Category Archives: Theatre

High-Grade, Homegrown and Professional

Preview:  Three Days of Rain

By Perry Tannenbaum

Maybe you’ve noticed: since the beginning of September, there has been an abundance of high-quality, homegrown and professionally crafted theatre productions around town – from new or returning companies as well as the usual suspects. Brand New Sheriff ignited the upswell with Jitney, the best drama of the year, and the drive continued with scintillating efforts by donna scott productions, OnQ Performing Arts, and The Playworks Group.

And that was just during the first three weeks!

Within the next two weeks, Actor’s Theatre unveiled a fiery American Idiot, PaperHouse Theatre trailblazed at the Goodyear Arts Center with The Revolutionists, and Children’s Theatre outdid themselves at ImaginOn with a high-flying Mary Poppins. Three Bone Theatre has sustained the seasonal glow with Fahrenheit 451 and the Actor’s Theatre encore, Hand to God, was merely better than the Broadway production.

You have several more chances to experience professional-grade excellence in local theaters before the winter solstice, including reprises by Chickspeare, OnQ, Children’s, and Actor’s of holiday faves. But if you’re itching to get a taste of the grassroots fervor that has gripped the Queen City throughout the fall theatre season – and escape the oncoming blizzard of Christmas repeats – your only choice is to check out Charlotte’s Off-Broadway.

Gestating at the Warehouse PAC up in Cornelius for the past five years in storefront productions, Charlotte’s Off-Broadway is staging an Uptown rebirth with the Metrolina premiere of Richard Greenberg’s Three Days of Rain. For founding producer Anne Lambert and her company, it’s their first presentation at Spirit Square since 2005 – and their first Actors’ Equity production ever.

Lambert isn’t coy about what she hopes will begin sprouting from all the recent professional grassroots action around Charlotte this season – a professional company with the same regional status and prestige that Charlotte Repertory Theatre had before it folded in 2005.

“Yes,” says Lambert, “I do see Three Days of Rain as a project that represents the beginning of a concerted effort to lift Charlotte’s Off-Broadway to a new level, to impact the city’s theatre scene and, yes, to move Charlotte closer to re-establishing ourselves as a logical home for a LORT (League of Resident Theatres) company.”

It begins by consistently producing high-quality shows that the community will continue to come out and see – and continue to hit their wallets and support. Butts and bucks. Part of the push on Lambert’s side is signing Equity contracts with her actors so that they are all treated and paid according to union standards. Two of the three Equity players, Caroline Bower and Brian Lafontaine, are longtime Charlotte favorites.

Lafontaine is also co-producing. He and Lambert last collaborated in 2003 when he acted in The Hotel Project, a pair of one-acts produced by Lambert and Matt Olin while they were, respectively, director of development and managing director at Charlotte Rep during its sunset years. More recently, Lambert and Lafontaine have been attending Creative Mornings, a monthly happening for Charlotte creatives organized by Olin and Tim Miner.

The old mojo began to work again during the supercharged meet-ups. Three Days of Rain was among the scripts that Lafontaine had brought with him from New York when he moved back to Charlotte. He was at a point in his career where he was thinking about producing a show that he wanted to do – at a professional level.

“Anne had told me if I ever wanted to get a show produced, she could get it done for me after we had worked together on The Hotel Project,” Lafontaine remembers. “I know how passionate she is, and how capable she is. She loves theater. She loves actors, and she loves contributing in any way that she can to the artistic community in Charlotte. She’s an incredible partner. There’s no way this would be happening without her.”

There was a notorious Broadway run of Three Days of Rain back in 2006 starring Julia Roberts, so Lambert had heard of the script when Lafontaine brought it to her. But she hadn’t read it. Months of discussions culminated in opting for the Greenberg play.

“It’s a well-written, Pulitzer Prize-nominated script,” Lambert stresses. “It’s sophisticated, it’s funny, it’s compelling, and it’s mysterious, full of Easter Eggs that reward the attentive audience member. It has six completely beguiling characters. I’m excited by the device of the dual roles, where the actors we see portraying Walker, Nan and Pip in Act 1 turn around in Act 2 and play their parents. These three talented actors in our show are so adept, so good at what they’re doing, they really are two different characters for me.”

Notwithstanding all that Roberts hoopla, Walker and Ned, the son and father Lafontaine will play, have always been the core characters at the heart of Three Days. Both are startlingly eccentric – and brilliant. After his dad’s funeral, Walker had vanished so completely that his sister Nan, the sensible branch of the Janeway family, had given him up for dead while he was holed up in Italy for a year. The siblings now meet at an unoccupied loft where, 35 years earlier, Walker’s dad had designed his masterwork, Janeway House.

But wait a second. When they finally read Daddy’s will, the sibs discover that, instead of going to them, the Janeway House has been inherited by their longtime friend Pip, the son of Theo Wexler, who was Ned’s partner at their architectural firm. It’s a mystery. To get to the bottom of it, Walker obsessively pores through his dad’s terse diary, which he discovered soon after he returned to the loft.

Friction, mystery, and brilliant minds are all in the mix.

“The dialogue is fantastic,” Lafontaine enthuses. “It has an almost Aaron Sorkin feel to it. Sure, I think it’s funny in a lot of places. Thank God. Otherwise, I think we’d be driving audience members to therapy after. And the mystery adds another interesting element to the play. But for me, it really is more of [a dramatic] study about the relationship between children and parents.”

Bower, who plays Nan and her mom Lina, burst onto the Charlotte scene in 2007 with starring roles in Thoroughly Modern Millie and The Wizard of Oz. By the time she dropped out in 2014, Bower had drawn acting paychecks from every company in town that cuts them – Actor’s, Children’s, and CPCC Summer Theatre. She became the most persuasive poster child we had for the notion that stage acting could be a viable profession in Charlotte.

Then she took a position as teacher and director at Providence Day School to expand the theatre program there and carry herself from car payment to car payment. She came out of “hiding” this past summer, choreographing Cry Baby at Theatre Charlotte, and now she is acting under her second Actor’s Equity Association contract within the space of two months.

“I am so lucky to have been a part of The Revolutionists and Three Days of Rain. Being a part of two projects that care enough about their actors to jump through the AEA hoops is humbling. Not only do the production teams care about their actors, but both of these scripts are the best of the best.”

Paige Johnston Thomas, who directs, brings an additional chunk of Charlotte Rep DNA to the Lambert-Lafontaine production team. Her first acting gig in the Queen City was in another three-person cast, playing C in Rep’s 1995 production of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women. Thomas’s most recent paying gigs in theatre have been directing at Theatre Charlotte and Davidson Community Players.

But her most important role on the local scene is as an “anti-relocation advocate,” having founded C&J Casting with Mitzi Corrigan to help local theatre pros get steady work in commercials and film.

Thomas saw Bower’s outing at Goodyear Arts, where she portrayed a vain, charismatic, and bubble-headed Marie Antoinette.

“I texted her this after the show: ‘I couldn’t keep my eyes off you,’” Thomas relates. “Which in real life sounds kinda creepy, but in the acting world, it’s a huge compliment. She has an innocence that is constantly being belied by her quick intellect and emotional depth. It makes for great conflict, which makes great drama.”

Head for Duke Energy Theatre if you want to see it. Then consider hitting your hip if you like what you’ve seen.

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Charlotte’s Off-Broadway Poignantly Pieces “Three Days of Rain” Together

Review:  Three Days of Rain

By Perry Tannenbaum

At a pivotal moment in the opening act of Richard Greenberg’s Three Days of Rain, Walker Janeway pounces on a sentence in his dead father’s journal that only becomes visible in a certain slant of light – a stain that turns out to be words. Written by celebrated architect Ned Janeway shortly after the untimely death of his business partner, Theo Wexler, the phrase leads Walker to believe he has found the answer to why his father’s will divided his estate so shockingly.

