Category Archives: Theatre

There’s Plenty of Broadway Bravura in Theatre Charlotte’s Memphis

Review:  Memphis

By Perry Tannenbaum

As you may have found out, ignorant buffoons can make it big in America. So why not ignorant eccentrics? If Huey Calhoun didn’t make it big as a ‘50s deejay in Memphis, the musical by Joe DiPietro and David Bryan, then his fall from celebrity wouldn’t be nearly as reckless or spectacular. When he has lost his local TV show, tossed away his shot at national fame, and blown his romantic chances with the R&B queen he has catapulted to stardom, Huey defiantly delivers the anthem he has earned, “Memphis Lives in Me.”

“One more drink and you’ll see God everywhere,” sings Huey in tribute to his chief consolation: a bluesy Beale Street honky-tonk bar. It’s the culmination of a Broadway- caliber performance that Joe McCourt is currently giving at Theatre Charlotte in the lead role that DiPietro patterned after legendary rock pioneer Dewey Phillips.

Contrary to the preproduction signals that McCourt and director Corey Mitchell were sending, McCourt hasn’t muted Huey’s nasal drawl or portrayed him as much less of a rube than Chad Kimball did on Broadway. That’s a good thing. “Sounds just like him!” my wife Sue concurred at intermission.

Whether it’s the pork-pie hat and costume by designer Rachel Engstrom, or Huey’s sidling walk – seemingly unable to unbend his knees, straighten his back, or take two consecutive steps in the same direction – McCourt also looks a lot like Kimball’s Tony-nominated portrait. Perhaps rehearsals with Dani Burke as hot young singer Felicia Farrell revealed that, if McCourt were to tone down Huey’s goofball attributes, he would come off as more of a creepy stalker.

Ultimately, McCourt has arrived at a very likable blend of naïveté, chutzpah, neediness, awkwardness, and hipness – not the easiest elements to combine – and as usual, he torches every song he touches. For her part, Burke hasn’t lost any of the voltage she first brought to the Queens Road barn when she electrified audiences with “Aquarius” in the 2014 production of Hair.

Felicia isn’t nearly the plum role Huey is, but Burke proves to be fairly formidable in her first full-fledged lead. A few of Engstrom’s creations glam her up, and I liked Burke’s regality at the “WRNB” studio, where Huey has the nerve to ask Felicia to perform live. We’ve only seen Felicia in a seedy honky-tonk before, and the top radio station in Memphis also looks pretty shabby, but Burke demands, “Where are my backup singers?” as if she’s already a star.

What’s happening here in Memphis doubly crosses racial lines as Huey brings black music to the middle of the AM radio dial and presumes to romance Felicia while promoting her talent. Both of these audacities bring powerful characters into the flow of the action. Station owner Mr. Simmons is easily the most comical of these, and Mike Carroll beautifully brings out the businessman’s starchy pomposity – and astonishment – each time a new Huey atrocity increases his listening audience, his sponsor’s satisfaction, and finally his own teenage son’s admiration.

I hardly even remembered the role of Huey’s mom from the original Broadway production, so I was fairly blown away by the heart – and the pipes – that Allison Snow Rhinehart brings to Mama. Of course, she’s as déclassé as Huey, so his outsized dreams and successes are a total shock to her, not to mention coming home one day to find his black girlfriend in her kitchen. But Mama’s prejudices occupy the same space as her love and loyalty, so Rhinehart has a couple of gratifying surprises in store for us after intermission.

Least surprising, after his triumph as Coalhouse Walker in last winter’s CPCC production of Ragtime, is Tyler Smith’s powerful portrayal of Delray, Felicia’s fiercely protective brother and owner of the dive where Huey discovers her. It doesn’t take long to catch on to Smith’s power, since he’s toe-to-toe with Burke in the opening “Underground” ensemble, and he’ll prove equally capable of facing off with McCourt on “She’s My Sister” when Delray flares up about Felicia’s interracial affair. In fact, when the catastrophe strikes that ends Act 1, I suspect that Mitchell may have imposed some unnecessary restraint on Delray’s ferocity.

But there was more than enough power from all the frontliners to justify the “Why didn’t you tell me about this place?” comments I was overhearing during the break. Apparently these newbies were undeterred by the lackluster scenic design by Chris Timmons or the generic choreography by Ashlyn Summer, which never reminded me of what my teen elders were dancing on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand or Alan Freed’s The Big Beat. Victoria Fisher’s lighting design goes a long way to redeeming the drab sets, and music director Zachary Tarlton makes sure there is always a lively jump to Bryan’s score when needed.

Maybe the best reason to be wowed by Theatre Charlotte’s Memphis is how deep the excellence goes in this cast. After AJ White literally glows in a lemon yellow outfit as Wailin’ Joe on the first R&B track that Huey spins, there are two marvelous rebirths among the black folk that Huey’s musical mission reaches. First there’s Traven Harrington as Bobby, the radio station janitor, who will pile one shocker upon another before he’s done. Then there’s Clayton Stephenson, whose transformation as Gator may leave you weeping as Act 1 climaxes.

It ain’t perfect, but Mitchell has directed one of the best efforts I’ve ever seen on Queens Road in 30+ years of covering Theatre Charlotte. Chances are better than even that Memphis will live in you if you’re in the house when this company comes out for their final bows.

Enjoying Is Easier Than Understanding “The Pride”

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Review:  The Pride

By Perry Tannenbaum

Back in the late 1950s, Philip has decided that his deep feelings for Oliver are a repugnant disease rather than a natural attraction. But in Alexi Kaye Campbell’s The Pride, there is another Philip, 50 years later in 2008, who is also crazy about Oliver. Since there are no longer any prohibitions or taboos against homosexuality, Philip now wishes to have a strong and exclusive relationship with Oliver, who still loves him.

Yet as we quickly see in the Queen City Theatre Company production, now at Spirit Square through Saturday, there is still a catch. Exclusivity is under siege. When we first encounter the modern-day Oliver, Philip will walk in on him moments after a casual hookup has gone sour with a sex worker who has dressed up in a Nazi uniform for their sadistic tryst. Finding his wayward partner in this compromising state hardens Philip’s resolve to move out of the apartment they’re sharing, so he leaves.

More radical measures are necessary in 1958. Philip goes to a Doctor who will crush the so-called perversion that lurks inside. Obviously, there is something sinister about this Doctor, augmented by Emily Eudy’s lighting design. We might find a more pointed message embedded in Campbell’s curious 1958-2008 juxtapositions: he means us to see that the sexual adjustment Doctor is a kind of Nazi – because he and the sex worker both reinforce Philip’s feeling that his relationship with Oliver is wrong, and because they are both played by the same actor.

And there you have The Pride in a nutshell, a colorfully told pair of stories, liberally sprinkled with humor, which yields up its messages obliquely through its strange juxtapositions. Because the same actors do both Philips and both Olivers, we likely assume they’re the same souls in two different eras. If they stand before us more than speculatively, reincarnated in our current millennium, then those 1958 blokes need to hurry up and die in order to reach their late 20s or early 30s just 50 years later.

Trouble is, for anybody who wishes to “get” The Pride, Campbell is as content to leave the question of what we’re seeing as open as the question of what our takeaway should be. Enjoying the show comes more easily, for director Glenn T. Griffin has brilliantly cast his men. Steven Buchanan brings an urbane twinkle to the free-spirited Olivers, yet there is a predatory edge to his persistent pursuit. We see something more intense than resistance from Cory Collins as the two Philips in reaction to the Olivers, closer to absolute loathing – some of it directed toward himself.

So this tightly-wound, comparatively starchy guy will snap unexpectedly, and Collins, Buchanan, and Griffin conspire to stage that moment superbly. What often cools the momentum established by Buchanan and Collins are the scenes with the two Sylvias. In 1958, she’s Philip’s wife, instrumental in bringing her husband close to Oliver, a children’s book author that she’s illustrating for; and in 2008, she’s an actress and Oliver’s close confidante.

Wearing two different Barbi Van Schaick wigs that help us to quickly differentiate between the two eras, Katie Addison is credible enough as the two Sylvias – but she’s only fitfully intelligible. Sifting through Addison’s British accent is so difficult that I could fully lose my grasp on what was happening when she was onstage.

No such problems when Michael Harris came along for his two bizarre roles. When Harris’s arms and wrists go limp as he switches from Nazi role-playing to the sex worker’s everyday personality, it’s an absolute hoot, amplified by Beth Killion’s radically contrasting costume designs. On the other hand, Harris was slightly terrifying as The Doctor, hardly better than Nazis in his steely contempt for gays.

This is how it was in most of the ostensibly civilized world 50+ years ago, and this is what we could be going back to in the era of HB2.

Corey Mitchell Fine-tunes a Kook’s Southern Drawl

In Corey Mitchell’s production of 'Memphis the Musical,' Joe McCourt (right) plays Huey Calhoun, and Dani Burke Huey’s love interest Felicia Farrell.

Preview: Memphis The Musical

By Perry Tannenbaum

You can see Huey Calhoun as a scavenger, a conman, and an illiterate hick. Or you can see him as a rock ‘n’ roll visionary, a natural salesman, and a quirky promotional genius. However you see Huey, in Memphis the Musical at Theatre Charlotte starting this Friday, you will not find him dull. Based loosely on the career of Memphis radio jock Dewey Phillips, the story by Joe DiPetro may remind you of Hairspray, another musical that took us back to the early days of rock and tensions between the races.

Taking us to the innards of radio as well as TV, Memphis gets us closer to the true heart of rock. South of the Mason-Dixon line, there’s more bigotry from whites — and more wariness from blacks — when Huey not only promotes African American music on the middle of the AM dial, but also romances a black singer.

