Category Archives: Theatre

Bringing Back the Bedside Bar Mitzvah

Review: Falsettos

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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Amazing how edgy and new an old-hat musical can seem these days. At intermission during opening night of William Finn and James Lapine’s Falsettos, I ran into a collegial culture vulture in the Knight Theater lobby who asked, “Do you think Charlotte is ready for this?” Not very different from the local director who said, “Charlotte is a hard market for this kind of thing, you know?”

Except that director was Steve Umberger, talking about Falsettos a few weeks before Charlotte Rep first presented it at Booth Playhouse in the autumn of 1993 – a year after Finn and Lapine won Tony Awards for their work. An alternative newsweekly named Creative Loafing sponsored that production, I recall, and Queen City Theatre Company revived the musical briefly in a concert edition at Duke Energy Theater in 2012.

So not withstanding some grumbling inside Knight Theater and a few walkouts, Charlotte has been ready for Falsettos for over 25 years.

Upscaled from the Duke and the Booth, the current touring version directed by Lapine is glitzier and brasher than previous productions staged here, overmiked and maybe a little overacted. What started out as “Four Jews in a Room Bitching” repeatedly became one Broadway diva on a stage belting.

While Finn and Lapine never envisioned the new frontiers beyond the boundaries of the binary sexual template, they tilted toward an inclusiveness that was fresh and daring. When we reach the bedside bar mitzvah scene, a climax that brought me to tears even though I knew it was coming, the six adults celebrating Jason’s Jewish coming of age are neatly divided into homosexual, heterosexual, and lesbian couples.

Back at Booth Playhouse in 1993, this stage tableau was Charlotte’s foretaste of what was heading our way with Tony Kushner’s Millennium Approaches, still in its first run on Broadway and already taking us to a new chapter in America’s ongoing culture wars – a first step toward the diversity we now take for granted on TV sitcoms a quarter of a century later.

Of course, a certain amount of crafty contrivance helps in forging the neat division of sexual orientations in Falsettos. Even before the four Jews dance in from the wings, taking their place in front of a Rubik’s cube-like construct that will become the set, Marvin has deconstructed his marriage – and come out of the closet – to move in with Whizzer, a debonair cruiser with a designer wardrobe. Trina, Jason’s mom, isn’t taking Marvin’s exit or his sexual realignment very well. Angry? Jealous? Overwhelmed? Yes.

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The family shrink, Mendel, is there to help Trina pick up the pieces – which jibes well with the psychiatrist’s own intentions of picking up Trina. So the remainder of the first act, originally presented separately Off-Broadway as The March of the Falsettos in 1979, is an orgy of jealousies, self-doubts, and couples conflicts. Marvin, not at all a model of maturity, is uncomfortable with Trina’s budding relationship with Mendel and beginning to wonder whether he truly loves Whizzer.

Meanwhile Mendel is weighing the freedom and loneliness of continued bachelorhood against the intimacy and responsibilities of matrimony and step-fatherhood. Whizzer? Doesn’t think he loves his man, although Marvin is an excellent provider, and isn’t at all sure about this monogamy deal. No, overmiking doesn’t help all this stressing, bickering, and childishness.

“Bitch, bitch, funny, funny,” the four Jews sing at the beginning, and Act I is every bit of that – but not especially Jewish after that opening song. Then comes Falsettoland, which is what the second act was called when it premiered separately Off-Broadway in 1990. In the 11-year interval between these two one-acts, Finn and Lapine advanced the action a mere two years, from 1979 to 1981, which you’ll see referenced in an effigy of Nancy Reagan if you haven’t scrutinized your playbill.

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Now it’s time for Jason to study for his bar mitzvah, for Marvin and Trina to bicker over whom to invite to the reception – and to decide the utmost practicality, the caterer! Just so happens that one of the two lesbians who have newly moved in next door, Cordelia, is a caterer. The other, Charlotte, is a doctor of internal medicine, which comes in very handy when there’s another new arrival in the neighborhood: AIDS.

Finn and Lapine vividly recapture the early days of the fearful epidemic when Dr. Charlotte leads a quartet in singing “Something Bad Is Happening” – before the disease even had a name. Before evangelicals had the audacity to declare AIDS a curse from God aimed at homosexuals. Compared to the Rep cast of ’93 who all lived through those days, the touring cast now at Knight Theater comes in with a disadvantage, compounded by the fact that so many in the audience weren’t even born during those turbulent times – and hadn’t had the luxury of studying up before Falsettos turned from “funny, funny” to deadly serious.

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Audio had been dialed down a little from the soundbooth when we crossed over to Falsettoland, so I felt more comfortable with the Knight Theater cast after intermission when the frenetic action calmed down and our adults became more adult and self-aware, with the sort of insight Sondheim brings to the post-fairytale of married life. Max Von Essen improved the most in the transition as Marvin. Yes, it’s true that Marvin is a self-centered jerk when he emerges from the closet, and we should, on balance, despise him. But a wisp of nebbishy Woody Allen bewilderment and insecurity would have brought so much to Marvin’s character and Finn’s lyrics. When Marvin begins to get a grip and reconciles with Whizzer, it was very gratifying to see Von Essen find him.

Maybe Nick Adams’ somewhat laid-back approach to Whizzer had Von Essen believing that he was the stud in this relationship. I never lost sight of Adams’ understated self-confidence and vanity, but Whizzer has the only Broadway-sized ego in this gallery. Adams seemed to be a comedy bombshell kept in check, and I found it disappointing that Lapine in his direction let someone else loose. Yet when his moment came to sing “You Gotta Die Sometime,” Adams rose to the drama.

On the other hand, Von Essen may have judged that the Woody Allen bewilderment domain had been sufficiently occupied by Nick Blaemire as Mendel, lovable no matter how agnostic and indecisive the psychiatrist may be. Eden Espinoza certainly makes Trina a formidable leap for Mendel from bachelorhood and therapeutic detachment. We can also admit that, in adding her showpiece, “I’m Breaking Down,” to the songs they had already written for March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland, Finn and Lapine had always intended to enhance the Broadway heft of their score.

Trouble is, Espinoza spreads its one Mama Rose dramatic moment over the whole song, which should play more like a frazzled Lucille Ball. As with Von Essen, I started liking Espinoza more after intermission as she relaxed a little watching Jason’s misadventures in baseball – and she hit stride in her big second act song, “Holding to the Ground,” which was more in her wheelhouse.

Although he splits the role with Thatcher Jacobs in alternating performances, it’s obvious that Jonah Mussolino as Jason has all the grit and talent necessary to hold up his end of the quartets that begin each act. Even if his bar mitzvah Hebrew was garbled and unrecognizable, it was gratifying to see Mussolino, so integral to this show, finally get his solo spots after intermission, especially in his climactic “Another Miracle in Judaism.”

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Bryonia Marie Parham and Audrey Cardwell balance each other nicely as the lesbians next door, Cardwell slightly ditzy and hugely self-doubting as the caterer and Parham dignified, unsettled, and empathetic as Dr. Charlotte amid a shifting medical landscape that shook people’s confidence everywhere. They really do become a part of Jason’s extended family, Doc Charlotte with her bedside manner, Cordelia with her gefilte fish.

David Rockwell’s set design becomes slicker and more metropolitan between acts, but I loved how Lapine had his company join in reassembling the original Rubik’s cube. Then with lighting designer Jeff Croiter artfully dimming the closing scene, a single piece was removed to become a touching marker. A little more of that artful simplicity – and a little less loudness and glitz – would bring this Falsettos closer to perfection. At its heart, it’s a show that hasn’t aged one day since 1993.

Debased Jekyll and Monstrous Hyde Still Have Admirers at CP

Review:  Jekyll & Hyde

By Perry Tannenbaum

CPCC "Jekyll & Hyde" Final Dress Rehearsal, June 20th, 2019 

Like other famed works of literature that have been turned into films, plays, and musicals, the story and characters of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde have long ago ceased to belong exclusively to their creator, Robert Louis Stevenson. The most obvious measure to thicken the plot – my paperback copy is a scant 68 pages – is to supply Jekyll with a fiancé to agonize over when he can’t control his nightmarish transformations into Mr. Hyde. After that initial blandishment for the stage, Hollywood added a second woman for Hyde to prey upon.