There’s a bit of a cosmic joke that Walker is playing on himself here, but we don’t get to see it until deep into Act 2, which takes us back 35 years to 1960. In the same loft where Walker pored over Dad’s journal, we encounter Ned, Theo, and Lina, the woman who is torn between them. These are the parents of the people we’ve met at the start – Walker, his best friend Pip, and his sister Nan. And they’re the same actors, so you’ll catch the resemblance.

What Walker gets wrong is the true object of that wee stain of a sentence. He presumes it refers to all the world-famous buildings and homes conceived by the Wexler-Janeway architectural firm with their genius designs. Turns out that Lina, Nan, and Walker himself were more likely at the heart of what Ned was getting at.

“Everything,” you see, can mean a lot of different things.

Probably because all eyes were on Julia Roberts when Three Days of Rain made its Broadway debut in 2006 (nine years after its original run at Manhattan Theatre Club), more than a couple of critics were as off-target as Walker in their suppositions when they sleuthed out the point of it all. Restoring the original balance of the script, which centers its concern on the relationship between Walker and Ned, the current Charlotte’s Off-Broadway production at Spirit Square enables us to see more clearly.

Sure, it might be tempting conclude that Three Days of Rain demonstrates how narrowly children know their parents, flipping the plot of King Lear. Yet this production at Duke Energy Theater, so meticulously directed by Paige Johnston Thomas, reveals all of the pains Greenberg went to in making sure that Walker and Nan are exceptionally ignorant of their parents’ relationship and inner lives. So is Pip, vis-à-vis his dad.

We hear early on from Walker that his dad was nearly mute throughout his childhood, though we don’t learn why until we meet Ned after intermission. As for Lina, she has been strung out on drugs and/or insane since Walker was eight years old. Perhaps Walker could have gained some additional insights if he had attended Dad’s big A-list funeral and listened to the eulogies, but he skipped that, preferring to brood artistically in Italy for a year. Add to those deprivations the usual distance between fabulously wealthy parents and their kids – both of whom are free to globetrot when the impulse hits – and you can see why the journal that Walker discovers at the fateful loft is like a precious canteen filled with water that surfaces in the vast Sahara.

Ryan Maloney’s set design has a loosely precise look, like a blueprint drawn free-hand. Even in its abstractness, the design doesn’t destroy the workshop vibe of the loft. From the moment he appears on these hand-drawn quadrangles, Brian Lafontaine delivers a beautifully calibrated performance as Walker. You might look back, when it becomes obvious that he’s a snooty, shiftless, and irresponsible underachiever – with sprinklings of self-pity and hypochondria– and think that Lafontaine was a little too genial and yielding at the start.

Yet he’s not only speaking to us for the first time, he’s also meeting up with Nan for the first time since he disappeared without telling anyone where he was going. During his yearlong absence, Nan had come to terms with the probability, after hired detectives came up empty, that her brother was dead. So a bit a caution and contrition must be stirred into Walker’s Bohemian mix. Especially since he has forgotten that he was supposed to rendezvous with Nan at the airport. Ooops.

The meanness and arrogance of the man, peppered with resentment and delivered with some nasty sarcasm, come out after the disposition of the estate, when Walker comes back to the loft. Now the brunt of his attention is directed at Pip, who has drawn the one property that Walker cherished most. Pip actually offers a more plausible reason why this has happened: he had actually established a normal speaking relationship with Ned. But watch the seething, stony way that Lafontaine absorbs this and other revelations from his friend. He’s not much of a listener.

As for Lafontaine’s work on Ned, it may stand as the best he has given us in over 25 years on Charlotte stages, surprisingly effortless and touching at the end. Who saw this all winding up like a bittersweet romantic comedy after the fire that brought us to intermission? Restoring Lina to lifesize, Caroline Bower is a huge reason why the Act 2 denouement is so poignant and satisfying. In the opening act as Nan, Bower is far more subtly nuanced, demonstrating how the role can bloom with a real stage actress.

Nan is the offended normal sib who has the right to be absolutely disgusted with her brother’s inconsiderate flights, but if you closely watch her reaction to his blather, you’ll see that she momentarily drops her front of stern reproach, charmed and loving in spite of herself. There’s a parallel ambivalence in her attitude toward Pip, hints thrown our way when he appears in the second scene, fireworks ready to explode when the reason is disclosed in the Act 1 climax.

If Lafontaine and Bower embody one of the chief satisfactions of a vibrant local theatre scene, watching familiar professional performers radically transforming themselves into new roles, Chris Speed personifies the excitement a newcomer brings. After his richly textured accounts of both Pip and Theo, I can hardly wait to see what he does next. Pip realizes that, making his living as a soap opera stud, he is little more than a thin shadow of what his great father was. But he’s cool with that, though he seethes at Walker’s perpetual hypochondria and condescension, helping to bring the 1995 action so nicely to a boil.

Less open to the charge of superficiality – because he has loftier ambitions – Theo is like his son in his charismatic ability to navigate his career path. Yet he’s as undervalued when we see him in 1960 by Ned and Lina as Pip will be by their children 35 years later. We need to piece it together, connecting Theo’s final exit with the story Pip has told about him in Act 1, to realize that he’s really the best person we see, more than worthy of the barely legible tribute that Ned has written to him in his journal.

While Ned was reticent as a father after his disloyalty to his best friend, Theo was devoutly secretive with his wife and son, keeping hurts hidden that only Ned and Lina could have suspected. Speed does an excellent job of making the virtues of both Wexlers mesh together as a family trait. I found that Theo’s last walk into the wings, huddled in a trench coat on the last of Greenberg’s three days of rain, lingered long in my memory.

One other little signpost to catch in Act 2 – one that Greenberg himself pointed to in a 1998 interview with American Theatre magazine – when measuring Ned’s actual attitude toward his son against Walker’s perception. Ned expatiates at length on his desire to abandon architecture and become a flaneur, a loafer who strolls idly around town. “I find it moving,” said Greenberg, “that the father would name him after what he loved.”

And I find it ironic that, in the upshot of Walker’s life until we get our last glimpse of him, a father’s blessing has become a curse.

No, the point isn’t just that we narrowly know our parents. That’s taking Greenberg’s drama rather obtusely, for Pip lost his father at the age of three! Time after time, these young people who are so familiar with each other prove to utterly misjudge one another. They know each other narrowly and, on top of that, know themselves narrowly in different ways. So eventually, Three Days of Rain and old King Lear actually intersect.

Actor’s Theatre Stages a Superior “Hand to God” – In Hilarious Spurts

Review:  Hand to God

By Perry Tannenbaum

There are certainly instances when a touring version of a Broadway hit comes to Charlotte – or when a local company tackles a Broadway or off-Broadway show I’ve previously reviewed – that I’m tempted to tell people that they missed out by not catching this show up in New York. On the other hand, there are stellar productions like the Actor’s Theatre take on Robert Askins’ Hand to God, currently at the Hadley Theater on the Queens University campus, that make me wish to tell all who saw the Broadway version, “You wuz robbed!”

Elements of what director Chip Decker and his Actor’s Theatre cast deliver just make me wish to exclaim “Wow!” because they’re done so well, while others make me think “Of course!” because the Broadway production missed them. The wows begin with Decker’s set, proving once and for all that the Hadley is more than a make-do location until Actor’s settles into its new facility on Freedom Drive. Next year, we hope.

Seating capacity is in the off-Broadway category, but the height and width of the drab Texas church basement, where we meet Jason and his widowed mom, belies any cramped expectations. It’s high enough so that an unexpected entrance from street level can be fairly epic – and risky. When we adjourn to a nearby playground, a pair of swings can smoothly descend from the fly loft so that Jason’s tentative overtures to Jessica, his puppet class classmate, can go freakily awry.