Without the comical cross-dressing, cartoonish bigots, and outrageous promotional stunts incorporated into Hairspray, the terrain of Memphis will be more difficult to navigate. So it’s exciting to learn that Tony Award winner Corey Mitchell will be directing, Joe McCourt will be starring as Huey, and Dani Burke will be sparking Huey’s passions as femme fatale Felicia Farrell.

Burke has been sensational in her two previous mainstage appearances at the Queens Road barn, first with her lead vocal on “Aquarius” in the 2014 production of Hair and again last year singing “Disco Inferno” in Saturday Night Fever. Since his Theatre Charlotte debut as the star of Godspell in 2008, McCourt has shown us astonishing range, from Roger Davis of Rent to the porn-addicted Trekkie Monster of Avenue Q to low-self-esteem finalist Leaf Coneybear in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

After singing telegrams on land and entertaining on cruise ships at sea, Mitchell came to Charlotte in 2001 by way of Wilmington — and its Opera House Theatre Company — to make his sensational local debut as Hysterium in the Theatre Charlotte production of A Funny Thing Happened to Me on the Way to the Forum. Since then, Mitchell has directed or acted in productions at Theatre Charlotte, Davidson Community Players, CPCC, and Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte.

What makes Mitchell such a key part of the Charlotte scene is his teaching and directing in the theatre program at Northwest School of the Arts. And don’t think his special Tony Award for Theatre Education was a bolt out of the blue. Aside from a CL Theatre Award, Mitchell has snagged honors from the Metrolina Theatre Association, the North Carolina Theatre Conference, the Educational Theatre Association, the International Thespian Festival, and National Youth Theatre. Productions directed by Mitchell have garnered at least a dozen Blumey Awards — with seven more nominations still in play for the 2017 ceremonies at Belk Theater on May 21.

You could say he’s connected in the community. It would have been hard for anybody who has performed extensively in Charlotte to catch Mitchell off-guard at auditions when he cast Memphis. He has worked with Burke before in Davidson and is quite familiar McCourt’s work. Tyler Smith, who plays Felicia’s protective brother Delray, is coming off a powerful performance as Coalhouse Walker, fueling CP’s production of Ragtime.

“The three of them bring so much presence and power to the stage,” Mitchell says. “Joe’s work is incredible. The biggest challenge has been just the herculean task Joe has to take on each evening. Huey is in every single scene in this show.”

Surprisingly, Mitchell doesn’t take the view that Memphis is about race, mixed couples, or even the title city.

“I decided to treat the relationship between Huey and Felicia on the micro level of how this man loves this woman,” Mitchell explains. “While Huey has an absolute obsession with black music, he certainly doesn’t fetishize black women in general. He is specifically in love with this woman — and despite her best efforts not to be, Felicia is love with this man. She is, however, a realist.”

Huey was an eccentric goofball when Chad Kimball played him in the original Broadway production, slinking back and forth across the stage, seemingly unable to take two consecutive steps in the same direction. He wasn’t Gomer Pyle, but Huey was very Southern, perhaps in a way that New Yorkers could look down on from afar.

“Trying to portray his unique persona was challenging,” McCourt admits. “We decided to tame the over-exaggerated drawl of Chad Kimball’s original Broadway take so that he doesn’t appear too cartoonish but still hold on to his kooky side. It has been hard finding a balance between too much and not enough [drawl] while trying hard not to insult the Southern accent itself!”

Dani Burke as Felicia Farrell and Joe McCourt as Huey Calhoun.

A new worry materializes when you make the illiterate Huey smarter and more cunning in Charlotte than he was on Broadway. Hopefully, the micro lens that Mitchell wants to apply to Huey and Felicia is helping McCourt to skirt the impression that he is slyly exploiting her commercial potential.

“Huey is a born salesman and smart for being uneducated,” says McCourt. “I don’t see him as a con artist nor cunning. He’s naive to a fault, a free spirit that knows what he wants. Music moved him; so it was no surprise that he fell for Felicia, who not only inspired him musically but also opened his heart to new possibilities. He simply lacked the emotional intelligence and social skills to handle those feelings. I’m walking a fine line trying to make sure he doesn’t come across the wrong way.”

And Mitchell, for all his accolades, is giving McCourt free rein. They’re definitely on the same page when it comes to portraying Southerners.

“I want to strike a balance with him — and the rest of the cast, for that matter — to be Southern without being a caricature,” Mitchell says. “Too often, I see Southern people portrayed onstage as rubes. Joe is an impeccable actor and a professional in the best sense of the word. I try to give him room to play and explore and then nuance in those areas that seem to need a little tweaking.”

Ultimately, the issue that drives a wedge between Huey and Felicia isn’t race or prejudice. It’s an issue that our most gifted theatre artists constantly wrestle with: should I build on what I’ve done here in my hometown, or should I set out for a bigger market in the hopes of greater opportunities and nationwide renown? McCourt senses that Memphis brings Huey a feeling of comfort and security, that he also fears the unknown.

He can identify with the dilemma.

“For me personally,” he says, “I took that leap and moved from a small town south of Buffalo and headed to NYC many years ago for the possibility of making it ‘big.’ Although young and bold, looking back, I was also afraid of failure, which held me back from pursuing many things there. I’m at a different stage in my life now. So building upon what I’ve done here in Charlotte has been very fulfilling. A realtor by day, a performer by night, and a father and husband in between!”

Mitchell is far from cooped-up in Charlotte since his Tony triumph. He has delivered keynote addresses at theatre conferences across the Southeast and traveled to Dubai as a Varkey Teacher Ambassador. Purple Dreams, a documentary about Mitchell’s 2013 production of The Color Purple at Northwest, was released on April 7 to considerable publicity and acclaim.

So it’s likely we’ll be seeing more from both Mitchell and McCourt in Charlotte for years to come. Their best work may still lie ahead.

With a Gifted Cabaret Cast, Gardner Triumphs in His Davidson College Farewell

Review: Cabaret

By Perry Tannenbaum

Few musicals are more fascinating, malleable, or ominous than John Kander and Fred Ebb’s tuneful Cabaret with its masterful book by Joe Masteroff, currently being produced by Davidson College Theatre Department. Lingering despair and defeat, holdovers from World War I, hover over Berlin and Germany as we make our first visit to the decadent Kit Kat Klub. In the opening “Wilkommen,” the emcee assures us that this is a place of forgetting. But the more we get to know Berlin, largely through the eyes of aspiring American novelist Clifford Bradshaw, we realize that what’s forgotten – escaped and avoided, really – are the present and the future, as the teetering Weimar Republic becomes forgotten in the wave of insanity and horror that will be Nazi Germany. “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” sing the waiters and Nazi youth, not really grasping what Adolph Hitler is or the havoc he will wreak.

Yet of course, the followers of the Hitler cult are the least sympathetic of the victims here, though the fate of these dupes is suddenly more relevant after America’s disastrous 2016 election. So many of the characters drawn from the 1939 Berlin Stories of Christopher Isherwood – and altered or added to by Masteroff – charm us, tug at our sympathies, or gradually fuel our disgust and outrage. And so many are fated to be pitiful victims. Nearly all of those we care about most enjoy the intensifying benefits of Kander and Ebb’s chameleonic songwriting. In his valedictory effort after 43 distinguished years in the Davidson College Theatre Department, director Joe Gardner had plenty to sift through. Not only are Cliff, the Emcee, and Kit Kat chanteuse Sally Bowles all engaging creations, they’ve all undergone significant changes since the original 1966 Broadway premiere. Most notably, there was the all-about-Sally film version in 1972, which added two showstoppers for Liza Minnelli, “Mein Herr” and “Maybe This Time.” Alterations in the 1998 and 2014 Broadway revivals starring Alan Cumming as the Emcee were nearly as extensive. Now the Emcee, as a homosexual, emerged fully as a victim of the oncoming regime at the end of the show. Along the way, one of the backups for the Emcee’s risqué “Two Ladies” was changed from a Kit Kat Girl to Bobby, and Cliff became more overtly bisexual. As for Sally, the blithe Londoner became more neurotic, something of a cokehead.

Gardner’s mix-and-match version of Cabaret seems to be mostly retro, stripping the Minnelli showstoppers from the songlist and reverting to two female backups on “Two Ladies.” Cliff gave me the impression that he wished to keep his past homoerotic liaisons in Paris behind him, resisting his opportunities to cheat on Sally after she moved in with him. Where Gardner surprised me most, however, was on the emphasis this production put on the story outside the Kit Kat Klub at Fräulein Schneider’s boarding home. The doomed relationship between the warm and welcoming Schneider and her shy admirer, Jewish fruit seller Herr Schultz, figured to be an inevitable weak spot for a college production. But Theo Ebarb managed to look remarkably middle-aged for a college junior as Schultz, not at all ethnically inappropriate, and junior Hannah Thigpen, though not as convincingly transformed by wig and makeup designer Clara Abernathy, was the best actress on the Duke Family Performance Hall stage on opening night.

Schneider doesn’t have the best songs for her solos, but Abernathy made a very dignified case for “What Would You Do” late in Act II when she called off her engagement to Schultz, and she nearly resuscitated the moribund “So What?” when we first met her. In between, her duets with Ebarb were both charming, a blushing humor gently squeezed from the “Pineapple Song” and a folksy German flavor infused into the waltzing “Married.” Suddenly, I could realize that Schneider was every bit as important as Sally in the original 1966 concept until we reached the title song, the most decisive closure in the story. That outcome was far from inevitable when I first beheld sophomore Ashley Behnke and her bare-shouldered pizzazz in Sally’s “Don’t Tell Mama.” A little of that aura wore off when she and her mink coat invaded Cliff’s apartment and Sally became the seductive femme fatale. There were breaks in concentration in Sally’s serene “Perfectly Marvelous” duet with Cliff, and I didn’t always hear Behnke’s words clearly, spoken or sung. Vocally, Behnke was stronger and more consistent in the climactic “Cabaret,” but just a little bit lost: I didn’t sense a firm grasp of who Sally was behind that song – or a clear take on the dramatic decisions she had just made.

