Category Archives: Theatre

Plenty of Broadway DNA on Belmont Avenue

Review: A Bronx Tale

By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simon Says, Be Shocked and Shaken

Review: Actor’s Gym presentation of Chapter Two

By Perry Tannenbaum

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As Neil Simon tells us in The Play Goes On, the second of his two memoirs, Chapter Two was inspired by a turning point in his life, moments after he had threatened to leave Marsha Mason, his second wife. She fought back. “Marsha came to me with a torrent of words that flowed out with such anger, but such truth, that she never missed a beat, never tripped over a single syllable or consonant,” Simon wrote. “I knew it was spontaneous, that it was coming from the bottom of her heart and soul, her one last chance to save something good.”

Chapter Two would be a turning point in his career, the first time that he really poured his own painful experiences into one of his comedies. Simon paraphrased Mason’s speech and inserted it deep in Act 2, where Mason eventually paraphrased herself co-starring in the film of the 1977 Broadway hit with James Caan. It’s one of two singularly heavy moments for Simon, who is so often celebrated for his one-liners, his strung-together skits, and his extended sitcoms.

George Schneider and Jennie Malone are the onstage counterparts for Simon and Mason. In his current Actor’s Gym presentation at Duke Energy Theater, director Tony Wright wisely resisted the temptation to look for co-stars who would bring the most sparkle to the snappy banter that marks the whirlwind romance of his protagonists. Wright prioritizes chemistry, casting Bill Reilly as George and Jennifer Barnette as Jennie, two performers mostly noted for drama until Wright cast Barnette in Noël Coward’s Fallen Angels last fall.Chapter Two 4

George, a writer, is trying to get back into circulation after the sudden death of his first wife, but finds it difficult to put an end to his grieving. A soap opera actress, Jennie is still shell-shocked by the end of her six-year marriage to a football player.

She’s definitely wary of repeating past mistakes, quietly on the lookout for something different. When she finds him, she will know.

Getting them together is where Simon can infuse some broader comedy into his script, for it’s George’s big brother Leo, a Broadway press agent, who keeps trying to set our lovelorn hero up with female prospects until he strikes Jennie gold. Pushing from the other end is Jennie’s bestie, soap opera queen Faye Medwick.

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A couple of sitcom ironies give the story extra spark. While pushing George and Jennie together, both Leo and Faye are unhappy in their own marriages – leading to a side order of illicit romance between them. Meanwhile, when romance sparks between George and Jennie, both Leo and Faye are alarmed that the spark has become a bonfire, that their matchmaking has succeeded beyond expectations, with the lovebirds rushing towards matrimony.

Plenty of latitude here for two immense screwball performances, and Wright is just as unerring here. Fresh off her outré performance opposite Barnette in Fallen Angels, Karina Caparino plumbs deeper depths of daffiness as Faye, nailing a New York accent and making a meal out of the soap diva’s paranoid fear of discovery. Wright gives Trent Merchant even wider latitude in his local debut as Leo. Whether coaxing George out of his funk or wooing the skittish Faye, Merchant goes big, brash, and boorish, Davita Galloway’s costumes helping us to distinguish Leo as the most crass and déclassé of these New Yorkers.

So when Merchant draws Simon’s other dramatic monologue, detailing George’s despondency after the death of his first wife, it’s no less surprising than Jennie’s big outburst will be. Desperately urging Jennie to slow it down on the eve of her hasty wedding, Leo shows us how much he cares for his brother even as he goes about it in such a gauche way.

While not exactly swank, Tim Baxter-Ferguson’s set design splits the stage convincingly into two apartments, so that when George speaks to Jennie on the phone, there is credible separation even when they’re virtually back-to-back. Reilly turns out to be very good at rendering George’s lingering grief and his romantic awkwardness. Getting on the phone for the first time with Jennie – unintentionally – George turns this first telephone encounter into a typical Simon shtick.

But Wright and Reilly are keenly attuned to the difference. So many of the moments here are about “one last chance to save something good.” In George’s case, they are mixed with moments when he’s an endearing wit or a mopey jerk.

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Barnette firmly establishes Jennie’s forbearance in the first barrage of phone calls from George with just a twinkle of archness. There is so much that Jennie must indulge from George, from Faye, and from Leo – her sponsor! – that you wonder where and if Barnette’s saintly serenity will end. The explosion shouldn’t seem inevitable, but when it comes, it should seem in character.

Most of all, Barnette must nail it, and she does. Part of the essence of Jennie’s spontaneity is that she will be a little shocked and shaken herself by what has just flowed out of her. On opening night, Barnette was. So was I.

Butchering a Tearjerker

Review: Terms of Endearment

By Perry Tannenbaum 

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In spite of its Academy Awards and critical acclaim, I’ve never much wanted to see Terms of Endearment. Reading the old Roger Ebert review of the film does a far better job of changing my mind than the current stage adaptation at Theatre Charlotte, I can say that. My working theory on tearjerkers is that I already know it’s sad when good people die young, sad that people allow petty differences to stand in the way of enjoying one another, and that sorrows and pointless conflicts are redeemed by moments – too few moments – of sweetness and laughter. Watching the 129-minute Hollywood version of these self-evident truths still doesn’t entice me.

The stage adaptation by Dan Gordon trims James L. Brooks’ 1983 screenplay, based on the novel by Larry McMurtry, to a mere 108 minutes at the Queens Road barn. No doubt some butchery was involved, for I can’t find serious fault with Chris Timmons’ cheery and versatile scenic design, Mitzi Corrigan’s direction, or the efforts of her cast. Can’t find the characters played by John Lithgow or Danny DeVito, either. Maybe McMurtry and Brooks were better judges of their worth.

Gordon starts with a scene so cinematically short that I couldn’t see its connection with the rest of the story. It’s useful for you to notice that the newborn Aurora Greenway is screaming at in the cradle is Emma. The next time we see Emma onstage, she’s being played by Gabriela Celecia and she’s at least 20 years older. Cynthia Farbman Harris as Aurora cannot age so radically so quickly, helping me to miss the passage of two decades. What Harris can do very well is retain Aurora’s imperious prissiness, her total self-absorption, and her industrial-strength vanity.