The chief reason why things go wrong all through this dark 80-minute comedy is Jason’s puppet, whom he calls Tyrone. If what I read about Hand to God productions around the country is indicative, props designer Carrie Cranford has created four Tyrones. And maybe some spares. Each one is bigger, more ornate, and demonic than his predecessor. From what I remember – and what I can pull down on YouTube – Cranford’s latter creations are more fearsome than those that terrorized Broadway.

We see a relatively benign incarnation of Tyrone before the action begins, recounting the story of humanity leading up to the invention of the Devil as a convenient excuse for the evil that we do. But couldn’t this disclaimer be a diversionary tactic from the Devil? Bwa-ha-ha!

Askins, of course, wants to have it both ways. There are numerous reasons for us to conclude that Tyrone’s lewd spewings stem from his troubled past, most notably the death of his father, and his mom Margery’s outré way of coping with her grief. She’s still not a great mom, doesn’t have much control over her sexual cravings, and she’s forcing Jason into this whole church-and-puppetry scene.

Pressured by Pastor Greg to present a puppet show at an upcoming Sunday service, Margery is deaf to her son’s desperate pleas to give up puppeteering. So is Tyrone, who has developed a life – and a voice – of his own.

After similar bullied roles at Actor’s Theatre in Bad Jews and Stupid Fucking Bird, we can rely upon Chester Shepherd to be a frailer Jason than the more imposing Steven Boyer was on Broadway in 2015. But the softer Jason is paired in Shepherd with a more vehement, rabid, and guttural Tyrone than Boyer was at the Booth Theatre – a voice that leaves Cookie Monster in the dust, fully worthy of Cranford’s latter puppets. Shepherd’s manipulation of these puppets is as uncanny as the abrupt and violent shifts in his voice when Jason and Tyrone engage in their fiercest showdowns.

I read that one Jason/Tyrone in a regional production steamed his vocal cords after every performance. Not sure if that would be enough to repair the abuse I saw Shepherd inflict on his larynx. At certain points, I had to worry whether Shepherd had gotten carried away – OK, possessed – by his Tyrone. It’s an extraordinary performance, that’s for sure, but never a slick one: though Jason flaps Tyrone’s toothy yap, Askins doesn’t want the lad to attempt ventriloquism.

Nicely aligned with the diminutive Shepherd, Decker has deglamorized the older generation, offering us better assurance that Margery truly is at loose ends, that Pastor Greg might be desperate for her companionship, and that we’re truly in Cypress, Texas, and not Hollywood. Longtime leading man Mark Kudisch and Geneva Carr were less reassuring on Broadway than Brett Gentile and Marla Brown are at the Hadley.

Brown is more than sufficiently attractive to believably draw the attentions of Pastor Greg and Timothy, the resentful delinquent in her puppet class. But she comes at us frumpier, more frazzled and humdrum domesticated. That works so well for the nasty surprises she has in store for us and for the two teenage boys.

From the first time he performed at Actor’s Theatre in 2004 as a domineering cop in Lobby Hero, Gentile has shown the ability to be the tough guy, capable of truly bodacious bellowing if you set him loose. Yet he can turn around and be meek and pastoral, visibly wounded by Margery’s rejection. Unlike Kudisch, with his John Wayne bulk, when Gentile confronts Timothy or the rabid Tyrone, you can wonder what the outcome will be. These were probably the chief “Of course!” moments for me at the Hadley.

Grant Zavitkovsky isn’t as wiry or urban as his Broadway counterpart, so he doesn’t come across at first with quite the same nastiness and menace as Timothy, but his better looks and substantial size are better reasons for Jason to fear him and envy his success with women. There’s also a slight patina of complacency to Zavitkovsky that works very nicely before those instants when Margery and later Tyrone shock him.

Behind the multiple layers of her costume, Lizzie Medlin remains somewhat inscrutable as Jessica throughout Act 1. She recoils from Tyrone’s first breakouts with an utter spontaneity that compounds Jason’s embarrassment. Yet her later actions partially vindicate Tyrone’s contention that his lewd frankness was the best way to go. Nothing she does prepares us for her action heroics in Act 2.

All I’ve got say about that is to congratulate Medlin, Shepherd, Decker, and Cranford on the most hilarious puppet sex I’ve ever seen – and probably the best puppet therapy. Way better than Broadway, though perhaps the elderly ladies in the front row should have been warned that they were sitting in a splash zone.

Amid this unique brew of the bawdy, the violent, and the diabolical, Askins would have us contemplate the ontology of evil, the devil, and saviors. I could see where you might wish to skip that assignment.

 

Subversive Energy Still Ignites “Fahrenheit 451”

Review:  Fahrenheit 451

By Perry Tannenbaum

Each time Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 returns to Charlotte, it seems like a telltale barometer: how much closer have we come to fulfilling its grim dystopian vision – or how much further have we mercifully drifted away? Book burning and other assaults on culture may have been more virulent when the sci-fi classic was last served up at Children’s Theatre in 2005, when Taliban desecrations flamed our anger, or as recently as 2015, when ISIS insanity ruled Mosul and Palmyra.

With Kindle and Google Books, the concern nowadays seems more centered on physical books and booksellers, for notwithstanding the proud illiteracy of the toxic Agent Orange 45 – who still knows words, mind you – reading and literature appear safe for now. The battlefront seems to have shifted to information, reporting, and science. In Charlotte, the culture wars played out at local theatres back in the 90s have been upstaged by anti-LGBT initiatives in the state legislature and racial profiling on the streets.

Because of the complex crisscrossing of events in Charlotte and Charlottesville in the past few months, it gets pretty murky when we attempt to draw a sharp parallel between the firefighters that Bradbury’s hero, Guy Montag, breaks away from and the police of today. It was the protestors, after all, who carried the intimidating torches up in Virginia while police meekly looked on.

Forget the Charlottesville hullabaloo, then, if you go to see the Bradbury combustion up at Spirit Square in a crackling Three Bone Theatre production, for the company surely programmed 451 at Duke Energy Theatre between the Charlotte and Charlottesville riots.

Of course, while times inevitably have changed, productions will add another layer of difference, depending on the company and the director. Compared to the Children’s Theatre productions of 1993 and 2005, we get the full Bradbury stage adaptation now. Three Bone’s adds over 40 minutes, clocking in at 2:21, including intermission. The other big changes are the leading men that director Charles LaBorde has chosen.

With Harry Jones Jr. as Montag facing off against Thom Tonetti as Chief Beatty, we have a clash of physical titans that we haven’t seen before, both firefighters looking more like hard-working enforcers. Greater contrasts are also drawn between youth and age, innocence and experience, ignorance and knowledge. Mark Sutton could do many things onstage as Montag, but looming before us as physically – or vocally – intimidating wasn’t one of them. His early ignorance looked comparatively slack-jawed or nebbishy, slightly endearing.

Now we can see Montag as not only ignorant but also devolved and brutish. When Beatty warns that any influx of knowledge or enlightenment gained from reading will instantly register on Jones’s face, we believe it. He and the mass of mankind have evidently regressed so far that taking the first bite of the contents of a book is like beginning all over again – in a biblical or Darwinian sense.

Tonetti can roar nearly as loudly as Jones, and if he certainly isn’t any more rugged as Beatty than Scott Helm was in 2005, he has the advantage of more years to make him seem more experienced, scruffier, more cynical, and more embittered. Helm’s version of the fire chief was cooler, more inscrutable, while Tonetti is a hot boiling mess. He is erudite, filled with forbidden knowledge, and like God in Eden, able to smell the onset of intellect. But ambivalence rages within Beatty, set in his commitment to firefighting yet never able to fully vanquish the notion that he has made the wrong choice.

