Category Archives: Theatre

Summer Night, With Unicorn Plants the Seed for Professional Jewish Theatre at Shalom Park

Review:  Summer Night, With Unicorn

By Perry Tannenbaum

In a cycle that begins in November, The Levine Jewish Community Center jumped aboard the Jewish Plays Project two years ago as Charlotte became one of 12 cities adjudicating JPP’s annual Jewish Playwriting Contest. Charlotte has already assembled 21 readers for the judging process, tied with Chicago for the most among participating cities, in deciding the three scripts that are publicly presented in the spring at Gorelick Hall. That’s where the Shalom Park audience takes over, choosing the winner and also-rans for our region. From those results, a consensus national winner is chosen – not only for presentation at an annual Jewish play festival up in New York but also for full professional productions in all the cities where the Project has taken root. Last year’s contest was different from those that preceded, pitting all winners from previous contests against each other, so that an all-time winner from 2012 to 2017 would emerge. Decided by an objective points system, the 2018 contest actually produced two winners, Estelle Singerman by David Rush, winner of the 2013 prize, and Belfast Kind by Margot Connolly, the 2015 winner.

Among the co-winners, Charlotte chose Rush’s bittersweet comedy-fantasy. We had been told at the readers’ committee meeting back in January that Rush’s title was in flux. By the time it was presented at The Festival of Jewish Theater in June, Estelle had been renamed Summer Night, With Unicorn. That’s the title that JStage brought to Gorelick, sporting poster and playbill artwork with a Marc Chagall flavor that marvelously reflected the spirit and the magical realism of Rush’s play. The main figures in Kayla Piscatelli’s artwork are a crescent moon over the head and neck of a unicorn. Within that white unicorn, there is a silhouetted cityscape of skyscrapers with space enough above them for the Hebrew letters of the first four words of the traditional mourner’s kaddish. Estelle is a gregarious elderly Jew, not devoutly religious, since we meet her a little after 10pm at a lonely McDonald’s in Chicago. There’s nobody else to pester but Warren Spencer, an obvious Cubs fan busily clogging his arteries with a burger and a large order of fries.

Estelle would like this sullen, downcast, and brooding widower to believe she’s doing him a favor by sharing his fries and perhaps hoping to cheer him up as she invites him on a late-night odyssey. She will take him to a park, the Lake Michigan shore, a Christian Science reading room, a synagogue, and – inevitably – a zoo. Where else would Estelle and Warren converse with Seymour, a reincarnated giraffe? Rush proves to be very ecumenical in his ramblings around Chicago. The depressed and anorexic Hannah Kipper reads tarot cards on her lakeside blanket, the reading room is managed by a kindly Sister Rose, and the dark synagogue is haunted by a rabbi who’s unsure whether he’s alive or dead, a thickly bearded gent with Wandering Jew earmarks who has his visitors wondering who’s dreaming whom. Nor are the characteristics that Hannah and Rush assign to the Unicorn gleaned from the Encyclopedia Judaica, where there is no entry for the mythological beast.

 

Long before intermission arrives, we realize that Warren is a stubbornly lapsed Jew who is stewing in bitterness over the circumstances surrounding his wife Doris’s death. Estelle is a widow herself, habitually wandering the city at night because she’s afraid to go to sleep, promising Warren the glory of a sunrise over the lake at the end of their journey. We join Warren in wondering what Estelle’s ulterior motive is, getting hints that he isn’t the first to join her on her midnight rambles. As the lights go down for intermission, it becomes suddenly clear that Estelle is looking somebody to say kaddish over her. What we didn’t know was whether Estelle was alive, with a wisp of matrimonial motives triggering her quest, or dead, needing Warren’s prayers to bring an end to her ghostly wanderings. The other big question was whether Warren would ever say kaddish over his own beloved Doris, let alone this strange and mystifying Estelle.

My estimate is that I haven’t reviewed a theatre performance at Gorelick in almost 16 years, during which time the J has sprouted multiple new wings, one of them two stories high, along with a new entrance and dazzling new facilities – all of which make the Gorelick, now shunted from the front to the back of the complex, look old and drab by comparison. The stage and the dusty chairs we sat in could sorely use a refresh, for starters. JStage producer Susan Cherin Gundersheim, the cultural arts director at the Levine JCC (and a theatre professional in her own right), is clearly facing an uphill climb in convincing people to make a serious investment in the J’s theatre program. Gundersheim has managed to bring professional-grade theatre to the site regardless.

To check off all the design and directorial boxes, Gundersheim has brought in Piscatelli and Mark Sutton to don multiple hats, which they do admirably on their shoestring budget. Sutton’s set design, little more than three wooden frames after we exited McD’s, meshed well with his directorial concept, calling upon his audience to mostly imagine the scenes for themselves. Piscatelli’s costumes and lighting were no less complimentary, the raggedy cerements for the ghostly Doris and the gleaming silk cape for the Unicorn contrasting effectively with the garish attire of our earthbound protagonists.

There are plenty of Hebrew and Yiddish expressions studding this script like landmines. Fortunately, Sheila Snow Proctor navigated the treacherous terrain almost perfectly as Estelle, certainly better than Sutton, who allows Devin Clark to mangle his Yiddish mercilessly as the ageless Rabbi. Portraying a lapsed Jew, David Catenazzo probably earned a pass as Warren on his trespasses with the Hebrew blessing for putting on a tallit – I’ve heard worse during torah readings at my Conservative synagogue. Proctor not only clops around like a pensioner, slightly stooped, slightly squinting, she gets the essence of Jewish soul and humor, the impulse of kvetching leavened with a pinch of self-mockery. She even carries her late husband’s tallit bag and tefillin with a touch of reverence. Perhaps Proctor would have had an easier time of it if Catenazzo had similarly leavened his anger and impatience with hints of the Jewish soul that had loved and indulgently persevered with Doris when she wasn’t angelic. To some extent, Warren needed to be charmed by Estelle. Judging this role is a little like living the journey of Ebenezer Scrooge.

With two major cameos, the Rabbi and the giraffe, Clark had the most opportunities to shine among the supporting players. He was especially entertaining as Seymour sparring with Warren, who probed into the question of why he had been demoted to giraffe in his present incarnation. Yet Clark was curiously endearing as the bewildered Rabbi, notwithstanding the butchered vay iz meers. Liora Tal likely sparked some objections for how she delivered Hannah Kipper, a little underpowered and maybe a little too serene for a young fortune teller looking forward to death – but Estelle persisted in feeding her, and I didn’t think we were supposed to believe her, either. I’m afraid that Mariana Bracciale didn’t get much of a chance to shine as Sister Rose, but at least she got to glow in the denouement as the Unicorn, making her entrance and exit from the margins of the audience.

No cameo better encapsulated what Summer Night, With Unicorn was all about than Stephanie DiPaolo’s visit from the beyond as the ghost of Doris. Even more befuddled and uncomprehending than the Rabbi, DiPaolo only flickeringly registered what Warren was asking of her, but although she haltingly spoke, she never responded. That was very much the dynamic in Rush’s magical journey. Multiple possibilities presented themselves to Estelle when she posed the question we all have about what lies ahead, but through the night, there was no clearer answer than that death will surely come. With richer lighting, sound design, and a sprinkle of special effects, DiPaolo’s clarifying moment of confusion might have reached a finer pinnacle. Hopefully, when more people at the Levine JCC appreciate the gems these professionals are creating, they will also realize that the artists and their audience deserve a finer setting.

 

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Philadelphia Story Bides Its Time Before Detonating

Review:  The Philadelphia Story

By Perry Tannenbaum

One of the wonderful things about Philip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story is that, yes, it really is about class distinctions and peculiarities, but the playwright remains ambivalent and tolerant of them all. Beneath their upper or lower crust exteriors, all of these Philadelphians – young and old – are recognizably human. You rarely see so many fully-fleshed characters onstage in the course of a single evening. I wouldn’t be terribly surprised to see a premier professional company repeatedly reviving this witty, effervescent comedy, but it’s absolutely astounding that Theatre Charlotte, our community theatre, has revived Philadelphia Story twice in the new millennium, now and back in 2000.

Both productions showed the pitfalls. The cast needs to be nine deep, alert to the amount of polish and roughness Barry expects of them, and aware of the energies and pacing required at each point of Barry’s intricate plot. The story revolves around “virgin goddess” socialite Tracy Lord – as you might expect, since Katharine Hepburn, the original Tra on Broadway and on celluloid, matched the 25% investment that the playwright plowed into the original production. Tracy is sensibly engaged to the cold and ambitious George Kittredge, impetuously divorced from the dapper C.K. Dexter Haven, and estranged from her father, whose indiscretions have brought the Lords unwanted publicity.

While Tracy is resolving these relationships, her brother is focused on suppressing a magazine exposé that will be published about their wayward father, dangling the prospect of exclusive access to the wedding as an enticing alternative for the publisher. The reporter and the photographer assigned to the Kittredge-Lord nuptials, Mike Conner and Liz Imbrie, bring another level of complications to the scene. She’s been secretly carrying a torch for him for years, but when spirits rise and champagne flows on the night before the wedding, Mike finds that he has fallen – hard – for Tracy, a prelude to their both enjoying an illicit, drunken midnight dip together in the Lords’ swimming pool.