These are wonderful traits for Celecia to play against as the normal wife and mother of three who hopscotches from one Midwestern locale to another with Flap, her college teaching husband. Suffering the slings and arrows of Aurora’s patrician superiority, Maxwell Greger makes good on his scant chances to fire back. He’s also an effective Middle America edition of Don Juan. If James Dean ever became so humdrum that his utmost rebellion against propriety were sneaking kisses with one of his students, that Dean would look very much like Greger’s Flap.

But the juiciest pushback against Aurora’s dominion comes from Garrett Breedlove, a former astronaut whose ego outstrips his fading celebrity. He’s as open about his profligate ways as Flap is furtive and delights in offending Aurora’s elegance with his vulgarity. Why not? He still has the goods in the sack. Kicking, screaming, and sputtering, Aurora is putty in his hands.

In an auspicious Theatre Charlotte debut, Vince Raye mixes charisma and conceit into this aging moonwalker – with a chunk of tenderness that took me by surprise. At his most impressive, Raye took up Garrett’s revelation that he still boasted friends in high places. If not, he certainly showed he could bluff a weak poker hand at a championship level.

By the time this happened, the drama had seemingly dragged on for seven hours, Emma had been diagnosed with Stage 7 cancer, and the only chance she had at survival was to be admitted to a special clinical trial that was already closed to new applicants. Only Dr. Maise, the head of the hospital could make that happen, and Maise had no intention of being cowed by a mere astronaut with VIP connections.

To guard the gates against Emma’s last chance, Corrigan chose the formidable Tim Huffman, who has chewed and spit out scenery as Capt. Slank in Peter and the Starcatcher and as the thunderous Deputy Governor Danforth in The Crucible. This was quite a heavyweight confrontation, Raye’s celebrity cool as Breedlove pitted against Huffman’s towering dignity as Maise. I’m not sure which delighted me more, watching Raye coolly assailing Dr. Maise with Breedlove’s vicious threats or Huffman’s trembling capitulation.

Ah, but after that clash, the very sweet and likable Celecia had miles to go before Emma slept. Farbman had to absorb additional rebuffs and regrets as Aurora and learn additional lessons before she grieved. Let it be noted that costume designer Chelsea Retalic dresses Farbman beautifully during all her changes. When Breedlove leers at her, it is not for naught. There are also lighter moments between Aurora and Emma that allow Farbman respites from her hauteur and Celecia respites from her wholesome bland forbearance. Maybe three of them.

Facing Your Fears in a Haunted Basement

Review: The Ghost of Splinter Cove

By  Perry Tannenbaum

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There’s a glint of magic as the adventure begins in Children’s Theatre of Charlotte’s production of The Ghost of Splinter Cove that you’ll only appreciate if you’ve already seen playwright Steven Dietz’s companion piece, The Great Beyond, in the world premiere Actor’s Theatre production at Queens University. What’s going down? Make that who, for Nate Banks and his sister Cora, on their first night at their late grandfather’s house, have been sent downstairs into the basement to spend the night.

Yet their parents are far from callous. With the camping gear that their dad bought Nate for his birthday, they will break in his new tent – with a dome! – while their parents get their “adult time” upstairs. Nor has Rex, their dad, been lazy. To liven up their adventure, and to make up for canceling an outdoor expedition, Dad has downloaded a nifty smartphone app that will help simulate a true wilderness experience. Rex has troubled to hook the app up to loudspeakers, lights, and even a fan, so a starry night and stormy weather are both on the horizon after sundown.

But wait, there’s a holdup during the setup. Sydney, the daughter of Aunt Emily’s partner, Rene, asks Nate if he has chosen the destination for their wilderness adventure. Nate is dumbfounded until Sydney explains that she has the latest version of the same wilderness-simulating app, and it offers that cool option. Nate will need to take the time to download the update.

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Now here’s where the magic happens. Once the Sim-Camp app is downloaded to Sydney’s phone and all the necessary Bluetooth connections are made, the most advanced Deep Wilderness option it presents – past the “Peppermint” and “Sunset Trail” baby options – is Splinter Cove. None of the kids has ever heard of the place, but if you’ve already seen what unfolds upstairs in Great Beyond, you will not have forgotten how important Splinter Cove is in the family history. It’s the place where Dad wants to bury Granddad’s ashes, for one thing.

Pure coincidence? “Hey, it’s selected already,” Nate observes as soon as he sees the most advanced options. When we hear him saying “Splinter Cove” for the first time, it triggers the loudspeakers.

Long before this, however, a foreboding sense of dread hovers over the overnight adventure. There’s a fourth person in the basement, J, that both Nate and Cora imagine they can see. This imaginary friend doesn’t look anything like what the siblings imagine, he’s always in a different spot from where they point, and he’d rather talk to us than either of them.

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There’s a comical aspect to the kids’ misperceptions, of course, but J is not the clownish comedian that Nate imagines. So who and what is he? Why has he been in the kids’ lives for as long as they can remember, and what are his intentions now?

Finding out will be part of the adventure, to be sure, and you can bet that Dietz has built plenty of suspense into the action leading up to that revelation. Among the works I’ve seen over the past 32 years of covering Children’s Theatre productions, only The Wizard of Oz, The Hobbit, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe were scarier, which makes Splinter Cove the scariest original children’s play I’ve ever read or seen.

It could be scarier at the Wells Fargo Playhouse if director Courtney Sale had put the pedal to the metal on all the jolts of surprise and terror that Dietz has sprinkled into his exemplary script. And it could be more spectacular if all the technical capabilities of ImaginOn’s larger theater, the McColl Family Theater, were marshaled to the cause.

While I felt Sale had been too cautious about crossing the fright threshold, my mom wondered if this show might be too intense for 8-year-olds after viewing Cove with me. So this is far from a punchless production, though our friend Carol opined that she also was disappointed in the fright factor after seeing Great Beyond earlier in the week.

Dietz’s craftsmanship certainly shines through, all the more brightly if you see both plays in this unprecedented Second Story Project. You don’t simply have adults upstairs and kids downstairs. Dietz makes sure we see a family at both ends of the staircase, with traits that align across the generations.

Like her mom, who resists the idea of holding a séance upstairs, Cora is anything but gung-ho about the camping trip, letting out a stream of sarcasm that parallels Mom’s resistance. Nate not only embraces his dad’s camping idea, he expands upon his resourcefulness, adding a campfire and a moon to the experience.