Library

Written in 1953, Fahrenheit 451 isn’t prescient about women’s advances in the future, but Bradbury was writing about a dystopian America, so we’re likely to give him a pass. LaBorde plants some women among the firefighters, and Bradbury’s main women, though not in the workforce, are interesting and varied. Mildred Montag, Guy’s wife, is the most conventional, unquestioning in her devotion to pills and brainless TV pap. Lisa Hatt as Mildred is mindless and sedated enough to be a likely source of Guy’s smoldering discontent.

Interestingly, there is a lax acceptance by Mildred and her neighbors of Montag’s predilection toward books. They’ll let it slide until Montag rocks the boat.

Near the Montags, a neighbor lady is found to have a vast home library that must be incinerated. Angie Cee gets a fine cameo as Mrs. Hudson, the library lady willing to burn with her beloved books, playing her with a memorable wild-eyed zeal – and just a trace of motherly love. Her martyrdom certainly gives Montag the inescapable notion that there might be something in books worth dying for.

Montag’s discontents at home and on the job make him vulnerable to the probing and teasing of his rebellious misfit neighbor, Clarisse. It’s a role that works well with the raffish delicacy that Stefani Cronley brings to it. Cronley becomes a dear and lively enough mentor to Montag for us to feel some of the same emptiness he feels when she disappears.

Perhaps the finest character Bradbury created in Fahrenheit 451 was the crazed fugitive outlaw, Faber. Somebody needs to register the horror of what has happened in America, and somebody needs to have an inkling about what can still be done. Bill Reilly brings a wild unkempt fervor to Faber, a catlike cunning wrapped into his cowardice and a divine spark twinkling in his despair. Mankind’s survival hangs on a slender thread, and he’s it – unless Montag and others like him can work out as recruits.

Like the Johann Stegmeir design concept for the 2005 Fahrenheit, Ryan Maloney’s set design and Ramsey Lyric’s costumes for Three Bone are not averse to the idea that we have entered a nuclear winter as well as an intellectual one. Other novelists have played with the idea that nuclear catastrophe might bring about reactionary rejection of science and culture. In Bradbury’s futureworld, nobody seems to know what exactly brought us to this, and that’s part of what makes it so sad.

Soot of Sodom Chases the Joads in “The Grapes of Wrath”

Review: The Grapes of Wrath @ Theatre Charlotte

By Perry Tannenbaum

If you’ve ever read John Steinbeck’s sprawling masterwork, The Grapes of Wrath, you know that it’s framed with a seething anger as a picture of America’s unfulfilled promises, the cruel exploitation of the poor, and the undiminished aspirations of the Joad family. These dispossessed and determined Oklahoma sharecroppers believe in the dream.

But the Okies are tested before they reach the Promised Land of California and once they’ve arrived. Like the Israelites in the Old Testament, they must cross burning desert. Clutching onto the printed handbills promising work and honest wages, they must resist the report of a broken, disillusioned man who found California to be nothing like the handbills’ hype. They must endure attacks from anti-labor thugs who fear the latent strength of worker groups.

Perhaps most difficult of all, they must strive to hold together despite forces of attrition from within – disagreements, defections, and death. Manna doesn’t shower down upon them from heaven to ease the journey.

We easily presume, with their consuming hope of a Promised Land, that the Joads’ journey is an exodus, a liberation from the landowners who have burdened them with sufferings. Another biblical parallel suggests itself on Queens Road, where Frank Galati’s stage adaptation of Steinbeck’s novel is making its local debut at Theatre Charlotte – a mere 37 years in the wilderness after winning the 1980 Tony Award for Best Play.

Since vile bankers and beancounters cannot loom as large on the stage as they do on the vast canvas of Steinbeck’s pages, another biblical parallel emerges clearly. Under Ron Law’s direction, with severely weathered scenery by Chris Timmons, and stark, pitiful costume designs by Chelsea Retalic – Okie clothing and faces equally sooty – I couldn’t help sensing echoes of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in this depiction of Dust Bowl devastation.

One faint echo is the drugging of Grampa Joad when he resists leaving, a parallel to how Lot’s daughters bamboozled their dad. The loudest echo came from Ma Joad, proving that she’s the antithesis of Lot’s Wife. You’ll recall that when Lot’s family was commanded not to look back while God was raining fire and brimstone on the sinful cities, Lot’s wife disobeyed and paid a famous price.

As the Joads embark, one of Ma’s kinfolk asks if she is going to take one last look back. Her no in response, with the aid of modest embroidery, is so emphatic that we take it as a philosophy. Ma Joad looks forward and moves forward. She lives by doing what needs to be done.

It’s an outlook that she successfully hands down to her daughter, Rose of Sharon, in the poignantly perverse pieta that ends the epic story.

With a performance like Paula Baldwin’s as Ma, we readily grasp that Steinbeck wished us to see her as the steadying bedrock of the family. The jut of Baldwin’s jaw and the tightened sinews of her neck were unlike anything I’d seen from her in her numerous leading roles. She’s unrelentingly purposeful, sternly nurturing, with all the patience and endurance of the ground she stands on.

Standing firm isn’t all that simple on the raked stage that Timmons has built. His pared-down design must accommodate campfires, a riverbank, and a ramshackle jalopy able to accommodate the whole clan. The skin-and-bones truck is altogether worthy of the ridicule it draws. Inspiration taken from the Little Engine That Could? You decide.

Vying with Ma for the right to be called the backbone of the family is the second-eldest son, Tom Joad, a volatile straight-shooter who is coming home from prison after serving his time for murder. It is so telling – about Tom and his fellow Okies – that everyone seems disappointed that Tom didn’t break out of jail. Easy to rile when he or his family is threatened, Tom is a seeker of truth, curious to learn how the system works.

Max Greger subordinates Tom’s volatility to his heartland wholesomeness in a promising Charlotte debut, holding his own when he shares the spotlight with Baldwin or the wild-eyed Andrew Tarek, who shambles brilliantly about as Jim Casy, a former preacher who feels like he has lost the calling. Yet in the same way that Tom is branded as an outlaw after killing in self-defense, Casy is branded as a holy man despite his renunciation – with Steinbeck’s approval, we presume, since four gospels were written about a man with the same initials.

Amid a dust cloud of bleakness and hopelessness, these running gags slightly lift the gloom.

And though there are strong unionist sympathies in the framework of Steinbeck’s yarn, you will also find an all-American emphasis on teamwork, which Law’s cast underplays enough to keep us from smelling Hollywood. Chris Melton has an adolescent randiness as Al Joad that augurs trouble and a shotgun marriage, but he also has a way with cars, performing the marvel of getting the Joads’ jalopy going. Between bouts of guilt, discouragement, and drinking sprees, Victor Sayegh as Uncle John often struck me as the most fatherly in the clan with a generous spirit.

With a cast of 23 trafficking back and forth on the sloped stage, Law needed to shape a deep ensemble that bonded together while divvying up two hours and 15 minutes of running time. Nor could he rely on the top tier of players to deliver all the little crevasses of comedy and poignancy that lurk in the wide tapestry.

Annette Gill and Rick Taylor are largely responsible for getting us off to a rousing start as the ever-bickering oldsters, Granma and Grampa Joad, portraying them as loud and slightly doddering. We get an interesting take on Pa Joad from Ryan Dunn, who doesn’t seem broken by his family’s rude displacement but rather gladly retired from the responsibility of it all, a bit dazed by the turn of events.

Zach Radhuber goes light on the simplemindedness of Noah Joad, yielding a touching moment when he sets off on his own, and Cole Pedigo gives a nerdy edge to the befuddlement of Connie Rivers, Rose of Sharon’s husband. In some ways, Ailey Finn represents the best of the new generation as “Rosasharn,” but it’s suffering that strengthens and ennobles her, and the mysterious smile that ends the novel can’t be incorporated into a stage adaptation.