While Barry is at work on how the wedding, the magazine story, and multiple alienated affections – past and present – will ultimately resolve, director Tonya Bludsworth and her cast must deal with all of the reactions and repercussions along the way. Making all of this bubbly complexity even harder for Bludsworth and Theatre Charlotte to achieve is the relative lack of enthusiasm for the project. Turnout for auditions was likely as tepid as audience turnout. Compared with opening night for Peter and the Starcatcher in September, there were conspicuously more empty seats at the back of the house – and a bit less confidence onstage.

Ten of the 14 cast members are new to Theatre Charlotte, including most of the key characters. We started off strong back in 2000 with a Tracy who had the look, the patrician manner, and sometimes even the sound of Hepburn, but that newcomer’s imperial highness never became sufficiently ruffled when the plot thickened. In Bella Belitto, we have another newcomer as Tracy, and on opening night, her serene highness was conspicuously lacking in the early going and – like others onstage – she was often underpowered and inaudible.

Without that serene aura and grace, the splintering of Tracy’s goddess élan isn’t as poignant as it should be in Belitto’s account of her re-education. Yet when she’s assailed by complications, catastrophes, and intensifying adoration, she faces it all very convincingly, her spirits and energies rising. Waking up on the climactic morning after, her decibel level also crescendos spontaneously. We feel that she is learning her lesson and actually benefiting from the indiscretions that brought on her fall – and that the lesson runs deep to her core. Her epiphany detonated effectively for me.

A lot of that depends on Nick de la Canal radiating a rakish upper-crust urbanity as Dexter with enough of that crust trimmed away to make room for tolerance and forgiveness – the two key qualities Tracy needs to acquire. De la Canal’s insouciance also contrasts nicely with the stuffiness that Will Millwood brings to George Kittredge. Barry doesn’t completely hide his disdain for George’s commercial outsider status, so Millwood makes a prudent choice in stressing his judgmental bent.

Dexter also comes off finer than Mike Conner, but by a significantly smaller margin. Here the nuanced class distinctions are no less telling. Christopher Long reminds us that Mike starts out fairly judgmental himself before Tracy bewitches him, but we indulge his pre-judgments more readily in the same spirit that we’re inclined to forgive his boyish, impulsive trespasses. Our best verdict on him vis-à-vis George is much like Barry’s: he’s more deserving, in spite of his depressed finances, of being called a gentleman.

What gives The Philadelphia Story its screwball slant is that everybody up onstage and down in the audience seems to know who the best fit for Tracy is – except for the goddess herself. This includes her mischievous younger sister, Dinah, who attempts some telephone matchmaking. Helena Dryer makes little sis pesky and likable in the right proportions. She’ll be an utter triumph once she makes herself consistently intelligible.

Tracy’s mom isn’t the most pivotal role here, though Margaret does point the way for her daughter in forgiving her husband’s infidelity. What makes Heather Place’s debut so auspicious as Margaret Lord is her clear bubbly delivery and her effortless projection of warmth and class, richly portending her reconciliation with the dashing, slightly over-the-hill Seth Lord. Victor Sayegh is mildly and earnestly supplicating toward Margaret and his disapproving daughter, as befits a Philadelphia patriarch, another cue for Tracy to accept people’s imperfections, including her own.

Sayegh and Place draw two of Chelsea Retalic’s most stylish costume designs in evoking high society elegance, but it’s an uphill battle to project prosperity amid Josh Webb’s drab and dour set design. Two Ionian columns fail to provide uplift, and there’s no longer a visible hint of the swimming pool in the wings. Portraying the eccentric Uncle Willie in a delightful debut, Dan Kirsch gets my nod as the plutocrat most at home in this down-market mansion, lovable for all his pomposity.

Fresh from his crossdressing exploits in Starcatcher, Johnny Hohenstein is mostly responsible, as Tracy’s scheming brother Sandy, for the PR intrigue that lurks beneath the romantic comedy. Good luck following – or caring about – all the Act 2 twists in that sector of the plot. For that reason, Anna Royal as Liz turns out to be more important for me. Ultimately, she’s modeling the patience, forbearance, and forgiveness toward Mike that Tra should have toward Dex. Royal gives Liz just enough edge to update her and elevate above the cliché she must have been in 1939 when THE PHILADELPHIA STORY first hit Broadway.

Here she isn’t just a working-class woman who knows her place, meekly deserving Tracy’s discards. Wielding her Contax camera, she’s Mike’s professional partner, biding her time for a natural upgrade.

Actor’s Theatre Brings More Than Sufficient Wattage to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

By Perry Tannenbaum

For all of its bells and whistles, Simon Stephens’ The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time evolves into something quite simple – a mother, a father, and their autistic son who are all trying to be better. I’ve seen the show three times in less than three years, first on Broadway, then on in its national tour, and now in its current incarnation at Hadley Theater on the Queens University campus. Each time, I’ve found new details to unpack, new facets of character to consider. Of course, the Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte version breaks the mold set by Marianne Elliott, who directed this adaptation of Mark Hadden’s novel on Broadway and on tour. In his stage direction and scenic design, Chip Decker takes his cues from Elliott and her scenic designer, Bunny Christie, but it’s obvious the Decker and the three actors he has cast as the Boone family have their own ideas.

Christopher Boone is the inward 15-year-old with autism who savors his solitude and freaks if anyone touches him, including Mum and Dad. He’s fairly oblivious, inexperienced, and clueless about human relationships, so the marital dynamics between his parents are totally unexplored territory. Yet Christopher functions on such a high mental level, an Asperger savant syndrome level, that he regards his special ed classmates as stupid and is highly confident that he can pass his A-level math tests years before “normal” schoolkids are allowed to take them. With Chester Shepherd taking on this role in his own clenched, volatile and vulnerable way, I saw more clearly why the prospect of postponing these tests was such an unthinkable catastrophe for him. Not only does Christopher notice everything that well-adjusted people allow to slip past them, he can also recall details with the same precision, like every item he extracted from his pockets on the night he was arrested and questioned at the Swindon police station. So it figures that Christopher would plan his future with the same persnicketiness, and that a single displaced detail – like postponing the date when he would pass his maths – would throw him into a spasmodic fit of panic.

Or so it seems with Shepherd emphasizing Christopher’s hair-trigger sensitivities. We see him at the beginning of his epic journey, huddled over his neighbor Mrs. Shears’ dog, Wellington, who lies there lifeless, skewered by a pitchfork. Christopher is obviously a prime suspect for Mrs. Shears, so she calls the police. Uncomfortable around other humans, Christopher doesn’t react well when a policeman arrives to interrogate him. Dad must come down to the station, after Christopher is arrested for assaulting the cop, to explain his son’s condition – a not-so-subtle indictment of police enlightenment. Twice shaken by the evening’s experiences, Christopher resolves to solve the mystery of who killed Wellington. That beastly affair doesn’t seem to concern the police, perhaps the second count in Hadden’s indictment.

As Christopher well understands, solving the Wellington mystery will force him to engage with other people, especially neighbors whom he has previously shunned. This aversion isn’t readily quashed, cramping the investigation when Christopher decides to question the warm and eccentric Mrs. Alexander. When the hospitable lady invites him into her apartment, Christopher refuses, and when Mrs. Alexander offers to bring him orangeade and cookies – after a somewhat protracted negotiation – he flees before she can return with the goodies, fearing that she is calling the police on him, the way neighbor ladies seem to do. Christopher seems most at ease with the person who understands him best – his teacher, Siobhan. She encourages him to pursue this project and to chronicle the investigation in a book. But she has the good sense to yield to Dad when he forbids Christopher to continue with his investigation and his narrative. With some adorable hair-splitting, Christopher thinks he’s circumventing Dad’s directive as he persists in his probe, getting key info when he meets up with Mrs. Alexander for a second time.

Maybe the niftiest turn of the plot is how Dad ironically entraps himself. By confiscating Christopher’s handwritten book-in-progress, Ed Boone ultimately ensures that his son will not only discover the truth about Wellington but also the truth he’s been hiding about Christopher’s mom, Judy. This section of the plot is bookended by two prodigious meltdowns from Shepherd, the second one stunning enough to remind me of Othello’s fit. Shepherd delivers Christopher’s comical difficulties as vividly as his poignant ones in a performance that rivals his leading role in Hand to God a year ago, but Decker and his design team magnify this performance by working to help us see the action from the perspective of an autistic teen. At the beginning, Decker’s sound design assaults us with loud noises, simulating the sensory overload that is the everyday norm for Christopher. There are similar assaults in Hallie Gray’s lighting design glaring in our faces – and flashing red alarms across the upstage walls when Christopher is tensing up or melting down. We often hear a doglike whimper from Shepherd when he is stressed.