You’ll readily recognize moments that must occur in both plays, when Rex calls down from the top of the stairs and the kids respond, but I’ve discovered another one that isn’t so obvious. When Sydney asks the time, Nate responds, “Dad would say: ‘Straight-up six o’clock’” – while Dad is saying those exact words to Aunt Emily.

There are amusing misalignments as well. Cora is contemptuous of the prospect of joining hands and saying something enthusiastic before embarking on their wilderness adventure, yet her mom, Monica, does a little pinky-square ceremony with Rene, Sydney’s mom, shortly after they meet for the first time. Upstairs, with Rene presiding, they will dim the lights and light candles for a spooky séance, so it’s apt – if not particularly healthy – that her daughter is afraid of the dark.

Telling you what happens on the Splinter Cove camping adventure would be spewing spoilers for two Dietz dramas at once. It’s more prudent to point out that the playwright follows a tried-and-true storytelling formula by having Sydney face and overcome her fear in the heat of her adventure. Following the Wizard of Oz template, Dietz does this in triplicate, for Nate is afraid of deep water despite his swimming lessons and, again like her mom, Cora has serious trust issues.

Sale’s all-adult cast is marvelous, even if she doesn’t allow them to be as frightening as they could be. Chester Shepherd, whose electrifying high-strung performance in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time will be long remembered, is hamstrung as Nate by Sale’s trepidations, scurrying around in terror as if he were doing one of the comical minor roles in Disney’s The Lion King. Notwithstanding how excellently it is done, that shtick dampens a moment when the fear factor should be dialed way up. You always believe Shepherd is a child, though, and his eagerness for the adventure fuels momentum from the start. Thrown by the adventure into the deep water, his terror is more human but still homogenized.

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Carman Myrick seems to enjoy freer rein conveying Cora’s doubts and fears, for Dietz is demonstrating in both of his plays how much more readily we believe when our heroes face strong and nasty skepticism. Cora is the heavy, no doubt, but only intermittently like her mom, and I loved how thoroughly the magic of “Splinter Cove” worked on Myrick from the first time it was said out loud. On a relatively spare Anita Tripathi set design, Myrick makes her climactic climb and discovery compelling, and her achievement of trust becomes a dramatic watershed moment in more ways than one.

Coming off her stint, just last month at ImaginOn, as the pesky would-be girlfriend in Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, Kayla Simone Ferguson doesn’t get to be cute or obnoxious this time around. The physical resemblance between Ferguson and Tania Kelly, the actor playing Sydney’s mom, is pronounced, but the personality parallels aren’t as obvious as the Banks kids’ with their parents. You could say that Rene is the spiritual guide and her daughter is the phone app guru, but the more lasting kinship is their calm and impartiality reacting to the sibling squabbles going on upstairs and downstairs.

Ferguson understands that she’s to be the sounding board for Nate and Cora to tell her (and us) all the important things they already know about each other. Meeting strangers in a strange house – “Wait – I’m spending the night?” – gives her license to be a little forlorn and pathetic. Most importantly perhaps, in confessing her fear of the dark, Sydney brings the squabbling sibs together in sympathy and starts the conversation going about each one’s greatest fear. Facing and overcoming these are the core of the adventure from a classic theatre-for-young-audiences perspective.

Bemused detachment typifies J as he slinks unseen among the children, along with a light sprinkling of menace – a bit heavier when he steals a smartphone from one of the kids’ backpacks. Sooooo shrewd of Sale to cast Arjun Pande in this intriguing role. He doesn’t immediately tell us he’s an adult, but with his low voice, he contrasts with Shepherd, whose sound and energy mark him as a kid. Pande also towers over all his castmates, so even those 8-year-olds in the audience who are braving this thriller will likely realize he’s the adult in the basement before he actually lets on.

If Pande isn’t quite as sardonic as he could be ridiculing the siblings’ basic misperceptions, he has the strong quiet confidence of an enigma waiting to be discovered, presciently knowing that this is the night when he will be. It’s a magical, magisterial role that Pande inhabits almost nonchalantly. Quiet confidence is more than justified, for even after everyone has vanished, J will remain a dizzying enigma.

One last wonder is how Dietz packs so much into the 53 minutes of Splinter Cove, only slightly slowed down by the two mind-blowing set changes. For that matter, what Dietz packs into less than 80 minutes in The Great Beyond is an equal marvel. Perhaps one day, a single theatre company will produce both Beyond and Cove on the same stage on the same night, and perhaps that’s what Dietz had in mind when he put the finishing touches on his Second Story Project.

Maybe then Dietz will decide which play should be seen first! He wrote Splinter Cove first, but my vote goes to seeing it last. And last it definitely will.

A Séance With 200% Certainty

Review: The Great Beyond

By:  Perry Tannenbaum

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When you walk into Hadley Theater on the Queens University campus for the world premiere of Steven Dietz’s The Great Beyond, you’ll be treated to a rare “don’t-think-about-elephants” experience. Even if you haven’t read the prepublicity around town, seen the spots on local TV and the web, or thoroughly perused your playbill, your emissary from Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, artistic director Chip Decker, will call your attention to the elephant in the hall. While Dietz’s spooky new drama can stand on its own, it was written with an interconnected companion piece, The Ghost of Splinter Cove, that is now premiering at ImaginOn in a taut 53-minute Children’s Theatre of Charlotte production.

So once you’ve heard that, can you really be satisfied seeing The Great Beyond without going to see Dietz’s companion piece? Probably not.

If you’ve somehow failed to pay attention to the prepublicity, the playbill, and the curtain speech, all of them telling you that the action of Splinter Cove is happening downstairs in the basement of the same house at the same time in the same family as the action we’re seeing upstairs, the parents upstairs will remind you frequently enough of the strange adventure their kids are having below.

More than that, thanks to Evan Kinsley’s scenic design, which offers us a smidge of the home’s exterior, we get glimpses of the basement action through translucent windows that peep above ground. So it isn’t just a matter of Rex, the dad, opening the door to the basement and checking up on how his kids are doing – with prerecorded replies. No, no, no. Beginning with camping gear that he bought for his son Nate’s birthday, Rex has sent them on a wilderness adventure, with a smartphone app hooked up to the home’s electronics simulating the sounds, the natural lights, and the weather of the great outdoors.