Law keeps the concept of incidental music from the Broadway version but discards the content, switching from a Tin Pin Alley songlist to a folksy Woody Guthrie flavor. “California, Here I Come” steps aside for “This Land Is Your Land.” Strumming an appropriate guitar, Tom Schrachta attacks the material a bit harshly with his robust voice, but I grew fond of that discord. Schrachta also drew the acting chore of donning a rumpled trench coat (a hint of the spy parallel in the biblical exodus story) and delivering the bad news about California to the Joads.

That same harshness remained in Schrachta’s voice. Yet now it was mixing grief, discouragement, futility, and rage – very much what Steinbeck felt about the ruinous actions of America’s bankers when he wrote The Grapes of Wrath.

Miller’s “Crucible” Roars Its Power at CP

Final Dress Rehearsal for The Crucible; Pearse Auditorium, October 26th, 2017

Review: The Crucible

By Perry Tannenbaum

Powerful men abound in the annals of drama, but few can vie with the formidability of Deputy-Governor Danforth in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Reminding the petitioning Francis Nurse just exactly whom he’s dealing with, he can honestly claim to have jailed nearly 400 people in various towns across Massachusetts with his signature – and sent 72 to the gallows with that many strokes of his pen.

“We burn a hot fire here,” he warns soon-to-be martyred John Proctor. “It melts down all concealment.”

If those declarations sound to you like they should be spoken softly, you are not reading them the way stage director Tom Hollis did for the current CPCC Theatre production at Pease Auditorium. Panoramic Pease is a challenging place acoustically, often frustrating audience members, especially the elderly, who chance to be seated in one of the side sections, trying to hear what actors are saying at the other end of the stage.

Anybody who has been reluctant to go to Pease, or stayed away because of that frustration is now encouraged to come back. There has never been such a roaring production at Pease – or anywhere else on the CPCC campus. It would be misleading to say that it begins with Tim Huffman, who gives a fearsome account of the Dep Governor in the climactic scene at the Salem Meeting House, ground zero of the infamous Salem Witch Trials. He doesn’t appear in the drama until the second scene after intermission, or Act 3 in the original script.

Final Dress Rehearsal for The Crucible; Pearse Auditorium, October 26th, 2017

We don’t hear anything about the full extent of Danforth’s rampage until he announces it himself, but the steady roar of the panicked citizens of Salem – and the shrieks of the pubescent girls who incredibly become their accusers – testify to the hysteria that has gripped the whole colony. Reverend Samuel Parris intrudes upon his servant Tituba leading a pagan moonlight ritual, with his daughter Betty and his niece Abigail Williams among her acolytes, in a marvelously creepy scene that Miller added to his 1953 script for his 1996 screenplay.

The secret of how that cinematic lagniappe was converted to stage may be locked in a local recipe, since the brief prologue isn’t referenced in the playbill’s rundown of the scenes. When we cut to the original opening scene in an upstairs bedroom of the Reverend’s home, Parris is huddled over the seemingly comatose Betty who will not waken since returning from her midnight revels. As great as Parris’s fears may be for his daughter’s life, his greatest fear is that the word “witchcraft” might be whispered around town about members of his family. His career is at stake.

The fear flips Reverend Parris from his initial condemnation of Betty and Abigail to becoming their staunchest supporter no matter how outrageously they overreach in their reign of terror. Cole Long may be giving us the most chilling performance here as Parris for he is never in the least soft-spoken. This rabid weasel speaks in a passionate, panicky squeal that threatens to shatter glass, most heinously in his waspish attacks upon John Proctor. Long’s high-voltage intemperance makes it easy for Huffman to become mightily annoyed with his zeal.

Final Dress Rehearsal for The Crucible; Pearse Auditorium, October 26th, 2017

Hollis also finds strong – yet sweet – voices for the two most important accusers: Sarah Clifford is the implacably wicked and wanton Abigail, and Ashley Gildersleeve is the ambivalent Mary Warren, the witness Proctor enlists to debunk Abigail’s masquerade. Interestingly, Mary is Abigail’s successor in the Proctor household, hired after Abigail was told to hit the road when she had committed adultery with a now-penitent John.

Clifford gives us a shameless and forceful Abigail. Hollis is wise to include the nocturnal confrontation between Abigail and Proctor, written by Miller for the stage shortly after the original Broadway production, for it reveals Clifford’s full range. Switches between Abigail’s vamping, seductive mode to her imperious affirmations of divine judicial authority can be played so abruptly that the wench can seem to have an insanely split personality. But Hollis and Clifford find the bridge between the two Aby’s in her arrogant self-confidence – she obviously has no doubt that John will ultimately succumb to her charms.

Final Dress Rehearsal for The Crucible; Pearse Auditorium, October 26th, 2017

Gildersleeve proves to us that Mary is also quite a powerful role, pulled ferociously hard in opposite directions by John and Abigail, pivotal in the outcome of the climactic court scene. Hollis is going against the usual impulse to cast Mary as a diminutive mouse who will cower in the proximity of the domineering Abigail. Making her more substantial magnifies the power of both adversaries who tug at her, and Hollis – not withstanding today’s political correctness – does not gloss over John’s abusiveness toward his servant.

The biggest payoff with Gildersleeve is how taut the tension can become before Mary makes her fatal choice. We can see that she isn’t going to break easily. When inevitability sets in, the chaos that breaks out in Danforth’s court is as alarming as you’ll ever see, like a vast cauldron coming to a boil and overflowing.

Nothing less can bring Josh Logsdon down in his hulking, near-Promethean performance as Proctor. There are few mild-mannered moments in his tragic odyssey toward the gallows. If, as he claims, he has walked tiptoe around his own home since his great sin, Logsdon certainly turns the corner when John confronts Elizabeth, raging and roaring at her like a tyrant before her unexpected arrest. Then he turns on the gendarmes with leonine fury as they take her into custody. Then on the quailing Mary, who has brought the incriminating poppet to his house from Salem.

Final Dress Rehearsal for The Crucible; Pearse Auditorium, October 26th, 2017

Torn between taking advantage of Abigail’s affection and risking her fury, Logsdon is comparatively becalmed in their forest scene, but he’s only truly temperate in the presence of the Dep Governor when Elizabeth’s fate hangs in the balance. Even then, we see him as a powder keg, ready to explode in a heartbeat.

The Gothic aspects of such sulfurous action are somewhat muted by the raked and abstract set design by Beth Aderhold and costume designer Jason Estrada’s execution of what could have been Hollis’s most daring concept – transporting the 1692 atrocities to the McCarthy Era 1950s when Miller’s tragedy premiered. But the concept gathers little further momentum. We find no TV in the Proctor home that could be tuned to the HUA or Army-McCarthy hearings, and no projections on the blank upstage wall from contemporary newspapers heralding the anti-Commie hysteria that Miller was obliquely targeting.

It’s Caryn Crye who unexpectedly brought me the strongest flashback to the 50s as Elizabeth. Again and again, Crye’s quietly assertive and judgmental portrayal evoked the Emmy Award-winning Audrey Meadows in her iconic role as Alice Kramden on The Honeymooners (1952-57). This is a cold and grudging Elizabeth who knows a woman’s place yet never backs down. She comes to see her own failings and their causes in the poignant final dialogue with John. Yet when we hear her last words, it’s hard to discard the notion that nothing less John’s march to the gallows could convince her of his complete atonement for his infidelity.

The depth and power of the CP cast helps to shine new light on Miller’s lesser characters. Giles Corey usually comes off as a contentious, litigious, and ultimately harmless old fool, but Tom Ollis – among the loudest actors we have – bellows him to a different place, now fully consistent with the defiant eulogy Elizabeth gives him. Reverend John Hale is also prone to trivializing, apt to be portrayed as a naïve student who needs the books he carries to substantiate his witch-sleuthing credentials.