About the only shortfall in Decker’s scenic concept, which opens up Christie’s more enclosed design, is the erosion it inflicts on Jon Ecklund’s projection designs. They just don’t pop as wondrously as they did at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in New York or at Belk Theater when the tour stopped here in February 2017. We don’t get quite the same amplification when poor Christopher navigates the London Underground or cityscape as he searches for Mum’s flat, and the wow factor when Christopher rhapsodizes on our vast universe is muted. But there was plenty of wattage from Shepherd to compensate, and Becca Worthington gave us more energy on opening night as Judy Boone than I saw on Broadway or at the Belk describing the good times and the bad times before she abandoned her family. By the time she recalled the meltdown at a shopping mall that precipitated her departure, I didn’t require a replay. Afterwards, Worthington gave more of an emphasis on doing better as a mother so it was never overshadowed by her outrage at Ed’s deceptions and misdeeds.

Rob Addison was less wiry and more avuncular than previous Eds that I’d seen, which struck me as good things before and after he was found out. I think first-timers will see Dad’s prohibition of Christopher’s probe as less strict and arbitrary than my first and second impressions were on Broadway and on tour – and that his pleas for forgiveness are sincere and heartfelt. A less cuddly approach to the role is certainly defensible, but I was deeply pleased with Addison’s take. Decker brought Megan Montgomery downstage as Siobhan more often than I remembered, giving Christopher’s teacher slightly more texture than I had seen previously. The brambles in her accent also demonstrated that Montgomery’s years at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland hadn’t been wasted.

An ensemble of six flutters around the four core characters, moving spare scenery pieces around, unobtrusively setting up an electric train set, acting as street and subway crowds, levitating Christopher, and filling multiple minor roles. Tracie Frank and Jeremy DeCarlos stood out as the long-separated Shearses, each abrasive to Christopher in his or her own way. With her nervous gestures and blue-tinted pigtails, Shawnna Pledger’s fussy account of Mrs. Alexander safely transcended that of a generic eccentric. A similar children’s book simplicity hovered over Donovan Harper’s rendition of the arresting Policeman in the opening scene, yet Tom Scott was able to sprinkle some comical discomfort on Reverend Peters when confronted with the question of where heaven is.

Only Lisa Hatt was deprived of a name, portraying a Punk Girl, and a Lady in Street among her various cameos. Decker may have felt sorry for all of Hatt’s unnamed contributions, perhaps allowing her to choose her own number. She was listed in the Actor’s Theatre playbill as No. 40, a radical break from the Broadway and touring company playbills, which listed that role as No. 37. This production certainly paid attention to details! We even had the delight of Stephens’ Pythagorean postscript, which Shepherd dispatched with a full two minutes remaining on the projected digital clock. It was part of a comical meta layer that the playwright sprinkled across Christopher’s dialogues with Siobhan, reminding us that he had adapted Hadden’s novel for the stage. Very successfully, I should add.

Hamilton Arrives, Lifting Local Artists – or Eclipsing Them?

Preview: Hamilton

By Perry Tannenbaum

Lauded by Broadway critics as an artistic breakthrough, showered with 11 Tony Awards, celebrated and denounced by successive US Presidents, and worshipped by millions wherever it has played. Hamilton has been an unprecedented sell-out smash since it opened on August 6, 2015. It’s the hottest ticket in New York, and wherever it tours, it’s big – capital boldface letters big.

And now the actors, the scenery, the technicians, and the musicians have arrived in the QC, triggering an influx of ticketbuyers, hotel bookings, restaurant reservations, and sheer I-got-to-see-Hamilton euphoria that will linger until the tour’s final performance at Belk Theater on November 4.

The hullabaloo peaked on August 1 when non-subscription seats went up for grabs. Beginning at 5 a.m., three hours before tickets were scheduled to go on sale, over 110,000 hopefuls queued up to snag seats online – plus an estimated 8,000+ bots that were poised to steal and scalp tickets, delaying sales until 9:20.

Another crowd lined up at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center box office on Tryon Street, where wristbands were distributed starting at 5:30 a.m. By 9:46, the box office allotment of seats had been doled out to proud wearers of 1200 lucky wristbands, who could score a maximum of four tickets. It wasn’t until 3:37 p.m. that folks still waiting on the online queue were told to abandon all hope.

But the financial impact of Hamilton – and the ticketbuying frenzy – really began more than a year ago. If you wanted first dibs on Hamilton seats, you had to splurge on a full Broadway Lights subscription for 2017-18. Largely because Hamilton loomed so enticingly over the rainbow as part of the package, all subscriptions for the Blumenthal’s Broadway Lights Series, including eight other shows, were sold out by August 1 of last year. A waiting list for those precious subscriptions was announced on June 24, 2017.

Not only did Hamilton enable Blumenthal to sell out its entire 2017-18 Broadway Lights inventory, it set the stage for them to launch an additional Encore Series, including reprises of Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, Book of Mormon, and Lion King. Those also sold pretty well.

So more than a whole year of theatergoing at Blumenthal’s big boxes – Belk Theater, Ovens Auditorium, and Knight Theater – was built on the public’s insatiable demand for Hamilton tickets. That’s some pretty heavy lifting.

But what kind of lift does Hamilton deliver for local artists and arts organizations? Around town, there are grumblings that the big-box successes at the PAC suck audience, revenue, and esteem away from local pros, shunting them into the shadows.

We heard from Carver Johns during the recent run of The Foreigner at Belmont Abbey College. Back when he was more active on the Charlotte scene, Johns had starring roles in Charlotte’s Web at Children’s Theatre, The Changeling with Innovative Theatre, Fool for Love with Off-Tryon Theatre Company, and The Exonerated, the last show produced by Charlotte Repertory Theatre before it flamed out in 2005.

“The way [Broadway Lights] is framed and kept separate from local fare,” Johns says, “suggests that the Blumey shows are ‘real theater’ and the rest of us are Little Rascals throwing things up in a barn. And this I believe was the long-term fallout of Angels [in America] and Rep.”

Shuttling back and forth from Charlotte Rep to Children’s Theatre acting jobs – supplemented by gigs as a certified lighting, sound and AV technician and a fight supervisor – Johns could cobble together a livelihood in theatre here in town. That can’t happen anymore unless you’re on the payroll at ImaginOn with Children’s Theatre.

When Johns was acting and directing Fool for Love, theatre groups formed coalitions, advertised jointly, and coordinated programming schedules. With the coming of light rail, construction of yuppie housing, and the demise of Carolina Actors Studio Theatre (CAST), the NoDa scene where all that happened has all but disappeared.

“Smaller companies have to own that we have eaten our own by driving one another out of business,” Johns admits. “But the ‘real theater’ vs ‘local loonies’ comparison the Belksters and their programming creates will always be a negative impact until the city power structure becomes more progressive and truly embraces local artists.”

Tim Ross was a mainstay at Charlotte Rep in leading roles onstage – and prominent at the pioneering Charlotte Shakespeare before that. Over the years, Ross found his lifeline behind the soundboard at the WFAE studio in Spirit Square where he produced the Charlotte Talks broadcasts five days a week until 2015. What irks Ross is how feebly media has pushed back against the power structure. Even at arguably the friendliest media outlet for performing arts publicity in the QC, Ross found that local theatre literally struggled for air.

“I had a constant struggle trying to get the host or the other producers to get on board with doing more shows about local theatre,” Ross recalls. “I don’t know how Hamilton helps beyond motivating people to go to the theater in general. There might be three or four interesting productions going on at exactly the same time as Hamilton but I’m pretty sure that Hamilton is going to get an absolute ton of free local press that it doesn’t even need while these other productions will barely get mentioned.”

Banding together might help local theatre companies do more advertising and promotion, and it would be immensely helpful if local media gave them more of an airing, but a change in outlook could also provide a lift. Tom Gabbard, president and CEO of Blumenthal Performing Arts (BPA), scoffs at the notion that Hamilton and Broadway Lights are the natural enemies of local theatre.

“My arts colleagues who get wound up about this don’t understand that their real competition is not the blockbuster shows or other arts events,” Gabbard insists. “It’s Netflix, brew pubs, the Panthers and a million other things that people do besides go to theater. All of us in the arts, big or small, are together in needing to get the public who aren’t going to the arts to watch less Netflix and go to a show. Worrying about competition within the arts is delusional, and misses strategizing on what are solutions.”

It’s also delusional to presume that BPA isn’t already reaching out with help, promotional and financial, to local arts groups. After paying staff and maintaining facilities, BPA plows plentiful monies into tilling the soil for local artists and arts groups – and enriching it.

But of course, you want to know how much cash we’re talking about. As we began digging into this, BPA issued a press release proclaiming that the sold-out run of The Lion King that began in August grossed more than $4.8 million over a three-week, 24-performance engagement. Using a multiplier of 3.66 supplied by the Touring Broadway League, promotions manager Brandon Carter estimated an economic impact of well over $17 million.

Set to run for 32 performances, Hamilton will have an even larger impact. Compared to Lion King ticket prices, which averaged $100 each, the range for Hamilton was $75 to $175 a shot, with select VIP premium seats going for $434.50. So ticket sales won’t merely be 33% higher because of the longer engagement. Factoring the higher sticker prices, Gabbard predicted last week that Hamilton would gross over $9 mil for a total economic impact of more than $30 mil – or a less gaudy $23.5 if you go by the more conservative 2.5 multiplier that Gabbard prefers.