CPCC "Jekyll & Hyde" Final Dress Rehearsal, June 20th, 2019

In rewriting the story for Frank Wildhorn’s musical Jekyll & Hyde, Leslie Bricusse layered on additional refinements. Bolstering Jekyll/Hyde’s motivations, Bricusse added a board of governors at a hospital that turns down the Dr.’s highly risky experimental research. Though the board’s decision looks better and better as Jekyll’s experimentation on himself becomes more and more catastrophic, we can see why Hyde is targeting Bishop Basingstoke, Lady Beaconsville and others for his brutality.

Before Jekyll’s wedding day is over, Hyde has collected the complete set of governors with the exception of his prospective father-in-law, who abstained with his vote. So much for the board’s cautious medical judgment. After all, distilling the essence of man’s evil nature was a fabulous idea, was it not?

Presenting the Wildhorn musical for the first time at CPCC Summer Theatre in 17 seasons, director Tom Hollis goes with a version of the show that’s closer to the 2013 Broadway revival of J&H than the original 1997 adaptation. Wading through the alternatives of how to present the climactic “Confrontation” solo duet – Jekyll and Hyde switching repeatedly back and forth – Hollis and his star, Tommy Foster, go retro with some major electronic enhancements. You’ll see Foster’s face when he’s Jekyll, demanding that Hyde set him free, and when Hyde retorts, “you are me,” his long mane of black hair covers all.

No pre-recorded Hyde for Foster, who doesn’t chew his locks too many times during his Hyde hair flips. Scenic designer Robert Edge, leaning heavily on video for many of the scene changes, projects a spinning vortex behind Hyde a la Hitchcock’s Vertigo as the murderer gets the upper hand, but sound designer Stephen Lancaster has more dramatic impact. From the time Hyde first emerges, Foster differentiates his voice from Jekyll’s, but during Act II, as Hyde becomes more monstrous, Lancaster dials in more huffy echo-laden feedback.

Remembering that the sound system at Halton Theater has been treading water at best since the hall was first opened in late 2005, we have to acknowledge that Lancaster, moving beyond adequacy to creativity, has achieved a breakthrough. Notwithstanding those electronic embellishments, Foster’s performance sizzles and electrifies on its own. Forget the power ballads that he torches – I’d actually like to forget a few of those American Idol abortions that clutter the score – and just see what Foster does, as Hyde alone, with the demonic energy of “Alive!” as Act I ends. Riveting.

Yet the most daring and brilliant choice that Hollis and Foster make is with Jekyll, making him more of a hothead than I’ve ever seen before, doctor or not. This guy is on the brink of losing his grip while he’s being questioned by the governors and even more so when he is turned down. That garish fluid Jekyll injects into himself still isn’t a placebo, but the thought crossed my mind.

CPCC "Jekyll & Hyde" Final Dress Rehearsal, June 20th, 2019

While all that Foster, Hollis, and his design team do with the dual leads make Jekyll and Hyde more exciting and cohesive, they sure don’t enhance my regard for his way overindulgent leading ladies. When Lucy, the loose saloon girl fatally attracted to Hyde, is told that she needs to leave London immediately to escape the deranged murderer, she sings, “A New Life” and goes to bed. Even as she pours out her heart into her fourth or fifth power ballad, you know she’s staying.

Emma, the pure-hearted fiancée, is another piece of work. At the climactic wedding scene, she watches Jekyll turn into Hyde, watches him murder the last of his enemies in cold blood, and does she turn away in horror or disgust when he perishes? Not exactly. The final tableau, with Emma huddled over the fallen Jekyll, is more like a Pietà. Utterly loathsome.

Times have changed since Linda Eder, who would become Wildhorn’s wife, originated the role of Lucy on Broadway in 1997. Grown lurid and rancid, the storylines of Lucy and Emma both sorely need a refresh.While Hollis made both of the ladies’ final scenes a bit cringeworthy, he certainly didn’t err in his casting. No daring or brilliance was necessary here. Karley Kornegay was the devilish leading man’s “Angel of Music” when Hollis directed Phantom of the Opera in 2015, and now she’s Jekyll’s angelic Emma. More recently, Lindsey Schroeder was the coarse lady outlaw in Wildhorn’s Bonnie and Clyde at Matthews Playhouse, and now she’s his wanton Lucy. Any questions about whether they’re right for their roles is answered long before they sing their wondrously unwoke duet, “In His Eyes,” idolizing both halves of our hero’s split personality simultaneously.

In a grotesque way, “In His Eyes” and “The Confrontation” are a matched set.

CPCC "Jekyll & Hyde" Final Dress Rehearsal, June 20th, 2019

Nobody else gets an American Idol moment in this belt-a-thon, but choreographer Tod Kubo and costume designer Robert Croghan turn up the heat colorfully at The Red Rat Club in “Bring on the Men,” where Lucy makes her first splash, setting herself apart from the other risqué saloon girls. There are also Phantom-like moments (if you recall “Masquerade”) each time the ensemble sings and numbingly reprises “Façade.”

Notwithstanding the elementary psychological truths that Briscusse rehashes about human pretense and deceit, he doesn’t offer many other performers an opportunity to craft two-dimensional portraits, let alone transcend them. Hollis has an embarrassment of riches to deploy on these thin characters. After proving himself up to the challenge of Gaylord Ravenal in Show Boat, Ashton Guthrie as hospital colleague Simon Stride gets only a precious few seconds to reveal himself as Jekyll’s rival – or at least a jealous aspirant to Emma’s affections.

CPCC "Jekyll & Hyde" Final Dress Rehearsal, June 20th, 2019As the only other surviving character from Stevenson’s 1886 novella, Jekyll confidant John Utterson really gets short shrift in the Bricusse book. Tyler Smith ranges very far from his humble “Ol’ Man River” role in Show Boat, giving Utterson true elegance and distinction. Making his first appearance at CP in 2019, where he has performed mostly leading roles over the last 35 years – Camelot and Grand Hotel are among my faves – Jerry Colbert cuts a venerable figure as Danvers Carew, Emma’s ambivalent dad.

Protective toward his daughter, appreciative of Jekyll’s potential, wary of his colleague’s volatile temperament, but abstaining when the governors vote, Danvers sets the tone in crucial ways. Colbert’s “Letting Go” duet with Kornegay finely balances his fatherly affections and trepidations. Trouble is, with Foster giving us a Hyde that is such a natural outgrowth of his Jekyll, it shouldn’t be a close call for Danvers. Or for his daughter.

Here Comes the Blood

Review: ShakesCar’s Production of Titus Andronicus

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Like a trip to a fish camp on the evening after you’ve savored French cuisine, or a night out watching mud wrestling after an evening of ballet, Titus Andronicus is down-market fare for lovers of Shakespeare, even when compared with the gougings of Lear and the body count of Hamlet. The last time we had a Titus in Charlotte in the summer of 2013, Citizens of the Universe thoughtfully designated a “splash zone” at Snug Harbor, a clear warning that bloodletting would not be genteel, with axes joining the butchery alongside polite poignards. Pointy instruments just don’t cut it when you want to lop a limb.

There’s a clear kinship between the banquet of blood that COTU served up in Snug Harbor’s outdoor patio – above the title on the playbill was “MENU” in large caps – and the current Shakespeare Carolina Titus, adapted by Benjamin Henson, now finishing its second and final week at Spirit Square. COTU founder James R. Cartee had asked Jenn Quigley to be his “Head Chef” and direct orgy of carnage, and this time, Cartee is dishing out the gore himself for ShakesCar in the title role – and on the tech side as lighting and set designer.

ShakesCar’s production at Duke Energy Theater modernizes the setting, and director Chris O’Neill, doubling as costume designer, has his men looking like they are refugees from a motorcycle gang. Tamora, the captured Queen of the Goths who will be Titus’s chief tormentor after unexpectedly becoming Empress of Rome, gets a whole bunch of leather herself: the full tight-fitting S&M kit, removeable corset included. Titus’s daughter Lavinia, betrothed to newly crowned Emperor Saturnius until the Andronici are double-crossed, is the colorful opposite of the monochromatic Tamora.

After failing to watch her tongue when addressing her victorious rival, Lavinia gets handed over to Tamora’s barbaric sons, Chiron and Demetrius. What happens next explains how Teresa Abernethy, playing Lavinia, became the poster girl for this gore-fest.