Tony Wright plops those books down in the Parris bedroom as if he has read and absorbed very word, needing them merely to double-check his vast erudition and point out chapter and verse to the common folk who have hired him. Most Hales seem to be windblown by the dizzying events in Salem, but Wright’s is open-minded and discerning, ultimately bewildered by the insanity that surrounds him, still grasping and feeling the tragedy as deeply anyone.

Final Dress Rehearsal for The Crucible; Pearse Auditorium, October 26th, 2017

My only disappointment was Corlis Hayes, who starts off so spectacularly in her second pass at Tituba at CP, where she also excelled in 2001. Abetted by James Duke’s lighting design and Marilyn Carter’s movement coaching, she’s an object of terror in the opening blood ritual. She “lays low” obsequiously enough, if I might be permitted an Uncle Remus allusion, as cries of witchcraft pursue her like the Eumenides. Hayes breaks so pitifully under the merest pressure that it’s almost comical.

Ah, but when she reaches the prison – the first to be branded a witch – Hayes mangles the words of Rev. Parris’s hapless servant so badly that they are unintelligible. That’s a shame, because Tituba has the freshest, wittiest, big-picture perspective on the whole Puritan catastrophe.

“Devil, him be pleasure-man in Barbados, him be singin’ and dancin’ in Barbados. It’s you folks – you riles him up ‘round here; it be too cold ‘round here for that Old Boy.”

Those who profess to fear and loathe Satan come to rule in 1692 Salem – zealots, scoundrels, and a pack of screaming she-wolves led by a vengeful, slatternly she-devil – wreaking havoc that even Satan might marvel at. Miller wrote The Crucible in 1952 to show postwar Americans that history can repeat itself, destroying us from within. Miller’s message still resonates in post-2016 America, and CP is serving it up scorching hot at maximum volume.

Classics Collide!!

Preview:  The Grapes of Wrath and The Crucible

By Perry Tannenbaum

We can’t explain this curious phenomenon, but the Queen City’s performing arts companies seem to have outgrown their customary October fixations with vampires and spooks. Instead, this coming Halloween weekend, if not entirely witch-free, will be more haunted by a swarm of classics.

After gorging on the full score of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone last weekend, Charlotte Symphony returns to Belk Theater on a strict diet of Mozart & Beethoven. As a spectacular Mary Poppins finishes its run on the east side of ImaginOn, Children’s Theatre of Charlotte slips Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day and Other Stories into the west.

Saturnalia Central will be located at Central Piedmont Community College, where CPCC Theatre presents The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s weaponizing of the Salem Witch Trials to take aim at the infamous anti-Communist witch-hunts led by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. Counting the Robert Ward adaptation produced by Opera Carolina, we’ve had at least five opportunities to view this classic in the Metrolina area since 1998.

Another Tony Award winner has had to wait longer than that for its first run here. Frank Galati adapted and directed John Steinbeck’s epic Depression Era novel, The Grapes of Wrath, winning the 1990 Tony less than three months after its Broadway opening. To all those theatre lovers wondering over the past 27+ years when this classic would finally reach us, Theatre Charlotte is answering: now’s the time.

Steinbeck’s biblical exodus begins in the Dust Bowl during the Depression Era, focusing on one family of dispossessed Oklahoma farmers, the Joads, as they journey to California in search of jobs – and their lost dignity. What the Okies find at the end of their journey isn’t a Promised Land at all. Joining a severely overpopulated workforce, they’re plunged into a sun-kissed cesspool of migrant worker exploitation.

The sheer size of the story, in geography and humanity, is a prime reason why it took so long before the 1939 Pulitzer Prize winner was adapted for the stage – and for the additional delay before a local theatre company brought it here. Galati’s Broadway edition had a cast of 31 playing 45 roles, and that’s not counting the seven musicians on hand to play Mike Smith’s original incidental music.

Theatre Charlotte executive director Ron Law, taking over the creative reins for this production, is taking a simplifying approach, reducing his cast to a mere 23. Running the first local company to pick up the gauntlet on producing this behemoth, he can empathize with those that haven’t.

“The cast is large, which means a bigger costume budget,” Law points out. “If you are paying actors, that makes for a big salary line. There are also some very violent scenes in the play that really require a certified fight choreographer. The play calls for a river, campfires, a grave and a truck. Our space is very limited – virtually no wing space, no traps, no fly system. I truly favor minimalism in theatre, focusing on narrative and characters. But sometimes minimalism is not really all that simple.”

With so many roles, Charlotte’s community also had to worry about who would sign up. Decreasing the cast creates more multiple roles to keep the volunteers busy, and Law was pleased to be able to fill nearly half of his cast list with local theatre vets, including Vic Sayegh, Annette Gill and Paula Baldwin.

Gill and Baldwin have similar pedigrees at the Queens Road barn, playing Linda Loman in the two most recent revivals of Death of a Salesman in 1998 and 2009. Baldwin, the more recent Linda, has also aced auditions at a variety of local companies for prominent – and powerful – roles in Three Tall Women, August: Osage County, The Actress, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Baldwin chafes against the notion that Ma Joad, her role in The Grapes, is a softie by comparison.

“She fulfills her role as the Mother who nurtures, cooks and cleans,” she admits, “but Pa comes to her for her opinion and follows it even when he, at first, doesn’t agree with her. She is truly the backbone of the family. When the men start to falter and give up, she continues to be positive and strong. Ma has several wonderful monologues, and one of my favorites is when Pa has all but given up and she tells him that life for a woman is ‘all one flow, like a stream, little eddies, little waterfalls, but the river, it goes right on.’”

Vilified by bankers and landowners for his workingman sympathies, scorned by literary critics who preferred the apolitical beauties of Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald, the sun began to set on Steinbeck’s reputation and continued to decline after he won the Nobel Prize in 1962. The socialist label, not a problem in Europe, hampered him here.

So let’s look around and see the political reasons why the time may be ripe for The Grapes. An avowed socialist nearly captured the presidential nomination of one of our major parties, and the shadows of fascism and demagoguery hang over our land as heavily as they did when Steinbeck published his masterwork.

Baldwin and Law both cite the sowing of divisions and the widening chasm between the haves and have-nots as reasons why the Joads’ odyssey still resonates today.

“The question then seems to be the same as today,” says Baldwin. “What price are we willing to pay to affect change? Is America truly a land of opportunity for all?”

In the 2007 production of The Crucible at Theatre Charlotte, director Matt Cosper dipped into the screenplay that Miller had written for the 1996 film, freshening the version that had previously run on Queens Road in 1988. Tom Hollis, chairman of the CPCC Drama Department, has settled on an even more daring way to give the old classic a new look.

Directing at Pease Auditorium, Hollis is transposing the 1692 Salem Witch Trials to 1952, when the Miller script was released, while preserving the antique Puritan dialect that the playwright invented for his historical characters. From what we’re told about the impact Hollis hopes to achieve in juxtaposing Salem’s infamous trials and Sen. McCarthy’s infamous Senate hearings, we could possibly see a trace of Sen. Joe or his nemesis, Joseph Welch. Maybe some video cameos?

“The naming of names and the accuser being somehow sacrosanct has been an age-old issue in human affairs,” Hollis observes. “The hysteria of the Salem Witch Trials and the 50’s Communist hunts all echo with the proliferation of ‘fake news’ today. Did not Orwell predict that the shouting of a lie loud enough and long enough will make it true? The inability of many to separate belief from objective reality is more disturbing today than ever.”

After a couple of memorable performances in 1776 and Ragtime last season, Josh Logsdon gets an even meatier role as Miller’s martyr, John Proctor, in his first non-musical foray at CP. He is tempted and traduced by the adulterous Abigail Williams while further tortured and frustrated by his unforgiving wife, Elizabeth – tasked with finding his authentic self while living in a sexist world.

