Category Archives: Theatre

“Waiting for Godot” Tops Spoleto’s Edgy Theatre Lineup

Reviews: Waiting for Godot, Ramona, Murmurs, Angel, and While I Have the Floor at Spoleto Festival USA31624608012_e7866a37c7_kBy Perry Tannenbaum

Programming at Spoleto Festival USA runs in cycles as it evolves. Now in its 41st season in Charleston, SC, there is a breadth of performing arts at the 17-day event that is unparalleled this side of the annual Edinburgh Festival in the UK. Opera, dance, symphony, chamber music, jazz, and theatre flit around at nine or 10 venues daily from 11:00 AM until late in the evening. Some category-defying hybrids are also hatched during the revels.

Ever since Gian Carlo Menotti founded the American branch of his Italian festival, capitalizing on his prestige as an opera composer who briefly conquered Broadway in the early ‘50s, Spoleto has been unapologetically international in its flavor and fiercely challenging in its thrust. Last year marked a welcoming celebration of the festival’s 40th season with a long-overdue production of Porgy and Bess in its native Charleston setting – at the gloriously renovated and reopened Gaillard Center, the grandest hall in town.

Complementing the homecoming vibe signaled by the lavish Porgy and Bess, jazz programming returned homewards from its distinctively European bent to a noticeably more American groove, with René Marie, Randy Weston, Freddy Cole, Cécile McLorin Salvant, and Arturo O’Farrill topping the lineup. Three large dance troupes invaded Charleston, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane and LA Dance Project the most recognizable of these. Theatre was also noticeably less edgy and foreign, with Gate Theatre’s The Importance of Being Earnest and Jonny Donahue’s off-Broadway charmer, Every Brilliant Thing, among the imports.

34427821263_6eb650f394_oFor 2017, Spoleto Festival has largely shuttled back to its edgier, more challenging, and more cryptic self. The Charles Lloyd Quartet took some jazz lovers beyond their comfort zones, singer Sofia Rei came from Argentina backed by a free jazz trio, and Dee Dee Bridgewater frankly declared that she was forsaking jazz this year for Memphis blues and soul. Only one dance troupe, the Marís Pagés Company, was large enough to command the Gaillard stage, the balance shifting to smaller groups and more outré choreography.

Led by Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the 2017 theatre lineup is similarly trim, challenging, and audacious. Under the direction of Garry Hynes, this Druid Theatre production made it clearer to me that Vladimir and Estagon, awaiting the mysterious Godot and his nebulous benefits, are unsure of where they are, what day it is, and when they last met. Hynes, who won the 1998 Tony Award for directing The Beauty Queen of Leenane, also makes the friendship and mutual loyalty between our protagonists more open to question than previous productions I’ve seen. Instead of shying away from the script’s absurdism, Hynes embraces it.

30962035363_a1fd65f0fc_kMaybe other directors feel that too much absurdism might risk audience confusion and vertigo. Turns out that amping up the absurdity made the show more comical for the audience at Dock Street Theatre. Strangely enough, Aaron Monoghan as the more ignorant Estragon, isn’t as funny as his cohort. While Monoghan is a purer, less salty fool as Estragon, willowy Marty Rae turns Vladimir into a comical joy, his inquiries into his friend’s mind and his reactions to those revelation drawing equal mirth.

Although Hynes acquiesced, in a public interview at the Charleston Library Society with Martha Teichner, to the notion that Pozzo and Lucky are mere distractions in the tedium of our protagonists’ lives, her staging says otherwise. Compounding the vaudevillian exaggeration that Beckett lavishes upon Pozzo the oppressor and Lucky the oppressed, Rory Nolan as Pozzo and Garrett Lombard as Lucky upsize them, exaggerations in the flesh – and in Lombard’s case, in the hair – augmented by Doreen McKenna’s shabby and surreal costumes.

Juxtaposed with our lonely and futile heroes, Druid’s Pozzo and Lucky both seem gargantuan and powerful, though Lucky’s is a sleeping strength that Vladimir and Estragon fear to waken. At some level, they look like invaders from a real world that our lovable protagonists have skirted. Downtrodden as he is, Lucky seems to be lucky to be employed, even if humiliating subservience is the price.