Like Evil Dead the Musical, the show that invented the Splatter Zone, COTU’s Titus winked at the comical aspects of hacksaw horrors, especially since they are more convincingly rendered on film. When the tongueless, handless Lavinia identified her assailants at Snug Harbor, it was a bit like watching a trick pony counting out how old she was. Many laughed out loud.

O’Neill is taking a grimmer view, though it’s hard not to laugh at times. Trusting the text, he and Henson leave the pentameters in place, but they don’t seem to trust the audience’s endurance. Among those missing in action are Titus’s loyal brother, one of Tamora’s sons, and various Andronicus kinfolk. Further cramping the flow, O’Neill divvies out the remaining roles to seven actors, half the number that appeared up in Plaza Midwood.

Probably the most confusing assignment is the double-casting of James Lee Walker II as Bassanius, Saturnius’s brother, and Aaron, Tamora’s Moorish lover, the first instance of half-colorblind casting I’ve ever encountered. I’m not sure anybody in the audience realized that the new emperor had a brother. Then again, Jack Shanahan as Demetrius deflowers and mutilates Lavinia before resurfacing as her avenging brother Lucius at the final bloody dinner. Demetrius, at that point, is dinner.

More confusion was added by the actors. Because this was passionate SHAKESPEARE, they felt compelled to bark, bellow, and bluster instead of merely speaking intelligibly. The Teddy Roosevelt maxim, “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” would have been helpful to O’Neill and his players. We had few words, let alone coherent sentences, to work with in helping us to flesh out what was going on.

Kelly Kirk, in her cool seductive take on Tamora, showed the guys how it’s done, slinking around the stage with lubricious malignity, much closer to a purr than a bark when she spoke. Waiting for her comeuppance is a prime pleasure of watching this bloodbath to the end. Abernethy, with her flaming hair and colorful garb, had the look of a rebellious punk teen before her cheekiness backfired. Yes, she looked crushed by her beastly disfigurations, but you may find yourself shocked by her father’s remedy.

At times, there’s a mighty performance buried in the thicket of Cartee’s mangled verbiage as Titus, particularly when his over-the-top inclinations jibe with the warrior’s Lear-like madness. Walker improved toward the end in the Aaron half of his doubling, delivering his most indomitably evil speech with uncharacteristic clarity – though it was curiously transported from the end of the tragedy to a scene or two earlier. Henson and/or O’Neill may not have wished us to keep track of this villain. We do hear of how Tamora is to be dealt with in its rightful place in the final speech.

Amid their fogs of butchered verse, Daniel Brown as Saturnius, Maxwell Greger as Chiron, and Shanahan as Demetrius vividly give us the flavor of these detestable carnivores. Collaborating with Cartee, Greger and Shanahan bleed brilliantly in their final moments as brothers. After those beautifully triggered spurts, we can thank Shanahan as Lucius for dispatching Saturnius. That vile emperor was the last living pustule at the banquet. After his picturesque demise, we’re merrily sent home.

Sorry, I exaggerated that last sentence. It’s hard not to be caught up in the excess.

Actor’s Theatre Shines New Light on Bechdel’s “Family Tragicomic”

Review: Fun Home at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Graphic novelist Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home grabs – and sustains – our attention in large measure because the title is a misnomer, the nickname given by Alison and her siblings to the family business, the Bechdel Funeral Home. Yet as the story unfolds, with its cargo of closeted homosexuality, sexual molestation, and suicide, we realize that Alison is stressing – and cherishing – the fun times she had with her siblings and her troubled dad. Sweetened by Lisa Kron’s stage adaptation and juiced by Jeanine Tesori’s music, the fun in Fun Home gains further momentum.

It keeps rolling in the Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte production at Queens University with lively stage directing, choreography, and preteen actors playing the young Bechdel pranksters. Aiming in that enlightened direction, set designer Dee Blackburn starts with the thrust stage configuration I saw at Circle in the Square for the Broadway, but she departs from the funereal darkness that characterized the New York run and the national tour. Abetted by Hallie Gray’s lighting design, Blackburn gives us the kind of bright home that Alison’s neat freak dad might fuss over.

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Or not. We also get darkness when Bruce, Alison’s dad, summons her to assist him in prepping a cadaver – and on numerous occasions when we leave the Bechdel house. Bruce’s nocturnal rambles, creepy and predatory, might occur far away on a family trip or in his car cruising the neighborhood for prey. If you’ve seen Fun Home before, you might find Bruce’s rambles more chilling, since his household isn’t an Addams Family lookalike. Bechdel’s original subtitle, “a family tragicomic,” wickedly sets the tone.

The most fun is when the three Bechdel kids do the big “Come to the Fun Home” song, pretending to cut a TV commercial for the funeral parlor, with choreography by Tod Kubo that captures all the goofy giddiness of the previous productions I’ve seen. Both Allie Joseph and Ryan Campos distinguished themselves at the start of this season in Children’s Theatre of Charlotte’s admirable Matilda, while Donavan Abeshaus has flown a little more under the radar, appearing as the young anti-hero in Bonnie and Clyde at Matthews Playhouse in February 2018. They make a fine set of Bechdel sibs now, though Joseph once again draws the plumiest role.

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Joseph is so brash and brilliant as Small Alison that she steals a little of the thunder from Amanda Ortega’s somewhat understated Medium Alison, the collegian who discovers her true sexuality at Oberlin and comes out as a lesbian. Ortega’s “Changing My Major” (to Joan, her first lover) was still an uproarious showstopper for those at opening night encountering it for the first time, though it brought nothing fresh that I hadn’t seen, but Lisa Hatt as our narrating Alison did offer something new, besting even the Tony-nominated Beth Malone as our storyteller.

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Maybe director Chip Decker believed she could be more than what she was on Broadway and on tour, for liberating Hatt – just by freeing her from the nerdy sketchpad she perpetually carried – is likely the foundation for all the Hatt achieves. Even when focus is elsewhere, on Bruce or one of the other Alisons, Hatt’s reactions matter, and her delivery of the climactic “Telephone Lines” is star quality. Yet there’s less of a feeling that this Alison has it all worked out after coming to terms with her sexuality and the fact that, as a graphic novelist, she isn’t going to join Faulkner and Hemingway in her English teacher dad’s pantheon. Hatt strikes me as a less confident Alison, still searching.

Hatt’s take on Alison allows Rob Addison as Bruce to be a little less formidable – more lifesize – than Michael Cerveris was on Broadway. A little more nuance helps because the ground has shifted somewhat since 2015, when Fun Home premiered, under the issues that Alison’s dad straddles. Though nothing excuses Bruce’s sexual predatoriness, fears of exposure and disgrace as a homosexual may be prime reasons why Dad is so rigid, regardful of others’ impressions, and so virulently bossy. You can believe it when Addison lets down his guard and plays with Young Alison at the start of Fun Home, and you can eventually see why this might be so atypical of Dad that our narrator would cherish the memory.

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Of course, the tortured and torturing Bruce can have more empathy with Alison – and be more grimly protective of her – than Helen Bechdel, her mom, and Lisa Schacher delivers a nicely nuanced portrait. Submissive, disapproving, and beneath it all, the caretaker, with a self-loathing to match her husband’s. Maybe a little more nuance from Sebastian Sowell as Joan to go along with her invincible cool would help me see why everyone, especially Medium, is so impressed with her. You can see, however, that a medium-energy Medium Alison is attractive to her.

Rounding out the cast as a couple of Bruce’s trespasses, Patrick Stepp shows enough self-awareness as Roy, the yard boy that Bruce plies with drinks – while Mom is elsewhere in the house! – to let us suppose that all this isn’t as surprising to Roy as it might be to us. Or unprecedented. In a scene that Alison isn’t narrating from her own experience, giving Dad a small benefit of the doubt is probably the perfect path to take. A little more sugar – and a soaring flight of fancy – will help Alison bring an uneasy but upbeat closure to her engaging memoir

Excellent CPCC Cast Isn’t Weary of “Show Boat”

Review: Show Boat

By Perry Tannenbaum

Show Boat Dress Rehearsal; June 6th, 2019

A theatrical breakthrough when it first opened in 1927 but so politically incorrect today, is it finally time to declare that Show Boat has sunk? At the current CPCC revival, kicking off Summer Theatre’s 2019 season, Tyler Smith as Joe seems to avoid the 92 years of “Ol’ Man River” revisions, its Oscar Hammerstein lyric migrating from N-word to “darkies” to “colored folk” and beyond, by making the Cotton Blossom’s stevedore sound like he jes’ step off de boat from Jamaica.