And that’s not counting all the additional subscription tix – an additional five thousand subscriptions compared to 2016-17, a 50% increase – and encore programming that Hamilton has carried on its back.

So BPA has plenty of profits to play with, about 10% of the Broadway Lights gross for starters. Some of these proceeds go into helping local resident companies like On Q Performing Arts, Three Bone Theatre and Caroline Calouche & Co. pay rental fees at smaller venues under the BPA umbrella, namely McGlohon Theater and Duke Energy at Spirit Square and Booth Playhouse up in Founders Hall. By day, Community School of the Arts gets a break at Sprit Square.

Fully itemized, subsidies and rental waivers approached $1 million in 2016-17, since beneficiaries also included users of BPA’s bigger boxes: Opera Carolina, Charlotte Symphony and Charlotte Ballet, who all used the Belk and Knight Theater. These companies would pay nearly 22% more to perform in St. Paul and more than 200% more to perform in Dallas, according to Gabbard.

That not only impacts Opera, Symphony, and Ballet, it also impacts music lovers and balletomanes who subscribe to their performances, keeping ticket prices down. Companies that rent BPA’s venues can also take advantage of their databases to reach out to their untapped market. Whether or not they rent space at BPA’s facilities, companies that have the necessary hardware can utilize Carolina Tix, the ticket selling engine launched by BPA that’s offered free to all local companies.

All of the above may sound a bit under-the-hood or behind-the-scenes, but BPA also ventures into sponsorships of high profile events. About the same amount of money that goes annually for subsidies and slashed rentals goes into putting up unique events – or bringing in young people to see shows that would otherwise be way beyond their means. The three-year-old Charlotte Jazz Festival and Breakin’ Convention, a three-day showcase of break dancing, both required outlays of at least $200K annually before they could happen.

And have you heard of the Blumey Awards? High schoolers go insane watching their classmates perform onstage at Belk Theater, unleashing deafening cheers for winners of best acting, design, and musical awards and scholarships. Two Charlotte winners have gone on to New York and won the national Jimmy Award for best actress, and two of Charlotte’s best actresses, Eva Noblezada and Abby Corrigan, have gone on to Broadway fame, Corrigan in the national tour of Fun Home and Noblezada in the title role of the Broadway and London productions of Miss Saigon.

Ironically, the judges who decide the Jimmy Awards up in New York are more aware of the high level of talent we’re training in Charlotte than most people who live here.

High school theatre programs across the Metrolina region have been galvanized and incentivized. But without a thriving regional theatre company in Charlotte, how can the best talent incubated here stay in the city and build professional careers? How can Corrigan and Noblezada go home again?

“We have, as a community, allowed so many of our local arts organizations to close, shut down, wither and wilt with very little pause or remorse,” Karina Caporino declares. A fixture onstage at CAST before it abruptly folded in 2014, Caporino has been a leading light in the Machine Theatre and XOXO guerilla groups, and she’ll be at Spirit Square at the end of November in an Actor’s Gym revival of Noël Coward’s Fallen Angels.

With a viewpoint mostly taking in the scene beyond the BPA’s big and small boxes in the Uptown, Caporino doesn’t see the Hamilton “lift” extending to the artists and companies she has worked with in the past. She was shaken by the frenzied queuing up for Hamilton tickets in a city that neglects its own.

“The values of our community unnerve me,” she posted on Facebook the following day. “We have the opportunity now to really take a moment to evaluate and reconfigure our values as an arts community. We have the opportunity to refocus ourselves and to push up our own creators. I recognize my chance to change trajectories and push our community in a more productive and inclusive direction, and I’m not throwing away my shot.”

Gabbard also sees this Hamilton moment as a ripe one. Calling upon his own experience running an affiliated League of Regional Theatres (LORT) company in the Denver metro, he advises mainstream groups to ride the lift rather than fighting against it.

“I used the success of someone else’s big shows as a launch point for my own success,” he explains. “I’m not spinning to say that the whiners need to get more strategic about leveraging off the success of these big shows. In Denver, I grew the subscription from 500 to 10,000 by carefully researching the Broadway series and building my LORT seasons off it, and off of what some consumers found missing in the experience.”

Does that sort of thing happen in Charlotte? Not so much. We thought it was a promising sign that CPCC Theatre and Charlotte Symphony were both staging shows later this month steeped in the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber – just six weeks after Lord Andrew’s Love Never Dies played the Belk.

In his 35 years on Elizabeth Avenue, drama department chair Tom Hollis has seen precious little overlap between the audience that turns out for Broadway Lights and the crowds that line up for CP’s musical offerings. He fondly remembers the time at Belk Theater when someone sitting in front of him turned to a friend and asked, “Have you ever heard of this Theatre Charlotte?”

Likewise, Symphony executive president Mary A. Deissler described the alignment of the “Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber” concert with the Love Never Dies tour as serendipitous rather than designed. “We didn’t plan it that way – just coincidence,” she confides. “But as we know our Pops audience loves Broadway, we viewed it as a great additional option.”

Less hand-wringing and more strategic planning couldn’t hurt, that’s for sure.

Whether or not local arts organizations take advantage of next-big-things like Lion King, Book of Mormon, and Hamilton, Gabbard maintains that BPA is still benefiting theatre companies around town. As a member of IPN, the Independent Producers Network, BPA invests in many of the shows that wind up opening on Broadway, touring across America, and popping up again on college campuses and at community theaters. Shows produced by IPN that have played at Theatre Charlotte, Actor’s Theatre or CPCC Summer Theatre in recent years include 9 to 5, Memphis, The Drowsy Chaperone, The Mountaintop, Spamalot, and The Addams Family.

Among the IPA shows still headed for the Belk – and Broadway – are Dear Evan Hansen, Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella, Donna Summer The Musical and Tootsie.

Closer to opening night, Caporino was striking a more balanced and conciliatory tone. “It’s a ‘yes and’ situation,” she begins. “YES, it is super exciting that Hamilton exists, is coming to Charlotte, is getting all this attention for/engagement with the arts AND we should use this opportunity to examine how we as a community value our local artists. Do we provide them with ample funding? Do we provide them with marketing and media coverage? Do we provide them room for errors? Are we making sure what we are providing is being done consciously and with great intention across broad spectrums of identity, race, class, gender? And do we value what is made here in Charlotte?”

On the Charlotte scene since 2007, when she was still finishing her college degree, Caporino still wrestles with student loan debt as she tries to balance work in the organic grocery industry with a career as a performing artist. Optimistically winking, she acknowledges that the artistic career of her dreams isn’t possible here yet – and that she thinks about leaving.

“I’m also rather stubborn,” she adds, “and don’t want to throw in the towel on the Queen City just yet.”

Hamilton Sparks a Feeding Frenzy – and Justifies It

Review:  Hamilton

By Perry Tannenbaum

Have you seen it? Does anybody have tickets?

Those seem to be the big questions now that the Philip Tour of Hamilton has rolled into Charlotte, and Belk Theater is the room where it happens. Unless you can find somebody who will let go of them, or you’re willing to take on the dates – and the prices – for the few stray tickets Blumenthal Performing Arts can still sell, the hottest Broadway Lights tickets in Queen City history are gone. A daily lottery gives you 40 shots at the prize for each performance. By all means enter it if you’re unwilling to abandon all hope.

So unlike most reviews that I file, this one isn’t for people on the fence. People jumped off that fence on August 1, when available tickets sold out in less than six hours. This review is more for readers who wish to know how good the tour is, and how well it compares with the original in New York and the replacement cast at the Richard Rodgers Theater that carries on now.

It is, of course, axiomatic that Hamilton is great. With book, music, and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show has sparked a feeding frenzy at every box office in every theater where it has played – and jaw-dropping prices for its top tier VIP tickets. We’re Americans, after all, fervently devoted to the capitalist system founded by Alexander Hamilton. Financial success and buyer enthusiasm are our current gold standards.

For the record, I was somewhat ambivalent about the New York production – and only scantly prepared. The experience was unparalleled, sporting the most palpable audience energy and involvement I’ve experienced. But the disorientation that this musical can produce is also unparalleled, even if you’ve braced yourself for it.

Face it, rap music is a wildly discordant idiom for the era and the epic biography that Miranda plunges us into, more so for anyone like me who doesn’t ingest hefty helpings of rap daily. If the life of Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s brainiest forefathers, were turned into a ballet, I’m fairly sure that the choreographer’s dominant style wouldn’t be tap dancing. Seems to me like an apt analogy for what Miranda has done – until you factor in that rap is the musical lingua franca of our time.

Miranda’s rap was the primary obstacle I needed to overcome, not just because of its disconnect with Colonial America but because lyrics often flew by unintelligibly, either because the actors were rattling them off at breakneck speed or audience reaction drowned them out. Might I also venture to hint that a few of the accents fell on the wrong syllable? Although Paul Tazewell’s costumes were a welcome concession to colonial days and helped differentiate among the players, David Korins’ scene design was a brash misnomer, staunchly refusing to yield to the old-school convention of scenery.