At unexpected moments, then, the handiwork of lighting designer Hallie Gray and sound designer Rob Witmer captures our attention – and whets the curiosity of the three women who have gathered with Rex for an adventure of their own. The historic collaboration between two theatre companies is called “The Second Story Project,” but it’s at Queens U that we see why.

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Dietz has said that The Great Beyond is a reunion play, and it certainly follows a template we’ve seen before, bringing far-flung and estranged kinfolk together, comically or dramatically uncomfortable with each other, after a death in the family. Here Rex has brought his two kids to the home of his former father-in-law, where his distraught ex, Monica, served as caretaker during Tobias’ last difficult days. Relations between Rex and Monica seem cordial enough, though she isn’t a big fan of his elaborate camping scheme for their children – since it brings unpleasant family history to mind.

It’s also obvious that Rex retains a genuine affection for Tobias, whom he calls The Captain like everybody else in the family. The real family strife will rev up when Monica’s wayward younger sister Emily arrives. Or actually, it begins before, because the rigid and judgmental Monica has labelled Emily as a chronic latecomer – on the basis of one past incident – so hostilities can begin as soon as Emily arrives. On time, of course.

Not that Emily is flawless. A recovering alcoholic who now limits herself to one full glass of wine at the same time every day, Emily has made Dad’s home the last stop on an epic apology tour, launched five years ago when she achieved sobriety, spanning 23 states and two foreign countries. A straight arrow and a black sheep, the bread-and-butter combatants of countless theatre clashes are poised to have it out! But unlike Sordid Lives or Appropriate, two of the funeral-triggered plays we’ve seen before in Charlotte, the dead Tobias will also be invited to the reunion.

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You see, Emily is bringing her bisexual partner Rene to this sad reunion, hoping to summon up the spirit of Tobias at a séance later in the evening. It’s Tobias, not Monica, that Emily has really earmarked for receiving her last apology, and she thinks that Rene, a spiritual medium, can make contact and make it happen.

As if the friction between Monica and Emily weren’t torrid enough already! Now they need the scornful, skeptical, and sarcastic Monica to complete the circle around the séance table. Outnumbered three to one in this tussle – and somewhat pre-empted by Dietz’s two play titles – you can guess how Monica’s opposition to the séance turns out. As for whether Tobias shows up, I can safely defer to Dietz himself, who was present at the post-performance powwow on opening night. He told us that one of chief pleasures he found in telling this story came in conveying his 100% positive conviction that the supernatural visitations at séances are absolutely bogus and his 100% certainty that those visitations are absolutely real.

Whatever you may think of the action around the table, you can’t deny that Dietz has made intensive efforts to sustain our ambivalence, giving us numerous reasons to believe that the house Tobias built with his own hands is in the grip of the supernatural – countered by an equal number of escape routes to disbelief. But to his credit, Dietz leaves us with a giddy sense of confusion rather than a rational set of alternatives as we attempt to arrive at the truth now – and the truth about the tragedy that has haunted the family for nearly 40 years – teasing us out of thought.

That giddy confusion will be compounded when you factor the climax of Splinter Cove into your calculations. If you go to Hadley with somebody – whether an adult or a child – you can expect that conversation on your way home will be peppered with lively clarifications and disputes.

Decker certainly holds up his end of Actor’s Theatre’s historic collaboration with Children’s Theatre. Rather than missing core elements of the script that I’d seen when I read it (a fundamental reason I customarily avoid reading scripts I’m scheduled to review unless I’m planning to interview a playwright before seeing the production), Decker and his superb cast managed to bring Dietz’s drama more intensely to life and reveal the power – and comedy – of a couple of moments that I’d overlooked. Didn’t hurt that Dietz was here in Charlotte, tweaking both of his scripts during the process.

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All of these roles are beautifully rounded, so it wasn’t surprising to see the keen relish that the players took in them. It would be hard to overpraise Tonya Bludsworth’s work as Monica, the meanie who has worked so devotedly and so selfishly to be The Captain’s favorite. Bludsworth brings out the humor and the sharpness of Monica’s mocking sarcasm, turns it off when she realizes she’s wrong, has moments of self-awareness, and is delightful in so many different ways during the séance she has so grudgingly agreed to. There’s a bit of swagger to her, for all of her starchiness.

Robin Tynes-Miller mixes Emily’s feelings of resentment and remorse to perfection and turns them up high. Her wrenching efforts toward reformation make Bludsworth’s cynicism and rejection all the meaner. Tynes also hones in on just how thin-skinned and childish Emily remains as the younger sib, allowing Bludsworth the delight of intentionally provoking her, elevating Monica’s wickedness at times to villainy. For all her weakness, it is Emily who powers the story forward when her determination is steeled, yet Tynes makes her lapses likable, so we’re still rooting for her when Rene and Rex must rally behind her cause.

Dietz has Rene doing a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to coaxing Monica to the table – and an even greater share of the calming and reassuring that Emily needs when her frustrations with her recalcitrant sister get the better of her. Tania Kelly does it all with a confident authority, belying Monica’s presumptions of what a medium should be. Not a dreamcatcher earring in sight, and no Whoopi Goldberg kookiness.

As patient and sure as she is at the séance table, unruffled by Monica’s taunts, Rene also takes it upon herself – without any desperate urgency – to rectify Monica’s obsolete assessment of Emily’s character. Rene is the mother of Sydney, the third child downstairs at play with Nate and Cora, and Kelly dials in the right amount of parental concern and trust in Rex. Most of all, when the doors and windows are unlocked, the candles lit, and the incantations begin, Kelly makes us believe that Rene is in earnest and something amazing could happen.

Rex is the glue that binds Dietz’s plays most firmly together, and Scott Tynes-Miller beautifully captures his strength, his self-deprecation, and his insouciance. For the most part, Rex’s role is as a peacemaker in the siblings’ brawls, the steadying force that Monica realizes she was foolish to discard. Miller not only gets the last of the play’s four monologues, addressed directly to us, he also demonstrates to closest bond to Tobias, briefly recalling how The Captain taught him to be a man. Turns out to be a surprisingly important plot point. There’s a nice through-line that Miller finds in Rex, for he has a firm and quiet purposefulness, and like Emily, arrives with a mission. That turns out to be yet another way that he binds Dietz’s magical plays together.