Both of the male leads astonished me. With an amazingly smooth and polished voice, only slightly strained at the top of his range, junior Spencer Ballantyne was delightfully befuddled and principled as Cliff, making a perfectly marvelous impression in his only solo, “Don’t Go.” But the show was dominated in numerous ways by senior Robert Kopf as the Emcee, nearly flawless in his cynicism, his swagger, and his corruption. More than anyone else, the Emcee personifies the “end of the world” about which Cliff will eventually write. But in this production, Kopf had other assignments. From the time the show began, it was primarily Kopf who bridged the gap between the audience and the Duke stage, frequently walking across the ramps that crossed the orchestra pit toward us and inviting intimacy in a hall that normally feels remote from the stage action.

There are also two stairways in Anita J. Tripathi’s set design, one winding up to the occasional perch for a couple of musicians and the other leading straight up to an overpass with a guardrail. On or behind these steps, Kopf will often lurk sardonically as action outside the Klub unfolds – or he might appear even more ominously prowling across the overpass, one of lighting designer Greg Thorn’s spotlights reserved especially for him. Vocally, Kopf is most naughty when he sings “Two Ladies,” most roguish when he sings “Wilkommen,” and most devastating when he delivers the anti-Semitic freight of “If You Could See Her.” Yet Kopf’s stage presence is so powerful that his most chilling moments might have come when he didn’t say or sing a word, dropping the fateful brick into Schultz’s shop or making his final exit.

Technical polish was never a worry. Except for a bump here or a ring there, the sound system at the Duke was completely tamed, and while the orchestra could have been reined in at times to let lyrics through, Jacque Culpepper’s musical direction was outstanding. Tempos for the singers and musicians were never compromised. Once Gardner and his cast had jumped the hurdle of making the oldsters and their swastika-crossed love believable, Cabaret could be quite compellingly viewed with untinted glasses. With all the Hitler Youth undertones already in the script, the collegians I saw in Davidson often became an asset I’d never anticipated. Maybe senior Dakota Morlan needed more mileage on her for the whorish Fräulein Kost, or maybe not; and maybe the urbane Ernst Ludwig was more chilling when he revealed his Nazi armband because sophomore Jacob Haythorn was playing him. In some ways, the horror was enlarged.

Two Takes on Gay Pride, 50 Years Apart

Preview: The Pride

By Perry Tannenbaum

Whether it’s Moises Kaufman’s Gross Indecency, chronicling the downfall of Oscar Wilde, or Martin Sherman’s Bent, depicting gays imprisoned by Nazi Germany at the Dachau death camp, compelling dramas written during the past 25 years have repeatedly reminded us how far gay rights have progressed. Yet progress can be precarious. Within the last year, we’ve seen the passage of HB2 locally and the imposition of Stalag Trump nationally: relapses and backlashes are still very possible.
Besides the occasional wave of reactionary politics and demagoguery, we must acknowledge that there’s more to quality of life — gay or straight, First World or Third — than laws and rights. That’s a key reason why Alexi Kaye Campbell’s Olivier Award-winning drama, The Pride, promises to be so fascinating in its Charlotte premiere this week at Spirit Square.

Campbell compares 1958 with 2008 by placing the same three people in both eras — not 50 years older in the new millennium but, by some freak of reincarnation or misaligned parallel universes, the exact same people of the exact same ages. Of course, their identical essences are shaped by their upbringings and the times they’re living in. So outwardly, vocationally and temperamentally, we will see that the Oliver, Philip and Sylvia of 1958 are different from those we’re reacquainted with in 2008.

Costume changes and music cues will keep us from falling off the merry-go-round as we circle back and forth between the two eras.

“With the first shift to 2008,” says Queen City Theatre Company artistic director Glenn Griffin, “it might be a little jarring for the audience to fully understand that we have shifted to a different time plane, but after the first few minutes it becomes completely understandable. How the characters dress in 1958 and again in 2008 is also incredibly different. I have worked extremely hard with the cast on body language of both decades, and how society norms would influence how they would do everyday actions from sitting, talking, acting, etc.”

Philip is a real estate agent in 1958, married to Sylvia, an illustrator who brings Oliver into the picture when they collaborate on a children’s book he has written. To Philip, Oliver’s advances are a mortal threat: yielding to them risks everything. Jump to 2008 and Philip is a photographer who has already committed himself to Oliver, who is now a journalist. Entering such relationships is no longer an existential threat — but that is the problem.

Enough of a problem to scrutinize the presumed benefits of social progress. “In 50 years,” Griffin notes, “so much has changed, but is it all for the better?” Maybe not.

“In 1958, it was illegal to be gay, which put a huge barrier up when it came to relationships in general,” he continues. “In 2008, it is not illegal, but technology and sexual freedom have also put a large barrier up when it comes to close relationships. With different phone apps, it is so easy to find a sexual partner 50 feet away from you, hook up with them, have sex, and then they will leave. There is so much freedom now, which is great, but it’s getting in the way of human connections, the real type, the one that lasts.”

Buchanan and Collins.

Bringing anguish to poor Philip at 50-year intervals, Oliver is likely the most fascinating creation in Campbell’s drama. After a hiatus of just over eight years, Steve Buchanan is returning to Queen City Theatre Company — and Duke Energy Theater — to slip into Oliver’s skin (or skins). In the space of a couple of months before leaving for New York in 2009, Buchanan ranged from Jason at Queen City, the hunky quarry of Valmont’s seductive powers in Dangerous (an all-male update of Les Liaisons Dangereuses), to Riff, the leader of the Jets in Davidson Community Players’ West Side Story.

Buchanan finds elements of both those diverse roles as he prepares for The Pride: the self-assured Riff inside 1958 Oliver and the wild, free attitude of Jason in the 2008 edition. Though he’s not at all uncomfortable with his sexuality and questioning of the convention of monogamy, Buchanan admits that being two different people in the same skin, interacting with the same pair of people 50 years apart, was difficult at first.

It had to be. Imagine walking into a bare rehearsal space and trying to create slightly different selves, from scene to scene, in two different stories — even though you’re performing with the same people in the same clothes with the same fictitious names in both stories.

“As I progressed thru the script and exploring with Glenn in various ways, I came to terms with exactly who I want Oliver to be,” Buchanan says. “It’s definitely been a struggle at times to nail down certain reactions to very similar circumstances. Glenn has been an excellent guide. We have explored the two worlds by watching documentaries, photos — even 1958 gay pornography — and he shared his own research and knowledge making this show come to life for us.”

Griffin didn’t see either the original 2009 London version of The Pride or the 2010 off-Broadway import directed by Joe Mantello for the Manhattan Theatre Club, and as a director, he prefers it that way, trusting completely to his informed imagination. Getting 1958 right was Griffin’s primary challenge, but he also devoted time to 2008, and in directing the show, he had to give equal emphasis to both eras. Eventually, he decided the best way for his actors to look at themselves and their stories was through the lens of reincarnation.

“How often have these same three characters been meeting, interacting, falling in and out of love until they can finally get it right?” Griffin asks. “All three want the same thing in both decades. Sylvia wants to be a wife and mother, be loved, but have a satisfying career in the arts. Oliver wants to find love with Philip, but can’t get beyond anonymous sex. Philip, on the other hand, wants to love Oliver, but can’t get past what society is telling him about this same-sex relationship.”

Parallels and differences, parallels and differences. They swirl around in this play, and they swirl around us. Beyond Trump and HB2, which might seem to change the conversation, Griffin notices that in Chechnya today, they’re entrapping gays in very much the same way they did in the U.K. after WW2.

Amid such uncomfortable echoes, the contemplation of transmigrating souls — and what they want — may be soothing. Buchanan is striving to convey sweet coherence in the face of historical and societal flux.

“There is a stark difference in 1958 and 2008 Oliver as it pertains to his social lives,” Buchanan says of the journey. “His ride feels very much like a wave. Ups and downs, calm to belligerent. Playing Oliver is one of the greatest challenges I’ve undertaken and I’m very proud of my work. I really hope you can see Oliver as a soul longing for love and acceptance. As a soul who is vulnerable and just the right kind of crazy.”

Art and Business Clash in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”

Review: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

By Perry Tannenbaum

Few playwrights, black or white, would write a line so richly laden with poignancy as “Somewhere the moon has fallen through a window and broken into thirty pieces of silver” only to bury it in the silent text of his prologue. Just to ensure that such a line would be spoken out loud, Tennessee Williams would have temporarily deputized one of his characters as his mouthpiece so that this line would have a life in our ears.

Yet somehow, the “Somewhere” line dropped into the intro of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom perfectly describes the setting of August Wilson’s 1984 drama. Ma Rainey, her entourage, and her jazz quartet gather at a one o’clock rendezvous with Ma’s nervous manager, Irwin, and record studio boss Sturdyvant. While Irwin is careful not to rouse Ma’s mighty temperament and ego, Sturdyvant’s regard for Ma extends no further than to the pieces of silver her recordings can stream into his coffers.