So what if his boss is an overbearing boor? So is the President who won our Electoral College.31397965210_5e7f347a4a_kWhile Godot plays at Dock Street from the beginning to the end of Spoleto, there are four other presentations categorized as theatre by the festival that peep in for more limited engagements, five or six performances apiece at smaller venues. The most charming so far has been Ramona, Gabriadze Theatre’s first production at Spoleto – and at Emmett Robinson Theatre – since their doleful and stultifying Battle of Stalingrad in 2003. This time, Rezo Gabriadze’s fanciful script for marionettes and puppeteers is about a shuttling engine whose travel vistas are no more than 300 meters and the mighty love of her life, Ermon, a Trans-Siberia locomotive who spans Mother Russia in his wanderings.

As this true Penelope waits patiently for her Ulysses, a militaristic railroad official tyrannizes over her and a friend. Like any other sensible woman in these circumstances, Ramona and her pal decide to run away to the circus! Scandalous rumors reach Ermon up on tundra, but he remains steadfast in his trust. The ending is very tragic because Ramona is less adept as a tightrope walker than she was as a train. Absurd comedy doesn’t prevent the poignancy of these star-crossed lovers from shining through.

Though both had considerable strengths, Victoria Thierrée Chaplin’s Murmurs and Henry Naylor’s Angel didn’t satisfy as fully. I gradually caught up with what was happening in Avital Lvova’s portrayal of Rahana, the Angel of Kobani, but I needed my wife’s help in grasping the full details after Angel was over. Based on a true story, our narrator becomes a latter-day Joan of Arc champion of the Kurds, amassing 100 kills as a sharpshooter battling ISIS for control of her hometown.

Lvova is well-cast as an action hero, but in the rat-tat-tat battle scenes where she throws herself around on the floor, I found her to be largely unintelligible. Another woman in our row at Woolfe Theatre moved closer to the stage soon after the topsy-turvy opening, and a few minutes later, I slunk into an empty seat that was even closer to the action. I was still missing some of what Lvova was saying at close distance. Part of the excitement was how Angel broke a fundamental rule of one-person shows at the very end. I wished that I could press a rewind button to more fully enjoy it from the beginning.30928658544_4f681df730_k

A visual stunner, Murmurs had virtually no dialogue and not too much more coherence or character development. The subtitle, Aurélia and Her Ghosts, seems to have been dropped between the time that the festival brochure was printed and when the official program book – 152 pages – was codified. But it remains a useful description of the action. Aurélia Thierrée portrayed the heroine who, when we first met her, was on the verge being evicted – or rescued – from her crumbling tenement.

The crisis throws Aurélia into a strange state, for she experiences flashbacks, hallucinations, and things that go bump in the night. Instead of dialogue, Chaplin and Armando Santin provided choreography, but not enough of it to keep me consistently engaged, and Chaplin’s costume designs – with a team of three other designers – outstayed their novelty. More choreography and an infusion of music, maniacal or otherwise, would make this striking piece more impactful.

While Murmurs may be yearning to be a full-fledged dance, Ayodele Casel’s While I Have the Floor, categorized by Spoleto as dance, has an unmistakable hankering to be regarded as theatre. Like Murmurs, Casel’s world premiere morphed after the season brochures were sent out: her “virtuosic piece exploring language, communication, identity and legacy” coalesced into a tap dancer’s autobiography as the piece crystalized into a one-woman show with a title.34335386953_50bae8da23_kCasel not only explores her own artistic evolution, she connects us with heritage of tapping, tracing its development from the mid-19th century through such mainstays as Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the Nicholas Brothers, Jimmy Slyde, Gregory Hines, and Savion Glover. She doesn’t hide her childhood infatuation with Fred & Ginger and engagingly recounts her first confrontation – as a collegian – with a true proponent of the art.

As YouTube can presumably verify, Casel’s demos of tapping are intricately rhythmic and visually dazzling. But the big surprise here is Casel’s acting chops. She can turn on the tears at a moment’s notice, and as a writer, she finds a compelling reason to display that talent. Toward the end, which threatens the dump us off at today and Casel’s well-earned fame, our narrator sprouts a mission and a cause: to revive the memory of female tappers before her and to make sure their names aren’t forgotten again.