“The text does paint him as domineering and harsh at times when arguing with Elizabeth,” Logsdon says. “But I try to draw on more of his softness with both Abi and Elizabeth. His relationship with Elizabeth transitions from one of resentment and more pain to a reclaimed love and a final peace. He has a softness to Abigail as much as he denies it, but he eventually sees that she’s willing to destroy everything and everyone to have what she wants, and he’s definitely horrified by it.”

Not quite a vampire, but chillingly close – and certainly in season.

Best of Charlotte, 2017

Best of Charlotte, 2017

By Perry Tannenbaum

                                           Best ActorJeremy DeCarlos

 

Among local performers, there are strong candidacies from Brian Logsdon (Pride and Prejudice and Ragtime), Jonavan Adams (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and The Christians), Scott A. Miller (Stupid F@#%ing Bird and The Submission), Jermaine Gamble (A Raisin in the Sun and Jitney) and Tyler Smith (Ragtime and Memphis). All of them sparkled on multiple occasions. But the runaway victory goes to Jeremy DeCarlos, who laps the field – in range and productivity – with four scintillating outings. Draped in a braided Hussar jacket, DeCarlos just finished channeling his inner Jimi Hendrix as the devilish St. Jimmy in American Idiot. That was the last of his Actor’s Theatre gems over the past year, including some cross-dressing preaching in Bootycandy, his insouciant devotion in Stupid F@#%ing Bird, and his amazing transformation – from Jerry Lewis nerd to Incredible Hulk-ish monster – in The Toxic Avenger.

Best Actress – Shar Marlin

The field of contenders is larger among the ladies, but the roles were more thinly distributed, eliminating productivity as a decisive criterion. But which other benchmark should override all others? If it’s flesh-crawling menace, Sarah Woldum gets the edge, bringing Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla to life in She Who Watches. Leslie Giles was the funniest as the blind librarian in The Toxic Avenger, Lucia Stetson the most revelatory as Mother in Ragtime, and Allison Snow Rhinehart was better than her Broadway counterpart as Mama in Memphis. And how can I forget the sizzling dominatrix arrogance of Nonye Obichere as Whatsername in American Idiot? I’m turning instead to Shar Marlin for her sheer power and imperial dominance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a dramatic stunner that also showed Shar’s blues singing chops. Dignity in the face of exploitation and discrimination. Diva!

Best Comedy – Women Playing Hamlet

 

Theatre Charlotte’s You Can’t Take It With You and the Citizens of the Universe farewell, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, were arguably the zaniest productions of the 2016-17, while the Chekhov knockoff from Actor’s Theatre, Stupid F@#%ing Bird, was surely the most poignant. And what about OnQ Productions’ A Brown Tale from James T. Alfred, maybe the funniest one-man show I’ve ever seen? All were worthy candidates, but I’m going to let Chickspeare split this prize with Donna Scott Productions for their joint production of Women Playing Hamlet. Glynnis O’Donoghue starred as the soap queen saddled with the lead role in the Mona Lisa of tragedies, and the galaxy of comediennes – all in multiple roles – offering her questionable advice included Tania Kelly, Andrea King, Vivian T Howell, and Sheila Snow Proctor.

Best Musical – Ragtime

Ragtime Promo Photos

Folks who confine their diet of musicals in Charlotte to touring productions at the PAC are missing out bigtime on the locally-produced blockbusters playing out at smaller venues around town. Actor’s Theatre scrambled to produce a marvelous Toxic Avenger at a storefront church because this city doesn’t have the vision to see the arts flourish on Freedom Drive without a needless morass of red tape. Still in exile, they just brought the noise of American Idiot to Queens University for a face-melting month. After reminding us how finely they can produce A Year With Frog and Toad, Children’s Theatre astonished with the world premiere of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical. With more than one Broadway-level performance, Theatre showed us their mettle with Memphis, and CPCC re-emphasized that their musical excellence isn’t confined to summer anymore. Maybe it was sheer luck, but CP’s wintertime production of Ragtime was the most timely of the year, underscoring the sad fact that institutional racism, police brutality, and prejudice against immigrants aren’t quaint relics of the Jazz Age. As the martyred Coalhouse Walker, Tyler Smith’s impassioned “We are all Coalhouse!” reverberated through a city in turmoil.

Best Drama – Jitney

Early last season, PaperHouse Theatre proved that The Frock Shop on Central Avenue was the perfect site for a creepshow with a dazzling She Who Watches, and early this season, a legend made a comeback when Steve Umberger and his Playworks Group brought a sterling production of The Christians to Booth Playhouse. In between, as Charlotte was fully wakening to how badly we have neglected and mistreated our underclass, theatergoers may have finally been zonked by the realization that our city is exceptionally rife with African American acting and directing talent. Kim Parati made an auspicious directorial debut at Theatre Charlotte with a freshened-up Raisin in the Sun, but this was a vintage year for August Wilson – in two dramas directed by Corlis Hayes, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at CPCC and Brand New Sheriff’s Jitney at Spirit Square. Hayes brought out the best in John W. Price and Jermaine Gamble as the father-son antagonists in Jitney, with Gerard Hazelton adding a mix of comedy and poignancy as the gypsy cab company’s resident lush. Move over OnQ Productions, there really is a brand new black company in town – our second! – producing professional-grade work.

Best Night @ Symphony – Mahler’s “Resurrection”

While a well-played Beethoven symphony, a Rossini overture, a Strauss tone poem, or a Mozart concerto might be the secret sauce to get newcomers to become Charlotte Symphony subscribers, longtime concertgoers like me wish to dismount the warhorses and hear something off the beaten trail. There’s plenty out there that will please both camps: big, unfamiliar orchestral works that will instantly grab you by the lapels even if Symphony hasn’t reprised them within the last decade. Armed with an audacious orchestra and choir, plus two soloists who have sung with Opera Carolina, Davidson College showed the way with a rousing performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony, set to poetry by Walt Whitman. That’s the sort of daring we hope for from Charlotte Symphony’s British maestro, Christopher Warren-Green. We did get a British Isles-themed evening when pieces by Edward Elgar and Peter Maxwell Davies, spiced up with a bagpiper, were served with Mendelssohn’s “Scottish.” Utilizing the Symphony Chorus and distinguished guest vocalists, Warren-Green turned up the power with a pair of Bruckner chorales last November and Mendelssohn’s Elijah last March. If you wanted to sample the full capabilities of Symphony, their chorus, and the guest vocalists Warren-Green can summon to Belk Theater, you had to hear them introducing the wonders of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony No. 2 to an astounded audience.

Best Night @ the Opera – The Girl of the West

Under maestro James Meena, Opera Carolina does the oldies better than ever, as their uproarious Barber of Seville and their vivacious, ultimately anguished La Traviata amply proved. There was even some audacity in the 2016-17 programming as OpCar partnered with Warehouse Performing Arts Center and the D9 Brewing Company to produce an evening of three short operas – including the world premiere of Scott Joiner’s “Connection Lost (The Tinder Opera)” – at the brewery in Cornelius. Yes, a world premiere on Treynorth Drive! But most exciting was the Charlotte premiere of Puccini’s The Girl of the West, as Meena collaborated with six other international companies, including New York City Opera and Teatro del Giglio in Lucca, Puccini’s hometown. Singing was exemplary, persuading me that this second-tier Puccini opera was actually a first-rate work, and staging was anything but stodgy or conservative: much of the scenery was animated and bold, with authentic relics evoking the Wild West supplied by our own dearly beloved Wells Fargo. An appreciable, if infinitesimal, atonement for all the bank’s Wild West chicanery.

 

Little Discoveries Yield Big Laughs in “The Snowy Day”

Review:  The Snowy Day

By Perry Tannenbaum

Faced with the problem of turning Ezra Jack Keats’ children’s classic, The Snowy Day, into an hour-long stage production, Children’s Theatre of Charlotte and adaptor Jerome Hairston have resisted the temptations of bloating the story with needless pabulum or stretching it with irrelevant songs. Instead, they’ve balled up the original story Keats wrote about Peter with subsequent titles he wrote about his urban hero – including Whistle for Willie, Goggles! and A Letter to Amy – into a sizable snowball.

