a shakedown sex scandal.
Up in New York, the trio emphasized their sisterhood to the extent that I began to suspect Miranda was basing his Schuylers on Diana Ross and the Supremes rather than actual historical figures, mere ploys to simulate diversity. I couldn’t wait to see them vanish. Here the contrast between the innocent, trusting Eliza, and the wiser, more sophisticated Angelica is wonderfully projected in Narayan’s silken plaintive voice juxtaposed with Campbell’s R&B power. Their songs came alive, deepening their individuality; the pain that Alex inflicted upon Eliza became poignant, devastating; and her quiet forgiveness of her wayward husband was an emotional peak.
Both of the remaining Founding Fathers are quite good, but it’s Kyle Scatliffe as Jefferson who threatens to steal the show from the leads each time he parleys his massive voice and his hulking frame with his bodacious dancing skills. His flair for comedy is a perfect match for his flamboyant purple threads. Less imposing is Marcus Choi, who makes George Washington a stern, sometimes avuncular father figure for Alexander. If you had seen Nicholas Christopher* as the father of our country – monumental Mount Rushmore stuff, really – you’d understand why Choi’s Washington was a bit of a letdown.
As for the lone white man among major players in this diverse cast, I couldn’t see the slightest difference between Jon Patrick Walker as King George here in Charlotte and Rory O’Malley as the Broadway monarch, though I suppose Walker is hamming it up a little more for the larger hall. In a sea of anachronisms and stylistic disconnects – Jefferson actually executes a mic drop after one of his raps! – there’s a sensible British tang to King’s “You’ll Be Back” and subsequent variants. Close your eyes and you might hear echoes of Lennon-McCartney ditties during the Beatles’ vintage Sgt. Pepper years. It’s an island of blissful, silly relaxation in a theatre evening of riveting energy and intensity.
*Christopher, you’ll be glad to know, hasn’t vanished from the scene. He has been reincarnated on the other Hamilton tour, the Angelica Tour, as Aaron Burr.