When Act 2 began, and Miranda leaned toward comedy with the foppish return of Thomas Jefferson from France, I found myself going with the flow more readily. “What’d I Miss?” and “The Room Where It Happens” seemed to burst open a musical palette that – with the exception of King George’s cameo – had sounded fairly monochromatic to me before intermission. And the breathtaking audacity and irreverence of turning two cabinet-level debates, between Secretary of State Jefferson and Treasury Secretary Hamilton, into absurdly anachronistic poetry slams refereed by George Washington?? Irresistible.

Seeing Hamilton in New York was most of the preparation I needed to enjoy it more in Charlotte. Dipping into the Ron Chernow biography that inspired Miranda’s work quickly proved to be a dead end: there is more historical depth and nuance in the book’s first couple of pages than you’ll find in the entire evening of this Broadway megahit. Maybe more empathy as well, though Miranda also rallies on that dimension in Act 2.

Listening to the cast album on your favorite streaming service will be a better use of your time, training your ears to the rhythms and the pace – while priming you for the intensified concentration that Hamilton demands. I listened repeatedly to first four tracks three or four times, getting the feel of the show without previewing too much of the content. But beware: immersion into Miranda-style rap can leave you with withdrawal symptoms. The following evening, listening to the local news, the weatherman seemed to be rapping as I fixated on the rhythm of his forecast instead of the meaning. Days after that, “Alexander Hamilton” and “My Shot,” the first two songs of the show, proved to be tenacious earworms.

What helped me more than better preparation my second go-round was a better cast. Mind you, when I finally snagged press seats for Hamilton in January 2017, replacements for the original cast had already been replaced. Each of these casts had two actors rotating as Alexander, one of whom subbed on Sundays. Reviewing cast #3, I saw none of the above, just a small-print understudy for the sub. On press night in Charlotte, Joseph Morales was an improvement – if you were looking for a Miranda overachiever rather than a Jimmy Smits heartthrob – prancing around impishly as a revolutionary provocateur, running his mouth pugnaciously whether rallying political allies or refuting his foes, and giving us a gentlemanly susceptibility to every woman who tried to seduce him.

By a smaller margin, I also preferred the saturnine authority and incipient menace that Nik Walker infused into Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s perennial rival and our frequent narrator. Walker’s Burr isn’t merely pragmatic and cunning. He’s dangerous. But what decisively separated the Philip Tour from the Broadway third-stringers were the three women who portrayed the Schuyler Sisters. Shora Narayan is Eliza, the sister Alexander will marry; Ta’Rea Campbell is Angelica, the sister that Alex maybe should have married; and Nyla Sostre is Peggy, the discard – resurfacing after intermission as Maria Reynolds, the siren who lures Alex into a shakedown sex scandal.

Up in New York, the trio emphasized their sisterhood to the extent that I began to suspect Miranda was basing his Schuylers on Diana Ross and the Supremes rather than actual historical figures, mere ploys to simulate diversity. I couldn’t wait to see them vanish. Here the contrast between the innocent, trusting Eliza, and the wiser, more sophisticated Angelica is wonderfully projected in Narayan’s silken plaintive voice juxtaposed with Campbell’s R&B power. Their songs came alive, deepening their individuality; the pain that Alex inflicted upon Eliza became poignant, devastating; and her quiet forgiveness of her wayward husband was an emotional peak.

Both of the remaining Founding Fathers are quite good, but it’s Kyle Scatliffe as Jefferson who threatens to steal the show from the leads each time he parleys his massive voice and his hulking frame with his bodacious dancing skills. His flair for comedy is a perfect match for his flamboyant purple threads. Less imposing is Marcus Choi, who makes George Washington a stern, sometimes avuncular father figure for Alexander. If you had seen Nicholas Christopher* as the father of our country – monumental Mount Rushmore stuff, really – you’d understand why Choi’s Washington was a bit of a letdown.

As for the lone white man among major players in this diverse cast, I couldn’t see the slightest difference between Jon Patrick Walker as King George here in Charlotte and Rory O’Malley as the Broadway monarch, though I suppose Walker is hamming it up a little more for the larger hall. In a sea of anachronisms and stylistic disconnects – Jefferson actually executes a mic drop after one of his raps! – there’s a sensible British tang to King’s “You’ll Be Back” and subsequent variants. Close your eyes and you might hear echoes of Lennon-McCartney ditties during the Beatles’ vintage Sgt. Pepper years. It’s an island of blissful, silly relaxation in a theatre evening of riveting energy and intensity.

*Christopher, you’ll be glad to know, hasn’t vanished from the scene. He has been reincarnated on the other Hamilton tour, the Angelica Tour, as Aaron Burr.

 

CP’s Becket Struggles With Loyalty, Faith, and Caring

Review: Becket

By Perry Tannenbaum

When Becket began at Halton Theater this past Sunday afternoon, it struck me as a vast historical tapestry. I was a bit startled to find that I was asking myself, Why didn’t Shakespeare ever take up this story? As Jean Anouilh’s drama rumbled majestically on, however, quite a different question gripped me: Isn’t this a glorified two-hander between King Henry II and Thomas Becket, with other characters strewn around them like so many chess pieces?

This seems to be only the second play that CPCC has presented at Halton Theater – the first since Noises Off in 2012. You can infer from that history that theatre department chair Tom Hollis, who directs here for CPCC Theatre, is not a big fan of the Halton when CP isn’t using it for Broadway musicals. His pre-performance invitation to the audience to find seats closer to the stage during intermission underscored his wariness.

Hollis has had to make peace with the Halton – for now, anyway – because Pease Auditorium, the longtime anchor of dramatic presentations at CP, will soon be facing the wrecking ball. A new building with theatre facilities will replace it at that razed site. Very likely, Hollis is also surprising himself a little with this Becket because scene designer Jennifer O’Kelly has filled the stage so handsomely, both horizontally and vertically.

The pillars spaced across the stage are at least three times as tall as the squat dimensions of panoramic Pease would allow, so the impressive scenery evokes Las Vegas more than London. Action does cheat forward at times to the floor that covers Halton’s commodious orchestra pit, but the chief reason we hear all the actors so well is sound designer Stephen Lancaster’s sure hand with the hall’s famously wayward audio system.

With so little between those pillars, which must remain fixed whether we’re sallying forth to a Saxon hut or to a French battlefield, there are many times that you accept O’Kelly’s set as the sort of backdrop we’ve accustomed ourselves to in Shakespearean productions. Unfortunately, the wide range of characters that Becket engages aside from Henry, from sullen peasants to a pragmatic French king, don’t deliver the rich depth we’re accustomed to in the Bard’s teeming histories.

Henry is selfish, lecherous, petulant, and spoiled throughout, but Becket transforms, beginning as a wily manipulator who thrives on the challenge of hunting and the thrill of battle. At his core, only fitfully awakened, are a set of scruples and a sense of honor. He is as apt as Henry to forget that he’s an archdeacon of the church.

In the long arc of the story, we watch Becket, appointed by Henry as chancellor of England, helping his king to extract taxes from the church. But then Henry miscalculates and appoints Becket as the new Archbishop of Canterbury, reasoning that that his old chum will make it so much easier to shake down the church. Becket shocks his benefactor after he becomes Archbishop, renouncing the chancellorship and returning the chancellor’s ring to Henry, and standing up for the church. In bare feet, renouncing worldly possessions.

In the shorter arc that plays out through much of the first act, very much along the same contours as the larger arc, we get a more vivid sense of who Henry and Becket are. After a daylong hunting excursion, the pair stop to rest and refresh at the Saxons’ hut. While the father is fetching water for the king, Henry takes a fancy to his daughter. To protect the girl from Henry’s ravishing, Becket professes to want her for himself. Henry yields the nameless girl up – on condition that he can demand payback later. When they return to the castle, Henry names his price. He lays claim to Becket’s mistress, Gwendolyn.

You can outwit and outmaneuver a monarch, we’re repeatedly shown, but power ultimately prevails. Gwendolyn and the Saxon girl are crucial to illustrating Anouilh’s point, but Shakespeare would have granted them the privilege of also being people. Hollis seems to empathize with the slenderness of these roles, giving both to Gabriela Celecia, who does what she can. Becket declares that he has never really loved anyone, but that doesn’t give cover to the playwright. Nor is this simply misogyny on Anouilh’s part, for the English clergy – and The Pope, for that matter – are also paper-thin. Seriously, he couldn’t give the Pope a name?

Ailing and decrepit, the Archbishop whom Becket will succeed is discerned easily enough amid the clergy, and Jim Greenwood gives him ample texture, the best of his multiple roles. But I can only report that Rob Craig was the Bishop of York, Roger Watson was the Bishop of York, and John DeMicco were the Huey, Dewey, and Louie of the English church. As a group, they are fine and spirited with a righteousness that is balanced with practicality. Or greed, depending on your view of the church.