Yet we’re still back in 1887 Natchez, Misssissippi, where the local Sheriff, enforcing Jim Crow laws that forbid Julie LaVern from performing because she is one-sixteenth African, probably hasn’t gotten any memos that he should clean up his speech when referring to his oppressed brethren. It’s sad, but Julie can take solace in the fact that she has made her white chum Magnolia’s singing career – and comeback! – possible by vacating her gigs on the Cotton Blossom and later at the Trocadero Nightclub in Chicago.

Show Boat Dress Rehearsal; June 6th, 2019

Julie’s voluntary departure from her Trocadero dressing room enables us to realize how noble she is even if Julie remains blissfully unaware. Insidiously, it also justifies the suffering we burden black folk with – because they’re so much better than us and so much more equipped to bear it.

It gets irritating for me. Each time Julie appears, it’s so she can benevolently disappear! And doesn’t the rugged, hard-bitten Stoicism of Joe’s “Ol’ Man River” make the innate nobility of his people even greater?

Yes, it does.

Watching Show Boat last weekend, I couldn’t help thinking how much more interesting this Jerome Kern musical would be if it were about Julie, Joe, and their respective spouses. Instead the Hammerstein book, based on Edna Ferber’s novel, concentrates on Magnolia Hawks, her outgoing dad Captain Andy, her small-minded mom Parthy, and her dashing man, riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal. Hammerstein’s book doles out crumbs to the people I care about when they should be seeing at least half the loaf.

Ah, but the best of Kern’s score is still heartland wonderful, and director Tom Hollis has assembled an outstanding cast to bring it to life. Set designer Jennifer O’Kelly creates a riverboat with a fair amount of Mark Twain flair, twin staircases joining at the deck and two smokestacks above, and there are impressive drop pieces descending from the fly loft when we arrive at the Trocadero for a genuine scene change. Debbie Scheu’s costume designs have exactly the right frilly-silky-grubby mix to sharply define the racial and class divides.

Show Boat Dress Rehearsal; June 6th, 2019

It’s important that the evening starts off with the big-hearted garrulousness of Tom Ollis as Captain Andy, because other than the salty bitchiness of Paula Baldwin as his wife Parthy, longstanding conflict is in short supply. As the rakish Gaylord, Ashton Guthrie gets the best of the music written for the men who matter here, and he’s singing better than ever before on “Where’s the Mate for Me” and “Make Believe,” adding a touch of old-timey crooning to remind us what this show would have sounded like way back in the Roaring Twenties.

Lindsey Schroeder as Julie and Sarah Henkel as Magnolia share the “Fish gotta swim” resignation of “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man” long before their paths cross in Chicago and each gets a song of her own. Schroeder’s farewell is a similarly resigned “Bill” before she cedes the Trocadero stage to Magnolia. You would think that Henkel could simply take it from there, but it’s only 1899, women are decades away from getting the vote, so Daddy needs to drop by in the nick of time – coincidence, huh? – to buoy sweet Magnolia’s confidence in “After the Ball.” Hooray for Captain Andy! He saved the day.

Show Boat Dress Rehearsal; June 6th, 2019

The sexual politics here are fairly dismal, Edna Ferber story or not. Men can abruptly leave both Magnolia and Julie without accounting for themselves, and they can expect a hearty welcome if they have second thoughts. The layabout Joe lays it out best in his “I Still Suits Me” duet with his long-suffering wife Queenie (Brittany Harrington): “I may be lifeless, But with one wife less, My life would be more strifeless, yes sirree, No matter what you say, I still suits me!”

That’s the brutal, sexist side of Joe, and you can bet that Tyler Smith brings plenty of bite to his complacent boasting. Yet Smith, singing every bit as beautifully as Guthrie in his reprises of “Ol’ Man River,” is especially golden at the end of each bridge, when he sings those two dark low notes each time “you land in jail.” Are there two bluer notes in the American songbook?

Show Boat Dress Rehearsal; June 6th, 2019

Paul Robeson, the megastar this role was originally written for, must be looking down kindly from his heavenly sphere, for Smith is the best reason at Halton Theater not to get weary of Show Boat.

Gitai’s Elegiac and Abrasive “Letter to a Friend in Gaza” Strikes a Nerve

Review: World Premiere of Letter to a Friend in Gaza at Spoleto Festival USA

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By Perry Tannenbaum

 

A rarity in the US, anti-Israel theatre pieces are nothing new in Europe – more than a couple were running when I first visited the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2005. So it wasn’t surprising to me that the artistic team for the world premiere of Letter to a Friend in Gaza were flying in to Spoleto Festival USA from across the Atlantic; hailing from France, Germany, and Israel; some with Syrian, Iranian or Palestinian roots.

What was surprising was that documentary filmmaker, theatre director, and actor Amos Gitai, the creator of this multimedia piece at Emmet Robinson Theatre, is a native Israeli who resides in Paris and Haifa. He served in an Israeli military helicopter unit during the Yom Kippur War of 1973, was shot down by a Syrian missile, and the 8mm film footage he shot during his service triggered his career.

As a lifelong supporter of Israel, now planning my third trip to the Holy Land late this summer, what really rattled me was hearing the most damning descriptions and denunciations of Israeli military actions spoken in Hebrew – with substantiating film projected behind the performers with English captions. What we heard in Arabic, mostly from poet Mahmoud Darwish, was comparatively benign, lyrical, and poignant. Touching, really, as delivered by father and daughter Makram and Clara Khoury, Israeli actors with Palestinian roots.

Sarah Adler’s Hebrew descriptions, quoted from Ha’aretz newspaper correspondent Amira Haas, were read in a just-the-facts Dragnet monotone that probably shortchanged the journalist. Another Hebrew text by Yizhar Smilansky (also known as S. Yizhar) is more confrontational, children asking their parents tough questions about their horrific deeds or acquiescence and getting weak answers that echoed Nazi war criminals responding to their accusers.

Before the actors took their seats at a long table outfitted with microphones and video cameras, there was a curious and chaotic film representing the sacking of the Holy Temple by the Romans and the expulsion of the Jews from Jerusalem. Lots of darkness, flames, and fleeing people, with a narrator reading from Jewish historian Flavius Josephus’ Antiquities – written under the watchful eye of the Roman Empire and its emperor.

That account eventually dovetailed with a litany of Arab villages remembered by the Khourys that had suffered a similar fate and survived only in nostalgic memory. What Gitai was obviously sketching was a Palestinian Diaspora that should resonate deeply with Zionists and Jews, whose storied Diaspora lasted 19 centuries from Roman days until the hotly disputed founding of Israel.

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Palestinian nostalgia was sweetened – and saddened – with elegiac music played on violin and oud, with singing from assistant director Madeleine Pougatch, who filled in for one of the performers whose visa was held up in administrative red tape. While Pougatch was singing, the multimedia presentation was most effective as the cameras facing the Khourys sprang into action and their video images were projected behind them – processed so that the live actors looked rather ghostly behind themselves.

Gitai didn’t join the actors onstage until late in the action when he read what sounded like an Israeli apology to the Khourys but was actually an excerpt from Albert Camus’ Letters to a German Friend. Just in case you had missed the Nazi analogy earlier.

While Letter to a Friend in Gaza was often cogent, powerful, and convincing, it was also one-sided and abrasive at times. There was plenty slingshots-versus-tanks and David-Goliath imagery following up on bombed-out footage shot Gaza and/or Occupied Territories, but not a single image of terrorist actions or carnage inside Israel. At the Sunday matinee I attended, people walked out during the show and afterwards while Gitai was sitting down for a talkback moderated by festival director Nigel Redden.

Undoubtedly, kindling controversy and sparking discussion were prime aims for Gitai in creating this piece and for Redden in staging the world premiere at Spoleto. They’ve definitely hit the bullseye on those counts with a piece that deserved more than five performances in Charleston. Letter to a Friend in Gaza is slated for another brief run at the Theatre de la Ville in Paris, September 4-7, and Gitai is reportedly in talks with Cal Performances at UC Berkeley.