There’s much more to the story of The Great Beyond than I’ve disclosed here – with surprises stirred in that are calculated to startle and astound. Much of this story is expanded upon and illuminated in The Ghost of Splinter Cove. So your intuition to see the companion piece will not lead you astray.

Imaginary Cyber Friends

Review: Dear Evan Hansen

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Playing to a Broadway house that barely packs in a thousand patrons, using no more than eight actors and eight musicians each night, with scant choreography and no glitz, Dear Evan Hansen isn’t going to fit most theatergoing definitions of a big Broadway musical, six Tony Awards or not. Yet big it is, for Steven Levenson’s book traverses multiple issues that absorb us these days, including bullying, the effects of social media, teen suicide, and single-mom parenting. Just as rare, music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul frequently rise to the level of the emotions roiling inside Levenson’s characters, actually enhancing the drama on a couple of occasions.

Evan is a mess when we first meet him at Belk Theater, where seating capacity for the touring production is extended beyond the usual 2100-seat capacity with the musicians perched up above the action. Mothered by an anxious single mom who holds down a day job and goes to school at night, Evan is an even tighter tangle of anxiety. He dreads returning for his senior year in high school, afraid of the daily interaction with other people, tongue-tied with nearly everybody – especially Zoe Murphy, the girl of his dreams.

Zoe’s big stoned brother, Connor, bullies Evan on at least two occasions. On their first day back at school, Connor knocks Evan to the ground when he thinks our hero is laughing at him. That paranoia carries over to their next encounter at the computer lab, where Connor retrieves the “Dear Evan Hansen” letter that Evan has written as an assignment from his therapist, supposedly a daily pep-talk to himself. Thinking this is more mockery from Evan, Connor refuses to return the letter, which contains suicidal thoughts and Evan’s desperate yearnings toward Zoe. In a further act of aggression, when Evan awkwardly asks him to sign the cast on his healing broken arm, Connor takes a Sharpie and scrawls his first name – in big capital letters – across the full length of the cast.

So a whole host of ironies and misconceptions will explode when Connor commits suicide, and his parents, finding Evan’s letter in one of his pockets, mistake it for their son’s suicide note – addressed to his best friend. The big black letters that Connor had signed onto Evan’s cast, originally a nasty symptom of bullying, become a testament to their friendship, writ large. Tongue-tied as usual, Evan can’t shoot down the Murphys’ delusion that he can provide them with insights into the son they never really knew. In yielding, he finds that he can provide some therapy to others.

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If he can keep a steady flow of palliating information to the Murphys, Evan feels that he can help them in their grieving process. And establish a closer connection with Zoe, whose memories of Connor are even more unsavory than his.

In varying ways, then, the Murphys have unwittingly conspired in giving Evan an imaginary friend. With the help of Jared, who keeps reminding him that he’s more a relative than a friend, Evan can spin a backdated email correspondence with Connor filled with new feelings and faux memories. With the help – and intrusion – of Alana, a pesky busybody who seems attracted to him, Evan can establish a “Connor Project” tribute, a memorial website, and after he surprises himself by addressing a school assembly, a viral #YouWillBeFound hashtag when video of the speech lands on YouTube.

Taking the old imaginary friend concept to a whole new cyber level, Evan and Alana, co-presidents of The Connor Project, launch a GoFundMe initiative to restore the apple orchard where Evan and Connor fictitiously met. Adding new dimensions to the idea of an imaginary friend piles on new challenges and stresses for Evan. Some of these, of course, help him to mature and develop self-confidence. He’s speaking to an entire student body after starting out the year cowering in fear of interacting with just one of them.

Alone in his room at moments of highest stress, Evan turns to… an imaginary friend. Ironically, it’s Connor, who did nothing but torment him in real life. Connor’s posthumous transformation is now complete – in his family’s eyes, for Evan, and for thousands of followers at school and online.

Chiefly, Evan is stressed over all the lies he’s been telling Zoe and her parents, but he’s also been deceiving his mom – while coping with the sudden celebrity the whole #YouWillBeFound phenomenon has brought him.

Here is where the chamber size of the Dear Evan Hansen fails the potential magnitude of Levenson’s vision. Where are all the high school peers that Evan feels himself lost in, fears talking to – peers who might adoringly add to Zoe’s unattainable aura and desirability? Where are the admiring classmates who ratify Evan’s newfound relevance and fortify Zoe’s inclinations to give him a serious second look?

Basically, they’re projected onto the scrims and screens of David Korins’ high-tech set design, perpetually scrolling as social media feeds behind Evan’s bedroom, multiple rooms at the Murphy home, and various locations at school. It’s a cool alternative to populating the stage with energetic dancing teens but sometimes a cold one, especially in a space as large as the Belk.

What sweeps us past these limitations is how intently we become involved with both the Hansens and the Murphys. Anxiety, social inadequacy, and teen suicide are big things to cope with up close, and Dear Evan Hansen brings us there. Ben Levi Ross captures all the awkwardness, insecurity, and fearful caution that Levenson has written into Evan’s outward self, and he has the star-quality voice for the Pasek/Paul songs that reveal the inner self wishing to break free.

Marrick Smith doesn’t play up the suicidal kindred spirit of Connor as much as the sullen, domineering loner. In his imaginary friend afterlife, he becomes the tough-love antithesis of the “Dear Evan” pep talks endorsed by Evan’s therapist, a longhaired renegade forever. By contrast, Connor’s parents are wholesomely flawed. Aaron Lazar as the dad appears to have detached from Connor’s upbringing and to have given up on him, but when Evan encounters him in his workshop – and afterward at a powwow between Hansen and Murphy families – we realize that he had plenty he wanted to give.

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As “Anybody Have a Map?” her opening crosstown duet with Evan’s mom makes clear, Christine Noll as Cynthia Murphy is as clueless about how to cope with a teenage boy as Heidi Hansen is. But as a full-time suburban housewife, she has more free time to flit from one New Age fad to another, salving if nor solving her problem. Cynthia has the deepest need – and gratitude – for Evan’s cyber fables and projects.