So I can think of a personal as well as an artistic reason why Wilson elected to inter his telling line. A man who conceives of a ten-play series of plays that will chronicle the history of his people through every decade of the 20th century probably wouldn’t preserve, shepherd, and showcase a 30-pieces line like that with the same urgent care that we might. Or frankly, surveying the crew he assembles for this 1927 studio session, Wilson could have soberly concluded that none of these folk, black or white, had the discernment or eloquence to deliver such a lyrical line.

What comes out of Ma’s mouth is almost always salty, bitter, and infused with rage, while her nephew Sylvester, a stutterer, struggles to say anything at all – even as Ma, laying on more pressure, insists that he deliver the spoken intro to her “Black Bottom” recording. These are the two people who present the most daunting challenges for the whites in the recording studio.

But as the split layout of the Pease Auditorium stage faithfully discloses in Jennifer O‘Kelly’s shambling set design, this CPCC Theatre production of Ma Rainey is very much an upstairs-downstairs story. We spend as much time downstairs in the musicians’ rehearsal room – Cutler on trombone, Toledo on piano, Slow Drag on bass, and Levee on trumpet – and the latter half of the tragic denouement unfolds there.

Needless to say, there is as much tension downstairs between the musicians as there is between Ma, the truculent Sturdyvant, and the ever-appeasing Irvin. Cutler seems to run the show downstairs from a business standpoint, accountable for getting the band to show up on time, distributing the pay, and counting out the downbeats. Levee is the young buck with the big ideas, confident that his arrangements of Ma’s tunes will be preferred to her own, and planning to sign on independently with Sturdyvant so he can record his own songs with his own band.

Although the inevitability of a clash between Ma and Levee isn’t exactly trumpeted when we first meet them, it is deep-set into the structure of the script. Both Ma and Levee arrive significantly later to the gig than Sturdyvant or Cutler expect – though Ma’s arrival is later, louder, and more tumultuous. So the outcome of these prima donnas’ collision is also fairly predictable.

Since at least 1998, Corlis Hayes has been involved in several August Wilson plays around town, including The Piano Lesson, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, and Fences as both a player and a director. Although line problems cropped up occasionally in the rehearsal room, lengthening the production to a running time of nearly 2:20 plus intermission, Hayes directs with a sure feel for Ma Rainey’s moody, spasmodic pacing, and Tony Wright’s fight choreography aptly points up the climaxes.

Jonavan Adams first teamed up with Hayes in 2008, when I felt that The Piano Lesson should have been more forte. As Levee, there are welcome times when Adams goes fortissimo on us, particularly in his mighty monologues and crises. Yet there are still a few moments when we’re getting to know Levee that Hayes should whisking Adams downstage so that we can hear him better and other moments that Adams zips through unclearly. More forgivable toward the end are the moments when Levee is desperately talking to himself.

Clearly, this is a man who is haunted by his childhood and partially imprisoned by it – very emblematic of his people.

Pitted against Adams as Ma is Shar Marlin, who made her first splash on the local scene six years ago as the matriarch in George C. Wolfe’s “Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play” and hasn’t looked back. With both Bessie Smith and Zora Neale Hurston’s Blues Speak Woman in her rearview mirror, Marlin takes on another outsized personality with perfect aplomb. Called upon to sing Rainey’s signature blues, Marlin delivers ornery volume laced with gutsy growls. And believe me, the force of her first entrance is worth waiting for.

With trombonist Tyrone Jefferson tackling the roles of Cutler and this production’s musical director, the jazz behind Rainey – and behind the scenes downstairs – has a unique authenticity. When Cutler gives his oft-repeated “One… Two…You know what to do” cue, three musicians respond from somewhere offstage while he himself delivers the trombone fills. Jefferson, the arranger and musical director behind numerous recent productions, proves to be quite capable as an actor.

Gagan Hunter turns pianist Toledo into a slightly starchy back-porch philosopher, which seems about right, and soft-spoken Willie Stratford – who really needs to be brought downstage – brings an abundance of cool to Slow Drag. In real life, Ma Rainey was indeed the Mother of the Blues, and there was also a notable New Orleans bassist named Slow Drag Pavageau who got his nickname from his dancing prowess.

The white folk are both exploiters, but it’s Tom Scott as Sturdyvant who is far and away the more cruel and noxious. His presence is so toxic that we can easily forget the looming clash between Ma and Levee. Scott always seems to be close to boiling over when he considers Ma’s sense of majesty and entitlement. Hank West as Irvin is the conciliator, but just when he verges on becoming sympathetic, a thin steely mean streak appears in a very nuanced portrayal.

No such subtlety beclouds Carol J. McKIenith’s wantonness as Dussie Mae, Ma’s companion. But there’s an interesting combination of meekness and determination, pride and shame, in Danius Jones’s portrayal of the stuttering Sylvester that makes him unexpectedly rewarding.

In another burst of unheard poetry, Wilson quotes blues great Blind Lemon Jefferson in his epigraph. Because “they tore the railroad down,” sings Jefferson, “the Sunshine Special can’t run.” Confronting this catastrophe, Jefferson plans to “build me a railroad of my own.” Ma and Levee have the same yearnings deep in their bones, to break away and blaze their own musical trails. But it’s still 1927, the traditional tracks are still sturdy, and their people don’t own them.

“Stupid F@#%ing Bird” Mashes Chekhov With Giddy Modernism

Review: Stupid F@#%ing Bird

By Perry Tannenbaum

If you’re looking for clear outspoken themes and messages onstage, there are better places to look than the aching comedies of Anton Chekhov. Among his contemporaries, Count Leo Tolstoy found the best works of Chekhov difficult to grasp yet full of insights into “the inner workings of the human soul.” Chekhov’s mix of clinical objectivity and soul-searching empathy would become touchstones of modern drama and modern acting technique.

So it’s no surprise that Aaron Posner’s adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull, irreverently retitled Stupid F@#%ing Bird, is so willfully modernistic. Conrad Arkadina, nee Konstantine Gavrolovich Trepleff in the original, doesn’t merely write the bad script we see performed early in Act 1. He’s also the author of this play that we’re watching and will pause to tell us about it from time to time. But that doesn’t mean his mom, film producer Emma Arkadina, or his Uncle Eugene – a dying doctor – won’t also address us and lay bare their ostensibly fictional souls.

We can almost go around the complete cast in this Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte production simply by cataloguing their unrequited loves. Mash, who is madly in love with Conrad, is desperately beloved by Dev. But Conrad burns for the beautiful Nina, who offers body and soul to the famous writer Trigorin, who is in a committed relationship with Emma – until he isn’t. Passion for other people or for art is the essence of futility among this crowd, often leading to self-loathing. Even Trigorin, slightly weary with his own fame, has restless longings that go unfulfilled.

If you already know The Seagull well, the idea of Conrad being our author is more than slightly absurd, for in the denouement, his spiraling depression begins with his ripping up all his manuscripts when he realizes he can never have Nina. Compounding the absurdity, Conrad frankly tells us of the catastrophe to come.

Assuming that you can find the Hadley Theater on the Queens University campus near Myers Park Traditional School, you’ll find that director Chip Decker – with his own fantastical set design and Hallie Gray’s lighting – has grasped the zany bittersweetness of this script remarkably well. The mixture of wholesomeness, naïveté, candor, and earnestness that Chester Shepherd brings to Conrad further ensures success. Somehow, in this blizzard of fiction and reality, where Conrad is both the playwright and his protagonist, Shepherd can come to his audience for advice and handle our spontaneous feedback.

He realizes that Nina, a rather bad actress who sustains a career, is not particularly worthy of his love. Hell, Mariana Bracciale as Nina is well aware of her shortcomings as an actress, with a slight Julia Louis-Dreyfus charm wrapped into her maddening flightiness. Scott A. Miller as Trigorin realizes Nina’s shallowness as well as anyone, his mind at odds with his loins in his struggle to decide what to do about her, yet he also grasps that his rascality is as much of his charm as his talent.

Emma suffers in her relationship with Trigorin and in her lack of aptitude for parenting Conrad, yet Becca Worthington is most disarming in her acknowledgement to us that she’s the meanie in this story, unlikely to redeem herself. Every one else lurks on the periphery, adding to the impression that our main characters are living in a teeming world. I was fairly smitten with the comedy of Carmen A. Lawrence as Mash, for she mopes so hopelessly – and needlessly, since the loving, patient, and wise Dev is crazy about her.

Peripheral or not, Jeremy DeCarlos as Dev combines with Lawrence to give their scenes a Midsummer Night’s Dream giddiness, for neither of them is among our gifted characters. Yet DeCarlos, more goofball here than I’ve ever seen him before, seems to have the knowledge that his waiting game – and his faith that Mash will come to her senses – will be rewarded. It’s a part of his calm wisdom, which occasionally reminds Conrad (and us) what an unbalanced, disturbingly normal hysteric he is.

A New “Raisin” Is Set to Explode

Review: Raisin in the Sun

By Perry Tannenbaum

At a distance of 58 years, people who read Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and its familiar epigraph, “A Dream Deferred,” may get the idea that the playwright was exhuming a poem written by Langston Hughes back in his heyday during the Harlem Renaissance. Truth is, Hughes published this poem as part of his Montage of a Dream Deferred in 1951, a quarter of a century after his first book of poetry appeared.

When Hansberry seized upon it, “A Dream Deferred” could hardly have been anthologized more than a couple of times, let alone become an acknowledged part of America’s literary heritage. Hansberry’s script and the performances by Claudia McNeil and Sidney Poitier as Lena and Walter Lee Younger – in both the 1959 Broadway production and the 1961 Hollywood adaptation – were almost surely the bridge that carried Hughes’s poem across that gulf.