 

Theatre Charlotte’s “The Producers” Is More Politically Incorrect Than Ever

Review:  The Producers

By Perry Tannenbaum

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When I first saw Mel Brooks’ The Producers on Broadway in 2001, my disappointment in not seeing Nathan Lane in the role of Max Bialystock was assuaged by the realization that the show was still so damn good with last-minute replacement Brad Oscar filling the megastar’s shoes. Each of the successive versions I’ve seen in Charlotte – the national tour at Ovens Auditorium in 2004 and the CPCC Summer Theatre production at Halton Theater in 2009 – has only strengthened my conviction that Lane was not an essential ingredient in the show’s success.

But isn’t it too much to expect a smashing Producers at Theatre Charlotte, where they don’t have a Broadway-sized budget – or even a spacious orchestra pit like the Halton’s? Make a couple of allowances and then prepare to be astonished.

Scenic design by Chris Timmons is cheesy, even by community theatre standards, and there are no live musicians in sight – or out of sight – at the Queens Road barn. Once you get past those visible and audible austerities, you can revel in the costume designs by Rachel Engstrom, so crucial to the big “Springtime for Hitler” climax, and in the deep cast, so necessary in putting over Brooks’ comedy and his schlocky score.

Benefitting from the embarrassment of riches that showed up at auditions, director Caroline Bower hasn’t squandered her good fortune. In David Catenazzo as Max, she has found a leading man who is as seedy as Timmons’ scenery. Mostly a secret kept in recent years by JStage at the Levine Jewish Community Center, where he has starred in A Year With Frog and Toad and Fiddler on the Roof, Catenazzo proves to have a strong singing voice to go along with his comedic gifts. He absolutely oozes corruption, eager to enlist humdrum accountant Leo Bloom to cook his books, eager to bilk show investors in a surefire flop, and rabid to shtup Ulla, the voluptuous Swedish actress who turns up early for auditions.

A second solid gold debut comes from Landon Sutton as the diffident Leo, more than nerdy enough for a numbers crusher who discovers how to pocket a shady profit from a Broadway flop. There’s pallid innocence to Sutton’s manner as Leo, plus a little endearing pudginess, that works well when he’s too timid to plunge into the crooked scheme he has inspired. But there’s a surprisingly strong and smooth singing voice when Leo jumps aboard on the reprise of “We Can Do It,” and hormonal heat in “That Face,” his serenade to Ulla.

Brooks’ book and lyrics are so politically incorrect that they still seem to draw a pass from the audience – apparently willing to overlook the sexist attitude toward Ulla and the mockery directed at Franz Liebkind, the pigeon-keeping diehard Nazi who has penned the worst musical script that Max has ever read, Springtime for Hitler. Bower makes the right choices in casting the very un-Swedish Hailey Thomas as Ulla, draping her curves with a modicum of modesty, and limiting her flirtatiousness in comparison with Max’s leering. The Sveedish accent is ba-a-a-d, which is paradoxically good, and she’s positively smashing in her Nazi eagle outfit.

Neo-Nazis are less of a laughing matter than they were 18 years ago, so it’s also wise to have Chip Bradley tone down Franz’s achtung authoritarian qualities and pile on some extra daffiness. The result is the best performance I’ve seen from Bradley, particularly when he shows us all how Hitler should be sung at Springtime auditions. Bradley’s eccentric excellence is sustained when we encounter the Greenwich Village artistes who will direct Franz’s stinker, Roger De Bris and his loyal assistant Carmen Ghia, handpicked for their inabilities.

Here we are blessed with the gay flamboyance of Matt Kenyon as Carmen and the Ethel Merman regality of Paul Reeves Leopard as Roger. It takes a professional-grade queen to pull off Carmen’s arrogant servility and Roger’s ornate Chrysler Building party dress. Kenyon and Leopard have the goods. Leopard is certainly a different kind of Hitler than Bradley when Roger must sub for Franz on opening night.

On my fourth go-round with The Producers, I wasn’t laughing out loud until the Springtime for Hitler auditions, where I found myself enjoying the outrageousness as much as the newbies in the audience. I suspect their expectations were surpassed as much as mine were 18 years ago when Lane’s absence was announced as I stood in line outside the St. James Theatre. Enthusiasm for the Little Old Ladies and their tap-dancing walkers crackled like I remembered it even if the shtick has gone a little stale for me.

Iesha Nyree as Lick-me Bite-me and Layla Sutton as Hold-me Touch-me rounded out the named characters in the cast, which lists another 14 ensemble members who make choreographer Lauren “Loz” Gibbs look good. So what ever happened to the biddie named Kiss-me Feel-me? A victim of downsizing, we must presume.

Torrid Times on Charleston Streets and Spoleto Stages

Reviews: Spoleto Festival USA

By Perry Tannenbaum

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What’s hot at Spoleto Festival USA this year? By far the hottest is the Charleston weather, stringing together multiple record-breaking 100℉ days, absolutely unprecedented for the month of May. Upstaged by the heat, the next hottest trend is theatre.

Hard to say why, but at this year’s Spoleto, the trend is toward more theatre presentations and less opera. Even the lone opera, Richard Strauss’s edgy Salome, has a theatrical flair. We hear German sung in a modernized production that transports us from King Herod’s biblical-era palace to a swank rooftop soiree at a luxury high-rise. Yet the libretto adheres faithfully to the original tragedy, so it’s like reading the Oscar Wilde text on supertitles while the action unfolds. More about the body heat later.

When all is done on June 9, six different companies will have presented eight different stage works at various venues across Charleston, including two world premieres and a US premiere. From what we could see, the expanded number of choices was spurring ticket sales rather than diluting them, for at Gaillard Center, Memminger Auditorium, Dock Street Theatre, the Emmett Robinson Theatre, and the Woolfe Street Playhouse, my wife Sue and I encountered sellout or near-capacity houses. Even during midweek.

That applies even more intensely to the one production we couldn’t see, Target Margin Theater’s Pay No Attention to the Girl. All six performances of that show were sold out weeks before it arrived.

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World premiere or not, 1927’s Roots was hardly a leap of faith, since Spoleto has featured writer Suzanne Andrade and her company’s work before, beginning with Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea in 2008 and more recently with The Animals and Children Took to the Streets in 2012 and Golem in 2016. If you’ve never seen Andrade and 1927 at work before, it will be helpful to know that silent film and Lemony Snicket are their creative lodestars.

If Andrade wanted you to know that, she would have titled her new show A Series of Unfortunate Folktales, Anecdotes, and Myths. She couldn’t be nearly as coy about her silent film inspiration, for Paul Barritt’s animations, projected onto the upstage wall at Emmett Robinson, were charmingly integrated into each of the 10 stories that Andrade told – using unseen storytellers’ voices rather than the silent actors we see onstage.

Blocking was very precise when Andrade and the other three actors stood in front of the upstage wall, synchronizing their actions with Barritt’s silent movie. Integration is easier when actors walk through doorways cut into the wall or peep through boxy little windows. The latter effect was probably most enjoyable in the opening tale of a Fat Cat who begins his cosmic rampage by eating a maid’s porridge in her absence – and goes on to bigger, badder things. While the feline’s body is Barritt’s domain, Andrade or the equally adorable Esme Appleton peeps through the wall to become its conspicuously unferocious face.

Both Andrade and Appleton don 1927’s customary whiteface, making it difficult to tell them apart. Neither of them has much use for facial expression, their silent style favoring Buster Keaton more than Charlie Chaplin.

Students of literature could recognize two of Andrade’s other tales, for the King and his pathologically loyal wife Griselda are clearly on loan from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Clerk’s Tale. The tale of the two copulating snakes and their surprising effect on the person who observes them dates back to Greek myth and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Andrade’s cover was blown on that source when a chamber music program over at Dock Street Theatre featured Doug Balliett’s Echo and Narcissus, where all was revealed about how Teiresias happened to become the world’s best judge of whether men or women enjoy sex more.

Andrade’s concluding tale could itself be called “Roots,” since what happens to two siblings plotting to escape grandma’s dominion is clearly a vegetative intervention. 1927 Doug Balliett’seems to take a wicked delight in showing us that fairy tales aren’t always fair or happily-ever-after. The straight-faced soulfulness of the company made that delight fatally and deliciously contagious.