Until you’ve witnessed While I Have the Floor, you probably haven’t seen a tap-dance show that reaches an emotional peak. Now it’s here, and Spoleto can be very proud of hosting its world premiere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Physical Comedy Reigns Supreme in “The Actress”

Review: The Actress

By Perry Tannenbaum

You can certainly find subtler, more poetic titles than The Actress, a bittersweet comedy by Peter Quilter – with judicious snatches of Chekhov – now at Spirit Square. We follow storied actress Lydia Martin into her dressing room as she gives her farewell performance in The Cherry Orchard, electing to retire from the stage while makeup can still mask her flaws and she can still remember her lines.

With two dips into Lydia’s onstage performance and an intermission sandwiched in between, all framed by her arrival at the theater and an impromptu post-performance celebration in her dressing room, we have a neatly symmetrical five-part structure. Quilter adds a nice little wrinkle at the end as Lydia and her ex-husband adjourn to the darkened stage for a final communion. In Ryan Maloney’s set design, about a third of the Duke Energy Theatre is set aside for the Chekhov action, but I could easily imagine how beautifully this last scene would flow on a revolving set. Maloney’s lighting design recovers some of that magic.

Until that point, I found a curious lack of theatre magic and specificity. Although the Three Bone Theatre playbill specifies 1933 as the time of the action, the script doesn’t seem to help director Charles LaBorde to establish a time or a place for Lydia’s farewell. Oddly, the backstage action isn’t theatrical enough to convince me that this is a particularly momentous show. There are no acting colleagues or mentors slipping in to send her off, no reporters or photographers, not even Cherry Orchard castmates before or after the performance.

The only other person involved in the production is the director’s sedulous emissary, Margaret, who relays the unseen director’s notes to Lydia – a patently needless exercise, since it’s doubly impossible that the star will ever make use of them. Yes, there are congratulatory flowers all over the place, some from colleagues and others from admirers, but her dresser, Katherine, still finds it necessary to mist the room with perfume before Lydia enters. Amy Wada digs into Katherine’s uncertainty about whether she means anything to Lydia after a long, long business relationship, but Corlis Hayes seems to accept Margaret as a royal waste of time, mostly motivated by the prospect of leaving with a collectible memento.

Everyone else is a visitor, except perhaps for Harriet, Lydia’s agent. With Lydia retiring, Harriet doesn’t have any business with her client but she does have something to say. When Harriet is persistently shushed and ignored at the little afterparty – while drinking more and more of Lydia’s best brandy, not the swill that she presented as a token gift – whatever she had intended to say is horribly twisted, one of the most dramatic spots in this production. Zendyn Duellman, consistently irritating with her high sycophantic energy as Harriet, becomes even more memorable here.

The rest of the backstage story is largely comedy. Lugging an industrial-strength decrepitude up the stairs to Lydia’s door, Hank West is able to unleash a mighty volley of coughs and wheezes when he gets there as Lydia’s rich fiancé, Charles. Whisking Lydia off to his native Switzerland seems laughably ambitious for someone so old and easily winded, but amid his bodacious wheezing, West endows Charles with a forbearance and determination that ultimately make him a bit endearing.

Ex-husband Paul has considerably more energy behind his persistence, and neither verbal rebuffs nor physical slaps from Lydia discourage his overtures. Bob Paolino definitely tunes into the love-hate relationship between these former intimates, and despite his conspicuous lack of appreciation for the theatre and Lydia’s artistry, brings us a redeeming softness and fatherliness when her career officially ends.

I wasn’t convinced that Paula Baldwin could wholeheartedly throw herself into Lydia’s ambivalent reaction to Paul’s forcible advances. When he called for a 1933 setting, LaBorde may have had those Hollywood films in mind where a leading man might respond, “you can hit harder than that,” to a slap in the face and manfully take it as a woman’s encouragement. That’s definitely the drift here as both Lydia and Paul get mussed up in a physical comedy interlude while the actress keeps her audience waiting.