And was Raisin perhaps the key link between Langston’s “Dream” poem and a certain speech by the Rev. Martin Luther King?

The questions of how prescient or pivotal the works of Hughes and Hansberry were in anticipating or sparking the Civil Rights advances that followed are temptingly open to conjecture. What the current Theatre Charlotte production shows us to be indisputable is Hansberry’s intention to show us all of the possible answers Hughes offers to his poem’s opening question, “What happens to a dream deferred?” She clearly opts for the idea that the right answer to Hughes’s multiple choices is all of the above.

Yes, we see all that is festering and rotting within the Younger family in Walter Lee’s deteriorating relationships with his mom Lena and his wife Ruth. But thanks to Natasha T. Wall as Lena and Jermaine Gamble as Walter Lee, we see the most compelling and decisive turns that deferred dreams take. It’s Lena who is most sensitive when the dreams of her family, including her own, begin to dry up like that raisin, and it’s Walter Lee who personifies the explosions that can occur after a lifetime of being thwarted and disrespected.

In her Theatre Charlotte debut, director Kim Parati wisely scales down these two titans to less mythic, more human dimensions. With Wall, there’s also a subtle update: this matriarch isn’t crossing the stage to slap her daughter Beneatha when the spirited collegian implies that God no longer resides in the Younger household. But this Lena does take firm hold of her daughter and give her a firm shaking.

So okay, maybe Parati has discreetly tossed the sagging “like a heavy load” aspect of deferred dreams off the shoulders of the elder Youngers. The less-burdened Gamble becomes a less monumentally whiney Walter Lee than we usually see, more of a victim and less of a screw-up. I noted with surprise that this Walter Lee actually seems to have given some thought to his liquor store scheme. I find more in Gamble’s failure that makes me think that Walter Lee feels like he let his father down as much as his mother.

Of course, we never see dad, though set designer Tim Parati hangs a strategic photograph near the Younger front door that must be him. It’s the $10,000 from his life insurance that fuels the newborn hopes and storm clouds that besiege the Youngers in their undersized apartment, where Walter Lee’s son Travis conspicuously sleeps on the couch. If that merely seems cute, then there’s also the spectacle of the family racing out the front door to snare the bathroom that they share with their neighbors.

A real newborn threatens to make the living situation worse as the family waits for the big insurance check to come in the mail – Ruth is pregnant with a second child that she dreads telling Walter Lee about. There’s a dark conspiratorial tone to the way Hadassah McGill as Ruth talks about the prospect of abortion, reminding us of the prehistoric life-of-the-mother era before Roe v. Wade.

Now I can’t defend Hansberry from the charge that she neglects the “stink like rotten meat” line in Hughes’s poem. Yet Parati seems very keen on giving new emphasis to the most cryptic outcome of deferred dreams – if “crust and sugar over Like a syrupy sweet” is the bluesy, jazzy sublimation I think it is. When Beneatha puts her newfound African music on the phonograph and starts dancing in the African garb that her Nigerian beau Asagai has given her, the temperature is already pretty warm because costume designer Tiffany Eck has done her work in sparkling fashion.

More importantly, Silka Salih El Bey as Beneatha knows exactly how to shake what needs to be shook. Layer on Walter Lee staggering into the apartment after a daylong bender he’s been on since Mama’s rejection and Ruth’s news, and you have a virtual orgy. For Walter quickly imagines himself as one of the warriors that Beneatha’s folk dance is welcoming back to the village, joining his sister in her primitive dance – before exiting to puke. The joy and the warrior spirit merged here like I’d never seen it before.

El Bey is a stunning actress for her age (a senior at Northwest School of the Arts), but she gets plenty to play off of. Not only is there rawness and seething fury from Gamble – as a sibling, a son, and a husband – there is also charming equipoise and bemused detachment from Gerard Hazelton as Asagai, most pointedly when he chides Beneatha for her assimilationist dress and her straightened hair.

There’s a visible age difference between Hazelton and El Bey, so her eagerness to make herself over to his liking still plays credibly. But the takeaway between this Beneatha and Walter Lee doesn’t sustain itself so easily. When El Bey is backing down against Mama about God still residing in their home, there’s too much vivacity in her to think she’s crushed. And when Walter Lee so memorably comes into his manhood in the final scene, his assumption that Beneatha must get his permission before following Asagai back to Nigeria no longer seems to have the weight it had when Poitier laid down the law in 1961.

Among the many satisfactions of this Theatre Charlotte Raisin is its clear vision. Parati and her cast know what still holds strong, what parts can stand stronger emphasis, and where to mute some attitudes that would soon lapse after Hansberry’s time. There’s even a character we’ve never seen before, neighbor lady Mrs. Johnson (an intrusive, snoopy, and hint-dropping Eryn Victoria), who drops by and quickly overstays her welcome.

The scene, discarded from the show before it originally opened on Broadway, doesn’t add to the power of Hansberry’s script. But it ensures that this Raisin is like none you’ve ever seen before

Broadway Enters a New Age

Reviews: Broadway – Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812; Hamilton; A Bronx Tale; In Transit; Cirque du Soleil’s Paramour; On Your Feet! Off-Broadway – The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, Spamilton, Cagney

By Perry Tannenbaum

Our new POTUS was already impacting Broadway before he took the oath of office, and it’s quite possible that he’ll have further impact during his coming years in the Oval Office, either as the Tweeter-in-Chief on new and controversial shows or as their subject. In the wake of President-elect Trump’s salvos against Hamilton and its cast, Broadway capped a record year with an all-time record week to close 2016, and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s megahit became the first Broadway show to top $4 million in ticket sales for a single week – not counting the scalpers’ profits.

If President Obama’s imprimatur, Michelle’s extravagant praise, and 11 Tony Awards hadn’t already made it abundantly clear, the Pence-Trump flap and its aftermath engraved it in stone: we can now talk of the Age of Hamilton on Broadway with the same casual assurance that we speak of the Age of Trump in Washington. But The Donald brings up a valid question. While the importance of Hamilton is beyond dispute, how good is it really?

My wife Sue and I went up to New York, as we do every year for my roundup of Broadway and off-Broadway shows, with the intent of bringing the answer back to Charlotte. Miracle of miracles, I actually landed press seats for Hamilton! Something really had changed since the days I’d been routinely spurned by producers of Book of Mormon, Wicked, and Lion King, blockbusters of bygone seasons.

Since I found a pair of new musicals that I enjoyed as much or more than Hamilton, I’m sure that my verdicts will be received back home as “alternative” truths. But now that the era of alternative facts has arrived, there’s no reason for me to be shy.

Broadway

Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 (♥♥♥3/4 out of four) – Hailed as the best American musical since Hamilton, Dave Malloy’s adaptation of Part 8 of War and Peace actually preceded Miranda’s work to the off-Broadway stage by over two years. The Great Comet was a hot ticket back in 2013 when it was restaged as a uniquely immersive experience in the meatpacking district of Manhattan’s Lower West Side – under a massive tent with a full Russian dinner included in the ticket price.

There’s no denying that Hamilton is the more American musical, but unless rap has been your lifelong backbeat, you’ll likely find The Great Comet to be far more musical. On the other hand, transferring the uniqueness of the dinner experience from a big top to Broadway must have been far more daunting for Malloy’s production team.

The response to the Imperial Theatre’s proscenium has been anything but timid. What normally serves as the stage has been built up to a soaring five-level supper club with three pairs of staircases and four onstage seating sections, outfitted with tables and banquettes. Two runways bring the action out into the audience, where additional tables and lamps are strewn, and two additional staircases bring the actors – and the musicians – up into the balcony. A whole galaxy of starburst chandeliers hovers above, the largest of which will transform into the Great Comet when its moment comes.

Two hundred seats have been reportedly removed from the Imperial’s orchestra section to make all this happen.

If you’ve read War and Peace from cover to cover, you come in knowing that Natasha Rostova and Pierre Bezukhov are destined for each other, but that’s over 700 pages after Pierre has his comet epiphany. So that part of Leo Tolstoy’s original story is only faintly budding where Malloy concludes. When we first meet Pierre, he’s imprisoned in a humiliating marriage to Hélène. Natasha is deeply in love – and betrothed to – the dashing Prince Andrey Bolkonsky. We only get fleeting glimpses of Andrey here, for he is away in the battlefield defending Mother Russia against Napoleon, while Natasha is partying in Moscow and bewitching all who see her youthful vibrancy.

112858 Josh Groban and Denée Benton in NATASHA, PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET OF 1812 - Photo by Chad Batka

Denée Benton is a dazzling comet in her own right as Natasha, and Josh Groban is sensationally woebegone as the clumsy, contemplative Pierre. But their intersecting fates are set in motion by the wicked machinations of the wanton Hélène and her charismatic, libertine brother, Prince Anatole Kuryagin. Being secretly married doesn’t inhibit Anatole’s roving, salacious eyes, and Hélène gets him to train them on Natasha. So these sibling schemers are enormously juicy roles – and unquestionable triumphs – for Amber Gray and Lucas Steele.

Hélène’s cynicism and Anatole’s conceited recklessness ultimately bring out in what we treasure most in Natasha and Pierre: her vulnerability and innocence and his moral outrage and empathy for his brother-in-law’s victim. So Gray and Steele actually enable Benton and Groban to raise their levels. Malloy’s music also allows the protagonists’ emotions to grow in depth as they’re dinged by experience. In style, Malloy’s music seems at times to be the kind of pastiche Andrew Lloyd Weber created, but the precision and wit of his lyrics are more in Stephen Sondheim’s realm.