Shakespeare’s Globe, long an outdoor theatre fixture on the London scene, made their Spoleto debut at Dock Street in 2015 with the most affecting Romeo and Juliet that I’ve ever seen. Sadly, none of the actors or directors involved in that triumph have returned. What’s most recognizably Globe is the feel of their eight-person troupe and their approach to the Bard. They aren’t merely actors, for before our plays begin, they prove to be reasonably capable musicians!

Eleven of the 20 performances are pre-ordained, divvied up between the three plays that Globe has brought to Dock Street this year – Twelfth Night, The Comedy of Errors, and Pericles. The other nine shows of Globe’s run are “Audience Choice,” with the troupe at the service of the ticketholders’ will, expressed in a voice vote. Like the London Globe, scenery doesn’t change much. But costumes definitely do.

As Pericles, the Prince of Tyre, moves from Antioch to Tarsus to Pentapolis to Ephesus and to Mytilene, costumes become very useful in keeping us informed on where we are, whether we’ve landed at someplace new, or we’ve circled back to a previous king and country. Pericles’ troubles and wanderings begin when he ventures to solve a riddle to win the hand of the King of Antioch’s daughter. Death is the stated penalty for failing to solve the riddle, and death would be equally inevitable if Pericles proclaimed the solution in public – revealing that King Antiochus is in an incestuous relationship with his daughter.

Since most people aren’t as familiar with Pericles as they are with Romeo and Juliet, when Pericles flees for his life from Antioch to Tyre, then sails on to Tarsus to elude Antiochus’s hired assassin, our hero may not only be leaving his pursuer in the dust but also newcomers to the story. Why does Prince Pericles flee from a country he himself rules after so clearly showing his bravery in Antioch? And why does he then leave Tarsus, and where does he think he’s going?

Pericles can be rough sailing during the Prince’s early travels, and players changing costumes and nationalities can further jostle perceptions. As fine as Colin Campbell is in the title role, even he pops up in different guises, once as a Pirate who kidnaps Pericles’ daughter. The one constant in the cast, Natasha Magigi as Gower, wasn’t as clear and relaxed as she could be as our narrator. Many among us had left at intermission before Magigi redeemed herself during the epic resolution of Pericles’ woes.

Much of the hurly-burly settles down after the chief catastrophes, when Pericles believes he has lost his daughter Marina and his wife Thaisa, the king’s daughter he won in Pentapolis. Silly man, they’re merely scattered across the seas, one of them revived in a coffin. Mogali Masuku has an imposing dignity as Thaisa before and after her coffin sojourn, and Evelyn Miller as Marina has a saintly luminosity, suffering every bit as much as her dad. Tears flowed during both of the long-delayed reunions for those of us who had persevered.

Apportioning multiple roles to most of your actors usually works better in Shakespeare’s comedies, so I expected to be better pleased with The Comedy of Errors. What surprised me here was director Brendan O’Hea’s unusually dramatic approach to the action. With Mark Deselbeck as Egeon and Masuku as the Duke of Ephesus, the agony of Egeon’s trials, seeking his long-lost son, and the severity of his oncoming punishment – death for merely visiting Ephesus – take on a little more weight.

While the two servile Dromios of the story, Beau Holland visiting from Syracuse and Eric Sirakian residing in Ephesus, are comical enough in their confounded confusion, the slapstick aspect of their repeated thrashings by their masters is conspicuously toned-down. O’Hea is taking the candy wrapping off the abuses meted out by the twin Antipholuses upon their obedient Dromios. Campbell, as the Antipholus from Syracuse, is the more benign of the identical twin masters, getting comical mileage out of his absurdly familiar reception throughout Syracuse, especially from his twin’s wife Adriana.

But he has no patience with his Dromio’s apparent misconduct, and the slaps and kicks he delivers to her might appear a bit Three Stooges at first, but only if we’re conditioned by Comedy of Errors productions we’ve seen before. We are soon disabused. This is a master objectionably mistreating his slave. Bigger point: Shakespeare’s Globe, apparently, is no longer the grand museum it once was, where you simply go to see how the Bard’s works were presented during the Elizabethan Era. Updates and reconsiderations are now possible.

Antipholus of Ephesus was always a meaner piece of work, cheating on his wife Adriana and devaluing her virtues, but Anthony Gaučas takes this master’s unsavoriness further. There’s nothing comical about his reaction to being locked out of his own house, nothing comical about his resulting enmity toward Adriana, and we see a wildfire of jealousy break out when he learns that it was his twin brother who “dined” with her earlier in the day. Mistakenly taken into custody for an unpaid debt, Gaučas earns the presumptions from onlookers that he has gone insane. Nor does this Antipholus instantly reconcile with Adriana once all the mistaken identities have been cleared – and he has absolutely no welcome for his long-lost twin brother.

Amid all of these alterations – none of them violating Shakespeare’s text – Miller as Adriana emerges as the most admirable master or mistress that we see. She is clearly not a dainty pushover. Miller wears a larger cape than either of the identically clad Antipholuses, and she swishes it around in far more swashbuckling style. Hers is the noblest rage at this performance. Fully digesting the brothers’ origins and biographies on your ride home, you might find yourself realizing that Antipholus of Ephesus probably owes all of his fortune and property to this formidable, beautiful lady, making him an even more despicable heel.

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People still talk about the Salomé that directors Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser brought to Spoleto back in 1987, and it’s clear that the directing duo was bent on duplicating that éclat in their current reimagining of Strauss’s sizzling opera. They’ve succeeded – and you only have a couple of more chances to witness it on June 2 and 5.

The singing from the cast is rich and strong, allowing conductor Steven Sloane and the Spoleto Festival Orchestra to fill beautiful Gaillard Center with the sounds of Strauss’s score without drowning out the vocalists. Teaming up with set designer Christian Fenouillat and lighting designer Christophe Forey, Caurier and Leiser deliver a spectacular visual experience.

Looking out on night-time Jerusalem from a swank high-rise, we can’t expect the divine prophet Jokanaan to be imprisoned in a dingy dungeon. No, he’s confined in an apartment below. But after hearing Jokanaan’s powerful denunciations and imprecations from offstage during the opening scene, we first see baritone Erik Van Heyningen as the seer when his suite is lowered down from high above, far brighter than the surrounding night. Illumination and severe simplicity come with him.

What Caurier and Leiser bring to this holy sanctuary – and later, back at Herod’s rooftop – is wickedly, sensationally profane. They don’t merely ask soprano Melanie Henley Heyn to open her heart to Jokanaan in Salomé’s attempt to seduce the prophet. They also call upon her to bare her breasts in his bedroom. Nor was that necessarily the most shocking episode of the night, for when tenor Paul Groves as Herod prevailed upon Salomé to dance for him, he did more than join in. He dropped his pants, and Strauss’s famed “Dance of the Seven Veils” became the dance of the 10 thrusts. Or maybe that’s where I stopped counting.

Since Salomé knows she will be rewarded before her dance begins, you might say she isn’t abused here. But if she is, we feel uncomfortably supportive toward the horrific price she names – over and over, stretching the name of Jokanaan to seven syllables each time she demands his head. Even with all this salacious business, Heyn isn’t the most wanton or alluring Salomé that I’ve seen. The audacity of her overture to Jokanaan seems fueled by privilege more than vanity, so there’s enough youthful simplicity left in her to make Herod’s advances a stunning violation.

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Yet I’ve never heard more powerful demands for Jokanaan’s head, wickedly seconded by Edna Prochnik as the jealous and vengeful Herodias. Caurier and Leiser are somewhat remiss in not attempting to make an ultimate horror out of Salomé’s love song to the decapitated Jokanaan, but Heyn is also supreme in those moments. We expect the mighty righteousness of Van Heyningen lashing out at the “daughters of Babylon” who assail him, and Groves is a perfect fit for the powerful, conscience-stricken, and infatuated Herod. The most surprising vocal exploits came from tenor Zach Borichevsky as Narraboth, the captain of the guard who unwisely grants Salomé her visit with Jokanaan.

But it’s the production concept by Caurier and Leiser that will live longest in my memory – and Heyn’s performance that crowned it.

 

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Other highlights of Spoleto’s first week start with the jazz lineup – including Esperanza Spalding, the Dafnis Prieto Big Band, David Virelles, and an all-star tribute to Geri Allen from Terri Lyne Carrington, Craig Taborn, and Ravi Coltrane.