Tony Wright is one of the best all-around theatre professionals we have in Charlotte, and his own company, Actor’s Gym, will soon be returning to the local scene, reviving Noël Coward’s Fallen Angels at Spirit Square. You can recognize various elements of Wright’s greatest hits as an actor – beginning with the comically delusional Elwood P. Dowd and the swashbuckling Zastrozzi – in the sunny, insouciant wickedness he brings to Henry II. The world is Henry’s playpen, so you almost laugh at his dark moments. They are petulant rather than profound.

Cole Long doesn’t always convince me as a man of valor, not exactly conjuring up Laurence Olivier or Richard Burton, the Beckets of Broadway and Hollywood. Lacking that physicality may be advantageous for Long when he tackles Becket’s more prominent traits, his wiliness, his deference, his fundamental decency, and his spiritual struggles to experience love and faith. With so few consequential people around Anouilh’s protagonists, we don’t need to pause and register that Long doesn’t ooze leadership qualities. He’s most credible as a loyal subject and surrogate before excelling as a fugitive.

The most affecting of Anouilh’s minor characters bloom when Becket becomes openly defiant towards his king. Rick Taylor’s portrait of King Louis of France has a weathered, wizened dignity to it as he offers refuge to the renegade Archbishop. Yet there is no heartbreak from His Highness when sympathy and goodwill toward the holy refugee must give way to expedience.

Accompanying Becket through his latter tribulations, the Little Monk that Becket has taken under his wing still seethes with Saxon resentment of Norman rule, nicely calibrated in Jake Dodge’s portrayal. Like Gwendolyn, he’s there for a purpose, but the fierce allegiance that Becket inspires in the Little Monk – contrasted with Henry’s inability to keep anyone’s true loyalty – strikes a deeper chord.

Aided by the age difference between them, Christy Stephens as the Queen Mother and Amy Pearre Dunn as the Young Queen transcend cardboard as the chief irritants of Henry’s court after intermission. Yes, Henry is lonely without Becket by his side, but he’s also afflicted.

Matilda Is Less Sweet and More Abrasive at ImaginOn

Review:  Matilda The Musical

By Perry Tannenbaum

The time lag between what opens on Broadway and what tours at Belk Theater has narrowed in recent years. Likewise, the gap between when the tour comes through town and when local companies get their hands on Broadway properties has also shrunk. With the arrival of Matilda The Musical at ImaginOn last weekend just two years after it played Belk Theater, it became apparent that CPCC Summer Theatre, Theatre Charlotte, or Children’s Theatre can expect to mount Broadway hits that are just as fresh from their New York runs as the off-Broadway sensations that Actor’s Theatre brings us.

Even with this slimmer interval, I fear that Roald Dahl‘s Matilda isn’t aging gracefully as a children’s story at McColl Family Theatre. It returns a bit awkwardly in a year when children are cruelly and inhumanely seized as pawns to discourage asylum seekers from Latin America. You might feel more comfortable with this story than I did just two days after I’d watched a Supreme Court nominee opt for yelling and indignation as his go-to defenses against credible accusations of sexual assault in sworn testimony on Capitol Hill.

I’m not sure which aspect of the Saturday afternoon performance disturbed me more. Was it director Adam Burke and his star, Tommy Foster, conniving to make the evil Miss Trunchbull more realistic than she had been in 2016; or was it the parents in the audience, bringing their anklebiters to the show and ignoring recommendations that it was suitable for 6-and-up? I was surprised – and slightly reassured – when so many stayed after intermission but not at all shocked when the adults sitting next to us fled.

Foster had some comical tricks up his beefy sleeves as the hammer-throwing harridan, turning a couple of unexpected cartwheels and almost executing a split. But Trunchbull’s implacable cruelty sometimes verged on rabid, when she unveiled all the “chokey” dungeons reserved for misbehaving and disobedient students at her school or when she pulled the ears of one cowering student about a foot away from his head. Neat technical effects, but perhaps too realistic for comfort.

Dahl wrote his Matilda in 1988, a decade before Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events took off – and before some of the edgier “anti” musicals like Urinetown began to invade Broadway. So his macabre sensibility here became more and more in tune with the times. With all its demonic cogs and gears, HannaH Crowell’s set design (fiendishly augmented by Kelly Colburn’s projections) brought home to me how Dahl’s sensibility had morphed during the quarter of a century following Willy Wonka and his iconic chocolate factory. Nothing particularly sweet here.

Matilda Wormwood certainly had more natural talents and gifts than Charlie Bucket, who snagged the lucky ticket to meet Wonka and taste his chocolate wonders. She is a precocious reader, which disgusts her dimwit parents and astounds Miss Honey, her timorous first grade teacher. As a storyteller, she holds the local librarian spellbound. Pitted against the fearsome, sadistic Trunchbull, Matilda turns out to have a combination of psychic and telekinetic powers that bring her victory – wielded with a sly naughtiness.

You need more than Orphan Annie pluck to play this role, and Allie Joseph has it. She nails Matilda’s signature solos, “Naughty” and “When I Grow Up,” and she sparkles in the spotlight – Colburn’s projections going wild behind – telling her four part “Acrobat Story” to Mrs. Phelps, the librarian. There’s a touch a grim determination in Joseph’s naughtiness that nicely counterbalances the added malignity that Foster brings to Trunchbull. Without too much suspension of disbelief, Joseph also passes for a first grader.

Also supplying counterweight to Trunchbull’s regimentation and brutality are Matilda’s other tormentors, her nutball parents. Caleb Sigmon gets to do the heavier comedy lifting as Mr. Wormwood, loudly dressed by costume designer Magda Guichard, victimized by Matilda’s vicious pranks, and cuckolded by his wife. A crooked used car salesman way beyond his depth in attempting to hoodwink Russian mobsters, Matilda’s dad deserves every indignity that comes his way, especially when he tears up his daughter’s library book. Yet Sigmon retains a wonderful energy amid all Dad’s atrocities, vicissitudes and cluelessness.

Wrapped up in her competitive ballroom dancing – and her sleazy partner Rudolpho (the lithe Paul Montagnese) – Matilda’s mom doesn’t realize she’s nine months pregnant with an unwanted second child when Matilda is born. That’s a high level of stupidity to sustain, but Lucianne Hamilton is more than equal to the task as Mrs. Wormwood, particularly when she schools Miss Honey on her philosophy of education.

Absorbing this lecture as well as Miss Trunchbull’s tirade, Miss Honey earns the right to sing “Pathetic” as her signature song, yet Bailey Rose builds Honey’s strength on stoical acceptance and self-awareness, her warmth toward Matilda counting for far more than her passivity. More comical appreciation comes from Janeta Jackson as Mrs. Phelps, the librarian who listens so raptly to Matilda’s acrobat saga.

Dennis Kelly‘s adaptation of Dahl’s novel is admirably intricate and well-crafted, but I find myself less impressed with Tim Minchin‘s music and lyrics, which might be more palatable with the vitality of Annie or the wit of Avenue Q. You still need to listen – carefully – to the cast album to decipher what the kids’ choruses are singing. Whether the older kids are rattling their cages in welcoming the first-graders on their first day or Matilda’s class is celebrating victory over Trunchbull, the music sounds a bit savage, as if Annie and her fellow orphans were on a bad acid trip. The transition from Belk Theater to the smaller McColl seemed to augment the abrasiveness.

Yet some of Matilda’s classmates do distinguish themselves. Calvin Jia-Hao Mar is consistently adorable as Nigel, who spends much of his time cowering or fainting whether or not Trunchbull is persecuting him. Ryan Campos is a more formidable martyr as the heroic Bruce, a young glutton who steals a piece of Trunchbull’s chocolate cake and is forced to eat the whole thing as his punishment. And though I can’t tell you why we’re bothered with Matilda’s best friend Lavender, Jeannie Ware made her charmingly self-important when we returned from intermission.

 

Sometimes Predictable, “The Legend of Georgia McBride” Is a Raunchy, Rockin’ Delight

Review:  The Legend of Georgia McBride

By Perry Tannenbaum

While there may be “Good Rockin’ Tonight” when Elvis impersonator Casey steps up to the microphone at Cleo’s Club down in the Florida Panhandle, there isn’t a big hunk o’ love emanating from the audience. On some nights, there isn’t even an audience, except for Eddie, the super low-key club owner. As we begin Matthew Lopez’s The Legend of Georgia McBride with a bumbling, subdued curtain speech from Eddie, we’re keenly aware that both Casey and his boss are in sore need of makeovers. Our sympathies are mostly invested in Casey in this lip-syncing comedy presented by Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte. He’s younger, and the odds are against him, especially when Casey’s wife Jo informs him that his paycheck from Cleo’s has bounced once again, and they’re behind on the rent. No big surprises on the next complications that Lopez serves up to Jo and Casey’s dismay: Casey has just shelled out considerable dough on a new Elvis jumpsuit, Jo’s home pregnancy kit has just tested positive, and Eddie has been trying to work up the nerve to fire his headliner.