Comes with the territory, Levenson tells us. Mom’s credulity and stubborn belief in Connor has strained her relationship with Zoe when we first see them coping together. Maggie McKenna struggled to untangle the enigma of Zoe on opening night, more so because her vocal on “Requiem” was the least intelligible in her family. There was a nicely calibrated combo of empathy, skepticism, and need as her familiarity with Evan grew, and the climactic “Only Us” love duet had an honest and intimate sizzle.

Ultimately, Jessica Phillips as Evan’s overextended, trying-so-hard mom stole the show from everybody except Ross. There’s a wonderful one-two punch before things reach a final resting point, with a wrenching “Words Fail” confessional from Evan following shortly after the unexpectedly turbulent meeting between the Hansens and the Murphys. Heidi had already stirred things up at the Murphys, but it was in her “So Big/So Small” testimonial that Phillips was absolutely devastating – at first narrative, then apologetic, before finally arriving at a stunning affirmation.

As an actor, there are moments when you might dread having to weep onstage, on cue, night after night. With “So Big/So Small,” I’d imagine that the performer has the opposite worry: getting too deep into this mom in this song could lead you to an emotional corner where you’re sobbing uncontrollably. When she finishes, we’re fairly convinced that a chunk of this show has been about her.

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For all its intense intimacy, the Pasek/Paul score also boasts some concentrated magnitude, since the musical tandem packages two anthems that get reprised. Climaxing Act 1, “You Will Be Found” seizes our attention, with the whole company joining Evan as his assembly speech goes viral, augmented by pointedly anonymous prerecorded spoken blather as the YouTube sensation takes hold. Even the relentlessly scrolling background projections suddenly crystallize into relevancy.

But don’t overlook Evan’s “For Forever” fantasy as you settle in to the story. This dreamy “two friends on a perfect day” idyll gradually ascends and soars, prefiguring the apple orchard fable Evan will devise to placate the Murphys – and echoing the lie he’s been telling about how he broke his arm. We don’t hear the backup voices for this anthem until it reprises briefly in the “Finale,” when all Evan’s hidden truths have been revealed. You may not immediately see all the reasons why the final scene is set where it is, but there’s a little bit of technical derring-do to announce that we’ve arrived.

There’s as much craftsmanship in Dear Evan Hansen as there is honesty, and that’s saying a lot.

Upstairs/Downstairs in a Haunted House

Previews: The Great Beyond and The Ghost of Splinter Cove

By Perry Tannenbaum

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An old living room card table shaking uncontrollably during a candlelit séance… an unidentified ghost – or two – lurking in the dark basement, where kids are at play… and an 8-year-old child who has been missing for nearly 40 years.

These are some of the chilling elements in two new nail-biting plays hitting the QC. Upstairs with the adults at the séance, the Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte production of The Great Beyond begins previews this Thursday on the Queens University campus, officially premiering next Wednesday. Next Friday at ImaginOn, The Ghost of Splinter Cove takes us downstairs into the basement with three imperiled kids in a world premiere Children’s Theatre of Charlotte production.

Both spooktaculars are by renowned playwright Steven Dietz, who splits most of his time between Seattle and Austin, where he teaches his craft at the U of Texas. Dietz has written and adapted more than 40 plays, and a slew of them have been performed in various theaters across town, including God’s Country, Lonely Planet, Yankee Tavern, and Becky’s New Car (a “Show of the Year” winner in 2010).

But these two newbies would never have been written if Dietz hadn’t gotten on a plane and met with Adam Burke and Chip Decker here in Charlotte.

Burke, the artistic director at Children’s Theatre, and Decker, his counterpart at Actor’s Theatre, had cooked up their concept during a 2015 meetup. Cooperating was feasible between their two companies, but what kind of project would bring audiences together to see the kinship between Decker’s adult theatre and TYA – Burke’s theatre for young audiences?

Decker and Burke both have considerable experience in bringing new plays to their theaters, so it was obvious that their joint project would be a new script. But what if they commissioned two scripts, each one designed to funnel audience from their theater to the other theater while both shows were in production?!

Somehow the two plays and their stories would have to interlock. Yet to encourage rather than force audiences at one company’s theater to also see the other company’s play, each of the two plays would have to stand independently on its own. The concept that would be named The Second Story Project was born – in excited brainstorming interspersed with copious cups of coffee.

When Burke and Decker decided to move forward, there were no funds earmarked for the project, no playwright commissioned to create the scripts, and no parameters detailing how the two stories would interconnect. There was just one dynamite concept that had never been tried before.

“It’s always a leap of faith to do anything, especially something new,” Decker observes. “We just both hit on it, felt it was a good solid idea, and when you feel that way, you have to jump in with both feet and hope there’s a safety net at the bottom.”

Looking back on it, Dietz was a super-obvious choice. Multiple productions of his plays had been presented at Actor’s and Children’s, but Decker and Burke were thinking about advertising in trade publications or soliciting proposals – until the successful run of Dietz’s adaptation of Jackie and Me at ImaginOn turned on the lightbulb in Decker’s skull.

He sums up his realization: “We’re looking for a playwright who has a great voice for theatre for younger audiences and a playwright who has an experienced track record with adult audiences, we’ve both produced Steven Dietz plays, why should we look any further – especially the first time out?”

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Burke had sort of blocked out the idea of looking to an established adult playwright, calculating that the TYA piece would be the higher hurdle.

“I am more confident that someone who can write a great play for young people can write a great play for adults than I am of the reverse,” Burke explains. “So when Chip suggested Steven, I’m like, ‘Ah, yes, of course!’ There are only a handful of people that are moving between the two worlds successfully.”

Dietz was a little wary, wanting to make sure that there wasn’t some special issue or theme that his scripts were expected to address. Getting reassurances of his complete freedom, he warmed to the prospect of such an unprecedented challenge.

“What was so beautiful about the idea was that it was so simple,” Dietz recalls. “The core of the pitch to me was something shared. A shared story, a shared theme – something shared. And in one theater piece, we see it through young people’s eyes, and in the other, we see it through grownups’ eyes. That’s just like Post-it Note simple!”