A few times during this enchanting work, I found myself feeling that The Great Comet was far more like what contemporary opera should be than it usually is. Yet the piece is not at all old fashioned. At the outset in his “Prologue,” Malloy acknowledges that the number of characters and their triple Russian names can be daunting, so he fortifies the synopsis and “Family Tree” printed in the playbill with individual intros of all the major players. Malloy and director Rachel Chavkin also play loose with polite decorum as we move along. The handsome Anatole, for example, isn’t merely a villain. Steele’s strut and platinum-spiked hair mark him as a rockstar.

Hamilton (♥♥♥1/2) – Whether you swallowed the hype and waited for months, impulsively paid through the nose to scalpers, or simply won the daily $10 ticket lottery, you will likely be thrilled to find yourself at the Richard Rodgers Theatre awaiting the start of Miranda’s megahit. Fueled by the aura of Obama approval and the notoriety of the Pence controversy, enthusiasm for this show is like nothing I’ve ever witnessed at a Broadway theater. Likewise, the buzz: Sue and I overheard people who had returned three or four times to see various Burrs and Hamiltons. Knowing a friend who could compare one Burr’s performance to another’s was reason enough to brag.

Expectant electricity was so hot that when Jevon McFerrin made his first entrance as Alexander Hamilton, there was a thunderous response. Now McFerrin isn’t the actor who succeeded Miranda in the title role or the former alternate, Javier Muñoz, who is starring now – or even his alternate. No, McFerrin was actually the standby for Miranda’s replacement’s replacement and his current alternate (on Sundays), Michael Luwoye. Yet the ovation that greeted McFerrin would have satisfied Miranda himself, a response traditionally reserved for established stars and Tony winners.

Don’t get me wrong: McFerrin was wonderful, bringing a Jimmy Smits manliness to our nearly-forgotten Founding Father – not unlike what I read about Muñoz back when he was doing Sundays. The ladies’ man aspect of Hamilton sits well on McFerrin’s shoulders, and there’s a faint physical resemblance to the man on the $10 bill.

That could hold him back from taking over the lead full-time on Broadway or on tour. Hamilton is so resolutely against the grain in its hip-hop score and ethnically diverse casting that McFerrin may not shake things up enough for Miranda and director Thomas Kail. In this fresh retelling of the birth of our nation, Thomas Jefferson is portrayed as a dandified dilettante, John Adams is reduced to a non-entity, and Aaron Burr becomes a wily fence-straddler with no real principles of his own.

Of course, our hero stands out amid such preening jive turkeys. While David Korins’ set design takes some of the starch out of colonial times with its fluid warehouse-loft cool, Paul Tazewell’s costumes leave plenty of retro frilliness in place. Yet Hamilton’s concept of our treasury and monetary system prevails over Jefferson’s in a cabinet meeting that is nothing more than a two-minute poetry slam.

We hear so much about Miranda’s inclusion of the Schuyler Sisters in his script, but the women in Hamilton’s life don’t really impact upon his political fortunes until his extramarital affair with Maria Reynolds becomes a torrid scandal. So I valued Syndee Winters’ turn (subbing for Alysha Deslorieux) as the abused and seductive Maria more than her prior appearances as Peggy Schuyler – and certainly more than Lexi Lawson as the perpetually deluded Eliza, the Schuyler that Hamilton married, or Mandy Gonzalez’s stoical Angelica, the sister Hamilton truly preferred. For me, Hamilton doesn’t become exciting until the Schuylers stop dominating the stage.

What we don’t hear so much about is Miranda’s towering portrait of George Washington – as leader of the Continental Army and as our first President. Nicholas Christopher gives such a monumental portrait of Washington that he largely upstaged the other George in our nativity story, King George, ably played for laughs by Rory O’Malley with patrician foppery. The momentous stamp that Christopher puts on “History Has Its Eyes on You” certainly outshines O’Malley’s comic relief. After mucking around, Hamilton gets its drive and substantiality from Christopher’s solo.

After his light sprinkling of Gallic charm as the Marquis de Lafayette, it’s certainly fitting that Seth Stewart returns as Jefferson. There’s both humor and pizzazz in Stewart’s jazzy “What’d I Miss” to start Act 2, but Brandon Victor Dixon as Burr is more conniving than commanding. Dixon’s big showpiece, “The Room Where It Happens,” comes to a spectacular froth with Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography, but we should be getting a more vivid sense of Burr’s incipient menace.

At a certain point, the sheer energy of the cast meshes with the rising drama of Hamilton’s sex scandal and his fatal feud. Combine that with the white-hot electricity that crackles through the house and the experience of Hamilton is still unique and unforgettable.

A Bronx Tale (♥♥♥1/2) – Full disclosure: through kindergarten, I grew up in the Bronx, so the mean streets of New York’s grubbiest borough are a key reason why this Chazz Palminteri story resonates with me especially deeply. Miranda’s In the Heights had almost the same effect on me when I saw it, the 181st Street subway station and the distant George Washington Bridge taking me back to my daily high school commute into upper Manhattan. Palmentari’s story takes us further back, beginning in childhood and further deepening my response.

Young Calogero (which is Palminteri’s real given name) is the Bronx kid whose life changes in the blink of an eye. I mean that literally, since everybody blinks – and winces – in response to the first gunshot they ever hear, particularly when it kills someone ten feet away from you and the front steps of your tenement home. The killer is Sonny, equivalent to a precinct captain in the mobster world, feared throughout the neighborhood. Calogero’s father, Lorenzo, is a strong and principled city bus driver, but he knows full well who Sonny is and how to play by the neighborhood rules.

When the police come to investigate, Lorenzo wants to protect his son and keep him out of it, but Calogero boldly insists he is a witness. In a tense scene at the police station, Calogero walks in front of an imposing lineup of thugs, clearing them all until he reaches Sonny. It’s almost comical when tall, menacing Nick Cordero as Sonny and Hudson Loverro as the nine-year-old Calogero stand toe-to-toe looking each other in the eye. Calogero turns calmly to the cops and, instead of fingering Sonny, clears him. A bond is formed between Sonny and Calogero – one that his straight-arrow dad absolutely disapproves of.

Ah, but the fringe benefits of Sonny’s favor are irresistible, including instant respect and deference from schoolmates and stacks of easy money. When we flash forward to Calogero’s teen years, Bobby Conte Thornton eases his way from his stint as our narrator into the conflicted, sensitive tough guy our protagonist – nicknamed C by Sonny – has become. Both Lorenzo and Sonny dislike the gang of friends that C is prowling the neighborhood with. Otherwise, the two paths personified by Lorenzo and Sonny diverge, the father modeling a respectability that’s steady, traditional, but unsatisfying, Sonny offering an attractive pragmatism drenched in danger.

C’s path becomes even more perilous in Act 2 when he ranges outside his Italian Belmont Avenue turf and tries to date a black schoolmate from the Webster Avenue neighborhood, because she might be “one of the great ones.” With both Jane’s and C’s friends and families against the liaison, the situation quickly mushrooms into West Side Story explosiveness, since Jane’s brother also runs with a gang.

There’s definitely an all-star team behind the scenes, beginning with the co-directors: Robert De Niro, who directed the 1993 film adaptation of Palminteri’s 1989 one-man show, co-starring with the playwright/screenwriter (who snagged the plum role of Sonny); and four-time Tony Award winner Jerry Zaks, who piloted the 2007 Broadway premiere of the play. Helping Palminteri to flesh out his solo vehicle to Tony contender proportions are hall-of-fame songwriter Alan Menken and his frequent collaborator, lyricist Glenn Slater.

They’re savvy enough to give the best songs to Sonny, and Cordero cashes in on both of them. First he imparts his sage “Nicky Machiavelli” advice, comically backed by his colorful public enemy flunkeys. Then he tugs at our heartstrings with “One of the Great Ones,” passed along later in Act 2 to Thornton, who proves to us that this advice is in good hands. Richard H. Blake also gets to sing some valuable words to his son in the opening act as Lorenzo before his influence wanes. What deepens the counsel of both these father figures is the tinge of regret that colors their ballads. Ultimately, that threat of missing lost opportunities looms larger than the dangers of the mean streets.

In Transit (♥♥♥1/4) – The first a cappella musical to run on Broadway, this isn’t the follow-up you would expect from Kristen Anderson-Lopez after co-creating Disney’s Frozen and writing its songs. She and three other co-writers interweave four stories about New York subway commuters. All of the key characters are fast-paced Millennials: Judy, an aspiring actress; Trent, her gay agent; Nate, recently let go by a Wall Street firm; and his sister Ali, newly arrived in the city after a breakup.

My trepidations about a full evening of a cappella quickly evaporated when, after a pre-show advisory that all sounds would be produced by human voice, Chesney Snow added his to the mix as Boxman. From the opening “Deep Beneath the City,” we knew that Snow would supply ample percussion. Electronics are definitely not verboten, and he is a wizard behind his mic. Arrangements by Deke Sharon, of Pitch Perfect fame, further assured that instrumentation wasn’t sorely missed.

Filling in for Margo Seibert as Jane, Laurel Harris almost delivered star quality to her lead vocals bookending the show, but the bigger hurdle for me was Jane herself, wrestling with the dilemma of whether to chuck her job after nailing her big audition. Deserving actresses who suddenly catch a break aren’t exactly a novelty in Broadway musicals – and of course they go for it! And a gay guy struggling to come out to his Red State mom was groundbreaking back when these lovebirds were toddlers.

So while Justin Guarini as Trent and Steven Robinson as his understanding boyfriend were quite winsome, I found myself more drawn to the fumbling and bumbling of James Snyder as Nate. Hurrying to get to an interview on time, he inadvertently swipes his MetroCard wrong, emptying its remaining balance before clearing the turnstiles at his subway station. Moya Angela is pure New York as the lady in the cash booth who issues or replenishes MetroCards – no empathy whatsoever and certainly no mercy.