 

Meanwhile, the Chamber Music series hosted by Geoff Nuttall keeps getting edgier and wackier. Aside from Balliett’s hip refresh of Ovid, Stephen Prutsman’s new score for Buster Keaton’s old silent film, College, was smashing – when I was able to stop laughing at Keaton’s antics and pay attention to Prutsman’s.

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You have plenty of time – and multiple opportunities – to catch Mark Turner and Ethan Iverson (June 5-8) at the Simons Center Recital Hall, but jazz fanatics must hurry or they will miss Carla Bley Trio (May 31) at Cistern Yard. Six more programs and 18 performances remain in the BofA Chamber Music series, twice daily through June 9. After making a delightful surprise appearance earlier this week singing a piece by Henri Duparc, tenor Paul Groves returns for Program VIII, headlining Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn & Strings.

The range, power, and delight of the lunchtime concerts is best illustrated by the concluding Program XI, slated for next weekend. Members of the band warm up with an 18th century bassoon sonata by Georg Philipp Telemann, followed by a recent Disco-Toccata for clarinet and cello by Guillaume Connesson. Then a deep dive into Beethoven’s “Ghost” Piano Trio with Inon Barnatan at the keyboard, Joshua Roman behind the cello, and Karen Gomyo on violin. All of the musicians heard thus far – and more – gather for the finale, a merry chamber music reduction of Rossini’s “Overture from Barber of Seville,” arranged by clarinetist Todd Palmer.

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In the dance realm, the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company’s five-day sojourn in Charleston concludes this Saturday with repeats of all three parts of their Analogy Trilogy. For more lavish spectacle, stand by for Caracalla Dance Theatre’s One Thousand and One Nights (June 7-9), as the Lebanese company fuses Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and Ravel’s Bolero with traditional Arabic instruments, melodies, and costumes. Expect this hottie to be a tough ticket.

Plenty more excitement awaits theatergoers, headlined by two Israeli and two Palestinian actors onstage together in the multimedia world premiere of Letters to a Friend in Gaza (May 30-June 2) at the Emmett Robinson. Up at the Woolfe Street Playhouse, 600 Highwaymen brings on The Fever (June 4-9), exploring group dynamics with audience participation. Cora Bissett’s What Girls Are Made Of (June 4-8) keeps it just as real at Memminger Auditorium, with the rock star bringing her teen diaries to life. Backed by a live rock band, of course!

There’s more. Find out what Circa, I’m With Her, Music in Time, St. John Passion, Westminster Choir, and the Festival Finale are all about at spoletousa.org.

 

Recapturing Old Hostilities – and the Path to Peace

Preview:  Three Bone Theatre Production of Oslo

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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Peace and the Middle East – they just don’t seem to belong in the same sentence, do they? Every week, we hear about a new flareup, a new conflict, a new bombing, and more death. So it’s timely that Oslo, the 2017 Tony Award winner for Best Play by J.T. Rogers, will be opening this week at Spirit Square. The Three Bone Theatre production, a Charlotte area premiere, revisits the back-channel talks that led to the historic handshake between Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn on September 13, 1993.

Simpler, more innocent times – before we were educated (superficially, of course) about Sunnis and Shiites, before Americans discovered we despised Iran as much as Iraq, before Al Qaeda, 9-11, ISIS, beheadings, and chemical warfare. Long ago.

Beginning with a guerilla production of The Vagina Monologues at the WineUp wine loft in NoDa six years ago, Three Bone has grown gradually to the point where artistic director Robin Tynes feels ready for the challenge. Ready or not, Oslo is a substantial stretch for Three Bone.

There are more than 20 roles in Oslo, and most of 15 players covering them are making their company debuts. Actors in both the Israeli and Palestinian delegations need to feel the distrust and animosity of each side toward the other, travel the compressed journey to understanding and agreement in Rogers’ script, and repeat that three-hour odyssey – starting all over again with the same ferocious edge – night after night in performance.

That journey gets rockier if you’re fielding a diverse cast of Jews, Muslims, and Christians who come to the table with their own settled views. Respecting diversity had to go hand-in-hand with respecting the values of each performer’s time.

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“Yes, the rehearsal schedule was quite the challenge,” says director Paige Johnston Thomas, “15 people for 65 scenes! As they say in the theatre: I was told there’d be no math!”

Thomas, a fixture on the local scene for over 20 years, is making her debut with Three Bone. Kat Martin, brought aboard as assistant director and dramaturg, hasn’t worked at any theatre company before in the QC – and she’s drawing “rock star” accolades for her work in her Charlotte debut.

“Although I am not a Middle East expert,” says Martin, “a dramaturg’s job is to become an expert quickly then create points of entry for deepened understanding for creatives as well as community members.”

A dramaturg’s outreach to the community, after briefing directors and performers, often takes the form of explanatory materials in the show’s playbill. Martin’s involvement has been more proactive, involving the Oslo cast during her search for historical contexts. She began by speaking with John Cox, associate professor of Holocaust, genocide & human rights studies at UNC-Charlotte, who encouraged her to create a dramaturgy day where actors could listen and learn from community stakeholders like Palestinian activist Rose Hamid and Rabbi Judy Schindler, director of the Stan Greenspon Center for Peace and Social Justice.

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That solid core was augmented by the participation of former Israeli soldier Stefan Pienkny, a veteran of the 1967 war, and two Palestinian refugees, Wafa Omran and Khalid Hijazi. Rounding out her gathering – and acknowledging the all-important peacemaking perspective of the Norwegians – Martin also invited facilitation expert Candice Langston, managing director of The Lee Institute.

“My biggest challenge was to keep the research real,” Martin emphasizes, “so I wanted to cultivate information for the cast while also making sure they were learning with their gut.” The three-hour crash course she organized for dramaturgy day began with Cox reviewing the historical background and Langston addressing the topic of building community dialogue.

Then there were hourlong small group meetups that paired the Israelis and Palestinians in the cast with the community stakeholders who represent those points of view. At the same time, actors cast as Norwegians lingered with Langston for more info on facilitating high-level negotiations. Climaxing the evening, the whole cast gathered together right after ingesting an hour of diverging partisan viewpoints, plunging into exercises designed to simulate the process of bridging those gaps, understanding the “other,” and finding common ground.

It was intense.

“An evening as an actor I won’t forget,” says Dennis Delamar, who will portray Yair Hircshfeld, one of the back-channel negotiators, and Shimon Peres, the foreign minister who would share the Nobel Peace Prize with Rabin and Arafat after the Accords were signed. “The evening focused on lived experiences, personal stories, facts, and some tears I observed which were quite integral in shaping my mindset. Stakes were definitely raised. I loved every minute of it.”

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Peres doesn’t enter until well after intermission. A political rival of Rabin, he keeps the Oslo talks secret – because he knows the Prime Minister will reject any agreement that isn’t airtight. It must be an offer that cannot be refused. Until the Israelis are close to that, no member of the government can be seen talking to the Palestinians. Needless to say, the Americans engaged in their endless fruitless talks must also be kept in the dark.

So that’s why Delamar is Hirschfeld all through the opening act – an economics professor at the U of Haifa!

“I connect with and enjoy playing Yair’s passion and intellect,” he says, “but also a certain amount of humor J.T. Rogers developed with this character. Sometimes he is out of his depths in the negotiations, but he’s never without a passion for the grave reason he’s there, fully invested in the outcome, proud of his part in the start of it all. I’ve enjoyed making him relatable in an endearing and real way.”

Yes, there are comical moments that leaven the animosities and tensions, but there are thriller elements aplenty. The possibility of ruining Peres’s political fortunes keeps the Israelis on edge, while for Mona Juul and Terje Rød-Larsen, the Norwegians pushing negotiations forward, getting their government to buy into the process – knowing they must keep the Americans in the dark – ratchets up their anxieties.

For the Palestinian delegation, PLO finance minister Ahmed Qurie and PLO liaison Hassan Asfour, secrecy is a matter of life-or-death. Only Arafat knows about these talks and how they’re progressing.

Vic Sayegh will take on the role of Qurie. Although he the mellower, less militant of the two Palestinians, he’s a radical departure for an actor whose QC credits began in 2003 with appearances in Steve Martin’s The Underpants and Charles Busch’s Psycho Beach Party. There’s no Kanaka shtick here, but there is a certain amount of savoir faire.