The mighty tetralogy ran a lordly 44 minutes at the performance I attended. Gauging by the delighted reception I saw last Saturday afternoon, I’d say both the length and the treatment were ideal.

Both the scenic and costume design, by Alessia Carpaca and Ketti Shum Mcrae respectively, seem eye-poppingly close to the original Keats illustrations, especially the iconic red snowsuit. Stage director Mark Sutton seems to have horded all the latitude – and fun – to himself before generously divvying it up among his cast.

All of them seem to having a great time at the Wells Fargo Playhouse in ImaginOn. Lydia Williamson not only gets to regress into childhood, she also swaps genders to play Peter in all four stories. Crunching the freshly fallen snow, puffing up agonizingly in attempts to whistle, sporting new goggles Peter is lucky enough to find, and stressing over his birthday invitation to Amy are all prodigious romps for Williamson to feast on.

Abigail Aukerman has the most chameleonic outing, appearing as Mom from time to time when she isn’t branching out into neighbor kid Archie and first crush Amy. Ron Lee McGill remains Dad in an oddball straw hat, hardly changing at all when he’s propelling Peter’s dopey dog, Willie. McGill also gets to chip in some narration – and assorted stagehand work while Peter’s adventures are in progress.

Much of the comedy works because we view it from an older, wiser perspective. We know what will happen when Peter stomps into the snow, though Sarah Tundermann’s projections are a nifty confirmation. And we can anticipate Peter’s heartbreak when he wakes up in the middle of the night and discovers that the snowball he stowed away in the pocket of his snowsuit that afternoon has vanished. How does that happen?

So it’s nice to find that nobody in The Snowy Day And Other Stories is cajoling us to participate or react. We take it all in privately, frequently laughing or marveling at what we see. That’s exactly what Peter is doing, except for those delicious moments when we’re a couple of steps ahead of him.

Children’s Theatre’s “Mary Poppins” Raises the Bar While Flying Its Star

Poppins(C)DBise063

Review:  Mary Poppins

By Perry Tannenbaum

It’s a strange proposition when you decide to bring Mary Poppins to Children’s Theatre at ImaginOn, Charlotte’s pre-eminent fantasy palace. Yes, it’s Disney, but it shatters the Children’s Theatre norm of 90 minutes or less, running over 145 minutes. And the story of how Mary Poppins turns the Banks family from bitterness to joy is only half about children.

Mary Poppins 7

Mary P is definitely needed to halt the vicious cycle of bad behavior from Jane and Michael, the Banks siblings, who seem to live for the thrill of defying and driving away their nannies. But there are marital issues plaguing George and Winifred Banks at the same time, some of them rooted in Victorian sexism; and their ideas about nannies, parenting, and the primacy of money could use a reset. George’s basic failures of self-examination and communication are ultimately the prime reasons why his family is so dysfunctional.

Although the problems are nicely laid out, neither of the two rehab stories is told cogently. Yet the re-education of Jane and Michael certainly has sensational episodes. Statues come to life at a park, a beggar lady sings a heartfelt ballad, the sibs frolic with a preternaturally long word, they cavort with all of London’s chimney sweeps on top of their roof under a midnight moon, and most importantly, they get to discard their castor oil regimen in favor of a sugary tonic. Surely, these are experiences that all good moms and nannies can give their children, right?

Well, they can at ImaginOn, where Children’s Theatre has raised the bar for spectacular technical derring-do – a bar that, among local theatre companies, has mostly been theirs during my 30 years on the beat. While the “Feed the Birds” street scene might strike you as saccharine, and you might accuse the magical park scenes of silly pandering to the anklebiters in the audience, it’s difficult for children of all ages to resist the enchantment of the darkling rooftop scene, further elevated and charmingly smudged by Ron Chisholm’s choreography.

Even that wonder is eclipsed by the flying effects engineered by ZFX, Inc. The only thing I can compare with Mary’s final voyage at ImaginOn are the flying effects I witnessed in the Broadway production of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. Credit Aimee Hanyzewski’s lighting design for enhancing the wonder.

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Swimming against the current of the kid-friendly storyline, Steven M. Levine and Lisa Schacher do their best to stretch fledgling attention spans when they dominate the actionas the elder Bankses. Poor Winifred gets the impression – like we all do – that George reveres his childhood nanny, since he keeps invoking her as a standard, yet Schacher manages to make Mrs. Banks seem credulous rather than stupid, loving rather than meek.

We like her as much as we despise the perversity of George’s parenting ideas, but the simple intervention of Mary – just showing up at his workplace with his children – seems to be enough of an influence for him to do the right thing. All of George’s contradictions and vacillations may seem to be dubious on paper, but Levine makes them work onstage, merging essential morality with a starchy aloofness.

As we get to know Mary better and better, we realize that Bert, her admirer and confidante, is by far the warmest character in the whole crew. Poppins may be able to furlough some statues from their pedestals, but who can muster all the chimney sweeps in London for a midnight frolic other than good ole Bert? Caleb Ryan Sigmon reminds me that Bert is a slightly mischievous and broadly chameleonic creature more than any actor I’ve seen onstage before. Sigmon is also a practicing magician who serves as the show’s magic consultant, so he definitely holds up that end of the bargain.

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Perhaps because of Jill Bloede’s offstage ministrations as dialect coach, I could believe that Janeta Jackson was channeling Julie Andrews in almost every word and note. We probably perceive Jackson as a starchier Poppins than Andrews because she doesn’t arrive with any Sound of Music baggage. Her elegant serenity is hardly sweet at all, even when she sings her signature “Spoonful of Sugar”: she almost makes a point of not emphasizing the sugar, thereby adding weight to the medicine.

The starchier approach helps us to believe in the nurturing distance she maintains with the Banks kids – whom she claims not to love – and in her fundamental capriciousness. Normally, I’m somewhat aghast when “The Perfect Nanny” punishes Jane and Michael by abandoning them. For abusing a ragdoll? Next thing you know, that beggar lady will be wailing “Feed the Toys.”

Jackson comes the closest I’ve ever seen to making this cruel medicine go down, and she has the highest voice I’ve ever heard singing Mary. That extra range pays extra dividends when Olivia Edge enters the fray as Miss Anderson, Mr. Banks’ fearsome nanny of yore. Not only do Jane and Michael flee in terror from Miss Anderson, so does Papa George!

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Edge’s preternaturally high range, fueling her “Brimstone and Treacle” showstopper, pitted against Jackson’s stratospheric soprano – and her “Spoonful of Sugar” philosophy – makes for a climactic showdown of double-barreled power. Since Edge is also fearsomely large in her frilly, funereal gray-and-black dress (designed by costumer Ryan J. Moller), her disposal is specially delightful, a sadistic mix of the witches we loved in Hansel and Gretel and Wizard of Oz.

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Somehow, director Michael J. Bobbitt gets a Charlotte cast that is stronger than the national tour that blew through here in 2010. Getting their equals from the local talent pool of children, 15-year-old Haley Vogel as Jane and 12-year-old Alex Kim as Michael, not only underscores Bobbit’s discernment and directing skills, it also reaffirms what we’ve come to expect at Children’s Theatre: the ability to attract, excite, and mentor the best young theatre talent in town.

Bratty and lovable is a tough balance to sustain, but Vogel and Kim have just the right energy and verve, with a grasp of their character arcs and an appreciation of how the Banks kids might be helping their dad to get his head straight. Like the original Broadway cast and the national tour, Vogel and Kim share their roles with alternates. If Lydia Farr and Ryan Campos are up to the same standard, you will not be disappointed.