Angela moonlights as Trent’s impassive Texas mom and as Jane’s boss, singing perhaps the catchiest song in the show, “A Little Friendly Advice,” encouraging her to quit. So Angela’s scene-stealing abilities get repeated play. I warmed up to Jane largely because she opened herself up to the floundering Nate, and Erin Mackey became more than two dimensional for me as Ali when David Abeles as her old boyfriend Dave bumped into her. Underground, of course. For them – and for Nate and Jane – MetroCards are tickets to romance, rightfully replicated in the logo and the costuming of In Transit.

Cirque du Soleil Paramour (♥♥1/2) – Disney and Oprah have done it and, critics be damned, Marvel Comics has done it no less spectacularly. So after flirting with tent shows across the Hudson in the Meadowlands and tailoring shows for Madison Square Garden, it was inevitable that Montreal entertainment juggernaut Cirque du Soleil would make their own assault on Broadway, in hopes of a long-running megahit. Looking at what Marvel had done before their abortive leap and what they hadn’t done – music and Vegas – Cirque must have felt that producers of Spiderman had snuck ahead in line.

What I’d never seen Cirque do before, though I’d seen theatrical characters and singing in their shows, is either story or language. Interspersed with acrobatics and clowning in Cirque-taculars I’d seen were the most heartfelt gibberish ballads you’ll ever hear. Those gaps Cirque needed to leap over to land in the frontier of a genuine Broadway musical figured to be miniscule when Paramour opened for previews last April, but they’ve proven to be a chasm.

The show’s e-program lists Philippe Decouflé as director and conceiver of the show, but despite assurances that Paramour is “written with the utmost respect for the traditions of Broadway, by way of Busby Berkeley,” there’s no professional writer aboard a production team that includes four creatives and 11 designers. Small wonder that the three-character story is fairly well buried in its circus derring-do and Golden Age of Hollywood designs.

The most interesting speaking character we encounter is our narrator, AJ, a driven Hollywood producer/director who prowls LA in search of new talent. Jeremy Kushnier attains a sleazy carnival charisma as our mogul host after he finds inspiration at an outré nightclub where he is captivated by Indigo, a chanteuse who performs with her songwriting partner – surrounded by a flying flurry of acrobats.

Ruby Lewis as Indigo absorbs some of the exotic allure of her glittery surroundings, and Kushnier’s leering adoration pushes her up another notch as he promises to make her a movie star. Keeping the topics of love and marriage on the back burner, AJ brings the piano player, Joey, along for the ride so Indigo will believe that his motives are purely commercial and artistic. Trouble is, Lewis finds it impossible to shine when saddled with the music by Bob and Bill (forgettable lyrics by Andreas Carlsson), either at the club or in front of the camera.

Ryan Vona’s predicament as Joey actually becomes laughable as AJ keeps prying his partner away, making her a star while he languishes in obscurity. The presumption is that Indigo’s true love must be a songwriting genius that AJ is cruelly holding back, telling him over and over that nothing he has written is good enough. But it’s obvious that Cirque’s team couldn’t write a breakthrough song for Joey if they tried.

With the story sputtering into clichés on loan from 42nd Street and other showbiz sagas, we find ourselves longing for those famed Cirque acrobats to return and obliterate our principals all they wish. Swinging out from the stage and over the audience, identical twins Andrew and Kevin Atherton are the most compelling of the aerialists, their choreography combining sensuousness, skill, daring, and grace.

But they don’t exemplify best what Paramour could be if circus and story and music were truly integrated. That happens near the end when Indigo eludes AJ’s clutches and runs away with Joey – implausibly to the roof of a hotel. Suddenly a chase fantasia breaks out with the reprise of “Everything (The Lovers’ Theme).” Both the hunters and the hunted bounce prodigiously up and down in a dizzying blur. Sometimes they’re perching on the surrounding rooftops, and sometimes they’re walking on the walls in their upward trajectory before plunging down to unseen trampolines. Spectacular, exhilarating silliness.

The follow-up text message to the one that links to the e-program rightly asks, “Head still spinning?” before seeking a 1-10 rating. Mine was 6. (Through April 16)

On Your Feet! (♥♥1/4) – So intense was my aversion for Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons that it took my wife almost four seasons before she could coax me into seeing Jersey Boys. And guess what? While I didn’t totally warm up to the falsetto of Frankie’s Broadway clone or the music written for him by Bob Gaudio, I unexpectedly found myself very impressed with the show.

After assuming that it had closed months before, I stumbled upon this musical not knowing a tenth as much about the pop oeuvre of Emilio & Gloria Estefan & Miami Sound Machine. If Alexander Dinelaris, winner of the Oscar for his Birdman screenplay, could deliver an equally fine book for this jukebox musical, then it might soar far above Jersey Boys, which somehow navigated “Sherry” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” the Scylla and Charybdis of bubblegum music.

I was counting on the Estefans to have produced something else among their hits as infectious as their “Conga,” and I was expecting Dinelaris to bring out some moving conflict, compelling drama, or fascinating characteristics in telling their story. Neither hope was fulfilled. Christie Prades filled in for Ana Villafañe on the Friday night we attended, so we may have missed the maximum voltage of the Estefans’ sizzle when Ektor Rivera as Emilio beholds his usual leading lady.

With nothing but endless tepid love from the leads – only occasionally amped up by the Estefans’ spicy Latin orchestrations – the drama mostly comes from the strife in Gloria’s childhood household. Both her mom and her grandma perceive Emilio’s talent and appeal, but Doreen Montalvo (subbing for Andrea Burns) as Mom wants to protect her daughter from this Don Juan while the wiser Alma Cuervo as Consuelo appreciates Emilio’s potential and cojones. She rightly sees Emilio as sincere in his affections and helps Gloria in getting up the nerve to audition for him.

The eventual estrangement between Gloria and her mom is as heavy as things get, the only aspect of our heroine’s life that threatens not to work out. Flashy, sassy choreography from Sergio Trijillo seemed sufficient to work the throngs of true fans in the house to orgiastic enthusiasm despite the drama deficit, but the magic was lost upon non-believers like me who had seen genuine Broadway pizzazz before.

My post-show Spotify search for what I was missing about Estefan’s allure only cemented my indifference. But I did find one other Miami Sound Machine hit that I was familiar with: “Bad Boy.” It isn’t in the show, but if Dinelaris had worked that song dramatically into his storyline, he might have discovered the path to riveting my attention. Yes, Mom was wrong about Emilio and Gloria – too wrong. If their chemistry was more like that song – and less like Barbi and Ken – I wouldn’t have come away thinking that maybe the image-conscious Estefans simply tied Dinelaris’s hands.

Off-Broadway

The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart (♥♥♥1/2) – Since the opening of Sleep No More in 2011, the reclaimed McKittrick Hotel has established itself as a hip nightlife destination, with theatre and music as its main calling cards. Multiple events are staged every night in this spooky old building, and I’m not sure I’ve detected any previous European imports on the McKittrick’s weekly mailings. But this National Theater of Scotland production is certainly a winner, far outshining McKittrick’s staple Scottish Play fantasia.

There are whiffs of the supernatural in Prudencia, too, combined with a down-to-earth presentation style and a winsome mockery of academicians. David Grieg and Wils Wilson, both mainstays at Theatre of Scotland, conceived this cosmic yarn of a frumpy academic whose ideas about folkloric ballads don’t square with the notions of her stodgy colleagues at a scholarly symposium – in a wintry wilderness where Sir Walter Scott and his forbears may have set fictions.

Living in more modern times, Prudencia seeks solace at a karaoke bar near a Costco parking lot. But in a fierce blizzard, she loses the true path in a very old-fashioned way, finding shelter at a B&B that turns out to be the eternal house of Beelzebub. Satan is very welcoming, with a handsome library and a liberal lending policy, but he’s also very possessive. After the calendar flips to the year 3816, the next cue card has the simple mathematical sign for infinity.

All of this unfolds around us in a space that conjures up a Scottish pub, flanked by a whisky bar on one side and a staging area on the other, where cast members pick up their instruments and find their props. Of course, there’s plenty balladeering as the story unfolds, but the intimacy and friendliness of the atmosphere is enhanced by the actors mingling with the audience, standing on our tables, maybe sitting in our laps, picking on the bald guy, and giving us homework. We all get little sheafs of paper to shred into snowflakes for the great blizzard.

Inevitably, centuries and centuries hence, Prudencia will have her awakening, so the autumnal quality that Melody Grove bestows on her is a thing of beauty, Sleeping Beauty in its fairytale rightness. There’s a sybaritic likability mixed into Peter Hannah’s Satan, as if the Prince of Darkness were actually Sebastian Cabot playing the Ghost of Christmas Present. The free shot of Scotch doled out at the beginning of festivities – plus assorted beverages you can fetch from the bar at any time – may help to lubricate this unique McKittrick experience. Even cold sober, I found this five-person troupe utterly charming. (Through March 26)

Spamilton (♥♥♥1/4) – No doubt about it, Gerard Alessandrini, perpetrator of many fine Forbidden Broadway revues, is on-target once again as he skewers Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and the whole mania surrounding his megahit. Even the cheap shots land solidly – if that’s the right category for “Can you believe you paid 800 bucks for this?”