Trouble is, when Lydia’s daughter Nicole walks through the door, Lydia has an aversion to her smoking – and a guilt about sneaking a cig for herself – that are 60 years ahead of their time. So the demands on Baldwin go beyond ambivalence. She’s actually best in Act 2, when her past faults as a wife, mother, and person come into clearer focus and a warmer, more down-to-earth side of her surfaces. She also manages to convince us that it’s not all about money with Charles.

Nicole isn’t severely messed up or resentful in Robin Tynes’ perky portrayal. We get the idea from Tynes that Nicole is a gentle reminder of Lydia’s past lapses as a wife and parent – also a counterweight against those plans to flit off to Switzerland. But once he puts her before us, Quilter doesn’t invest nearly enough into Nicole. I didn’t detect the English accent that might make her objections to Mom’s proposed move to Switzerland seem petulant and selfish. Sounding totally American, Tynes gave me the impression that Mom’s displacement would be transoceanic. Sure, she seems unsettled, but not enough to be profoundly unhappy.

More substance to Nicole would add more definition to her ambivalence – and Quilter’s serpentine script does wind up being very much about ambivalence. Ultimately, Lydia finds herself choosing between career and domestic comforts, between love and sex, and between familiar family and a new kind of life. So Quilter’s title is subtler than he probably intended. Notwithstanding its setting and the sterling Three Bone Theatre performances that make it come alive, The Actress is hardly about theatre at all.

CP Gets Its Act Together for Summer 2017

Preview: CPCC Summer Theatre 2017

Fiddler on the Roof Promos

By Perry Tannenbaum

Entering its 44th season, Central Piedmont Community College Summer Theatre would be hard-pressed to surpass the lineup of shows they presented last year – Annie, Chicago, Sleuth, and Sister Act. But there are good reasons for the folks on Elizabeth Avenue to be super-confident that 2017 will be even more successful at the box office.

Yes, the family-friendly mix of popular Broadway musicals, adult comedy, and an AM kiddie show will provide the perfect refuge from a slapstick presidency that hasn’t managed to derail our strong economy (yet). And yes, after 10 years of random screeches, thumps, and bumps in the night, technicians were able to exorcise the demons that had previously haunted the Halton Theater sound system. Throughout the 2016 season, CP had its act completely together and gremlin-free.

Three beloved Broadway hits are coming to the Halton to keep the good thing going, beginning with Fiddler on the Roof (June 2-10) and followed by A Chorus Line (June 16-24) before CPCC Summer Theatre makes its exit with the pop ABBA jukeboxer, Mamma Mia! (July 14-22). In between the last two Broadway extravaganzas, the summer’s kiddie musical, James and the Giant Peach (June 28-July 8) takes over the Halton by day while the nighttime action scoots across Elizabeth Avenue to Pease Auditorium with A Comedy of Tenors (June 30-July 9).

Oh yeah, one more reliable predictor of success: “We have had record season ticket sales so far,” says Tom Hollis, the CP Theatre Department chair who runs the show and will direct Fiddler and Mamma Mia!

The process of selecting CP’s summer lineup, says Hollis, is ongoing throughout the year with suggestions from audience, from members of the creative team, and consultation with other theater companies. CP wants the lowdown on what others are programming and how well tickets are selling. Radar is also aimed at what Broadway producers are making freshly available from their inventory.

“There used to be a rule of thumb that said you should wait four or five years before you do a show that had toured through,” Hollis recalls. “But that no longer seems to hold true. Our experience with Les Miz and Phantom showed that proximity to the tours actually increased sales.”

It might be assumed that tours of these perennials and Mamma Mia! – which has touched down in Charlotte no less than six times since 2002 – would spark interest in enthusiasts to see them again. Yet Hollis cites trade publication data indicating that audiences across the country who attend Broadway Lights series like those offered here by Blumenthal Performing Arts don’t ordinarily attend local theatre.

“Maybe they have spent all their money on those tickets and can’t afford to attend more,” Hollis speculates. “What we are seeing is that the combination of our more competitive pricing in comparison with the touring houses and the quality of our product makes it possible for people who love theatre but can’t afford the tour prices to see the show in our theater and bring the entire family when they do it.”