The playwright was also on Burke’s wavelength with respect to the primacy of the TYA piece. It would be the more difficult piece to write and take more time. So it needed to be written first. Unlike other commissions that Dietz has fulfilled, neither The Ghost of Splinter Cove nor The Great Beyond turned out to be a play he would have written anyway. No barely-started scripts or scribbled scenarios were on his studio shelves waiting for these unique commissions.

Dietz suspected that he would make many false starts on his youth play – and he did. The upstairs/downstairs idea didn’t occur to him immediately, but when it did, it seemed like an elegantly simple way to make his plays interlock. But what kind of full-length play can be staged in a basement?

“I had this little tiny notion,” Dietz reveals. “I had a friend who had his kids try out his camping equipment in their basement once. And of course, that is what’s beautiful about writing for young people: where they go on that camping trip in their imagination is much more dynamic than getting out even on the San Juan Islands, which is near my house. Because it’s in their imaginations, so it can be anywhere.”

Especially when your brand-new camping gear is a birthday gift, you’re in a strange haunted house for the first time in your life… and there’s a smartphone app your dad bought you that makes your whole camping adventure come alive!

So that’s the downstairs core of the Second Story Project. From time to time, Dad calls down from upstairs, making sure the kids are settled in and sending down snacks. The two plays interconnect with those conversations – we only see Dad in The Great Beyond – and there are key props that will be common to both of Dietz’s eerie dramas.

Upstairs, where the séance happens, the parents are having a dinner reunion after a great family loss, and we learn why the kids have never visited this house before. For Dietz, there was a unique benefit in crafting his two new plays as a matched set.

“Writing [Splinter Cove] taught me about those kids’ parents,” Dietz remarks. “In any other play I’ve ever written, they would just be offstage characters. This process doesn’t have offstage characters, really. They have characters onstage at the other theater.”

And they’re not necessarily alive. Bwa-ha-ha!

A Jamaican Fantasy With a Reggae Beat

Review: Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

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Reggae lovers and mavens are flocking – I repeat, flocking! – to Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an eye-popping, shoulder-dipping new musical at ImaginOn. Studded with golden favorites from the Marley songbook and adapted by Michael J. Bobbitt from a story by the reggae king’s daughter, Cedella Marley, this Children’s Theatre of Charlotte production is all about spreading joy and living life zestfully.

Or it is when Bobbitt can squeeze story elements into the crevices of the 15-number reggaethon – some of which are medleys. Cedella turns up as a character in this story, but action revolves around her son Ziggy, an 11-year-old who spends his days huddled at the TV because he’s scared of hurricanes and an encounter with Duppy, a mischievous, malevolent spirit who preys on children’s hair.

Mixing sternness with genuine concern, Cedella shoos her pouting Ziggy out of the house and attempts to pair him with their next-door neighbor, Nansi, who obviously adores him. She urges him to enjoy life! On an errand to bring back water from the town, Ziggy discovers that there really isn’t a hurricane threat when the sun is shining brightly (or sticking its tongue out), that a kiss from Nansi ain’t so bad, and that he has the necessary courage and cunning to face up to his fears, Duppy in particular.

Along the way, three not-so-little birds offer friendship, guidance, and song to Ziggy – and additional solace to Cedella, since one of these creatures has been haunting Ziggy’s window sill and giving extra meaning to the phrase “dropping by.” Between the hiking, the singing, and the chattering, there are mangoes falling occasionally from a tree that overarches Tim Parati’s fantastical set, reminding us that Duppy and his conjuring powers are on the scene, eyeing Ziggy’s beautiful dreadlocks.

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I’d be able to go in somewhat greater detail were it not for the dad sitting next to me, singing along to nearly all the Marley golden oldies and answering all his adorable anklebiter’s questions, whether she asked them or not. Formality is not the vibe at McColl Family Theater at this show. Opening up interaction between the actors and the audience, director Shondrika Moss-Bouldin has closed off both entrances to the theater at the lobby level, obliging us to enter through the mezzanine.

Avenues between the stage are now so direct and level that a toddler can easily cross over to this Jamaican fantasyland without a challenging climb. One of the ensemble members, in fact, came out and plucked a toddler from the crowd and invited her to join in on the dancing onstage. Other kids in the audience were swept into the dancing spirit, and the thrust configuration of the stage turned a few who were grooving in the front rows into instant dancing-with-the-stars celebs.

Everybody was friendly to the crowd, even Jeremy DeCarlos, our scheming and stealthy Duppy. Considering his haggard bedraggled look – think the old crone in Disney’s Snow White – and his multitudinous dreads, ingratiating himself with the tots was no small feat. The Duppy rig conjured up for DeCarlos was barely the beginning of costume designer Jason Kyle Estrada’s exploits. Lead fowl Doctor Bird’s get-up features an upturned fluorescent green jacket and a complementary hipster cap.

Oh yeah, Doctor Bird also drops some knowledge. B’s erudition includes a narration of Jamaica’s colonial history, obliging all other birds on deck, DeCarlos, and Ericka Ross as Cedella to slip into varied frilly and conquistador outfits. Ross’s role nearly matches Duppy’s for pluminess. We find out as much about Cedella as we do about Ziggy, for she’s supporting the family by selling her tasty Jamaican jerk chicken to tourists – and she’s wise to the charm that can disarm Duppy of his power. Delivering all that flavor and lore, Ross also speaks with the heaviest accent.

Rahsheem Shabazz absolutely slays as Doctor Bird, and his accent is also competitive. While there are many studio and concert recordings of the Marley tunes on the Three Birds playlist, none that I’ve heard so far really match what I heard from Shabazz. Or DeCarlos. Or Ross. Led by music director Charlene Miranda Thomas at the keyboard, the Children’s Theatre versions are livelier and more colorful to my ears. By comparison, Bob’s tempos plod.

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Take that sacrilegious assessment as my assurance that you will not be disappointed with any of the Thomas-led covers. Musically, Garrick Vaughan as Ziggy is a late arrival to the party – demonstrating that, if you’re a central character who quails at the prospect of living, Bob Marley wasn’t the man to write your songs. Vaughan’s mopey role also means that he draws the short straw among Estrada’s splendiferous costumes.