But it turns out that Spamilton is also a revue, unable to keep the show everyone is talking about in its crosshairs for a full 80 minutes. Instead, we wander off to Lion King, Avenue Q, and Book of Mormon, blockbusters that were demolished by Alessandrini in previous Forbiddens, along with his penchant for using puppets to mock shows that use puppets. Or he wanders further off with guest diva Gina Kreiezmar reprising her priceless send-ups of Bernadette Peters, Liza Minnelli, Patti LuPone and either Carol Channing or Angela Lansbury begging on the street for Hamilton tickets.

Dan Rosales maintains quite a bit of Miranda’s I-can’t-believe-all-this-is-happening charm, even as he mercilessly roasts him and his hero. Cameron Amandus stood in for Chris Anthony Giles as Burr, and Lauren Villegas did fine work taking us off-track to J-Lo, Gloria Estefan, Beyoncé, and beyond – obliquely proving that all three Schuyler Sisters in Hamilton put together provide too little meat to pick apart.

Alessandrini remains the king of on- and off-Broadway parodists when he has Miranda insisting “I will not throw away my pot,” when Burr speculates on who’s “gonna be in the film when it happens,” or when he turns “Aaron Burr, Sir” into this choice barb: “Be terser with your verse, sir – you ain’t no Johnny Mercer.” But there is one big lesson that Alessandrini could have taken from his victim. Beginning with the famed mini-sample performed at the White House, Miranda built up his full-length blockbuster gradually, giving the public cumulative glances before the final reveal.

That’s what Alessandrini should do. As a Dickens hero once begged, “More, please!” (Through April 30)

Cagney (♥♥♥) – Even after he showed his aptitude for comedy One, Two, Three, it was difficult for me to comprehend how universally James Cagney was beloved in Hollywood, affectionately called Jimmy by all who spoke of him. From the beginning of his career, when he made his splash in a series of gangster films, his barking machine-gun delivery marked him as a gangster on speed.

Ah, but then I caught up with Yankee Doodle Dandy, where Cagney played patriotic showman George M. Cohan. The man could dance! Still maintaining his famed “you dirty rat” cadence, he could also sell a song. And though I only recently learned that Cagney spoke a fluent Yiddish, when he accepted the Congressional Gold Medal in the closing sequence, he reminded me of my dear departed zayde – except when, in an inspired flourish, he danced down the stairs on his way out.

There’s no denying that Robert Creighton has made a thorough study of Cagney, for he not only takes on the role of the Tinseltown terror, he chips in three of the songs and lyrics. Christopher McGovern has written most of the functional score, and a Cohan classic brings the curtain down on each of the two acts. Curiously, no photo or video I’ve seen captures how thoroughly Creighton has mastered his subject. Seen live, he has the sound of Cagney’s voice, the scornful curl of his upper lip, and – most important for me – the stiff, forward-leaning marionette style of his dancing.

Peter Colley’s book starts out like a biography, but it isn’t long before the chronological cavalcade coalesces into Cagney’s longtime artistic relationship and antagonism with studio chieftain Jack Warner. Colley makes it quite clear that Cagney had already become a solid and versatile leading man on Broadway before Warner gave him a call. Close up and in person, Warner isn’t nearly as impressed with Cagney’s presence as he was with his clippings. It’s only when the mogul sees the rushes of Cagney’s first film that he grudgingly elevates him to a leading role.

Bruce Sabath slickly personifies Warner’s autocratic arrogance and shrewd, cocksure intelligence from his initial faceoff with Cagney. There’s plenty of friction to come. Cagney not only chafes against being typecast as a gangster, he also champions the cause of actors and studio professionals who were exploited by execs who reaped the profits of their labors. And he was a staunch supporter of labor unions, which landed Cagney in hot water with both the studio and Congress.

Ding! That must be the real reason Jimmy was so beloved in Hollywood.

All the major signposts are touched: the famed grapefruit scene in The Public Enemy, “Top of the world!” in White Heat, and the climactic Yankee Doodle Dandy tap dance. To Colley’s credit, it’s not all black-and-white between Cagney and Warner. After decades of squabbles, breakups, and reunions, Cagney can acknowledge his boss’s business acumen and Warner can respect Cagney’s talent and pugnacity. They reach a somewhat sullen détente at the end when Warner performs the honors in presenting Cagney with a Lifetime Achievement Award – from the Screen Actors Guild!

So what’s missing? In a word, scale. Everything I witnessed at the upstairs West Side Theatre – the cast, the scenery, the instrumental arrangements, and the choreography – cried out for bigger Broadway dimensions to fit Cagney’s outsized talents and personality. If you’re taking on a whole industry, the stage should be more than 18 feet wide. Warner, Cohan and Cagney were entertainment giants, but in a little upstairs venue, they’re more like sideshow hustlers. Hire more actors, an orchestrator, and let the great work begin.

Photo Credits: Chad Batka, Joan Marcus, Richard Termine, Matthew Murphy, Jenny Anderson, Carol Rosegg

 

Sizzling Satire and Seething Inner Turmoil

Review:  Bootycandy

By Perry Tannenbaum

Weird black mothers roam the Mint Museum stage at the Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte’s latest migratory production. One mamma refers to her son’s genitalia as bootycandy, while another mamma actually names her daughter Genitalia. The weirdness of Robert O’Hara’s Bootycandy only begins there, for I don’t think either of these mothers – or their children – ever meet, though the bootycandy boy emerges as our antihero, Sutter. Presumably, this mildly sadistic gay man was messed up by his mom.

Perhaps all of the above have fallen under the influence under the flamboyant influence of Reverend Benson who strides to his pulpit in priestly black robes and exits in a flaming red formal dress and white high-heeled shoes. Or perhaps none of the others knows him, because Rev. Benson preaches directly to us, not at all happy about the intolerance and homophobia we’re spreading around the neighborhood.

Late in Act 1, we get a delightfully specious explanation for all this disconnection. The only white person in the cast seats himself on a chair upstage, seemingly prepared to lead a group therapy session. No, he is actually moderating a symposium where three of the four black cast members have gathered – excluding Sutter. After their previous trashy or swishy turns, they are now the three different playwrights who have written all the action we’ve seen so far. Sophisticated, intellectual, and artsy, they give the Moderator a really hard time.

That veiled hostility toward white people is the underbelly of what mostly seems to be a sharply satirical look at black folk. Mostly we’re looking at hilarious set pieces. Friends try to dissuade Genitalia’s expectant mom from committing her folly while gossiping lustily about it. Or years later, we see Sutter’s mom absolutely putting her foot down on his participation in a sissy high school musical, insisting that he take up a sport while his disengaged stepdad mostly buries himself behind a newspaper.

And of course, the remedy for somebody repeatedly stalking Sutter on the way home from the library isn’t to call the cops – it’s to stop reading those damn Jackie Collins books. The Michael Jackson Thriller jacket continues to fly under Mom’s radar.

More bizarre and surreal is the grownup Genitalia, in a white bridal gown, un- or dis-marrying Intifada in a formal ceremony, complete with increasingly antagonistic vows, ending with bitch slaps from both lesbians. So when Sutter and his boyfriend Larry agree on an assignation with a lonely white guy, what could go wrong?

Kevin Aoussou, who has played a variety of dark roles for Shakespeare Carolina, including Dorian Gray a couple of years ago, mixes it up a little bit more for us here as Sutter. He’s in much lighter scenes now as the younger Sutter, subjected to the bootycandy and compulsory sports indignities inflicted upon him by his mom, more vulnerable and less arrogant. He’s also capable of insight and regret here, delivering a more fully rounded portrayal here than we’ve seen from him before.

Yet the show largely belongs to Jeremy DeCarlos from the moment he tosses off Reverend Benson’s black robes and applies his lipstick. Equally satisfying after his low-key and sympathetic episodes as Step Dad and Larry (the boyfriend), he reappears as Old Granny at an old age home, where she serves up solace to Sutter (and flashbacks for us) when he visits her. All this wisdom and warm reminiscence are bartered for contraband edible eats.

Lydia Williamson and Ericka Ross sinuously intertwine throughout the two-hour evening as mothers, daughters, and playwrights. As the immature mom insisting on naming her daughter Genitalia and later as the more butch daughter Intifada, Williamson certainly lays down a credible case for being the more incorrigible of the two. But while Ross is purposely overmatched as Genitalia, her insensitivity and homophobia as Sutter’s mom are as chilling as they are hilarious.

Directing the show, Martin Damien Wilkins gives all his black performers license to take it far enough over-the-top to remind us occasionally of The Colored Museum, George C. Wolfe’s hilarious 1986 subversion of honored black theatre traditions. Relying primarily on projections, set designer Chip Decker comes fairly close to convincing us that The Mint is Actor’s Theatre’s permanent home. Certainly the acoustics here are far more hospitable than the disastrous holiday sojourn at Charlotte Ballet’s McBride-Bonnefoux studio for The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical.

Maybe the niftiest touch from Wilkins, restoring some of the distance between Colored Museum and this 2011 satire, is the consistently natural work he calls forth from Chaz Pofahl in five different roles. Except as the fulsome officiator at the Genitalia-Intifada breakup, Pofahl is consistently life-sized and somewhat pitiful as our white guy – even when he turns up as the pervert stalking the teen-aged Sutter from the library. Instead of shocking me as Sutter and Larry’s victim later on, when he came out to the hallway outside his hotel room completely naked, he broke my heart a little bit.

Arguably, he’s the only player who bares body or soul all evening long.

Wild as it is, Bootycandy is an autobiographical piece by a black gay playwright with an incongruously Irish name. A portion of O’Hara’s animus is directed intellectually toward his own black community, and another more visceral portion is directed reflexively toward white people. Most poignant of all is the remaining scrutiny that O’Hara directs toward himself and his own shortcomings.