Fiddler on the Roof Promos

On the other hand, CP allows absence to make their subscribers’ hearts grow fonder of shows they’ve previously presented. Both Fiddler and Chorus Line have been done before on campus but never at the Halton, which became the home for CP’s big musicals in the fall of 2005. Budgetary considerations also go into the lineup formula, so comparatively barebones productions like Chorus Line and Chicago help to rein in the bottom line.

Additional economies are available through casting, when an actor can take on multiple roles, navigating a labyrinth of rehearsals and performances to appear in as many as four of the five shows that CP Summer mounts in an eight-week span. It takes eagerness, enthusiasm, and plenty of stamina to go through such a demanding grind, which is why the Summer acting company always skews so young.

In seasons when CP is planning shows like Annie or Oliver, they’ll hold separate auditions in February for kids on top of the cattle calls for local actors and aspiring high school interns. Then in early March, directors will trek to the Southeastern Theatre Conference for regional auditions, where collegians and recent grads come in search of summer work. CP signed up six budding pros at this year’s auditions in Lexington, KY. Look for some of this new blood in A Chorus Line, where young triple threats belong.

Perhaps the optics of overly youthful casts have grown stale for Hollis and his colleagues as the years roll by, or maybe budgetary purse strings are loosening, but we’re recognizing more veteran locals who are returning annually to the Halton and to Pease for CP’s summer rites.

Jerry Colbert, whose CP credits date back to 1974 and took the Laurence Olivier role in last summer’s Sleuth, returns as one of the over-the-hill candidates who might be the father of the bride-to-be in Mamma Mia! Alongside Colbert, Dan Brunson and Kathryn Stamas will be familiar to more recent subscribers. James K. Flynn, fatherly enough to play Tevye when CP last presented Fiddler, moves into A Comedy of Tenors along with two other familiars, Craig Estep and Caroline Renfro.

For the second successive summer, Susan Cherin Gundersheim is teamed with Beau Stroupe. Last year, she was Daddy Warbucks factotum Grace Farrell in Annie. Now in Fiddler, she gets to variously torment Tevye – or emote to his fake dream – as Golde, the mother of his five daughters.

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Stroupe has walked a rocky road to Anatevka and the iconic role of the Scripture-fracturing dairyman. Photos of Stroupe as Daddy Warbucks show him with scarcely less hair than he had when he was finishing chemotherapy in late 2013 – more than a year after a grapefruit-sized malignancy was found in his intestine. A rather hostile divorce compounded his woes, so his role as the predatory Chauvelin in The Scarlet Pimpernel during the next summer seemed to chime with his embattled temperament.

The road from chemo to Anatevka led through Cherry Tree Lane, where Stroupe was George Banks, the starchy and clueless father who was transformed – along with his unruly children – in Mary Poppins through the magical nanny. A role he neither knew nor cared about until he began rehearsing, Banks awakened in Stroupe a new affection for father roles.

Warbucks pointed him in the same direction. “Again, the journey of a seemingly rigid and even detached businessman to one of tender-hearted father figure,” says Stroupe.

“I certainly relate to the journey of a father with my own four children through the difficulty of divorce and the slow healing process. It’s easy to understand the juggling act of breadwinner, patriarch, husband, father and visible member of the community. When Tevye is saying goodbye to Hodel at the train station, it takes very little effort for me to feel what any true father feels when letting his child go to live a life of their own choosing.”

New directions will be running amok when CP opens A Comedy of Tenors, Ken Ludwig’s sequel to Lend Me a Tenor, a CP Summer hit way back in 1996. No matter what its pedigree is, Ludwig’s operatic farce – think three tenors misbehaving in Paris – is the newest show CP has ever done, from farm to fork after its New Jersey world premiere in less than two years. Unheard of, as Tevye would say.

And Renfro, CP’s go-to action heroine in Dial M for Murder and Wait Until Dark, tackles a comedy – with a Russian accent! As sexy diva Tatiana Racon, Renfro will have her sights set on a very married tenor, but her seduction will farcically misfire.

“There will definitely be some good old-fashioned vamping,” Renfro promises. “I am so psyched about doing the accent. And so freaked out about it. At this point in my career, the thing that appeals to me most about a role is doing something I’ve never done before, especially if it scares me.”

Bravura Aplenty 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.