These constraints on Vaughan aren’t because he is really 11 years old. When Bobbitt finally decrees that Ziggy sings, watch out. Vaughan may have the strongest voice in the cast. A lighter, folksier touch would land him more squarely in the reggae groove. As the would-be girlfriend Nansi, Kayla Simone Ferguson is kept busy enough, teasing Ziggy and moonlighting in other guises, but so far, I’m most impressed by her rapport with the kiddies.

Janeta Jackson is an established commodity at Children’s Theatre, having starred – and flown – in last season’s stunning Mary Poppins. She doesn’t get to go full throttle or reach such heights as Tacoomah, our second bird and British colonial, but she reinforces how deep and professional this dazzling production is. Apparently, word has spread swiftly among the Marley faithful. Boogie on!

Resettling in the Rubble

Review:   By the Water

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Compared with Cape Hatteras, Wilmington, or Charleston here in the Carolinas, the borough of Staten Island up in New York City hasn’t historically been known as a punching bag for hurricanes. Until late 2012, when Hurricane Sandy battered three NYC boroughs, Staten Island was hardly in the conversation when compared even with nearby Long Island. Zeroing in on the impact of Sandy on a Staten Island family and community, Sharyn Rothstein’s By the Water not only changes the conversation, it also fiddles with history.

Taking in Ryan Maloney’s storm-ravaged set design at Duke Power Theater, with its waist-high waterline, you would likely expect Rothstein’s drama to be about the folly of resettling near a hurricane-prone shore. Or we might assume we’ll encounter the innocent victims of unscrupulous real estate developers, or come face-to-face with the new New York calculus of climate change. None of the working-class folk in this Three Bone Theatre production, smartly directed by Ron Law, seems capable – or sufficiently woke – to address any of these subjects.IMG_3234

As a result, the topicality of By the Water becomes rather shrouded in a mist of Murphy family grudges and disputes, further distanced from pressing issues that might concern us by the neighboring Carter family’s involvement. The Murphys seem as broken, fallible, and struggling as the Lomans were in Death of a Salesman, and the heads of this devastated household, Marty and Mary, have a fairly similar relationship.

For Marty, it’s axiomatic that he should rebuild and restart. To his eldest son, Sal, it’s obvious that his dad should move to higher, safer ground – and way past time that his mom stop blindly supporting whatever Dad says, especially after all his past misjudgments and misdeeds. Philip and Andrea Carter, the Murphys’ longtime friends and neighbors, have decided that they wish to accept a government buyout and move to Montclair, New Jersey.

But this isn’t a laissez-faire situation, where the Murphys and the Carters are free to do whatever they wish, no harm done. The government’s offer to the Carters and other survivors in the neighborhood will be withdrawn unless 80% of the community decides to sign on. Marty is fervid enough about his cause to go out picketing against the buyout.

A stretch at a hotel and returning to a home that boasts a few sticks of furniture, a hardy fridge, and the better part of one wall is starting to fray Mary’s unquestioning loyalty to her husband. The younger son, Brian, is returning home after a stretch of own – in prison as a result of his past drug addiction. He sides with his dad, seemingly to keep his favor, but his endorsement is tainted by his rap sheet, and he’s actually more intent on regaining the affections of the Carters’ daughter, Emily. Her parents, of course, know all about him, so they don’t approve.

Could work in Brian’s favor, right? He and Emily are both City kids. Minds of their own.

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A corner of the stage is set aside for the wee wharf where Brian and Emily rendezvous, providing a respite from the family quarreling and the neighborhood politics, which grew a little repetitious during the 91-minute performance on opening night. More substance in the debate would have dispelled the tedium. It might have been worth pondering what government should and shouldn’t subsidize on these fragile wetlands. And a more eloquent Marty might voice the notion that, given the historical infrequency of tropical storms and hurricanes hitting Staten Island, it’s not such a stupid plan to live out the 20-30 remaining years of your life in the house your father built rather than transplanting to Montclair.

While Rothstein does disappoint me on topicality, and in giving us any sense that she’s intensively researched the Tri-State housing market or Marty’s prospects for homeowner’s insurance, there are times when she brings us vividly into the moment. Despite skirting the basic survivalist questions of home life without a roof, the playwright etches her characters with finely judged individuality and gives us a nuanced feel for the Murphys’ family dynamics.

Law and his cast are definitely on Rothstein’s wavelength, and the only major mistake they make is in overestimating the Duke’s acoustics. As the inimitable Tania Kelly demonstrated last year in Three Bone’s Every Brilliant Thing, it’s easy to convince yourself that you’re being heard up in the balcony when people are actually having problems in the second row.

While you might not catch the ends of all of Marty’s sentences, Thom Tonetti delivers all of the outsized personality and bossiness that fosters Mary’s adoration and submission. We are definitely dealing with a force that can sway community sentiment when we encounter Tonetti, and we are not surprised to learn that Marty is capable of taking audacious and catastrophic risks. Physically, Susan Stein projects the frailty that perfectly fits Mary but with a salty New York accent that constantly reminds us of the street savvy and toughness that lurk within. There’s a tenseness and pallor to Stein as well, hinting that Mary has reached the end of her tether.IMG_3301

Law would have been safer casting an older actor to get the right look for Sal, the elder son, but there’s no doubt that Tommy Prudenti captures his straight-arrow essence in his Charlotte debut. Sal is a living white-collar rebuke of his father’s values, yet at key moments, Prudenti convinces us that he still craves Dad’s love. Tim Hager’s portrait of Brian adds another black sheep to his gallery, and if you saw his Franz in Three Bone’s Appropriate last summer, you won’t be surprised that he’s as lovable a reprobate up in the New York City wetlands as he was down on the bayou.

The accent is different, but this bad boy remains a magnet for one unattached lady who may be ready to rekindle an old pre-prison flame. I think you’ll like the sassy flavor that Sonia J. Rosales brings to Emily in her Charlotte debut. She’s certainly more liberated than the two moms we see here.

It’s slightly surprising to see Law pairing Lillie Oden with Joe Copley as the Carters, but they work beautifully together. Opposed to the Murphys’ plans, there’s a clear gender difference in how their oppositions play out. Like Mary, Oden as Andrea is more apt to be conciliatory, and like Marty, Copley as Philip inevitably becomes enraged and bellicose. You get the idea that Rothstein believes that the world would be so much more peaceful and sensible if women were in charge. But where would her drama be without all her guys?