And the Palestinian does provide some comedy when he lets his guard down. Before encountering Hirschfeld in London for the first time, he confides to Larsen, his intermediary: “I have never met an Israeli. Face-to-face.”

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Very unique comedy, typical of the tensions Oslo whips up. But the finance minister quickly recovers in Hirschfeld’s presence, informing him that he hasn’t been to his homeland since 1967 when his whole village was forced to flee from “the advancing hordes of Zionism.” Awkwardness turns to polite hostility in a flash.

“Qurie often has an ulterior motive behind his words,” Sayegh notes. “He is very calculated. Like a poker player, he never lets his face give away his hand.”

Poker-faced or not, Sayegh sees Qurie’s motivations as deep and honorable. He’s relating them to his own experiences and heritage.

“As a young man, I remember meeting people who were Palestinian and subsequently looking for Palestine on a map,” Sayegh reminisces. “I would ask myself why they called a place that no longer existed, ‘home.’ Now I understand. Personally, my paternal grandparents were born in Aleppo, Syria. It was once a beautiful region of the world, but many years of conflict have reduced it to rubble. I hope that one day, peace in the entire region will allow me to visit the land of my ancestors.”

While Terje is the visionary who devises a successful model for conflict resolution – with a mixture dogged determination and quixotic optimism to keep it going – it’s the calm, meticulous, and brilliantly resourceful Mona who steers her husband around the political complications that threaten to scuttle his mission. Fresh on the heels of her pivotal role in the world premiere of Steven Dietz’s The Great Beyond, Tonya Bludsworth takes on the role of this unsung hero who buoyed her husband’s confidence while clearing his path.

“Prior to reading Oslo,” says Bludsworth of her journey, “I’m sure I felt like most Americans, that peace in the Middle East is not likely to ever really happen. But I was in tears when I first read the script, not because I was sad, but because I was overwhelmed by this incredible feeling of hope, and I still feel it every night in rehearsal. As Terje says, if we could just get past the politics and see the people, the personal, then there is a way.”

Plenty of Broadway DNA on Belmont Avenue

Review: A Bronx Tale

By Perry Tannenbaum

a Finale

Gotta love the production concept of A Bronx Tale in its touring version. Show producers, along with directors Robert De Niro and Jerry Zaks, have clearly attempted to keep as much of the original Broadway design as possible intact, and they’ve taken as many of the Broadway cast as possible on the road. Opening night at Belk Theater, the show looked very much like what I saw at the Longacre Theatre two years ago. The show ran almost as smoothly as it did in New York, and the sound was nearly as sharp. When hit shows are booked here for longer runs, critics are often kept away until at least the second night. Tweaking the sound and other niggling details is part of the reason.

The story is very personal to the guy who wrote the book, Chazz Palminteri, who based his one-man show on his own youthful adventures on Belmont and Webster Avenue, directed by Zaks. De Niro bought into turning the project into a 1993 movie in which he co-starred with Palminteri. In a couple of neat switcheroos, De Niro directed and played Chazz’s dad, Lorenzo, instead of the charismatic mobster who imperils – and saves – our hero’s young life. Palminteri took on that plum role of Sonny, the fearsome mobster kingpin who stands watch over Belmont Avenue, leaving the role of Calogero – Chazz’s original first name – to a greener actor.

So there’s a rich family feel that lingers in the musical version of this autobiographical 1960s tale – and I mean family with Godfather connotations. Calogero’s dad is a straight-arrow bus driver, but he understands the Italian-style street realities of his shambling neighborhood. When Sonny calmly guns down a less polished thug in cold blood, just a few yards away from Calogero’s front stoop, Lorenzo tries to shield his son from being dragged down by the police to identify the killer in a lineup.

o Sonny and Lorenzo and Chez Bippy

The scene is tense when Sonny and Calogero come eye-to-eye at the police station. But seemingly by osmosis, the nine-year-old kid knows the score: there is nothing lower on the streets of the Bronx than a snitch. Cool, stolid, and terrifying as he is, Sonny will not forget a favor, generous in his gratitude beyond Calogero’s dreams – and way beyond Lorenzo’s comfort level. The one scene where Sonny and Lorenzo confront one another absolutely sizzles.c Young C and Lorenzo

Both of these men have strength and wisdom, and each of them has a lasting influence on Calogero. Or C, as the imperious Sonny prefers to call him. “You done a good thing for a bad man,” Lorenzo tells his son after they return from the life-changing lineup scene. Yet it isn’t until deep in Act 2, when justice is meted out by the street instead of the police, that some in the audience will realize that Dad has a deeper wisdom and a deeper understanding of how Bronx justice works.

Sonny will teach us how power works in the “Nicky Machiavelli” showstopper, aided by his colorful henchmen, Rudy the Voice, Eddie Mush, Frankie Coffeecake, Tony 10 to 2, and JoJo the Whale. Very subtly, Sonny also lets us infer the secret of his sangfroid when a true answer from the nine-year-old C at the police lineup might have ended in a long, long stretch in jail. Sonny tells C that he had read his Machiavelli while doing some prison time in the past. If you want to get ahead in life, you take advantage of such opportunities. And if you take up crime as a career, you look at prison as a business expense.

The only time Beowulf Boritt’s scenic design malfunctioned was when a scrim was supposed to rise as Calogero was asking pretty black coed Jane out on a date, knowing that he was bridging the racial divide between Belmont and Webster. Here we will get a neat twist when Dad opposes his son’s dating Jane, who is showing some moxie of her own in encouraging Calogero. The worldlier Sonny not only condones C’s initiative, he gives his protégé some clever advice on testing a woman’s mettle – then tosses him the keys to his swank car. For couples watching this show on a date night, this “One of the Great Ones” scene, with its cool Sinatra swagger, will be Sonny’s most memorable showstopper.

h Jane and Calogero

Perhaps emblematic of Lorenzo’s more durable lunch-pail values, Richard H. Blake is one of the original cast members that I saw at the Longacre in 2017. He makes a finer impression than ever in the “Look in Your Heart” episode, even if the Alan Menken-Glenn Slater song is interchangeable with at least 30 other Broadway tunes, and his bravery in the “Giving Back the Money” scene is obviously enhanced by his understanding of the risk he’s taking for the sake of keeping his son straight.

Joey Barbeiro as Calogero and Brianna-Marie Bell as Jane haven’t dialed up their chemistry as much as they could, nor does Palminteri underscore the larger significance of their association from their perspective. Is it enough that his book shows the two teens resisting pressures from family and friends? Maybe not in a show that runs 100 minutes and could easily have jettisoned its intermission.

Bell, a replacement cast member on Broadway, does her best acting work dealing with her schoolmates and her brother, a gang member who gets roughed-up on Calogero’s turf. But if Slater’s namby-pamby lyrics don’t give her much of a chance to distinguish herself on “Out of Your Head” or “Webster Avenue,” Menken’s music certainly lets us sample the firepower in Bell’s voice. Of course, Barbeiro’s dramatic chops are more extensively featured in multiple heavy scenes with Sonny, Lorenzo, his mom Rosina, and his own gang – Handsome Nick, Crazy Mario, and Sally Slick. Barbeiro is definitely comfortable with his ongoing narrative chores, and his voice is also conspicuously at a high Broadway level.

d Lorenzo Young C and RosinaShane Pry, the kid who alternated with Brigg Liberman as Young Calogero on opening night, was ill-served at the soundboard, particularly when he sang. Pry proved far more intelligible when he spoke, had very appealing energy, and was a great match physically for Barbeiro, the Calogero he would grow up to be. I was also pleased with Michelle Aravena as Rosina, another Broadway replacement who has hit the road. She reminded me of Bronx matrons I encountered in my early years, frazzled, prematurely old, and forever attached to a dish towel.

Maybe the most impressive of the Broadway originals is Joe Barbara as Sonny. Barbara has actually moved up the gangland pecking order on tour, having opened as Carmine, a Police Officer, and a Gang Leader on Broadway while understudying Nick Cordero, the original Sonny. Not quite as imposing or intimidating as Cordero was on Broadway, Barbara is every bit as calm and confident on tour, making up for his slight meanness and cynicism deficits on his “Machiavelli” showpiece with more musicality and savoir faire on ““One of the Great Ones.” Barbara and Chazz himself were the only Broadway replacements for Cordero onstage during the 700-performance run of A Bronx Tale, a heavy family endorsement that our Sonny makes good on.