Seedy comedy and outré musicals have become the irreverent essence of the Actor’s Theatre brand. With Lizzie in August revisiting the sensational Lizzie Borden murders to a live heavy metal groove and now with this Georgia McBride jukeboxer, ATC has launched its 30th season – and their first full season as resident company at Queens University – by playing solidly to their strengths. Chip Decker’s set design is hardly wider than those we routinely saw at Actor’s in its old Stonewall Street location, with three distinct spaces side by side. Jo and Casey’s living room and kitchen flanks the Cleo’s proscenium on one side with the club’s dressing room on the other. What the Hadley Theater at Queens also allows is a nice thrust stage performing space where the entire cast can eventually perform Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” for their curtain calls.

Yes, as Lopez’s title telegraphs, that’s where we’re heading. Obeying what his ledger is telling him rather than his own personal inclinations, Eddie brings in a pair of drag queens to strut his stage. Casey can stay on if he’ll tend bar, take it or leave it. Symptomatic of his sunny passivity, Casey takes it rather than daring to blaze his own trail. The new gals, Tracy Mills and Anorexia Nervosa are both more diva-like in standing up for themselves. From the moment they enter the dressing room, you expect that at least one of them will go Bette Davis on us and proclaim, “What a dump!” Rexy is the more temperamental and imperious of the two – when he isn’t so drunk that he can’t stand up. One night, when Rexy cannot be revived – let alone hoisted upon his roller skates – Casey is called on to fill in. Either he dresses up as Edith Piaf, or Eddie really will fire him.

This setup for The Legend offers more than merely the bawdiness of drag. We get to enjoy bad drag and bad lip-syncing as Casey wrestles with a bra, pantyhose, and the French language for the first time in his life. Prodded to forge his own identity in dragdom, Casey swivels his new Georgia McBride persona away from the drag trinity of Judy Garland, Piaf, and Liza Minelli. Cutting up his Elvis jumpsuit to fit his newly bolstered tush, the freshly inspired Casey adds female rockers to the customary Broadway-cabaret drag spectrum, including Connie Francis, Madonna, and numerous others beyond my ken. But even when Cleo’s begins to prosper, the sunny go-with-the-flow Casey still doesn’t have the guts to tell Jo about the transformation that has changed his fortunes. Warning: some very predictable scenes ensue between Casey and Jo.

Under the astute direction of Billy Ensley, Georgia McBride transcends this hackneyed marital turmoil with a cavalcade of winsome and hilarious performances on the Cleo’s stage. They are the springboard for tacky, butch, and saccharine creations from costume designer Carrie Cranford ranging from Nazi leather to Busby Berkeley chiffon. The inspired choreographer goes inexplicably uncredited – but I suspect some needless modesty from Ensley himself, a preeminent triple threat back in his acting days.

Judging from reviews of past productions, I’m confident that Lopez left plenty of latitude in his script for characterizations and song selections. If history is a judge, Elvis can drag either country or rock into drag, and both Eddie and Jo can be more loud, nasty and assertive than they were here. I cannot remember when James K. Flynn was funnier than he was on opening night, inconspicuously evolving from a terse mumbling rube to a glittering ebullient emcee – and beyond. Nor did Juanita B. Green rub me wrong as Jo, improbably remaining slightly adorable even when she threw her husband out. I got the idea that only a preternaturally compliant soul like Casey’s would comply.

Ensley’s casting choices for his drag queens are just as brilliant, especially since two of the three are making their debuts with the company. Over the years, Ryan Stamey has conspired on many of ATC’s wildest musicals as an actor, music director, and instrumentalist, so it wasn’t at all surprising to see him making a grand entrance as Rexy in full diva mode, on heels high enough to require a dismount. Stamey actually did multiple dismounts from those heels, doubling as Casey’s put-upon landlord, Jason, and executing bodacious changes in makeup and costumes. As Rexy, he strengthened the impact of Casey’s climactic crisis with his confessional monologue on what he has suffered to pursue his art form, a topic that Lopez should have explored more deeply. I also suspect that Stamey had a hand in formulating the eclectic playlist. I just wished that Rexy had performed more of those drag numbers.

With his elegant serenity and his razor-sharp zingers, Paul Reeves Leopard’s performance as Tracy reminded me of Coco Peru and Charles Busch, two supreme queens I’ve been fortunate enough to see live. In the midst of Casey’s crisis, he also gets a nice moment of truth at Tracy’s front door, answering Casey’s pathetic apologies and entreaties with makeup, dress, and wig discarded for the night – bathrobe-and-hairnet deglamorized, with all his steely maturity on display. Everybody seemed stronger and more mature than Casey, thanks to the sunny optimism and gentle humility Sean Riehm brought to the role. Anybody, man or woman, would let him be his or her teddy bear! Physically, Riehm is well-sculpted but not intimidating, with legs that can inspire a woman’s jealousy. Riehm’s lithe movements underscore the logic of the Elvis-to-Georgia transition: in and out of the jumpsuit, those swiveling hips are very much a part of his job description. Another warning: if you sit in the front row at the Hadley, you are a prime target for a lap dance from a drag queen. Mine was a first for me, the most memorable moment of a fun evening. You won’t be able to experience that when Jim Parsons plays Tracy in the upcoming Fox 2000 film.

Hatem’s “Confidence (and The Speech)” Loses Its Way but Delivers a Poignant Ending

Review:  Confidence (and The Speech)

Nathaniel Gillespie, Jonathan Hoskins and Greg Parroff in a scene from CONFIDENCE Sept 2018

By Perry Tannenbaum

Say what you want about Jimmy Carter, he wasn’t about lining his pockets with money or telling other nations what to do, and he certainly wasn’t about cozying up to the Russians. Among his more controversial – and principled – actions, President Carter slapped a grain embargo on Russia in response to their invasion of Afghanistan and pulled us out of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. In the midst of an energy crisis, Carter faced a TV camera inside the Oval Office and, wearing a drab cardigan sweater, urged a nationwide audience to turn down their thermostats to 68ºF. After the turmoil of Nixon, Cambodia, and Watergate, President Carter was barely in office two days when he granted blanket amnesty for Vietnam War draft evaders. Probably his most egregious faux pas was reminding wasteful and self-indulgent Americans that we were wasteful and self-indulgent, that two-thirds of us were so apathetic that we didn’t bother to vote, that there was a growing distrust of government and the press, and that our nation’s self-confidence was slowly eroding. Free spending and trickle-down Reaganomics proved to be far more palatable to our shrewd electorate.

Actor Jo Hall plays President Jimmy Carter in CONFIDENCE Sept 2018

Using the pivotal “Crisis of Confidence speech of 1979 as her ground zero, with occasional traces of animus from the shocking 2016 election result, playwright Susan Lambert Hatem reappraises Carter’s leadership and courage in Confidence (and The Speech). Hatem’s sister, producer Anne Lambert, is directing a workshop production of the new play at Spirit Square with the company she founded, Charlotte’s Off Broadway. Taking us to Camp David, where Carter took an extra 10 days to refine his address – convening a domestic summit where he gathered ideas from “business and labor, teachers and preachers, Governors, mayors, and private citizens” – Hatem also trains a critical eye on how much input and impact women had on the deliberations. Seven years after Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman,” it wasn’t exactly a roar.

To look at the Camp David process pointedly from this outsider’s angle, Hatem erects an unusual framework. For her eyes and ears, the playwright recruits a somewhat disillusioned history professor, Cynthia Cooper, who served as a White House intern when Carter’s national address was being crafted. We’re not exactly sure when young Jonathan Rollins approaches Cooper after one of her lectures (not until the end of the evening, anyway), asking her for her reminiscences on Carter, but his persistence is rewarded. There is one catch: Cooper will take us behind the scenes at Camp David only if she portrays President Carter in the retelling. Rollins will need to switch genders as well and portray the young Cynthia.

Josephine Hall takes on the challenge of rekindling our affection for Carter, and she captures 39’s dignity, determination, and quiet uprightness rather well, but the hours she presumably spent watching YouTube videos of Carter have been wasted. She hasn’t listened well enough to produce Jimmy’s distinct Georgia sound, producing a generic drawl that London and New York would deem adequate for their most pallid Tennessee Williams revivals. Nor does Hatem take the opportunity to shine a bright light on the difference a woman in a pantsuit and heels might have made if she had been standing in Carter’s shoes. Unexpectedly, Hall does her best work during her technically impossible private scenes with Rosalynn Carter and in the equally impossible town hall segment when Jimmy listens to the voice of the people and responds. These responses are improvised at every performance, for three audience members will be chosen to give input to the President on key questions facing the nation.

Berry Newkirk, Greg Paroff, Paul Gibson, Maxwell Greger and Josephine Hall in a scene from CONFIDENCE Sept 2018.JPG

Subjected to unwanted advances when he becomes Young Cynthia – and relegated to typing up notes and brewing coffee – Jonathan Hoskins drew a more revelatory role as Rollins. The harassment and abrasive sexism come from pollster Pat Caddell as Cynthia gathers information and works with speechwriter Hendrick Hertzberg. Hoskins gave us enough prissy drag comedy mincing around in heels to effectively contrast and underscore those serious moments when Young Cynthia was being ignored, patronized and disrespected. Another fine episode lies in wait for Hoskins at the end when Rollins sheds his importunate and demure pretenses to reveal his true identity. These are the moments when Hatem is most successful.

Focusing on the polls, the process, and the pragmatism of aligning the speech with Carter’s re-election prospects, Hatem neglects the content of the speech and how it responded to the crises it addressed. It all seemed so promising and convincing in the playwright’s rendering of the first staff meeting at Camp David. In addition to those already named, press secretary Jody Powell, chief of staff Hamilton Jordan, communications director Gerald Rafshoon, and Vice President Walter Mondale all seemed professional, intelligent, and capable. All were agreed that the speech originally for July 4 had been a disastrous snooze and that Carter had been wise to postpone it at the last minute and regroup. The thrust of the message, the stakes, and the pitfalls were briskly and excitingly laid out.

After we grasped Carter’s motivations, process and practicalities stifled the flow of ideas vying for inclusion in the final draft. Rafshoon and Jordan remained thinner than cardboard and as Mondale became little more than an ominous negative voice, Powell became a glib appeaser to a press corps hungry for substance. The play veered along a similar path for us with its gender-bending protagonists, sidestepping the meat of the speech. Deepening the portraits of Rafshoon, Jordan, and Mondale would be one way for Hatem to go – leaving Maxwell Greger to ably provide comic relief as the unctuous Powell. But I suspect the better path might be for her to parade more fleetingly developed characters into the mix – those teachers and preachers and businessmen and politicians that Carter talked about in his speech.

Actor Josephine Hall as President Jimmy Carter and Actor Lane Morris as First Lady Rosalynn Carter in COB's CONFIDENCE Sept 2018Yes, I’d advise doubling and tripling the roles of the staffers. Then Josh Logsdon would have more to do than Mondale’s brooding fatalism, the criminally underused Berry Newkirk could more fully display the full spectrum of his talents, and Paul Gibson as Jordan could flub a more interesting variety of lines. That tack would also present ways of sneaking in more background info about 1979 America and let us outside of the White House West Wing bubble that Hatem creates. With those enrichment opportunities missed, Greg Paroff as Hertzberg, both avuncular and ambivalent, emerged as the most compelling performer in a supporting role while Nathaniel Gillespie was convincingly cringeworthy as Caddell.

Technically, the Charlotte’s Off-Broadway production also disclosed its workshop status. The upstage screens weren’t utilized nearly enough for projections, furniture occasionally boomed or rattled backstage, and on one unfortunate occasion, a folding table failed to become Young Cynthia’s bed for a bedroom scene. But the Lambert sisters’ efforts eventually made a favorable impression on me with a new resolution that Hatem wrote in response to the catastrophe of Election Night 2016. I really shouldn’t reveal what happens, but I will say that it brought tears to my eyes – for a poignant reason I’ve never experienced before: knowing that what I was seeing and hearing onstage couldn’t possibly be true.

 

New Horror and Grotesquerie as Phantom Moves to Coney for “Love Never Dies”

Review:  Love Never Dies

By Perry Tannenbaum

Your knees won’t buckle when you enter Belk Theater to see Love Never Dies, Anthony Lloyd Webber’s long-awaited sequel to The Phantom of the Opera. There’s no gleaming chandelier looming ominously over ticketholders in the front rows, nor will you see any nooks or gargoyles spanning the stage proscenium. Until the curtain rose, about the only aspect of the new Lloyd Webber melodrama that reminded me of its predecessor on opening night was the size of the crowd who had come to see it. A near sellout – not too shabby for a musical that has never played on Broadway.

Compared with recent tours that stopped at the Belk – Lion King, Book of Mormon, Something Rotten! or even the homespun Bright Star – this new Lloyd Webber juggernaut looks rather drab before the lights go down. We find ourselves… wait, in Coney Island? Yes, the macabre Madame Giry and her bubbly, high-strung daughter Meg have spirited The Phantom far from the ill-fated Paris Opera House without telling the songbird he still obsesses over, Christine Daaé. It’s 10 years later, and The Phantom has grown fabulously wealthy as an amusement park tycoon.

So wealthy that when Oscar Hammerstein offers Christine a fortune for her to cross the Atlantic – with her husband Raoul, the Vicomte de Chagny, and her son Gustave – to make her stage comeback, The Phantom is able to double that offer without hesitation.

If only she will SING for him again!!

Now how The Phantom became so rich and why Madame and Meg Giry have been so deeply committed to him are details you will need to ferret out in Frederick Forsyth’s 1999 page-turner, The Phantom of Manhattan. Ben Elton’s book is very loosely based on the Forsyth sequel, changing nearly as much as he left out. Specifically where The Phantom expects Christine to sing is rather vague, and the chief reason for his having a subterranean lair is to echo his old Paris Opera surroundings.

Elton changes Lloyd Webber’s previous work with hardly less impunity. If you remember Phantom well, you’ll be surprised to learn that Gustave is the lovechild of The Phantom and Christine – and that Christine feels spurned, jilted, and cruelly deceived by her former kidnapper. Many things must change in the sequel simply because there is little compulsion for Christine to be at The Phantom’s park, his hotel, his theater, or whatever. Opera was Christine’s life and soul back in her Paris days. Yet he hasn’t even written a new opera for her. Just one song. The nerve!

You’re forgiven, then, if you feel disoriented in the world of Lloyd Webber’s Phantom sequel. But there are vivid echoes of the past in the music and the love triangle at the core of the story. The most exciting new wrinkle is the five-way tug of war over Gustave. Not only are the lovers fighting over the boy. Less forthrightly, so are the Girys, who see him as an obstacle between them and The Phantom’s estate. It’s borderline comical how the good people who love him repeatedly lose track of poor Gustave. It’s a high proportion of the melodrama.

Lloyd Webber’s music is in the vein of Phantom, but not nearly as good – nor as memorable as either Sunset Boulevard or The Woman in White, his most successful follow-ups before his School of Rock comeback. “Till I Hear You Sing” gets us off to a promising start, extensively echoing Phantom as the masked composer bemoans his ten long years without his angelic muse, but until we reach the title song deep in Act 2, there was little rhapsodic flamboyance to fulfill the early promise.

Sung by Jake Heston Miller on opening night, Gustave is a bit of an angel himself, and his duet with Mom, “Love With Your Heart,” is an ingratiating waltz. The barroom confrontation between The Phantom and Raoul has an eerie early morning edge to it, spiked with the animus of their “Devil Take the Hindmost” duet. You’ll also find a thrilling éclat in a couple of The Phantom’s entrances, for Lloyd Webber has replaced the organ, his formerly favored instrument, with pounding drums in his sequel.

Scenic and costume design, both by Gabriela Tylesova, mesh beautifully, especially effective in evoking the lights of Coney Island and Christine’s posh hotel suite. And does she also take credit for the wonderfully saturnine carriage that whisks Christine and family off to Coney? Our unofficial greeters or coachpersons – Stephen Petrovich as the gangly Gangle, rotund Richard Koon as the clownish Squelch, and the super-diminutive Katrina Kemp as Fleck – perfectly cue the phantasmagoria to come with their garish attire. Okay, they are the phantasmagoria to come, especially the Little Person.

This tour has been on the road for almost exactly one year, and the core of major players, even Miller as Gustave, has remained nearly perfectly intact. Obviously we’re seeing a solid unit that has completely jelled. Bronson Norris Murphy as The Phantom is the only interloper, rising up over the course of the tour from ensemble roles and proving to be an excellent fit from the moment the curtain first reveals him. Perhaps most indispensable is Meghan Picerno, whom I saw early last year, glittering and gay as Cunegonde in the New York City Opera production of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide.

ALW doesn’t write nearly so well in Love Never Dies, but he seems to write as stratospherically high, so I suspect a voice like Picerno’s is welcomed here for as long as she wishes. She not only nails the high notes, she also immerses herself in the passion. You’re not listening to great music when Picerno and Murphy tear into their “Beneath a Moonless Sky” duet, but you’re witnessing some riveting theatre as they lash out at each other.

Grown destitute and dissolute, Raoul isn’t the matinee idol of yore, but Sean Thompson puts some gravity into his drunken brooding, so his self-pitying “Why Does She Love Me?” acquires a Sinatra-like maturity. Madame Giry is quite the callous, grasping harpy now, but with Karen Mason so implacably dark and wicked in the role, it’s a pity that Elton and Lloyd Webber haven’t given her more space to spew her venom. On the other hand, to see Meg so debased and preoccupied with her cringe-worthy “Bathing Beauty” earns a purple heart for Mary Michael Patterson, who soldiers through these indignities every night. The spotlight does fall on her in the frantic denouement, a rather startling transformation.

While it’s difficult to forgive how thoroughly Elton and Lloyd Webber botch the Girys, my biggest beef may be with the instrumentation of Love Never Dies. If you’re going to Coney Island to evoke circus horror and grotesquery, the sound of a calliope is a must. Please fix that instantly, Lord Andrew. It’s a start.